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My exaggerated life, p.12
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.12

           Pat Conroy

  He said, “Let me give you the name of my agent. You can call and tell him I referred you. Make sure you very quickly tell him I referred you.”

  So I took the name of his agent: Julian Bach. And I thought, “Goddamn, his mother knew he was going to be an agent.” You know, this name: Julian Bach.

  I have not had a job now for four months, five months. I can’t get a job. They won’t even give me a job on a chicken farm because they need somebody they can trust with the chickens. So this is not going well. There’s a little panic in the household going on. All of a sudden, Pat’s got himself a chance at a New York agent. I remember Barbara telling her family that. Well, of course I’m terrified. I’ve got to call the son of a bitch.

  When I’m nervous I write things down, so I had written this whole speech down. First of all, I had to beg his secretary. I think she was still called a secretary then. She became an assistant several years later. I said, “You don’t know me; I don’t know you, but—”

  She said, “He’ll kill me if I put you on. He’ll kill me.”

  I said, “You don’t know this, but I’m his first cousin, and his favorite uncle died, and Julian didn’t even know. It happened so suddenly.” I’m just lying my ass off.

  And she says, “Well, for that I’ll put you on.”

  Julian’s famous for a bad phone personality, and he goes, “Who is this? How did you get my secretary to put you on the phone? I’ll fire her for this.”

  So I started reading. “Hello, Mr. Bach. My name is Pat Conroy. I’m from Beaufort, South Carolina. I have written a book that I think you will enjoy.”

  He goes, “South Carolina? I’ve barely heard of South Carolina; I’ve never heard of Beaufort. Who gave you this number? Where did you get this number?”

  I merely mentioned the man’s name, and by then I’m hysterical. He’s yelling at me. I did not make it through that first phone conversation. He said, “I have losers like you call me every single day of my life. I don’t know how you got my phone number. Don’t call me again.” And then, bam, he hangs up. He’s famous for hanging up without saying good-bye.

  I wrote him a letter: “Dear Mr. Bach, obviously your soul has withered in the canyons of New York City, in the alleys and darknesses that you walk through to get to your office each day.” Having no idea he did that, but he did that. And so I said, “Whatever your mother thought when you were born, when you were suckling at her breast, she did not know what a small demon she was making. Such rudeness and such discourtesy I have never encountered in my life before, and hope I never do again.”

  Apparently my letter hit home. He called to apologize. He told me, “I don’t have any clients from the South at all, and I’m kind of proud of it.”

  I said, “In the book, I taught for a year on an island with black children.” He told me later when I said “island with black children,” that got his attention.

  He says, “You’re a loser, but I will look at your book. It’s Monday now; get it here for the weekend read.”

  I said, “What’s the weekend read?”

  He says, “Figure it out.”

  I hang up the phone. Barbara and my mother are there, and I said, “He says he wants it for the weekend read.” I’m tossing these terms around. My first publishing term. They scream with joy.

  Then my mother says, “Oh my God, it’s not typed.”

  I said, “You think he’d mind if I send it up handwritten?”

  So we call every friend of ours who’s still talking to me in Beaufort, which wasn’t that many, and Mom stands at the front door, Barbara stands at the back, and people came up; they got a chapter apiece. “When does it have to be back?” “Tomorrow.” And then I hear, “It’s got to be in for the weekend read.”

  I’m a wreck. Everybody in the family’s a wreck. Well, the next day, the chapters started coming back. One chapter came in on onion skin. Another came in on long yellow sheets. Another came in on little blue sheets. Then there was pica, elite, and fonts I’d never heard of in my life. One font looked like handwriting, and for some reason she typed it on her personal stationery. So we gather it all together. Mom typed chapter 1, and the pages were 1 to 16. Tina Calhoun: chapter 2, pages 1 to 25. Barbara: chapter 3, 1 to 13. It was paginated that way all through the book. The last one came in, and we just stuck it together, and Jack Calhoun held the post office open past six so that in two days it would get to New York for the weekend read. We all cheer; we come back; we drink wine.

