An Interview w/Pat Conroy

from the Palm Beach Post

Has success ruined Pat Conroy?

By Scott Eyman   |  Arts and Culture, Books  |  March 29, 2012

Author Pat Conroy will be at the Love of Literacy Lunch at the Kravis Center on Friday. (Photo provided)

Pat Conroy’s nine novels have earned him millions of devoted readers. He arouses a passionate devotion because of his combination of lyricism and emotional honesty.

The son of a military man, Conroy was expected to follow suit. He became a writer instead and has explored themes of dysfunctional families and Southern life in bestselling books such as The Great Santini, The Water is Wide, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music.

He will be speaking at the Love of Literacy Lunch at the Kravis Center on Friday, kicking off this year’s Read Together Palm Beach County event. The lunch is sold out, but Conroy spoke to The Palm Beach Post from his home in Beaufort, S.C.

A sense of place is paramount in your work, yet you had a peripatetic childhood where you were never in one place for very long. When did you first feel at home in a place?

I can answer that right now. Beaufort, S.C., where I am now sitting. When my father was dying, he pulled out a book and said, “Do you want to see all the places you lived?” When I was 15, we drove across the bridge and came to Beaufort and that was my 23rd move since I was born.

Beaufort was my third straight high school. I complained to my mother that I didn’t get to go to the house of a single boy. I’d never danced with a girl, never held a girl’s hand. I went to an all-boy’s school.

And she said, “Make Beaufort your home. America needs a fighter pilot in Beaufort.”

So I just honed in on this little town. They didn’t ask for me, they got me. And I’ve attached myself to this town in my work.

Does a novel begin for you with an image, a character, or something more concrete?

It’s to answer a question. With The Great Santini, the question was, why did my father beat up his family? With Prince of Tides it was, why is my sister crazy? It’s usually something that simple, and that carries me on. I ask myself a question, and it gets complicated thinking about it, and you arrange characters around that.

Success ‘ruins everything’

Does success change everything?

Yes, it does. It ruins everything. I got to know this too late, but it has damaged me, my brothers and sisters, my children. My oldest daughter, Jessica, was in third grade, when she introduced me to a friend, Suzy. “I’d like to introduce you to Pat Conroy,” she said. And I had to tell her, “Daddy. You’re introducing daddy.”

America seems to want success so much, and all it does is complicate things. These stupid reality TV shows. The less I get of that the better I am. The more I can avoid that, the more I can write, and the more I can ignore it.

Have you found writing gets harder or easier as you’ve gotten older?

It’s probably gotten harder. But it’s something I enjoy so much. I still write by hand. Three revolutions have passed me by with blinding speed. I tried taking a typing course in high school, and my father ripped me out of it and put me in physics. “Girls type, son. Corporals type.” At the Citadel, you could take courses in bazookas and flame-throwers, but there were no courses in typing. But now I’m used to writing by hand, and I still like it.

I found a couple of quotes of yours I’d like to ask you about: “The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.”

That sounds like me. I have no idea where I wrote that, but it sure has a Conroy ring to it. Here’s what I’ve found: I have found life much harder than I thought it was going to be. I’m constantly amazed by how difficult the passage is. You don’t know where it’s going to get you; you make decisions and you can’t know if they’re good or horrible. Because I’m an emotional man, I make decisions based on emotion, and I screwed my life up. Do not talk to me about women. My second marriage was the worst since Adam and Eve. I walked into it with open eyes, and it nearly ruined my whole life.

Then there’s this one: “None of it has given me pleasure. I sit in gloom and darkness.”

That’s me joking. Cassandra (King, Conroy’s third wife and an author herself) will drive me crazy. I’m sitting with pen and ink, scratching out sentences. I pass by her room and I hear something that sounds like a machine gun going off. She’s tapping the computer keys so fast and with such amazing concentration that it bewilders me. And I think, no wonder she can do a book 10 times faster than I can. She’s developed a tool. And because my father had an IQ of 89, I did not learn to type.

