Prolific author Pat Conroy passed away on March 4, 2016. We pay tribute to him by releasing an exclusive dual WD Interview from the May/June 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, in which married novelists Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini and other contemporary Southern classics) and Cassandra King (best known for The Sunday Wife) discuss the writing life, the married life and everything in between.
BY LYNN SELDON
When Cassandra King met Pat Conroy in 1995, the two were in very different chapters of their writing careers. King was a beginning writer on the cusp of the publication of her debut novel. Conroy had spent decades securing his role as a literary giant with The Prince of Tides and other contemporary Southern classics. When Conroy offered to read King’s book, neither could have guessed that by 1997, she’d be Cassandra King Conroy—and they’d be nurturing two writing careers under one roof.
Conroy had begun writing early in life, self-publishing his first book, The Boo, while a student at The Citadel military academy in the ’60s to pay tribute to his time there, and to the powerful influence of one instructor in particular. He then went on to become a teacher himself, and a brief time at the helm of a small, impoverished South Carolina schoolhouse inspired a memoir, 1972’s The Water Is Wide, exposing the shocking conditions he’d encountered there. The book was the beginning of something more for Conroy, garnering awards, critical praise and a feature film adaptation.
He then turned his talents to fiction while continuing to draw heavily on his life experiences to inform his work, and he became known for taking years to craft his beautifully descriptive and often heart-wrenching tome-length novels: The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), The Prince of Tides (1986) and Beach Music (1995) all followed, garnering Conroy blockbuster success on bookshelves and the big screen alike. In more recent years, his work has diversified, spanning the sports memoir My Losing Season; The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life; a 2009 novel, South of Broad; and 2010’s My Reading Life, a tribute to the authors he loves.
King, a writing instructor, published that first novel with a small press in 1995, but it wasn’t until her second, 2002’s The Sunday Wife, became a hit with reading groups nationwide—attracting recognition from People, The Literary Guild and the South Carolina State Readers’ Circle—that the Alabama native began to make a name for herself as a writer in the Southern tradition. Soon, her debut was being rereleased by Hyperion as Making Waves, and she published The Same Sweet Girls and Queen of Broken Hearts in close succession.
Today, the two live and write in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where they’re both at work on new projects. Here, they discuss what it’s like to share the writing life, how their careers and works have grown, and much more.
Cassandra, were you a fan of Pat’s before you met?
CK: I had read all his books and, yeah, it was really exciting for me. I went to a reception for him after he got an award in Birmingham. … I was over at the table stuffing my face, and Pat was there, and I didn’t know that he was Pat until I had my mouth totally full.
PC: I asked what her availability was. Linda, who was running the conference, said, “Oh yes, she’s a very happily married woman to a Methodist minister for 25 years.” So I said, “Whoa!” and went backing off as quickly as I could.
Wasn’t there a book blurb involved?
CK: Pat asked me if I was a writer, too. I said, “Sort of. I’ve got a book coming out.” I was embarrassed to tell him that I had one measly book. I had a few short stories published, but here was Pat Conroy! Anyway, he ended up saying he’d love to read it and he’d give me a blurb for it if I’d like.
PC: Josephine Humphreys, the writer in Charleston, calls those that give too many blurbs “blurb sluts”—and I am certainly a blurb slut, because for the first two or three books, I couldn’t get one. So if I can, I’ll give a blurb. Now it’s become overwhelming; we get hundreds of unsolicited books a year. But I gave [Cassandra] one because I wanted to marry her.
CK: I had no idea. But now that I know Pat, I see how friendly he is. He’s disgustingly friendly.
PC: That is true. Obnoxiously friendly.
Were you surprised that he offered?
CK: I was shocked. The [publisher] asked me about someone to write a blurb, and I got my creative writing teacher, who’s published, and a couple of other folks. I just didn’t even know anybody to ask. The timing was amazing.
What drew you to each other’s work?
PC: I loved her book! I went nuts over her book. And she can do something I can’t do. In Making Waves, every voice is unique—every voice is in first person, and it’s a totally different voice each time. Two of them are male voices; another is a female voice. I can’t do that. If I wrote in a female voice, I would be like a literary transvestite—I’m enchained by the male perspective. But she easily flows in this thing, and I admired that a great deal. I was wondering why she wasn’t being published by a major publisher.
CK: With Pat, it’s probably the same thing that everybody says about Pat. If I could write descriptions like he does, I swear to God, I would think I had reached a pinnacle. Anytime Pat describes the marsh or anything, he uses new similes, new images, new colors.
PC: I get them from Hallmark cards [laughs].
When you began your relationship, then, how did you support each other as your careers progressed?
