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Conroy's 'Reading Life': A Search For Safe Harbors

Pat Conroy credits his mother with turning him into an "insatiable, fanatical" reader. In his new memoir, My Reading Life, Conroy explains how reading has been a lifelong safe haven for him -- "the most rewarding form of exile."By NPR

My Reading Life
By Pat Conroy
Hardcover, 352 pages
Nan A. Talese
List price: $25

Pat Conroy has always sought refuge in books. As a child growing up in a military family, Conroy learned from his mother that books could be his constant companions as the family shuttled from Marine base to Marine base.

"What I remember about her, from the very earliest time of my life, is her reading to me," Conroy tells NPR's Scott Simon. "She had a great tone, a warm style, a terrific Southern accent. She read us lots of poetry ... I can still hear her voice."

As he became an avid reader himself, Conroy acquired many new friends: Milton, Tolkien, Churchill and Roth. And, in time, he also became one of the best-read writers in America ? author of The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline and other best-sellers.

In his new memoir, My Reading Life, Conroy chronicles the solace he's found in books throughout his life.

'A Moment Of Communion'

Gone With the Wind was the first novel that Conroy's mother read to him ? and she personalized it for their own Southern family.

"Her genius in reading that novel was being able to take players in that novel and compare them to people in our own life," Conroy recalls. "Melanie Wilkes was my tacky Aunt Helen, who was in Orlando, and she'd have Frank Kennedy as my Uncle Joe, who lived in Jacksonville. Naturally, she took on the role of Scarlett O'Hara, and that swashbuckling figure of a man called Rhett Butler was my father ? who was fighting in warplanes in Korea at that time."

Conroy says it was his mother who showed him that the relationship between life and art was very close; you just had to pay attention to find it.

If it was Conroy's mother who got him reading, it was his charismatic English teacher, Gene Norris, who got him writing. Conroy became Norris' student when he was 15. When school was out, Norris took Conroy on a formative road trip to Thomas Wolfe's childhood home in Ashville, N.C. The house had been converted into a museum, and Conroy still remembers the tour: where the Wolfe family's boarders ate at night, where Wolfe's sister played the piano and sang to the boarders after dinner.

In the backyard, the museum guide said that Wolfe thought the apples in North Carolina were the best in the world, Conroy recalls, "So Gene jumped up, grabbed an apple, brought it down, and said, 'Eat it, boy!'"

"I ate it, and it seemed almost like a moment of communion to me," he says. "Almost a moment where I was given the keys to go out and try to write. And I was a 15-year-old kid ? I didn't know how to write, what to write, how to be a writer."

By his own account, Conroy's road to becoming a writer has been an unlikely one. He attended The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, which he describes as "no great crucible for American writers."

"It ain't the Iowa writer's school," he says, "but I think it was my encounter with Gene Norris ? and my encounter with this extraordinary mother ? that drove me toward being a writer in the first place."

'I Used To Pray For War'

For Conroy, books were a source of friendship and inspiration ? and also an escape.?He has written at length about his father and the abuse he suffered at his father's hands. When he was growing up, Conroy feared that his father might kill him and his family, and was always relieved when he went off to war.

"I used to pray for war against places like Vatican City," Conroy says. "I didn't care where it was; it would get him in the sky over some country that wasn't near me."

Reading was a refuge for him, both emotionally and physically. Conroy's father wouldn't hit him when he was reading; he thought his son was studying and approved of it.

"It was the one place you could go to get away from his fists," says Conroy. "And it worked every time."

As a child, Conroy read literature to escape his family; today, he writes literature to understand and reconnect with them. His memoir My Reading Life is dedicated to his "lost" daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy. ?It reads:

Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine.

Conroy divorced Susannah's mother in 1995, when Susannah was barely a teenager. He has hardly seen her since.

"She has a perfect right not to see me," Conroy says. "She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me."


