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.