Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Eulogy for a Southern Gentleman

My desk

 

Here is the way it was in the city of Atlanta in 1973, over forty years ago when the dogwoods bloomed along Peachtree Road and there was a party in the Governor’s mansion in Buckhead. Barbara Conroy and I were new to the city and an invite for a party from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter sounded like a ticket to heaven after being run out of South Carolina. We knew no one in the city until that night and it seemed like we knew everyone when the evening was over. As we were crowding around the doorway to the huge dining room – it was a night to celebrate the writers and journalists in Georgia – I heard the sound of high heels clicking against marble in the old tap dance of youth and radiance and I turned to see Anne Rivers Siddons and her flashy, dapper husband by her side – that devilish boy from St. Albans, the one with that ironical smile he perfected while at Princeton – and he was laughing about something that Annie was saying as they made their brilliant entrance into the heart of things.

They were beautiful to look at. Annie was as pretty and sexy a woman as ever drew breath in the sweet air of Georgia and Heyward symbolized some essence of the Atlanta businessman – sharp, tailored, and successful, every inch of him finely-wrought, brimming with the innate class of the Eastern establishment. To me, this is what I wanted Atlanta to look like – these were the people I’d moved to the city to meet. This was the night I met the writers Paul Darcy Boles, Paul Hemphill, Jim Townsend, Larry Woods, Joe Cumming, Betsy Fancher, Terry Kay and so many more, people I would come to love over the years. By all accounts, it was a magnificent gathering, except that alcohol was forbidden to be served in the Governor’s mansion during the Carter years. Toward the end, the sound of various writers choking and clawing at their throats was heard around the dining room as the first stages of delirium tremens began to set in at the tables to our right and left.

Anne Siddons

So that was how it began on a tender spring day in Atlanta and now it has ended in one of the tenderest springs in the memory of Charleston. I was too young to understand then that the brisk sound of high heels tapping out a rhythmic clatter on Georgia marble would result in a friendship that would last for forty years, that would open up my heart in so many ways I didn’t know it could be opened, and that my life had changed forever by the entrance into my life of this couple born into my life at that very moment.

Here is how Heyward and Annie struck me then and strike me now and time has done nothing to change what I feel about them both. They had sprung alive from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Heyward was shy about revealing his privileged, Ivy League background and I believe it took over five seconds for him to tell me he was a Princeton graduate that night. In our next four thousand meetings we enjoyed Heyward would dip into his high-stepping past and reveal that he had gone to Princeton while I had spent the majority of my youth majoring in “Flamethrowers and Bazookas” at the Citadel. It was an article of faith in our relationship that Heyward believed he had received a better college education than I did. It got so bad that I would enter an Atlanta party, spot Heyward in the corner with Annie, and I’d say, “Hey, Heyward. Tell me now that you went to Princeton so you don’t have to drop it later at the party.” I’d then make my way to the Siddonses, hug both of them, and find out what was going on in their very well-lived in lives. It assured me that I’d always have my first drink of the night while talking to Annie and Heyward.

Heyward Siddons

My association of them with F. Scott Fitzgerald was not accidental. Heyward, in his understated elegance and good taste, had fallen in love with Anne Rivers Siddons who was about to begin a career that would make her a household name among discriminating readers in America. By marrying Heyward, Annie had placed her destiny alongside one of the greatest readers she would ever encounter, her head cheerleader during her remarkable career as the queen of Southern fiction, whose passionate love of her work was just another side to the most successful literary marriage it’s been my pleasure to observe.  Heyward became her number one fan, first reader, first editor, first critic, and the first to tell Annie that what she’d written was original, unique, and even magical. Heyward Siddons found great joy in telling me that he had married the most beautiful prose style in the South. Here is what was remarkable about Heyward Siddons, the Princetonian. He knew it, supported his wife in every way conceivable, and would shout it aloud to the world. He was the first great male feminist I ever met. He made his life a conscious celebration of his wife’s career. Heyward Siddons made it all possible and he made it look effortless.

It was not lost on me that Anne Rivers Siddons was some wraith-like incarnation of that lost soul of American letters, Zelda Fitzgerald. But where her husband Scott was enormously jealous of his wife’s talent, Heyward held his hand over Annie’s realizing its precious flame. It was never easy for women writers in America, and it was especially not easy in 1973. The legendary editor Jim Townsend dismissed Annie’s writing as mere “frou-frou” when I came to Atlanta. Women were held back, not listened to, given the lightest stories to report, and never given the chance to walk as equals in the boys club of Atlanta writers. As Heyward announced to me my first year in Atlanta, Annie was about to change all that, and change it she did. It was Heyward who gave me my first warning of incoming fire when Heartbreak Hotel was published. “It’ll define Southern college life in the 1950s, Conroy, the way Fitzgerald described Princeton of the Twenties,” and it did.

