A conversation with children’s author and illustrator, Melissa Conroy, and her novelist father Pat.
When she was a child herself, Melissa noticed everything and wanted to know how everything worked. Since I knew how nothing worked, she tired of me easily.
– Pat Conroy, Postscript from Poppy’s Pants
Poppy: He enjoys being alone to write and thinks an extra scoop of bacon fat improves the flavor of just about anything.
– Melissa Conroy, synopsis of the title character from Poppy’s Pants
In the postscript to Melissa Conroy’s first illustrated children’s book, Poppy’s Pants, Pat Conroy recalls absentmindedly handing his young daughter a piece of paper on which to draw. He later realized to his horror that he’d given her the first finished page of The Water is Wide, his breakthrough memoir and the beginning of a lifelong literary association with the Lowcountry. Conroy eventually rewrote the page from memory.
Melissa Conroy is a professional artist and creator of the whimsical line of custom Wooberry Dolls, an offshoot of her lifelong passion for sewing and part of the inspiration for Poppy’s Pants. Melissa recently sat down with her dad for a father/daughter book signing in downtown Beaufort’s Bay Street Trading Company. Afterward we all crowded into a booth at Emily’s Restaurant for an informal and often very funny conversation (in typical Conroy fashion) about everything from children’s books and the future of publishing, to expert advice on how to properly train grandchildren and why aquamarine thread is perfect for sewing up a hole in a pair of khaki pants.
Bay Street Book Signing
Pat and Melissa Conroy sit side-by-side – veteran and rookie – at the author’s table in the rear of Bay Street Trading Company. Each has a stack of books to sign. He signs hers. She signs his. It’s two-for-one Conroy day. The brutal July heat keeps the usual Lowcountry Conroy mob from forming, but a steady stream of patrons flow through. Today most of them have young children along and most of them clutch big bright yellow covered copies of Poppy’s Pants. Between signings we begin the conversation.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: How did the idea for the books come together?
MELISSA CONROY: I started making dolls and I got it in my head that I wanted to make a “Poppy” doll. All of dad’s grandchildren call him “Poppy.” So I made one and I got a real kick out of it. Mom bought it and gave it to Dad for Christmas. I put together a website [www.wooberry.com] and called them Wooberry Dolls and Blue Apple Books saw the website and came to see me at a [craft] show and we talked about doing a book.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: “Woo” is your childhood nickname?
MELISSA CONROY: Yeah. Dad still calls me Woo or Whoops. (To Pat) That’s how you introduced me earlier.
PAT CONROY: I did?
MELISSA CONROY: Yeah.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Where did that come from?
PAT CONROY: Her mother had this irritating habit of talking baby talk from the time they were born until they were about fifteen. (Melissa laughs) It was always “cootchie cootchie” and “woo woo.”
And I said, ‘you know, we’ve got to teach this kid English eventually.’ It was “ootchie cootchie wootchie bootchie woo” nonstop. And it drove me nuts. But the last thing was always ‘woo.’ So I got into the habit of calling her “Woo” and it developed into a silly nickname.
MELISSA CONROY: I always thought it was because [sister] Jessica mispronounced my name.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Well, now you know. (Laughter)
But the idea for the book goes back to your childhood, too, and your dad’s fashion sense, actually his trademark khaki pants.
MELISSA CONROY: Yeah –
(Before she can answer, Pat points out that she’s missed signing a book)
PAT CONROY: Woo, did we miss something here?
MELISSA CONROY: Oh, I didn’t sign. Sorry.
PAT CONROY: God, I hate going out with the amateurs.
(Everybody laughs, but we’re soon back on track.)
MELISSA CONROY: The publisher at Blue Apple books asked for some story ideas. I wrote three and one of them was Poppy’s Pants, because dad’s pants were always “a thing” when we were kids, and she liked that one the best.
(At this point Melissa’s two children Lila and Jack, join us.)
PAT CONROY: (Feigning incredulity) These are my grandchildren? How many of you are there?
“Aw, Poppy,” says Lila. Melissa’s husband, Jay, waves from the literature section.
MELISSA CONROY: When we were kids we used to think that Dad only had one pair of pants…
(Laughter)…that he wore the same pair of pants every day. Then one day we opened up his closet and saw stacks and stacks of khaki pants.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: (To Pat) Have you ever had a product endorsement for any particular brand of khakis?
PAT CONROY: Grandchildren, why don’t you run out and play in the traffic. I think it’s rush hour. There’s all sorts of gruesome potential for accidents.
MELISSA CONROY: One day he came out with a pair of khaki pants and asked [my sisters and me], “Which one of you guys likes to sew?” The pants had a hole in them. I said, “Me!” And I sewed them up with aquamarine thread.
PAT CONROY: I looked at myself as sort of a fashion plate – a sophisticated kind of guy. Obviously, my daughters didn’t.
MELISSA CONROY: I think the reason I used aquamarine thread is because nobody uses it so there are always ample amounts of aquamarine thread in every sewing kit.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: That’s a nice touch, by the way.
MELISSA CONROY: I remember giving them back to dad and he made fun of me for about a week for using that thread.
A family from Charlotte, headed home after a Fripp Island vacation, queues up with their books. The two kids are about Lila and Jack’s size and age. Poppy Conroy gives them all an incredulous look and asks, “Are you my grandchildren, too?”
Lila rolls her eyes. “I’m going to look in the kids’ section,” she declares.
Later at Emily’s
We leave the Conroys to their public and rendezvous post-signing at Emily’s Restaurant, cramming into one of the big booths in the front of the dining room. We have it all to ourselves, save for the occasional curious bar patron next door.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: The illustrations are a combination of drawings and photographs of your dolls, and your children have had some influence on this, too?