  Okay, the thing gets there. Julian Bach calls me the next week and says, “Pat, I must tell you, I have not read a single word of your manuscript, but the girls in the office have fallen in love with you. We think it’s the cutest thing we’ve ever seen in our lives.” He howls with laughter and hangs up. I go, “Oh, Christ.” I’m beyond humiliation. Julian later told me it was the dumbest thing he had ever experienced as an agent.

  So finally, in about three weeks, I get a letter on this stationery that just—I mean, Turtle Bay, New York. And I’m thinking, holy Christ, Turtle-fucking-Bay, New York. So I got this thing. I am so nervous, I take it out on this island this friend of mine owned, terrified to open it. Finally opened it, and Julian was great. He said, “Dear Mr. Conroy, whom we fondly call Conrack around the office, I think you’re a natural writer, and I think this is the first of many books. I hope our association is a long one.”

  Well, I was absolutely thrilled, but then of course my nature kicks in. I was in that state of not trusting good fortune. I remain in that state. It goes back to my inability to enjoy much that happens to me. My brothers have this pantomime of pretending they’re me when something good happens. Something good will happen to Pat, and all of a sudden you see him wheel around behind to see what’s sneaking up on him, to see who’s going to put the shiv in his back. This comes from my childhood, where I had to be cautious. If you caught Dad’s attention doing anything and you saw his eyes light on you, you were in trouble. So you learned to go inconspicuously, not to be noticed. My theory of the universe is if God sees you enjoying yourself, he will fuck up the next week of your life completely.

  When Joe Cumming’s article was published in the Boston Globe, who was it who saw it? A Charleston girl, Shannon Ravenel, then a young editor at Houghton Mifflin. She wrote Julian and said they’d be interested in seeing the manuscript. And in the courtesy of publishing, because she expressed interest, she saw it. They bought it.

  Julian calls me up and says, “Pat?” in his elegant voice.

  “Yes, Mr. Bach?”

  “I have good news for us both. Houghton Mifflin has called, and they have accepted your book for publication. They are the publishers of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and now Pat Conroy. And here is the great news: $7,500.”

  I said, “I can get it done a lot cheaper down here.”

  Julian says, “Excuse me?”

  I said, “Julian, I can get the book done a lot cheaper down here. Let me just do it.”

  And Julian—he’s shocked, says, “Pat, you do understand it is they who pay you?”

  He never let me forget this, as long as he lived.

  I think I had been out of work for almost a year. And so that saved my life. And of course Julian thinks, once again, my God, what a horseshit client. Later I learned Julian had been a classmate of James Agee, and he hated Agee. Agee was a slob. Julian was, you know, very proper and elegant. Agee was not a good Harvard man, to Julian. Agee was a bum. And I said, “That boy sure could write his ass off though, couldn’t he, Julian?” He said, “He certainly could.” And he said, “That is what I thought about you.”

  Then he calls me up and says Life magazine wants an excerpt. I say, “That’s great,” and my mother’s particularly excited. Life magazine, you know, even though it was on its dying days. But Life had just gone through a crisis with Clifford Irving, who sold a biography that he said he had done with full cooperation of Howard Hughes. Life has spent hundreds of tho
usands of dollars getting an excerpt from him. Well, Howard Hughes comes out in his weird paranoid fear of the world and says he’s never heard of Clifford Irving in his life, he’s never met the guy, and this book is completely made up. Life magazine backs Clifford Irving; they go to court. It ends up Clifford Irving is a complete and utter fraud, and Life is burned; they are humiliated journalistically. All the stuff you can be, they are.

  In comes this thing by this kid from South Carolina right after this. So by now they are paranoid. They see I’ve taught on Yamacraw Island; there ain’t no Yamacraw Island. They look all over the maps, and they cannot find Yamacraw Island. And if there ain’t no Yamacraw Island, how do they know any of it is true? This South Carolina kid who looks like a bumpkin and acts like a bumpkin has pulled another one on Life magazine. They were panic-stricken. They fly a Southern writer, Marshall Frady, down to Beaufort, South Carolina, to make sure I was not lying my ass off. Marshall later became a friend in Atlanta, but at that time I just knew his work; he had cut a wide swath as a journalist. He interviews the superintendent, who is not named Henry Piedmont but named Walter Trammell. Ezra Bennington is Emmett McCracken. I had changed all the names. So when they looked this up, I looked like a liar.

