BEAUFORT — The fans are whirring near the table at which Cassandra King inscribes copies of her new novel “Moonrise,” but they don’t blow hard enough to keep the love bugs away.
They flit erratically here and there, only to be shooed off by the patrons of McIntosh Book Shoppe lingering outside the store to chat with King and her husband, Pat Conroy.
He is there not only because of the book signing, but because he likes to be in the heart of his adopted hometown. He likes meeting people, listening to their anecdotes, asking them about their loved ones, their vacations, their interests. He likes receiving this attention, and he likes bestowing it on others.
Strangers engage in short conversations and quickly feel like fast friends. They find something in common with Conroy: a lived-in city, an acquaintance, a family experience.
They congratulate King and seem to bond with her; her inviting smile and open heart encourages such interaction.
Conroy is not signing copies of his own books, all displayed by the front door of the store. He is there to support his wife.
“I am the wind beneath her wings,” he says fatuously.
The fans spin. The conversation buzzes. This is Beaufort, where a larger-than-life literary couple can breathe freely the warm salt air, where they can follow a daily routine, visit with close friends, where they feel most at home.
“Moonrise” is King’s fifth novel, and her first venture into darker, Gothic terrain. She drew inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” which she reread a few summers ago while renting a dark old house in Highlands, N.C.
It’s also the first book published by the new imprint, Maiden Lane Press, and it seems to be doing well so far.
Conroy has his own book coming out in October, a memoir called “The Death of Santini.” It is his final reckoning with a fighter-pilot father who tortured him and a family experience that rendered his childhood a nightmare of extravagant physical and emotional abuse.
The book reveals the inner workings of the Conroy family in detail and, like the semi-autobiographical novels, is almost certain to both balm and exacerbate old wounds among the siblings.
For this reason, Conroy says, he has not shared any of the finished book with his brothers and sisters and remains terrified of their reaction once it’s published.
After the book signing, King and Conroy track back to their home on Battery Creek, an oak-draped piece of property purchased a little more than a year ago, to finish the afternoon with a discussion about books and careers.
King, 68, is a bundle of good health; Conroy, 67, appears to be slowing down. He navigates steps and turns with caution. He wrote on his blog that, in the 1990s, he had been diagnosed with the neurological disorder popularly called writer’s cramp, which impedes motor function.
Nevertheless, Conroy continues to write: long hand on yellow pads, in a still-elegant, small script that reflects a novelist’s careful thinking. Computers mystify him, he says. He must rely, as ever, on transcribers, a dependence that represents one of his biggest out-of-pocket professional expenses.
At one end of the house, steps lead down into a warm sitting room and array of bookshelves. On an adjacent wall hangs framed mementos collected over a distinguished writing career, including New York Times best-seller lists and the original painting of Don Conroy’s flight jacket used for the cover of “The Great Santini.”
In the tiny hallway leading to Pat Conroy’s office, he has hung photographs and memorabilia honoring his family and late father, the Marine who beat him up as a child but who worked hard later in his life at becoming a man his son could respect, even love.
A stubborn Irish Catholic who seems to have no trouble balancing his religious affiliation with his irreverent and profane tendencies, Pat Conroy pays tribute to his father by constructing this hallway shrine: a place for contemplation, where affection, devotion and residual angst all can be set free by Conroy’s mind.
“Here is the flag they buried him with,” Conroy says, pointing to the triangular box on the floor. “Here is his list of missions and his medals.”
Pointing again, Conroy declares, “This one is the most important” — the Distinguished Flying Cross with four tiny gold pins stuck in its blue ribbon.
Five times Don Conroy distinguished himself for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
It is possible Pat Conroy would display more, but his father, after his retirement from the Marine Corps, had absconded with many letters, clippings, photographs and objects in order to build up a vast family archive, an enterprise he pursued in secret for many years and one that betrayed his dual nature. Visibly, he was a brute and a bully. Out of his family’s sight, however, he was an admiring parent proud of his children’s accomplishments.
It is that other Don Conroy that Pat discovered, little by little, once he had left his father’s house.
