Blue Bicycle Books, Charleston, SC

Our interview with Pat Conroy

Store owner Jonathan Sanchez interviewed Pat Conroy for the Charleston City Paper on Aug. 6, via phone.

Pat Conroy’s fifth novel charts a group of ten friends who meet their senior year in high school, moving back and forth in time between the Charleston of 1969 and 1989. Conroy’s cast net reels in a wide range of Southern types, from hillbillies who sign their name with an X to descendants of the Lords Proprietors whose name ends in X because they’re the tenth in a line.

Evoking The Big Chill, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Rent, S.O.B is a throwback to the sprawling, cinematic novel. Conroy’s publisher certainly hopes it will be a throwback to better times, at least in terms of sales. They’re touting it as the “Publishing Event of the Season.”

It’s also been called “long-awaited,” but it’s not unusual for Conroy to take years between books. While it has been fifteen years since Beach Music (his last novel), My Losing Season, a memoir of his senior year on The Citadel baskeball team, came out in 2002, and a cookbook in 1999.

Driving the action of South of Broad is a blonde bombshell movie star named Sheba Poe. Conroy should know Hollywood by now – heroes from his books have been portrayed by Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides), David Keith (The Lords of Discipline), and Jon Voight (Conrack, based on The Water is Wide). It was Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Conroy’s abusive father in The Great Santini that ended the estrangement between father and son.

Conroy, 63, knows from estrangement. He knows about being an outsider. He’s spent time as persona non grata with both The Citadel and his own mother’s family. The King of Charleston authors, he lives in Beaufort. (Actually outside of Beaufort, on Fripp Island.) He’s the consummate modern Southern writer but didn’t live in the South for any stretch of time till high school.

 If not as carefully as Ulysses follows the scheme of Homer’s Odyssey, South of Broad is nonetheless painted on a canvas of Joyce’s novel, written about Dublin while in self-exile.

South of Broad‘s hero is Leopold Bloom King. His mother is a Joyce scholar and the book opens on June 16, 1969, ‘Bloomsday.’ Unlike Leo Bloom’s meanderings around Dublin, Leo King’s errands around Charleston are under the careful control of a strong-willed mother.

Jonathan Sanchez, a local writer and owner of Blue Bicycle Books, spoke with Conroy recently about religion, basketball, dinner parties, publishing, self-publishing, Southern Living and southern living.

CP – So, wow. Joyce, huh?

PC — My mother made me read it in the ninth grade.

CP — That’s early for Ulysses.

PC – (Laughs.) Holy God. My mother had read that it was the greatest novel of the twentieth century, so naturally she wanted her eldest son to partake in this. Then I found out she hadn’t read it. It took me like three or four months and I don’t think I got one thing out of it. I read it again in my late twenties and thought it was magnificent.

CP – When did you get started on this book?

PC — About five years ago, when Cassandra [King, his wife and fellow novelist] and I were visiting Anne Rivers Siddons and her husband Heyward up in Maine. I had never been to Maine, and we were up there and I started this book. I’d always wanted to do a return to Charleston, because I didn’t think I’d did it justice in Lords of Discipline.

CP — Do you get up here a lot?

PC – Yes, since Annie moved there. We grew up as writers together in Atlanta, both started publishing about the same time, so I was delighted when she moved to Charleston, even more delighted when I found out she had a guest room.

CP — Is that mostly who you come up and see?

PC — I used to see the Boo, but the Boo died. [Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, the legendary assistant commandant at the Citadel and subject of Conroy’s first book.] I’ve lost a lot of friends, they either moved or died.

CP – How are you feeling? You sound good. [This summer, Conroy was hospitalized for internal bleeding and was in the ICU for five days.]

PC — It’s an illusion. A complete and utter illusion. I got sick about two months ago, totally my fault. Spent some time at the Medical University. The were magnificent, patched me up and sent me back with grave warnings that I had to do what the doctors tell me to do. They’ve been telling me this for thirty years but I hadn’t done much of it. I’m trying to eke out a few more years, you know, write a couple more books.

CP – Do you still work every morning?

