Novelist Pat Conroy and daughter, Melissa, discuss the cutthroat world of children’s books, Pat’s Reading Life, a curtain call for The Great Santini, and what James Joyce and The Grateful Dead have in common.
Melissa Conroy is a professional artist and creator of the whimsical line of custom Wooberry Dolls (her childhood nickname is “Woo”) and part of the inspiration for her first illustrated children’s book, 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 the Conroys and Lowcountry Weekly editorial staff crowded into a booth at Emily’s Restaurant for a candid and freewheeling conversation. Go to www.lcweekly.com and click on “Interviews” for Part One.
A Reading Life
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: We’re very excited about the new book coming out this fall, My Reading Life, which – of all things – grew out of a piece you did for Parade magazine.
PAT CONROY: Someone at [my publisher] Doubleday liked it so much that my editor, Nan Talese, suggested I write a book about reading and what reading has meant to me.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Where do you begin?
PAT CONROY: The first chapter is about my mother, my Alabama mother who was a fanatic about getting us to read. Every town we went to she ended up checking out more books from the local library than anybody else – five at a time for each of us. And it became a habit. Reading and books became a lifelong habit, as you well know. I own too many books. I owe my mother a lot for that. Mom didn’t go to college and it always bothered her – she was an autodidact, she taught herself to read. She told me this one thing: “You can get smart when you read.” It was all about being smart.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: That was the idea behind John Irving’s The World According to Garp?
PAT CONROY: That’s exactly right. I love that book.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: How specific do you get about certain authors and books?
PAT CONROY: You know, I did an introduction to Gone With the Wind a couple of years ago. That’s in the book. I did an introduction to a thing called Military Brats that this woman wrote. [This was] a book that changed my whole life and the way I thought about being a military brat. That went in [the book].
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So it’s basically a book of essays?
PAT CONROY: It’s a book of essays but it’s also non-fiction stories. One’s called “The Old New York Book Shop.” It’s about me finding this book shop in Atlanta and that book shop changed everything in my life, because I knew after a while that if I went around that book shop – and was careful – every great book was going to pass before me.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Is the shop still there?
MELISSA CONROY: It closed a while ago. It was in midtown. But it’s gone, now.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: That’s a shame. Independent bookstores and record shops are going the way of the dodo.
PAT CONROY: They are doomed.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: If there were a single book that influenced you most as a writer what would it be?
PAT CONROY: There are a lot of books…
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: You’ve said Look Homeward, Angel was an influence.
PAT CONROY: That’s in there. That essay is in there. There are a lot of books mentioned in this thing. I’ve loved a lot of books. You mentioned The World According to Garp. Garp is in there.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: You’re a James Joyce fan. That was sort of the framework for South of Broad, right?
PAT CONROY: That goes back to my mother making me read Ulysses in the eighth grade.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Joyce in the eighth grade? That’s child abuse in some states.
PAT CONROY: I thought it was the worst damn book.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: [Collectively] we’ve never been able to appreciate it either, but when you eventually came back to it did you have a different perception or appreciation?
PAT CONROY: It didn’t change. Joyce freaks are out of their minds. They’re completely nuts.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: The literary equivalent of Grateful Dead fans.
A brief but funny digression
PAT CONROY: (Chuckling) Grateful Dead fans, good thing you said that. I’m in San Francisco at a party and like all parties it’s boring as s**t. I’m dying. I go up to the bathroom and I’m coming back and this guy taps me on the shoulder. And he says, “Are there a lot of famous people in there?” I guess so, yeah. And he says, “Are they famous enough for me to go to this party?” I look at the guy and I say, “I don’t know. Who are you?” So he tells me and I’ve never heard of the guy: Jerry Garcia.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: He actually said that?
PAT CONROY: Yeah. So I say, “Hi, Jerry. What do you do?” (More laughs) And he says, “Oh come on, man. Come on, man!” I say, “Jerry, that party ain’t happenin’ enough for you.” And he just says, “Aw, thanks, man.”
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Love it!
The California Boys do Dickens
PAT CONROY: This new book was fun. I wrote it fast.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: We get a sense that it’s gone pretty quickly. It’s due at the end of October?
PAT CONROY: I don’t see how it can be out that fast, but that’s what [the publisher] says.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: How long did it take to write?
PAT CONROY: It started with the Parade piece and I had to get that in for a Christmas deadline.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Was it about your reading life?
PAT CONROY: It became the idea for the book about reading because I wrote about when I was teaching on Daufuskie Island and I came back for Christmas and these California boys in this social work program were over on the island and they had the kids doing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was teaching these kids Dickens and you get caught up in Dickens – I don’t care what form. I loved doing this. I loved to see the kids memorize their lines. And they’d rehearse with the California boys when I went home.
I go away for Christmas and I get a frantic phone call about two days before. Jim and Joe, the California boys, call me: “Pat, we’re desperate.” Turns out Aunt Sarah Jenkins, who was to play Scrooge –
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Aunt Sarah Jenkins?
