In her first memoir, best-selling novelist Cassandra King Conroy looks back on her 18-year marriage with late fellow author Pat Conroy. “Tell Me A Story” is an intimate look at the pair’s passion for the written word, as well as the Carolina Lowcountry that was their home.
Conroy talks with Do Savannah contributor Ariel Felton about meeting Pat for the first time, supporting creativity in relationships, and writing through grief.
Ariel: You were already a fan of Pat Conroy before meeting him, right? What was your first impression of Pat?
Conroy: Yes, I felt really excited and nervous to meet him, but he was very approachable. I guess had I really thought about it at all, I would have assumed he would be [approachable] because his books are so funny and I think people relate so much to the central characters — all these great men you just would love to know. But you can't always tell that. I mean, writers are not always their protagonist in their books, but he was extremely friendly to everybody.
Ariel: Was there anything that surprised you about him when you first started getting to know him?
Conroy: Oh, a lot of things. [laughs] Well for one thing, he was so good at maintaining friendships. I met him in ‘95 and I didn't see him again until ‘97, but we talked on the phone a lot and I would learn later that Pat kept up a lot of friendships with people that he would meet at events and so forth. They might be living in California, Texas or wherever, but he would call you up, say he was thinking about you, and you'd catch up. It would be totally out of the blue, and you could go say two or three months without hearing from him, but he'd always call again. It was a pretty odd friendship for a while, but it worked for us.
Ariel: What’s the most common thing people get wrong about Pat Conroy?
Conroy: There was a woman that came up to me after I gave a talk a few years after I married Pat, and said to me, "You're married to Pat Conroy? Oh, bless your heart. That must be so difficult. You know, he's so dark and tormented, what a tortured soul that man is…” [laughs] Pat had spoken very openly about his depression, suicidal thoughts, and all the darkness of his childhood. So I could see how people would think that about him, but his works are also full of humor. That's one thing I think people liked so much about it — that you could be laughing on one page and crying on the next. His work had a full range of emotion and he was like that as well. Pat certainly had his moments, and he always had this deep undercurrent. But he was a really loving person. He was a very sensitive, affectionate, and compassionate person.
Ariel: I read that Pat Conroy gave you the ultimate gift after you married: your first writing room. What did that mean to have that support from another writer in a relationship?
Conroy: [Creative support] is maybe overlooked as a real crucial part of a relationship. I understand that it's hard to be married to a writer. We are always creating stories in our heads and imagining these scenarios, so it's pretty hard to do that while giving your undivided attention to a partner as well.
Two writers can understand that about each other. Pat and I both talked about how we'd had relationships that had failed, understandably when you're just not there for someone, in the way that you'd like to be, but it's just not part of your makeup. It makes it hard to maintain an intimate relationship. But another writer can understand that it doesn't necessarily mean that the person's tuning you out or not caring to hear what you have to say.
Ariel: Do you have a favorite Pat Conroy book, or is that taboo for two writers in a relationship to choose favorites? Did he ever have a favorite of yours?
Conroy: I think it was more likely a little bit the other way around. We would talk more about the books that were having problems with. He'd say something like, 'this book is just not going exactly as I want it to and I'm thinking about changing it.' You had a sympathetic ear, because you wouldn't want to say something like that to your editor. He might agree with you! [laughs]
Ariel: In 2007, Pat commented that you were a much happier writer than he was. Is that true?
Conroy: I don't know that that's true by any means, but I think part of it is that Pat had written his whole career, except for the first few years of teaching, he had been able to focus on his writing. I had not really let myself do that or given myself permission to do this. So of course, I loved every minute that I spent writing. I think Pat liked it more than he claimed he did, but also he wrote about some really painful things. And so I guess ‘enjoyable’ would not be the word.
Ariel: At what point did you consider writing a memoir about Pat?
Conroy: I'd been working on a cookbook, and I wanted to be a cookbook that also told stories. A lot of them were from my childhood, but I was also incorporating stories of mine and Pat's, like the big meal I cooked the first time he was coming to dinner at my place. I went back to it after Pat died, and I wanted to get back to my writing. It was the kind of thing that was easier for me to go back to then to get into back into my fiction. Eventually stories of Pat sort of began to take over and I had to decide if this is going to be a memoir or a cookbook with stories.
Ariel: Do you think it helped you grieve to sort of relive and catalog all these memories with Pat?
Conroy: I had experienced this with my sisters just three years before Pat died. First after she died, about a year after I couldn't even hardly talk about. It was sort of the same with Pat. But then after a little time, when it's not such a raw grief, then you begin to want to talk about and revisit certain memories. As I began to tell these stories, it did help with my grief. It helped me remember the wonderful times we had together, as well as the times that weren't so great. It kept him alive for me.
Ariel: Because this was your first memoir, I’m wondering if you struggled with writing some of the more personal stories? I’m thinking specifically on detailing your bouts with depression, the grief of losing Pat, etc. — was it hard to be that vulnerable?
Conroy: Oh, definitely. A few times it was just really painful. I would literally start crying reliving parts of his illness and things like that. Then there was also the kind of natural hesitancy that comes I think with relating certain things that maybe you haven't talked freely about before in the past. And I just said, okay, if I'm going to do this, I'm just going to have to put it out there. I'm not going to think about what so-and-so would think about this, or question if this makes me look bad, or Pat look bad… If you're doing that, you're not writing your story. You're letting others determine how you're going to write it.
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