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Literary legend Pat Conroy remembered at Decatur Book Festival keynote

Five of Pat Conroy's friends and family members took the stage as the Decatur Book Festival kicked off at Emory, paying tribute to the late writer with personal stories and poignant readings. From left to right, they are Cassandra King Conroy, Ron Rash, Melissa Conroy, Bronwen Dickey and Rick Bragg, with Decatur Book Festival Executive Director Daren Wang at the podium.

Five friends and family members, themselves fine writers, would seem enough of a force — finally — to get in the last word with regard to a late literary legend. Unless that person happens to be the indomitable Pat Conroy.

The Decatur Book Festival kicked off Friday night with its keynote event, "The Life and Works of Pat Conroy," hosted by Emory at the sold-out Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The author of eleven novels, Conroy died March 4 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

A truth-teller’s travails

Rosemary Magee, director of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, reminded audience-goers of Emory’s commitment to the arts, saying, “We place the highest emphasis on literature and art — everything that stitches meaning into the texture of our lives.”

As lives go, Conroy’s could not have been lived more loudly. He took personal pain — an abusive Marine father and the battles with mental illness that affected him and his siblings — and baked it into his books, come what may.

His breakthrough novel about his father, “The Great Santini,” published in 1976, “roared through my family like a nuclear device,” said Conroy. “My father hated it; my grandparents hated it; my aunts and uncles hated it.” Yet, when his mother eventually filed for divorce, this work of fiction contained enough truth that she submitted it to the judge as evidence of spousal abuse.

Perhaps it was, as his daughter Melissa Conroy observed during her time at the podium, that “storytellers have their own truth, and facts don’t necessarily have to play into that, right?”

Melissa Conroy joined her stepmother, Cassandra King Conroy, as well as Ron Rash, Bronwen Dickey, and Rick Bragg in tribute to her father. Each was asked to share a memory of him as well as read a passage from his works. What follows is a scorecard of sorts for the valiant souls who dared try to “out-story” the master or, failing that, at least counter some of his more memorable exaggerations.

Wit and eternal wisdom

King Conroy — who married Conroy in 1998 and is the author of five novels— took the microphone first and acknowledged that Conroy usually got the better of anyone with whom he did battle. However, she recounted one time when “his smart mouth got him good.”

Conroy and his wife were in Atlanta for an event and had been led up to their room, in a “ritzy hotel,” by a “dignified older gentleman.” The hotel employee mentioned hearing that both of the Conroys were writers.

“‘Yep,’ said Pat, ‘but my wife writes pornography while I write nothing but Christian fiction.’ The man threw his arms up and said, ‘Praise the Lord! I host a Christian radio show on WSB, so I know that the Lord must have sent you this way.’” As she ran from the room to hide her laughter, his wife reported that it was the first time, in nearly 20 years of marriage, that she saw Conroy “utterly speechless.”

King Conroy acknowledged that choosing a reading was “one of the hardest assignments I ever have been given” and instead opted for a single line that, she said, has become even more resonant since her husband’s death. “There is no teacher more discriminating nor transforming than loss,” Conroy wrote. As she concluded her remarks, his wife said, “Losing you has left us devastated but not destroyed because you have given us the eternal wisdom of your words.”

Book signings from hell

Ron Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University, invoked the relentless one-upmanship of Conroy, noting, “If I said, ‘I got bit by a copperhead while trout fishing,’ he would say, ‘I got bit by a king cobra.’”

Rash is a much-decorated novelist, poet and short story writer, but he chose to tell of a time when he was not feeling the love of his readers. At a dinner with Conroy and others in Florida, Rash described his worst-ever book signing, during which he sat for three hours without engendering anyone’s interest. As he noted, “Only one person came within 10 feet of me — an angry-looking nun who picked up my book, smirked and then put it back down.”

The dinner guests laughed uproariously, but Conroy came back with, “I can top that.” And so he did, describing a similarly lonely vigil at a signing for his first self-published book. Finally, as Rash told it, “a gentleman came up, they talked for a while, then Pat signed his book, and the man fell over and died.”