Annie then embarked on a many-pillared career that lifted off into the stratosphere… Peachtree Road, Gone with the Wind’s successor as THE

Heartbreak Hotel

Atlanta novel; Downtown, Annie’s rendition of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, including a grand portrayal of Jim Townsend who once labeled her work “frou-frou.” Fox’s Earth, Colony, The Homeplace came off her typewriter with astonishing speed, proving that hers was a deep, profligate talent that was not bound by any singular geography. Heyward Siddons played policeman, watchdog, and was the furious protector of her privacy as Annie wrote the books that would change our times.

Their house on Vermont served as a pleasure palace for the writers of Atlanta. Heyward and Annie hosted dinner parties that still feel like some of the best parts of my young manhood. Heyward was a refined, articulate host who wrote book reviews for Atlanta Magazine, read the New York Times daily, kept up with the news of the world and literature, kept alive the curiosity he developed in his early career in television and radio, could charm your socks off (on the rare occasions I wore socks), and turn his sardonic, or should I say Satanic, wit on anyone who popped into his newsfinder on any particular night.  He had a special genius for ferretting out any bad review I had received throughout our great land and cheerfully reciting from it as we dined over one of Annie’s shrimp casseroles. You had to be fast on your feet to be a worthy guess at Heyward Siddons’ house. Those conversations sparkled in the Atlanta air.

Remember the click of Annie’s high heels coming around that corner of the Governor’s mansion; I’ve been following the dance of that pretty woman and her debonair husband for forty years now. I followed them from Atlanta to a writers’ weekend in Tate Mountain, Georgia, to this mansion South of Broad, to a wedding in Rome, and to the deep immortal silences of the Maine Coast. For me, the great, unseeable reward I received from watching the marriage of Heyward and Annie Siddons is to be a witness to the greatest love story it has been a privilege to watch. This couple found each other in Atlanta during a time of stormy change in the South. That woman with the tapping heels found a man who did an elegant soft shoe beside her in a dance that would last the rest of their lives. If Heyward and Annie ever fought, I was never a witness to it. If they were ever furious with me or anyone else, I never knew of it. They seemed inseparable to me and I rarely saw them when they weren’t together, a perfect match, a bindery of souls. They taught every writer they ever met the limits of marriage and came close to proving it had no limits. Heyward Siddons taught all the writers in his life how to treat a woman, how to love a wife, how to live a life that was joyful and rich with happiness and worthy of imitation. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, Heyward, you lived a full life with stalwart sons, lovely grandchildren, and a remarkable body of friends.

Heyward and Anne

There were no madhouses or crack-ups, and you let your Zelda bloom into one of the most storied careers ever lived by a woman in the American South.  You made that possible, Heyward, and through Annie’s work you helped launch the careers of Josephine Humphreys, Patti Callahan Henry, Cassandra King, Mary Alice Monroe, Sue Monk Kidd, Dorothea Benton Frank, Rebecca Wells and hundreds of others like them. A writer has never found a better man to accompany her on her waltz toward art. Every writer needs the solid foundation of the love and grounding you brought to Annie’s life. And in your generosity, you gave it to the whole generation of writers who came to adore you and that is your legacy for all time – until our last words are written.

How George R.R. Martin made me love Direwolves, Giants, Dwarves and Dragons…

My desk

Hey, out there…

Since I returned home to Beaufort after my book tour was over, I brought part of the tour back to my house with me. I’ve never found myself attracted to the world of fantasy writing, with a few quite notable exceptions. When I lived in Italy, I came under the sway of Italo Cabrino and his books. The Baron in the Trees, the Cloven Viscount, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and especially Invisible Cities sparked deep ysteries in me. At the same time, I became familiar with the nearly unclassifiable work of Jonathan Carroll who has a narrative voice that can take me places I never knew I needed to go. Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury have brought me many great pleasures and I’ve tried to read as many of the Fairy Tales of world literature as I can. The Arthurian legends have always found a captive audience with me and I read The Once and Future King and few books have ever struck me with the powers of its wondrous imagination. I read it recently and failed to cherish it as I once did and I asked myself if something squirrelly and unappreciative had entered my reading life as I’ve grown older.