CK: [Jokingly] Well, I support Pat financially. No, Pat has supported me much more than I have supported him, because he has told me things you have to learn the hard way. You learn from experience, so when I first came down and cried, “I got this horrible review,” Pat said, “You mean you read your reviews? Don’t read your reviews. That’s ridiculous. You get good ones, you get bad ones, you obsess. I stopped reading my reviews a long time ago.”
PC: Here’s why. I give this advice to all writers. Let me tell you the truth about myself. Anyone who loves my books—loves my work—I think are village idiots. Anyone who hates my books, I think are intelligent beyond belief. They are intellectuals, they are the gods of criticism, and I believe them totally. Therefore, as a form of self-protection, I have had to teach myself not to read reviews. You can get 100 good ones. The only one that you notice is that horrible one. I’ve seen reviews that have stopped writers from ever writing again. And she was torturing herself.
CK: There are other things, too—[such as] promoting your book—which I had never done, and Pat’s done all this stuff. So I benefited greatly.
What about for you, Pat?
PC: It’s been fascinating for me to watch a career develop in the same house. Especially since Cassandra came of age in this business. She writes upstairs in the room she denies [me] entrance to. There will be a chapter on my pillow [for me to read]. When I finish one, I’ll put a chapter on the steps going up to her office. And I don’t bother her up there. I told her I’d never bother her when she’s writing.
CK: A lot of time, we don’t see each other during the day.
How much of a role do your writing lives play in
PC: She was the lead editor for me before I sent South of Broad in to Nan [Talese, my longtime editor]. And she did marvelous work.
Did you read as he wrote, Cassandra?
CK: The kind of editing I was doing was because I taught college kids and read 500 million papers.
PC: Repetition is a great flaw of mine. I write a 1,000-page manuscript and I’ve written the same scene over and over again—forgetting that I’d ever written it in the first place. So, it’s painful to my first readers.
Do you ever talk through stories as you’re formulating them or trying to work through difficult spots?
CK: Oh yeah. We’ll bounce ideas off each other. I don’t really ask what he would do for my characters, because I know it would be entirely different from what I’d do. But I love to have someone to whine and moan to. That’s the best thing about being married … otherwise, I’d be walking around talking to myself.
Much of Pat’s fiction is based on personal experience. Is the minister’s wife in The Sunday Wife based on your experience, Cassandra?
CK: Here’s exactly what happened. And this I do owe to Pat. After Making Waves, I had started and done a lot of stuff of what would become The Sunday Wife. But the more I got into personal stuff, I thought, Uh-uh, I don’t want all these people to know what a failure I was as a preacher’s wife. My momma raised me not to air your dirty laundry.
PC: My momma raised me the same way, but it didn’t work out so well [laughs].
CK: So after Pat and I married, Pat said, “I’m surprised you haven’t done more with that Sunday wife experience.” And I started saying, “But I’m really afraid for people to know stuff.” And he was like, “What a coward—go for it!” … [Since then,] Same Sweet Girls was fictionalized, but the group [exists]. Queen of Broken Hearts—about the divorce therapist—my sister had just gone through a divorce, and the story of the therapist’s daughter in that book is my sister’s story. So Pat has helped me to see that there are so many things going on in your own life—that you don’t have to look very far.
What about Lex Yarbrough in Queen of Broken Hearts?
CK: I actually told Pat, “I’m going to make him have your sense of humor and your kind of flippant attitude.” So I did. But I decided to make him a Yankee, so he wouldn’t be so obviously Pat.
PC: She always makes my characters fat.
CK: He was not fat! He was a big man. And he was fit. Very fit and very broad-shouldered.
When you’re both home writing, do you keep hours?
CK: Not really. Pat likes to do five pages. He writes longhand on a yellow pad.
PC: Five pages—that for me is a great day. She does 1,500 pages a day because [mimes typing].
CK: I’m a morning person. Then stop for lunch and errands. Then go back to work ’til dinnertime. If I’m into something, I’ll go back up and work after dinner, too.
Do you think you share an audience?
CK: People tell us that we do.
Pat, you accompanied Cassandra on a 2002 book tour.
PC: I took her on her first Southern book tour. I said, “Cassandra, I can help you out with this.” And all I had to do was to be a monk-like shadow sort of helping out … chauffeuring, helping out, not interfering, not playing the big shot. I said, “There’s one thing you might not have experienced. The book signing where three people show up.” It happens to all of us. It’s killing. It’s horrifying. So we had a couple of those. And then there was a big thing in Birmingham. [To King:] Books-a-Million chose your book.
CK: They were doing the President’s Pick, and they picked Sunday Wife.
