The most honest writer in America is gone. Pat Conroy passed away last week and the literary world is remembering him as a giant who used the stuff of his own life to craft unforgettable fiction and nonfiction. I remember him as one of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever been around.
It was 1986. My first novel, Home Fires Burning, was scheduled for publication, and my editor, on a lark, had sent Pat a copy of the bound manuscript. Pat was already a household name in American letters with The Water Is Wide and The Great Santini, both of which had been made into acclaimed movies -- not likely to have any interest in a novice like me. But, incredibly, he did.
Pat had been living in Italy, but came home to do the promotional tour for his new novel, The Prince of Tides, which was becoming a huge success. One of his stops was Charlotte and a signing with his longtime friend, bookseller John Barringer. And one of the publicity events in conjunction was a visit to the television station where I worked.
I made it a point to meet Pat, mostly because I admired his work so much, but maybe secretly hoping some of his talent might rub off on me. He recognized my name immediately. “My agent gave me your book, and I read it on the plane back home. It’s terrific.” I, who made a living gabbing on television, was speechless. Pat was not only effusive in his praise and encouragement, he offered on the spot to write a “blurb,” a brief appraisal that my publisher could use in promoting the book. Over time, I learned that Pat was just that way – a kind-hearted man who always had time to share himself with other writers, especially the new and struggling.
Several years later, I introduced Pat to a standing-room-only crowd at a Charlotte literary festival. We had a chance to visit backstage before the event, and I told Pat that like him, I was raised by a hard-nosed military father. “I’m so sorry,” he said with a smile. Pat’s dad, a Marine Corps pilot, was a monster who browbeat, belittled, and physically abused his wife and children. Pat captured him exquisitely in The Great Santini. My own father was mild by comparison, but Pat and I toted around similar baggage.
Pat was brutally honest in his writing. In both fiction and nonfiction, he used the angst of his youth to craft stories that were so painfully authentic that they could make you cringe and cry. He stepped on some toes and made some enemies, but he did it anyway because he had to. “The reason I write,” he said in an interview, “is to explain my life to myself. I’ve also discovered that when I do, I’m explaining other people’s lives to them.”
Pat created out of himself, and in that, he was a great inspiration to me and so many others who scribble, and even those who don’t. He was the epitome of that oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Polonius says to his son Laertes, This above all: to thine own self be true.
I’m working on a new novel now, and reaching back into my own sometimes-painful youth, the way Pat Conroy did so eloquently and unflinchingly. As I write, I’m aware of a dim figure looking over my shoulder, and with that presence, I feel braver, more sure of myself. No, the Pat Conroy I knew did not die last week and never will.