A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, p.1Pat Conroy
ALSO BY PAT CONROY
The Water Is Wide
The Great Santini
The Lords of Discipline
The Prince of Tides
My Losing Season
The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life
South of Broad
My Reading Life
The Death of Santini
Copyright © 2016 by Pat Conroy
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Limited, Toronto.
DOUBLEDAY is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover illustration and design by Wendell Minor
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Conroy, Pat, author.
Title: A lowcountry heart : reflections on a writing life / Pat Conroy.
Description: New York : Nan A. Talese, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016026695 (print) | LCCN 2016036633 (ebook) | ISBN 9780385530866 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780385530873 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Conroy, Pat. | BISAC: LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Essays. | LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Letters.
Classification: LCC PS3553.O5198 A6 2016 (print) | LCC PS3553.O5198 (ebook) | DDC 813/.54 [B] —DC23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016026695
Ebook ISBN 9780385530873
Also by Pat Conroy
A Note to the Reader, by Nan A. Talese
Introduction, by Cassandra King
HEY, OUT THERE
The First Letter: An Opening to the Light
Surprises on the Road
The Fire Sermon: Speech by Pat Conroy, Delivered at Penn Center
On the Future of Books
My Spooky Life
My Blogging Life
The Boo’s Lambs Gather in Charleston
Hitch 22: A Great Memoir
The Night the Band Played the “Tennessee Waltz”
The Man Who Inspired My Losing Season Left Us Too Soon…
A Room of Her Own…and the Birth of Moonrise
On the Road Again…Airports, Editors, Publicists, and My Writing Life
A Long-Lasting Friendship: Charlie Gibson of Good Morning America
Vietnam Still Haunting Me…
The Teachers of My Life
Barbara Warley Was Loved by Everyone
How George R. R. Martin Made Me Love Dire Wolves, Giants, Dwarves, and Dragons…
A Eulogy for a Southern Gentleman
Remembering an Irreplaceable Friend
The Best Night in the Life of This Aging Citadel Point Guard…
The Summer I Met My First Great Man
Andie MacDowell at the Beaufort Film Festival
Mina & Conroy Fitness Studio
A Few Things I Wish I Had Told Ann Patchett…
Conroy at Seventy—Happy Birthday to Me
On Pat Conroy’s Facebook Page on the Day of His Passing
THE GREAT CONROY
A Conversation with Pat Conroy
A Letter to My Grandson on Sportsmanship and Basketball
Pat Conroy Talks About the South, His Mother, and The Prince of Tides
Pat Conroy Speaks to Meredith Maran
On My Paris Days
A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette
A Lowcountry Heart
Pat Conroy’s Citadel Speech
Farewell Letter, by Bernie Schein
The Great Conroy: An Homage to a Southern Literary Giant and a Prince of a Guy, by Rick Bragg
Eulogy, Delivered by Judge Alex Sanders
Acknowledgments, by Cassandra King
This book is dedicated with
great love and gratitude to Pat Conroy’s
A Note to the Reader
When Pat Conroy died, we all felt bereft. He had sent me less than two hundred pages of his new novel, The Storms of Aquarius, about four male friends and teachers who came of age during the Vietnam War years, which he very much wanted to finish, but that was not to be. We are still searching his journals for more on this novel, and at some point we may have something to share with you. However, because we did not want his faithful readers to be without something from him, we gathered together his “blogs” (he hated the word), some letters and essays he would have wanted to share with you, and an interview, and we asked his wife, Cassandra King, who is also a writer, to contribute an introduction. Additionally, we included the farewell letter from his best and oldest friend, Bernie Schein. What follows is all of this, under the title A Lowcountry Heart.
—Nan A. Talese
Pat Conroy and I met in 1995, several months before his fiftieth birthday. Being a year older than he was, I had already passed that milestone. Pat would later write that he never imagined a man and woman in their fifties could fall in love and build a happy, prolific life together. In our youth-obsessed society, we are conditioned to believe that our best years are behind us. Instead, Pat and I found that our fifties and sixties were a time of great joy, productivity, and contentment. We were looking forward to sharing our seventies together, with new books under way and at least a couple more waiting in the wings. After an exhausting but exhilarating weekend-long festival celebrating Pat’s seventieth birthday in October of 2015, he settled down to finish the new novel he had started. Life was good.
