Q&A with Pat Conroy and Cassandra King
Pat Conroy and Cassandra King are literary royalty in South Carolina. The couple live in Beaufort overlooking Battery Creek. Both have new books they are promoting. King’s “Moonrise” is her fifth novel.
Conroy’s “The Death of Santini” is his last literary wrangling with his famously dysfunctional family. Earlier this month, they spent the better part of an afternoon discussing their writing lives.
Q: Cassandra, Got any movies in the works?
Cassandra King: No. We’ve had lots of nibbles, mostly for “The Sunday Wife,” that was my second novel. Nothing’s come up. Pat’s taught me that the movie business is so bizarre anyway. He’s sold almost all of his. Some of them haven’t been made.
Q: How are things going so far with “Moonrise”?
King: I have to modestly say I’m getting good reaction. It’s been six years since my last book came out. So I wasn’t sure. You get forgotten during a period of several years. Pat was 14 years (before) “Beach Music,” but he had some nonfiction come out in that time. I hadn’t been on the road. So much of publishing has changed. I’ve gotten a lot of interest from readers and a lot of talk that the book is a little different than my others, it’s darker, and then it has the Gothic element, which I’ve never done before.
Q: People are thrilled for you, they haven’t forgotten you at all, they have been waiting.
King: That’s what has been so gratifying. I’ve had people say they’ve been waiting a long time for this book.
Q: You started writing seriously, for publication, late in your life, deferring career in favor of family. Now you seem to be on a roll.
King: Once I got started I couldn’t stop. I actually was a Sunday Wife, which is a minister’s wife, in my previous life.
Pat Conroy: She was married to a Muslim iman.
King: I was not, don’t listen to a word he says. So I put my writing career on the back burner partly because I should have, according to the church; I was trying to live up to the expectations of everyone else.
I really got into it, but I was writing in secret the whole time. I was still writing. I wasn’t doing anything about publication. Then I went back to get a Master’s in English because I started teaching at a junior college in Birmingham, started teaching remedial English.
So my first book (“Making Waves”) was my master’s thesis. I never thought I would write a novel. I though novels were overwhelming. My book came out in 1995. I sold it in the early 1990s. It took a while for them to get it out.
I came from a family of readers but I wasn’t really encouraged to be a writer. I was raised in a farm family. Things like that would be frivolous. You had to earn a living. When I was going to get a degree in English my mother said well, you have to get a teaching certificate. Once you get married, something might happen to your husband, you need to support yourself.
Q: What kind of farm?
King: It was a family (peanut) farm; my father and his father farmed. I got divorced before my book came out. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence or what.
Q: Just before?
King: Pretty much.
Q: What did your former husband say?
Q: Do you only write novels?
King: No, I’ve published some essays and a couple of short stories since then.
Q (for Pat Conroy): “The Death of Santini” is a kind of final reckoning. But surely you are not done writing?
Conroy: Not done writing. But I think my obsession with my mother and father ended with this book. They certainly made an impression on this one older son, and they made the same impression on the rest of their kids. They were overwhelming. ... I felt it was time for me to leave that childhood-ruined boy behind me.
Q: In the new book, does family factor in.
Conroy: They do not. I have an only child. So I will get no crap from my brothers and sisters.
Bernie (Schein) and I took a movie course taught by Tim Belk, my gay friend from San Francisco. The only film I saw at The Citadel was “The Seven Samurai,” because we could study military tactics. (In San Francisco) I was watching “8½,” Fellini, “The Bicycle Thief” ... I want to write about that shocking introduction to movies and the effect it had on my life at that time. And the effect was is a movie, like a book, can change a life. If you see the right movie, done by the right artist and it speaks the right way to you, just like a book, it can change everything about the way you look at the world.
That’s one of many themes. The Vietnam War is going to play a large part.
Q: What’s the nature of your work with University of South Carolina Press?
Conroy: (Jonathan Haupt, USC Press’ new chief editor, is) the best editor in the United States. And I have had great editors. Nan Talese, my editor now, is the first winner of the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for lifetime achievement in editing. The third guy to win it was Jonathan Galassi who was my editor for “The Lords of Discipline.” So I know my editors. This guy could be the best of all. I think Sandra agrees with this.
Q (for Cassandra King): Have you worked with him?
King: I was a reader for him. His feedback on manuscripts and stuff, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Conroy: His suggestions are brilliant. I’ve been stunned by the guy. ...
I know the book world is changing. And what I’ve been afraid of is what is going to happen to the middlest writer. The middlest writer is most of the writers in the United States. He (Haupt) told me about this South Carolina project that he got funded, and that he’s looking for an editor. I said, “Let me edit it. But you’ve got to promise me one thing: I don’t want to just stick with South Carolina. When can we open this up?” And he said, “Let’s do it immediately. When this project is over, let’s open it up to everybody.”
