Why did you decide to write Teacher Man?

You rarely read anything about teachers. Movie stars, judges, cops, doctors, but not teachers. I also just wanted to tell the story of what it was like with my own particular experience, which was unusual—I had no high school diploma, very little formal education, and I had to make my way. A journey from ignoramus to ignoramus. I was interested in the whole idea of teaching, the mystery. What goes on in the classroom is a mystery. What makes one man or woman a better teacher than the other? I had to work that over myself.

What's your reaction to politicians dictating policy in our schools?

The big question for me is, "when did politicians hijack education?" They get into the class and they control the curriculum. And usually they don't know their arse from their elbow. They don't listen to teachers. Their purpose is to raise test scores. It's all to do with money. It has nothing to do with Socrates sitting under a tree in Athens, discoursing with the young men of Athens and asking, "why?" That's my idea of education. Encouragement in an open forum, encouraging kids to ask questions.

If you were applying for a teaching job today, do you think they'd hire you?

No, they'd want what they call "results." What are results? High test scores. You know, No Child Left Behind, testing, testing, testing.

What's the secret to being a successful teacher?

Find what you love, and do it. I love teaching Irish songs. I love doing children's literature. I love doing Mother Goose and Hans Christian Andersen—and even cookbooks. All of this was discovery on my part.

What's the one thing a writer needs most?

Isolation. It takes so much time to develop something. You need to waste a lot of time. I'm an exception to all the rules because I started so late in life. For me it's time and isolation. So that's why I get up so early [5 a.m.] in the morning. You have to.