Sunday, November 7, 2010

When You Meet Someone You Admire--Like Pat Conroy

As an author, I have a lot of people I respect. I have a lot of friends in this business, and they are wonderful people, super talents, and gracious souls. But there are a few living authors that I idolize, that I would love to get to know better, whose talents and skills leave me in despair, sure that I will never, ever measure up.

Pat Conroy tops that list. I think, in part, it's because of his subject matter. His honesty in dealing with his dysfunctional family and their problems. I shudder to consider how difficult it would be to share those deep secrets, and I hope that someday I'll find that sort of courage.

It's also because of his command of the language. He writes with such precision, and he makes words bend and sway to his purpose. I read his work and want to weep! I think, "How does he do this?"

When my friend Kris emailed me to say that Pat Conroy was coming to the Pratt Library in Baltimore, I dithered. You see, it's one thing to admire someone from afar, but what if they don't live up to our fantasies? I suppose we've all been there. We've all stood in line to meet with a famous person only to have that FP treat us like we're dirt or an inconvenience or worse, a pest. So I ordered tickets to see Pat Conroy with a great sense of trepidation.

He spoke to a large hall of people. He was charming, he was fascinating, he was thoughtful. He talked about going to a bank to raise $4000 to self-publish his first book, The Boo. Then he talked about approaching a famous literary agent who snubbed him. After that snub, Pat wrote the man a letter suggesting that any milk of human kindness the agent's mother had given him had long worn off. This letter piqued the agent's interest, and he asked to see Pat's manuscript.

The window of opportunity was short. Pat and his wife gathered all their family friends in Beaufort, SC, and handed out handwritten parts of the book. The friends took it home and typed it on whatever they had lying around, including blue paper, yellow paper, lined paper and personal stationery. The agent laughed and told Pat "this is the cutest book I've ever seen." It was also one of the best, I'm sure, because that book turned out to be The Water is Wide. When the agent said, "Pat, we'll get this published for $7,500." Conroy misunderstood and said, "I can get it printed a lot cheaper down here." Pat didn't know the money was coming to him!

And so, Pat Conroy joins the ranks of self-published authors, and I would like to happily point out that self-publication did NOT ruin his career as some suggest it inevitably will.

I took my place in the book signing line after his talk. I brought along a small gift, a sweetgrass basket. When I handed it to Pat--that's it in his hands--he laughed. "I know what this is!" When I told him that my great-grandmother was a Middleton and my grandmother was a Manigault, he said, "Why you're a real Charleston blue blood." And finally, I told him that I had named my character Kiki LOWENSTEIN, in homage to his books.

He was touched by this gesture, and he thanked me. Needless to say, I walked away feeling totally thrilled.

I hope I do the same for my fans. I hope I always remember how special I felt, and how much that great man endeared me to him.


Jane Jeffress Thomas said...

Oh, how lucky you are!!! I guess if I could pick one author I would want to meet and speak with it would be Pat Conroy. I have read all of his books and he is the best. I was born in Sumter, SC, and love how he has written about SC in some of his books. I guess my very favorite is The Water is Wide. Yes, you are lucky to have gotten to meet this great author.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Jane, you are right. It's a glorious book, isn't it? He explained how upset the school district was with him because he protested how few resources that school had, so he became persona non grata. "And the words just came pouring out of me," he said, in regards to writing that book. I count myself very, very lucky that I had the chance to hear him, see him, and speak to him.

Betty Hechtman said...

Joanna, I am making the rounds of bookstores in the Chicago area, signing stock of You Better Knot Die. I stopped into a big Barnes & Noble in the Oakbrook center and saw your latest in the Mystery Section. Thought you'd like to know.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Oh, golly, Betty. My little heart is going pitter-patter. Wow. Thanks for reporting that.

Terri Thayer said...

He is such a wonderful writer, glad to hear he's a wonderful author, too. Nice to his readers.

Nice to meet a hero in the flesh.

I meant to tell you that one of your books was in the Halloween display at the local library. I stopped and said, "I know her."

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Oh, gosh, Terri. That's so sweet of you. I do the same when I see one of your books, which is often. I also tell the bookseller, "She's a doll." Everyone likes to do business with people who are nice, don't they? I think being nice is undervalued.