I’ve never relished the company of the dystopian novel much, but then I remember Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and that was good enough to shut my mouth for a while. Though I revere much of the writing of Cormac McCarthy, he did not seduce me with The Road. Literary taste is a defining thing in all of us. It is as unpredictable as it is fascinating. I’m as astonished by the work of Jonathan Franzen as I am incapable of reading five pages of Thomas Pynchon. I treasure the works of John Fowles and Ian McEwan and I want to like Martin Amis, but just can’t or don’t. Metafiction sends me running to the hills and always makes me think that I’m not smart enough to understand it. I’m confident enough in myself as a reader to think, “If I can’t understand it, then who the hell can?” The pleasure principle kicks into high gear whenever I pick up a book. Toni Morrison’s prose style is a joy inducing mastery of the language and no one deserves a Nobel Prize more than Alice Munro. Philip Roth is a gift to American letters, but the most celebrated book of the eighties, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, left me feeling like a beast of burden as I slogged my way toward that infinite finish line. A.S. Byatt’s book Possession grabbed me by the throat and held me in its immense thrall until the very end. I hated everything about J.M. Coatzee’s book Disgrace, but could not deny its power and greatness when I completed it. Ann Rivers Siddons’ Colony made me fall in love with Maine and she’s the most southern  woman I’ve ever met. Ron Rash’s Serena made me think about the North Carolina mountains in a way that Thomas Wolfe never did.

I believe I could write like this forever and not remember half the books that made my time on earth a wonderful place to be. The reading of great books has been a life altering activity to me and, for better or worse, it brought me singing and language-obsessed to that country where I make my living. Except for teaching, I’ve had no other ambition in life than to write books that mattered.

"George R.R. Martin... a writer for the ages..."

All of this is preamble to the fact that I met the most extraordinary American writer while I was in the middle of my tour. His name is George R.R. Martin and I think he is a writer for the ages. Over the past several years, I’ve kept hearing about George R.R. Martin from his readers, who often verge on the edge of possession. But my own form of literary snobbism has kept me from reading him because George writes in a field I encounter with much resistance – he writes in the genre of fantasy, part of the lower pastures of world fiction. Despite my love of Tolkien, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Carroll and Ursula Le Guin, I like to spend my reading time among other writers. I had also known personally one of the great fantasy writers of our time, Robert Jordan, which was the pen name for Jim Irvin, a Citadel graduate who got his degree seven years after I did. Jim and I were taught by the same distinguished English teachers at the Citadel and he blazed an amazing trail with his Wheel of Time series that led some to refer to him as the new Tolkien. I read several books in the series, enjoyed them, but never found myself captured by Jim’s world of fantasy. Yet Jim’s books became number one bestsellers on the New York Times bestseller list every time he came out with a new volume. He died of a very extreme form of cancer in the middle of his prime. But his fantasy required a leap of the imagination I was not prepared to give at that time of my life and I’ve regretted it. The last time I met him I asked him if he knew any other college that had produced two writers who had occupied the number one slot on the NYT list. It seemed a rare distinction. A week later he called me and said he’d researched my question and only Harvard had produced more than two.  Naturally, it was Harvard, but for novels like Love Story and Jurassic Park – none of the Harvard heavyweights like Norman Mailer. I thought John Updike had probably made it, but Jim was too happy with his findings and I let it go.

My friend Katherine Clark was the first full-fledged fanatic of George R.R. Martin that I found and she was relentless on the subject. Katherine had published an Oral Biography of my friend Eugene Walter called Milking the Moon. It’s a one of a kind book that celebrates the life of a quirky unknown writer who lived a fascinating and joy-giving life. I did not meet Katherine until she introduced me before I gave a signing at

George R.R. Martin and Katherine Clark

Page & Palette bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama. We’ve been fast friends since. She is one of the few friends in my life who reads more than I do and her eye is cunning and so far infallible. She went to Harvard then wrote her dissertation on William Faulkner at Emory University. Our friendship is based on the books we’ve read and those we are now writing. Two years ago she started reading George R.R. Martin and I listened as a fanatic was born on the telephone. By then, her good taste was a proven commodity, but I listened to her rapture with growing discomfort. She read his Ice and Fire series of five doorstopping books, then re-read them again to see if they were as good as she originally thought. She found them much better. She started throwing out comparisons to Dante and Shakespeare and I thought that the seafood she was eating from the BP oil spill was starting to affect her brain in Pensacola. One of the things I’ve admired about Katherine is that she can read books by people she hates, and if the writing is good, she will surrender her sword and admit to the book’s excellence. I can do that sometimes, but not often.

“Shakespeare?” I once asked Katherine, mockery in my voice.
“Yes, Shakespeare, Pat. We read the same guy and I think this guy might be better.”
“Do you tell your Harvard friends that? Or just us Citadel boys?”
“I tell all my Harvard friends that they’re just like you – they haven’t read him, either.”
“Magic, direwolves, mammoths, giants, dwarves and dragons. I can’t believe I don’t want to read these books.”
“Read them. Then tell me I’m wrong,” she said.
“That’s a deal. If you quit talking about them,” I said.

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