Daily Archives: October 22, 2015

Conroy At70 – Happy Birthday To Me…

Wendell Minor Design

I’ve always taken great pleasure in reading the biographies of other writers whose books have sustained and gladdened my heart. Yesterday, I finished The Last Love Song, a biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty. Whenever I encountered Ms. Didion’s prose it turned me into a grinning fool because of its strange perfection and her ability to make me see things in ways I never imagined. I once went to dinner with Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne at Elaine’s.

Nan and Gay Talese

We were guests of my editor Nan Talese and her husband Gay Talese. Elaine’s was a watering hole for writers and celebrities and it was proof of their inferior palates that they chose that troubled restaurant to stem their hunger. I found myself in the men’s room with the huge actor Mr. T. that night. When I looked over as I stood beside him peeing, I said, “Mine’s bigger,” and Mr. T screamed with laughter and I’ve loved Mr. T since that moment.

From her writing, I thought that Joan Didion would prove elliptical and mysterious and so she did. A beautiful woman, she took me in with a mermaid’s dark eyes, but they could turn into a cobra’s with the slight rise of an eyebrow. My instinct is to gush when I meet a writer I revere, but long experience has taught me it’s a dangerous instinct. Greg did not warm to my presence and I felt him pulling back from me, an old gunfighter’s instinct I’ve long encountered with male writers, and more frequently now, with women. I was worried that by praising his wife I would somehow diminish him, even though I talked about two of his novels that I’d really liked. I was also aware that Gay Talese might have well been the finest writer at the table that night. So I listened and took it all in and found myself delighted with the account of Joan Didion’s life that I bought the day it was published. The biography was a crash course in what had made me fall in love with Joan Didion’s style in the first place. It had always been a point of amazement to me that Ms. Didion could hide all essences of her self in the beauty of her immaculate sentences. Though I could never fall in love with her soul, I could always be captive to her style. She lacked the interior eye, but absorbed everything that took place in her sight and hearing. As I suspected, she offered Mr. Daugherty no help at all in the writing of his book about her life. He wrote a splendid book without her help and it’s my theory he wouldn’t have learned that much about her if she had granted him full access. Some people are like that; so are some writers.

I’m not like that. I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close. But that knowledge grants me insight and causes me no despair. The journey has defined me, inspired me, and forced me to write on. I’ve tried to read the biography of every writer who has kept me awake at night, thrilled me with their talents to make a world I didn’t know existed, and taken me on a joy ride into the land of fiction that has provided some of the greatest pleasures I’ve ever had. Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of biographies and all of them told me something I needed to know and what to watch out for and the collisions I needed to avoid. They fed the writer in me and all of them told me that the world was the only thing that counted, that what I produced and its quality was all that mattered. It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.

Katherine Clark

I have some reckoning and summation entering into my own life. Two biographers have entered my life and it’s made me take notice of my own troubled, untidy passage through time. Katherine Clark, a novelist and writer from Birmingham, has recently completed an oral biography that she took from over two hundred hours of interviews she recorded over the past several years. I lack all gifts of reticence or caution and every time Katherine relates some outrageous or libelous quote from the book, I wince then swear I never said such a thing. “I have it on tape, Pat,” she says, winning each argument. She has captured me uncensored and the whole thing makes me think of root canals and colonoscopies.

Understanding Pat Conroy

The next biographer teaches English and Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and her name is Catherine Seltzer. She just published a book with the University of South Carolina Press called Understanding Pat Conroy. Catherine has undertaken the cheerless task of writing a conventional biography about me and because my ego has swollen into elephantine dimensions in my dotage, I agreed to do it with one undebatable provision. Under no terms would I agree to cooperate with Dr. Seltzer on an “authorized biography.” Often writers make such demands on their biographers out of a sense of being able to control their stories and what is written about them, their friends, and their family. I wouldn’t participate in an authorized biography for any reason because I thought it would be a betrayal of everything I thought I stood for in life. I told Catherine that if she didn’t include the unexpurgated memories of my friends and enemies, ex-wives and girlfriends, hostile critics and others who have reason to renounce my career and life as a complete failure, her book would be worthless. The stories of when I acted like an asshole need to have equal weight with those rare moments of decency when I was of some credit to my species. There was to be no interference with her conclusions from me or my heirs. Catherine Seltzer agreed to all that. I required her to tell the life story I wasn’t aware I lived or the one I was ashamed of living.

This was all preamble to bring me to the subject of this letter. Much to my surprise, I’ll be turning seventy years old at the end of this month. When I was thirty I think I looked at people who were seventy as frail relics of time who had all seen Ivory-billed woodpeckers and passenger pigeons from their childhoods. I remember going to Kitty Mancini’s fiftieth birthday party in Alexandria, VA, given by her children, Mike, Patty and Sharon Mahoney, my three best friends from my grade school days, and I thought as I kissed that kindest of women that it was a shame she would be dead so soon. The same children gave Kitty a party on her 90th birthday in Richmond last year.

But the subject of death is a frequent one among my friends these days. Terry Kay, the novelist, has announced his demise on a daily basis for the last twenty years. I’ve worried about my friend Anne Rivers Siddons’ health for the last five years. My wife Cassandra is a member of the Hemlock Society and hides potions in her closet I’m not to ask about on pain of divorce court. My irreplaceable friend Doug Marlette died in his fifties in a Mississippi car wreck. Jane Lefco, who took care of my finances, died of an embolism while still beautiful and young. My brother Tim killed himself at 34. I lost eight classmates in the Vietnam war and four of them were boys I loved.

So this number has deep resonance and I’m taking it more seriously than I ever thought I would. It strikes a biblical chord in me. The town of Beaufort is throwing me a birthday party.
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