[Initially, the project will publish four novels by South Carolina writers.]
He (Haupt) is a pure genius. He is the best I have ever seen. I don’t know how South Carolina got him, and I’m terrified that it won’t be able to keep him.
Q: Why are you so nice? Is it your nature, or did you consciously decide not to be like your dad?
Conroy: Writers can be a pain in the a**. You’ve met them. Writers are the most horrible people on Earth. And I told Sandra, “Sandra, they’re a******* ...” I know writers who don’t talk to the people who buy their books. “Are you nuts?!” “I’ll never see them again.” “You know they’re feeding your children?”
And of course my mother is on my right shoulder at all times in my life. And I can hear her. And of course (there’s) the Marine Corps.
You’re going to be good example when you go into this community. Dad said, “You’re going to kick a** kids, because you’re in the Marines, and you toe the line, and you’re going to be the best athletes and the greatest leaders.” And then there is this f****** Citadel. I didn’t want to be like those guys. The one thing at The Citadel, I decided to be nice to plebes, the knobs.
There are ways to get through life.
I came as a Marine kid to The Citadel. The Marines, that’s my training. In the Marine Corps, you feed your men first, you eat last. At The Citadel, they were starving the plebes. This is against every leadership principle Dad had ever taught me. So I rebelled early against it, there’s no question.
Q: In many ways, you are very different writers. Cassandra, you look forward and write about change; Pat, you look backward and write about endurance. How do you approach one another’s work? Do you edit each other? Read books in progress? Discuss plot lines and characters? And what effect, if any, does one person’s writing have on the other?
King: Well, we don’t really read books in progress much. I’ve never been able to do that, I can’t let anybody see what I’m doing till I finish it. It all comes pouring out, then I go back a shape it. ... Sometimes we’ll talk about scene.
Conroy: She edits my books first.
King: Pat says he repeats himself a lot.
Conroy: I usually give you chapters as I write them. She’s an excellent editor. There’s also one thing she’s not saying because she’s not as truthful or honest as I am. She would rather suffer the torture of the Ayatollahs than admit she was married to me in the first three years of our marriage. Like today when I attended her signing, she would not allow me to parachute into a signing.
King: I was just determined to make it on my own. Just the other day I had someone ask me at a luncheon, at a question and answer period, “Where you already published when you married Pat?” Yes I was, thank you. Otherwise good career move on my part.
Conroy: No she was a complete loser. It was a career step-up.
Q: I read somewhere that you, Sandra, tend to find joy in the writing process while Pat confronts it like a trainer with his reluctant horse. For Sandra, there is laughter and delight; for Pat, pain and tribulation. Is that true?
King: I think Pat’s writing has been like an exorcism. I always tell Pat, you might consider writing fiction sometimes, you might enjoy it. You don’t have to regurgitate everything horrible that’s happened to you. But I enjoy it; I crack myself up.
Conroy: I cannot believe that. I come out here and I will hear her roaring with laughter at s*** she herself has written. And I’m thinking, I don’t think I’ve ever chuckled over a single thing I’ve written. “Ha ha ha ha, heh heh heh heh. My what a clever fellow.” But I hear her roaring. It certainly seems like a different way.
King: I certainly enjoy the process.
Q: One of the marvels of the creative process is the way artists relinquish their works to the public and how those works then become independent, taking on a life of their own. Yet both of you, in different ways, make highly personal art. What is it like for you to let it go at the end?
King: I think I let go of mine pretty well. Because I already have something else in mind and I’m eager to get to it. You get tired of talking about your book ... you want to get back to your next project.
Conroy: I’ve usually had to worry about the reaction. I’ve had a different process. When “The Boo” came out, I knew The Citadel would be mad, and they were, and they banned it. When “The Water is Wide” came out, I knew white people in South Carolina would be p***** off, and they were. I was worried about that and I had reason to be. When “The Great Santini” came out, my God, my father ... I caught hell from everybody, and that surprised me because I wasn’t expecting that much. “The Lords of Discipline”? I knew to prepare for the ram. I knew I was going to get it on that book, and The Citadel rose up in one voice against me on that.
Q: You didn’t go back to the Citadel for decades after that, right?
Conroy: I think about 25 years. ... For years, they told me it was not safe to go back on The Citadel campus, especially in the Shannon Faulkner years. They told me, don’t come, we can’t guarantee your safety.
Q: Who told you that?
Conroy: Someone in public relations. I love seeing the girls in there by the way.
Q: Both of you are considered “Southern writers.” What is a Southern writer, and how do each of you fit (or fail to fit) that category?
