I’ve always taken great pleasure in reading the biographies of other writers whose books have sustained and gladdened my heart. Yesterday, I finished The Last Love Song, a biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty. Whenever I encountered Ms. Didion’s prose it turned me into a grinning fool because of its strange perfection and her ability to make me see things in ways I never imagined. I once went to dinner with Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne at Elaine’s.
We were guests of my editor Nan Talese and her husband Gay Talese. Elaine’s was a watering hole for writers and celebrities and it was proof of their inferior palates that they chose that troubled restaurant to stem their hunger. I found myself in the men’s room with the huge actor Mr. T. that night. When I looked over as I stood beside him peeing, I said, “Mine’s bigger,” and Mr. T screamed with laughter and I’ve loved Mr. T since that moment.
From her writing, I thought that Joan Didion would prove elliptical and mysterious and so she did. A beautiful woman, she took me in with a mermaid’s dark eyes, but they could turn into a cobra’s with the slight rise of an eyebrow. My instinct is to gush when I meet a writer I revere, but long experience has taught me it’s a dangerous instinct. Greg did not warm to my presence and I felt him pulling back from me, an old gunfighter’s instinct I’ve long encountered with male writers, and more frequently now, with women. I was worried that by praising his wife I would somehow diminish him, even though I talked about two of his novels that I’d really liked. I was also aware that Gay Talese might have well been the finest writer at the table that night. So I listened and took it all in and found myself delighted with the account of Joan Didion’s life that I bought the day it was published. The biography was a crash course in what had made me fall in love with Joan Didion’s style in the first place. It had always been a point of amazement to me that Ms. Didion could hide all essences of her self in the beauty of her immaculate sentences. Though I could never fall in love with her soul, I could always be captive to her style. She lacked the interior eye, but absorbed everything that took place in her sight and hearing. As I suspected, she offered Mr. Daugherty no help at all in the writing of his book about her life. He wrote a splendid book without her help and it’s my theory he wouldn’t have learned that much about her if she had granted him full access. Some people are like that; so are some writers.
I’m not like that. I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close. But that knowledge grants me insight and causes me no despair. The journey has defined me, inspired me, and forced me to write on. I’ve tried to read the biography of every writer who has kept me awake at night, thrilled me with their talents to make a world I didn’t know existed, and taken me on a joy ride into the land of fiction that has provided some of the greatest pleasures I’ve ever had. Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of biographies and all of them told me something I needed to know and what to watch out for and the collisions I needed to avoid. They fed the writer in me and all of them told me that the world was the only thing that counted, that what I produced and its quality was all that mattered. It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.
I have some reckoning and summation entering into my own life. Two biographers have entered my life and it’s made me take notice of my own troubled, untidy passage through time. Katherine Clark, a novelist and writer from Birmingham, has recently completed an oral biography that she took from over two hundred hours of interviews she recorded over the past several years. I lack all gifts of reticence or caution and every time Katherine relates some outrageous or libelous quote from the book, I wince then swear I never said such a thing. “I have it on tape, Pat,” she says, winning each argument. She has captured me uncensored and the whole thing makes me think of root canals and colonoscopies.
The next biographer teaches English and Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and her name is Catherine Seltzer. She just published a book with the University of South Carolina Press called Understanding Pat Conroy. Catherine has undertaken the cheerless task of writing a conventional biography about me and because my ego has swollen into elephantine dimensions in my dotage, I agreed to do it with one undebatable provision. Under no terms would I agree to cooperate with Dr. Seltzer on an “authorized biography.” Often writers make such demands on their biographers out of a sense of being able to control their stories and what is written about them, their friends, and their family. I wouldn’t participate in an authorized biography for any reason because I thought it would be a betrayal of everything I thought I stood for in life. I told Catherine that if she didn’t include the unexpurgated memories of my friends and enemies, ex-wives and girlfriends, hostile critics and others who have reason to renounce my career and life as a complete failure, her book would be worthless. The stories of when I acted like an asshole need to have equal weight with those rare moments of decency when I was of some credit to my species. There was to be no interference with her conclusions from me or my heirs. Catherine Seltzer agreed to all that. I required her to tell the life story I wasn’t aware I lived or the one I was ashamed of living.
This was all preamble to bring me to the subject of this letter. Much to my surprise, I’ll be turning seventy years old at the end of this month. When I was thirty I think I looked at people who were seventy as frail relics of time who had all seen Ivory-billed woodpeckers and passenger pigeons from their childhoods. I remember going to Kitty Mancini’s fiftieth birthday party in Alexandria, VA, given by her children, Mike, Patty and Sharon Mahoney, my three best friends from my grade school days, and I thought as I kissed that kindest of women that it was a shame she would be dead so soon. The same children gave Kitty a party on her 90th birthday in Richmond last year.
But the subject of death is a frequent one among my friends these days. Terry Kay, the novelist, has announced his demise on a daily basis for the last twenty years. I’ve worried about my friend Anne Rivers Siddons’ health for the last five years. My wife Cassandra is a member of the Hemlock Society and hides potions in her closet I’m not to ask about on pain of divorce court. My irreplaceable friend Doug Marlette died in his fifties in a Mississippi car wreck. Jane Lefco, who took care of my finances, died of an embolism while still beautiful and young. My brother Tim killed himself at 34. I lost eight classmates in the Vietnam war and four of them were boys I loved.
So this number has deep resonance and I’m taking it more seriously than I ever thought I would. It strikes a biblical chord in me. The town of Beaufort is throwing me a birthday party.
I first became aware of the immensely gifted writer Ann Patchett when she published her first novel with my old publisher Houghton Mifflin. It was an old Boston firm located in a classical brick office building that seemed indigenous to the Boston Common and the Back Bay. Houghton Mifflin satisfied every dream I’d ever had as an American boy who grew up wanting to be a writer. It was a palace of Boston WASP and its masthead sang out with distinguished New England names. I thought I’d be a Houghton Mifflin boy forever.
But the world of publishing was about to undergo a sea change in the creative lifetime of all writers. I thought my first editor Shannon Ravenel would be my editor forever. But she moved to St. Louis before my first book even came out. Then I believed that the lovely, stately Anne Barrett would direct my career, but Anne retired, then died. I was given the young, dazzling Jonathan Galassi and I thought I’d stumbled into the lifetime of the greatest editor of his generation and I had. But Jonathan was New York bound and New York destined and the mighty Random House recruited Jonathan for its own impressive stable of editors. I would have gone to Random House with Jonathan because I recognized his genius and wanted to be part of it always, but the editors of Random House, in their infinite wisdom and ineptitude, insulted Jonathan and me when I went to sign up for my new novel The Prince of Tides. Both Jonathan and I wince when we recall that dispiriting day whenever we get together in New York. Houghton Mifflin assigned me a new editor Nan Talese and she and I have been partners in whatever crimes against literature I’ve created in the last thirty years. Nan became my destiny and I left Houghton Mifflin, heartbroken, to join her at Doubleday. I plan to be with Nan for the rest of my life.
But Houghton Mifflin is still a cry within my writing heart. It seemed so right for me, an instrument perfectly tuned to the writer I was hoping to become. The firm was literary, low-keyed and calm in its aristocratic singularity. The editors pushed books on me by their new novelists and writers. It thrilled me to read the first and second books of brand new voices on the American scene. My teacher James Dickey had published his first novel Deliverance with them two years before I’d arrived on the scene. Philip Roth had begun his career with Houghton, then had lit out for New York. But I read the first books of Don DeLillo and Paul Theroux and Sylvia Wilkinson and Madison Smartt Bell. Anne Sexton was publishing her incendiary poetry at that time and the Houghton Mifflin’s backlist was a writer’s field of wonder.