  So Marshall goes over to Daufuskie, interviews the kids. Marshall comes back, writes a great letter, says it’s all legitimate. “It’s exactly as Pat described. He’s even got the ospreys’ nests on the telephone poles going over.” Only then do they tell Julian that they almost cancelled the whole thing. Julian told me, “My God, this is one of the most embarrassing moments of my career.” But after the Life magazine piece came out, Hollywood bought the book.

  Then Julian called me to come to New York, so I drove up in my yellow ’68 Volkswagen, leisurely stopping on the way to visit guys I’d known from the Citadel. Julian calls Barbara and says, “Where is he? I told him to come to New York.”

  Barbara says, “He’s on his way.”

  “What do you mean, he’s on his way? What time does his plane get in?”

  “Oh, he’s driving.”

  “He’s driving? Is he crazy? I needed to see him immediately.”

  I didn’t know where to stay, but I always heard the YMCA was a good place to stay cheap. So I call Julian from the Y. He said, “What? You’ll be raped! You’ve got to get out of there! Hurry!”

  I didn’t know where else to go. I got a cab and went to the Chelsea Hotel, which I’d read about, not knowing it had descended into a drug den. And he says, “They take heroin.”

  I said “Julian, I’ve read about the Chelsea my whole life. Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, they all stayed here. This will be fine.”

  That first night Julian said, “Now Pat, tonight I am taking you to something called an o-per-a.”

  I said, “An o-per-a?”

  He said, “Yes. I know you don’t know about o-per-as, but to put it in your terms, it is like a play sung in a foreign language.”

  He took me to all these restaurants where I got collard greens and fried chicken. Julian would look at it, he’d say, “So this is how you eat down there?”

  Finally I said, “Julian, you know, I’ve read the biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and didn’t their agents take them to some of the finest restaurants in New York?”

  He said, “Yes, but Pat, I wouldn’t want to embarrass you. Their menus are written in languages you’ve never heard of.”

  I said, “But you’re taking me to these shit shops that serve Southern food, and you won’t eat it.”

  He said, “I wouldn’t put that stuff in my mouth.” So then he took me to this French restaurant where he had a table, and he satisfied my need for that.

  But he thought I was an idiot, a complete L’il Abner figure. He said, “Now, the Citadel. Is that a college?”

  “Yes it is.”

  “I’ve never heard of it. Is it accredited?”

  “Yes it is.”

  “And it goes four years?”

  “Yes it does. It’s a full four years.”

  “Isn’t it wonderful they have four-year colleges in South Carolina now?” he said. “It’s a good idea that’s spreading across the land. What do you major in at a place like that?”


  And he said, “Oh, bravo for them.”

  Since this four-year education I got was the only education I was ever going to get, I had some pride in it. Julian treats it like a skunk pelt hanging from my belt. With everything he asked me, I would feel like I was failing some test. Ah, yes, how they do the Southerners; or, how they undo the Southerners. I became a lifelong project of self-improvement for Julian.

  When Barbara got up there, Julian gave a party. God, he lived in a place. Turtle Bay. It’s these beautiful brownstones on Forty-Eighth, near the East River, down in that United Nations area. Let’s see. Who lived next door? Somebody lived next door. The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam. You have your own garden, then you walk into a common garden, and it goes for a whole block.

  Julian walked me down there and said, “The woman to the right is Katharine Hepburn. She is watering her yard.” He comes to the next yard, and he said, “I know this is going to mean a lot to you. This is where Maxwell Perkins lived. Every writer you told me you love was in that garden at one time or another.”

  So Julian did a great job. It was glorious, it was beautiful, and it satisfied a million fantasies I had. Because you know that’s what keeps us going is fantasies.

