My Trip to Pat Conroy Country
Those who know me very well at all know that I'm a huge fan of American author, Pat Conroy. When I do online author interviews, that's a common question they ask me, "Who's your favorite author?" and I immediately answer, "Pat Conroy." I discovered this iconic southern author when his book, The Great Santini arrived in the mail as the featured book in the Doubleday Book of the Month Club. I wish I knew the year, but I don't. I believe it was in the late 1980s. The book still sells regularly now, although it's
been around since its original publication date of 1976. It's been dressed up with many updated covers since then, but I "believe" my hardcover from Doubleday has the original cover.
Anyway, I read it and was absorbed into this engrossing story about a Marine fighter pilot and his family, in particular his oldest son who carries on his shoulders the weight of that father's expectations and demands. I was hooked, and I bought the author's entire backlist, read everything he'd ever written, whether it was books, articles, Letters to the Editor, eulogies or commencement addresses. And I waited diligently for each new book to be released, although they didn't come nearly fast enough for me. Eventually Pat's people published an author website with links to lots of new material I'd never seen, including a blog where Pat would occasionally write about whatever was going on in his world, which I giddily devoured.
Sadly, Pat passed away in 2016. The world lost a great literary icon who had much left to say. I regretted never getting the opportunity to meet him in person, but I did have one very special connection with him in the form of a short email that he sent me in 2010. At that time in my own writing career, I had written and had five books published by three different publishing companies. I had completed my sixth novel and an author who had heard about a contest I had won, contacted me and asked me if I would swap critiques with her. She would read and critique my manuscript and I'd do hers. I agreed, never knowing that it would be one of the most heart-wrenching experiences in my writing life. Her critique was brutal. Not only did she hate almost everything about the story, her editorial comments were mean-hearted and nasty. As I flipped through page after red ink-stained page, tears welling in my eyes, I wondered what the heck I thought I was doing writing books. If my work was this awful, how could I ever send this book out, and why would I ever consider writing another one?
I was so distraught that I set my manuscript and all new writing aside while I figured out if I would ever write again. Instead, I pulled out all of Pat's books and read them, starting with his first one and continuing on through all the books he'd published up to that point. And his words soothed me. His books reminded me how powerful the written word could be and he helped heal my writer's soul. Four months later, I was ready to get back in the saddle again ... throw that author's critique away ... but go back through the manuscript myself and start fixing whatever was wrong.
Somehow, through my ventures into the internet, I discovered what "could" be Pat's email address .... I believe it was through his publisher. I sent him an email, pouring out my heart to him in thanks for writing his books, and letting him know how they'd healed me through this terrible experience. To my utter shock and delight, three days later, a response appeared in my Inbox. From him! He'd gotten my email and sat down right away to write me back! He started by apologizing for his horrible typing skills: "the son of a fighter pilot was not allowed to take a typing class," which of course I knew already, which is why he wrote all his books longhand. Then he went on to say he was "so glad that you've weathered your tsunami." That every book he wrote broke his heart and tore him apart to some extent, but that is what is required to produce good material. He wished me the best with the book as well as any future writing I did.
To say that I was happy would be an understatement. I jumped up and down yelling, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh" until my throat was raw.
Fast forward to this past week. The good people of Beaufort, South Carolina, Pat's adopted "hometown," have opened a Literary Center focused on Pat and now that I'm a relocated SC resident, it's only three hours away from me. I'd been wanting to get down there for a long time, and this past week, I finally did. I set off in the morning and
when I arrived it was time for lunch. I knew where I wanted to go. In Pat's cookbook that he published in 2004, he tells a story about a Beaufort restaurant called The Shrimp Shack and how he loved their shrimpburger. He'd asked the owner of the restaurant numerous times for the recipe, and she always refused. One day he was on an airplane reading the airline magazine and lo and behold, the owner of the Shrimp Shack was featured in an article and she'd shared the recipe to the magazine! When he landed, he drove straight there to give her a hard time, and she swore that she didn't actually reveal it -- they'd made it up.
Of course I wanted to go to the Shrimp Shack for lunch and have a shrimpburger. I wasn't quite prepared for how very rustic the place was, or for the handwritten sign taped to the door, "We don't accept debit or credit cards." Frantically I checked my wallet -- I don't usually carry a lot of cash -- but thankfully I had enough for a delicious lunch. In keeping with a true southern meal, I chose red rice and coleslaw as sides, along with sweet tea.
On to the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I walked in and immediately a sense of awe and excitement overwhelmed me. It sort of reminded me of a presidential library --
they displayed tons of memorabilia and artifacts that I wanted to immerse myself in. A wonderful hostess named Susan approached me and walked me through the center, telling me about all the goodies ... high school yearbooks and pictures, handwritten letters by Pat to his parents, a hilarious handwritten "Fieldtrip Rules" that Pat produced when he was a teacher, on to posters from four of his books that Hollywood had made into movies; awards, honors, you name it. It was incredible. In one corner sat his desk that he wrote his books on, and his huge comfy chair, and his Citadel basketball team MVP trophy and many many other treasures. I was so thrilled to sit at his desk in his chair and be photographed! Read what he has to say about his desk right here.
Maybe because Susan could tell what a super-fan I was, she invited me to come that evening to the SOLD OUT book discussion event about The Great Santini. As I was preparing for my trip, I'd seen that event, and the fact that it was sold out, but very optimistically tossed my copy of the book in my back seat. Now I was going! I was so excited. Not only was it a chance to attend a discussion group about the book that had made me such a Conroy fan, but it was being led by Pat's brother, Tim Conroy! Susan introduced him to me and he was such a kind, welcoming person.
At the event that evening, the room was filled with Conroy admirers, my kindred spirits, and among them were Pat's wife Cassandra, his daughter Jessica, two grandchildren, his sister Kathy, his homeroom teacher from high school and one of his Citadel classmates. Talking about the book and his life and his writing with so many people close to him was a thrill. Tim started out sharing his thoughts of the book, as well as his memories of when the movie was being filmed there in Beaufort, as well as his father's reaction to the book and the movie. He opened it up to the "wisdom in the room," as he called it, and folks shared what they liked the most, then moved to themes of the book. He played an audio interview with Pat that was done as the book was released,
and it was wonderful to hear his voice, and to watch his family members hearing his voice. Then Tim read us two things ... one, a poem/essay he'd written himself about their father, and then a letter his father had written to his children about his reactions to the book that had very nearly ripped their family apart with its brutal honesty about having this particular father at the head of their family.
When I left, a woman who had been at the discussion drove me the few blocks to the "Tidalholm" house where not only the filming of The Great Santini movie took place, but also it was the house used in the filming of The Big Chill.
It was a magical day. Truly truly magical. It will not be my last visit to the Pat Conroy Literary Center. It is filled with wonderful, friendly and welcoming people who are every day, carrying on the Conroy legacy, ensuring that many more superfans just like me will be grown in the decades to come.