September 5, 1986 – written on the publication of The Prince of Tides
The self-styled ‘hayseed’ author, as entertaining in person as he is on paper, says he is only doing what Southerners do best – telling a story
By Sam Staggs
Pat Conroy’s big, two-story brick house on Peachtree Circle in Atlanta is empty when PW arrives on a steamy summer morning. A couple of forlorn chairs stand in the middle of the parlor. A scattering of pencils, paper clips and empty envelopes lie about on the bare floor. The Conroys-Pat, his wife Lenore and four of their six children-are moving to Rome (Italy, not Georgia) in a few days, and the household has been dismantled.
But Conroy seems less dismayed than most people by moving day. That could be because of his mobile childhood; his father, a Marine fighter pilot whom Conroy used as the model for The Great Santini, was transferred to a new base every year. Or it might be because Conroy laughs so much. Easygoing and jovial at 40, he throws his head back and guffaws over a wisecrack or a funny story. He laughs even harder when the joke is on him. Or maybe his equanimity comes from knowing that his new suitcase sized novel, The Prince if Tides (Fiction Forecasts, Aug. 8), is finished after six years of toil and Houghton Mifflin is bringing it out next month.
In no time at all, Conroy is regaling us with the story of how he became a writer. It was over 15 years ago in Beaufort, SC, where his family finally put down roots when he was in high school. He had completed a manuscript called The Boo–“one of the worst-written books in the English language,” Conroy swears. This vanity press debut was a homespun portrait of his friend Colonel Thomas Courvoisie (nicknamed “The Boo”short for caribou), an assistant commandant in charge of discipline at the Citadel, Conroy’s military alma mater in Charleston.
“I can’t tell you how naive I was,” Conroy deadpans in the thickest Southern accent since Billy Carter’s. “I went to Willie Shepherd, at the People’s Bank of Beaufort. I said, ‘Willie, I’ve written this book about the Citadel and I’d like to borrow some money to get it published.’ He said, ‘Sure, Bubba, how much you need?’ I said, ‘Fifteen hundred dollars.’ So I thought I had discovered the secret of getting your books published, I said to myself, ‘This is easier than I thought. I think I’ll be a writer.’ ”
A couple of years later, Conroy had a new manuscript, but it wasn’t one Willie Shepherd could finance. This one was The Water is Wide, Conroy’s touching, often rollicking account of the year he spent teaching underprivileged black children on Daufuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast. Too unconventional a teacher to please the creaky educational establishment, Conroy was fired and “began writing the book about an hour later.”
When it was finished, someone told Conroy he needed an agent. He had never heard of such-Willie Shepherd certainly hadn’t mentioned that-but someone located the name of Julian Bach, and Conroy phoned the formidable New York literary agent on a typical high pressure day. “He was as rude as any son-of-a-bitch could possibly be on the telephone,” Conroy laughs. “He would hardly listen to me without interrupting. But he heard ‘black children on an island’ and he snapped, ‘Just send me your manuscript. I’m so tired of people like you who call me every day. I don’t know why I’m talking to you. Send it up and I’ll read it when I get time.’ ”
Even in his benighted state, Conroy knew the manuscript should be typed. But he couldn’t do it. “My father wouldn’t let me take a typing course in high school. He thought it was sissy. No decision of an ignorant father has ever cost a son so much money in one lifetime.” Friends in Beaufort came to his aid. He gave them a chapter each; they typed all weekend and delivered the manuscript on Sunday night. “But,” Conroy groans, “I had forgotten to tell them to use the same kind of paper, so there was onionskin, yellow foolscap, long sheets, short ones, some with lines-well, we put together this unbelievable looking thing and shipped it off to Julian. He read it, thinking it was the most adorable hayseed thing he’d ever seen-and he sold it.
“He called me up and said, ‘Pat, Houghton Mifflin, one of the oldest publishing companies, wants to publish your book. Here’s the really good part: $7500.’ I said, ‘Julian, I don’t think Willie Shepherd down at People’s Bank is going to lend me $7500.’ Julian, stunned on the other end of the wire, said, ‘Pat, you realize they pay you the money.’ He will never let me forget it; no matter what I do, I can’t convince him I’m anything but a hick. That’s how I thought publishing was done.”
Conroy changed from naive to worldly overnight. Shortly after Bach accepted him as a client, the brash young writer started to wonder if he was being taken for a ride. So he wrote a no-nonsense letter: “Dear Mr. Bach, Who are you? I’ve never heard of you. You’re an agent? What exactly do you do? Have you ever done this kind of work before?”
A long letter arrived in Conroy’s mailbox a few days later. His then-wife Barbara opened it, and when Conroy came home she said, “You poor, dumb son-of-a-bitch; he just mauled you.” Conroy recalls sheepishly that Bach had detailed the history of his agency and had also provided a client list. The estate of Charles Dickens was at the top. “It in included John Fowles, Ted White; I felt utterly humiliated.” Despite their screwball beginning, author and agent have stayed together. “We get along terrifically well,” Conroy says earnestly.