To the audience’s delight, Rash read from the beginning of the novel most consider Conroy’s finest, “Prince of Tides,” about his childhood in the South Carolina low country. The passage begins with the beautiful, unforgettable lines, “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”

It’s a bird…

Melissa Conroy spoke of being pretty sure that her father “was playing tricks on us from somewhere else.” One proof, she said, was that as she and her sister Megan drove across the bridge to Fripp Island on the day of Conroy’s funeral service, sea birds were feeding and flying low. Among them was a large osprey weighed down with a big fish. Before they knew it, smack! The osprey glanced off the windshield. Megan exclaimed, “That is so f---ing symbolic. That was dad.”

For her passage, Melissa read from the essay "A Southerner in Paris," which appears in “My Reading Life.” In Paris to complete “The Lords of Discipline,” Conroy does so and is finishing up his business: buying a soccer ball with the word “France” on it for the young Melissa, checking his mail at the American Express office, and walking once more down the rue de Seine.

While doing so, there is an explosion in a jewelry shop, and Conroy is the only person in a position to help the proprietor. As he describes it, “I turned toward that scream, toward the last afternoon in Paris, toward my own small, insubstantial part in the history of the city, toward the dazzlement of human fate, and I saw a man on fire.” The prose is incandescent, with Conroy concluding, “I had walked into one of those rare, elemental moments of definition when I would be a different human being from what I was ever meant to be.”

‘Conroying’ it forward

Bronwen Dickey is the daughter of James Dickey, who was Conroy’s poetry teacher at the University of South Carolina. Though now a seasoned writer with much magazine work behind her and a new nonfiction book, as she described it, “I would not be a writer today were it not for the encouragement of Pat Conroy. And I mean that in the most literal sense. He opened doors that were much too heavy for me to budge on my own. He did it over and over again during the course of my life.”

Dickey and Conroy met on what she describes as the “most difficult day of my life,” her father’s funeral. They did not meet again until 10 years later when Dickey, full of self-doubt, was meandering through an MFA program; the two talked at a University of South Carolina event.

Conroy soon thereafter called her to say that he had recommended her work to the editor of a new magazine, Garden & Gun. Says Dickey, “What was interesting about this was that, when Pat made this recommendation, he had never seen my work because my work, if you could call it that, did not exist.

"All I had to show were overwrought drafts about things that were either pretentious or irrelevant. But Pat was a person who kept the faith for you long after you had lost faith in yourself. In that way, he was the Vince Lombardi of creative writing.”

Dickey had hoped to give Conroy a copy of her first book, “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon,” to which he contributed a blurb. However, he died just before she could do so. So, she keeps Conroy’s copy of the book on a shelf, his four-page, handwritten letter of encouragement to her tucked inside.

The flock

Rick Bragg, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his feature writing at the New York Times, was last up — the final hope as far as one-upping Conroy. And he started strong, poking fun at Conroy for starting every phone conversation by saying, “I now see that it is up to me to keep this dying friendship alive.”

He also, even more so than Conroy’s wife, has been the victim of Conroy’s familiar scam, constantly telling audiences when he spoke that Bragg wrote pornography. That prompted, said Bragg, “little old ladies, four feet tall,” to ask him about this at his events. Some of these same old ladies would show up again at Conroy events, and he would soberly tell them that it was true — scout’s honor. In this way, said Bragg, “It would go round and round. Finally, I have the last word.”

Acknowledging that he and Conroy were both “the sons of hard men,” Bragg talked about the culture of not showing emotion in which they had been raised. But he put that aside on this night, revealing that as he tried to get through a reading of Conroy’s work in his hotel room, “Every time I would read a sentence or two out loud, I would start to cry. I couldn’t get through a paragraph.”

Instead, Bragg opted to talk to the audience about a character in “The Lords of Discipline” known as The Boo. Jut-jawed, sporting a crew cut and chomping a cigar, he was an intimidating figure yet, said Bragg, “he found value in pretty much every life.” Comparing Conroy with The Boo, Bragg continued, “The Boo was that person you went to, whom you could count on, who lifted you up — a lot like someone else I know.” The Boo claimed there were several types of cadets, one of which he called the lambs.

As Bragg concluded, emotion clearly audible in his voice, he said, “What Pat loved more than anything was stories. He could write ‘em, tell ‘em, catch ‘em. In that sense, we are all his lambs.”

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