Pat was always happiest when he was writing, when he lost himself in the narrative that overtook him and flowed from his pen onto the pages of the yellow legal pads he used for his books. His musings, critiques, observations, and meditations he was more likely to write in his journals, which are also full of bits and pieces of stories he hoped to use one day. Pat collected stories like others might collect rare stamps, or a library of illustrious music. Hearing a good story filled him with great excitement. Afterward, he was apt to grab a pen and say to the teller, “Consider that story stolen. If you plan to write it one day, you’d better do it first.”
Story was the way Pat connected with his readers. They couldn’t seem to get enough of his stories, nor could he get enough of theirs. His readers wrote him long, heartrending letters about how they related to his writings, and the various ways his life story paralleled and validated theirs. He read them all, and would have answered each letter had he been able to do so. For a long time, Pat resisted and scorned modern technology, with its e-mails and blogs and tweets and twitters. Only when he realized that he could connect with more of his readers through the marvel of technology did he give in. Most of the works in this collection come from the blog he began to write when he was between books, when his health began to fail and he couldn’t travel as much. He called his blog posts “letters,” and came to embrace them as what he called “a nightmare for someone who never learned to type, and in other ways an opening to the light.”
The “light” Pat was referring to was his bread and butter, the connection he made with others that brought him not only such great joy, but also such great material. It was the way he collected the stories he would turn into the books that his readers clamored for, the ones that mirrored their own experiences and gave them a voice for the first t
When our first meeting was over, Pat Conroy knew a lot more about me than I ever intended to tell him. I’m notoriously closemouthed and private; so much so that he would later nickname me Helen Keller. Not only were Helen Keller and I both native Alabamians, he said, but like my namesake, I saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing. I would also learn that this was typical Conroy humor, though I didn’t think it funny at the time. Pat could make the deaf hear and the mute speak. Sweeping you up in a conversation, with those intense blue eyes focused like lasers on you and you alone, he had the ability to ferret out your secret self that had been undercover for a lifetime. Before you realized what had happened, you had confided in him, told him about the past no one else knew about, the stories no one had heard before, the skeletons locked away in the family closet.
In my and Pat’s almost twenty years together, I saw the same thing happen a million times. Starstruck, people approached their favorite writer in awe, rendered speechless by his presence. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone burst into tears on meeting him. The comment I’ve heard most frequently since Pat’s been gone is “How could this be? He was larger than life.” I’ve said it myself, a dozen times. Someone wrote that Pat didn’t fill up a room when he entered it, he was the room. Yes! That was Pat, the night we met. A previous commitment had made me run late and almost miss meeting him, then I’d made a fool of myself by blurting out something stupid when we were introduced. Before long, he’d forced me to confess that yes, I had a book coming out soon. I also confessed that I lacked the confidence to call myself a writer. Pat was the one who did that. “What do you mean, you’re not really a writer?” he said in exasperation. “You have a book coming out. You wrote it. You’re a writer. Got it?” When I muttered that it was just a little book, or something equally inane, he brushed me off. “Have your publisher send it to me, and if I like it, I’ll give you a blurb. If not, I’ll pretend it got lost in the mail.”
Over the years, I would think about our first meeting as I watched Pat at signings for the five books he wrote in our time together. It was a sight to behold. Once, during an interview with the two of us, I said that Pat was extremely outgoing. Pat was quick to correct me. “I’m obnoxiously friendly,” he told the reporter. “It’s pathetic, actually.” He went on to illustrate in more detail. “I was showing my former father-in-law around Fripp Island several years ago, and I waved and spoke to everyone we saw. Finally my father-in-law, who was a New Yorker, said, ‘What’s going on? You running for mayor or something?’ ” It became a buzzword with us. After one of Pat’s endless conversations with a waiter, taxi driver, flight attendant, hotel maid, or bellhop, I’d lean over and whisper, “Hey, you running for mayor or something?”
But book signings were something else altogether. After attending a couple of them when we were newly married and I didn’t know any better, I learned not to tag along unless I was prepared for anywhere from five to eight hours’ wait. Foolishly, I’d thought if I were there, I could make Pat—who was diabetic, prone to crippling hand cramps and severe back pain—take a break. No one could sit for that many hours without a bathroom break, could they? The only time I ever signed for eight hours, my hands were shaking so badly before it was over that I couldn’t hold a pen, and I’d not only taken several trips to the bathroom but also downed endless glasses of sweet tea for low blood sugar. How on earth did Pat do it?
