A new book published by the University of Georgia Press celebrates the legacy of beloved South Carolina author Pat Conroy. Co-edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt, "Our Prince of Scribes" features essays by dozens of authors and highlights, among other things, Conroy's devotion to his fellow writers.
On occasion of its publication, and in advance of a local event scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 16 at Buxton Books, The Post and Courier asked Haupt and Seitz about the volume.
Q: “Our Prince of Scribes” is a collection of essays by 67 authors who knew Pat Conroy. How did you wrangle so many writers for a project that surely had its logistical challenges?
Nicole Seitz: Finding a multitude of authors who were impacted by Pat Conroy was not a challenge. His reach was wide and his generosity ran deep. The challenge was deciding when to close the doors. Coordinating 67 authors, some who were on tour or writing under deadline, was no easy task. However, it was remarkable how responsive and gracious our scribes were to offer their personal stories of Pat.
The invitations began just after Pat’s death, so grief played an interesting role in the process for all of us. Having two people partner on the project helped. Jonathan and I divided tasks and therefore multiplied efforts. Still, it was a wild and woolly ride!
Q: What are a few of the surprising revelations in the book? What do most readers of Conroy’s work not know about the man?
Jonathan Haupt: Pat’s complexity, his wit, his loyalty, his generosity all come through in the essays, as do his struggles with fame and the ramifications of his art on his friends and family. The essays that resonate most with me chronicle small, private moments of kindness to other writers. Often it’s someone on the cusp of giving up because the writing life isn’t what they imaged it to be. And then in walks Pat Conroy, sometimes meeting this writer for the first time. And he listens. He was a great listener. The best teachers always are. Then he says the right thing or recommends the right book or makes the right introduction, and with small, thoughtful gestures he empowers that writer to forge ahead, to march forth.
Nikky Finney, Connie May Fowler, Lynn Seldon, Tim Conroy, John Connor Cleveland, Sonny Brewer, Katherine Clark and even Nicole all have stories like this. But it’s never the same story, because Pat adapted his approach to the needs of each person he helped. The best teachers do that, too.
Q: The phrase “larger than life” often gets attached to Conroy, though, as some of your contributors noted, he was a flawed person who struggled with physical and emotional problems. It what ways does the new volume counteract the mythmaking?
Seitz: The notion of a larger-than-life Pat Conroy is touched on by several writers in the book, including Kathy Murphy, Michael Morris, Sean Scapellato, Jonathan Sanchez and myself. It’s unusual for an author to achieve such a public status, to have readers who would wait hours in line to meet him and have him sign a book. So it was easy for other authors to assume Pat was untouchable, unreachable. His charisma and physical presence filled and illuminated a room.
“Our Prince of Scribes” essays show us the flaws, failures and foibles of Pat over his lifetime right alongside his personal triumphs of generosity, his phone calls of encouragement to fledgling writers, his hours and hours devoted to others because he understood the importance of telling one’s story. There’s something so humble yet larger than life about the act of writing. It was necessary to Pat’s healing. To his living.
In the book, you’ll read how he struggled as a father, as a husband, son and brother, and with personal vices. Yet human as he was, somehow flaws and all, Pat’s spirit still transcends. Larger than life? Yes, but even more so because of his honest and utter humanity.
Q: Nicole, you sketched portraits of all 67 contributing writers to “Our Prince of Scribes.” What prompted you to give yourself that challenge?
Seitz: This summer as I was preparing to teach art again, I posted a couple of drawings to social media. Then I attempted Pat’s image. Encouraged by the responses, I drew and posted Barbra Streisand’s the next day. At that point, I started counting ... how many days until book launch? Seventy? It seemed a crazy yet worthwhile challenge to honor each contributor with a sketch. To illuminate them as they had illuminated Pat in their writings.
The 68 images (67 authors plus Pat) are now part of a temporary exhibit skillfully assembled by Jonathan at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort. For now, I’m holding onto the originals in my sketchbook, but because readers and viewers have responded so favorably, we are considering including the images in the eventual paperback edition of “Our Prince of Scribes.”
Q: The nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort has now been in existence for two years. How goes the enterprise? Does Conroy’s oeuvre and legacy provide a sufficient amount of ideas and material for infinite programming? What big stuff are you planning for 2019?
Haupt: The Conroy Center recently moved into a new and expanded home at 905 Port Republic St., nearly three times larger than our original location. With that move, doors have opened for more exhibit materials — both permanent and temporary — and for more public programs under our own roof.
We’ll be launching a Conroy Center Book Club in early 2019, discussing all 12 of Pat’s books in order of publication with guest discussion leaders in our first year, then widening the scope beyond Pat’s work thereafter. We piloted Camp Conroy, a summer camp for young writers and illustrators, this year, and we’ll be expanding that program next summer. Our annual March Forth day of learning, commemorating the anniversary of Pat’s death, is growing significantly next year, thanks to an exciting partnership with Pat’s alma mater, Beaufort High School.
We’ve also got some great headliners to announce for what will be our fourth annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival next November. And there are more events in the works for “Our Prince of Scribes,” too, both in and beyond South Carolina, thanks to our enthusiastic corps of contributors and Pat’s loyal readers.
Those events, like the book itself and Nicole’s portraits, have become a way to celebrate both Pat and the contributors. At some point, Pat realized that the spotlight that was always going to be on him was big enough to illuminate others, too, and he used it as a teaching tool. That’s the spirit of generosity we aim to honor in the Conroy Center’s programs.