The South Carolina writer who inspired me – Pat Conroy passed away

Pat ConroyPat Conroy died last night. As his wife, novelist Cassandra King Conroy, said, “The water is wide and he has now passed over.”

It’s a common question writers get. Who were your main influences? I know that I’m a writer today primarily because of Pat Conroy.

Growing up in South Carolina, I had an inferiority complex. We were 49th in about every metric related to poverty and education, and we had a saying, “Thank God for Mississippi,” because at least we weren’t last. As the only South Carolina writer I knew, he inspired me to do for Upstate what’s the done for the Low Country. Give people a sense of place so strong that they know and understand the world where I was reared.

I discovered Pat Conroy’s writing my senior year. At the liberal arts college I attended, we could take two courses pass/fail. I signed up for Southern literature. Now I’ve always known that Southerners were the best American writers, from William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston; from Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy. But in the class, I discovered Pat Conroy, a writer from the Low Country whose scenes put me on the banks of the Ashley/Cooper rivers flowing through Charleston where I could experience the world that he knew. I loved the way that Conroy’s language would roll around in my mouth and drip off the tongue. His voice was distinctive and authentic. He told his story, in a way that cost him relationships with his family, but he knew that he had to tell what happened.

My professor at college shared with us an article in Publisher’s Weekly about Pat Conroy that appeared in 1986. “I write a straight story line, and I guess that’s what they need,” Mr. Conroy said. “The dialogue also seems to be serviceable in a Hollywood way. But most important, I do the thing that Southerners do naturally — I tell stories.”

As a boy from South Carolina, that’s what I want to do. Tell stories.

And I hope that you’ll enjoy them.