Over my time there, I took special pleasure in reading the first works by young novelists, those fearless navigators who slipped into that perilous world with something new to say. Like all publishing houses, Houghton Mifflin was male-dominated, possibly a tad misogynist, and women writers seemed poorly represented when I first arrived. But like all great publishing houses, Houghton was itself a mirror of American society and the great surge of women writers was already on the march.
Late in my time at Houghton Mifflin, two young women arrived on the scene who were the talk of the company – Susan Minot with a novel called Monkeys, and Ann Patchett with one called The Patron Saint of Liars. Both were talented, all agreed, but both were also drop dead beautiful.
Physical attractiveness does not make frequent visitations to the writers’ world. When I attended a party celebrating the writer Jennifer Egan’s first novel, Gay Talese came up to me in the middle of the gathering and said, “This isn’t a writers’ party. These people are way too good looking to be writers. Writers are ugly people. This group is way to gorgeous to call themselves writers.”
The talented Jennifer Egan is also a beauty and her husband is in theater and they had attracted a comely group among their New York friends. But Gay had a point and a great eye for detail, which has made him one of the great non-fiction writers this country has ever produced. Generally, writers descend from a lesser tribe and whatever claim to beauty we have shows up on the printed page far more often than it does in our mirrors. Even as I write these words I think of dozens of writers, both male and female, who make a mockery of this generalization. But comeliness among writers is rare enough to be noteworthy.
Though I’m no longer part of the Houghton Mifflin family, I still keep up with their new young writers and I always wish for them success as a publishing company. One of the sales reps sent me a reading copy of Ann Patchett’s first novel The Patron Saint of Lies and from the beginning she seemed like the real thing to me. Her voice was clear and original and I marked her down as a writer to watch. I attended a writer’s conference at the University of Mississippi sometime in the blur that was the 90s for me; I stood in line to get a copy of her second novel Taft signed by her. We introduced ourselves to each other and I found her to be one of the most attractive women I’d ever met. She looked like one of those women you wished you could’ve met and married as a young man. She was poised, self-contained, delightful, and I thought Taft was a fulfillment of the great promise she showed in The Patron Saint of Liars. I thought she was still shaking free of those invisible handcuffs and chains of bondage that the writing schools of America impose on their grads. She was a survivor of the the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where they train the rogue elephants and the big cats of the writing world. It’s both a cutting edge and thought-cutting matrix that has produced some great writers and an endless regiment of failed ones. It is a savage gathering of wolves on the middle plains of Iowa and I can’t think of a more honorable or deadly arena for an American writer to test his or her talent in the vast meanness of the writing world. I applied for admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was turned down, and still consider it one of the great blessings of my writing career. But it didn’t lay a hand on the strength of Ann Patchett’s talent. It always makes the great ones better and the bad ones better, too.
Hey out there
I’ve just opened a place of business in downtown Port Royal, South Carolina. It is an odd thing to be doing at my age. There is nothing on my resume that indicates I’ll be successful in this unusual endeavor. But I’m doing it because there are four or five books I’d like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth – as my mother promised me – on the day of my untimely death, or reconcile myself to a long stretch of nothingness as my non-believing friends insist.
Three years ago I nearly died from my own bad habits. At my lowest point I made an awkward vow to myself that if I could survive the crisis, I would try to improve my complete lack of dedication to my own health. I stopped drinking at that moment, told my splendid doctor Lucius Lafitte that I was going to do what he told me. I hired my next door neighbor, the fetching Liz Sherbert, to be my nutritionist, and for two years I’ve tried to satisfy my great interior hunger with a diet that would satisfy a full grown squirrel, but did little to conquer the hippopotamus that lives within me. Still, I lost a quick twenty pounds and have learned to put up with Liz’s surprise commando raids on my household to check on forbidden foods she finds in my refrigerator. When she spies me grazing on my front lawn, she shouts encouragement from her deck, “Greenery. Salads. That’s the way to weight loss, Pat.” Liz has encouraged me to shun all the foods I love and eat plentiful amounts of the things I despise. My lesson from this is never to hire a nutritionist who lives next door.
Dr. Lafitte also ordered me to exercise. In my youth I walked around disguised as an athlete, especially to myself. When I quit playing basketball at the age of 40, my weight increased every year until I turned into a southern fat boy, to my utter horror. Over the years, I’d hired personal trainers to abuse and shape up the fatted calf I’d become. From Europe to San Francisco, I hired a series of good men who were skilled practitioners of their art. But after a year or so, I grew bored, and then had a back operation that affected my mobility for a long time. In 1996, I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, which I call “The Fat Boy’s Disease.” The doctors are too kind and diplomatic to call it that, but I believe it’s an accurate description in my case.
I joined the Beaufort YMCA a few years ago. It’s a terrific place founded by the actor Tom Berenger and ex-his wife, who is a well-known Beaufort beauty. Three times a week I would meet my friend, the novelist John Warley, at the Y and we would exercise together. While exercising, I noticed a young Okinawan woman working with her clients and had never seen a physical therapist work with such dedication and compassion. With all her clients, including some who were elderly and some in wheelchairs, she gave her full attention and never looked around when someone was in her care. I hired Mina
Truong as my personal trainer and went to see her twice a week. She was both a wonder and a stern taskmaster, so I started to feel muscles in places I forgot I had them. Then, on a book tour, I hurt my back getting out of a car and did not see Mina for an entire year. It was at the end of that year that I nearly died in a Charleston hospital.
When I recovered from my illness, I signed up with Mina at the Y again. At first, I went once a week, then three times, and then five times. I had marvelous fun with her, even though I could barely walk to the car after she had finished with me. But I started feeling better – much better than I had in years. Her skills in English are limited, and she’d apologize almost every time I saw her.
“So sorry, Mr. Pat. English very bad,” she’d say.
“No problem, Mina. My Japanese is much worse.”
“No, no, Mr. Pat. My English should be better,” she’d say.
“Could you stop calling me Mr. Pat? It’s driving me nuts. I feel like Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon.”
“No, I must call you Mr. Pat. Out of respect. When you come to me, I did not know you. I not know you are very great man. A writer.”
“Give me a break, Mina. I write pornography.”
“What is this word? My English not good, Mr. Pat.”
“I write dirty books. Naked men and women doing unspeakable things to each other.”
“What is this unspeakable?” she said.
“You’re not supposed to say it out loud.”
“Dirty books? Bad books?”
“Yes, that’s what I write. Now hurt me some more. Our time is not up.”
“Mr. Pat, I never hurt you.”
“You hurt me every time I see you,” I said.
“No, I help you. I make you strong.”
So, without my quite knowing it, I became Mina’s unpaid English teacher over the past year, making certain that I brought in a few new words for her to learn each day. Because I lived in Italy for three years and never came close to grasping the language, I know that a sense of humor from a native speaker was a difficult, if not impossible thing to master. If a single Italian ever told me a joke, I can assure you I didn’t get it. At some point, I realized that poor Mina often had no idea I was kidding her. I know better than anyone that a Conroy sense of humor is not everyone’s cup of green tea.
In the middle of doing leg lifts, Mina would ask me, “How do you feel, Mr. Pat?”
“I feel terrible,” I’d say, gasping.
“Terrible. That is bad to feel? Terrible?”
“It’s awful to feel terrible,” I said.
“How can I make you feel better, Mr. Pat?”
“Why 9-1-1, Mr. Pat?”
“I need an ambulance.”
“Why you need this ambulance?”
“Because I’m dying. You’re killing me, Mina.”
“No, Mr. Pat. I help you.”
“Tell the crew I need a wheelchair.”
“The men and women in the ambulance. They need a wheelchair because I can’t walk.”
“Why can’t you walk, Mr. Pat?”
“Because you hurt me.”
“Ah! It’s a joke. I hear you are a funny man, Mr. Pat. How you feel?”
