My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy—Q & A with author Katherine Clark

myexaggeratedI just finished reading the oral biography, My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as told to Katherine Clark. I was interested in the book for two reasons:

First of all, Pat Conroy was my favorite fiction writer of all time, and The Prince of Tides is my favorite novel. I’ve read all of his books, and was fortunate to meet him back in 2010. He was larger than life, humble, gregarious, and generous. And because of the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood, and later as a cadet at The Citadel, he understood its lifelong affects, and the therapy that writing provides.

Secondly, I read Katherine Clark’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Darlings, a couple of years ago, and was so impressed with her prose. (Read my blog post from June of 2016.) I’m honored to have her contribute an essay to the collection I edited, Southern Writers on headmastercoverWriting, coming out May 1 from University Press of Mississippi. So I knew this was a book I had to read. And it did not disappoint. Her characters jumped off the page and her prose was elegant. Here’s an interview she did about the novel with Patti Callahan Henry for Deep South Magazine, in September 2015.

I haven’t read the other novels in what is known as the Mountain Brook series, but they are on my “to read” list! Allen Mendenhall interviewed Katherine for Southern Literary Review, May 2017, for her novel The Harvard Bride, which was the third in the Mountain Brook Series.
But back to My Exaggerated Life. Much of what I loved about the book was Pat’s wonderful advice to writers. This piece really spoke to me:

The one thing you have to avoid when you’re writing is being afraid, because everybody makes you afraid. The critics will make you afraid. Your professors will make you afraid. The writers who teach you will make you afraid. Your friends will make you afraid. Your parents make you afraid. Society makes you afraid. Everybody has ways of putting you down as a writer. ‘Were you on the best-seller list? How many did you sell? Did you make lots of money?’ So everything is working against writers fully letting themselves flower unto themselves.

Like Pat, I was sexually abused as a child and young adult, so I was very interested in what he had to say about how the abuse he suffered in childhood and later as a cadet at The Citadel affected him. And how the abuse affected his writing and how writing helped him heal:

Writers like me have chosen a life of agony. Whatever it is we get out of ourselves, whatever poisons spill out of us, you’ll see the results when they’re published…. Fiction is the most agonizing because fiction is us. Nonfiction is the other. Fiction is an absolute reflection of what we have going on inside of us, or what we do not have.

Pat and Katherine

 

Let’s see what Katherine Clark has to say about this book, with a short interview. She agreed to answer three questions for me:

Susan: I understand that My Exaggerated Life is the third oral biography you published. Can you tell us a bit about the genre, and how it differs from a biography or memoir? And how did you get interested in doing oral biographies?

Katherine: Oral biography is an interesting genre because it offers a narrative that no one has actually written.  In the case of MY EXAGGERATED LIFE, Pat Conroy did not write this memoir, nor did I write his biography.  Instead, I recorded about 200 hours of conversation on the phone with him, had these recordings professionally transcribed, and then edited the transcripts into the narrative that forms the book.  So it is comprised solely of Pat’s spoken words.  It’s a great genre for capturing the genius of a true raconteur, and Pat was as great a raconteur as he was a writer.  I first learned about this genre in college, when I read a book called All God’s Dangers, by Theodore Rosengarten, who recorded an illiterate black sharecropper in Alabama whose brilliant stories illuminated a crucial chunk of Southern history.

Susan: What was the editing process like, once you had recorded so many hours of conversations with Pat? How much of what we read in the book is verbatim what Pat said and how much is edited, if that’s even possible to say?

Katherine: Editing the material Pat Conroy gave me was a privilege and a pleasure.  For one thing, it’s always a great learning opportunity to work so closely with the words of a master storyteller.  My job as an editor was to organize and structure the material into a coherent and compelling narrative, but the words are all Pat’s.  For example, the opening sentences of the book can be found in an interview I did with Pat several months after I started recording him.  The words are his, but I was the one who chose for them to become the opening lines.

Susan: I know that Pat died before he had a chance to read the final version, but you mention that his wife, Cassandra King, read it before it went to press, right? Can you tell us a bit about her reaction, which you refer to in the book? What about Bernie’s reaction (which you don’t refer to)? I met Bernie at a book signing Cassandra and I did in Beaufort last May, and I could immediately see why he and Pat were such good friends.

