Though his writing life is now on display at the University of South Carolina, where he was recently installed as Editor-at-Large of a new press, acclaimed Southern author Pat Conroy was kind enough to chat with us about everything from his new projects to how young writers should be spending their time. Take a look, and be sure to take the poll below.
His Unabashed Honesty
“Do you want to be a writer?” Pat Conroy disarms me with the question thirty seconds into our interview. “Novels, I mean,” he adds. It’s like Michael Jordan asking if you want to play basketball or Robert Redford asking if you’d fancy giving acting a go. He offers two responses to my timid “yes.”
His first response is blunt (though true): “I can hear in your voice the rumbling fear that you can’t do that.” His second is much broader but just as true. “Southern writers seem to be having one hell of a time in New York City getting their work published,” he says.
That’s how Pat is. He speaks in literary phrases, has no time for beating around the bush, and is incredibly open–some might say brash; others might say honest. More than anything, he actually seems to care.
E.g. Twenty-five years ago, he’s on an airplane and notices a young man grinning like the Cheshire Cat while reading a cookbook. He tells the man, “Sir, I’ve never seen anyone happier to be reading cookbooks.” The young man introduces himself as a young chef named Frank Stitt and divulges his dream of opening a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. “I said, ‘Pal, if you’re good, you’re going to be a millionaire,'” Pat remembers. “He looks back at me and says, ‘I’m real good.'” A James Beard award would later prove him right.
While Pat doesn’t hold his tongue, there’s a paternal full-heartedness behind his words, which might account for the spotlight he’s shined on his private life by allowing his every manuscript, journal, and note-sheet to be put on display at the University of South Carolina while almost simultaneously accepting a new position as Editor-at-Large for Story River Books, a fiction imprint run by USC’s press.
His New Project: Story River Books
“The one thing I’ve insisted on is that we’re nice to writers who send their work to us,” Pat says. “Every writer gets a nice and personalized letter.” Southern as his kind heart may be, it wasn’t his only reason for accepting the position of Editor-at-Large at Story River Books. “I’ve been watching modern publishing, and it’s changed so much,” he says. “Seven or eight years ago, my agent told me there would never be another book about a small Southern city.”
Pat aims to change this by ignoring the “hunt for the bestseller,” which is “everything” in New York publishing and leaves most of today’s talent on the editing room floor. He admires young writers like North Carolina-born novelist Wiley Cash and praises older ones like Georgian author Mary Hood. When I mention my final LSU semester spent studying under the criminally under-appreciated James Wilcox, he exclaims–as Toni Morrison and GQ have–that Modern Baptists is one of his favorite books, and he’d love to work with its author.
“You mentioned James Wilcox. Isn’t he the kind of person I’m talking about? Can you believe how brilliant he is? Modern Baptists, to me, is one of the great books,” Pat says. “I think there’s a lot of these people all over the place that I’m not aware of.”
And that’s his mission: to find these writers and to give their voices a venue.
USC Collection: His Private Life Made Public
The classic image of a diary chained shut and clasped with a padlock might be childish, but it’s metaphorically on point. We don’t hand our journals out for the world’s perusing. Most of us don’t, at least. Pat’s been writing things down since 1973, when a friend who ran an Atlanta bookstore told him to keep every written word. Now, more than 10,000 handwritten manuscripts and journals, along with 15,000 typed pages, are on display in USC’s library.
“I went around looking at these cases, and it was like ‘Holy ****, what are these people going to find in here?'” he says. ” I was looking at stuff I didn’t know I had, stuff I didn’t know wasn’t destroyed.”
That includes items donated by his family, such as a baby book his mother kept for a few days before abandoning the project. “It hurt my feelings when she quit [updating the baby book],” he says. “She stopped at a page that said ‘Baby’s Finest Attributes,’ and she hadn’t checked anything off.”
Regardless, his response to the collection is “a sort of overwhelmed ecstasy,” even if it might change the way he keeps journals. “What’s hard now is to write in a journal without being self-conscious, knowing this stuff will be on display,” he says, adding that at least his Catholic upbringing kept him from writing down thoughts of too intimate a nature.
When he saved his first handwritten piece in 1973, he never expected to see it again, one bit of his advice for young writers.
His Advice for Young Writers
“The first thing a writer has to learn to deal with is humiliation,” he says. “Going to readings at bookstores where you and the store owner are the only ones there.” After nailing down the art of being red-faced, his advice is simple: write down everything and read everything else.
“I tell young writers the same thing … I say, ‘Keep a journal,'” he says. “[And] I would say, ‘read everything,’ but what I think has taken place in my lifetime is that movies have taken the place of books for a lot of young writers. And movies are great, because one thing they’re always going to have is the story. But make sure reading gets done, and make sure the reading is serious.”
Finally, he suggests what might seem obvious (but often is not).
“Learn to enjoy writing,” he says. “For me, it’s a joy to write. I’m not always thinking ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ when I go to the desk, but there’s a basic joy in doing this.”
And from there, life has a way of working out, even if it makes little sense throughout, even if it’s served with a side of quiet abashment.
“My career is unbelievable, even to me,” Pat says. “I asked if you were writing novels, and you gave me your clearly shy reply. That’s how I started off. That’s how I still am.”