The one time I met Pat Conroy, who died Friday, I was about to change my life, get out of the news biz forever.
“I’ve already quit my job,” I told him over breakfast in an outdoor café at the Intercontinental hotel in Toronto, in the late summer of 1995. “This is my last interview.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to do what you do. I won’t do it the same or as well …”
“What are you going to write?”
“I’m going to write a novel.”
“Are you really?”
“Yeah, after thirty years in journalism I’ve just had it. We’ve sold our house and …”
“Have you really?”
“And we’re renting a house on the north shore of Lake Superior, out in the country.’
“Near a place called Thunder Bay,” I said.
“I know it well,” Conroy said. “It’s beautiful. Are you going to write your novel there?”
That novel is another story. But my conversation with Conroy, when we were each pushing 50, has stuck.
I had only one reason for accepting the offer from the Doubleday publicist to interview Conroy and write a feature for Canadian Press – my daughter Kate was a fan.
I knew he had written The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini only because I’d seen the movies. Family drama. Psychobabble. Chick flicks.
But I’d read Beach Music, which he was promoting that summer, and liked it. Nice writing. Good story.
I figured he’d be one of those sensitive guys, comfortable with his feminine side, whatever the hell that was.
I expected a delicate southern gentleman in a seersucker suit – Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote.
Then, this big bear of a man in a T-shirt and grungy Atlanta Braves cap offered a warm handshake.
We started out talking baseball, the names and stories tripping along easily: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, the young stars with his hometown Braves.
He told me about meeting Ted Williams, one of his boyhood heroes. I told him about my season as a baseball writer, talking to Ted Williams at spring training in 1978.
Finally, I said, “I better get something on tape I can use.”
“Sorry,” Conroy said, “I guess I’m not doing you any favors here. But I get off on this stuff.”
“So do I.”
I learned his life was not going very well. He’d moved to Fripp Island, South Carolina, looking for solitude. But a profile in Vanity Fair had revealed his hideaway.
One night, he found a stranger inside his house. “She said, ‘You’re getting a divorce.’
“I said, ‘Yes.’
“She said, ‘So am I. Isn’t that lucky?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know you.’
“She said: ‘Yes you do. I’ve read your books.’”
The hospitable southerner poured the woman a cup of coffee before telling her he was calling the cops.
“She said: ‘I know you won’t call the police.’
“I said: ‘How do you know?’
“She said: ‘I’ve read your books.’”
That was the problem. Obsessed readers, especially women, knew the characters he created were based on his life. Tom Wingo wouldn’t call the cops.
Conroy didn’t either. He drove the woman to where she was staying on the island.
He told me he recognized the very strong emotional connection he’d made with his readers. “It’s something I don’t think I can help as a writer, that they feel that they know me.”
And yet … “I’ve ruined Fripp Island for myself. I think I have to go someplace else now.
“I was walking on the beach at sunset. This was always a personal, very private, almost sacramental end of the day for me. But people were waiting on the beach with their books. I heard: ‘There he is.’ I signed seven books.”
Conroy signed my copy of Beach Music:
To Ken and Linda Becker,
For the love of books and words and Canada, O Canada. Here’s to a new life in Thunder Bay. I look forward to reading the first Becker novel.
Sept. 12, 1995
We moved to a house on Superior that month. While unpacking, I came across a Ted Williams baseball card and sent it to Conroy with a brief note. I never heard back.
We lasted nearly three years in the frozen north before coming home to suburban Toronto. I went back to journalism.
Conroy wrote one more novel: South of Broad, published in 2009. Nice writing. Good story.
My novel never got written in Thunder Bay. It’s since been completed and rewritten.
Conroy had asked me: “You know what it’s going to be about yet?”
“Sort of,” I replied, “I’ve got two characters and a vague idea of where I’m going.”
Conroy looked me straight in the eye: “When you say you have two characters, I think, ‘ah, a writer.’”
Maybe I’m ready to take another whack at the novel.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.