Each week I could feel my body changing, hardening, growing stronger. Finally I came to a wonderful conclusion that I was feeling much better than I had for years. My friends and family and long-suffering wife all told me I was looking better, but to be truthful, I still look like a linebacker who has gone painfully to seed.
But I give all credit to Mina Truong, who has inspired me to work harder than I ever have before.
This past January, my beloved brother Mike went into surgery for a quadruple bypass that terrified the entire Conroy family because Mike is the only one of us who knows how to get things done.
He’s the anchor to our whole family, so I can’t imagine how complicated our family life would be if he was not around. But Mike is also tough as a walnut and he came through the operation and never complained to a single person about the pain he endured. The operation was a complete success and Mike came home several days before his release date. I was as joyous as I was relieved when I went to the Y and sweet Mina was there with a worried look in her eyes.
“How is your brother, Mike, Mr. Pat?”
“Mike . . .” I said (and this next part of my personality is irritating and inexplicable even to me, but it is my personality and this is how I answered poor Mina of Okinawa), “The operation didn’t go very well, Mina.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Pat?” she asked.
“Mike’s dead. But we can’t let that interfere with my workout.”
“Your brother? He is dead? You must be very sad, Mr. Pat. You must go to his wife. To comfort her.”
“Naw, I never liked her much.”
“When is brother Mike’s funeral?”
“It’s going on right now, Mina. I knew I couldn’t miss my workout. And there’s a sale on tulip bulbs at Lowe’s,” I said, and by the look on Mina’s face I knew I would have some trouble bringing this subject to a close.
Mina helped me by starting to cry. Large, heartfelt tears fell from her eyes as she wept at the death of my un-mourned brother. I tried to figure out a graceful means of exit from a joke that offered few avenues of escape.
Finally, I said, “Mina, I forgot. I got a call on my cell phone before I got to the Y. Mike didn’t die. They made a mistake.”
“Mistake?” she asked in tears.
“Yeah, they got him confused with the guy in the next room. He looked a lot like Mike. But my brother’s fine.”
“You told me lie. About your brother’s death, Mr. Pat,” Mina said.
“It was a joke. But it must not translate well into Japanese,” I said.
“Joke? You make joke about your poor brother. He die. That is a terrible, terrible joke, Mr. Pat.”
“Yeah, it is awful, Mina. I apologize,” I said.
“You are a very, very bad man, Mr. Pat.”
“Yes, I knew you would find that out one day. Now hurt me,” I said.
Mina then put me through the toughest regimen of exercise His Fatness had experienced in a long time. I knew that there was some kind of subliminal punishment involved, but I felt I deserved it. The next day when I walked into the Y Mina said, “How is your poor brother, Mike, Mr. Pat?”
“Very bad, Mina. Mike died last night. I’m very sad.”
Mina burst out laughing and a fellow employee at the Y walked by at the time and asked her what was so funny.
“I told her my brother died last night,” I said.
“It is a lie. Nothing he says is true. No word is true. Ever,” Mina said.
I said, “Mina, you’ve got a great sense of humor.”
“No, Mr. Pat. You turn me into a terrible person. Today, we do aerobics. Fun, yes?”
“I hate aerobics,” I said.
“It help you not be sad, Mr. Pat,” Mina said. “Over poor Mike dying.”
But there was trouble in paradise. The YMCA was one of the happiest places I’ve ever been in Beaufort. I fell in love with the women at the front desk and took great pleasure in getting to know various people who worked out at the same time I did. But one Friday, Mina told me she had been suspended for ten days. When I asked why, she told me she could not discuss it with me because of YMCA rules. I went down to discuss it with the director and he told me he could not talk about it because it was “a personnel issue.” So I’d hit upon the bureaucratic world I despise and knew it was a lost battle even to enter that strange, octopus-armed world. My friend Aaron Schein, who had also fallen in love with Mina, resigned from the Y in disgust.
Mina returned, but I could feel her tension every time she worked me out. Finally, two weeks ago, I asked Mina to lunch and she brought her two best friends Lin Pope and her husband Bruce. It seems as though Mina was to be fired that Saturday. I suggested she resign and she did so that very moment in the restaurant Moondoggies. Within seconds, not minutes, she received a reply: “accepted.”
“Now, Mina, what are you going to do?” I said. “I need you to keep me alive. So I’m real interested.”
The following day, we rented a small office at 832 Paris Avenue in Port Royal, a town that includes Parris Island in its district. Ten days later we opened shop at Mina & Conroy Fitness Studio. I warned Mina that if my photograph ever appeared on any advertising, she would not have a single client.
“I’m not a good walking advertisement for a fitness studio,” I explained. Mina & Conroy is small, intimate, and a perfect place for me to spend part of the day for the rest of my natural life. We are having an open house on April 3, from 4 – 7 in the evening, and I’m inviting anyone who’d like to come to be Mina’s and my guest. Cassandra King and I will be signing books and I might invite some of my other writer pals to come as well. There will be wine and cheese and we’ll try to have a ball. Mina calls it her “castle,” and I like the sound of her voice when she says it. I’m trying to get my brother Mike to come down. Mina’s dying to meet him.
In the summer of 1961, when I was a fifteen-year-old boy, I was lucky to have the great Bill Dufford walk into my life. I had spent my whole childhood taught by nuns and priests and there was nothing priestly about the passionate, articulate man William E. Dufford who met me in the front office of Beaufort High School dressed in a sport shirt, khaki pants, and comfortable shoes in a year that history was about to explode in the world of South Carolina education circles. Because he did not wear a white collar or carry a long rosary on his habit, I had no idea that I was meeting the principal of my new high school. In my mind, I thought as I saw him moving with ease and confidence in the principal’s main office that day, that he must have been a head janitor in the relaxed, unCatholic atmosphere of my first day at an American public school. It was also my first encounter with a great man.
I was a watchful boy and was in the middle of a childhood being raised by a father I didn’t admire. In a desperate way, I needed the guidance of someone who could show me another way of becoming a man. It was sometime during that year when I decided I would become the kind of man that Bill Dufford was born to be. I wanted to be the type of man that a whole town could respect and honor and fall in love with – the way Beaufort did when Bill Dufford came to town to teach and shape and turn their children into the best citizens they could be.
Bill gave me a job as a groundskeeper at Beaufort High School that summer between my junior and senior years of high school. He had me moving wheel barrels full of dirt from one end of campus to another. He had me plant grass, shrubs, trees, and he looked at every patch of bare earth as a personal insult to his part of the planet. At lunch, he took me to Harry’s restaurant every day and I watched him as he greeted the movers and shakers of that beautiful town beside the Beaufort River. He taught me, by example, of how a leader conducts himself, how the principal of a high school conducts himself, as he made his way from table to table, calling everyone by their first names. He made friendliness an art form. He represented the highest ideals of what I thought a southern gentleman could be. He accepted the great regard of his fellow townsmen as though that were part of his job description. That summer, I decided to try to turn myself into a man exactly like Bill Dufford. He made me want to be a teacher, convinced me that there was no higher calling on earth and none with richer rewards and none more valuable in the making of a society I would be proud to be a part of. I wanted the people of Beaufort, or any town I lived in, to light up when they saw me coming down the street. I was one of a thousand kids who came under the influence of our magnificent principal Bill Dufford. For him, we all tried to make the world a finer and kinder place to be.
Bill Dufford was raised in Newberry in the Apartheid South where the Civil Rights movement was but a whisper gathering into the storm that would break over the South with all of its righteousness and power. Though Bill had been brought up in a segregated society, he charged to embrace the coming of freedom to Southern black men and women with a passionate intensity that strikes a note of awe-struck wonder in me today. He went south to the University of Florida the year I graduated from high school and came under the influence of some of the greatest educational theorists of his time. He returned to South Carolina with a fiery commitment to the Integration movement in his native state. No other white voice spoke with his singular power. He headed up the school desegregation department, which sent people into all the counties in the state to help with the great social change of his times. I know of no white southerner who spoke with his eloquence about the great necessity for the peaceful integration of the schools in this state. What I had called greatness when I first saw him in high school had transfigured itself into a courage that knew no backing down, to a heroism that defied the iron-clad social laws of his own privileged station from a great Newberry family.
