Last issue, we heard from several of the Southern writers heading to Beaufort later this month for “Pat Conroy at 70: A Literary Festival Celebrating South Carolina’s Prince of Titles.” We’d asked them each a simple question: How has Pat Conroy influenced you? Some of them had so much to say, we had to run the article in two parts. (You can read Part One here.) This is the second installement.
John Lane (Fate Moreland’s Widow)
When I read Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides in the 1970s his narrator informed me in the first line that his wound was geography. “Wow, maybe that’s my wound too,” this budding writer thought. I’ve been salving that wound ever since with poetry and prose. I have Pat to thank for that, for teaching me see the value of honest lyrical writing about what it means to live here and now.
Ellen Malphrus (Untying the Moon)
When Pat Conroy and I became friends years ago, in Maine of all places, we immediately began singing the praises of our teacher (though at different times) James Dickey – and haven’t really shut up since. I consider him my Brother-in-Dickey. After Pat read some of my work, he began gently encouraging me to complete the manuscript that became Untying the Moon. As I dawdled, his nudges turned to nags – then full blown pestering. Thank heavens for it, or the book might still be draft work.
Mary Alice Monroe (The Summer’s End)
I fell in love with Pat Conroy when I was in my thirties. He wooed me with his smooth talking, his mesmerizing metaphors, his biting Irish humor. He had me at “My wound is geography.” My love grew with each book of his that I read. I caressed the pages, poring over his words.
Many people associate Pat Conroy with his vivid, heartbreakingly accurate descriptions of his dysfunctional family. They discuss the relationships between mother and son, brother and sister, and most certainly, father and son.
When I think of Pat Conroy, however, I always connect with his sultry, salty descriptions of a landscape we lovingly call the Lowcountry. His passion for the vast, seductive wetlands teeming with life is vividly portrayed on every page. He reveals how the ocean and creeks provide a feast so that even the poorest of men can eat like a king. Conroy brings us fully into his story world, not only in the hearts of minds of his characters, but in the sights, scents and sounds of this unique part of the South he calls home.
I, too, write stories set in the Lowcountry. I am inspired by this architect of words, this writer I have fallen in love with. His words sustain me. Over the past years I’ve been fortunate to meet Pat and call him friend. We share a love of the landscape and found a common ground as warriors to protect it. But I do not compare myself to Pat Conroy. Nor should any other writer of the Lowcountry, not even the South. We all owe a debt to this literary groundbreaker. There is only one Prince of Tides.
Eric Morris (Jacob Jump)
Same as anybody, I wanted my writing published, but I never imagined it would take this route of the Story River Books series. I don’t know Pat Conroy outside of our association in the process of getting Jacob Jump into print, but like everybody upon this round world, I have read and admired his books, from The Water is Wide to Beach Music to The Death of Santini, and yes of course The Prince of Tides. I could not have imagined he would favor my humble novel begun in my stonewall basement in Lexington, Kentucky. A book eventually refined and abandoned somewhere between the Saluda and Story Rivers of South Carolina, and given over to the talented caretakers of Story River Books.
Pat Conroy took my novel, Jacob Jump, and he embraced it fully. Without his kind words and encouragement I would not be in the fortunate position I am today. Pat is a writer of many talents, and surely he is one of the most successful and important American writers. His work rests alongside the greatest writers’ finest work, and adjudicating Pat Conroy and placing him upon the highest shelf of American writers is not an overstatement. His duty as Editor at Large of Story River Books is a true and enduring legacy and I am humbled to be included in the company of so many fine writers and good people.
Maggie Schein (The Lost Cantos of Ouroboros Cave)
Pat Conroy has been part of the tapestry of my life since I came into this world. Literally. I am not at all sure how to separate the writing from the man, or the man or his writings from my own such that I could give answer to the question of “influence.” He has always been part of the fabric, from his grey sweat pants with a tear in the rear, sitting in our living room when I was 5, drinking a bourbon and coke with my father while I pretended not to pay attention to their conversations, to his argument with me about not naming the characters in my fables before their publication. That, by the way, went on, with Bernie as “moderator,” for nearly six months (I won). The part of the writing life – and life in general – that I can isolate his influence over for me is his grit, his perseverance, his dedication to his readers behind the scenes – not just the romantic work of spinning brilliant tales – his humble honoring of his gift in the form of spending hours alone in the back room of a warehouse signing thousands of books, of sitting out 4 hour-long-lines of readers for signings – never once even asking for a break – and mostly, his inexhaustible graciousness with everyone. I, as a writer, wanted to hide. He taught me that that is unfair, that it is not right, and he taught me, in many ways, how to be brave in that regard.
Mark Sibley-Jones (By the Red Glare)
I was not at all nervous about doing a reading in Decatur, Georgia last August. Readings don’t bother me. What made me nervous—so weak-kneed I could hardly walk—was entering the anteroom of the auditorium to introduce myself to Pat Conroy, who was going to introduce me to the audience a few minutes later. My lips were parched. My mouth wouldn’t work properly. I perspired. Profusely. I entered the room, held out a sweaty hand to Conroy, seated, and said in a tremulous voice, “Mr. Conroy, I’m Mark Sibley-Jones.”
He took my hand, looked up at me, and smiled. “I’m Pat to you,” he said. I soon discovered that, at his insistence, he’s Pat to everybody.
On stage a few minutes later, I said to the audience, “Pat Conroy has no idea what influence his writing has had on me. I read The Water is Wide more than thirty years ago. I can still quote the last sentence of that book. I bet even he can’t do that.
Pat lifted his gaze to the ceiling, scrolled speedily through the screen of his capacious memory, and then recited the entire last paragraph of the book. Verbatim. Not one word deleted, not one added.
His influence on me? Incalculable.
The ‘Pat Conroy at 70’ Literary Festival happens in Beaufort the last weekend in October. Read more about it at www.patconroyat70.com