Sometimes Pat Conroy will emerge from his writing den, gnarled by grief or worry, exhausted by the psychological toll his book writing takes on him, to seek a moment of relief in the kitchen.
“I think Pat’s writing has been like an exorcism,” King says. “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.’ ”
From the kitchen he might hear strange sounds emerge from the quiet comfort of his wife’s office across the way. She is working on her own novel, writing fast at the laptop, generating sentences of wit and humor.
“I enjoy it; I crack myself up,” she says.
“I cannot believe that,” he responds. “I come out here and I will hear her roaring with laughter ... And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever chuckled over a single thing I’ve written.’ ”
“I certainly enjoy the process,” she says, rubbing it in.
She’s in the middle of a book tour for “Moonrise,” but eager to get to work on the next book. He’s preparing for his own tour, even as he makes headway into a new novel. He hasn’t got a name for it yet, he says, but it’s about, among other things, the power of cinema and the joy of discovery.
“I think my obsession with my mother and father ended with this book (“The Death of Santini”),” he says. “I felt it was time for me to leave that childhood-ruined boy behind me.”
The Conroy family is nowhere to be found in the new novel. The protagonist is an only child.
“So I will get no (flack) from my brothers and sisters,” Conroy says.
Years after graduating from The Citadel, and while living in San Francisco, he took a course in cinema that had a transformative effect. He watched Italian neorealism movies, the grotesques by Fellini, French New Wave films by Truffaut and Goddard.
“I want to write about that shocking introduction to movies and the effect it had on my life at that time,” he says. “And the effect was, 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.”
King, meanwhile, says she has been gratified by the response to “Moonrise.” Appearing six years after her previous novel, “Queen of Broken Hearts,” the book has prompted an excited reception.
“You get forgotten during a period of several years,” King says. “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. ... I’ve had people say they’ve been waiting a long time for this book.”
Writing (mostly novels) became something akin to a dam burst after her divorce from her first husband in the 1990s.
“Once I got started, I couldn’t stop,” King says. Her first novel, “Making Waves,” was about life in a small Southern community. In 2002 came “A Sunday Wife,” which featured a woman’s journey to independence and presciently tackled the issue of gay marriage.
“I actually was a Sunday Wife, which is a minister’s wife, in my previous life,” she says. “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.”
Literature captured her fancy early on, though, and for all those years of her youth and first marriage, she was writing in secret, she says.
“I came from a family of readers but I wasn’t really encouraged to be a writer,” King says. “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.’ ... I got divorced before my book came out. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence or what.”
King and Conroy met after he wrote a blurb for “Making Waves” and married in 1997. By then Conroy had published “The Water Is Wide” (1972), “The Great Santini” (1976), “The Lords of Discipline” (1980), “The Prince of Tides” (1986) and “Beach Music” (1995).
He was very famous. And she was very nervous about encouraging the public perception that, as a writer, she was riding her husband’s coattails.
“She would rather suffer the torture of the Ayatollahs than admit she was married to me in the first three years of our marriage,” he says in his typically understated way. “Like today, when I attended her signing — she would not (have allowed) me to parachute into a signing.”
“I was just determined to make it on my own,” she replies. “Just the other day I had someone ask me at a luncheon, at a question-and-answer period, ‘Were you already published when you married Pat?’ Yes I was, thank you. Otherwise, good career move on my part.”
When the conversation turns to the South and the way it has left its imprint on Conroy and King, the couple jump at the chance to explain their heritage and identity.
“I’ve always been proud about being a Southern writer,” he says. “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.’ ”
Even as the South bequeaths its unique graces and troubles on a writer, it also liberates him to write expansively on certain basic themes.
“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,” Conroy continues.
“(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 thing 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 ... 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.”
Conroy, who wears his liberal politics on his sleeve, right next to his vulnerable heart, then extols the progress made by women in this country.
“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.”
If Conroy speaks the language of Southern melodrama, King seems to prefer to save her energies for the novel-writing and communicates with an unassuming directness.
“I am a Southern writer because I’m Southern, and that’s all I know,” she says.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.