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Conroy's 'Reading Life': A Search For Safe Harbors

Pat Conroy has always sought refuge in books. As a child growing up in a military family, Conroy learned from his mother that books could be his constant companions as the family shuttled from Marine base to Marine base.

"What I remember about her, from the very earliest time of my life, is her reading to me," Conroy tells NPR's Scott Simon. "She had a great tone, a warm style, a terrific Southern accent. She read us lots of poetry ... I can still hear her voice."

As he became an avid reader himself, Conroy acquired many new friends: Milton, Tolkien, Churchill and Roth. And, in time, he also became one of the best-read writers in America -- author of The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline and other best-sellers.

In his new memoir, My Reading Life, Conroy chronicles the solace he's found in books throughout his life.

'A Moment Of Communion'

Gone With the Wind was the first novel that Conroy's mother read to him -- and she personalized it for their own Southern family.

"Her genius in reading that novel was being able to take players in that novel and compare them to people in our own life," Conroy recalls. "Melanie Wilkes was my tacky Aunt Helen, who was in Orlando, and she'd have Frank Kennedy as my Uncle Joe, who lived in Jacksonville. Naturally, she took on the role of Scarlett O'Hara, and that swashbuckling figure of a man called Rhett Butler was my father -- who was fighting in warplanes in Korea at that time."

Conroy says it was his mother who showed him that the relationship between life and art was very close; you just had to pay attention to find it.

If it was Conroy's mother who got him reading, it was his charismatic English teacher, Gene Norris, who got him writing. Conroy became Norris' student when he was 15. When school was out, Norris took Conroy on a formative road trip to Thomas Wolfe's childhood home in Ashville, N.C. The house had been converted into a museum, and Conroy still remembers the tour: where the Wolfe family's boarders ate at night, where Wolfe's sister played the piano and sang to the boarders after dinner.

In the backyard, the museum guide said that Wolfe thought the apples in North Carolina were the best in the world, Conroy recalls, "So Gene jumped up, grabbed an apple, brought it down, and said, 'Eat it, boy!'"

"I ate it, and it seemed almost like a moment of communion to me," he says. "Almost a moment where I was given the keys to go out and try to write. And I was a 15-year-old kid -- I didn't know how to write, what to write, how to be a writer."

By his own account, Conroy's road to becoming a writer has been an unlikely one. He attended The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, which he describes as "no great crucible for American writers."

"It ain't the Iowa writer's school," he says, "but I think it was my encounter with Gene Norris -- and my encounter with this extraordinary mother -- that drove me toward being a writer in the first place."

'I Used To Pray For War'

For Conroy, books were a source of friendship and inspiration -- and also an escape. He has written at length about his father and the abuse he suffered at his father's hands. When he was growing up, Conroy feared that his father might kill him and his family, and was always relieved when he went off to war.

"I used to pray for war against places like Vatican City," Conroy says. "I didn't care where it was; it would get him in the sky over some country that wasn't near me."

Reading was a refuge for him, both emotionally and physically. Conroy's father wouldn't hit him when he was reading; he thought his son was studying and approved of it.

"It was the one place you could go to get away from his fists," says Conroy. "And it worked every time."

As a child, Conroy read literature to escape his family; today, he writes literature to understand and reconnect with them. His memoir My Reading Life is dedicated to his "lost" daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy.  It reads:

Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine.

Conroy divorced Susannah's mother in 1995, when Susannah was barely a teenager. He has hardly seen her since.

"She has a perfect right not to see me," Conroy says. "She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me."

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