Today, we honor Bill Dufford for a life well-lived. In recent years, he has been an articulate spokesman for the Diversity issue in our society. Because of Bill, his family donated their magnificent house to serve as Newberry College’s alumni house. The Dufford family has made large contributions to the Newberry Opera House, one of America’s loveliest buildings. Hundreds of his students went into teaching and education because of him. Today you honor Bill Dufford, one of the finest men I’ve ever met. It does not surprise me that you are honoring him; it just surprises me it took so long.
Remember, I was fifteen years old when I thought I had met my first great man. Mr. Dufford, it is a remarkable honor to introduce you today.
I’ll not pretend this is not one of the greatest nights of my life and one of the most surprising. In the history of American letters, no writer has had such a troublesome and controversial relationship with his college. I’m personally responsible for much of that tension and I’m fully aware of that. But, when I was a cadet at The Citadel, I decided I was going to try to become an American writer and I found myself encouraged to do this by my English professors Doyle, Carpenter and Harrison, with a generous push from the history department of Conger, Martin and Addington. I took every course taught by the magisterial Oliver Bowman who let me in on the secrets of human psychology. Though I often lamented not going to an Ivy League college, I’ve talked to many of my contemporaries who did. They talk of great parties, drunkenness, and the great pleasure of midnight conversation and easy sex. I survived the toughest plebe system on earth, was taught by professors who cherished and loved me, and I was at my desk during Evening Study Period for four straight years. Now, I think I had the best preparation to write novels of any writer of my time on earth. I brought some of The Citadel’s fighting spirit into my life of words with me. From the beginning, I’ve told journalists that I planned to write better than any writer of my time who graduated from an Ivy League college. It sounds boastful and it is. But the Citadel taught me that I was a man of courage when I survived that merciless crucible of a four-year test that is the measure of The Citadel experience. I’m the kind of writer I am because of The Citadel.
Though I was not welcome on this campus for thirty years, my name will now be on a plaque hanging in McAlister Field House in perpetuity. It will hang there because I am a writer. But to me, it will be there because once I was young and raring to go and could bring a basketball up court and do it fast. Once I was a Citadel basketball player with the name of my college spelled out on my jersey and I think the happiest boy that ever lived on earth.
In 2002, I published a book called My Losing Season after I saw the brilliant shooting guard John DeBrosse in a bookshop outside of Dayton, Ohio. That night we talked about our 1966-67 team long into the night and I realized that year still carried all the agonies and splendors of sport in a single tormented season. I started to write that book and visited all the teammates I had abandoned after we lost a heartbreaking game in overtime to Richmond in the Southern Conference Tournament.
I had fallen in love with my teammates that year and never had the human decency to let them in on the secret. By going back to find the heart of my basketball team, I found my way back to the soul of my college. My teammates, in the grandeur and despair of their memories, provided the means for me to explore the regions of myself that led to the fierce pride I take in being a Citadel man. In the The Lords of Discipline, I tell of my disgust with the plebe system, but that it not a complete truth; it was the savage abuse of the system I loathed. It was the cruelty to boys under the guise of leadership that I rejected from the first day I walked into Padgett-Thomas barracks until the last. I never raised my voice to a plebe. I was raised in the Marine Corps and I was taught as a boy that you feed your own men before you feed yourself. It was my belief then, and it remains so today, that my platoon who loves and respects me will slaughter your platoon that hates you. But here is the great lesson I took from the Plebe System – it let me know exactly the kind of man I wanted to become. It made me ache to be a contributing citizen in whatever society I found myself in, to live out a life I could be proud of and always to measure up to what I took to be the highest ideals of a Citadel man – or, now, a Citadel woman. The standards were clear to me and they were high and I took my marching orders from my college to take my hard-won education and go out to try to make the whole world a better place.
The Citadel gave me all of this and then gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life – it allowed me to be a college basketball player, to represent my college from the hills of West Virginia to the banks of the Mississippi to the night lights of New Orleans. I tested myself against great players from Florida State, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Clemson, George Washington and thirty other teams around the South. Those great players taught me agonizing lessons about myself and my limits as an athlete. They taught me I was not very good, but I learned the same lessons every day from my splendid teammates at practice. I was a mediocre player out of his league in a very tough Southern Conference. But Lord have mercy on my soul, I loved that game with a passion that remains with me to this glorious night.
Let me tell you how it was. My guys and I would dress for the game and listen to the field house filling up with the noise of a fired-up crowd. Let’s play Davidson, the year they were ranked number one in the nation at the beginning of the year. I want the place packed to the rafters and I want the whole Corps there. When you’re a jock at The Citadel, you play for the Corps and there is nothing on earth to compare to the thunder and excitement and raw menace of the Corps screaming for their team. The Citadel band goes wild when you take to the court for the outcry of the Corps and it is that superb band that provides the musical score with its theme of wildness, and oneness, as the Corps rises in unison, its huge demon-driven voice urging its team on. Under the boards, Dan Mohr grabs a rebound, tosses it to John DeBrosse, who hits one on the wing and I take it flying down the court – yes – and I said flying and I once felt like a winged, unstoppable creature when I led my team on a fast breakout that polished the floor with my golden teammates filling the lanes around me and I heard Hooper or Connors calling from the left – Bridges filling the right lane and the opposing team sprinting to cut off our mad dash to the basket. This scene played out in eighty games over my career as a Citadel point guard and I would go flashy and show-offy when I neared to top of the key and watched the eyes of the guard who was supposed to stop me. I turned my head to the left or to the right and if I saw him overplaying I would streak past him, just because I could and I wanted to put on a show for the Corps and my teammates. If the big man came up too fast to stop me, I’d lay the ball off to Tee Hooper or Doug Bridges and they would fly through the air to score. The Corps would ignite and explode in a pandemonium of roaring and chanting and they put a primal fear into the hearts of the enemy who dared get in our way. Eighty nights of my life on earth were spent with the name of The Citadel emblazoned across my chest. I had never been so deeply alive before and so rarely have since.
But it was my team, my team, my bruised and damaged team, that was my greatest gift from that year – Dan Mohr, Jimmy Halpin, John DeBrosse, Dave Bornhorst, Bob Cauthen, Doug Bridges, Tee Hooper, Bill Zycinsky, Greg Connor, Al Kroboth, Brian Kennedy. I grow weak when I think about these guys, the way it felt to be around them, to be part of them. Our coach was the Ahab-like Mel Thompson and we fought through that year with his heel on our throats. He was a man of relentless fierceness and he ran us as a Gulag rather than a team. Several of us would vomit from exhaustion after practice and those practices were more physically exhausting than anything we ever suffered during the plebe system. Ten out of those twelve players had a game in their career where they scored over twenty points in a Citadel varsity game and the whole team averaged over eighty points a game before the era of the three point shot. That team could play ball, but I believe it got its heart cut out by a coach who didn’t know what he had. They were magical young men who have lived exemplary lives as Citadel men. All twelve of us graduated, many with gold stars and most with time on the Dean’s list. They have also become one of the most famous college basketball teams in history. When My Losing Season came out, I got letters from some of the most famous coaches in the country, coaches of all sports. Professional basketball players wrote me, the book was featured at the ACC championship tournament. It was used as a halftime special during the NBA championship. Whenever I sign new books, people ask me questions. “How’s Root doing? Is DeBrosse still coaching? Did Connor ever get a date? What happened to Zipper? Did Bridges ever apologize to you for getting you kicked off the team? Is Barney still a nut?”
