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Remembering Pat Conroy, A Master Who Used His Tortured Life To Tell Stories

Author Pat Conroy at a benefit reading for actor Frank Muller in 2002 in New York City.
Jeffrey Vock
Getty Images
Author Pat Conroy at a benefit reading for actor Frank Muller in 2002 in New York City.

Pat Conroy, the beloved author of The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, has died. Conroy — who announced last month that he had pancreatic cancer — died Friday night at his home among his family in Beaufort, S.C. He was 70 years old.

Pat Conroy was a master storyteller, blending the raw material of his difficult family life with the landscape of coastal South Carolina. In 1986, Conroy told me that the reason he wrote was to explain his own life to himself.

"Writing has been not therapeutic for me, but it has been essential," he said in an interview for Morning Edition. "I have written about my mother, my father, my family ... and if I get it on paper, I have named the demon."

Conroy's best known work is The Prince of Tides, a novel about a troubled South Carolina native recounting his story to a New York psychiatrist.

The prologue begins: "My wound is geography."

I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark.

Nan Talese was Pat Conroy's editor for the past 35 years, beginning with The Prince of Tides — a span that saw Conroy's book sales rise to a total of 20 million copies worldwide.

She recalled the first thing he said to her when they met. "He said, 'I will tell you, if there are ten words for something, I will use all ten. Your job is to take them out.'"

Talese said Conroy touched people with his language and his honesty.

"His incredible sense of empathy with people. ... I think that his books influenced a lot of people because he was so open and honest. And it really struck their hearts."

Pat Conroy was born in 1945 in Atlanta. He was a self-described "military brat." His family moved every year until they settled in Beaufort when he was 12.

In his 1976 book The Great Santini, Conroy wrote about his relationship with his abusive father, a Marine aviator. In the 1979 film version of the story, the father is played by Robert Duvall. In one scene, he addresses his four young children after a move, as if they are soldiers under his command.

After high school, Pat Conroy's father sent his oldest son to The Citadel, Charleston's storied military academy, where Pat began to write fiction. Conroy said his natural storytelling ability was never affected by literary theory.

"I missed all the classes in the art of fiction," Conroy said in 1986. "We didn't have any. I'm great on military science. But I missed all the classes on 'Is this a great technique for fiction?' I never learned any of that stuff."

His education as a writer came elsewhere.

"I came from a family of great storytellers," he said. "That is something about the South I think has been preserved. The yarn, the story, and the ability to tell one well, is a beloved trait in several of my uncles and aunts. And a great story changes the world for you — changes the way you look at life."

Pat Conroy said he looked for stories that told something about the world that he didn't know before.

And he said he faced challenges along the way. "The one thing I've had is a very painful life filled with utter moments of great joy. Things happen to me for reasons I cannot figure out. And things have continued to happen to me all my life, and happen to my family all my life, and now happen to my friends. ... What I hope is that I don't die before I can tell all the stories I still haven't told."

Conroy was telling those stories until the end. Before he died he finished a short novel called Aquarius, set in the Vietnam era, and dedicated to his "friends who become teachers."

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Tom Vitale