PC: She goes in and it’s a full house—like 800 people. I introduced her … and then I said, “Now, Mr. Cassandra King is going to sit down.” She has a huge autographing after that. So, I’m sitting off to the side, Mr. Modesty, taking all this in with great pleasure. A woman comes up to me and says, “I just want to tell you that I came to this convention because of you, not because of your wife. I have read every book you have ever written. I love your books. I’ve memorized pages of your books. I’ve always loved your books. But I don’t think you’ll ever write a better one than Carrie.” She sees me tongue-tied, and she goes, “Well, maybe The Shining.” I heard the next day that Stephen King made a surprise appearance at Cassandra’s signing [laughs].
CK: There was another book signing on the first anniversary of 9/11. I had two people come in.
So do you have to have the same attitude about
signings that you do with book reviews?
CK: You do. But it’s even harder, because you’re there alone. Sometimes people will avoid looking at you. I’ve bought more books because I’ve felt so sorry for people sitting there. I’ll buy them because I know what they are going through.
Do you enjoy book tours, Pat?
PC: I’ve known writers that have just loved them. But it seems to me people like to meet people who have written books, and I’ve seen writers not look up. Young writers, I hear, are just signing their name, not looking up, no personalization. My group—and Cassandra’s the same thing—I talk to everybody: “How ya’ doin’? You from here?” We have a conversation. I think that’s better.
CK: You say, “I don’t want to go.” Then you’ll get there and people will quote something from one of your books, and it’s just so exciting you can’t stand it.
PC: I think it’s a privilege. Even though I’m an old man nearing my death, it’s still exciting to have people read your books and for people to appreciate your books and to talk about that. And I’m the kind of writer that people lean over and say, “I was beaten savagely with a tire iron by my mother all through kindergarten,” and they’ll say their parents were killed and she lit a fire in their house on purpose. So I will get these horrifying stories from fans that think that because my books are horrifying, that I will enjoy hearing their stories. Which I do.
Pat, several of your books have been made into movies. Do you have a favorite film story?
PC: I went to Hollywood to work on the screenplay for The Prince of Tides. The director fired me. So I asked him, “Why’d you fire me?” And he said, “Pat, you don’t understand the story.”
Since My Reading Life was released, do you feel more a part of the writing community? Can you think of any authors or books you wish you’d included?
PC: I come across them every day. I think, My God, that had a great influence on me … writers that are beloved by me. While we were just back there [in our office/library], I realized that I hadn’t included about 100 books that I loved. And there were so many chapters that Nan wanted me to stop, because they wanted a short book from me—a rare short Conroy. And I was like, “Nan, please!” And she said, “No, shut up. Quit. Stop it. We have enough.”
CK: It’s had a tremendous response. You could have a sequel or something.
If each of you could give one piece of writing advice, what would it be?
PC: Go deeper. Always go deeper.
CK: He tells me that a lot.
Do you mean dig deeper into characters?
PC: Dig deeper into character development. Whatever you are doing, just dive as deep as you can. That’s the hardest part, to me, of writing. The easiest thing you can do is censor yourself, so I try not to do that. And the only way I can figure out how not to do that is to think harder. Think more. But that’s also the great joy of writing.
CK: One thing that I tell my students is to always be attentive to local color. That’s how I think I do all the voices [Pat mentioned earlier]. And the dialogue … keep your ears perked for expressions, figures of speech, to make your characters more authentic.
Would you two ever pursue a joint writing project?
PC & CK [in unison]: No!
PC: I told her one time that she should write a Lowcountry novel.
CK: I will never write a Lowcountry novel.
CK: Because I live with Pat.
PC: I think she’d write a great one.
CK: You’ll never find out.
And why wouldn’t you try writing together?
PC: I have collaborated in Hollywood a couple of times and it just seems strange to me. It seems odd to me. I can’t imagine going back to a writing room with Cassandra beside me and us writing something.
So what is next for both of you?
CK: I have another novel set in Florida called A Place of Flowers. Hopefully it will be coming out next year.
And Pat, you’re finishing up a follow-up to The Great Santini, correct?
PC: After Death of Santini, I’m going to a novel based on my teaching high school in Beaufort, where I fell in love with about 240 kids in a two-year period. [I] loved those kids and have never written about that experience. It happened in the middle of the Vietnam War. It was an extraordinary experience in so many different ways. And I’ve been putting this off, for some reason—I think it was to get older, so I could understand it more. After that, I’m going for my Atlanta novel. I’ve never written about Atlanta, and I’ve always wanted to, and good God, I’ve got enough to write about that city to take me to the end of days.
Is there a target date on The Death of Santini?
PC: I’m hoping to finish that in the next two or three months [as of February 2011]. If I can, it could come out in the fall. And I would then begin immediately the book about teaching in Beaufort. I have to write faster now. You hope you are going to live a million years, but it doesn’t always happen that way. You pray for as long of a life as you can, and you pray that your writing stays vibrant and necessary.
Lynn Seldon (lynnseldon.com) is a longtime freelance journalist who has published more than 800 articles and a half-dozen books.