Katherine: Pat’s wife Cassandra did a heroic job of reading my manuscript the month after Pat died.  At the time, she told me it was painful to read, because it sounded “just like Pat,” and was a difficult reminder of her loss.  But at least this was a sign that my book had succeeded in its mission of capturing Pat’s voice.  Sandra was a tremendous help to me in revising the manuscript, because I’d counted on Pat’s help to perfect it.  She and I had ongoing discussions over many months, and during the course of these, she freely shared her opinions about which stories she was glad Pat had told me, and which ones she wished he had not.  But she always had complete respect for my prerogative as editor to make the final decisions.  I am lucky to be able to call her both colleague and friend.

I’m so grateful to Katherine for writing this incredible book, and for taking time for this short interview. This is a MUST READ for lovers of all things Pat Conroy, and just good southern literature.

If you’re looking for a great writing conference to attend this summer, Katherine will be on a panel with me at the Alabama Writer’s Conclave’s Summer Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama, June 15-17, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, and she will be leading a workshop titled, “The Pleasures and Perils of Editing Oral Biographies.” I’ll be there sitting on the front row, wanting to learn more!

Southern Writers on Writing: FINAL Sneak Previews

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI hope you’ve been following my series of excerpts from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May), but if you’ve missed them and would like to catch up, here they are:

Sneak Previews 1 (featuring Neil White, Alan Lightman, Jim Dees, and Joe Formichella)

Sneak Previews 2 (featuring Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry)

Sneak Previews 3 (featuring Sonja Livingston, Sally Palmer Thomason, Julie Cantrell, and Katherine Clark)

Sneak Previews 4 (featuring John Floyd, Jennifer Horne, Suzanne Hudson, River Jordan, Lee Smith, and M. O. Walsh)

Sneak Previews 5 (featuring W. Ralph Eubanks, Ravi Howard, Claude Wilkinson, Clyde Egderton, Niles Reddick, and Jacqueline Allen Trimble)

Today I’m sharing excerpts from the final section of the book, “A Little Help From My Friends.” I decided to contribute an essay to this section—mainly to pay homage to all the writers who have inspired me and helped me get along the path of my writing journey, including several who are featured in this book. If you like what you read here, click on the authors’ names to learn more about them and their books.

 

CUSHMAN book jacket photoI’ve always loved to organize things—like the literary salons I host in our home here in Memphis several times a year—so grouping the essays by themes and finding quotes to anchor each section was simply fun. It was such a nice break from the labor-intensive writing and revising involved with the novel. I was so exhausted from the six years involved in the production of Cherry Bomb that I declared (as I’m sure many mothers have done postpartum) never to write another novel. But—also like those new mothers—it wasn’t long before my mind began to long for another child and to dream up new characters and new locations and new plotlines…. Yes, the pain of childbirth passes, and the possibility of bringing something literary, something hopefully wonderful, into the world is great enough to endure another pregnancy. In a sense, this essay is a thank-you-letter to my early lovers—the ones who planted those first seeds—because I truly believe I would not have become a writer without them. But it’s also a nod to future midwives whom I look forward to working with as the labor continues.—Susan Cushman, from “Hard Labor: The Birth of a Novelist”

 

Wendy ReedWriting is the intersection of action and deliberation, the axis where movement and stillness collide, it’s the physicality of mentality, it’s how we see the unseen. To write is to combine the soul with pencil lead. Offer a map of your heart and mind and sigmoid colon. It’s like hiking up your skirt. It’s transgressive, a way to sanction trespass. A ticket to the botanical garden of knowledge, a seat in the den of iniquity. It’s peeling the forbidden fruit with a nib. It’s not biting the apple but chewing as long as it takes. It is squiggles and lines and angles, a geometric alchemy. I like to think of Eve’s apple as the first literary seduction, the first use of words to share something so delicious it will alter everything to come, and nothing will ever taste the same.—Wendy Reed, from “Lyrical Acts”

 

