story by mary ellen thompson
photography by john wollwerth
The first annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival will be held in Beaufort October 20 to 23. Last year at this time our community was sharing Pat’s seventieth birthday festivities at the Pat Conroy at 70 Festival, not having a clue that we would lose him to pancreatic cancer a few months later. This festival is under the leadership of Jonathan Haupt, director of the University of South Carolina Press and Pat’s partner in Story River Books, and in partnership with USCB, specifically with professor of English and author Ellen Maphrus, and Bonnie Hargrove, director of the USCB Center for the Arts.
“Each year the festival will highlight a different theme from Pat Conroy’s writing life,” Haupt explains. “The 2016 festival’s theme is ‘Place as Character and Muse in Southern Literature’.” There will be appearances by more than forty writers and performers in a series of conversations and special events tied to Pat’s legacy and theme of place, expanding the focus from Pat’s writing to the larger body of Southern literature.
Cassandra King, Pat’s wife and author of five books, and Ellen Malphrus, author of Untying the Moon, share some memories of Pat and some insights into their writing, as well as discussing the new festival with us.
Mary Ellen Thompson (MET) for Beaufort Lifestyle: Cassandra, I understand that you met Pat when he wrote a blurb for your first book, Making Waves in Zion. Tell us about that moment.
Cassandra King (CK): Birmingham, AL has an annual writers conference and every year they give an award. It was 1995 and Pat was getting the award that year; my book was coming out and I was invited to speak. As it turned out, my book wasn’t out in time but I was invited to the event anyway. There was a reception honoring Pat afterwards but I got there late because I had to go to a party for one of my friends first. When we finally got there, it was practically over. I asked if Mr. Conroy was still there and was told he had just left to take his father back to his hotel. I was disappointed that I had missed him, but I was also starving, so I went over to the refreshment table and was stuffing my mouth with chocolate dipped strawberries. There was a guy standing there talking to someone else and my friend brought him over to introduce us; it turned out to be Pat! He was laughing at me with my mouth full of strawberries. My friend wandered off and Pat and I started chatting; I told him I was a huge fan. When my friend came back she told Pat about my book; I hadn’t said anything. He said, “You didn’t tell me you’re a writer,” and I told him I wasn’t a writer because it was just one book and it wasn’t even out yet. He said, “Have your publisher send it to me, if I like it I’ll write a blurb; if not, I’ll pretend I never got it.” So we exchanged information. I was back at school teaching when I got a note to call him, so I did. He said he liked the book and asked how I came to write it. One thing I learned about Pat was that he loved to talk on the phone. A few weeks later he called again. We developed a deep friendship over the phone, but didn’t see each other again until 1997. One time when he called he told me he had been through a nasty divorce and suffered from depression; I told him I could relate. As it turned out, we’d both been divorced when we first met but each of us thought the other was married. He asked me out to dinner and we had our first date in Atlanta.
MET: Ellen, you met Pat in Blue Hill, Maine.
Ellen Malphrus (EM): Like everyone who loves Pat, we’ve all met him somewhere, at some event, and know his knack for making people friends. It was in Maine that the four of us, Cassandra, Pat, my husband Andy, and I got to become good friends. Pat became my big brother, and he called me “my sister in Dickey” because of the poet, James Dickey, under whom we both studied. Hundreds of thousands of people love Pat Conroy and feel connected to him.
MET: Cassandra, the age old question for every author is, are you working on a new book?
CK: I’m writing about my time with Pat and it will be in the form of a cookbook. I’ve written three magazine articles that could be chapters so it will be a memoir/cookbook, and I think the title will be Supper for One.
MET: Cooking is one of your great joys, when did you learn to cook?
CK: I grew up on a peanut farm in Lower Alabama. We had huge gardens grew all our own food, strawberries, peaches, blueberries, butter beans, and all sorts of other vegetables. We had pigs and chickens and cows. We even made our own butter, and put up food from the gardens for the year around. I have always wanted to write my “farm” book, which I am putting off for the moment. I was into the farm-to-table concept before it was popular. I didn’t appreciate growing up on a farm at the time because people thought of us as ignorant and backwards. My grandfather had the farm, and before that my great-grandfather, Josiah King, was a gentleman farmer who dabbled in farming, but wrote a couple of books. One was an Alabama history book and the other a book of poetry.
