Pat Conroy returns with Charleston-based novel

August 23, 2009 

  • Pat Conroy will be signing copies of "South of Broad" from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Bay Street Trading Co., 808 Bay Street, in Beaufort.

Pat Conroy still remembers the first time he went south of Broad.

The young Conroy had just settled into life in Beaufort when his high school English teacher took him on a tour of Charleston, eventually stopping at Broad Street.

The teacher turned to Conroy and said, "Boy, I'm going to change your life. For the first time you're going to be south of Broad."

They toured past some of the grandest architecture Conroy had ever seen and stumbled into secret gardens. His teacher seemed to know a story behind every house.

"I had never been somewhere so beautiful," Conroy recalls.

Ever since then, Charleston -- and to a greater extent, the Lowcountry -- has remained ingrained in Conroy's life. Most of his books involve an aspect of the Lowcountry, ranging from his life as a teacher on Daufuskie Island in "The Water is Wide" to his time at the Citadel in "Lords of Discipline."

Now comes "South of Broad," his first novel in 14 years. He wrote a memoir, "My Losing Season," and "The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life" in the meantime and also engaged in talks to write a sequel to "Gone with the Wind." But "South of Broad" returns Conroy to a typical theme: an expansive story told in a Southern setting.

The novel follows narrator Leopold Bloom King and his diverse group of friends, alternating between 1969 and 1989, when Hurricane Hugo swept through the Charleston.

Just as prominent as the characters is the city, its charms and whims working its way into the life of Bloom, the narrator: "I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk."

"South of Broad" signifies Conroy's attempt at The Great Charleston Novel, a hypothetical work that captures the essence of the city. He tried in "Lords of Discipline," but says he was never satisfied with the end result. In "South of Broad," he gives his narrator a newspaper route as a boy, giving him the perfect means to explore the alleyways and secret gardens Conroy discovered as a teenager.

"I'm always looking for cities that haven't been defined in fiction," he said. "Charleston seems to be elusive like that."

Ever since settling in Beaufort, Conroy never felt much desire to leave. He arrived at Beaufort High School miserable because he was a junior at his third high school. As he crossed the Whale Branch bridge, he was immediately charmed by its marshes and rivers.

He now lives on Fripp Island with his wife, novelist Cassandra King. The tranquil island with a population of less than 1,000 provides the solitude he needs to write, he said.

It's the type of place you could go days without seeing anyone, he said, and the type of place that Conroy has watched disappear as development spreads around Beaufort County. His passion for the Lowcountry not only comes in praising its charms, but criticizing its faults -- the poor state of education for sea island children in "The Water is Wide" or unwieldy growth in a letter to the editor ("I'd rather drop a nuke on Lady's Island than a Walmart," he once wrote after a proposed big box store on the island).

Even in fiction, his writing is heavily autobiographical, not just in the use of a Lowcounty setting, but in specific relationships of Conroy's past. "South of Broad" is no exception, as it channels common Conroy themes of coming to terms with the past, battling inner demons, the threat or aftermath of a suicide and dealing with an abusive or emotionally distant parent.

"I'm often confronted by writers who say they don't write autobiographically, but it doesn't make sense to me. They're the ones who handle this material," he said. "I'm always the controlling force behind these characters, whether male, female, gay, straight, black, white.

"There I am; there I find myself."

IN HIS OWN WORDS:

On negotiations to write "Gone with the Wind" sequel:

"I wanted to do that book for my mother. It was her favorite. I thought if I could write a sequel and dedicate it to my mother, it would have been a magical moment. But I had to get through the estate of Margaret Mitchell. They wanted me to write about stuff I didn't want to write about. We clashed."

On writing his books longhand because he never learned to type:

"I was in a typing class, and my father found out. ... He asked why I was taking this course, ... looked at me with disgust and said, 'Girls type; Corporals type. I'm taking you out of that class.' And that was it."

On growth in Bluffton:

"I was in a grocery store and someone came up to me. They were going to Hilton Head. I said something about the traffic, and they said, 'I tell people, 'You're fine once you get through Bluffton.' I thought I'd never hear that in my life. When I was going to Daufuskie, Bluffton was just a hamlet. God can forgive a lot of things but he can't forgive what we've done to Bluffton, South Carolina."

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