I tell you: that Pat Conroy is going to be the death of me as a writer. The ‘Balzac of the American south’ who wrote Prince of Tides, South of Broad and other bestsellers, said things so much better than I do.
This morning, I got a note which led me to start writing this post about how incredible it is to have readers — and readers who actually enjoy my books — when I came across a letter Conroy wrote in 2009:
“To have attracted readers is the most magical part of my writing life. I was not expecting you to show up when I wrote my first books. It took me by surprise. It filled me with gratitude. It still does.”
And I loved this, because attracting readers is something I hoped for, but never expected when I was writing my books. You get so absorbed in writing the story that when you get to the end of it, you sit with hope, and a sense of something big finally completed — but you don’t know what will happen afterwards.
Will anyone read it? And having read it, will they love it?
The note I got was from Karen, a reader, with a Rumi poem. She said, simply: “I read this and thought of you.”
Sometimes, readers’ notes are so personal that for a moment I wonder: How did they know that?
And then, I remember, with a foolish smile. Of course. They’ve read my books.
I had read that Rumi poem multiple times when writing both A Good Home and An Honest House. (Thank you, Karen!)
Perhaps it’s the frailty of creators: we always find fault with our own work. And though I’ve won a few awards for my books, and many more in television, there’s never been a book or television show that I felt was perfect.
So yes — having readers is a wondrous, magical thing. And when readers think enough of my work to write to me — some repeatedly — it’s always a surprise, and a joy.
Back to Pat Conroy — a literary hero with legions of readers. They visit his grave on St. Helena’s Island in S. Carolina. In 2016, he became the first White person to be buried in the Memorial Garden Cemetery on this island where he had taught Black children, and whose Gullah people inspired his first book — the Water is Wide.
In my own garden, and inside my house here in Ontario, I read his books and letters this past year and thought: “Damn, he’s good. I’m never writing again. I can never be this good.” I especially enjoyed South of Broad.
The fact is, authors like Pat Conroy inspire me to do better. Challenge me to do better.
I love his way with words.
The depth and breadth of his plotting. His mastery of the skills we writers struggle to get hold of.
The telling details that bring the reader right there; the development of each character; dialogue so effective, you can hear the person’s voice; the way Conroy ‘cast’ his story — bringing very different characters together against a backdrop of a famous place (e.g. Charleston, Rome, Georgia), big social issues and events — and making these characters the unlikeliest of close friends.
Ironically, some longtime fans did not like South of Broad, the one I most enjoyed. They felt it was too lavish in parts, one or two characters too outlandish (true) or simply too laden with social justice values. But I loved it.
To fall into a book — in that weird way that books can grab and pull you into their worlds — is a wondrous experience. To write books, and have readers feel a connection to them and to you, is magical.
Thanks for reading my books. I love hearing from you.