(CN) – Over the course of his 70 years on the planet, Pat Conroy was many things to many people.
To most, he was the author of a string of popular novels — “The Prince of Tides,” “Lords of Discipline,” “The Great Santini,” and “The Water is Wide,” among them — that inevitably fell into the warm embrace of Hollywood.
Two of them, “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini,” were even nominated for Academy Awards.
His gift, it was said, was an ability to make his family’s dysfunction, and the personal pain and sadness they inspired, universal.
To an extraordinary number of people, however, and especially the writers who crossed Conroy’s path prior to his death from pancreatic cancer in early March 2016, he was a tireless teacher, mentor and mischievous, high-spirited friend.
“I don’t know where he found the energy, but he just devoted himself to other writers,” the Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg told Courthouse News recently.
“To those of us who were the recipients of that attention, he was more than a friend,” Bragg continued. “He was an advocate and a champion and a fan.
“And, you know, if one of the best American writers who has ever lived is a fan of your work, then you can walk on air for awhile,” he said.
Writers and fans got to repay Conroy for his generosity and work, during an extended celebration of his 70th birthday in the fall of 2015. Later this week, many of them will once again gather in Beaufort, South Carolina, to remember the man and the writer at the annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival.
Presented by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in partnership with the University of South Carolina, Beaufort’s Center for the Arts, the festival is a four-day salute to Conroy and his legacy as well as a fête to southern literature and culture.
It is the brainchild of Kentucky-born Jonathan Haupt, who served as director of the University of South Carolina Press before becoming the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s executive director.
At the USC Press, Haupt established the Story River Books fiction imprint, edited by Conroy, and together they published an astounding 22 books over a five-year period — a feat that inspired Garden & Gun magazine to name the now-defunct imprint one of the top ten things to love about the South.
But since then, he and Cassandra King, as the author’s widow is known professionally, have devoted considerable time and energy, much to their mutual surprise, to pulling off one festival after another.
“This was not supposed to be an annual event,” King said, a bit of surprise coloring the pride and gratitude in her voice.
“Jonathan and the director of the performing arts center here planned Pat’s 70th birthday celebration as a one-off event, but after it was so successful, he began thinking, ‘maybe we can do this every year.'”
“It was an idea Pat supported,” Haupt said. “And then, just a few months later, he was gone.”
At the time of the 70th birthday celebration, which was equal parts birthday bash, book festival, writers conference, and community outreach program, no one knew Pat Conroy was ill.
Then, on February 15, 2016, the author took to Facebook to announce he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“Hey out there,” he wrote. “I celebrated my 70th birthday in October and realized 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. It was in Beaufort, in sight of a river’s sinuous turn, and the movements of its dolphin-proud tides that I began to discover myself and where my life began at fifteen.
“I have recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With the help of the wonderful people at M.D. Anderson [Cancer Center in Jacksonville, Florida], I intend to fight it hard. I am grateful to all my beloved readers, my friends and my family for their prayers. I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it,” he said.
A month later, he was gone.
At that point it seemed the thing to do was to keep the festival going “as a way to continue some of the things Pat stood for,” King said.
“You’re really casting your bread on the waters when you do something like that,” she said. “Most festivals start out small … and a lot of them fail because there just aren’t enough people who are interested.
“It’s like publishing a book,” she continued. “You put something out there, and if there are not enough people interested, you just have to go and do something else.”
The first year was an inconclusive test for the festival. It drew several thousand to the South Carolina Lowcountry and the small, sea island town that Conroy first called home at age 15, but it was also something of a memorial to the author.
But then, “it just continued to grow,” King said.
“We’re getting more interest from a wider audience and we’re drawing a wider variety of writers as participants and headliners,” she said.
In addition to Rick Bragg and another Pulitzer Prize winner, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, this year’s lineup includes King, New York Times bestselling novelists Sandra Brown and Patti Callahan Henry; South Carolina historian Walter Edgar; Gullah cultural preservationist and performing artist Ron Daise; Tony Award-winning North Carolina string band the Red Clay Ramblers; actor and writer Michael O’Keefe; celebrated chef Sallie Ann Robinson; and Conroy biographer Catherine Seltzer.
A focal point of the proceedings will be “Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy,” newly published by the University of Georgia Press and co-edited by Haupt and Nicole Seitz.
The book, featuring the voices of more than 50 writers and associates of Conroy ranging from Barbra Streisand and Janis Ian to Mary Alice Monroe, Ron Rash and South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth is undeniably part eulogy, but it also brims with the light of their personal relationships with the man.
“The festival — and the year-round programs at the Conroy Center are designed to follow the example Pat set and that so many of us benefitted from,” Haupt said.
“We have something like 45 presenters coming this year, a handful of whom have names you’ll recognize, major writers and Pulitzer Prize winners and the like, and many you don’t know. But that’s the point,” he said.
“This is our chance to do what Pat did so well and take the spotlight and share it and shine it on more than just one writer,” Haupt continued. “We’ll present writers that people will know and show up for, but once they’re here, we’re also providing attendees with a chance to discover new writers. That was something very dear to Pat. It was very important to him to introduce new writers to his readers.”
To those unfamiliar with that side of Conroy’s life, “Prince of Scribes” will prove an eye-opener. Despite having his own writing to do and life to live, the evidence and voluminous remembrances suggest he never got a letter or email from an aspiring writer he didn’t answer, typically with a lengthy phone call.
