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My exaggerated life, p.27
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.27

           Pat Conroy

  Also, I wanted another crack at that family that was coming apart at the seams, that great unhappiness a family can produce. In The Great Santini, I thought I had let myself down by not being able to give a description of the full war the father waged against his family. My editors made me put in these charming scenes of flowers for the prom and flight jackets for the son’s birthday, when Dad never did any of that stuff. I just did not see him ever do anything nice. In my life, gesture became very important to me, because I never saw Dad do a single one. He didn’t do anything like the nice gestures they made me put in the book. It was just total war on the family, and what I did not get to put in that first novel was how you are afraid all the time. You’re scared from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. With The Prince of Tides, I could open up about the physical abuse because as I was writing, America was opening up about abuse too. It was becoming more and more commonly reported.

  One question I’m trying to answer in the book is: What made Carol crazy? Why did my parents drive her nuts? Or why did all of us drive her nuts? With The Boo, it was: Why did they fire this guy that so many people adored? The Water Is Wide: Why did I get fired from that island when I thought I was doing some good for those kids? Then: Why do I hate my father?—The Great Santini. And The Lords of Discipline: This is why I do hate the Citadel. Usually what I’ve been doing is trying to explain my own life to myself. Every book has been about some overriding issue in my own heart.

  There’s a scene that occurs at the beginning of The Prince of Tides when the guy—whatever his name is—Tom—gets a phone call; it’s his mother saying, “Your sister tried to commit suicide again,”—that simply was what happened, except Carol was in Minnesota, not New York. And, “Pat, try not to blame yourself.”

  “Oh, that will be easy, Mom. I haven’t seen her in five years, and she blames you.”

  “We’re having a party this weekend, John and I. I can’t possibly break away to go up. You need to go up and see your sister. You’re the only one who doesn’t have a job.”

  No one in my family has ever thought I worked. None of them, not one of them, has ever considered the fact that I may work. In their entire lives that has not occurred to them. I have accepted it in the enormity and expansiveness of my generosity, and I understand that I am surrounded by idiots who do not understand the writing process, are not capable of understanding the writing process, and don’t care to understand the writing process. I have no choice if I’m going to love my family.

  But that was one of the scenes that I lifted from life, although all these great writers say you should never lift stuff from life.

  So I had a mother figure I had not even touched the surface of. Marion O’Neill was always telling me, “The unexamined one for you, Pat, is the mother. You’ve got to somehow figure her out or you’re going to figure nothing out. Because one thing you do know, she chose Don; she stayed with Don; she saw you abused by Don; she saw her kids abused; she was abused by Don; she continued to stay there.” I realized Mom was complex, and I had dealt with none of that complexity. Anytime Carol tried to kill herself or there was some crisis in Carol’s life, Mom’s reaction was, “Try not to blame yourself, Pat.”

  One time my mother and I had a fight; it was one of those scenes you only see in bad movies or bad lives. My mother told me that everybody knew from reading The Great Santini that I had sexually molested my sister when she was growing up, and that was why she was crazy. Now, there is nothing in that book remotely indicating any such thing, for the simple reason that I would have killed myself if I’d even thought of doing any such thing in my life. The only time the word sex even appears in the book is when Mary Anne talks about the “sicko sexual” relationship of the parents. I think Mom just needed to blame someone besides herself for what happened to Carol; she needed to explain Carol’s craziness to other people. It was obvious something happened to Carol. I was surprised it was me that became the obvious, but then I wrote the book, and Mom did not like that sappy portrait of herself. I think she was protecting that one precious immaculate human being she was involved with, Peg Conroy.

  In this fight, she came over to argue with me about The Great Santini; this is after I’d separated from Barbara and Mom had gotten her divorce. She came to stay with me in Atlanta in my apartment there; I was writing The Lords of Discipline then. She’d come up to let me know how hurt she was by The Great Santini, and disappointed by me personally in the writing of the book. This seemed to be the point of the visit. She’d never come to stay with me in my apartment before; this was a first. She got drunk, I think I got drunk, and she started on me about my lack of talent. She expected me to be a much better writer than I had become; I let her down; her belief in me and her support of me had been betrayed; she had been disappointed by the lack of gifts I brought to the game. Then she started with “You thought he was in charge of that house; I was in charge of that house. You thought he was a leader; he didn’t have the insight. I ruled him with everything he did.” I was kind of in shock by this, because I certainly didn’t know that. I wanted to say, “If you ruled, why didn’t you stop that shit?” And I may have said that in the argument that followed. Dad was an emotional idiot, and he could be wrapped around her finger when she wanted it, but what she could not do, as I was happy to tell her, is when he exploded there was nothing in the world that could control that. He used his fists and his temper against a woman and a house full of kids, and there was nothing she could do to protect against that.

  Then finally—and Mom never drank; this was a completely new mother to me—she started drinking when she started dating John Egan, and I had never dealt with her being drunk before. And she then said everybody in Beaufort knows the reason Carol is crazy is because of me. “It’s in your book; you practically wrote it out yourself.”