Excerpt: 'My Reading Life' by Pat Conroy

Why I Write

A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largess. From the very beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself, and I invited readers who chose to make the journey with me to join me on the high wire. I would work without a net and without the noise of the crowd to disturb me. The view from on high is dizzying, instructive. I do not record the world exactly as it comes to me but transform it by making it pass through a prism of fabulous stories I have collected on the way. I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.? I am often called a "storyteller" by flippant and unadmiring critics. I revel in the title.

Many modern writers abjure the power of stories in their work, banish them to the suburbs of literature, drive them out toward the lower pastures of the lesser moons, and they could not be more wrong in doing so.? But please, do not let me mince words in this chapter in which I offer an explanation and apologia for why I write. Fear is the major cargo that American writers must stow away when the writing life calls them into carefully chosen ranks. I have been mortally afraid of the judgment of other writers and critics since I first lifted my proud but insecure head above the South Carolina marsh grass all those years ago. Some American writers are meaner than serial killers, but far more articulate, and this is always the great surprise awaiting the young men and women who swarm to the universities, their heads buzzing with all the dazzle and freshness and humbuggery of the language itself.? My great fear of being attacked or trivialized by my contemporaries made me concentrate on what I was trying to do as a writer. It forced me to draw some conclusions that were my own.? Here is one: The writers who scoff at the idea of primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them. ?Many of their novels could be used in emergency situations where barbiturates are at a premium and there has been a run on Unisom at the pharmacies. The most powerful words in English are "Tell me a story," words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself. I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it.? I fight against these movements with every book I write.

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable.? But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent. When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understand that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us.? When these glaciers break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our life's work.

I have always taken a child's joy in the painterly loveliness of the English language. As a writer, I try to make that language pitch and roll, soar above the Eastern Flyway, reverse its field at will, howl and reel in the darkness, bellow when frightened, and pray when it approaches the eminence or divinity of nature itself. My well-used dictionaries and thesauri sing out to me when I write, and all English words are the plainsong of my many-tongued, long-winded ancestors who spoke before me. I write because I once fell in love with the sound of words as spoken by my comely, Georgia-born mother. I use the words that sound pettiest or most right to me as I drift into that bright cocoon where the writer loses himself in language. When finished, I adore the way the words look back at me after I have written them down on long yellow sheets.? They are written in my hand, and their imperfect shapes thrill me. I can feed on the nectar of each word I write. Some are salt-rimed with the storm-flung Atlantic on them, some mountain-born, writhing in laurel, but each with a dark taste of my own life fresh upon it. What richer way to meet the sunlight than bathing each day of my life in my island-born language, the one that Shakespeare breathed on, Milton wrestled with, Jane Austen tamed, and Churchill rallied the squadrons of England with? I want to use the whole English language as the centerpiece of a grand alliance or concordance with my work.? I see myself as its acolyte, its spy in the College of Cardinals, its army in the field. I try to turn each sentence into a bright container made of precious metals and glittering glass. It is the carrier and aqueduct of the sweetest elixir of English words themselves. I build these sentences slowly. Like a glassblower, I use air and fire to shape the liquids as they form in my imagination I long for that special moment when I take off into the pure oxygen-rich sky of a sentence that streaks off into a night where I cannot follow, where I lose control, when the language seizes me and shakes me in such a way that I feel like both its victim and its copilot.

Story and language brought me to the craft of writing, then passion and my childhood provided both the structure and the details. When I was busy growing up on the Marine bases of my youth, my mother cast a spell on me that I found all by unbreakable. Peg Conroy was rough-born and Southern-shaped, and I heard the stories of her Depression childhood so often that I have never been able to throw off the belief that I've known poverty inside and out from a very early age. I still hear my mother's voice, lovely beneath soft lamplight, whenever I sit down with a pen in my hand.? She told me she was raising me to be a "Southern writer," though I have never been sure that she knew what that meant. My sister Carol listened to that same voice, heard those same stories, and became a poet as a result. Part of my childhood that is most vivid was being the chief witness to the shaping of an American poet in the bedroom next to mine.

Excerpted from My Reading Lifeby Pat Conroy. Copyright 2010 by Pat Conroy. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese.


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