Nicole SeitzWriter friendships are not normal, nor would we want them to be. Look at Lewis and Tolkein. Iron sharpens iron…. Writing is a solitary affair and very often done by introverts. And yet the publishing business demands we be extroverts, a dilemma indeed. It’s enough to make one consider another career. Except that being a writer isn’t a career, it’s closer to the color of your skin…. To any writer out there I would say this: Always know who your true writer friends are, the ones who really wish you well, who want what’s best for you as much as they would for themselves, those who will both celebrate your successes and grieve at your failures…. You may find yourself rubbing shoulders with a writer who shares something deeply in common with you and needs a shoulder to lean on. Strike up a conversation with him or her. Don’t be afraid. We’re all introverts wearing extroverted lives.—Nicole Seitz, from “The Necessity of Writer Friends”

 

Michael F SmithOne evening I walked over to Square Books, my first venture into the legendary bookstore, and on the front table I found a story collection called Big Bad Love, and a novella titled Ray. I picked each of them up because they were on the table of “Mississippi Writers.” This was my introduction to both Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, and little did I know what that moment would mean to me…. By the time I left the porch that night, whatever time that was, I had devoured both books. Inhaled them. Loved them and immediately loved the writers who had written with such striking, beautiful prose. I remember that what kept occurring to me as I read was the notion that I knew the people they were writing about. I knew those winding, dark, bumpy back roads. I knew the dimly lit bars and cheap brands of bourbon and the feelings of loneliness and wonder that these characters were experiencing.—Michael Farris Smith, from “Keep Truckin’”

 

Watch for a schedule of events soon. I’ll be meeting up with 20 of the 26 contributors (in small groups) at a dozen or more events in six states from May through November, so hopefully we’ll be coming to a bookstore, literary festival, or writers conference near you!

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 5

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI hope you’ve been following my series of excerpts from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May), but if you’ve missed them and would like to catch up, here they are:

 

Sneak Previews 1 (featuring Neil White, Alan Lightman, Jim Dees, and Joe Formichella)

Sneak Previews 2 (featuring Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry)

Sneak Previews 3 (featuring Sonja Livingston, Sally Palmer Thomason, Julie Cantrell, and Katherine Clark)

Sneak Previews 4 (featuring John Floyd, Jennifer Horne, Suzanne Hudson, River Jordan, Lee Smith, and M. O. Walsh)

 

The next three sneak previews are from the section “Writing About Race,” and they are from three of the four African American authors who contributed essays to the collection. Be sure and click on each author’s name to find out more about their writing.

 

W. Ralph EubanksOver the years, I have come to realize that the past shapes who we are and what we become. My lived experience has taught me that turning away from one’s personal history is a way of denying yourself and your very existence…. The same can be said about delving into Mississippi’s history. One must be willing to travel into Mississippi’s cavernous psyche and its past, deeper than many are willing to travel, in order to find a connection. To some, ties to the past may seem tortuous, but for me this linkage with history is my calling. Rather than being caught in the moonlit glow of nostalgia, the past helps me engage with the present with clear eyes. That is why the past no longer scares me, since now I know that the past is just another name for today.—W. Ralph Eubanks, from “The Past Is Just Another Name for Today”

 

Ravi HowardToo often, in the depiction of black characters working for white families, the first voice, the voice that navigates servitude, is all the reader gets. Yes, we hear a voice and see the quotations on the page, but what about the rest of the character? Who are the characters in their private spaces? What anchors them to family and community? Where do they live when they are off the page? The voices, governed by the long history of black service and concerned with the requirements of their employers’ endearment and comfort, cannot show the candor shared in the company of friends. The depth and the resonance of the countermelodies don’t always appear in dialogue, making an inner voice necessary.—Ravi Howard, from “Black Countermelodies”

 