  What’s in the book is that my sister had a very precocious mind that my mother and father did not seem to appreciate, so part of my job was to make sure she didn’t get murdered by Mom and Dad.

  I am so enraged, I go to the wall—and of course this is where I just want to kill myself and slit my throat—I just punched the wall. I was younger then, I was stronger then, so I punch the wall; my fist doesn’t go through the wall; it’s the real shit; it’s not sheetrock. It’s the real shit. It doesn’t go through; it just leaves a bloody fist print; it’s my hand, with these five knuckle prints. Of course Mom always is waiting for a moment like that, and she says, “You’re a beast just like him.” Oh, pardon me, Mom. I never got to thank you for that lovely DNA you selected to be the father of your children. I go in to wash my hand off, it’s bleeding copiously, and when I come out, she’s gone. I go outside to find her. That night I did not find her, didn’t know what happened to her. I called her cousins, her aunts; I called everybody, and it wasn’t until later that I realized where she had gone: Dad’s house. He was only a mile from me.

  That was a big moment for Mom and me, when she’s telling me something that worried me about myself: that I’m not a very good writer, that I’m not worth a shit. That’s the echo writers like me hear their entire lives, and we don’t need it coming from other people. We do it to ourselves. Part of my particular psyche that I’ve always had to deal with: I did not think I was smart, did not think I was talented. I don’t today. I have great internal doubts about myself, like what am I doing in front of this page? Who am I fooling? This is nonsense. I’ll be ridiculed as a fraud. Soon they will find out how phony a talent this is, that this is counterfeit, this is imaginary, and “How did this guy fool so many people?” Mom knew that about me, and she was trying to hit me with that. At least by then I had more sense of achievement behind me; I had more things I could actually point to. I could actually lift up a book and say, “I did that.” For whatever reasons, no matter what fraudulent devices and magician’s tricks I had to use—there it is. There’s a book I fooled some of the people with some of the time.

  So it was a terrible night, one of many terrible
nights. I’ll have many more of them until I slit my wrists and calmly sink into Battery Creek as the tide goes out. There will be a few minutes of grunting and groaning, huge bubbles coming to the surface, and then there’ll be a long peaceful silence.

  But Mom scared me by disappearing. She called me the next day to let me know she was all right and said she was sorry. She never mentioned it again, and I never did either. I thought cowardice was the better part of valor when it came to dealing with my mother. In the family I came from, what I knew is Mom was the best I got, and I was not going to jettison her. She was a protector from my father. When Dad went after me, she was right in the middle of it, trying to protect me, get between Dad and me, and of course I picked up the same habit, and so a bond of battle had developed between us. We are tied by blood and pain forever. We bled for each other; we fought for each other. We could actually say that: we fought for each other. Mom and I were a team. If he was slapping her, I’d be trying to kick him in the balls. And I paid for that. Dad hated me for it, that this little kid made him look very bad to his wife. What developed between Mom and me was solid and unbreakable. I’ve always thought that the supreme relationship is the one between mother and child, and the bond of mothers and sons can be devastatingly intimate like no other relationship on earth.

  Notice I didn’t ever use that scene.

  But right away I start out thinking I’m on to something good in The Prince of Tides, and I threw myself into writing that.

  When I was in Rome writing The Prince of Tides, Jonathan Galassi called me up and said he was leaving Houghton Mifflin for Random House and wanted me to go with him. I loved Houghton and thought I was going to be with them my entire life. I thought I’d be with Jonathan my whole life; there was nothing that was going to take that away. I like loyalty, and I like staying. I don’t like change, so I was upset by it. I didn’t have any realization that Jonathan was positioning himself in publishing. We made a lot of money with the paperback sales of Lords of Discipline, and that made him a hot young editor, I think. But he said, “Don’t make any decision now. You’re not going to be finished with your book for a while. The next time you’re home, I want you to come up to Random House, just meet the people and see what you think.”

  About a year later, I had 250 pages written, so I sent those to Houghton Mifflin and to Jonathan at Random House, and then I go to see him in New York. The receptionist at Random House—she was a young black woman—could not have been shittier to me if she tried. Could not have been more nasty, more rude, no matter what I did to be nice. I’m thinking: Did somebody tell her I’m writing a book on the Klan? I couldn’t figure out why in the hell she was treating me this way. I can be accused of many things with great credibility, but unfriendliness does not top the list much. As a military brat, I learned how to get along and be nice to everybody, because you get into town not knowing anybody, and you don’t know where your next friend is coming from. This can be something obnoxious about me, but I have a need to instantly become friends with every cab driver, every cashier, and every grocery store clerk. Yet I could not get this receptionist even to look up at me when I said something. So I’m sitting there, and it’s taking a long time for Jonathan to come out. Finally he comes into the waiting area and finds me there. “Oh, Pat. I didn’t know you were out here.” She had not even told him I was waiting.

  Jonathan takes me back to his office and talks about how much he loves it at Random House. He says, “I want to take you around and introduce you to some of the editors.”

