Pat Conroy's fifth novel, South of Broad, charts a group of 10 friends who meet their senior year in high school, moving back and forth in time between the Charleston of 1969 and 1989. Conroy's cast net reels in a wide range of Southern types, from hillbillies who sign their name with an X to descendants of the Lords Proprietors whose name ends in X because they're the tenth in a line.
Evoking The Big Chill, Joyce's Ulysses, and Rent, South of Broad is a throwback to the sprawling, cinematic novel of yesteryear. Conroy's publisher certainly hopes it will be a throwback to better times, at least in terms of sales. They're touting it as the "Publishing Event of the Season."
It's also been called "long-awaited," but it's not unusual for Conroy to take years between books. While it has been 15 years since Beach Music (his last novel), My Losing Season, a memoir of his senior year on The Citadel basketball team, came out in 2002, and in 1999, he released a cookbook, The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life.
South of Broad's hero is Leopold Bloom King. His mother is a Joyce scholar and the book opens on June 16, 1969, a.k.a. Bloomsday. Unlike Leo Bloom's meanderings around Dublin, Leo King's errands around Charleston are under the careful control of a strong-willed mother. If not as carefully as Ulysses follows the scheme of Homer's Odyssey, South of Broad is nonetheless painted on a canvas of Joyce's novel, written about Dublin while in self-exile.
"I started out with this little kid [the narrator, Leo]," Conroy says about the new novel, "and the one thing I can always get into is an unhappy childhood, because I've certainly lived that. What I did in this book which I've never done is I decided to write about a nice father, because my father, when he was alive, you know he used to drive me nuts. When I wrote The Prince of Tides, he said, 'Hey, I hear I'm a shrimper in this one.' I said, 'Dad, please, you couldn't catch a shrimp in a shrimp cocktail.' Then Beach Music came out, and he said, 'Hey, I hear I'm a drunk judge in this one.' You know, it drove me nuts, it did. Gimme a break. But here's what Dad said, 'You know, any time you write son, when you write the word 'father,' I'm going to overpower anything you think.' And that was good literary criticism."
Like all of his books, Conroy wrote the manuscript for South of Broad by hand. He wanted to take a typing class in high school but his father told him that was what secretaries were for.
Driving the action of South of Broad is a blond bombshell movie star named Sheba Poe. Conroy should know Hollywood by now — heroes from his books have been portrayed by Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides), David Keith (The Lords of Discipline), and Jon Voight (Conrack, based on The Water Is Wide). It was Robert Duvall's portrayal of Conroy's abusive father in The Great Santini that ended the estrangement between father and son.
Even though Conroy's the celebrated King of Charleston authors, he lives in Beaufort. (Actually outside of Beaufort, on Fripp Island.) He's the consummate modern Southern writer, but oddly enough, he didn't live in the South for any stretch of time until high school.
Conroy's career began in 1970 when he borrowed $1,500 to publish The Boo, about Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, the legendary assistant commandant at The Citadel. This summer, the 63-year-old Conroy was hospitalized for internal bleeding and was in the ICU for five days. He has since recovered.
Jonathan Sanchez, a local writer and owner of Blue Bicycle Books, spoke with Conroy recently about religion, basketball, dinner parties, publishing, self-publishing, Southern Living and southern living.
In the summer of 2003. Sanchez wrote Conroy a letter while the bookstore owner was staying at the Kerouac House in Orlando, a bungalow where Jack Kerouac lived in 1957 when On the Road came out. Last month, Conroy came across the letter in a box and called the reporter, not knowing that he was scheduled to interview him.
The August issue of Southern Living lists Conroy's favorite places around town, including Blue Bicycle Books. Sanchez was given this assignment prior to the mention.
City Paper: So, wow. Joyce, huh?
Pat Conroy: My mother made me read it in the ninth grade.
CP: That's early for Ulysses.
PC: (Laughs.) Holy God. My mother had read that it was the greatest novel of the 20th century, so naturally she wanted her eldest son to partake in this. Then I found out she hadn't read it. It took me like three or four months, and I don't think I got one thing out of it. I read it again in my late 20s and thought it was magnificent.
CP: When did you get started on this book?
PC: About five years ago, when Cassandra [King, his wife and fellow novelist] and I were visiting Anne Rivers Siddons and her husband Heyward up in Maine. I had never been to Maine, and we were up there and I started this book. I'd always wanted to do a return to Charleston, because I didn't think I'd done it justice in Lords of Discipline.
CP: Do you get up here a lot?
PC: Yes, since Annie moved there. We grew up as writers together in Atlanta, both started publishing about the same time, so I was delighted when she moved to Charleston, even more delighted when I found out she had a guest room.
CP: Is that mostly who you come up and see?
PC: I used to see the Boo, but the Boo died. I've lost a lot of friends; they either moved or died.
CP: How are you feeling? You sound good.
PC: It's an illusion. A complete and utter illusion. I got sick about two months ago, totally my fault. Spent some time at the Medical University. They were magnificent. Patched me up and sent me back with grave warnings that I had to do what the doctors tell me to do. They've been telling me this for 30 years, but I hadn't done much of it. I'm trying to eke out a few more years, you know, write a couple more books.
CP: Do you still work every morning?
PC: I try to, but I do nothing once these books come out, and publishing has changed so much. There's fear and trembling all throughout the industry now. I saw somebody on a plane with a Kindle; I didn't know what it was.