Claude WilkinsonOnly after being asked a good many years later to guest-edit a literary journal’s special issue on southern poetry did I begin pondering whether such a subgenre existed. From early on I had read Knight and Robert Penn Warren faithfully, but I’d never really considered either’s poems in terms of their southerness…. But when I began to wonder what, if anything, would make a poem or poet, myself included, expressly southern, I found I needed to first consider what makes a place seem southern to me…. If there is a seal on southerners that identifies them as peculiar to all other people, it’s quite likely our spiritualness…. Whether a true southerner opposes, straddles, or embraces upbringing to do with religion, it’s always wrestled with. O’Connor’s characters never escape it and neither do we.—Claude Wilkinson, from “All That Southern Jazz”

 

And these three are in the section “On the Craft of Writing”:

 

Author Clyde Edgerton photographed at his home in Wilmington, North Carolina.Do you write down a lot about what characters are thinking in your final draft? Get out of your characters’ heads; get out of analyzing what a character means, or means to mean, or hope, or wishes. Just let people say things to other people and write down what they say. Play with that, work on it, and if you get the dialogue right, then the reader can figure out much of what needs to be known. Then the reader is participating in the art of the story…. We all know that there are exceptions to any writing rules. Good art doesn’t follow a set of stiff mandates. But you can possibly simplify, focus, unify, and pack some new punch into your writing by thinking through a few one things.—Clyde Edgerton, from “Three ‘One Things”: An Essay on Writing Fiction”

 

Niles ReddickI’ve often heard that in the South, we don’t hide crazy; we put it out on the front porch or sometimes even in the yard for everyone to see. While that is tongue and cheek, it does illustrate that to capture the essence of what is different and unique in the South is to offer a new canvas in our art, and that is exactly what I have done in my own writing and what I often encourage my students and audiences to do…. Illustrating difference in fiction functions in a perpendicular fashion from what we consider our reality—like a stop sign at a crossroads. As a result, we stop in our reading, our perception shifts and expands, and we learn and grow.—Niles Reddick, from “Capturing the Essence of Difference”

 

Jacquelne TrimbleA professor once said to me, “Southerners don’t transplant well.” He was right. I lived outside the South for two years and hated every minute of it. I did not understand the people, the customs, the food, or the accents…. When I reentered Alabama after that long absence, I stopped my car, got out and kissed the ground. Even the kinship I feel to [Toni] Morrison’s work springs from my own sense of what it means to be black, a woman, and southern, complicated identities often at odds with each other, and sometimes at war…. My poetry comes out of my quarrel with myself as I grapple with the dualities of my feelings about the South, my home, my lovely, dysfunctional home—pride and shame; joy and sadness—the place from which comes both the love and rage that undergird my work.—Jacqueline Allen Trimble, from “A Woman Explains How Learning Poetry is Poetry Made Her a Poet”

 

Stay tuned for the last group of previews next week!

Southern Writers on Writing: Sneak Previews 4

SouthernWritersOnWritingCOVERI hope you’ve been following my series of excerpts from SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING (coming from University Press of Mississippi in May), but if you’ve missed them and would like to catch up, here they are:

Sneak Previews 1 (featuring Neil White, Alan Lightman, Jim Dees, and Joe Formichella)

Sneak Previews 2 (featuring Harrison Scott Key, Cassandra King, Corey Mesler, and Patti Callahan Henry)

Sneak Previews 3 (featuring Sonja Livingston, Sally Palmer Thomason, Julie Cantrell, and Katherine Clark)

This week I’ll bring you a few delicious bites from several more authors whose essays are featured in Section III of the anthology, “Place, Politics, People.” If you like these excerpts, click on the authors’ names to read more about them and their books.

John FloydPerhaps the biggest reason for the abundance of authors from the South, however, is this: Southern kids grew up listening to a lot of different people tell stories…. I can recall sitting at their feet beside the bench in front of my grandfather’s gas station in Sallis, Mississippi, wide-eyed and gullible and marveling at their tales while they munched Nabs and Tom’s Toasted Peanuts and sipped RC Colas bought for them by my granddad from the Coke machine inside the hot but shaded office…. Did those stories influence me to later tell my own tall tales? Of course they did—especially my short small-town mysteries and their laid-back style. Did they make me a good  storyteller? Maybe not. But they made me want to be a good storyteller. And the odds are with me. My native Mississippi is the birthplace of more published authors per capita than any other state, and the Delta town of Greenville has produced more published authors than any other city in the nation…. I also know this: In my travels I’ve been inside bookstores all across the nation, and I have yet to see a section labeled ‘Northern Fiction.’ Maybe that in itself, is revealing.—John Floyd, from “In the Land of Cotton”

