Pat Conroy’s “My Reading Life” is the 2014 selection for One Book, One Columbia, a community-wide initiative celebrating a single piece of literature during the month of February.
Book clubs will meet and discuss the book and the literary life of the Beaufort resident, who wrote “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides.”
All this month, The State will pay tribute to Conroy as prominent SC authors and literary figures share how Conroy influenced their reading (and writing) life.
Today, we feature Nikky Finney, the National Book award-winning poet whose latest work is “Head Off and Split” She is the John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair in Southern Letters and Literature at the University of South Carolina, returning to her home state last fall.
Look for more this month in Sunday’s Life&Style sections.
I was a part-time graduate student at Atlanta University and a part-time copy clerk at a Kinko’s copy shop in Atlanta. Circa 1984. I worked at Kinko’s because I could copy my poems cheaply and use the computers without cost. I had just started to send my work out into the world. One day the door flies open and in walks this tall rumpled man. “Conrack,” I whisper. Nobody knows who he is but me.
These were the days of dreaming of being a writer. I was only 26. I had no map. I read everything I could, especially South Carolina writers. I knew who he was and had read everything he had written to date. His writing moved me. There was so much poetry in his prose. His empathy struck a deep chord with me. His striving to tell the truth. His willingness to stand up for the children of Daufuskie moved me.
I know who he is because Daufuskie Island held my history, too. When I realize who had just walked in, I gasp and turn away from the counter momentarily. Then, as if endowed with something else, I turn back to the counter and shoo the other clerks away. I walk up and face him eye to eye. He is jittery and looks a little out of place holding a sheaf of papers in his hand and waiting for help.
“May I help you?” squeaks out. He half smiles and says, “I need two good copies of this,” and sets the sheaf on the counter. I pretend that I don’t know who he is and I take over the extra large Xerox machine – known for its Olympic collation capabilities. I am already whispering a prayer to the service tech gods that the machine is not having a bad day. (Most Kinko’s customers leave the counter and walk away and have a seat or even come back later. Not Conrack.) He stands there with his hands on the counter watching me as if I might be putting his child into the document feeder. I totally realize that this is a fresh manuscript just out of the word processor and only I can take care of it. The title page reads “The Prince of Tides.” This means nothing to me – then. Instead of the usual 40 or so pages that I normally put into the feeder, I carefully put 10 or so. I am sweating. I want no machine jams on this order. None. This is very important. It takes much longer to get through the 200-plus pages. I never look at him. I keep my eyes on the pages. I don’t care if I am holding him up. I have to get this right. I have moved his order up to the front of the line and none of my co-workers understood why. They get out of my way. The machine performs brilliantly. I stack the two copies, dividing them with a piece of generic gray card stock, and then lay them in a cardboard manuscript box. I tally his copies at $.03 per page and take his money. He pays me in Conroy cash. He says, Thank you. I say, You are welcome. Only after watching him walk out of the door and turn the corner completely does my head fall in absolute amazement and wonder.