The book is being taught in high schools and colleges around the country. Young men and women have applied to The Citadel after reading this book. My team is going to live on in some library forever. I finally got to tell my team how I felt about them and I finally got to tell my college how I felt about The Citadel.
So I’ve lived a lucky life and this night is the wonderful conclusion of a very long war between my college and myself. I speak to you from a room that is named for the Boo and his portrait is watching from behind me. My name will hang among the greatest athletes ever to play for the long gray line and I could not carry the jock of a single one of them. I chose to go into this hall of fame as a Green Weenie, what Dave Bornhorst called the second string of The Citadel basketball team, and it was the Green Weenies who kept the spirit of sport and competition
alive for me. Their fire and their loyalty and their steadfastness moved me and I claim myself as one of them tonight. I want every second stringer in the history of this school to know that a Green Weenie is going up on The Wall. I began this journey in 1963 and it reaches some beautiful and surprising conclusion by the generosity of this committee tonight.
But ladies and gentlemen, I told you a long time ago why this night means everything to me.
I’m the guy who wrote his first line in The Lords of Discipline for all the world to hear. It summed up the way I felt about The Citadel and always have – I wrote four words. “I wear the ring.”
I thank you with all my heart for this priceless honor.
Among the worst things about growing old is the loss of those irreplaceable friends who added richness and depth to your life. I met Tim Belk in Beaufort in 1967, the first year I taught and coached at Beaufort High School. We were the only guests at a dinner that the only writer in Beaufort, Ann Head, had put together so we could meet and form what she was certain would become a serious “literary” friendship. Ann had taught me creative writing my senior year in high school and had written me a series of generous-spirited letters about the sad-sack poems I wrote for the literary magazine at The Citadel. Ann Head and my father hated each other on sight and she worried that my college was the worst possible breeding ground for a young man who wished to be a novelist. Ann’s articulate response to the shaping of my writing life by my father and the Citadel was my introduction to Tim Belk. With this, Ann Head made my life delicious and presented me with a friend who would prove a treasury of constant delight. Tim Belk became a dreamboat of a friend and the news of his death in San Francisco this October killed something of measureless value inside of me and all of his friends.
Tim Belk had received his Masters degree in English from the University of South Carolina and come to live on Port Republic Street and teach at USCB. He became famous as a gifted and hard-nosed teacher of the language, a stickler for grammar who considered a dangling participle a minor crime against humanity. He was passionate about literature, music, and all the arts and he was the kind of southerner I only encountered in literature. He seemed to drift out of the pages of Carson McCullers and would have looked natural with a walk-on part in a Tennessee Williams play. It was true. I had met no one remotely like him at the Citadel. At that first meeting, Tim Belk and I had no idea he would one day have leading roles in the novels I would write. He would make his original appearance as himself playing the piano for my Daufuskie students in The Water is Wide. In The Lords of Discipline, he took the stage as Tradd St. Croix, a Charleston aristocrat who was part of a quartet of roommates bound by the infinite resources of their deep affection for each other. When South of Broad came out, I granted Tim one of the most pivotal roles in the book as Trevor Poe, a gay piano player in San Francisco. Note that gayness has become a theme here.
I consider the two years in Beaufort when I taught high school as perhaps the happiest time of my life. My attraction to melodrama and suffering had not yet overwhelmed me, but signs of it were surfacing. No one had warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization. It was that same year that I became best friends with Bernie Schein, Mikes Jones, George Garbade and the inimitable Tim Belk.
Tim seemed sophisticated and worldly in a way that made me feel as uncultured as a listless pearl. I would sit on his porch after teaching and he would fix me a martini in a real martini glass. He served wine that was not Ripple or Blue Nun. He served canapés that I thought were coverings for boats and had no idea were wonderful pre-dinner snacks to be served on good china with cloth napkins. In those two years, Tim would introduce me to The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the novels of Walker Percy, the poetry of James Dickey and all the great classical music of the Western canon. He played the piano with an almost supernatural ease and he never forgot a song or piece of music he’d heard. He was one of the most civilized men I’ve ever known and one of the funniest. Our friendship lasted almost fifty years and much of it was spent laughing.
The world was afire in the late sixties. The Tet offensive and the murder of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy occurred in 1968 and integration was still in its experimental stages at Beaufort High. It seemed to me I was living ten lifetimes that single year and it was an exhilarating year to be curious and alive. That Tim Belk was gay was whispered about and talked about openly, intimated by some and taken for granted by others. Though my children don’t believe me now and find it hilarious, I didn’t know what being gay was. Though I had heard all the disparaging names from queer to faggot, no one had ever told me that they actually were gay. At the Citadel, if you were caught in a homosexual embrace, you were beaten to a pulp and expelled from school that day. It was part of the school’s harsh military code and there was no recourse to law. A gay southerner was an abomination of the species; it was a verminous condition that could not be brought up in polite circles.
Tim Belk was closeted himself in those early Beaufort days and dated some of the loveliest women in this town. I double-dated with him on many occasions. Later, he married a beautiful teacher from the Academy once he’d packed his bags and lit out for his new life in San Francisco. Tim left several months before I was fired from my teaching job on Daufuskie Island, the year I learned that the “separate but equal” system of the American South was the biggest lie ever told by the part of the world I love the most. I lost teaching, I lost Beaufort, and I lost Time Belk at the same time.
Before the dissolution of his marriage to Diane (“We divorced because of irreconcilable similarities”), the Ford Foundation rescued me, sending my family and me out to San Francisco. Tim got a job playing the piano at The Curtain Call in the theater district. My wife Barbara and Diane would go out on the town once a week, to dinner and the theater. Tim and I went out every Thursday night and that is where he introduced me to his new life that he found glorious and far from shameful. One night after a show, Marlene Dietrich and Elaine Stritch came into The Curtain Call and Tim heard Elaine ask the legendary Marlene if she would sing her World War II anthem “Lili Marlene.” Instantly, Tim began playing the haunting theme and heard Marlene say to Elaine Stritch, “It is the wrong key.” In the next movement of his fingers he had changed to her key and Marlene said, “The boy can play.”
With Tim Belk’s elegant accompaniment, Marlene Dietrich sang the song beloved by both Nazi and American soldiers on both sides of the trenches and brought a screaming crowd roaring to its feet. Later, Tim and I would go bar hopping through the city as we always did. The bars of San Francisco had a hundred faces and some were ornate and mysterious, others bizarre, but all welcoming when Tim and I were young and our dream of what the world could be still fresh and quivering with life. At one bar, soon after the Lili Marlene night, Tim and I were arguing the merits of some new novel, when a fan of his from The Curtain Call tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to dance. This was not part of my own dream of the world. But it made me study my surroundings with greater awareness. I had often been in bars with only men when I was a cadet and I had noticed that people were dancing to a band in a room separate from the bar. Before this definitive moment, I had not noticed that they were all men dancing with each other. Tim looked horrified but I’d become friendly with the man who asked me to dance and was raised by a mother who taught her kids never to hurt anyone’s feelings. I said I’d be glad to and I followed the young man to the dance floor. He was from South Carolina, Greer I believe, and I said, “You want to teach these boy to shag?”
“Delighted,” he said.
“Mind if I lead?” I asked, and he said he’d love it if I did.
We shagged and the kid had great moves. After the dance, I thanked, my partner and returned to the bar and sat beside Tim.
