My exaggerated life, p.18
My Exaggerated Life, p.18Pat Conroy
I said, “What a beautiful story of conversion.”
Eventually he learned the business, learned what a book was worth. Heirs would come to the shop and say I’ve got some books to sell; there’d be like a thousand books, and Cliff would give them $300, go through them, and find really great books.
But Cliff was always complaining about not making any money. “I can’t make a fucking shekel in this town.”
By then I had met a black writer named Vern Smith, who had a novel coming out about Detroit, so I said, “Cliff, why don’t we give him a book party?”
He says, “A book fucking party? It ain’t his birthday.”
I said no. Just give a party celebrating the book coming out. So that began the parties at the Old New York Book Shop, which became something big on the Atlanta scene, kind of an institution, and now they’re legendary. At the time it was a new thing for Atlanta, some new order. Cosmopolitan magazine said that the parties at the Old New York Book Shop were the best and safest places for young women to meet young men in Atlanta. And I said “Cliff, this is genius at work.”
Every time Cliff got his name in the paper because of the book parties, they would misspell it, so one time he was Cliff Graubarf, another he was Cliff Graufarts. And when he got interviewed, they’d say, “This is like Paris in the ’20s.” And Cliff would always say immediately, “It wasn’t a Goddamn thing like Paris in the ’20s. These writers didn’t buy books. Except for Conroy, they didn’t even read.”
So I called him up and said, “Cliff, would you give me some insight into the wisdom of telling people your store was not Paris in the ’20s when that’s what they want to write?”
He said, “Oh, it’s all bullshit. It’s all horseshit.”
I said, “Well, it may be Cliff, I agree with you, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be throwing around about your bookshop. Do you get it?”
He goes, “Oh my God, I just fucking got it. How did you figure that out?”
I said, “Well, unlike you, I’m not an idiot.”
But it was a nice group, a great democratic thing. Now one group that did not come to the parties, because they were expected to buy a book, were the college professors. They are the most impossible people on earth. Professors never bought books from Cliff’s store. When he was bitching about not making any money, I couldn’t understand it because there were so many colleges and universities in Atlanta. He said, “College professors are the cheapest sons of bitches who ever lived.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “You count them.”
What Cliff told me turned out to be totally true. I remember there was one book collector from Morehouse who looked exactly like James Baldwin, and he used to come, but that’s the only professor I remember coming on a frequent basis. Cliff said he knew when a college professor walked into his bookstore that he wouldn’t eat that night.
In Atlanta, the academic community would not admit that a writing community existed. If they had writers at Emory or Agnes Scott, they did not make themselves known to anybody that we knew, and we always noticed that the people connected to the universities kept to themselves. I think they’re terrified of their own insecurity with the institution, and they don’t want to dare interest anybody that might threaten their position. I met one Emory professor, guy I didn’t like, Floyd Watkins. Supposedly the expert on Southern literature. And I’d always get this, “You sure aren’t no Faulkner, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“You sure aren’t any Robert Penn Warren.”
“No, I’m not that either, Floyd.” I said, “But Floyd, here’s one great thing you don’t know. You and I don’t know who I am, and it’s for me to find out.”
“Are you presuming?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
Floyd used to tell me that I was wrong to come to Atlanta. That Faulkner had to be from a small town and live in a small town. Floyd was always put down, put down, put down, and I didn’t like him. He was an asshole.
In Beaufort I used to get the Sunday New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to make me think that I was actually keeping up with the culture. Terry Kay was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and I thought he was a good one. Tim Belk and I used to read him in Beaufort, and we’d all go down to see movies that Terry recommended. I met Terry when he was sent down to do an article for Georgia magazine on the making of Conrack in 1974. So I came into a bar on St. Simons Island, and I saw a man trying to put his arm around my mother’s shoulder. I walk over and recognize Terry from his pictures. I said, “Mr. Kay, I see that you’ve met my mother,” and I see this look on his face like he’s been electrocuted.
My mother said, “Pat, Terry and I are having an intellectual conversation. We’ve just been talking about books and literature.”
I said, “Ah, yes.”
We became friends that day and started seeing each other a whole lot, seeing each other at parties. He saw right away my country hick aspect, even though I thought I was sophisticated. He was the entertainment editor also and said, “Why don’t you ride along with me? We’ll go see the entertainment in the city.”
We did go to a play at the Alliance Theater. But the other part was, he wrote up all the strip shows in Atlanta. He would walk in, and all the strippers would be, “Terry, how are you doing?” This one woman had this amazing trick. She could twirl her little tassels, and she could twirl one this way, and the other one she could twirl that way, and then reverse. Well, she comes over, and she’s doing this, and I’m dying, and she’s putting them near my face, and I’m thinking, holy Christ. Then she goes over to Terry and does the same thing. And she leans down and she says, “Hey Terry, sweetie, how’s the kids?”
“They’re doing fine.”
She said, “Did the little one, did she do all right? Did she get over the flu?”
