When I was 17 years old, I read a book called The Prince of Tides. Though I’d long been a reader I’m not sure any book had ever gripped me like this one had. I know it’s easy to say “I couldn’t put it down.” But I could not put it down. I read it behind my textbook in class, the boy I had a crush on leaning over to see what I was reading and asking “So, what’s that book about?”
I still remember totally forgetting to be cool around this boy as I gushed about all the many layers and nuances contained in this rich story world I had entered. I didn’t care. I was crushing on this book far more than I could even think of crushing on him. This author got it. This Pat Conroy. He got family dysfunction and undying love. He got the south and the people who live there. He got the melodic flow of language and the grip of a story well told.
Even though I had never met him he got… me.
Flash forward many years later. I’m at a literary event and he’s there. Serving readers food. Literally carrying the food to their tables and chatting them up as he did. He was warm and funny and gracious and self deprecating. He laughed a lot. I stood at a distance and watched, but was too tongue-tied and awestruck to approach him. When he died in March I saw myself there, standing in that doorway considering approaching him and chickening out instead. I chastised myself for not taking the chance when I had it. Here I was in front of my literary hero and… I blew it. And I always thought I’d just get another chance eventually. So the news of his death was sobering and saddening. I’d missed my chance forever.
So a few weeks ago when I heard that his beloved wife, Cassandra King Conroy, had organized a memorial for the public in his adopted hometown of Beaufort, I decided to go. Because this was a chance I was not going to miss. And though he wouldn’t actually be there, I sensed he would be there. And other people who felt like I did about him would be there. It was the closest I was ever going to get to making good on my missed opportunity. So I got in my car and drove the four hours Beaufort. It was on a whim, yet it felt like it had been determined long ago.
I went alone, and I sat alone, and I listened to every word of tribute spoken about this man who so impacted my life with his words. I took in the breathtaking view of the bay and the palm trees blowing in the breeze and the unbelievably blue sky and I understood that this was what he was writing about– the land, the words, the people, the stories. I laughed and I cried, and I paid my respects to him the only way I had left. Because it was something I could do. It was my way of saying thank you, of saying goodbye, of coming as close to him as I was ever going to get again this side of heaven.
Some authors are so revered that their names are whispered at literary events like an incantation. Authors who earn an “esque” after their names. Patchett-esque. Conroy-esque. Authors whose style is so unique, so mesmerizing that others emulate them for decades. The Kings and Queens of publishing as it were.
And I will never forget the day I first saw the reigning King and Queen of publishing in the flesh for the first time, or the regret I’ve held since that day. In October of 2014 I was invited to attend the Southern Festival of the Book here in Nashville. My debut novel had been published a few months earlier and it was the last event I was scheduled to attend. If I’m being totally honest, I was exhausted and wilted and tired of talking about myself and my book. So as I sat in the green room, waiting for my panel, I was a little subdued. And then heard THE GASP. When I looked up, Ann Patchett and Pat Conroy stood in the door, and fifty or so authors sat open-mouthed staring at them.
Here’s what you need to understand about me: if I am in awe of you, I will avoid you at all costs. I will not make eye contact or ask for your autograph. My absurd brain believes that the best way to show respect is to be the one person in a room not genuflecting. I will give you one less hand to shake. One less gushing compliment to deflect. I will leave you alone because I assume that you’re tired of the lines. This is unreasonable and I have no idea why I do it but it’s my default setting.
So I sat there, watching fifty authors rise to their feet and form two lines, and I settled deeper into my chair. A very flawed plan considering that within minutes I was the only person sitting. And three feet away, directly to my left, was Pat Conroy. But I dug in, determined.
The simple truth is that I froze. And it was awkward. And embarrassing. And obvious. I find myself in green rooms like that on occasion and at the time I thought I’d have another chance. I would rally and do better next time. But you know how this story ends and that second chance never came. If I could have done it all over again I would have gotten to my feet and shaken his hand. I would have told him what an honor it was to meet him. How staggered I am by his talent. I would have allowed myself to be in awe. He would have forgotten me instantly but I would have treasured the memory.
A memory that I never made because I’m an idiot.
Shake your hero’s hand. Give that gushing compliment. Send the email. Write the letter. Tell them that story in the signing line about how their novel changed your life or made you want to be a writer or helped you forgive your dad. They’ll understand. They do this because they know words are powerful and they want to hear that they have touched your life. Don’t be like me. Be a fan girl.
So when I woke on March 4th and learned of Pat Conroy’s passing I was devastated. But I instantly knew how to make amends. I decided to read through his entire body of work this year as penance for my stupidity. I already owned The Prince of Tides but I bought each of his other books on my book tour this spring and I am currently immersing myself in Pat Conroy’s south. I’ve lived here for much of the last twenty years but I can honestly say I’ve never really understood it until now.
Thank you for that, Mr. Conroy. It has been an unexpected gift. And I’m sorry that I don’t have the sense God gave a rock. I hope we get the chance to laugh about that one day on the other side of eternity.