“You got something to tell me, pal?” I said. Continue reading
Here is the way it was in the city of Atlanta in 1973, over forty years ago when the dogwoods bloomed along Peachtree Road and there was a party in the Governor’s mansion in Buckhead. Barbara Conroy and I were new to the city and an invite for a party from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter sounded like a ticket to heaven after being run out of South Carolina. We knew no one in the city until that night and it seemed like we knew everyone when the evening was over. As we were crowding around the doorway to the huge dining room – it was a night to celebrate the writers and journalists in Georgia – I heard the sound of high heels clicking against marble in the old tap dance of youth and radiance and I turned to see Anne Rivers Siddons and her flashy, dapper husband by her side – that devilish boy from St. Albans, the one with that ironical smile he perfected while at Princeton – and he was laughing about something that Annie was saying as they made their brilliant entrance into the heart of things.
They were beautiful to look at. Annie was as pretty and sexy a woman as ever drew breath in the sweet air of Georgia and Heyward symbolized some essence of the Atlanta businessman – sharp, tailored, and successful, every inch of him finely-wrought, brimming with the innate class of the Eastern establishment. To me, this is what I wanted Atlanta to look like – these were the people I’d moved to the city to meet. This was the night I met the writers Paul Darcy Boles, Paul Hemphill, Jim Townsend, Larry Woods, Joe Cumming, Betsy Fancher, Terry Kay and so many more, people I would come to love over the years. By all accounts, it was a magnificent gathering, except that alcohol was forbidden to be served in the Governor’s mansion during the Carter years. Toward the end, the sound of various writers choking and clawing at their throats was heard around the dining room as the first stages of delirium tremens began to set in at the tables to our right and left.
So that was how it began on a tender spring day in Atlanta and now it has ended in one of the tenderest springs in the memory of Charleston. I was too young to understand then that the brisk sound of high heels tapping out a rhythmic clatter on Georgia marble would result in a friendship that would last for forty years, that would open up my heart in so many ways I didn’t know it could be opened, and that my life had changed forever by the entrance into my life of this couple born into my life at that very moment.
Here is how Heyward and Annie struck me then and strike me now and time has done nothing to change what I feel about them both. They had sprung alive from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Heyward was shy about revealing his privileged, Ivy League background and I believe it took over five seconds for him to tell me he was a Princeton graduate that night. In our next four thousand meetings we enjoyed Heyward would dip into his high-stepping past and reveal that he had gone to Princeton while I had spent the majority of my youth majoring in “Flamethrowers and Bazookas” at the Citadel. It was an article of faith in our relationship that Heyward believed he had received a better college education than I did. It got so bad that I would enter an Atlanta party, spot Heyward in the corner with Annie, and I’d say, “Hey, Heyward. Tell me now that you went to Princeton so you don’t have to drop it later at the party.” I’d then make my way to the Siddonses, hug both of them, and find out what was going on in their very well-lived in lives. It assured me that I’d always have my first drink of the night while talking to Annie and Heyward.
My association of them with F. Scott Fitzgerald was not accidental. Heyward, in his understated elegance and good taste, had fallen in love with Anne Rivers Siddons who was about to begin a career that would make her a household name among discriminating readers in America. By marrying Heyward, Annie had placed her destiny alongside one of the greatest readers she would ever encounter, her head cheerleader during her remarkable career as the queen of Southern fiction, whose passionate love of her work was just another side to the most successful literary marriage it’s been my pleasure to observe. Heyward became her number one fan, first reader, first editor, first critic, and the first to tell Annie that what she’d written was original, unique, and even magical. Heyward Siddons found great joy in telling me that he had married the most beautiful prose style in the South. Here is what was remarkable about Heyward Siddons, the Princetonian. He knew it, supported his wife in every way conceivable, and would shout it aloud to the world. He was the first great male feminist I ever met. He made his life a conscious celebration of his wife’s career. Heyward Siddons made it all possible and he made it look effortless.
It was not lost on me that Anne Rivers Siddons was some wraith-like incarnation of that lost soul of American letters, Zelda Fitzgerald. But where her husband Scott was enormously jealous of his wife’s talent, Heyward held his hand over Annie’s realizing its precious flame. It was never easy for women writers in America, and it was especially not easy in 1973. The legendary editor Jim Townsend dismissed Annie’s writing as mere “frou-frou” when I came to Atlanta. Women were held back, not listened to, given the lightest stories to report, and never given the chance to walk as equals in the boys club of Atlanta writers. As Heyward announced to me my first year in Atlanta, Annie was about to change all that, and change it she did. It was Heyward who gave me my first warning of incoming fire when Heartbreak Hotel was published. “It’ll define Southern college life in the 1950s, Conroy, the way Fitzgerald described Princeton of the Twenties,” and it did.
Atlanta novel; Downtown, Annie’s rendition of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, including a grand portrayal of Jim Townsend who once labeled her work “frou-frou.” Fox’s Earth, Colony, The Homeplace came off her typewriter with astonishing speed, proving that hers was a deep, profligate talent that was not bound by any singular geography. Heyward Siddons played policeman, watchdog, and was the furious protector of her privacy as Annie wrote the books that would change our times.
Their house on Vermont served as a pleasure palace for the writers of Atlanta. Heyward and Annie hosted dinner parties that still feel like some of the best parts of my young manhood. Heyward was a refined, articulate host who wrote book reviews for Atlanta Magazine, read the New York Times daily, kept up with the news of the world and literature, kept alive the curiosity he developed in his early career in television and radio, could charm your socks off (on the rare occasions I wore socks), and turn his sardonic, or should I say Satanic, wit on anyone who popped into his newsfinder on any particular night. He had a special genius for ferretting out any bad review I had received throughout our great land and cheerfully reciting from it as we dined over one of Annie’s shrimp casseroles. You had to be fast on your feet to be a worthy guess at Heyward Siddons’ house. Those conversations sparkled in the Atlanta air.
Remember the click of Annie’s high heels coming around that corner of the Governor’s mansion; I’ve been following the dance of that pretty woman and her debonair husband for forty years now. I followed them from Atlanta to a writers’ weekend in Tate Mountain, Georgia, to this mansion South of Broad, to a wedding in Rome, and to the deep immortal silences of the Maine Coast. For me, the great, unseeable reward I received from watching the marriage of Heyward and Annie Siddons is to be a witness to the greatest love story it has been a privilege to watch. This couple found each other in Atlanta during a time of stormy change in the South. That woman with the tapping heels found a man who did an elegant soft shoe beside her in a dance that would last the rest of their lives. If Heyward and Annie ever fought, I was never a witness to it. If they were ever furious with me or anyone else, I never knew of it. They seemed inseparable to me and I rarely saw them when they weren’t together, a perfect match, a bindery of souls. They taught every writer they ever met the limits of marriage and came close to proving it had no limits. Heyward Siddons taught all the writers in his life how to treat a woman, how to love a wife, how to live a life that was joyful and rich with happiness and worthy of imitation. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, Heyward, you lived a full life with stalwart sons, lovely grandchildren, and a remarkable body of friends.
There were no madhouses or crack-ups, and you let your Zelda bloom into one of the most storied careers ever lived by a woman in the American South. You made that possible, Heyward, and through Annie’s work you helped launch the careers of Josephine Humphreys, Patti Callahan Henry, Cassandra King, Mary Alice Monroe, Sue Monk Kidd, Dorothea Benton Frank, Rebecca Wells and hundreds of others like them. A writer has never found a better man to accompany her on her waltz toward art. Every writer needs the solid foundation of the love and grounding you brought to Annie’s life. And in your generosity, you gave it to the whole generation of writers who came to adore you and that is your legacy for all time – until our last words are written.
