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Portland, OR

Mary Gordon & Frank McCourt

Award-winning memoirists Mary Gordon and Frank McCourt share some of the moments and images that inspired their autobiographical masterpieces.

Mary Gordon begins the lecture by discussing how writers of autobiography or memoir often depend on memory to portray the truth. In the case of her own writing, Gordon says memory takes the form of specific images that have stuck with her throughout the years. She reads a selection of excerpts from her work that focus on an image or a concrete moment embedded in her childhood memories. She goes on to talk about the years she spent researching her family’s roots, imagining herself in her father’s place or inhabiting the hundreds of memories she has from her childhood in order to go about writing her memoir. Frank McCourt shares how writing Angela’s Ashes was the main goal he had in his life, saying that he knew it was something he had to put into the world or else he would go crazy. He discusses the poverty of his childhood and what it was like to grow up in Ireland during such difficult times, touching on how the state of the country, his alcoholic father, and the family’s failed attempt at American life had set them all up for disaster.

Mary Gordon is an American writer and professor of English at Barnard College. Over the past four decades, she has published novels, story collections, memoirs, essays, and biographies. Her first novel, Final Payments, was published in 1978 to tremendous critical acclaim and quickly followed by The Company of Women in 1981. Since then, she has published more than a dozen books on a wide range of subjects and won some of the country’s highest honors. She is best known today for her nonfiction writing, which focuses on her parents and childhood. In 2006, The Stories of Mary Gordon, including new and old works, was published and received The Story Prize in 2007.

Frank McCourt’s story is best gleaned from the pages of his memoir trilogy: Angela’s Ashes, Tis, and Teacher Man. These three books chronicle McCourt’s life—from his impoverished childhood in Ireland to his rich teaching career in America—and were all written after his retirement. Selling more than 5 million copies, Angela’s Ashes won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and was made into a feature film only three years after its publication. In addition to his 30 years as a high school English teacher, McCourt served in the Korean War. He died in 2009 at the age of 78.

One of the important ways that I knew the world was through images. The memories that seemed both most potent and most trustworthy to me were memories that had their genesis in images.” – Mary Gordon

“We want to flatten things out. We want things to be as simple as possible. It seems to me the great growth in the appetite for fundamentalism is an appetite to make things simpler than they really are, because the complexity of life can be unbearable to us.” – Mary Gordon

“When you left Ireland, you left forever. They had an Irish wake. That meant you were going to die; you might as well be dead.” – Frank McCourt

“American kids feared failing or getting a B minus…or not being able to get a date for the prom, but we feared hell. We had more cosmic aspirations.” – Frank McCourt

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