PC — I try to. But I do nothing once these books come out, and publishing has changed so much. There’s fear and trembling all through out the industry now. I saw somebody on a plane with a kindle; I didn’t know what it was.

CP — Maybe they’ll invent some way that you can sign a kindle.

PC — I like books, I don’t like reading them off machines. Since you own a bookstore, I know you’re in the same boat I am, and I hope good things happen, that people will still make books.

CP — We’ve been really lucky. We sell a lot of used books. They never seem to stop coming in. You know we’ve got a copy of The Boo.

PC — You’re lying? First edition?

CP — Yeah.

PC — I’ll come up and sign it.

[Conroy borrowed $1500 to publish The Boo in 1970. When an agent later sold his next book, The Water is Wide, and told him and “And here’s the good news:  $7500.” Conroy told him, “That’s crazy. I can get it done for way cheaper down here.”]

CP – You realize that if you sign it it will be worth more than you paid to have it published.

PC – I once took three or four boxes of The Boo and drove to independent bookstores around Georgia and South Carolina. I’d go in — I was humiliated, embarrassed — “Hello, I’ve written a book, would you like to sell it in your store?” “No!” Nobody took them. “We order the books we want to have in the store.” I must have been a ridiculous, loathsome figure. I couldn’t understand why they would not just take the book and sell it. Now I wonder, what did I do with those three fucking boxes? Where did they go? It has driven me crazy.

CP — Maybe it’s with that letter I sent you?

[In the summer of 2003 I wrote Conroy a letter while I was staying at the Kerouac House in Orlando, a bungalow where Jack Kerouac lived in 1957 when On the Road came out. Last month, Conroy came across the letter in a box and called me, not knowing that I was scheduled to interview him.]

PC — The letter, my God. I’m finding more. I’m finding things from 2001, I found a book that I said I would blurb, sent to me in 1998. The crushing weight of my disorganization is affecting my life a great deal now. I was shocked to find out Kerouac lived there. Orlando, Florida, my God. Was he trying to settle down?

CP — Yeah, it was so tragic. [On the Road] came out and he’d go to New York and everyone wanted to buy him a drink. He just literally pickled himself. He set up down there and tried to live this sort of sixties suburban life. Did you read much of him?

PC — I did, I went through a Kerouac period, where I knew I had to go on the road and live life and eat life. I get under the influence of these writers and all kinds of ridiculous shit comes out of it. What amazed me was the way he could type, that amazing typed manuscript from On the Road that’s all one page, and I thought, I can’t do this, number one I can’t type, and number two that’s not the way I work.

[Conroy wrote the manuscript for South of Broad, as with all of his books, by hand. He wanted to take a typing class in high school but his father told that was what secretaries were for.]

CP – You and Kerouac have some things in common. He was a college athlete [football player] and a Catholic. Are you still a practicing Catholic?

PC —  I’m a bad Catholic. Being a Catholic is unwashable, there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s like being Jewish, its like being Black, its like being Korean, you can’t do anything but swing with it. I was utterly taken by that church and shaken around and they will not let you go. It’s one of those things I have gotten used to it — I’m going to be a Catholic the rest of my life, and I can yell about it, I can scream about it, I can not go to church, whatever I do.

[Much of South of Broad centers around The Cathedral of John the Baptist on Broad Street. Carriage tour guides will likely roll by it for decades and say, “Pat Conroy describes the cathedral as sandstone in his novel — it’s actually Connecticut brownstone.”]

PC  — My father, when he was dying, we got the priest over to give extreme unction, and my father told all of his children, gathered around his bedside, that all of us would call for a priest in our last breath. And I said “Why dad?” He said, “You’ll be in terror.” [Laughs.] “You’ll realize you’ve made a mistake, and you’ll want to get all washed clean before you meet our savior.” I said, “You know, that doesn’t seem like a very good calling card for a religion.” And he said, “It’s the one you’re going to follow son.” So we’ll see.

CP — I grew up under Vatican II.

PC — I did too, it ruined me. It completely ruined me. That was a church I thought I could love, I really did. There was so much happening…I really truly thought the Catholic Church was going to be an amazing thing, but brother did they bring in some tough popes after that. My God, this new guy, holy God he’s tough.