Conroy: I’ve always been proud about being a Southern writer. I was raised in the South, but on Marine bases: Quantico, Cherry Point, Camp LeJeune, Parris Island, Beaufort Air Station. I was born in the Atlanta Naval Air Station, so I was raised on federal property. My mother is as Southern as a boiled peanut. We moved so much, 11 schools in 12 years for me, when they start calling me anything, I took great pride in being identified as something. So when they said “Southern writer,” I said, “That is great, I love that.” I’ve seen Southern writers run from that phrase. ... That limits you as a writer. You can write about a guy and woman in the dust bowl of Oklahoma and it becomes “Grapes of Wrath.” You can write ... about being a minister’s wife. Nothing in the world limits you, I don’t believe. Being a Southern writer, there’s always a thing about family, there’s always a thing about the land, there’s always a thing about connections, there’s always in the South things about race... (People say), “How can you live in the racist South?” I said, “You know I’ve been to parties in New York for 40 years now. I’ve never seen a black person invited to one of your parties, ever. I’ve never seen one in your house.” The one think black and white people in the South do is, we know each other, we’ve been around each other. The whites have been a pain in the a**. Our history is a pain in the a**. It’s an unforgiveable history, we’ve got to get over it. But we’re talking (about a time when) we have a black president. Give me a break. That is amazing to me. ... I think a Southern writer is capable of writing “A Remembrance of Things Past.” I think they are capable of writing “Ulysses.” ... The rise of women has been the most stunning thing that’s happened in America since the rise of black people in the South. We’ve lived through amazing times. ... The world has changed and the South has changed in extraordinary ways. I feel lucky to be a recording artist of that change. (Turning to Cassandra King) Does that sound pretentious enough, Sandra?
King: That sounds real pretentious. (Laughs.) The South has such a rich heritage and such a fabulous landscape and all. I am a Southern writer because I’m Southern, and that’s all I know. Like Pat, I don’t have any problem being classified as a Southern writer, I don’t find that limiting.
Q: Family dynamics are at the heart of both of your novels, family and relationships. But they play out differently. Talk a little about the significance of family in your work.
Conroy: Here’s what I’m terrified of right now, I’ll just tell you: The reaction of my brothers and sisters to “The Death of Santini.” And I can tell you, it’s a tough group. And they’re anxious to read it. And I’ve actually lied to them and told them there are no galleys available. ... It’ll only be available the day the book goes on sale. That should not be part of a writer’s life, but it’s certainly framed my life as a writer.
Q: There’s a lot of dialogue in “The Death of Santini.” How do you remember those conversations?
Conroy: Well, I tell the stories so much. I’ve told them a million times. ... You can’t get verisimilitude, you just can’t do that. The book I wrote that most scared me about that was “My Losing Season,” because my basketball team at The Citadel, all of them were bigger than me. And I mean all of them could beat me up, and several of them wouldn’t have minded doing it. I write this book and all I could do — it was a book of journalism. We would go through it. I’d go to each house and, like you are doing now, I’d interview them. I’d have cross-references. Danny Moore would say this happened, “Do you remember it that way?” And they would say, “No, there’s one thing he got wrong: I didn’t say that, I said this.” “Johnny said you said this.” So I went through this and then I warned them. Before the book came out, I said, when I write it, what I write is going to sound like the truth. Because none of you all remember, I don’t remember, but it is going to be written down and you are going to remember it that way.
King: It becomes the truth.
Conroy: The guy who was most terrified about it, a very distinguished Citadel grad, T. Hooper, who was on the Board of Visitors, he was suspicious of me doing this book. He got up at Furman University and said, I had my great doubts about this book, but I want to tell you every word is true. ... All of us know that every word can’t be true. There is the truth in there. And the kids — I go over all these stories (in “The Death of Santini”) with the kids. And in some places, where it’s most troubling, I am the only witness. They can’t help me. And Mom and Dad are dead and they can’t help me. ... Mom stabbing Dad was denied my entire life.
Q: What a scene.
Conroy: Horrible. Horrible.
Q: Why do you think you’re father was like that.
Conroy: OK, I have a theory that he was treated like that by his father. But here’s one thing about the Chicago Irish that I learned. None of them have ever broken, except my Uncle Ed. They have all said. I didn’t like Grandpa and Grandma Conroy. The mean streets of Chicago. I mean give me a break. I just didn’t like it. ... It was never a part of me very much, but of course it’s always a part of you. But I think Grandpa must have really beat Dad up. But among the Irish in Chicago, there is such a code of omerta that they have never broken. Also, I think he was just a mean a******. He was just mean. Even his men in the Marine Corps hated him.
Q: So for you writing has been therapy.
Conroy: No question.
Q: And for you, too.