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winter 2018

Anchorage 1770 toasts Pat Conroy

John Lane ’77 and Frank ’89 and Amy Barwick Lesesne ’89 take a literary spin with Pat Conroy.

Anchorage 1770 owners and operators Frank ’89 and Amy Barwick Lesesne ’89 and Wofford professor of English and environmental studies John Lane ’77 helped celebrate the 70th birthday of Pat Conroy, author of “Prince of Tides,” “Beach Music,” “South of Broad” and other best-selling novels.

Anchorage 1770, on the Beaufort, S.C., coast, provided the setting for the special literary festival. Lane participated in the poetry panel and reading. Below is his journal entry about the experience.

“Hey Out There” — Taking A Literary Spin with Pat Conroy

The last weekend of October The University of South Carolina Press threw a big 70th birthday party for Pat Conroy in Beaufort and they invited me to take part. This wasn't my first ride in the Conroy rodeo. In March my first novel, Fate Moreland’s Widow, came out from USC Press's Story River Books, the imprint that Pat edits with passion. His commitment to the Story River books is hard to believe; the editorial work is something the most famous novelist in the South doesn't have to do. On my novel's back cover Pat contributed a generous blurb, and soon after its publication he wrote about the book several times on his Facebook feed— each posting beginning "hey out there," his signature callout to rally his 50,000+ on-line friends to whatever literary weather has his attention at the moment. Thanks to Pat, my Amazon numbers redlined for a few days, my readership as measured by BookScan went up by hundreds, and several book clubs outside my usual writerly range (South Carolina and a little beyond) assigned the novel to their members. 

Also, throughout the spring, summer, and early fall, I appeared on stage with Pat five times, each time with the types of crowds only Pat Conroy can draw in the heart of Conroy Country— Charleston, Greenville, Winston Salem, and twice in Decatur. These appearances were Q&A panels with other Story River authors. Pat was always the animated moderator— telling Pat stories— but mostly asking us about the nuances of our own work and listening attentively to our answers, which sometime went on longer than they should.

At times the events turned into a literary Magical Mystery Tour—like the time the woman stood up in the Decatur First Baptist Church where 500 had turned out in the rain and testified that she would only come out in such a down pour for two Southern cultural icons—George Jones and Pat Conroy. And then at Furman University, when we arrived early for a cocktail party for some of the university’s big donors, we sipped our champagne while a woman took photos through the closed glass doors of Pat circulating inside. I like to think that maybe I was an unexpected photo bomb in some of her images.

The birthday bash—which some took to calling “PatFest”—was opulent and inviting. The festival organizers put some of us visitors up in a remarkable Inn called Anchorage 1770 presided over by Wofford graduates Frank and Amy Lesesne. Frank and Amy, generous patrons, treated us visiting writers like royalty—happy hours, breakfasts on the veranda, even chocolate chip cookies and lemon water before bed. Just a week before the Inn had hosted Pat for the launch of Ellen Malphas’s Story River novels, so they were no strangers to the Pat Conroy Magical Mystery Tour.

Most of the three days of the birthday bash Pat sat attentive in the audience about ten rows back and listened to revolving emissaries from the various tribes he represents take the stage of the USC-Beaufort Fine Arts Center and talk about his influence on their worlds. There were stars of Hollywood, like Michael O’Keefe, who played the son in The Great Santini, movers and shakers from big-time New York Publishing, like Pat’s editors Nan Talese and Jonathan Galassi and Pat’s long-time agent Marly Rusoff. Six of Pat’s seven brothers and sisters, his wife, Cassandra King, and several of his children took the stage at one point for a very moving conversation with historian Walter Edgar. “My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family,” Pat has said, and the panel consisted of some serious sailing in heavy seas at times, reminding everyone that at the heart of Pat Conroy’s success is his honesty.

There were also writers and other he’d taught, inspired, and befriended—like Browen Dickey, who read two of Pat’s favorites poems by her father, James Dickey. There were compelling commentaries by artists Jonathan Green and Jonathan Hannah, USC Press editor Jonathan Haupt, literary critics Jan Nordby Gretlund, Daniel Cross Turner, Catherine Seltzer, and best-selling novelists Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Alice Monroe, Ron Rash and Valarie Sayers.

And then there were the Story River Writers, nine of us—Mark Powell, Eric Morris, long-time Conroy friends John Warley and Bernie Schein, Maggie Schein, Mark Sybley-Jones, Pam Durban, Ray McManus, Marjory Wentworth, Ellen Malphus, and me. We were divided among a half half-dozen panels over two days where we talked and even read some of our work, something that made me a little nervous, knowing how Pat feels about public readings: “I discovered early that I don’t read well from my books, that my tone turns pretentious and old-testament as soon as I begin reciting words I’ve written down alone at a desk,” he has written. “Frankly, I find myself near hysteria whenever I listen to my brother and sister writers read portions of their own noble work.” I looked back often during my two readings, one of poetry and one from my novel, to see if Pat was still awake. He seemed completely present—catching all the poems and fragments of stories floating toward him.

What did I learned from inclusion in Pat Conroy’s book series, my tour with him, and my participation in his one and only 70th Birthday Bash circle? That Pat is a generous man, and his friends are generous toward him in return. That Pat’s world pulls together more straws than a low country sweet-grass basket. That Pat loves the low country in general and Beaufort in particular. That literary friendship is a powerful thing and needs always to be cultivated like a good farm. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples radiate outward. Already since I have returned I have connected with new and old acquaintances, and though my Facebook feed is tens of thousands short of Pat’s, I have clicked accept on a dozen friend requests since I returned. After thirty-five years my literary circles are still widening. In nine years I will be seventy. I continue to drop in my books, stone after stone into the pond. I’m now proud to count Pat Conroy among its ripples.