Jennifer HorneMy study is geographically located in Alabama but psychologically apart from its churches on every corner, its conservative politics, its fascination with football, its pressure to conform as it pretends to treasure its eccentrics. As a writer I am in and of the South but also apart from it, more or less passing as I go about my daily life….  I have such ambivalence about this region that I write from. How do I critique with a loyal heart? How do I claim this ambivalence? Or as people sometimes ask me when I complain, which I do, why stay?…. Oh, I could move to a liberal enclave in the no-nonsense North, but I like a bit of nonsense, the playful linguistic meander down a silly conversational byway that can happen with stranger or friend alike, the shared acknowledgment of the perplexing absurdity of life that seems a lot more likely to happy here than elsewhere.—Jennifer Horne, Poet Laureate of Alabama, from “Where I Write”

Suzanne HudsonThe best advice I could give an aspiring writer at this particular and disorienting moment in publishing history is: just do it yourself, by gum—with a couple of very reliable readers who won’t lie to you (your mother is out, for example), a damn good editor, and a goddamn good line editor. Pay your editor well and your line editor even better, don’t quibble over every little change to make, and do everything else on social media…. Which brings me back around to Cris Mazza’s delightfully middle-fingered question: “What does one ‘win’ in art?” A better contract? A big advance? A growing fan base? Am I impractical and naïve to scorn the greed that is baked in to most business ventures? When I take pride in the fact that I suck at capitalism do I worry about alienating potential investors? What if I never get picked up by a big publishing house?… I have ceased to give a good goddamn.—Suzanne Hudson, from “The Sordid Business of Writing”

River JordanWhen I read a southern writer I can feel their heart beating. That’s how I know it’s southern. By the heartbeat…. Southerners draw from a well that is a mystical blend of raw earth and our peopled history. From the storytellers that bore us because all those that came before us were storytellers. And yes, the dirt. It always comes back to the dirt…. We came from the earth. Dirt beneath our druthers. Spit and venom, a whip of intention unleashed on page and pronoun. Turn the page of any story where southern meets you and there you feel it, the unmistakable heartbeat that will not be denied. What spins beneath us remains no mystery but courses through our veins. The earth beats and we feel it. The earth bleeds and we mourn it. Seed falls on good ground and we reap a harvest of words…. Cut us and we bleed story.—River Jordan, from “Dirt, Death, and the Divine: The Roots of Southern Writing”

Lee SmithWriting is also my addiction, for the moment when I am writing fiction is that moment when I am most intensely alive…. For me, writing is a physical joy. It is almost sexual—not the moment of fulfillment, but the moment when you open the door to the room where your lover is waiting, and everything else falls away…. The most thrilling, of course, is when it is a first-person voice telling a story of real urgency. At these times, all I have to do is keep up; I become a stenographer, a court secretary, a tape recorder. My biggest job is making sure I have several uninterrupted hours whenever I sit down to write, so this can happen…. Of course writing is an escape, but it is a source of nourishment and strength, too…. Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, journaling or writing for publication, writing itself is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.—Lee Smith, from “A Life in Books”

M. O. WalshFlannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah—if you dig enough, you could probably find that every southern writer, present or past, has said something about the importance of place in her or his work. I have to admit, growing up in Louisiana and being inundated in that tradition, I got a little tired of it. I believed, instead, the great promise of fiction is that it is boundless, limited only by the writer’s imagination. I set my earliest stories in Ohio, Montana, Detroit—all places I’d never been. I felt pretty good crossing the Mason-Dixon in my head. That was two decades ago. Those early stories remain with me still, keeping each other good company in a folder on my computer called REJECTED…. Our best writers have a way of articulating the South so that it feels, at the same time, always alive and already past…. I wonder if we live, at all times, in the half-gone.—M. O. Walsh, from “On the Baton Rouge Floods of 2016 and My Nostalgia for the Half-gone”

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