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Books: Revealing author gets a closer look

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pat Conroy shouldn’t worry if he never sells another book. If his performance for the Moveable Feast last week in Litchfield is any indication, he could become a comedian.

Conroy’s books naturally draw a full house to literary luncheons, but this visit was one of five he made to promote Catherine Seltzer’s book, “Understanding Pat Conroy.” The book is part of the University of South Carolina Press series “Understanding Contemporary American Literature.”

Though Conroy called answering questions in front of a large audience “his ultimate nightmare,” he proved to be the ultimate charmer. “I walk by this book,” Conroy said, “and I see my picture. It’s something horrible to the soul. Southerners know you are not supposed to show out.”

Yet, here’s Conroy promoting a book about his own writing, helpless against the tide of praise.

“Midway through my research for ‘Understanding Pat Conroy,’ it became clear to me that a full biographical study of Conroy was well overdue,” Seltzer said. “With his permission, I am now working on a biography, which seems to me to be a perfect complement to the literary analysis in ‘Understanding Pat Conroy.’ As I think Pat’s readers know, he is not only a writer, but a real student of literature, and I think he has been supportive of this project in large part because of his deep love of biography as a genre.”

Seltzer said Conroy’s book, “My Losing Season” is an example of how Conroy creates space for a consideration of his life and identity as a writer in all his stories.

Conroy said he just wants to be honest, regardless of the pain it inflicts.

Here are excerpts from the session:

Seltzer: You have been remarkably transparent in your life. Is there a philosophy behind that? It seems to me really brave.

Conroy: My mother was passionate about reading and read to me and my sister. Books excited me most in my life. My childhood seemed horrible. My dad was beating us all to a pulp, beating my mother. I was a little boy, couldn’t do anything about it. It was a terrible life. When I read a book I disappeared. When I read a book I could get away. When I read a book I entered new territory, a new life, a new soul. I learned how people fell in love.

Then this same mother, the first novel she read to me was “Gone With The Wind.” Dad was in Korea. I was 5 years old. I don’t think I understood it much. What she did — it seems brilliant to me now — she was reading the book and she’d say, “Now son, when I read about Miss Scarlett, you will automatically think of your pretty mama. And when I read about Rhett Butler, that’s your fighter pilot daddy.” Go through the Melanie Wilkes character. That poor woman became my Aunt Helen. Uncle Russ, Uncle James, Aunt Evelyn: every single character had a corresponding figure in my life. My mother was making the point that there is a relationship between life and art. She ended up raising me to be a Southern writer.

Seltzer: In writing about yourself in those books, you are also writing about the family. They have responded differently over the years. Talk about the evolution of your family’s response and the truths reflected in your work as well.

Conroy: There have been problems. Because I read Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” I thought I had prepared myself. Asheville went nuts, but I thought I could handle Beaufort. His dad was dead when the book came out. I learned something from that. It’s better to write about dead relatives than ones who are alive. In “The Great Santini” I wonder why I didn’t hide my family better. I could have made them Eskimos. The Great Santini paddles out to the Arctic Sea to slay seals and bring back a walrus. I didn’t do that. The Great Santini was Dad’s nickname in the Marine Corps. I make the wife an exact replica of my mother. I put these children in Beaufort, S.C., thinking that because I had changed their names nobody would know.

What I can’t figure out now is why I didn’t tell anybody I was writing this book. Finally, the book arrives at my house in Atlanta, Ga. My father comes over and sees the book. He says, “Son, my God, you wrote a book and named it Great Santini after me. You dedicated it to your mother and me. This is the greatest day of my entire life.” I said, “Dad you might want to read this book first.”

An hour later I called Dad, he is somber. “Why do you hate me son?”

“Dad, keep reading.”

Two hours later, he’s balling. “Why do you hate me?”

“Keep reading, Dad.”

Then Dad disappears for three or four days. My grandma says, ‘Nice going, Pat. You killed him. He’s gone out to commit suicide because of your book.”

Then my sister and my cousins — this really surprised me — all my first cousins on both sides of the family think I’m a maniac because they had loved Dad because he loved cousins. They adored him. My sister, the poet in New York, I have lost through my career. I wrote about Lenore, my ex-wife, and lost my daughter. Susanna. You pay a price for this. I found this out. When I wrote about The Citadel, I wanted to tell the truth. I just wanted to do it. I was called a liar. When I wrote about the kids in “The Water is Wide,” people said he’s lying. I’ve gotten used to that. Now when I write a book if they don’t call me a liar, I worry that my career is going downhill.”

Seltzer: We feel we know you from reading your work. Readers almost seemed surprised that they don’t actually know you. What are we getting wrong? What do we not know about you?

Conroy: Here’s what my sister Carol, the poet, says. “When a new book is coming out, Pat, I know the main character is going to be a loving, divinely gifted, glorious, deep friend, a man everyone can admire, especially himself, and a man without flaws, so wonderful, so good in all ways. And there will be his horrifying, insane, psychotic sister who is writing poetry in New York. Then you have this mother who is half-saint, half-witch. A father who is an ancient monster, coming out of the swamp.”

I am trying to make sense of the world. The character will be more courageous than me, meaner than me, do things that I would not do, say things funnier than I would say. They would have friends I would try not to have, but usually have had. He will marry people he regrets marrying and they regret marrying him. All this is just my way of trying to figure out the world. I want them to know what the world was like when I was going through it.

Seltzer: One of the things that amazed me when I was looking through your journals is that you write in longhand on yellow legal pad. Fully formed sentences form from your pen. There’s no crossing things out, no torn out pages. Talk about the process of writing and how your stories come to you.

Conroy: When I sit and listen to my wife, Cassandra King, write in her writing room. Her typing is like a hummingbird noise and then I’ll hear “Ha, ha, ha.” When I write, I’ve thought of all the examples, how I want to say it. When I put it down I want it to sound pretty much the way I want it to sound after it’s typed. Another thing I don’t do is this laughter. I asked Cassandra about it. She said, “Every once in a while I crack myself up.” And I said, “No kidding.” I never sit there laughing. “Oh Pat, you witty thing. How do you come up with this?” My writing requires long stretches of time, and as I get older it gets harder to do. You have to find it. I’m doing a new novel about Charleston, but I just haven’t found the time.

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