My Exaggerated Life, p.28Pat Conroy
He said, “I’ve got a friend named Steve Geller who’s a writer and a screenwriter. I could bring him and his wife and kids, and my kids.”
I said, “Certainly, bring everybody.”
So they came out and thought I was Frank Conroy. I was so lonely, I pretended for the first hour that I was Frank Conroy. “Yes, Stop-Time. I knew I was onto something when I wrote that.” I didn’t quite know what else to do. But finally I said, “This is not going to work guys. I am not Frank Conroy; I’m Pat Conroy. I’m sorry I operated under false pretenses, but isn’t this a great lunch? Aren’t you enjoying it?”
Anyway, Michael Mewshaw became my best friend there. He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met; I love Michael. I just loved him. He would tell stories that made me laugh my ass off. But I learned very early that Mike was one of those people whose great joy in life was knowing famous writers, and almost always, famous male writers. He had a series of these guys: Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, William Styron, Gore Vidal. Anybody who came to Rome looked Mike up. He and Linda would house-sit their villas in the summer. They would get great benefits out of this. It was big name, big name, big name.
I think repair was what Michael Mewshaw was doing by seeking out the greatest writers of his time. This excited the poor boy in him, and he was desperately trying to repair what he was born into. This was healing the wounds; it was curative. Mike’s family was so poor that when he and his brother played basketball on the same team, they had to call timeout so Mike could take off his shoes and give them to his brother when he was put in the game for Mike. By surrounding himself with famous people, Mike was trying to cure the wounds of coming from nothing.
When we met, Mike had never heard of me in his life, and was surprised I’d done so well without entering his framework. After we met, I collected and read all his books, and I wished he’d taken my writing more seriously, but he didn’t. He thought I was a small-timer who did not run with the big dogs. To him it was weird that I did not like to run with the big boys or even meet them.
At the University of Virginia, where Mike got his doctorate, he had the job of meeting all novelists who flew in to Charlottesville and driving them to their hotel. He used every one of those meetings in very career-enhancing ways. He would make the contact, and he would keep up with them, which he said I would never do, which I don’t do very well. I’ve never done that well. He thinks it is a great, great weakness, not only in my writing career but in my character, that I cannot dance at the big dance; I cannot play with the big boys. That has been his theme. When I described all the friends in my life, the best friends I’ve made, Michael listened to me in appalled silence and finally said, “Pat, to be perfectly honest with you, I have never heard of a bigger bunch of losers in my entire life.”
When two of my friends from Atlanta came to visit in Rome, I was taking them out to lunch the first day. Mike calls up and says, “Hey, Pat, can you go to lunch?”
I said, “No, I’m taking my friends from Atlanta out.”
He said, “Well, I’ve got a little surprise for you. You’re not going to be taking them out to lunch.”
I said, “Why not?”
He said, “Cancel right now. I’m going out to lunch with Graham Greene, and I want you to come along. I bet you’ll cancel your lunch plans now.”
I said, “Mike, what kind of a human being would you think I was if I said ‘fuck you’ to my friends from Atlanta and went out with you and Graham Greene? I’m just curious. What would that say about me as a person?”
He said, “Well, it would say you are ambitious.”
I said, “No, it would say I was a jerk. Tell Graham I said hi.”
Michael Mewshaw thought this was part of my unnatural, totally false, good-natured shepherd-of-all-men routine. He found that an incredible loser quality about me. He thought there was something basically wrong with me when I had a chance to have lunch with Graham Greene but chose not to. He’d call my friends the midgets and say, “My God, it’s the midgetry, the gathering of little people. You need to hang around with the giants of your age.”
He never did understand why I didn’t want to hang around writers of supernatural gifts as if they would pass that flame on to me. Another part of my loser-dom for Michael was that I would not ask a writer for anything. Mike sees opportunity that is not seized. He sees career enhancement which I throw away for no reason. He’ll go, “Oh, you are too good to get your hands dirty, to grovel before the great.”
I could tell him, “I don’t want to meet those people. I want to be those people.”
He used to say, “Conroy suffers from an irresistible attraction to the Lilliputians. He likes to be tied down by the little people, captive on the beach as they swarm all over him taking whatever bodily fluids they need.”
I said, “Mike, that may be a truth about my personality that you are spotting. It’s as good as any theory I have. But I do not have the need that you seem to have to hang around these people, be at their parties, be at their beck and call, house-sit for them. I don’t want that. I just do not want it.” I could ask him: “What did you get out of that Mike?” He thought it was going to rub off on him. He did.
“Oh, Mr. Big Man. Big Man. Go back to the little people who swarm around your ankles. Conroy is only happy when he’s surrounded by Lilliputians.”
That made me laugh my ass off. But I could never get him to understand why I don’t seek out celebrities as friends. One thing watching James Dickey taught me about the danger of fame was wanting to hang around only with famous people, which I think is the death of it all. So I’ve always told myself to be careful of meeting famous people. Just be careful. It’s fun to do, you can brag about it, you can drop their names, but you need to watch yourself getting caught up in it. Those people—they’re not all out to be your friend, and some of them will be out to hurt you. They don’t always come into your life to encourage you; some of them will make you feel bad, make you feel unworthy. And sometimes, one of the distractions from writing is the presence of other writers.