  I meet Robert Loomis. He could not have been a bigger shit bird. He can barely look up at me from his desk; he can barely look me in the eye. All of them were like that. Jonathan was interrupting them, and they were doing work of world-class importance. He was interfering with them doing the things that made Random House great in the world of publishing. I’m watching this, and I see Jonathan get real edgy.

  Finally we went to see Jason Epstein, and Jonathan said, “Jason, I have somebody I want you to meet.”

  Jason does not even look up. He says, “Jonathan, I told you never to interrupt me when I’m editing a manuscript. I’ve told you several times now, and I hope I don’t have to do it again.”

  Jonathan said, “Well, I just wanted you to meet—”

  “I don’t care who you want me to meet. I don’t know how many times I’ve got to tell you this.”

  As we walk on, I said, “Jonathan, would you like me to walk back in and throw him through a plate glass window? I’ll be happy to do it.”

  He said, “No, no. He must be in a bad mood.”

  Everybody seemed to be in a bad mood that day. We go in to Bob Bernstein, who was the president of Random House. Bob sits me down and says, “We read your manuscript, and none of us were impressed. But because of Jonathan, and out of courtesy to him, we’re going to give you an advance. It won’t be anywhere near the advance you’d get from Houghton Mifflin. But you will have the prestige of the Random House escutcheon on your book.”

  I said, “Bob, thanks for being so perfectly honest with me. You’ve just made this the easiest decision of my whole life. I’ll see you guys later. Write me, don’t call, stay the same as you are, love you.”

  Jonathan jumps up. “Pat, Pat. He didn’t mean that.”

  Bob said, “I meant it exactly as it came out, Jonathan.”

  Jonathan is just completely, utterly humiliated. He is devastated by this; I am devastated by this. Jonathan Galassi is perhaps the greatest editor of our time. I thought that then, I think it now, and part of me grieved because I knew I was losing that. He did not beg—he’s not that type—but he did everything to try to get me to stay with him. However, Conroy does not take humiliation well. And I just did not see a way to make it work with Random House.

  Then a new editor named Nan Talese who had just come to Houghton Mifflin wants me for a writer, sends me a very nice letter, calls me up, and says, “We’re going to offer twice as much as Random House would ever think of, because we’re going to get you.” I said, “That sounds nice. I like Houghton Mifflin, and I hope we can work something out.” So that all sort of happened without me being a real player in it. I was one of the pawns moved around on that chessboard and did not even know it was taking place. But Nan Talese was my fate; for whatever that has meant, she was my fate.

  Years later, when the Book of the Month Club took Beach Music as their selection, the guy who contacted me said, “Pat do you remember me?”

  I said, “I don’t believe so. Where did we meet?”

  He said, “I was the new assistant for Jonathan Galassi when you came to Random House. They still talk about the time they humiliated Jonathan and you, the intellectual and the redneck. That was all a setup between the older editors to put Jonathan in his place and put you in your place: the intellectual and the redneck.”

  Of course, here I am, an uptight, overly sensitive Southern boy, who would like to be an urbane man of the world, and to be thought of as a redneck by those Goddamn Random House people …

  I said, “That is very interesting. Does Jonathan know that?”

  He said, “I’m not sure. We never talked about it.”

  Jonathan had been fired by Random House not too long after my visit there. So after I heard from this guy who’d been his assistant, I called him up and told him what he’d said. Jonathan said it didn’t surprise him.

  I said, “Jonathan, they didn’t want it to work. And then you got fired.”

  He said, “Yes, Pat. But if you’d written The Prince of Tides for me, I never would have been fired.”

  I said, “Here’s what I love, Jonathan. You went on to kick their asses. They are now part of the collective unknown who will be buried in the tomb of the unknown Random House editor, and you are the great Jonathan Galassi. I have enjoyed that. I have reveled in that.”

  When Nan Talese became my editor, she said to me—I think sort of good-naturedly, but she said it—“Now we’re going to see if you can write a
book worth a million dollars,” and it paralyzed me. I got $7,500 for The Water Is Wide, I got I think $10,000 for The Great Santini, I got $15,000 I believe for Lords of Discipline, and that seemed great to me. I was going up every time, it made me as happy as I could be, but I never asked, and I never paid attention much to that part of it. Here’s what I look for: Are they going to ask me to write another book? If they’re satisfied with the last book, or they were happy with the last book, if they want to sign me again, that is the great thing. I’m not sure my confidence ever got going as a writer, but they kept asking me to write another book, which was confidence making. Then this million-dollar business threw me. Anything connected with writing—success or failure—creates anxiety. I don’t care what happens to you, if you become king of the world or your book slides down the toilet, it’s still going to cause great anxiety, great stress.

  When Lenore and I first got to Rome, we didn’t know anybody in Italy. Jonathan Yardley, the critic for the Washington Post, had heard I was going over there, and he gave me the name of Michael Mewshaw. I had heard of him as a Catholic novelist and read one of his books; they’re very Graham Greene-ish, expatriate novels. We had been in Rome about a week and were still way out in this Mafia-ridden suburb, so I called Michael Mewshaw and said, “Jonathan Yardley gave me your name. You and your wife, Linda—could you all come out for lunch this Saturday?”

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