An unconventional take on our author interview, but what a worthwhile, inspiring and incredibly touching read. Enjoy.
“I Met Pat Conroy Last Night”
by Andy Millman
I met Pat Conroy last night.
Meeting idols is risky. Even when expecting nothing, disappointment is possible. I have few idols, which makes meeting them even riskier. I can’t afford to lose the ones I have.
He was here for the release of his new memoir, “The Death of Santini.” He described his writing as “confessional,” which seemed fitting as was speaking in a large and very crowded church.
I’ve never asked for an autograph or for an author to sign a book. I hate bothering people. Plus, I don’t like to wait in lines. Last night I made exceptions.
I had to thank him. I recently listened to “My Reading Life,” in which he discusses his favorite books along with the people in his life who have inspired both his reading and his writing. My reading life starts with Pat Conroy. I rewound passages of that particular book just so I could hear his voice telling his stories. I would mention that, too.
I would thank him, compliment him, and be on my way. He must be tired, I thought. It was getting late and I was near the end of a long, long line. Still, I saw people ahead of me chat with him and even ask to pose for pictures with him. He was like a one-man receiving line, gracious with every guest.
As I inched closer, I began to get nervous. Thank him, compliment him, be on my way. Thank, compliment, go. I can do this. Or so I thought. It was my turn. I moved up a step.
“I’m Pat Conroy,” he said, and held out his hand.
His handshake was warm, his smile appeared genuine. “I’m Andy,” I said. I had a moment of – writer’s block, I guess – before I remembered what I was supposed to do. I thanked him for his books and complimented his narration in “My Reading Life.”
He laughed. “I hate the sound of my voice,” he said.
“You shouldn’t,” I told him. “I think you should narrate everything you write.”
Then I told him something I had not planned on saying. “I’ve been writing seriously for about ten years, and you – you…” It’s a bit embarrassing to be searching for a good word when face to face with someone who always seems to find the great ones. But then I thought of his book and all the authors who mean so much to him.
“You inspire me,” I said. “And I’m very honored to meet you.”
“You’re a writer,” he said. He opened my book and began to inscribe it.
I hesitated. He’s a Writer. “I try,” I said.
He wrote a little more and then put down his pen and leaned back in his chair. “The most important thing is to have confidence in your work,” he said.
I nodded but did not speak. I wanted to remember what he said and cluttering the memory with my own words would only make it more difficult.
“I know it’s hard,” he continued. “It’s hard for me, too. I still don’t have confidence in what I write.”
This I would remember. Not just his admission, but his generosity in sharing it. He could probably see the reverence I held for him, and he was, in the most modest of ways, saying, “No matter how great you might think I am, there are struggles we share.”
It was a gift, and I had to respond. “You should have confidence,” I said, “because you are a treasure.”
He thanked me and we shook hands once more. I took the book and began to walk away.
“Andy,” he said.
“Let me know if you get published. Mention where we met. I’ll remember you.”
I nodded and resisted going back and shaking his hand a third time or giving him a hug or telling him how much this moment meant to me. Instead I smiled and said thanks and gave a final, little wave. I walked out of the church clutching the book and my coat. It was cold but I was warm.
I walked back to my car and remembered a passage in “My Reading Life,” where he talks about his high school English teacher. The teacher, whom Conroy remained close to for the remainder of the teacher’s life, instructed him as a young man to be kind and helpful to aspiring writers should he ever become successful. I couldn’t help thinking how often he’d be making that teacher proud.
I was anxious to read the inscription but resisted the urge to. Reading it would be like reading the last chapter in one of his books, and I employed the same tactic I’ve used with those. I held off a little longer because I did not want the story to end. Before I went to sleep I figured it was time. I carefully opened the book and found the page. This is what he wrote:
For the love of writing. Have faith in yours. Go deeper. Go even deeper.
I should not have been so hesitant. The story didn’t really end. As he demonstrated so well in “My Reading Life,” stories stay with you, words stay with you. His will hang above my writing desk. They will be read, reread and hopefully absorbed. They will urge me to become a better writer. I realize I may never be able to write a Pat Conroy story, but the words will remind me that I already have one.