CP: Maybe they'll invent some way that you can sign a Kindle.
PC: I like books, I don't like reading them off machines. Since you own a bookstore, I know you're in the same boat I am, and I hope good things happen, that people will still make books.
CP: We've been really lucky. We sell a lot of used books. They never seem to stop coming in. You know we've got a copy of The Boo.
PC: You're lying? First edition?
PC: I'll come up and sign it.
CP: You realize that if you sign it, it will be worth more than you paid to have it published.
PC: I once took three or four boxes of The Boo and drove to independent bookstores around Georgia and South Carolina. I'd go in — I was humiliated, embarrassed — "Hello, I've written a book, would you like to sell it in your store?" "No!" Nobody took them. "We order the books we want to have in the store." I must have been a ridiculous, loathsome figure. I couldn't understand why they would not just take the book and sell it. Now I wonder, what did I do with those three fucking boxes? Where did they go? It has driven me crazy.
CP: Maybe it's with that letter I sent you?
PC: The letter, my God. I'm finding more. I'm finding things from 2001, I found a book that I said I would blurb, sent to me in 1998. The crushing weight of my disorganization is affecting my life a great deal now. I was shocked to find out Kerouac lived there. Orlando, Fla., my God. Was he trying to settle down?
CP: Yeah, it was so tragic. [On the Road] came out, and he'd go to New York and everyone wanted to buy him a drink. He just literally pickled himself. He set up down there and tried to live this sort of '60s suburban life. Did you read much of him?
PC: I did, I went through a Kerouac period, where I knew I had to go on the road and live life and eat life. I get under the influence of these writers and all kinds of ridiculous shit comes out of it. What amazed me was the way he could type. That amazing typed manuscript from On the Road, that's all one page, and I thought, I can't do this. No. 1, I can't type, and No. 2, that's not the way I work.
CP: You and Kerouac have some things in common. He was a college athlete [football player] and a Catholic. Are you still a practicing Catholic?
PC: I'm a bad Catholic. Being a Catholic is unwashable. There's nothing you can do about it. It's like being Jewish. It's like being black. It's like being Korean. You can't do anything but swing with it. I was utterly taken by that church and shaken around, and they will not let you go ... My father, when he was dying, we got the priest over to give extreme unction, and my father told all of his children, gathered around his bedside, that all of us would call for a priest in our last breath. And I said, "Why dad?" He said, "You'll be in terror. [Laughs.] You'll realize you've made a mistake, and you'll want to get all washed clean before you meet our savior." I said, "You know, that doesn't seem like a very good calling card for a religion." And he said, "It's the one you're going to follow son." So we'll see.
CP: What was your first impression of Charleston?
PC: My first memories were my high school English teacher taking me here on weekends. He'd say "Let's go rambling boy." He would take me to antique stores and we'd go down King Street; he was the first person I ever knew to use the phrase South of Broad. He talked about it like it was a magical kingdom.
Once you learned about it, South of Broad changed the way you looked at the world, changed the way you thought about yourself in the world. What he was doing was introducing me to South Carolina society, and he told me that everybody had to measure themselves against South of Broad in some way; it didn't make any difference who you were.
CP: I imagine back then it was more commercial, a more diverse place
PC: Back then the rich people hadn't started buying. I went walking there last time I was at Annie's [Siddons], and there were no lights on, and she told me that people from up North were buying these houses as second homes. They need families down there, they need kids growing up, but I don't know if it'll ever have that again.
CP: I always think of Charlestonians as being very unruffled. Have you ever seen them behave this way?
PC: I've seen Charlestonians drunk. I've seen them behave any number of ways. Once you start meeting people there, it's interesting. Certainly that gentility, it's what they want to emphasize most, but any time I see people with hair the same color as their golden labs, I perk up. I realize okay, I'm entering the territory again. The wealth of South of Broad is mostly downplayed, and sometimes there is no wealth. There's a name, and there's a history. I think it's been tough on the South of Broad people having to sell their ancestral homes. But the pain has been diminished by how much they got for their ancestral homes.
CP: You're made to be something of a tour guide for Charleston in this month's Southern Living. We've been in some magazines before but it's been crazy, the response. Southern Living is right up our alley apparently.
PC: That can be embarrassing or wonderful.
CP: I have absolutely no problem with it.
PC: Certainly Southern Living has been a shock to the system in my life, but they have been extraordinarily nice. I once got my feelings hurt at a family funeral. A second cousin, a woman about my mother's age, I heard her say, "He may think he's a big shot, but Celestine Sibley's never written a word about him, and he ain't never even been in Southern Living. [Sibley was a longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist.]
So I called Celestine up and said, "Celestine, can you mention me next Sunday?" She said, "Sure Pat, tell me what's going on." Then I called Southern Living and said "Can I write an article for y'all?" John Logue was an editor there, and I'd met him, and he said, "Yeah, Pat, didn't you play sports at The Citadel? We need a column on Herschel Walker." The problem was I was living in Rome, Italy, so I wrote about Herschel Walker without interviewing him.
CP: Do you consciously write knowing you're going to appeal to men and women so well? You have these football scenes, and the violence, and then you have these descriptions of the architecture, these wonderfully romantic scenes ...
PC: I don't think, "Will this appeal to women 40 and above?" My mind doesn't work that way. There was a writer living in Atlanta who told me he wrote for truck drivers. He said, "You don't write for truck drivers?" I said "I don't know too many."