“I’m not sure people realize how unusual it was, what Pat did,” King said. “Writers are really busy. We have to promote our own books and continue to do our writing at the same time, so even if you’d like to support other writers, it can be hard to do so.
“But Pat was always responding to writers, giving them advice, writing blurbs for their books, three- or four-page introductions for others. A lot of people would say, ‘I just don’t have the time. Pat made the time,” she said.
“If you’ve read his writing in “The Water is Wide,” you know he was fired from a teaching job early in his life, and I think this was his way to keep teaching, to keep mentoring,” she said. “He was genuinely interested in new writers. He encouraged them.
“I mean, he would also tell them, ‘If there’s anything else you can do, you might want to do it,’ because the writing life is tough … you can spend three or four years on a book, pouring your heart into it, and then you may not get it published. … there are no assurances.”
King believes that while Story River Books gave her husband a platform to help other writers, it only formalized a process he’d engaged in all his life — sometimes to an extent that surprises her even now.
“Someone will come up to me and say, ‘I wrote Pat a letter and told him I wanted to be a writer … and I almost dropped the phone when I answered it and it was Pat Conroy on the other end of it. I never thought he would call me,'” she said.
“It’s amazing to think of the balancing act he pulled off — being able to continue to put so much effort into his own work, while devoting so much time to championing other writers and their work,” Rick Bragg said. “Pat lived and worked in South Carolina, and he certainly loved writers in his own backyard, but his reach was all throughout the South and even beyond.”
And Bragg shared another side of Conroy. As big as his heart was, Conroy was also known for a large sense of humor and an unrepentant mischievousness.
Laughing, Bragg said, “Pat was never cynical about helping people get traction in this business … but the more times you lucked onto the best seller list, the meaner he got and the more fun he was.”
“I mean, he was so kind to me … until my first book hit 20-something years ago …,” Bragg remembered, referring to his “All Over But the Shouting.”
“I remember, I was working in the New York Times Atlanta bureau at the time and he called and I was out, and when I got back the message I was given was addressed to that ‘sorry ass Rick Bragg.’ But that was Pat, keeping you grounded,” Bragg said.
“As much as he would hate for people to make a big thing of it, there was just a kindness in him where we all were concerned,” he continued. “You could not count the people that he helped. I really believe that. You know, the people that he touched and encouraged. Because even when you are doing well, this business will lift you up, knock you down, lift you up, knock you down. Pat was a constant in my life. And he was steady.
“And if somebody said something mean about you, he’d call you up and say, ‘Hey, you want me to ruin them?’ He would read a good review [of your work] and make fun of it. And then he’d read a bad review of one of your books and he’d call up and encourage you … it wouldn’t be anything particular he did or said … but he let you know he was in your camp. He was in your corner.”
“Pat passed into myth and legend a long time before he passed away,” Bragg said, “And people that he touched will talk about him with love and appreciation and wonder … forever.”
Bragg compared Conroy’s legacy to that of Tennessee Williams, another writer who continues to loom large in the Southern imagination, years after his death. “Tennessee Williams is obviously not strolling through the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans in his silk suit, but he continues to live on there in a sense.
“Conroy will live on in his part of the world in the same way,” Bragg said. “Pat is part of the muck and the dark water … and certainly the food of the South Carolina Lowcountry. He’s in the thick air there.”
“I think people like Pat believed in ghosts. I never really have, but I believe in his ghost. I very much believe in his ghost, and I believe his ghost will permeate the festival. You can’t evoke somebody’s name as many times as Pat’s will be evoked from now on and have that person or their force go away.
“Every time I see a picture of the Lowcountry or of one of those inland waterways in that region, the first thing I think about is Pat Conroy,” Bragg said.
King said her husband understood the lasting impact a writer could have, and the talismanic quality of place.
“We keep a visitor’s log at the Pat Conroy Literary Center and have been astonished by how many people have come in and how far so many of them have travelled to be here,” King said, before allowing that for the vast majority, the trip to Beaufort, a town of about 13,500 two-thirds of the way between Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, is “a sort of home to Pat.”
And it’s a pilgrimage not unlike the one he occasionally made himself to sites associated with his idol, the writer Thomas Wolfe.
“He was introduced to Wolfe’s writing at an early, impressionable age and he just fell in love with it,” King says of her husband. “Pat was probably 15 or so at the time, knew he wanted to be a writer, and I think what attracted him to Wolfe at first was that it was the kind of writing he was interested in doing — very autobiographical and very florid in its prose with long poetic descriptions.
“And Pat never got over that. He just revered Wolfe, and made a point of visiting his home in Asheville, North Carolina, and placing a rose on his grave. … To pay his respects and tell him he was grateful.
“That, I think, is what we see now with the visitors who come to the Center and the Festival, and I can understand it,” King said. “I remember the first time I saw the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I just felt like falling on it or patting it or something.”
“I guess I’d rather have a lady who wipes the tables at the Waffle House come up to me and say something I’d written was important to her, but right behind her … would be Pat Conroy,” Bragg said.
“Knowing he believed what I did was worth something was validation beyond … well, to have him care about your work and care about you, and advocate for both on a regular basis … that’s better than most accolades I’ve ever gotten,” he added.
For further information on the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, visit the festival website.