On a scale of one to ten, how difficult was this book to write?
Oh, it was way up there past ten. This was hard.
Have any of your siblings read it yet?
Yes, I’ve been doling it out to them, one by one. It’s kind of terrifying, to tell you the truth. I gave an advance copy to my sister Kathy, who is the most forgiving of all my siblings. She loved it. I was shocked. Then she sent it to my brother Jim, who was most worried about the book out of everyone. Jim reads it, and he likes it. Then he drives it down to my brother Mike in Columbia. I only had one copy to give out, but there also was a strategy behind this: pure cowardice. I didn’t want to get the tribe aroused all at one time. Carol, of course, will be my real test. I’m too chicken to send it to her. She hasn’t really talked to me in thirty years. [Editor’s note: Conroy’s sister Carol, a poet, is believed to be the inspiration for the schizophrenic and suicidal character Savannah in The Prince of Tides.]
Are you surprised the first two reactions were good?
I was stunned. I’m an old man now, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen my family go nuts [over my books]. I’ve seen other people go nuts. Whatever happens, I think there’s something in me that’s prepared for it—especially rejection and loathing and hatred that will never die. That’s what I really prepare myself for.
Now that the book is done, do you have the closure you need—if “closure” is the right word?
Yeah, that word is funny. I wanted a summing-up of my writing life. And I thought this book was due somewhere down the course. The great thing about all my siblings is we all agree we had a horrendous childhood. It’s not like it doesn’t affect us now; it affects us every day, in everything we do. We were all beaten, ruined children. And we’ve made the best deal we can with that.
So do you feel better?
No, I never feel better. I always feel worse. [Laughs] I’ve been in a downward spiral since I finished the book.
What’s next? Will you write a novel with a really sweet father character?
I did that once, in South of Broad. I like that sweet, lovable father figure.
I mean, I’ve seen nice fathers in my life. I still get weepy when I see a father being nice to his child. It so affects me.
How would you describe yourself as a father and a stepfather?
Sort of middling. I told my kids when they were little, “Look, kids, your mother and I are screwing you up somehow. We don’t understand how, or we wouldn’t do it. But we’re parents. So somehow we’re damaging you, and I want you to know that early. So just ignore me when I go to that part of my parenting.”
I was okay as a father. I didn’t beat them to pulps. I had to make enough to send them all to Paideia [an Atlanta independent school] and to college. And now they have punished me with seven grandchildren.
How are you as a grandfather?
I’m not the lovable, wonderful, tenderhearted grandfather that you read about in books. I’m grouchy and curmudgeonly, and I have a lot of rules. Like I tell my grandchildren, “No one gets in Poppy’s chair all summer.” As soon as I say that, all seven run to the next room. I go around the corner and there all seven of them sit, in my chair, grinning at me. So I say, “The second rule is, no getting in Poppy’s bed.” I go upstairs and there they all are, under the covers, pretending to sleep. “No sitting at Poppy’s writing desk.” All seven are sitting there, writing on manuscripts I have not completed. Of course they get away with it all, because they’re darling.
Atlanta has played a fairly pivotal role in your family history: Your parents met here, you were born here, you wrote The Great Santini here, and your father spent his entire retirement here. Are most of your memories of Atlanta good or bad?
They’re terrific! I’m writing a novel now for [publisher and editor] Nan Talese, but as soon as I finish it, I’m writing my Atlanta novel. I want to write about the times when I lived there, starting in 1973. It seems like I saw a billion changes. I saw a city that, for better or worse, grew into itself and became a world center.
So that will be another autobiographical novel?
I’ll try to make it less so than usual. But I know myself. As my family always says, “There will be one all-knowing, sensitive, wonderful person who will be the narrator, based on our brother Pat. And he will be surrounded by slimeballs.”
On November 17, Atlanta magazine book columnist Teresa Weaver will interview Pat Conroy as part of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s annual book festival. For information, go to atlantajcc.org.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the magazine.