Conroy talks about 'Reading Life' — and writing life

The Baltimore Sun

Actors as different as Jon Voight, Michael O'Keefe, David Keith and Nick Nolte have played writer Pat Conroy and his fictional surrogates in a string of memorable movies. Roll them all together, with their rough edges intact, and you wouldn't achieve the total range of his creative personality.

A partial list of his work includes "The Water is Wide" (filmed as "Conrack"), a straightforward, ebullient teaching memoir; "The Great Santini," an intensely focused character study of a tyrannical Marine ace; "The Lords of Discipline," a hard-hitting fictional exposé of initiation rites at a military college; and "The Prince of Tides," a lush, traumatic Southern family epic.

His new book, "My Reading Life," demonstrates that as a writer and a reader, Conroy, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes.

"I was born to be in a library," he declares in its pages. So it's doubly fitting that this coming Saturday, he becomes the recipient of the 2010 Pratt Lifetime Literary Achievement Award.

In "My Reading Life," Conroy extols, precisely and extravagantly, the virtues of books as spare as "The Catcher in the Rye" and as brimming with characters, incident and history as "War and Peace." Because he consumes and creates literature as if his life depends on it, he didn't want this book to ever end.

In a phone interview last week, he said that his editor, Nan A. Talese, "had to stop me from writing 30 more chapters. I think she wanted me to write a little 150-page ode to reading. But I got fired up about the project. I'm passionate about books. Books can change your life — I know they changed mine. And maybe there was something else: This is the first book in which I didn't have all my characters cussing the way all of us '60s-era people cussed. For once, I was writing something that could be kept in a high school classroom."

Writing a book that lands in an English class is no idle fantasy for Conroy. As he wrote in "My Losing Season," his memoir of his days as a student basketball player, "The great teachers fill you with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life."

Conroy, 65, needed that hope and that embrace. His father, the model for "The Great Santini," was a macho Marine pilot who abused his wife and children. Conroy's mother "used reading as a text of liberation, a way out of the sourceless labyrinth that devoured poor Southern girls like herself." She "hungered for art, for illumination, for some path to lead her to a shining way to call her own." Conroy's mother "lit signal fires in the hills for her son to feel and follow."

But it was Gene Norris, Conroy's high school English teacher in Beaufort, S.C., who opened his mind to the transcendent qualities of literature, to the roots of art in life and to the transformational power art can have on life. He also gave his most gifted pupil Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel."

"I went nuts when Gene Norris gave me that book for Christmas," Conroy said. "I was a military brat who had a different address every year of my life. I was an abused kid in a constantly moving, friendless family, and I felt that the family in Wolfe's book mirrored my own in a very different way."

In "My Reading Life," Conroy writes, "Because I could feel the overwhelming love that Wolfe experienced when he wrote about his maddening and outrageous father, he handed me the means to begin the long, excruciating process of learning how not to hate my own. Literature can do many things; sometimes it can even do the most important things."

Wolfe's book was more than therapy for Conroy; it was an aesthetic milestone. "It still has that power over me," Conroy said last week. He has remained loyal to it, though generations of critics and scholars have denigrated its capacious, charged and sometimes overly abstract or poetic prose. Early on, his teachers tried to restrain his Wolfean impulse by handing him copies of Hemingway.

But, he said, "I was never going to be a part of any minimalist trend." He saw in Wolfe's lyrical outpourings a struggle for exactness as well as amplitude. "My own overripe, pretentious prose style has been with me since the beginning. That is my personality. I cannot change these things," he said.

Can we call him a maximalist? "I love that!" Conroy exclaimed. "That's what I am, an unrepentant maximalist."

His grasp of literature is universal. Yet his evening at the Pratt will celebrate Southern culture. And Conroy is proud of his regional identity. "I owe my mother this. My dad was Irish Catholic from Chicago, but he told me nothing about being an Irish Catholic from Chicago. My mother was a fierce Southerner who told me, 'Don't ever be ashamed of where you come from.' " He's amused at high-toned literary types who are "as Southern as cheese grits" but disdain "Southern writing as being all about hound dogs and dead mules." He calls them "Southern deniers."

Conroy's approach to literature is sensual and instinctive. The act of writing is a physical pleasure for him: He continues to compose his books with fountain pens on legal pads. He's currently working on a nonfiction book about the man his father became after the publication of "The Great Santini." When his mother sued for divorce, she contended, "It's all there," as she handed the judge a copy of the novel. "But by the time my father died," Conroy said, "he was a greatly loved man. I loved him unflinchingly. I think Dad deserved my looking at this change."

Conroy's artistic expansiveness leads him to see people and institutions whole. He has been the most eloquent critic and fiercest defender of his alma mater, The Citadel (the Military College of South Carolina). Most important, he gave the eulogy at his father's funeral. Wolfe, who aimed to capture all sides of everything, died in Baltimore in 1938. If Conroy speaks with his usual humor and gusto, he will revive Wolfe's spirit at the Pratt on Saturday.

If you go

On Saturday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St., doors open at 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. conversation with Pat Conroy. A soiree with Southern food and Southern blues will follow. Tickets are $125 and are available at or by calling 410-396-5283.

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