CP – There’s a great line early on in the book, almost a throwaway, when Leo’s mom hands him his shotgun and he and his dad go out to check on trouble across the street. “There were times I hated being Southern, other times I reveled in it, and this was one of the latter.” Are you much of a hunter or fisherman?

PC — No. I’ve never been an outdoorsman. Growing up in Beaufort, I was going to school with a billion river rats, kids who fished all weekend, hated coming to school because it interfered their fishing or hunting. So kids I met in Beaufort just were always telling me about it.

CP —  But you don’t throw the cast net yourself?

PC – No, I’ve always liked it when these fishermen, they tell me, “I’ve never thrown a taco, Conroy.” [A bad cast, one that’s folded]. Theirs are always rounded and beautiful, they’re really terrific at it.

CP – What was your first impression of Charleston?

PC — My first memories were my high school English teacher taking me here on weekends. He’d say “Let’s go rambling boy.” He would take me to antique stores and we’d go down King Street; he was the first person I ever knew to use the phrase South of Broad. He talked about it like it was a magical kingdom. Once you learned about it, South of Broad changed the way you looked at the world, changed the way you thought about yourself in the world. What he was doing was introducing me to South Carolina society, and he told me that everybody had to measure themselves against South of Broad in some way, it didn’t make any difference who you were. When you came to the city you become aware of it. I loved walking those streets when I was a cadet.

CP — I imagine back then it was more commercial, a more diverse place

PC — Back then the rich people hadn’t start buying. I went walking there last time I was at Annie’s [Siddons], and there were no lights on, and she told me that people from up north were buying these houses as second homes. They need families down there, they need kids growing up, but I don’t know if it’ll never have that again.

CP — Speaking of high society, you seem to have a pretty good knack for writing the dramatic dinner party scene. The one with Sheba and the mother in this one and the one with the violin dangling out the window in Prince of Tides.

PC – I’ve always found that you have to be on your toes during a dinner party. I was at a dinner party in New York, I think The Water is Wide had just came out, and some New York Times people were sitting around and one of them said: ‘Isn’t it wonderful, not only have Southerners learned to read but some of them have even learned to write.’ I remember wanting to punch the guy across the table…That became the basis for that scene in The Prince of Tides.

CP — I always think of Charlestonians as being very unruffled. Have you ever seen them behave this way?

PC– I’ve seen Charlestonians drunk, I’ve seen them behave any number of ways.

Once you start meeting people there, it’s interesting, certainly that gentility, it’s what they want to emphasize most, but any time I see people with hair the same color as their golden labs, I perk up. I realize okay, I’m entering the territory again. The wealth of South of Broad is mostly downplayed, and sometimes there is no wealth. There’s a name, and there’s a history. I think it’s been tough on the South of Broad people having to sell their ancestral homes. But the pain has been diminished by how much they got for their ancestral homes.

CP – You’re made to be something of a tour guide for Charleston in this month’s Southern Living. [The August issue lists Conroy’s favorite places around town, including my bookstore. I was given this assignment prior to the mention.] We’ve been in some magazines before but it’s been crazy, the response. Southern Living is right up our alley apparently.

PC — That can be embarrassing or wonderful.

CP — I have absolutely no problem with it.

PC– Certainly Southern Living has been a shock to the system in my life, but they have been extraordinarily nice. I once got my feelings hurt at a family funeral. A second cousin, a woman about my mother’s age, I heard her say: “He may think he’s a big shot, but Celestine Sibley’s never written a word about him and he ain’t never even been in Southern Living.

[Sibley was a longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist.]

So I called Celestine up and said, “Celestine, can you mention me next Sunday?” She said, “Sure Pat, tell me what’s going on.” Then I called Southern Living and said “Can I write an article for y’all?” John Logue was an editor there, and I’d met him, and he said, “Yeah, Pat, didn’t you play sports at The Citadel? We need a column on Herschel Walker.” The problem was I was living in Rome, Italy, so I wrote about Herschel Walker without interviewing him. I embittered my second cousin.

CP — Was she a Georgia fan?

PC — She was an Alabama fan.

