On a bright August day, Pat Conroy sits at an outdoor table at Jean Paul's Bistro in the harbor village of Blue Hill, Maine, talking about the "woe." As in the Civil Woe.
Adopting a thick drawl, he imitates his mother explaining what happened to her aristocratic family. "Oh son, they lost it during the woe," wails Conroy, narrowing his eyes in mock agony. "It was the woe, the woe!" The "woe" took away every last trace of wealth and breeding, according to Peggy Conroy. The trauma of it allegedly even robbed them of their ability to read.
Conroy, born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1945, was a military brat who grew up in towns all around the South. He never had any real sense of home, much less an ancestral home. When he complained about this in high school, his mother urged him to lay claim to Beaufort, S.C., where the family was then stationed. Fripp Island in Beaufort is still his home, and the great natural beauty of the low country suffuses all his novels.
Conroy finally visited the rural hamlet of Rome, Ga., his mother's birthplace, as a celebrated author—his bestselling novels include The Great Santini (Houghton, 1976), The Lords of Discipline (Houghton, 1980), The Prince of Tides (Houghton, 1986) and Beach Music (1995, Doubleday/Talese). There was no fine old family mansion. The local library, eager to claim his "Roman roots," confessed that they could find no record whatsoever of his mother's family.
"We was po' but we was clean," admitted Conroy's beloved Aunt Helen, his mother's sister, the author tells PW. But his mother stuck to her story. Years later, as Peg lay dying of leukemia, Conroy presented her with a photo of the little shack she had grown up in. She was unbowed.
"It looked so much bigger when I was small," she told her son.
Conroy explodes in laughter, savoring the line. Wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and baggy shorts, he looks like a big, merry Irish kid. But laughter and sadness are streams that run side by side in Conroy and he hops from one to the other so quickly that a listener can have the sensation of notes blending into chords. "My mother was really the first fiction writer in the family," he says.
She may not have committed words to paper, but Peggy Conroy willed her son to become a novelist (and specifically a Southern novelist). She read Gone with the Wind to Conroy when he was a little boy, instructing him that she could be seen as Scarlett (although christened as Frances Dorothy, she was called Peggy all her life in honor of Margaret Mitchell). His mother taught him life could be beautiful and grand. She was the model for the beautiful, nature-loving, "word-struck" Lila Wingo in The Prince of Tides (Conroy's most successful book, with more than five million copies in print), "who sees the world through a dazzling prism of authentic imagination." What is wrenching for Conroy is that she spent much of her 59 years as the battered wife of a Marine fighter pilot who went by the real-life nickname "The Great Santini."
"The thing that I feel the worst about in my life is that I couldn't protect her or my brothers and sister," says Conroy quietly.
Picking at his smoked salmon, with the beautiful Maine bay behind him, he describes how he and his brothers and sister compared notes recently about when their father would hit them. "We all agreed that the one time we could always count on getting hit was when we were happy and having a good time."
Conroy's father has famously taken credit for being "the seed" of Conroy's art. The Great Santini knew that he had made such an indelible impression on his son's heart and mind that although he was killed off in one novel, he would be resurrected in every book that followed.
"He would say, 'I see you made me a shrimper in this one,' " Conroy tells PW, describing his father's reaction to The Prince of Tides. "Or, 'Oh, I'm a drunken judge this time' " (about Beach Music).
Yet his mother's often invisible presence is also felt. In every one of the Catholic Conroy's big, story-driven Southern books, there has been a father, a son and a holy ghost in the form of an ineffable secret. His mother taught him to aspire to a life of beauty but she also taught him to lie, or at least hide the truth.
Peg Conroy taught her children not to tell anyone that their father beat them. They learned to deny that their sibling Thomas was paranoid schizophrenic, until he committed suicide in 1994 (prompting a devastated Conroy to retrieve the manuscript of Beach Music and rewrite a scene that depicted a younger brother taking his own life.) The family also made it a habit never to mention that Conroy's sister was in and out of mental institutions most of her life.
But all unhappy families are secretive in their own ways. One saving grace in the Conroy family legacy of secrets was the way his mother established how a person could have a secret identity or a secret mission of the best sort. Through her love of books and nature, Conroy's mother aligned herself with beauty and truth. In the midst of a miserable, spirit-crushing marriage, she maintained a sense of herself as a woman of breeding and sensibility. Her eldest son, the beloved Southern writer, takes this capacity even further.
Pat Conroy is an emotional innovator. Unafraid of big emotions, his passionate, compulsively readable books revolve around characters who know great love and great despair, who have had their hearts broken and their spirits crushed but who come back to life.
"Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass," writes Conroy in My Losing Season, his first work of nonfiction since The Water Is Wide (1972). He re-creates the miserable losing basketball season of 1966—67 that his team endured during his senior year at The Citadel, showing "how that time felt in the dead center of living it." Along the way, he shows readers how holding fast to his mission of becoming a point guard and writer kept his spirit alive.
In his new book, Conroy praises the greater talent of his teammates in lavish detail, and in terms that can only be called chivalrous. He admits to PW that one hope he has for the book is that his teammates "know how much they meant to him." Yet Conroy's toughness and tenacity, his huge capacity for the kind of love that expresses itself in service, shine through. In his sheer determination to get the ball to the shooters, to become the writer and the gentleman his father could never be, Conroy shows us that it is really love that separates the men from the bullying boys. Conroy may not have been cut out to be a soldier or a star on the court. But in his love for his team and his family, in devotion to truth and beauty and service, he could have been a knight.
