When Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy, a giant of Southern literature, passed away in March 2016 after a bout with pancreatic cancer, his fans flooded the internet with praise for his work and dismay at his death.
On his Facebook page, Conroy received more than 1 million hits from fans around the world when his death was announced, prompting his publisher, with help from his widow, famed novelist Cassandra King, to put together a tribute to the author.
“He was a really beloved writer,” King said of her late husband. “He had such a wonderful following. On his Facebook page, people said, of course they were sorry for his loss, but also sorry because they’d never have another Pat Conroy book to read.”
While there is an unfinished Conroy manuscript, along with a finished one, King and company opted to focus on his nonfiction. Years ago Conroy’s agent asked the author to start writing blogs for his website.
“He didn’t know what it was and thought blog was the ugliest word he’d ever heard,” King said with a laugh. “His agent said, write it like you’re writing a note or a letter to your readers about various things.”
Conroy understood that and took it to heart, carving out blogs as letters to his fans. Released in October, “A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life” is a collection of his letters (blogs), speeches, magazine articles and eulogies, canonizing a conversational tone that highlights his humor, wit and word craft.
“To me it’s a sweet little book,” King said. “So many people that knew Pat said they just loved reading this because they said, ‘I can hear his voice again.’ It’s more of his conversational stuff; different things going on in his life. Some of it is just hilarious.”
King cites one of the more memorable anecdotes from the book as Conroy’s interaction with his personal trainer. In the last three years before his death, Conroy was on a health kick. He changed the way he was eating and began exercising. He hired a personal trainer, but the two had some communication issues, which Conroy would later write about.
“He got a personal trainer, this Japanese woman,” King said. “Their attempt to communicate with each other is hilarious. She couldn’t get his sense of humor or figure out what he was talking about half the time.”
“Some of the letters are touching, or reflective,” Kind continued. “It’s a nice combination of things. He has the eulogy that was delivered at his funeral by Judge Alex Sanders of Charleston and this beautiful letter that was read at his service from his best friend Bernie Schein.”
Born in Atlanta as the eldest of seven in a military family, Conroy spent his youth moving around. He attended 11 schools by the time he was 15. Later in life, he settled down in Beaufort, S.C., calling the Lowcountry his permanent home.
A graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, Conroy used his experience as a military brat and military school graduate to write some of his most well-known works, “The Lords of Discipline” and “My Losing Season,” the latter a memoir. Two of his novels, “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini,” were later made into Oscar-nominated films.
“A Lowcountry Heart” reads more as a note to his fans — his final conversation, complete with a touching introduction from King.
“I wrote the introduction maybe six weeks after he died,” King said. “I didn’t think I could do it. A couple of times, I was going to tell the publisher I couldn’t do it. It was too raw at that time. I had to think about what I wanted people to know about Pat.
“I want them to see him. I talked a lot about his relationship with his readers and how his book signings were so amazing. They went on for hours. How he connected to people and so forth.
“For three years before he died, he had been the healthiest he’s ever been. He was exercising every day. He had lost so much weight and was looking so good and then this cancer. Being Pat — he was the funniest person I’d ever known — he would say, ‘That goes to show you, clean living will kill you every time.’”
King will appear at the 2017 Savannah Book Festival promoting, perhaps, her late husband’s final words to the world.
Book: “A Lowcountry Heart” by the late Pat Conroy
When: 10:10 a.m. Feb. 18
Where: Trinity United Methodist Church, Telfair Square