  But that first time up in New York, I noticed I’d walk into a room filled with writers, and everybody’s looking over my head. They’re looking all around. It drives me crazy when I see these writers who don’t look at people, don’t talk to people. I’m Southern; I can’t imagine anything ruder than that. And I like being nice to people. I like how people react when I’m nice to them. It drives me crazy when I see these writers who don’t look at people, who don’t talk to people, because I’m a friendly man. I think this has to do with my being a military brat, not knowing anybody, being a friendless boy. But whatever that is, that seems like a good thing to me. I just take people as they come to me. They’re nice to me, I’m going to be nice to them.

  In New York, it seemed very competitive. This is when I learned to loathe other writers and hate hanging around them. They’re the weirdest people. They are geeky; they’re unpopular in high school; they didn’t go to the prom. All the things that make their lives lonely and miserable make them want to be writers. So I have not liked the breed much. It did not seem part of any scene I wanted to be around very much. And ergo, I wasn’t. My nightmare has always been the McDowell Colony, where the point is going to dinner at night with the other writers, which seems to me like the worse thing a human being can do. I saw danger at that evening meal. You walk in, and the scorpion eyes of writers fix you in the malice of their glittering green eyes. If they don’t recognize you, they hate you; if they do recognize you, they hate you even more. I’m sure you make friends and associations for life that help you later on if you hang around other writers, but it did not appeal to me. I don’t want to be good at that, and I don’t want to be one of them. It’s not something that holds any appeal or value to me at all. All I want is to be unnoticed, walk through a room, survive the evil looks, the looks of jealousy and horror, and “How the fuck did it happen to that fat boy? Why didn’t it happen to me? I am better; I’m more worthy; I’m more deserving.”

  Now, I know kids who go to New York and never look back. Some of the gay kids who go up there and have found themselves, found their dream, they would never look back except with utter contempt. But New York did not have that kind of liberating force on me, and I’m sure it’s because of my own provincialism, the unconfident Southerner in me, and my own inability to stare straight in the eye of the big time.

  Then when Julian came to Beaufort, I took him around, and he says, “My God, this wasteland created you.” And he says, “This is bleak beyond belief!” Of course, Beaufort is simply out-of-
this-world gorgeous. But later my editor Nan Talese said the same thing: “What on earth do you do here?” Anybody who comes to visit from New York is always asking, “What do you do down here? How do you entertain yourself?”

  But Julian warmed to me, especially when I said, “Julian, I’m sorry I didn’t make you much money on this, but I hope to make you some someday.”

  I was with him until he retired. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know if Julian ever read a word I wrote. He would call me up. The Great Santini, he called me up. The Lords of Discipline, he called me up. Prince of Tides, he called me up. Beach Music, he called me up. All the books. And he would say, “Pat? On the second page, the first tear came, and I knew Conroy was at it again. I know when I cry that you’ve got me again and will have the reader again. This is just marvelous stuff.”

  I said, “Did you read the last page, Julian?”

  And Julian would go, “Very witty, very witty.”

  But I don’t know. I do not know if he even read my books. But he turned out to be a great force in my life, a great influence in my life.

  The business was brutal later on; I mean it was just brutal. When Julian was getting to be an old man, people told me I needed to change agency, I needed to go to this asshole. But Julian was, for me, what I needed. I needed a gentleman. Julian was part of that gentleman’s art of publishing that I guess isn’t there anymore. I remember when he took the phone call from me, and I wouldn’t say he was gracious about it, but he took the phone call and he changed my life. And I am a loyalist.

  But when Julian got old, his reputation faded, and he got humiliated, which I didn’t know, over and over again. Here’s one way. I was represented in the movies by an agent at CAA, and like all CAA agents, he was the hot thing. There was this attitude, you know, we’re the best. You’re lucky to be here. I mean, give me a break.

  So when I was completing Beach Music, this agent was looking forward to taking that around Hollywood. I called Julian Bach up and said, “Could you call him and ask him some questions for me about logistics?”

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