For Conroy, writing can be a way of righting the wrongs of the past. Some of the most delicious scenes in his novels show how writing well can be the best revenge.
One satisfying example of this art of living life twice occurs in The Prince of Tides, when the children of Lila Wingo take revenge on the leading snob of a snobbish women's club that has rejected their mother by placing a huge dead sea tortoise in the woman's ornate bed. Conroy tells PW that he took particular pleasure in writing that scene for his mother. In fact, shortly before his mother died, Conroy took her to lunch in a fancy restaurant, where mother and son sat near the members of the women's club that had inspired the scene. Conroy told his mom that they would be appearing in The Prince of Tides.
"Did you git 'em?" Conroy's mother asked him.
"Yes, mama," he answered. "I got 'em good."
His editor, Nan A. Talese, believes that Conroy has been innovative in the way he writes about emotion.
"He is a very masculine writer," says Talese. "Yet he writes about men's emotions in a way that most men have not. In that I think he is unique. It takes courage to write with such emotional authenticity, to write about weakness."
Conroy's editor since The Prince of Tides, Talese has in her own way played Maxwell Perkins to his Thomas Wolfe. By closely reading manuscripts that can weigh in at 2,000 pages, as in the case of Beach Music, and close to 1,000 in the case of his latest book, Talese helps Conroy hone his stories.
"I believe that an editor is a reader above all," Talese says, comparing the editing and writing process to the friction of "sand creating a pearl—the editor often is a bit of an irritant."
"My Losing Season was originally 21 basketball games," Talese tells PW by phone. "Pat tends to write on the surface of the material at first, and then as he rewrites he goes deeper and deeper. I read the manuscript and we met and talked, and draft by draft the story was enriched and the book emerged.
"This may well be Conroy's most important book, because he writes about men among men, and not in a bravado way. He writes about being an insecure young man who doesn't believe he has much talent but who has a strong will and a love of the game. You feel his passion for the sport."
Talese also believes that this nonfiction work is important because here Conroy truly comes to terms with his father, portraying a man who couldn't utter the faintest praise to a son who was named the Most Valuable Player and received the Senior Class Sportsmanship Award ("The Senior Class Pussy Award," his father called it.)
"To see him face up to his father and yet develop as he does, not just as a basketball player but as a writer, I think will be encouraging to readers, especially young men," Talese says.
At the end of our interview, Conroy invites PW back to the summer home of bestselling novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, who Conroy says has been a close friend from the beginning of his writing career. He and his wife, the novelist Sandra Ray, have come here for a month to escape the heat of Beaufort.
We follow Conroy's Buick for miles and miles down a wooded road, passing the austere white frame house where E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web. Finally, we come to a sign that says Siddons. Settling into comfortable chairs in a charming little guest house that smells of water and wood, we speak of many things. Conroy is generous in conversation, often asking questions of PW—What was it like to be in New York on 9/11? What do we think people are feeling now? A point guard even in conversation, he eagerly hands the ball off to others.
He regales us with more true stories from his extraordinary family. Conroy describes his love-hate relationship, his sister Carol, a highly eccentric, dramatic and prickly poet with borderline personality disorder. (Conroy based the suicidal and schizophrenic Savannah in The Prince of Tides on Carol, who didn't speak to him for 10 years after the book's publication). He describes how Carol disrupted the funeral of their brother, Thomas, by making a great public display of flipping Conroy the bird as he descended from a lectern and by tossing a huge ball of tissues up and down—prompting people to ask who brought the softball.
Finally, he describes a deathbed scene with his father that adds yet another layer of complexity to the man who has been reported to have changed for the better—like a contemporary Scrooge—after he read The Great Santini.
Conroy tells PW that he arrived at his father's house as he lay dying to hear his sister loudly and frantically imploring the old man to tell her just once that he loved her, that he was proud of her.
"Tell me you love me!" Conroy imitates. "Just tell me once that you're proud of me."
Conroy mounted the stairs, preparing to protect a sibling from Santini one more time. Except that when he entered the bedroom, he discovered that his sister had swabbed Santini's head with oil.
"Don't ask," Santini murmured to his eldest son.
Carol supplied that this is the way Zulu chiefs were prepared for death. Pointing out that they were not Zulu, Conroy toweled the oil off as best as could. All the while, Carol kept on begging their father to tell her that he loved her just one time, to say that he was proud of her.
"Forget it, Carol" said Conroy. "He just can't do it."
After all, Pat Conroy had never gotten a word of praise out of the man, even the night he scored 25 points in a basketball game, even after he wrote a string of bestsellers that others praised, even after he made his father so famous that he showed up at his son's book signings and autographed copies of his son's novels as "the likable, the lovable Santini."
Just then, their redneck relative Billy Bob clumped into the room. "When I say redneck I do mean redneck," Conroy emphasizes. "This is a type I have been surrounded by and studying all my life."
"I love you, Billy Bob!" Conroy's dying father crowed. "I'm proud of you, Billy Bob!"
"I never realized what a sense of humor my father had," muses Conroy.
As the day turns to dusk, PW and the Conroys are invited to have a glass of wine with Anne Siddons and her husband, Leyland. We admire the Siddonses' lovely home and beautiful Maine coon cat and the Maine coast darkening beyond the living room window. The talk ranges from E.B. White to The Citadel, from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to World War II and beyond. Not surprisingly, Pat Conroy relishes stories about Winston Churchill and New York City firefighters—stories about courage, compassion and insight flaring up in the darkest times.