MET: Ellen, how about you, is there another book in the works?
EM: Yes. As soon as I got the word that Untying the Moon was accepted for publication, I pulled out my journal and started writing. It’s a leather journal that Pat gave me when we were in Maine in which he’d inscribed, “To Ellen Malphrus, Poet, writer, James Dickey-shaped as I am. I command that you begin publishing the novels you were born to write. You’re a Jasper County girl – all is possible. Great love, Pat Conroy, Brooklin Maine”.
Right now, I’m allowing my characters and my story to marinate. I have a pretty good handle on my main characters but some others are changing. So far I’m setting it in the Lowcountry.
CK: Setting is so important. I wanted Sunday Wife to be set in DeFuniak Springs in the Florida panhandle, but it just didn’t work. I needed a bigger town so I chose Crystal Springs.
EM: It’s that sense of place; place is character, inevitably.
MET: As is evidenced by the theme of the festival: “Place as Character and Muse in Southern Literature”.
MET: Bailey, the main character in Untying the Moon, travels at a dizzying pace in much of the story; I understand that you like to travel and take a world trip every year. What is the most spectacular place you’ve been?
EM: East Africa – the Serengeti, the Masai people. Alhambra, in Spain, with the palaces of the Sultans and the Sultanas, the nightingales, and the lighting. I just assigned my poetry students something based on my photographs of Alhambra. My daddy always said I was born with wheels on my ass. If I don’t have three trips queued up in my Delta list, I feel hemmed in.
We’ve heard about a number of books in the works: a novel that Pat was working on (tentative title, The Storms of Aquarius, from Doubleday); a collection of short essays about Pat by 70 fellow writers (tentative title, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, from USC Press); a book about Pat written by Bernie Schein (tentative title, Santini’s Hero); two forthcoming biographies, one by Pat as told to his oral biographer, Katherine Clark, and one by Catherine Seltzer. A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, a collection of Pat’s short non-fiction, blog posts, speeches, interviews, letters and memoirs, with an introduction written by Cassandra, will be available at the festival before its release to the general public so it’s the perfect opportunity to get an early copy and have it autographed.
MET: Cassandra, did you curate most of the material for A Lowcountry Heart ?
CK: Not really, but I did go through his journals and notes, and I found some notes from a talk he gave that lent the name to the book. The Beaufort County Open Land Trust hosted a fundraiser to purchase “The Green” in the Old Point neighborhood and asked Pat to be the speaker when he said “We are here because we have Lowcountry hearts.”
MET: Let’s talk about the upcoming Pat Conroy Literary Festival. When you attend a festival such as this, as evidenced by the Pat at 70 event last year, the presenters are excited and motivated about what they do. That energy is transferred and shared, everyone takes some of that home with them as if the wall between the writers and the readers is taken down. As a participant, you have access to all these amazing people and maybe you go home and write that book you always wanted to write. Maybe you meet a new author and find a new friend, in person, or through his or her books. But there is still an appeal for the non-literary person.
EM: You don’t have to be a literary aficionado to enjoy what’s going on. We have everything from scholarly panels to readings to entertainment; there is something for everyone.
MET: Not the least of which in the entertainment factor is the bus tour hosted by Bernie and Maggie Schein.
EM: Everything is fun when you have Bernie. He’s like two rings of a three ring circus.
CK: Beaufort, thanks to Pat’s legacy, has a strong literary appeal. There are so many things going on during the festival. One of the events I’m really excited about is the Sounds of the Cigar Factory, performed by a local cast with special appearance by Ron Daise and introduced by the author Michele Moore.
MET: That will be on Friday evening followed by a book signing and then the first open house at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. We will be able to see materials from the USC Libraries Pat Conroy Archive, and the Conroy family personal collections.
EM: to CK: About the entertainment factor – we’ve been inspired by the synchronized swimming in the Olympics; who knows what we might do in our presentation? It’s going to be fun!
CK: Pat was a fun person. People thought, because of what he wrote, that he must be difficult; dark and moody like he was Heathcliff or something. But he wasn’t, not at all. He really liked to have fun.
EM: We guarantee that you’ll leave the festival with a smile on your face. Pat wouldn’t have it any other way.
MET: Thank you, ladies. We all look forward to seeing everyone at the Literary Center and the Festival, October 20 – 23!
For more information: www.patconroyfestival.com