Our Prince of Scribes Q&A: Southern writers remember Pat Conroy through storytelling

As a tribute to the great Southern writer, Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt compiled a collection of stories written by those who shared moments with Pat throughout his life. Our Prince of Scribes sheds light on a man who most only know through his own writing. Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance named it one of their 2018 Summer Okra Picks, considering the book a must-read in Southern literature.

Seitz and Haupt_Our Prince of Scribes

The UGA Press sat down with some of the contributors to learn more about their relationship with Pat. This month, we’re talking with Southern writers.

Location was a major inspiration for Pat while he wrote his stories, as is the same for many writers. Pat frequented areas of the south, where he befriended many people who have their own names as acclaimed southern authors. We talked to a couple of these authors about their relationship with Pat and how their shared setting wove its way into their work.

Terry Kay is a Georgia Writers Hall of Fame author and New York Times best-seller who has written 17 published books and has a background in nonfiction work before diving into fictious stories. He knew Pat as one of “The Boys,” a friend of his before his burst into fame and long after as well.

John Lane is a South Carolinian poet and novelist who currently owns Hub City Bookshop with his wife. He worked with Pat when his first novel was published in the Story River Books southern fiction imprint, the sixth in the series.

Anne River Siddons is a best-selling author specializing in southern writing, with her works usually centered in Georgia. She met Pat at a dinner for the Atlanta press where they became fast friends and he dubbed her Anne Lou, a nickname only used by him. Siddons was inducted in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2007 and currently lives in charleston, South Carolina.

Q: How did Georgia / South Carolina affect your writing and Pat’s?

Kay: Other than being our base of experience (though Pat lived in many other places), I can’t think of anything that’s magical about it. When you’re familiar with location and the personality of that location, you’re working at a distinct advantage. If you’re talking about involvement in a writing community, we were among the writers that emerged in the early-mid 70s that gave prominence to the state with New York publishers and we were all proud of that.  

Lane: I was always fascinated by Pat’s idea that geography is our wound. Being a Piedmont boy I always wondered how red clay wounds differently than pluff mud.

Siddons: I grew up in a small town 20 miles south of Atlanta, and for a long time Atlanta was all I knew of cities. It was a magical place when I was a small child, a place where my father went every day to practice the law, and my mother went on Saturdays, hatted and gloved, and brought back wonderful things in bags with names on them, and usually a small treasure for me. By now I have been fortunate enough to have visited quite a few of the world’s storied cities, but it is Atlanta that I see when I write of cities. As for Pat, I know that the country of his heart was the tidal marshes of South Carolina, but Atlanta and Georgia gave him much.  I rather think that this city and this state have given him people, friendships that have fed his heart and his writing.

Q: How can Pat be seen in your work?

Kay: I don’t think he is. We were developing as novelists during the same period. Our styles, language, characters, plots, etc., have almost no similarity. But I don’t think that’s unusual. I don’t see Pat in Annie Siddons’ work, or the stories of Bill Diehl or Ferrol Sams or Phil Williams or Rosemary Daniells or Robert Coram or Paul Hemphill, or any of the writers of that time.

Lane: Reading his work taught me to push hard at language, maybe beyond what I am comfortable with.

Siddons:  A friend once told me that when he read Pat it was rather like reading me, “How so?” I asked waiting complacently for the golden comparisons that would warm my heart and ego.

“Well,” he said,  “y’all do run on.” Do we ever! Both of us, I think, have been incapable of crisp brevity; we poured everything we knew into whatever we were writing. And we left it to overburdened editors to parse us. In Pat’s work, the overspilling words will always be gifts to the reader. As for me, well, I haven’t had an editor quit on me yet. But, I’m not through writing, either.

Q: Why do you think Pat was always pushing people to write?

Kay: I think many writers encourage other writers. It’s part of the honor of belonging to a community of writers. A lot of people have suggested that Pat was my mentor, that I learned writing from him. Not at all true. He was my friend, not a mentor or instructor or editor. Much as I loved him, he didn’t teach me anything about writing. However, the beauty of those early days is something only a few people can ever understand: we were in it together.

Lane: There are never enough stories in the world. Like a river, the flow is unceasing.

Siddons: Pat’s younger years were scarred by his father’s abuse, both physical and verbal. When he finally found the courage to write of it, he also found that the writing both eased some of the pain and opened the pain-sealed hearts of readers all over the world. I think that, in part, he believed that writing could be a healing gift to anyone. He also seemed to think that there was poetry and prose buried in the lives of almost everybody. Once he said to a group that had come to hear him speak, “Just do it. Just sit down and start. God knows, that’s all I did.”

“Yeah,” many of us thought, “But we ain’t Pat Conroy. “

Q: What editing advice did Pat give you that you still use when writing?

Kay: Editing? Pat? He was a grand writer, especially in his essays, but editing was not his strong suit. You should ask some of his editors about that experience with him.

Lane: “Kill the damn dog.” (There was a dog in Fate Moreland’s Widow he hated.)

Siddons: My husband and I went to Rome to attend the wedding of dear friends of ours and Pat’s. Below and across the street were two houses, one taller than the other, the taller reached by a frail staircase on the other’s roof. The taller one was a home for retired priests who relaxed on the roof while retired nuns from the other toiled up the stairs with food, drink and tobacco, and whatever else the lolling priests required.

I was leaning on the Conroy’s roof parapet, watching priests and nuns and wondering what their stories might be. Pat came up beside me and said, “Gonna write about it?”

“I’d love to, ” I said, “but I’d have to do a ton of research. All I’ve got now is a fabulous first impression.”

“Research is just facts, ” he said. “But first impressions are magic.”

I’ve never forgotten that night, or Pat’s definition of magic. Every book I write is burdened with necessary research, staggers under a load of fact, but it is, to me, the fleeting impressions, the brief, wide-spreading vistas, the stubborn beauty of simply living, that bring their own sorcery.

Our Prince of Scribes comes out in mid-September. Pre-order the book now in hardcover or e-book formats for $29.95.

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