MELISSA CONROY: Right.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So it’s a generational thing that all somehow leads back to Pat’s pants. (To Pat) We need to talk about this, because we really think you’re missing out on an opportunity here as a spokesmodel.
PAT CONROY: I even wore a pair with a hole in the knee today.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Come to think of it, we’ve never seen you in anything else. Do you ever wear anything besides khakis?
PAT CONROY: Just khakis.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Any particular brand or designer? This is your chance. Mention a brand and we’re betting it’s free khakis forever.
PAT CONROY: I just call Henry Berlin’s store in Charleston and say, “Henry send me…ten pair of khaki pants.” Ten pair, I feel, should keep me stylish and well dressed for the next couple of years.
I did not notice – until the girls told me – that I only wore khaki pants.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: You acquired this habit at the Citadel?
PAT CONROY: The Citadel. We wore the same cotton, almost khakis.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Khaki’s are – or were – part of the southern male uniform along with a blue button-down oxford shirt.
PAT CONROY: In Charleston it was an absolute uniform: khaki pants, a blue button down shirt and Weejun penny loafers, no socks.
MELISSA CONROY: I mean Dad in jeans is like when your father, who has a beard, shaves it off and you see it for the first time! That is disconcerting.
PAT CONROY: I found my grandchildren in my closet the other day going (in mock horror), “My God! He still wears only khaki pants!” My own kids thought I was a poor man because I only had one pair of pants.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Now that you’ve published a book is it a little easier to relate to what your dad was doing when you were a kid?
MELISSA CONROY: It’s been really interesting for me to have a book published and get a tiny taste of…
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: What he’s been complaining about all these years?
MELISSA CONROY: Yeah, because it had really always been a mystery to me honestly.
PAT CONROY: Don’t you wish it still was?
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: It’s sort of been de-mystified in the worst way. Book tours are always arduous. Have you been out on one for “Poppy’s Pants”?
MELISSA CONROY: I haven’t been put on a book tour like [Dad] does.
PAT CONROY: Nobody is anymore. That’s over. It’s over.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Why is that?
PAT CONROY: [The publishers] don’t have any money. Nobody has any money. You go to signings and nobody comes.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: We seem to recall some very long lines on Bay Street for the South of Broad signing. But books are selling. Your books are selling, if not in stores then online – on Amazon and the like?
PAT CONROY: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Everything about publishing has changed since I started out. And bookstores. Books are not selling. Books may be on the way out.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Sadly, that may be a given. Call it the “Kindle Effect.” But it’s the form – the physical printed pages – not the actual book. People will still write books, they just might not be printed on paper at some point, which is going to be very sad.
PAT CONROY: It certainly will.
MELISSA CONROY: It won’t be the same aesthetic.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: But a children’s book almost has to be printed.
PAT CONROY: Seems to me that would be so.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: There’s something tactile about the experience. It has to be held and touched. You don’t want to put your child online to read. And even if you did, someone still has to create the text and illustrations.
MELISSA CONROY: Children’s picture books, like Poppy’s Pants, come in all sorts of sizes and formats. There are pop-up books, for instance. And there’s a pacing to the story that the illustrator works out. I think it’s because the format of the printed book has evolved in this way that people play with those ways of pacing the story visually. That could change, but it would be interesting to see how that might translate into a digital format – or if the digital format takes over, how that might change the way illustrations are paced in a book.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: With a children’s book, what comes first, the visuals or the words?
MELISSA CONROY: The story’s always written before the illustrations.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Someone was inspired by your dolls to ask you to do this book. Did you have aspirations to write a children’s book before this?
MELISSA CONROY: I had secret aspirations.
But I didn’t tell many people. I’m not very good at convincing people to let me do things. I have to show them what I can do.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: And the line of dolls, the Wooberry Dolls, was already there.
MELISSA CONROY: Right.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: How long were they available before you were approached to do the book?
MELISSA CONROY: Not long, actually. It was about a year after they were out that I was contacted about the book.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: How were you marketing them?
MELISSA CONROY: It was mostly online and most of them were custom dolls.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So people would commission a doll based on a real person or a pet or something. Did you create a cast of characters, as well?
MELISSA CONROY: I did that, too. I created some characters and it was like a fun art project. I started from Lila’s drawings and that evolved into me creating my own characters.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: (To Pat): How do you feel about your doll, by the way? You’re the only man at the table who has his own doll – in more ways than one – as it were.
PAT CONROY: I bought a little chair – a Poppy chair – so the doll sits in the den in the Poppy chair in a nice little spot for the Poppy Doll. My grandchildren all come flying in and I tell them, “I wish I had better grandchildren, but you’re all I’ve got.
So I’m going to be a sort of stern grandfather because my daughters have turned out to be these ooh-la-la parents and you’ve never heard a human voice raised in anger. So we’re going to establish some order. The first rule: no one – no one – ever sits in Poppy’s chair.
Second rule: no one ever touches Poppy’s doll. No one ever gets in Poppy’s bed, no one ever sits in Poppy’s chair in the office, no one ever speaks to Poppy unless Poppy actually wants them to speak.
I have laid down these rules, and the breaking of the rules will lead to severe consequences.
So I say say, “Let’s review rule one: no one gets in Poppy’s chair.” I look up and (whistles) all seven of them are crammed in Poppy’s chair.
“Okay, rule two: no touching Poppy’s doll.” They leap over and grab the doll. How it’s still intact is a miracle. They drag the doll from one end of the house to the other and there’s this stampede down the hall. I come around the corner and all seven of them are in Poppy’s bed.
So, no, it hasn’t exactly worked like a charm.
To be continued…
Coming up in the August 4th issue Pat previews his upcoming book, My Reading Life, due this fall. His latest novel, South of Broad, is now available in paperback and – yes – for download on Kindle.