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Interview with Pat Conroy

from The Book Report on America Online

Bookpg JK: Good evening, we are delighted to have Mr. Conroy with us. I would like the first question or two. Pat, your books are all amazingly long --- Beach Music is 800 pages in paper --- and they are amazingly emotional. What is like to write them?

PatConroy: It is a piece of cake. They take a long time. My prose is overwrought, a little pretentious. I never know how a book will end. I start and then there is an accretion, like a coral reef.

Bookpg JK: I'm told 300 pages were cut out of PRINCE OF TIDES.

PatConroy: I think more. And 500-600 cut out of BEACH MUSIC.

Bookpg JK: Do you miss those words?

PatConroy: I don't. Once I finish editing, I can never go back and read them again. I can't say I miss them. I remember certain parts of them.

Bookpg JK: Emotionally, what is it like to do the Holocaust, say, just as PART of a book? BEACH MUSIC has every intense emotion available on the planet!

PatConroy: I do emotions well. It's good stuff. I like a book to be a world full of different personalities.

BookpgJK: How did you come to feel this way?

PatConroy: I wish I could introduce you to my mother. God gave me two parents: Zeus and Hera. My father was a Marine Corps pilot who flew nuclear weapons. My mother was a beautiful Southerner out of Gone With The Wind. There was a war for my psyche.

Bookpg JK: Flaubert wept when Bovary died. Do your scenes affect you as you write them?

PatConroy: Yes. You fall in love with your characters. You're the only one who knows they're alive. And when something happens to them, you are moved.

Question: Do you feel the movie version of THE PRINCE OF TIDES did your book justice? How involved were you in the filming?

PatConroy: Not at all in the filming. I did the first screenplay. And a revision. Then I was fired. Twelve other writers came on. I did three weeks of work at the end for Barbra Streisand. I don't feel proprietary about the movies. I do feel propietary about the books. I would never have thought Robert Duvall could be my father. This has all been a surprise. I've liked these movies, but I never saw movies in my future.

Question: Have you had any contact with, or updates on the progress of, the children you taught in The Water is Wide? What are conditions like on the island now?

PatConroy: Periodically they show up at book signings, and I run into them around Beaufort. The only great surprise I've had in life is the swiftness of the passage of time. Some of these kids introduce me to their grandkids!

Question: Mr. Conroy, your protagonist in PRINCE OF TIDES was sharply drawn. What do you consider the most effective method of characterization?

PatConroy: When I choose my characters, here is what I do: If they bore me, I throw them out of the book! I don't like bad conversation. If I'm going to inhabit a city, I want interesting people living there.

Question: When will your next book be published?

PatConroy: I hope in my lifetime. It takes me a long time to write these books. I look at Updike with admiration. Joyce Carol Oates seems inhuman to me. I don't see how these people do it and have a life.

Question: The Great Santini is one of my favorite explorations of the effect the military has on people's hearts and minds. What do you think are some of the negative and positive effects the military mindset has on men and women?

PatConroy: When I wrote Santini, I thought I had been raised by a Martian. I thought Dad was different from every other military man in America. What I learned later was that my Dad raised all of us. There's a great book that explores the brass --- by Mary Wirtz --- that explores this. She found that military brats come out with great discipline. We are always on time. We are loyal friends --- because we had so few growing up. But it's also like being raised by Stalin. Discipline was so important they never gave you time to be a child. And with my father, I had the added pleasure of him beating us up.

Bookpg JK: I find your books, particularly BEACH MUSIC, to have resolved these issues, largely, it seems, through a kind of faith. You write: "All life connects. Nothing that happens is meaningless." And you end the book talking about "the eminence of magic." Is this recently acquired, or were these your thoughts all along?

PatConroy: The thing no writer can help is getting older, having more experience. And now that I'm in my early 50s, I've seen people die --- my mother, my grandmother, 6 members of my class at the Citadel in Vietnam. And I have to try to figure out what it means to gather something up so it doesn't look like chaos. The death of my mother was a major turning point ---- I didn't know mothers could die at 59. And I did not know she would be so courageous when she died. I think she was teaching her children how to die and do it right.

Bookpg JK: Having lived abroad, are you now, finally, at home in South Carolina?

PatConroy: No! Because I was a military brat and moved 23 times before I was 18, home will never be a place for me. At l5, we moved to Beaufort --- my third high school. I said "No one even knew I was at the old one, or that I left." My mother said: "Then make Beaufort your home." So I did. In the last two years, two guide books have appeared here --- and both have listed me as a native. I could see how that is.

Question: Pat, who was your biggest influence as a beginning author?

PatConroy: No question. Thomas Wolfe. Look Homeward Angel. An English teacher gave them that when I was l5, and it changed my life.