PAT CONROY: They cast against type. They were The California Boys. (Laughter) Anyway, she was sweet as hell but they found out she couldn’t read. And they’re trying to put this thing together and Aunt Sarah couldn’t read [her lines] and she was embarrassed to tell anybody. The California boys panic, because the play’s the next night. And I say, “That’s too bad.” They say, “Can you come over and do Scrooge?” I say, “Why don’t one of you do it?” And one of them goes “I’m pathologically shy!” (Laughter) The other guy had terrible stage fright. So I [eventually] said, “Yeah. I’ll come back.” So I took the boat over that one night, played Scrooge (I knew all the lines from teaching it) and over-acted beyond anybody’s capacity to imagine.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Well, Scrooge is a big character.
PAT CONROY: I scared all the little kids on the island. (Laughter) They ran every time they saw me. They were horrified. But it worked out great and when it was done I motor boated back across that night and it turned out to be my greatest Christmas memory.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Your time on Daufuskie was the basis for The Water is Wide. We enjoyed the memory you contributed to Melissa’s book.
MELISSA CONROY: It’s in the afterward to Poppy’s Pants.
PAT CONROY: What is?
MELISSA CONROY: You were finishing up The Water is Wide and I asked for a piece of paper to draw on.
PAT CONROY: Oh, you stole it from me!
MELISSA CONROY: You said, “Yeah, get one off my desk.”
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: And that was the first page of the book?
PAT CONROY: Thank God she only wanted to do one drawing. I had a heart attack when I went in there.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: We love the fact that your publisher (Blue Apple Books) had no idea you were the daughter of a famous writer when they approached you about doing a book. That has to feel good.
MELISSA CONROY: It does.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Although we’re betting once the word was out, they weren’t too disappointed.
MELISSA CONROY: Right. Of course it was good news. Their first reaction was to see if dad would write a forward or something. He ended up doing a postscript.
PAT CONROY: Woo just had to get over her pure embarrassment of being related to me.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: We can’t imagine why.
PAT CONROY: This was a very, very difficult thing. I had to listen to this crap for a while: “My God, I’m going to do it on my own. No one will give me a foot up. No one will help me because you’re my dad!” (Laughter)
So I had to tip toe around like I didn’t know her at the first book signings. (Laughter) I just sat meekly in the background.
MELISSA CONROY: (Laughing) Oh, right.
PAT CONROY: Books are so humiliating that even Woo finally understood that anything she could get, she should take.
PAT CONROY: How long did that last?
MELISSA CONROY: Not long.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So why are books humiliating? What’s the lesson there?
MELISSA CONROY: When you put something out in the world like that, normally if people don’t like it you don’t hear about it. They only tell you if they do like it. But when you put something like a book out there you get to hear certain people talking about how much it sucks.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So if you put something out there you open yourself up to criticism. If you just share it with friends, you get nothing but love.
MELISSA CONROY: It’s a world of extremes. You also get the people who absolutely love it and that’s great. That’s gratifying. It just seems to be one extreme or the other.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: You have to take those who love it and those who hate it and say none of that matters. You can’t believe the good if you can’t believe the bad, as well.
PAT CONROY: That’s my theory [on criticism]. I don’t read it. I’ve seen writers killed by bad reviews – killed by reading negative reviews – never wrote another word.
[For example] I went nuts like everybody else did over the Susan Boyle [phenomenon]. Then I started reading what people were writing about her and it was the worst s**t I ever read. They were the meanest things I’d ever seen in my life. I never saw anything better illustrate how art can change a life. Here she is dowdy beyond belief, being mocked by these people and it took about this long (snaps his fingers) before the place went crazy. I was so moved by that whole thing.
Santini’s Curtain Call
The table dissolves into a broad digression on a variety of topics, bouncing randomly until the subject of parents refocuses the conversation.
PAT CONROY: That’s my next book: The Death of Santini. I was working on that when [my publisher] stopped me and told me to do [My Reading Life]. I’m talking about how my father changed from when The Great Santini was published.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: You mentioned this the last time we spoke.
PAT CONROY: I have about five or six chapters finished.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: Is this a novel or memoir?
PAT CONROY: It’s a memoir.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So it’s actually about Donald Conroy (Pat’s father and the basis for the title character in The Great Santini).
PAT CONROY: It’s about how he remade his life after the book came out. And he really did because he was the worst I’d ever seen. My brother and sisters were out this past week and I was interviewing them about the years I wasn’t there after I’d left to go to college. I’d say “Pensacola.” And they’d say, “He was a real bastard that year. We all hated him then.” And it went on like that. He got meaner and meaner and meaner until finally mom left him in Hawaii and came here. The book came out about two years later and there was an explosion in the family. It infuriated him but it also saved him. He never admitted anything or repented, but he started acting better. Woo loved him. He was great to the grandkids.
I’d see him being nice to the kids and I’d say, “Hey dad, why don’t you break her nose so she’ll know what you were like when we were growing up.” And he’d say, “Oh, don’t listen to him girls. I don’t know what he’s talking about.” But he did change and it was a big change. The book upset him because of the way it portrayed him.
LOWCOUNTRY WEEKLY: So he decided to change his image. Do you think he changed himself, too?
PAT CONROY: I think he did. He got to be a nicer guy. He was funny and I never knew dad was funny.
Pat Conroy’s latest novel, South of Broad is out in paperback.