CP — Do you consciously write knowing you’re going to appeal to men and women so well? You have these football scenes, and the violence, and then you have these descriptions of the architecture, these wonderfully romantic scenes…

PC —  I don’t think, “Will this appeal to women forty-and-above?” My mind doesn’t work that way. There was a writer living in Atlanta who told me he wrote for truck drivers. He said “You don’t write for truck drivers?” I said “I don’t know too many.”

I started out with this little kid [the narrator, Leo], and the one thing I can always get into is a unhappy childhood, because I’ve certainly lived that. What I did in this book which I’ve never done is I decided to write about a nice father, because my father, when he was alive, you know he used to drive me nuts. When I wrote The Prince of Tides, he said, “Hey, I hear I’m a shrimper in this one.” I said, “Dad, please, you couldn’t catch a shrimp in a shrimp cocktail.” Then Beach Music came out and he said “Hey, I hear I’m a drunk judge in this one.” You know, it drove me nuts, it did. Gimme a break. But here’s what Dad said, “You know, any time you write son, when you write the word father, I’m going to overpower any thing you think.” And that was good literary criticism.

           ******

From South of Broad, pp. 159-160.

 

“Your mother is a guest in my house, Leo,” Chad says. “Any of my guests has the right to free speech.” 

“Isn’t that sweet?” I say. “Go fuck yourself, Chad.”

“Easy, Leo,” Niles warns.

“Why don’t we get those steaks on the fire?” Ike adds. 

But neither Sheba nor my mother is finished with the other. Sheba starts by saying, “Mother Superior, may I borrow a tampon? I left all mine at the Betty Ford clinic.” 

“I’d like to wash your mouth out with soap,” Mother spits out. “How dare you say something like that in front of the monsignor?”

The monsignor pats my mother’s hand. “Remember, dear, I’ve spent a good portion of my life in confessionals.  It’s hard to shock me.”

Sheba’s eyes do not leave my mother’s. “It’s acting, Mother Superior, just great acting. Lean back and enjoy the pure fraud of it.”

“Not fraud, my dear,” Mother answers. “I’d call it losing one’s soul a little bit at a time.  I would never twitch my body to arouse the lust of every man who passed by.”

“Hell, Dr. King,” Fraser says, trying to lighten up the room, “I probably would have, but it wouldn’t work for me.”

“It worked on me, kid,” Niles says.

Fraser continues, “Sheba’s a movie star, Dr. King. Being sexy’s part of her job description.” 

            “It’s part of every woman’s job description,” Betty says with a laugh.

            “Being sexy is one thing,” Mother snaps. “Being a slut is another.”

2 Comments

  1. Jayne Schoch wrote:

    Imagine–
    I picked up a copy of ”
    South of Broad” just prior to our summer vacation in Maine–it sounded interesting–I had never read Pat Conroy prior; I enjoyed and felt the story perfectly suited to a friend’s son for high school graduation–was unsuccessful at dealing with the publisher for an autographed copy so located your store on line and ordered a copy and a copy of the other Pat Conroy books you had in stock–
    Began reading “The Boo”. Went to grammar school in Bow, NH w/a boy named Hal Mahar. We both graduated from Concord High School in Concord, NH in 1960. Hal Mahar had been my “first sweetheart at approximately age 12. On graduation from high school, Hal signed my yearbook, “My first love affair–lifetime memories.” He moved on from Concord High School to The Citadel in 1960. Imagine my surprise to find his name on Page 116 of “The Boo.” Have also read with great interest–Pat’s cookbook and share his love of cooking and collecting cookbooks. I have a fantastic collection of cookbooks–l0cal, autographed, and lots from other cultures! That struck a fond chord w/me. To think I just by chance picked up a copy of this author’s work and not only found a personal connection, but joy in his writing and (sarcastic) sense of humor!
    Thanks for the connect and look forward to hearing from you w/other authors you endorse!

    Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Sandra Wagoner wrote:

    Just read South of Broad and remembered seeing that you had interviewed PC. I thoroughly enjoyed both reading the book and your interview. I’ll be leading our book clubs discussion this month and they will be interested in some of his comments. AND it’s just fun for me to follow some of your work as a grown up!

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

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