We had dinner one night with Bill Styron, the great man, who had been a friend of Mike’s ever since Mike picked him up from the airport in Charlottesville. To me, he was as friendly as a turd. He was not the nicest guy I had ever run into in my lifetime. I did not feel any warmth emanating from him. All I remember is shaking his hand and him nodding at me. He looked at me like I was gum on the bottom of his shoe. I knew he couldn’t have given a shit about meeting me, wanted nothing to do with me. He talked to Mike mostly; he didn’t talk to me. But I thought he was rude to Mike and Linda too. He didn’t care. He may have been getting drunk. I have no idea. But there was no interest. I knew I would never see or hear from him again, which I didn’t. I knew he would never hear from me again, which he didn’t. He seemed vesuvial to me, one of those tightly wound men that you never knew when he was going to go off or be displeased, yet you knew he was going to be displeased all the time, and it was going to be based on something you were responsible for, whether you knew it or not.
His wife, I would have married. Rose Styron was beautiful; she was witty; she was charming; she had personality. His daughters, I would have married. They were wonderful girls. Styron’s daughter Susanna even stayed with us, and she was fabulous. But one thing she told me that was interesting as hell to me is they had met everybody in their world, and I wasn’t sure that was good for children—celebrity worship beginning so early, so your worth becomes part of who you know. I just did not think that was such a great thing.
The main thing I remember from that meal was the great surprise on the Italian waiter’s face when William Styron ordered a fifth of Scotch, not to be served to anyone else, but for him alone. Since I ended up paying for the meal, I remember this precisely. A bottle of Scotch costs more in an Italian restaurant than you can imagine. I’d never paid for a bottle of Scotch sold by a restaurant, and I felt like I owned part interest in the restaurant when I left that night. It was some bi
Anyway, I thought Styron was a shit bird. I think fame killed something in that guy. You know, Jackie and Jack Kennedy would come to Styron’s house on the Cape, so I can see why he looked at me like I was a toadstool. But this is why I don’t like writers. I don’t like hanging around them; I don’t like being with them. I think they’re shit birds. You know: “As the president was telling me,” or “when the queen of England gave me a medal …” It bit my neck down. I really needed a chiropractor.
One of Mike’s complaints about me was I never wrote a letter “Dear Mr. Styron, I really enjoyed meeting you and Rose when you were here in Rome.” After Mike met him at the airport on his visit to the University of Virginia, he hands him this manuscript and says, “Will you read my novel, Mr. Styron?” Styron politely takes it and evidently does read it. Mike wrote him constantly after that, and every once in a while, Styron would write him back. I think Styron required sycophancy in the same way Dickey seemed to require it. I can think two ways about it: That’s the way you get ahead, but I’d rather die.
Mike used to say, “Conroy knew no one; he wanted to know no one. When he met someone, he never called them back, followed up, got in touch, or gave a shit. He hung around people who dwelled in the valleys and ate goat cheese. Conroy was happy with his tribe of Lilliputians, the little people.” He thought I was slumming. Mike thought Anne Rivers Siddons was nothing in the world he inhabited, and he would say, “Oh, Paul Darcy Boles. I’m so sorry, Big Man. I happen to know the real Paul Bowles. We went to Morocco, and I stayed with the real Paul Bowles. This Darcy I do not know and do not want to know.” To him they were simply part of my exquisite collection of miniatures. I collected cameos where he collected Caravaggios.
Mike always complained that I never called Gore Vidal again, never called Anthony Burgess, never called Styron. I said, “What am I going to call them for? We’re not friends. They obviously don’t need me as their friend. They gave no indication they wanted me to call, so why would I do that?”
He said, “Well, you love your midgetry. What you can’t take, Conroy, is the big time. You can’t take being in the big time, playing with the heavyweights.”
The one I got to know best was Gore Vidal, because I would see Gore on the street. We did not live far from each other. I took him to dinner several times with Mike and Linda. Gore liked me because I picked up checks. Everybody likes me because I pick up checks. There are people with a money shadow who could be billionaires, and it drives them crazy to lose a nickel. I’ve seen this over and over again. But I like to pick up checks, and Gore was a great conversationalist. I loved listening to him, which I think made him like me. I did not try to compete with him, which also made him like me. And he once told me he liked me because I asked nothing from him.
Gore liked The Lords of Discipline because he was attracted to military colleges; his father was one of the great football players at West Point. He told me Lords of Discipline could have been a good book if only I’d known that all those guys were gay. I said, “I can’t wait to tell my roommates.”