Hey, out there…
Since I returned home to Beaufort after my book tour was over, I brought part of the tour back to my house with me. I’ve never found myself attracted to the world of fantasy writing, with a few quite notable exceptions. When I lived in Italy, I came under the sway of Italo Cabrino and his books. The Baron in the Trees, the Cloven Viscount, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and especially Invisible Cities sparked deep ysteries in me. At the same time, I became familiar with the nearly unclassifiable work of Jonathan Carroll who has a narrative voice that can take me places I never knew I needed to go. Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury have brought me many great pleasures and I’ve tried to read as many of the Fairy Tales of world literature as I can. The Arthurian legends have always found a captive audience with me and I read The Once and Future King and few books have ever struck me with the powers of its wondrous imagination. I read it recently and failed to cherish it as I once did and I asked myself if something squirrelly and unappreciative had entered my reading life as I’ve grown older.
I’ve never relished the company of the dystopian novel much, but then I remember Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and that was good enough to shut my mouth for a while. Though I revere much of the writing of Cormac McCarthy, he did not seduce me with The Road. Literary taste is a defining thing in all of us. It is as unpredictable as it is fascinating. I’m as astonished by the work of Jonathan Franzen as I am incapable of reading five pages of Thomas Pynchon. I treasure the works of John Fowles and Ian McEwan and I want to like Martin Amis, but just can’t or don’t. Metafiction sends me running to the hills and always makes me think that I’m not smart enough to understand it. I’m confident enough in myself as a reader to think, “If I can’t understand it, then who the hell can?” The pleasure principle kicks into high gear whenever I pick up a book. Toni Morrison’s prose style is a joy inducing mastery of the language and no one deserves a Nobel Prize more than Alice Munro. Philip Roth is a gift to American letters, but the most celebrated book of the eighties, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, left me feeling like a beast of burden as I slogged my way toward that infinite finish line. A.S. Byatt’s book Possession grabbed me by the throat and held me in its immense thrall until the very end. I hated everything about J.M. Coatzee’s book Disgrace, but could not deny its power and greatness when I completed it. Ann Rivers Siddons’ Colony made me fall in love with Maine and she’s the most southern woman I’ve ever met. Ron Rash’s Serena made me think about the North Carolina mountains in a way that Thomas Wolfe never did.
I believe I could write like this forever and not remember half the books that made my time on earth a wonderful place to be. The reading of great books has been a life altering activity to me and, for better or worse, it brought me singing and language-obsessed to that country where I make my living. Except for teaching, I’ve had no other ambition in life than to write books that mattered.
All of this is preamble to the fact that I met the most extraordinary American writer while I was in the middle of my tour. His name is George R.R. Martin and I think he is a writer for the ages. Over the past several years, I’ve kept hearing about George R.R. Martin from his readers, who often verge on the edge of possession. But my own form of literary snobbism has kept me from reading him because George writes in a field I encounter with much resistance – he writes in the genre of fantasy, part of the lower pastures of world fiction. Despite my love of Tolkien, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Carroll and Ursula Le Guin, I like to spend my reading time among other writers. I had also known personally one of the great fantasy writers of our time, Robert Jordan, which was the pen name for Jim Irvin, a Citadel graduate who got his degree seven years after I did. Jim and I were taught by the same distinguished English teachers at the Citadel and he blazed an amazing trail with his Wheel of Time series that led some to refer to him as the new Tolkien. I read several books in the series, enjoyed them, but never found myself captured by Jim’s world of fantasy. Yet Jim’s books became number one bestsellers on the New York Times bestseller list every time he came out with a new volume. He died of a very extreme form of cancer in the middle of his prime. But his fantasy required a leap of the imagination I was not prepared to give at that time of my life and I’ve regretted it. The last time I met him I asked him if he knew any other college that had produced two writers who had occupied the number one slot on the NYT list. It seemed a rare distinction. A week later he called me and said he’d researched my question and only Harvard had produced more than two. Naturally, it was Harvard, but for novels like Love Story and Jurassic Park – none of the Harvard heavyweights like Norman Mailer. I thought John Updike had probably made it, but Jim was too happy with his findings and I let it go.
My friend Katherine Clark was the first full-fledged fanatic of George R.R. Martin that I found and she was relentless on the subject. Katherine had published an Oral Biography of my friend Eugene Walter called Milking the Moon. It’s a one of a kind book that celebrates the life of a quirky unknown writer who lived a fascinating and joy-giving life. I did not meet Katherine until she introduced me before I gave a signing at
Page & Palette bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama. We’ve been fast friends since. She is one of the few friends in my life who reads more than I do and her eye is cunning and so far infallible. She went to Harvard then wrote her dissertation on William Faulkner at Emory University. Our friendship is based on the books we’ve read and those we are now writing. Two years ago she started reading George R.R. Martin and I listened as a fanatic was born on the telephone. By then, her good taste was a proven commodity, but I listened to her rapture with growing discomfort. She read his Ice and Fire series of five doorstopping books, then re-read them again to see if they were as good as she originally thought. She found them much better. She started throwing out comparisons to Dante and Shakespeare and I thought that the seafood she was eating from the BP oil spill was starting to affect her brain in Pensacola. One of the things I’ve admired about Katherine is that she can read books by people she hates, and if the writing is good, she will surrender her sword and admit to the book’s excellence. I can do that sometimes, but not often.
“Shakespeare?” I once asked Katherine, mockery in my voice.
“Yes, Shakespeare, Pat. We read the same guy and I think this guy might be better.”
“Do you tell your Harvard friends that? Or just us Citadel boys?”
“I tell all my Harvard friends that they’re just like you – they haven’t read him, either.”
“Magic, direwolves, mammoths, giants, dwarves and dragons. I can’t believe I don’t want to read these books.”
“Read them. Then tell me I’m wrong,” she said.
“That’s a deal. If you quit talking about them,” I said.
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading. On February 26, I drove from Beaufort, SC to Williamsburg, Virginia to attend the memorial service of Barbara Nelson Warley – she of the grand spirit and radiant beauty. Her husband John was the best friend I made at The Citadel who roomed with me on the baseball team and we were inseparable during our senior year. Neither of us dated much that year – no, let me be blunter than that; we dated hardly at all, except on big weekends when cadets in Romeo and Tango companies had sisters who required escorts to the Corps Day Hop. But John and I would drive around Charleston on weekend nights, talking about girls and where we might go to pick some of them up. We never found that mythical place.
In Rome, at dinner with the novelist Gore Vidal, I once talked about my friendship with John Warley. Gore was fascinated by military colleges and had liked my book The Lords of Discipline. His father had attended West Point and had been a legendary football player there.
“You do realize, Pat, that Mr. Warley and you were gay.”
“I can’t wait to tell John,” I said.
I missed John and Barbara’s wedding at the National Cathedral in Washington. I believe I was embroiled in a fight with the School Board to get my job back on Daufuskie Island and I did not meet Barbara until after The Water is Wide was published. They were living in the Claremont Apartments within rock-throwing distance from the Culpeper Street house I lived in when Dad was stationed at the Pentagon.
Barbara Warley was a pure knockout, the stuff bad novels are made of. I’d never seen such a pretty girl and I found myself as intimidated as I was dazzled. But she bounced up to me and kissed me on the lips and said, “John’s told me all about you and I bet we’re friends forever.”
So it was and so it would always be. When John went to work the next day, Barbara and I began telling each other the story of our lives. Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of that unhappy tribe who came from troubled and deeply flawed families. Like me, she endured one of those violent fathers who made their kid’s life a march of shame and terror. I had begun the write the first chapters of The Great Santini and told her of my own difficulty in describing a father I had loathed since I was an infant. When I told her I’d always worried that John’s parents did not seem to like me very much, she surprised me by saying that I was John’s parents’ least liked friend among all of John’s acquaintances. With a great laugh, she then admitted that John’s mother and father didn’t seem to like her much better. Barbara thought the Warleys thought John would marry a much higher class girl, “and they certainly want John hanging around with a much higher class guy than you.”