“Oh yeah, she got over it. It only lasted a couple days.”
Terry showed me Atlanta in this way I would never have seen. Then he started telling these stories about growing up in the mountains of Georgia without electricity, and I said, “Terry, have you ever written any of this?”
He said, “Conroy,”—he always had this voice of God—“Conroy, I’m a journalist. I can do 250 words about any subject on the earth, but I can’t do 251.”
But he wrote a short story that I thought was hilarious, and I got him an advance for his first novel, The Year the Lights Came On. Terry did well with that book. It started his career. Eventually he made enough money where he quit journalism and just wrote novels.
I’ve tried to encourage novelists wherever I found them. All writers I’ve ever met need that voice, not only to console, but that can encourage, that can drive them on. You know, the good coach, the teacher. I’ve always liked the cheerleader role. I like encouraging people. I enjoyed it when my teachers were cheerleading me, and there’s something about being around me that makes it seem easy for other people. If a doofus like me can write a novel, anybody can. I have a sort of sad sack, lackadaisical movement into the current of life of anybody I meet; everybody thinks they can write if such a doofus like me can write. I’ve had this effect on people; I truly have. They look at me, I’m dressed in a Mr. Hefty bag, and my shoes are made from the pelts of rats. I stumble around and tell a lot of jokes, I make people laugh, and no one can truly take me seriously when they meet me. So what they do is say, my God, if he can write books, what about me?
Governor Carter gave a party at his mansion on West Paces Ferry for all the writers and journalists in town, and there weren’t that many of us. He didn’t permit drinking, you know, so he was watching all these writers go into delirium tremens. This is when I heard high heels clicking down the marble hall, and I turned around, and a beautiful, luscious Anne Rivers Siddons turned the corner with her Princeton husband, the very dapper Heyward Siddons, wearing his little bowtie. I met them that nigh
Annie has been great since the day I saw her turn the corner at the governor’s mansion until today. She has not said, that I know of, one mean thing to anyone. She was a magnificent cook, fed us all, lived in a beautiful house, which none of us did then. Annie and Heyward’s was this post of civilization that we could always go to, were always invited to. They were an adult couple who were running a household that looked like a household, as opposed to the rest of us who lived in the inside of potato chip bags. If they ever had arguments, I never saw it. If they ever got mad at me, I never knew it. Those two people brought great kindness, great times of happiness into my life.
Paul Hemphill, the journalist from Birmingham—I met him that night. I met all the writers. Jim Townsend was there, who became very important in my life. He was the founder of Atlanta magazine, a mill town boy from Lanett, Alabama, and a brilliant mill town boy, had to drop out of the University of Alabama because he did not have the money to go there; came to Atlanta, founded Atlanta magazine, and founded the concept of a city magazine. He was an extraordinary drunk, but a fabulous personality, died at forty-seven; one of my first eulogies.
Annie was mostly writing stuff for Atlanta magazine when I met her. Jim Townsend said, “Annie only writes frou-frou.” That’s how women were treated. I told her, “Annie, it ain’t frou-frou; it’s terrific writing. You need to let me put a hickey on your neck, but you also need to start writing novels, because you are good.” Annie and I grew up together as writers; we all kind of helped each other. We were nice to each other; we weren’t mean. We weren’t trying to hurt each other much, or trying to kill each other much.
There were certainly jealousies that developed. Paul Darcy Boles was the one novelist in town when I got there, and we were all friends with each other. Now, Paul had some unfortunate affectations, like wearing an ascot, smoking cigarettes in what looked like a French film director’s cigarette holder, and he wore a beret sometimes. He played the writer role great, and it was colorful for me. He was generous to all of us. I came across a book of interviews of young writers on the way up; it had one of Saul Bellow, and Paul Darcy Boles is one of the eight writers interviewed. He must have been hot as a firecracker at one time, and something must have happened to Paul’s career. It all seemed tragic by the time we got to Atlanta. With a literary career, there are few ways to go right, and a million ways to go wrong.
Then Annie and I sort of made it. I came out with The Great Santini; her first book was terrific, Heartbreak Hotel. Suddenly we were pulling up a little bit from Paul. No, we were pulling way up from Paul. And when Paul saw good things happening to the rest of us, he had trouble with it.
So one night Annie gave a dinner for a book of Paul’s that had just come out. Annie had just signed a big contract, had recently been in the newspapers. She got extraordinary book money for her time and place; she really did. But Annie was so nice we all loved it when good things happened to her. One thing I can do is be happy for other people, and she could not have been nicer about it or prettier or just fun to be around. She is a completely loving woman. She never played the bitch goddess once. So Paul is sitting there smoking his little cigarette in a cigarette holder, wearing his beret at the dinner table. Cliff and whatever stupid girlfriend he had at that time were there; we were all celebrating Paul’s book.
We had just started eating this wonderful meal, and Dorothy, Paul’s wife, looks over and says, “Pat, have you read Annie’s new book yet?” And I said yeah, I did. “Well, what did you think?” I enjoyed the hell out of it. She says, “My colleagues thought it was trash. Thought it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.”