But basically, Gore showed no real interest in me at all until The Prince of Tides hit the best-seller list. I had no idea that he had even noticed; I had no idea it would mean a thing to him. But he wanted to know: How did you do it? How did you figure out what the American people wanted to read? Of course, I had no idea what the American people wanted to read. I still don’t have any idea what the American people want to read. I write what I want to write, and you don’t know if it’s going to be of interest to anybody else at all. But Gore thought I had busted my way into a best-selling subject—the screwed-up American family—and he wanted to know how I’d discovered it. It may have been that night that something changed between Mike and me. I don’t think Mike was ready for anybody of his generation to become a big name. And I use that advisedly, with a certain humor.
Gore was very aware of his place in literary history, and from the way he talked to me, I could tell he never thought he wrote very good novels, and it bothered him a lot. But Gore Vidal was unusual for this: he admitted he read my book. It seems to cost most writers a pound of flesh to admit they read your book. And withholding is much more natural to most people than praise. Giving praise seems to take something out of the human spirit of most writers. Now, I am a competitive male, but writing is one area where it doesn’t seem to make sense to be competitive, because there are so many things that can go right or wrong that you have no control over in a writing career.
When I’d given Mike Mewshaw the first three or four hundred pages of The Prince of Tides, he read these pages as though I’d given him the directions for taking Tylenol. He said, “This should be ten novels, not one.” That was his reading of the book. Cut it into several novels and publish them for the next ten years. And with no enthusiasm at all. This was over lunch. I can still show you the restaurant. I remember him walking out, and I’m thinking, “He didn’t say one good thing about it.” The Prince of Tides to him was like opening a can of tuna. I was terribly disappointed.
Then Cliff Graubert reads it and says it’s the most anti-Semitic book he’s ever read in his life. I said, “More than Mein Kamf?” He said, “It’s obvious you hate Jews.” Could you tell me, Mr. Graubert, how you got that out of reading? He said, “You say it’s an art form to hate New York City. More Jews live in New York City than in Tel Aviv.” But since Cliff has read only three books in his life—one of them was a Hardy Boys—this didn’t bother me. And now I get to say, “Is this the man who hated Prince of Tides?”
We moved back to Atlanta when I was about halfway through The Prince of Tides because Mom was dying of cancer. I wanted to be there with her, and as my brothers and sisters all pointed out, I was the logical one to be there, because I was the only one who didn’t have a job.
After her death, there was the coming back of Dad; that became a full conversion for Dad. By then he had been divorced and retired for some time, and when the colonel could no longer bark and everybody had to answer, he was really adrift. Life had trampled him for the first time. I think he realized he had really screwed up with us, we were really mad about it, and he needed to do something about it if he was going to have any kind of life with his children. He looked around and was horrified by what his family took him to be. I think he was absolutely shocked. My father thought he was a great father, a great husband, a great provider. For him that meant he provided for his kids, we went to church, we went to Catholic schools, we went to college. He’d done great. Everything a Depression kid was supposed to do for his family, my father had done. Dad was perfectly happy with the man he was, delighted in every way. And that he had inspired such loathing and contempt made him determined to prove us wrong. He really wanted his children to love him.
Dad did the best he could, but it was going to take years before I trusted him. I was not in my Good Shepherd forgiveness mode at that time. Many of the other kids let Dad in long before I did; I was the last to come around. There was no question I was hardest for Dad to convince. I was disgusted by him as a human being. I hated everything about him. And so I put Dad through an obstacle course.
He came by my house every day. I was terrible to him. I said hideous things to him. “Oh, good morning, Dad. How does it feel to be the worst fucking father that ever lived? Come on in, I’ll fix you some coffee.” “Oh, hey, Dad. Wha
I would greet him with something like that every day. I don’t know how Dad knocked on the door. I always had something waiting for him. This assault on him each morning—I had to do it. And I think, deep down in his amoeba soul, he knew I had to do it too, because he kept coming over. And some days I was just vicious with him. I said, “Dad, one thing, if you keep coming over here, I’m going to tell you every single thing I think about you as I think it, and I’m not going to hold anything back.”
Dad would tickle me, because I’m finding out he has a sense of humor, which I never knew. I would say this to Dad, and he’d be reading the sports section, he’d put the paper down, he’d go, “Sheesh, Mr. Sensitivo.” I started to see how Dad was one of those men who love by indirection, who love off-the-nose. His conversion wasn’t perfect, because he was born an asshole and remained an asshole, but he was trying, which all his kids appreciated. Every one of us appreciated his attempt.
At some point Nan Talese calls me up to New York. She is the only editor I’ve ever had who needed me to stay in New York, and I think she did that because it showed her mastery of the personal touch; it showed her power in the publishing company that she could get that done. I stayed up there for about five months; I think the hotel was called the Roosevelt, and they must have spent a billion dollars on putting me up there. Houghton Mifflin was located near the Chrysler Building, and I would go over every morning. Nan and I would work side by side, eight hours a day, until the afternoon, when she would give me homework to bring the next morning. Then we’d do the same thing all over again. She repeated this process with Beach Music. Nan works hard; she works her ass off. It’s a hardworking profession when people like Jonathan Galassi and Nan Talese practice it.
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