This Saturday, author Catherine Seltzer will join Pat Conroy at the Charleston Music Hall for a discussion about his work and her new book of literary criticism, Understanding Pat Conroy — the first book of criticism written about the beloved Lowcountry author’s work. We spoke to Seltzer about her experience writing the book.
City Paper: What was your first introduction to Pat Conroy’s work?
Catherine Seltzer: I have been a fan of Conroy’s work since I first read The Great Santini, years ago now.
CP: What’s your favorite Conroy book?
CS: I’m not sure I have a favorite book — that title seems to shift for me fairly regularly. I can identity the book I enjoyed writing about the most, though, which was actually a bit of a surprise to me: My Losing Season.
I had approached writing about it with some trepidation: I was really anxious about my ability to address the nuance of the basketball games, a sport I watch but have never played. But as I re-read My Losing Season again for this project, I understood much more fully that the book is a mature articulation of all of the themes that make Conroy’s fiction so powerful. It’s a meditation on the power of writing, the nature of faith, and the reclamation of the self vis-a-vis one’s family. Basketball is crucial to the book, but primarily as it creates space for a consideration of Conroy’s life and identity as an artist.
CP: How did you do your research?
CS: This book is part of the University of South Carolina Press’s “Understanding Contemporary American Literature” series, which relies heavily on close readings of the author’s major works, and incorporates existing criticism, from book reviews to scholarly articles. I also had the added benefit of interviewing Pat Conroy, as well as access to his papers, now housed at USC. He has been remarkably — unimaginably, really — supportive of this project.
CP: Understanding Pat Conroy offers some connections between Conroy’s biographical material and the characters and themes explored in his work. How do you see the author’s evolution through his writing?
CS: Conroy has always identified a strong autobiographical impulse in his work, and in my study, I do try to locate some of the characters and themes of his work in his lived experience. Overwhelmingly, though, I really try to consider his novels largely as autonomous pieces. I think that it can be easy to overlook the power of the work itself if we are trying too hard to see the author in his characters.
That noted, I think Pat Conroy is one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary literature. Midway through my research for Understanding Pat Conroy, it became clear to me that a full biographical study of Conroy was well overdue. With his permission, I am now working on a biography, which seems to me to be a perfect complement to the literary analysis in Understanding Pat Conroy. As I think Pat’s readers know, he is not only a writer, but a real student of literature in the fullest sense, and I think he has been supportive of this project in large part because of his deep love of biography as a genre.
CP: How do you see Understanding Pat Conroy enriching the experience of Conroy readers?
CS: In one of our conversations, Pat mentioned that he was reading a collection of reviews and critical essays. He said that he was delighting in the essays because they helped him to understand more clearly what it was that he had loved about the books they took as their subjects. I thought that was the loveliest testament to literary criticism I’d ever heard, and in that spirit I hope that Understanding Pat Conroy helps Conroy’s readers to think about what it is that they love about his work in new ways.