When we got married, Cassandra bought me one of those typing courses. Finally I said this is the most boring s— I’ve ever done in my life. And they grade you, so you feel bad all day because you misspelled 15 or 20 words. Even the machine knows I’m an idiot.

Eventually I just quit. When you’re young you can do that, but I’m too old now.

Owns 8,000 books

Well, if writing is hard work, and life is a terrible struggle, what does give you pleasure?

Reading. I love reading as much as anyone I’ve ever met. I read constantly, all the time. Books. I own 8,000 of them. I look for things I haven’t read, and now I look for things to re-read. It fills the tank better than anything for me.

You’ve often mingled autobiography with your fiction; has that hurt you with critics in any way, made them take you less seriously as a novelist?

Oh, yeah. And being Southern has hurt me as much as anything. I’ve always liked to be called a Southern writer, even though it irritates critics in New York. I think the autobiography bothers them, but that’s all right. I do not read the critics. When I read the first reviews of The Water Is Wide, it hurt so bad I asked myself, what do I get out of this?

Here’s what my father used to do to me. I’ve gotten bad reviews from The New York Times all my life. My father would memorize the Times review, I would walk into a party in Atlanta and he would begin reciting the review word for word. I always knew what the Times was saying because Dad would tell me.

It’s a wonder you can still walk upright.

Actually, I don’t walk all that well. It’s all strange beyond belief. My father died thinking he was the reason Robert Duvall’s acting career took off. I swear to God. “It was the first role he ever played that had meat on it,” he said. And I’d point out Apocalypse Now and True Grit and all the rest, but to my father, it was because he’d played Santini.

Writers need readers

Your books are passionately loved like very few books are. I’ve always felt writers write mainly for themselves, but does having such a large and loyal audience ever make you second-guess yourself?

It’s been the luckiest thing in my life. I can’t figure out why it is so, but it is so. It is something I treasure more than anything. What writers need more than anything is readers. They need readers to buy into what the writer is doing. I meet people and I cannot believe how nice they are. They want to tell me stories about their families.

When Prince of Tides came out, this very handsome man and woman came up and introduced themselves. They were president of a fraternity and a sorority at the University of Georgia. They had a very combed-out look, like palominos.

“I read your book,” the man said. “Your family’s crazy.”

“Yes they are. How about yours, pal?”

“Oh, my family’s great.”

“Let’s tell the truth. How far do I have to go until I hit crazy? Mom? Dad? Uncle? Aunt? Sister?”

And his wife could not stand it. “His mother’s nuts!” she said.

By accident I hit upon something in my writing that people can readily identify with – the terrible things that go on in families.

Right now I’m writing The Death of Santini. I want to write about my father’s extraordinary change. When I wrote the novel, he hated it, and then he changed himself. And when he died, he was a good guy. He turned himself into a good man, and that amazes me. When I was growing up, I hated his guts. I hated him when I was in diapers.

And what I found in writing the book is that I have to go back to the beginning and tell the true stories about how horrible he was. Beating up my poor mother, beating me to a pulp. Great damage ensued.

And the next part is quite amazing. He died a beloved man, and I have to tell that.

When I first wrote the novel, my editor did not believe someone could be so irredeemably bad. She made me put in nice things. I went to my brother.

“Did Dad do anything nice for us?”

“No.”

“Did he ever take you out for ice cream?”

“F—-, no.”

So I had to make up nice things. In the novel, he gave us a flight jacket, takes us out for our first drink, sends roses to his daughter’s prom. He never did anything like that. And this editor from Boston could not bear the thought that such a man could have existed.

The new book is going to be nonfiction, and I’ll tell the story as it happens. And writing it makes me realize all over again that my family is nuts. Why did I have to be born into this? Why would a loving God put a boy into this environment?

That’s the question I’m still trying to answer.

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