Pat Conroy turns the pages of a storytelling life for fans

cclick@thestate.comFebruary 27, 2014 

Moments before author Pat Conroy ambled onto the stage of the Township Auditorium, Lucille Mould, retired French professor and lover of books, leaned in to her seatmates and said, “I’ve got to read you this.”

What she read in sotto voce was Conroy’s description of his French teacher at Beaufort High School, circa 1961, a woman who, when she spoke of Paris, “it was a distribution of gardenias from the human voice.”

Beautiful, Mould smiled, closing a miniature notebook filled with her tidy handwriting.

That was the way it was Thursday night as she and other lovers of Conroy’s dazzling prose settled in, favorite Conroy titles stacked in their laps, to listen to this bear of a man recount a life rescued by the power and magic of words. They were there as part of “One Book, One Columbia,” an annual event that encourages bibliophiles to read the same book. This year the selection is Conroy’s “My Reading Life.”

“I know about the life-changing quality of books,” Conroy told the audience and Walter Edgar, the retired historian who shared the stage and encouraged Conroy in his storytelling. Conroy did not need much prodding.

Arriving in Beaufort at the age of 15, having moved 23 times with his military family, Conroy claimed the Lowcountry as his own. “I latched like a barnacle to that town,” he said.

His mother, enthralled with the “Gone with the Wind” image of the South, instilled in him the notion that he would be a great Southern writer. “When I write today I still hear her voice,” he said. His teachers stepped in to serve as role models for a young man full of rage at his dysfunctional Marine fighter pilot father, who he would skewer in his third novel, “The Great Santini.”

The English teacher who would remain his lifelong friend, the late Gene Norris, took him to visit the home of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville, N.C., traveled with him to Hampton Plantation to meet South Carolina’s poet laureate, Archibald Rutledge, and introduced the young Conroy to Martin Luther King during a visit to the Penn Center.

“You ever met a white boy who met Martin Luther King in 1962?” Conroy said.

In his fiction, South Carolina figures prominently, whether in “The Lords of Discipline” about a military school that resembles his own alma mater, The Citadel, or “The Water is Wide” about a young white man who travels across the river to a sea island to teach African-American children.

In “My Reading Life,” Conroy says: “Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer’s heart.”

Conroy holds nothing back, whether it is his revelations of his own family wounds or the contradictions of the state he loves. Even among the “gods and goddesses” of the Kappa Alpha-Tri Delt faction, he chuckled, “how far do I have to go to get to the first crazies?” Southern families, he said, “seem to be the basis of everything.”

“What he writes, I see,” said Jean Danner, a Forest Acres woman who is proud to have raised three book-loving daughters.

“That’s the South. He writes what we know.”

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