Bookpg JK: Speaking of influences, a Book Report reader has suggested that you are a Jimmy Buffett fan --- for he wrote a song about Beach Music in the late 80s.

PatConroy: That song was about Prince of Tides. He called me on the phone. He said "Hi, I'm Jimmy Buffett." I said "Hi, I'm Paul McCartney." He said: "May I write a song called Prince of Tides?" I said: "You do, and I will kiss your behind." He said: "How much will I have to pay you?" I said: "I will kiss your behind --- I told you." So he wrote the song --- and at the end he sings "Beach music, beach music...." And that gave me the title.

Question: Mr. Conroy, it is a great joy to be able to communicate with you. I have a couple of questions. Is your book "The Boo" still in print and if so, where can I find a copy?

PatConroy: The Old New York Book Shop Press, in Atlanta [tel: (404)-881-1285 fax: (404) 881-6292] --- they're in the phone book --- they have copies. May I say it is one of the worst books written in our language!

Question: Mr. Conroy, do you write every day and how do you feel while you're working? And afterward?

PatConroy: I try to. I try to make it a regular business day. Get to the desk at nine. Write to lunch. After lunch, a nap. Then to 5. The phone is NEVER on. I write with legal pads and a pen.

Bookpg JK: Do you know the psychological term abreaction? It's when, in retelling an incident, you relive it --- like Vietnam Stress. When you are really, really into a scene, are you almost channeling it?

PatConroy: That certainly occurs. No question. And afterwards, I am exhausted. At night, I read. I always worried because I was raised in my family and went to The Citadel, that I would have to outread my contemporaries in order to have a chance to compete against them. So I read 200 pages a day. Now I'm reading Whistling Dixie by John Read. I just picked up The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose DeNoso.

Bookpg JK: You're not afraid of being "influenced?"

PatConroy: I hope I am! Tell me something I don't know. Show me a way to do scenes I haven't thought of. I particularly like foreign authors, they see the world differently.

Bookpg JK: So the writing life is really monastic --- it's a literal calling.

PatConroy: I believe that. It is easy to write one book. I think it's difficult to have a career.

Bookpg JK: You are surely asked to write screenplays, be on prize committees, write articles. Are you never tempted?

PatConroy: I will do screenplays. I'm doing BEACH I can have health insurance. Very hard to get health insurance in this country --- and hey, I've got 100 children, I need it! Prize committees rarely, articles never.

Question: Mr. Conroy, I had the pleasure of meeting you this summer at a Beaufort debutante party. I am from Murrells Inlet and would like to ask you when we can expect to see Beach Music on the silver screen?

PatConroy: They say they will start in April, but they sometimes lie. It has not been cast. I'm on the final rewrite. They say they'll do it in Beaufort and Rome --- but it doesn't always come out that way.

Question: Pat, how much time did you put into research for Beach Music?

PatConroy: A ton. One does not approach the Holocaust as an American Christian writer without great caution. Much of the time was spent interviewing children of survivors in the South.

Question: What do you think about women getting into the military academies?

PatConroy: I was simply and totally delighted. I supported Shannon Falkner when she tried to get into the Citadel.I am proud of these four women.

Question: Pat, do you ever wish you were back teaching poverty-stricken children on a remote island off the east coast like in the Water is Wide?

PatConroy: No. But I wish I was 22 again.

Question: Pat, if you were not a succesful writer, how would you earn a living?

PatConroy: I would be a teacher. And I would be a happy one.

Question: Mr. Conroy -- what are your feelings about the troubles the independent bookstores are facing?

PatConroy: It seems to be part and parcel of what is wrong with America today. These superstores ought to be ashamed of themselves. They're targeting the independent stores. On tour, whenever I am at a successful independent bookstore, I see a Borders or B&N going up across the street.

Question: EE from South Carolina: Where did you do the majority of your writing? I know your books are about the South but is it easier for you to write about the South in the South?

PatConroy: I wrote almost all of Beach Music in the South. There's an advantage about writing about the South elsewhere that you don't know until you go away. I like a strong sense of place in a book. I wrote Prince of Tides in Italy. I felt the South more sharply when I was away.

Question: Mr. Conroy, you write very well about sports. What influence has that had in your life?

PatConroy: My father signed me up for football, basketball, baseball. And that became a way to get his attention. It taught me about limitation --- and sportsmanship.

Bookpg JK: I think we are nearing an end. This has certainly been the quickest session we've had, and I can see there are many more questions to be asked. So let us hope, Pat, that you will visit us again --- and save the next to last dance for us.

PatConroy: Just ask.

Copyright 1996 BOOK REPORT, INC

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