Okay, Annie is a sensitive soul, and she’s now getting weepy over there. So I look over, I see her, and I said, “We’ve all got our opinions, Dorothy, but a lot of times we don’t share them with a woman who is feeding us dinner. That’s just an old rule of humanity, you know what I mean?”
Annie leaps up, crying, races out of the room, into the yard to kill herself in Peachtree Creek. Paul is doggedly smoking a cigarette. Dorothy couldn’t stop. She is the mouthpiece that night, and she said, “Pat? My Paulie, he doesn’t understand how you and Annie can just sell yourselves out for the most money, how you cheapen your art by being for sale to the highest bidder. And you know what they call a woman who sells herself for the best price.”
I said, “My God, Dorothy, you must mean a whore, that Annie and I are whores.”
She said, “Paulie writes literature, but y’all know that. What he and I both just don’t understand is how you and Annie can sell out to the highest bidder of your work, when what is important is literature. Can you give me an answer, Pat? Why do you sell out to the highest bidder?”
I said, “Look, Annie and I got together one night, got drunk, and before we made love, I said, ‘Annie, Annie, should we write works of literature? Should we write works that will never die or should we write trash so we can make money and feed our friends, our friends who write literature, and get them drunk with our liquor? Which would you rather do?’ Annie looks at me and says, ‘Pat, trash. Pure trash.’ I said, ‘Should we sell out for countless millions?’ And we both came to the conclusion we didn’t want to be a loser like Paul Darcy Boles. We wanted to be rich losers.”
“Well, my Paulie has too much integrity.”
I said, “We discovered that we had no integrity whatsoever. We lacked integrity. We’re simply whores. And we admitted that, we drank to it, we got drunk based on the fact that we’re whores out for the money. Fuck literature in all its forms.”
We were great friends with Paul Darcy Boles, but your friends are the ones you need to fear with your body and soul from the time you get up in the morning until the time you go to bed at night. This is a rule. It’s a rule of life and one that I have gotten very used to. Another rule of human existence: If you ever lend anybody money they hate you for the rest of your life. Paul borrowed a zillion dollars from Annie and me. What we both found out tickled us: if you loan somebody money, they not only don’t pay it back; they hate your guts. That was a surprise to me. Whenever I lend people money they never pay me back and hate me for the rest of my life.
Paul was sued for plagiarism, and he had a two- or three-year trial in which I appeared over and over again. He was hired by a rich woman named Hazel Cartin with an Indian background to ghostwrite a novel for her. He did it. Then when he came out with his next novel, she sued him for plagiarism. Like there was a fat sheriff in the book he wrote for her, he has a fat sheriff in his book, so it was a mess. Paul had no money, and he was the worst witness that ever lived: a proud, vain man. But I was in and out of court and giving depositions for I think about three years for that.
The issue was: If you ghostwrite a book for someone else, can you later be sued for plagiarizing your own style? For resemblances between the book you wrote for hire and those under your own name? My role as a professional writer was just saying that Paul was innocent, that there wasn’t anything to the charge of plagiarism. Anytime in Atlanta there was a freedom of speech case or a book being banned, I would be called. I would testify sometimes in federal court, sometimes in state court, with my typical liberal bullshit with which Conroy could knee-jerk his way from home all the way to the courthouse. I was willing to do it, and the lawyers got to know that.
Paul got to be so poor during that trial trying to pay his lawyers, that’s when I ended up giving him money; Annie gave him money. Okay, Paul wins the case. But what does a rich woman do when she loses in court? She appeals. This dragged on, and Hazel Cartin and her lawyers wer
So anyway, I go downtown, Hazel Cartin is there, and she’s got a very good law firm representing her. I think they had two of the law firm’s founders, and I seemed to notice a lot of assistants. Like, three people, one of them was a young woman working feverishly, and everybody’s writing down something.
Well, the judge who was accused of not doing his job fast enough, not coming to judgment quick enough, he has to come out and sit in a witness stand. You did not have be a novelist to know that this was one very pissed-off judge. He is looking at Hazel Cartin and her lawyers with a hatred he didn’t even try to hide. This is embarrassing him in front of his colleagues, embarrassing him in front of the stenographer he knew very well, the officers who ran the court. This just humiliated him. So I notice this; I take this in. Meanwhile, another judge who I knew from just being around Atlanta came out to preside over the hearing.
Hazel Cartin’s lawyers have an hour presentation: The judge is incompetent; the judge did not understand the importance of the case; the judge has had plenty of time; the judge had plenty of input. They’ve put in so many hours of legal work; they’ve sent him documents; they’ve sent him proof; they’ve sent him legal briefs. They make a huge, huge deal. I’m just watching. I have no role, I’m just observing this, and it’s interesting to me. It’s an important case because if Paul loses, writers everywhere who get jobs ghostwriting are going to be troubled.
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