Pat Conroy has written eloquently and often about being spotted by his English teacher Gene Norris, the man who would become his most important mentor.
Pat too had this incredible capacity to spot people, to recognize the untapped potential in others and to bring them along with his guidance.
In that regard, he never stopped being a teacher. USC Press’s Story River Books fiction imprint became a way for Pat to mentor writers not only in the craft of writing but in the art of authorship itself, in his gracious, generous model of what any writer or artist can mean to a community.
Over lunch at Griffin Market Pat volunteered to be editor at large for Story River when he recognized what I hoped this new imprint might mean for South Carolina writers and readers as an opportunity to share transformative stories from voices that might not have been heard otherwise.
Not surprisingly, Pat’s ambitions for Story River exceeded my own and we quickly grew the plan to include writers from across the South.
In less than three years we’ve published 15 Southern novels and story collections, with five more on the way by this time next year.
And these include exceptional first-time novelists like Ellen Malphrus and John Lane as well as major award-winners like Pam Durban and Mary Hood, because talent was talent to Pat.
And he recognized in each writer a set of deeply felt beliefs that he advocated for every day of his writing life: that story matters, that narrative can change lives as well as chronicle them, that the best fiction was a way to tell the truest of truths in a way that opens up hearts and minds.
The amazing thing that happened along the way, and we owe this entirely to Pat, is that Story River Books become a genuine family of writers with Pat as our tribal elder.
The Story River writers look out for each other, now mentoring and championing one another as Pat has done for them, and I think our readers have recognized that as something genuine and earnest.
Story River Books was born out of the belief and generosity of Pat Conroy, and we’ll continue to discover and foster exceptional writers as a tribute to Pat, but also as a tribute to our readers who first found their way to our books because Pat was kind enough to share the warm, welcoming glow of his spotlight.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the enormity of history as it’s happening, but the Pat Conroy at 70 festival felt like literary history in the making from my first inception of the idea to those unbelievable, unplanned last five minutes of the final program when Pat walked out to center stage in all his gracious, vulnerable, beatific glory and thanked his readers, his family, and his friends for giving him the writer’s life he always wanted.
That weekend was meant to be a gift to Pat, the most beloved writer I’ve ever known, and it became as well a gift to all of those hundreds of people in attendance.
We had literary pilgrims who traveled to Beaufort from all over to share that experience with Pat, with his family, and with dozens of the writers, artists, entertainers, and publishing professionals whose lives have been touched, been changed for the better, because of Pat.
That was a celebration a great man’s unapologetically big life, and that Pat immersed himself so fully into that gathering in the same way everyone else did was as beautiful as it was unexpected.
We now know it to have been a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the outpouring of support for continuing that festival experience in Beaufort has been so strong that USC Press and USCB’s Center for the Arts have begun plans for an annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival as a tribute to Pat and another expansion of his incredible legacy in Beaufort and in Southern literature.
There was this amazing moment on the last night of the festival when Bronwen Dickey read her father’s poem “For the Last Wolverine” as our gift to Pat and he was reciting lines from memory right along with her. The poem ends with the benediction, “Lord, let me die, but not die/Out.”
Pat Conroy will never die out. It’s now up to all of us, readers and writers alike, to see to that. That poem also includes the powerful call to action, “let something come from it, something gigantic, legendary.” That’s what we must do for Pat, as he most certainly did it for us.