He has also stayed at Houghton Mifflin. “Moving around so much as a kid damaged my soul, so now I don’t want to leave a good situation. My only complaint is that I’ve had a different editor for every book. Nan Talese edited The Prince if Tides. Shannon Ravenel-she’s from Charleston–did The Water Is Wide. Then there was Anne Barrett, who retired as soon as she finished editing The Great Santini. When I learned that Jonathan Galassi was to edit The Lords of Discipline, I asked Houghton Mifflin, ‘Why are you giving me an Italian kid from Harvard when I’m a Southern guy; how did you match us up?’ They explained it very well, and he did a great job. But then he went to Random House. I stay still, but editors go flying out of my life.
“I asked Nan recently if I have the reputation of being hard to work with, and she surprised me by saying yes. Everybody assumes that since my editors leave after doing one of my books, I must be a monster. But I like the fresh view point an editor brings to my writing. I tell them beforehand, ‘Anything that would cause people to laugh at me, or tease me in New York City, please get rid of it.’ The only thing I pray for is that I’m not made fun of.”
Within his own family, it’s not the derision as much as rebuke that Conroy dreads. On his mother’s side, they are Scotch-Irish Southerners; on his father’s, Chicago Irish. Writing to please such diverse interests would test any author, and Conroy hasn’t always won their approval. After reading The Great Santini his Chicago relatives were livid. According to Conroy, “My grandmother and grandfather told me they never wanted to see me or my children again. But the wounds have sort of healed now, because Dad loved the movie made from the book. He still sends out Christmas cards signed, ‘The Great Santini.’ ”
The Bible Belt branch of the family’ recoils from the sex scenes and the “immodest” language in his novels. After The Lords if Discipline was published, Conroy’s Aunt Helen telephoned him and said, “Pat, I hope someday you’ll write a book a Christian can read. ” “How far did you get?” her nephew asked. “Page four, and I declare, I’ve never been so embarrassed.”
Hollywood felt just the opposite. Beginning with The Water Is Wide (filmed as Conrack), moviemakers have snapped up the rights to each new Conroy book. The Prince of Tides is no exception. The only difference this time is that Conroy himself wrote the screenplay. “I kept noticing in the screenplays of my movies how much of my dialogue they used. I also noticed that the screenwriter was getting paid more money than I was. Before I started writing the script, I said to the producer, Andy Karsh, ‘I don’t want to be a pain in the behind [Conroy accents the first syllable], the way other novelists are. Tell me what you want from this novel and I’ll write it for you.’ ”
Asked why his books make such entertaining movies, Conroy says, “I always figure it’s because I’m incredibly shallow. I write a straight story line, and I guess that’s what they need. The dialogue also seems to be serviceable in a Hollywood way. But most important, I do the thing that Southerners do naturally-I tell stories. I always try to make sure there’s a good story going on in my books.”
Conroy still has the good-natured charm and ingenuous idealism of the down-home boy who Wrote books about his experiences and just happened to sell them in New York and Hollywood. In every book he fills up at least a page with acknowledgments and gratitude for the help he was given. In The Boo he thanked 30 people; in the new book 33, including the lawyer who got him out of jail in 1980. We ask why he was in jail; he seems such an unlikely offender. “My wife’s ex-husband threw a drink in my face at a party. I chased him and turned him upside-down in some bushes. He filed assault-and-battery charges, and I went to jail. The case was dismissed, but he sued me for $75,000. My lawyer was terrific through all of that; I also thank the judge who let me off. I feel bad that I couldn’t thank my next-door neighbors on both sides, but the list was already ridiculously long.”
Although he has written about 50 pages of his next novel, he doesn’t really know what it’s about. “I’ve got some general ideas; you know, Southern stories you collect all your life. And I might work in some recent Atlanta stories.” In the meantime, he is pulling together a collection of nonfiction pieces, including an essay about the six months he lived in Paris while finishing The Lords if Discipline, and another one on coming back to Atlanta after living in Rome. Conroy’s nonfiction writing has often been at the behest of friends needing help. “A friend of mine was in danger of being fired from Atlanta magazine, so I wrote an article for him. He got fired anyway, then he went on to another magazine. Soon he needed me again, so I kept writing stuff, trying to help. Eventually I ended up with enough material for a book.”
Conroy takes us on a driving tour of his part of Atlanta, pointing out the gleaming new hotels and office buildings nudging out the graceful old Southern houses. We eat lunch in a restaurant that specializes in Dixie cooking: cornpone, pot likker, hush puppies, collard greens and blackeyed peas. Then it’s time for us to head for the airport.
As the plane taxis on the runway, we are perusing the copy of The Boo that Conroy autographed for us. The woman in the next seat peers at the book. Then she says, “That’s a charming story, isn’t it?” We express surprise that she has read it. “Oh yes, all three of my sons attended the Citadel, so I’m naturally very fond of Mr. Conroy’s book. Has he written anything else?” We assure her that he has written several others, and that his new novel has all the makings of a bestseller. “I guess then he must be making a good living from writing books. ” We nod, and inform the lady that Mr. Conroy’s success has enabled him to live in both Atlanta and Rome. “Oh, I think Rome is one of the nicest towns in Georgia. He must be doing well!”
(Staggs is a freelancer who frequently contributes to PW.)