Pat’s book signings told me everything I ever needed to know about him. He refused to take even the quickest of breaks. The staff and I would plead with him, but to no avail. I’d insist the staff have food for him, which they probably loved me for, since they’d end up eating it. He certainly didn’t. He would sign until the last person left, even if it was well after midnight. He greeted everyone as though he were running for mayor. He was known for shaking off the efforts of his publicist to hurry the line along, or to stop anyone from bringing more than one book to be signed. “Bring all you have!” Pat would tell his readers jovially, much to the chagrin of the poor publisher’s representatives who had been sent to make sure everything went smoothly. I’d see them glare daggers at him at first, but learned quickly to quell my alarm. In no time, I knew, the silver-tongued devil would have them eating out of his hand. And without fail, he always did. Despite the long, exhausting hours and doubtless unpaid overtime Pat’s signings cost the staff, it was a sheer pleasure to be with him when he arrived at a bookstore. He was always greeted like visiting royalty, and knew each of the staff by name. He asked after their families, and if they’d ever gotten around to writing the book they had told him about, the last time he was in. Never mind that it had been many years since his last signing there. He remembered everyone.
But more than anything else, Pat’s signings were lovefests between him and his readers, and they flocked to him. He made sure their long wait was worth it. Once they got to his table, he’d hold out his hand and say, “Hi, I’m Pat Conroy. Tell me who you are.” In no time, he had pried their stories from them, just as he’d done with me the night we met. Devoted readers would burst into tears upon meeting him, then end up blurting out their innermost secrets, not caring how long they held up the line. It was another thing I observed with amusement, the disgruntled moans and groans of those in line when someone was taking up what appeared to be way too much of Mr. Conroy’s time. What was wrong with the staff, that they allowed such a thing to happen? Didn’t that fancy New York publicist know he/she was supposed to be herding the crowd along and not just standing there mesmerized? Couldn’t someone do something? They would fume and pout until their time came, and then—like magic—it would all disappear. I would watch them melt under Pat’s twinkly-eyed gaze, his disarming smile and outstretched hand. Next thing you knew, they too would be leaning over the table, telling him in a low breathless voice a story they’d never, ever told anyone before. No wonder he never ran out of material.
Tragically, Pat Conroy ran out of time before he ran out of material, and it breaks my heart to think of the stories he did not live to tell. He and I talked often of Time’s winged chariot drawing near, and how swiftly it all goes by. Although Pat feared little, one fear haunted him: that he’d run out of time before he could finish the books he still had in him. It was almost a premonition. He was a man who loved the written word beyond all measure, and who believed that each of us has at least one great story to tell. He would grab hold of someone—stranger or friend, it didn’t matter—and he wouldn’t let go until he pried that story out. Then his eyes would blaze that dazzling Irish blue and a smile would transform him. If the story was good enough to capture his imagination, he couldn’t wait to write it down. Whether it was about a white porpoise or a caged tiger or a lost ancestor who sewed coins into the hem of a skirt to buy her freedom, his pen would bring it to life, make it as real to the rest of us as it was to him on hearing it. He would take your story and make it large and glorious and unforgettable. He would make it immortal.
Pat is buried in the midst of a Gullah community on Saint Helena Island, near his beloved town of Beaufort. The cemetery, Saint Helena Memorial Garden, is owned by Brick Baptist Church, which graciously allowed a non-Baptist, non–African American writer to rest among them. Pat chose that site because he was intrigued by the rich history of Brick Baptist Church, which was built by slaves in 1855, then turned over to them during Reconstruction; and by the church’s connection to the nearby Penn Center, one of the first schools for freed slaves. Because Pat has written about his interest in Penn Center, the Memorial Garden is a fitting final resting place for him.
The graveyard is isolated, lovely and
There was no need, of course. What was I thinking? Hadn’t I seen the man at book signings enough to know what I had known from the moment I got to the graveyard, so devastated I barely knew where I was? A few days earlier, Pat had arrived here in a big fancy vehicle and was ushered to a place surrounded by expensive wreaths, some bearing cards with famous names on them. A kilted bagpiper played as a crowd of mostly white folks gathered. The ceremony was different, short and sweet, and many in the crowd crossed themselves after the prayers by the elegantly robed priests. Some of Pat’s new neighbors must have watched the whole thing curiously and maybe even a bit suspiciously, wondering who on earth had landed among them.
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