We would be fast friends for over forty years. I’ve had a bad tendency to fall in love with my friends’ wives, but it would seem unnatural not to fall for Barbara Warley. Everyone came under her spell, male and female, and it was a lemon-like soul who could resist her sweetness and vitality. She and John made a great marriage out of it and produced four children for the ages. No one writes much about the joy other people’s children bring to your life, but Caldwell, Nelson, Mary Beth and Carter have delighted me each time our paths have crossed. Mary Beth was a Korean orphan adopted by John and Barbara who provided some kind of ripeness and deepening of the whole family. John was a successful lawyer in Newport News, VA and a local player in Republican politics. Then he and Barbara announced that John was selling his law firm and moving to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. John also told me he planned to become a novelist.
This was akin to me calling John Warley to tell him I was becoming an astronaut. But Mexico was their destiny as a family and San Miguel changed everything about them and became the most romantic adventure of their lives.
Hey, out there.
I’ve returned to Beaufort after my long tour for The Death of Santini and the town has never seemed more welcoming or restful to me. Though I feel hollowed out and exhausted by the whirlwind nature of an American book tour, I’m smart enough to know that it’s still a grand way for any writer to connect to those readers he has picked up along the way. If any writer in this country has collected as fine and passionate a group of readers as I have, they’re fortunate and lucky beyond anyone’s imagination. It remains a shock to me that I’ve had a successful writing career. Not someone like me; Lord, there were too many forces working against me, too many dark currents pushing against me, but it somehow worked. Though I wish I’d written a lot more, been bolder with my talent, more forgiving of my weaknesses, I’ve managed to draw a
magic audience into my circle. They come to my signings to tell me stories, their stories. The ones that have hurt them and made their nights long and their lives harder.
Citadel graduates show up everywhere, and, of course, I took off on this tour in October, forgetting my Citadel ring on the untidy desk where I left it. “Where’s your ring?” The question always comes. My explanation always sounds hollow, but they bring their wives, children and grandchildren to meet me. The Marines and their families show up and military brats by the score. Teachers come by the dozens from Minneapolis to Miami.
Ah, yes, the teachers of America. When I meet them I always say, “God’s work, but not God’s pay.” I enrolled myself in their ranks when I wrote my book The Water is Wide, and they have never issued me my walking papers.
“Why do we hate our teachers in this country?” I ask them, and not one of them disagrees with me from Santa Fe to Charleston, from New Orleans to Philadelphia.
“I don’t know why. But I agree with you,” the teachers say in an almost unanimous voice.
The teachers of my life saved my life and sent me out prepared for whatever life I was meant to lead. Like everyone else, I had some bad ones and mediocre ones, but I never had one that I thought was holding me back because of idleness or thoughtlessness. They spent their lives with the likes of me and I felt safe during the time they spent with me. The best of them made me want to be just like them. I wanted young kids to look at me the way I looked at the teachers who loved me. Loving them was not difficult for a boy like me. They lit a path for me and one that I followed with joy.
Teaching is an art form, pure and simple. I’ll trust a teacher over a bureaucrat every single time – a teacher over an administrator. Education by test scores seems like the worst thing that’s ever happened to American education, by far. I met ten high school English teachers on my trip whom I’d have loved to have teach me. To my surprise, my novel The Lords of Discipline is taught in more high school English classes than any of my others. I thought the language of the barracks and the nasty racism of the Corps would prevent that book from ever being taught in an American classroom. I met a whole cadre of teachers in Kansas City, Missouri who had taught The Lords of Discipline for years. When I asked the head of the Department at a large public high school how his teachers navigate through parents and school boards offended by the book, he told me it had been a challenge, indeed. His teachers let their students make the case with the school board, and the passion of those students had carried the day each time the subject had come up. I fell in love with the English teachers of Kansas City and that is a bond that’ll never be broken.
Yet the unhappiness of teachers was a constant theme and they suffer from the lack of respect and honor due them for their choice to spend their lives teaching the children that are sent to them. The testing of American children all began with well-meaningness and high-mindedness. “No Child Left Behind” is a phrase of enormous beauty, yet it has caused more suffering among teachers than the pitiful wages we pay them. Whether it’s a Republican or Democratic administration doesn’t seem to make a scintilla of difference. The theories that are born in Washington D.C. and in the Ivy League are ascendant throughout the land, and as far as I can tell and as well as I can listen, they’ve had a chilling effect on most of the classrooms in our land. A nation of unhappy teachers makes for a sadder and more endangered America.
Before my beloved English teacher Gene Norris died, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the South Carolina Council of the Teachers of English. The year before, Gene had received the first Margaret Roberts Award given by the Thomas Wolfe Society to honor the extraordinary woman who had taught high school English to the great novelist. It was a good year for Gene, even though he was suffering greatly from the leukemia that would kill him. We drove to Greenville together on one of our last road trips. The chemo had made Gene grouchy and dyspeptic when he said to me, “I don’t want you to go on and on about me. The way you usually do. You always exaggerate my influence on you. I’m so tired of you gilding the lily. I told them I don’t want this award and I certainly don’t deserve it.”
“Then why am I wasting my valuable time driving you to Greenville?” I asked.
“Because it’s good for teachers, Carpetbagger. It’s good for all teachers – everywhere. They don’t get much,” he said, and he was grinning. “But I’m going to walk out of there if you do your usual bullshit about me.”
“I’ll say anything I want. I’m an American. I’ve got rights.”
Gene was magnificent when he received the award and I was not the only one who saw him cry that day. Afterwards, we were together when two bright and hilarious teachers stood up later in the program.
The first said, “No child left behind.”
“Every child left behind,” the second said.
“No school left behind,” the first said.
“Every school left behind,” the second said.
“No teacher left behind?” asked the first.
“Every damn teacher left behind.”
Gene and I joined in the standing ovation for these two singular women. On the way home, Gene was reflective and still deeply moved by the ceremony.
“I’ve had an amazing life, Pat. I wouldn’t change a thing. Except this: They used to trust teachers with the kids they sent us. It’s all different now and oh so wrong.”
So the teachers came to my signings as they always do. Some were veterans of the inner city schools and their voices filled up with urgency and despair. Some were in danger of being fired because of the low test scores of the students at their schools. When I asked a white woman in Philadelphia if she ever thought about transferring to a suburban school, she bristled at me. “Why I would I do that? My kids need me. I’m in love with them. Who’d fight for them if it weren’t for teachers like me?”
Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.
₪ ₪ ₪
The word “blog” is the ugliest word in the English language to me. But I’ve written in journals in a haphazard fashion since I was a young writer. The journal I keep now is the material that makes up my own “blog” – though I’ve no idea what a blog is supposed to do or what it is supposed to consist of. Why it appeals to anyone is mysterious to me. But I use it as a way to sneak back into my own writing without being noticed. A new novel awaits my arrival, prepares for my careful inspection. Yet a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out. When I found myself in new cities or strange airports on this trip, I could feel it stirring around on the outer rings of consciousness. I could feel it begin to layer itself. Though it pointed to no real beginnings or endings, I believe I’ve got two long novels and three shorts ones still in me. But my health has to cooperate and I need to pay more attention to my health. It is not long life I wish for – it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age. Because I’ve gotten older, I worry that there will be a steep decline in my talent, but promise not to let the same thing happen to my passion for writing.
My career still strikes me as miraculous. That a boy raised on Marine bases in the South, taught by Roman Catholic nuns in backwater southern towns who loathed Catholics, and completed with an immersion into The Citadel – the whole story sounds fabricated, impossible even to me. Maybe especially to me.
Throughout my career I’ve lived in constant fear that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I’d have nothing to say, that I’d be laughed at, humiliated – and I’m old enough to know that fear will follow me to the very last word I’ll ever write.
As for now, I feel the first itch of the novel I’m supposed to write – the grain of sand that irritates the soft tissues of the oyster. The beginning of the world as I don’t quite know it. But I trust I’ll begin to know it soon.