Save the 2020 Festival Date: November 5 to 8
The fifth annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival will be held in Conroy’s beloved Beaufort, South Carolina. This year the Festival will be held as a series of live-streamed author presentations and panel discussions, online writing workshops, exhibits, and virtual tours. Read More
By Terri Barnes
Oct 1, 2020
Big wooden rocking chairs at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina, welcome visitors to sit a while, to tell a story or hear one. Such rocking-chair conversations are usually intertwined with anecdotes about the center’s namesake, Pat Conroy, iconic American author and adopted literary son of the Carolina Lowcountry. The center was created by people who knew and loved Pat in life and want to carry on his love for storytellers and their stories.
Conroy authored a dozen books, among them The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and The Water Is Wide. Several became movies nearly as classic as his books, yet those successes alone are only part of the story the Conroy Center was designed to tell. The rest will be told by the community the center nurtures—readers, book lovers, and writers—possibly authors of classic books yet to be imagined.
After Pat Conroy’s death in 2016, a group of family and friends, including Pat’s wife, bestselling author Cassandra King, and Marly Rusoff, a creator of The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, began seeking a way to continue Pat’s work. The result is a place to honor all things Conroy, and to showcase accomplished writers and encourage aspiring ones.
Cassandra King called her husband, Pat Conroy, a warrior. The literary center named after him is meant to continue Pat's legacy of storytelling, reading, teaching, and encouraging beginning writers.
Photo by Lynn Seldon, courtesy Cassandra King.
“Pat was action-oriented. He never hesitated to fire off a letter to the editor or call or drop a note to someone who he thought needed help or encouragement,” says Cassandra. “I called him a warrior, and in many ways, he was … Those of us who started the center wanted it to honor his memory and his legacy, but even more so, we wanted the center to be a vehicle for continuing Pat’s legacy of storytelling, reading, teaching, and encouraging beginning writers.
Since it was created, the Conroy Center has been a hub of literary activity, and with pandemic measures and adaptations it still is. Using social media, video technology, and social distancing, the center’s busy calendar of literary events continues with author appearances, workshops for children and adults, and the annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort.
This year’s festival, November 5-8, 2020, is planned as a series of live-streamed author presentations and panel discussions, online writing workshops, exhibits, and virtual tours of the museum and the Beaufort area, the backdrop or inspiration for many of Pat’s books. Limitations aside, the virtual options open up the center’s activities to more people from all over. Using a variety of technological platforms, the Conroy Center hosts remote author discussions, book clubs, writers’ groups, and virtual tours of the center. On the center’s Facebook page and YouTube channels, dozens of videos extend the reach of events. One of those is the Conroy Center’s recent fourth annual Lowcountry Book Club Convention, a live-streamed event featuring New York Times bestselling novelists Grady Hendrix, who wrote The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, and Wiley Cash, author of The Last Ballad. The Conroy Center is open on a limited schedule, noon to 4 p.m. each Thursday through Sunday. Video tours of the center are periodically available for those who cannot or prefer not to visit in person. In person or by video, tours showcase a collection of memorabilia connected to Pat Conroy books, including movie materials, Pat’s writing desk, and contributions from artists inspired by his life and stories. On one evening, a combined virtual and socially-distanced audience meets bestselling cookbook author Nathalie Dupree. Seated in one of the rocking chairs, Nathalie regales her listeners with stories of her grandmother’s potato sandwiches and how she met Pat Conroy when he took one of her cooking classes. In another event before the pandemic, chef and cultural historian Sallie Ann Robinson brought her expertise in Gullah cooking and storytelling to the center. Sallie Ann was among Pat’s students when he taught in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.
Chef Nathalie Dupree, seated right, tells stories and discusses her book, “Nathalie Dupree’s Favorite Stories and Recipes,” with in-person and virtual audiences at an event at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Photo courtesy of the Pat Conroy Literary Center.
The Conroy Center also takes some of its programs on the road, offering small-group writer’s workshops and presentations in various locations. Recent events have been socially-distanced, as well as offering a virtual option. One way or another, the center works daily to bring readers and writers together—in Beaufort and beyond—and that togetherness is intentional.
“The central message of Pat’s writing life is ‘You are not alone,’” says Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Conroy Center. “It’s something we need to hear.”
Before coming to the center as its first director, Jonathan was the director of the University of South Carolina Press, and collaborated with Pat to create Story River Books, an imprint at USC Press for Southern fiction. Jonathan is also co-editor with Nicole Seitz of Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, a collection of essays from writers who were influenced by Pat. Among the contributors are Oscar and Pulitzer winners, Conroy family members, former students—all who knew Pat Conroy personally and were influenced by his life and words.
“It’s a constellation of literary stars with Pat at the center,” Jonathan says. “We’ve heard from readers who have discovered new writers through reading their essays in Our Prince of Scribes. That would have meant everything to Pat. The spotlight was not only his. It was something he could use to illuminate other writers.”
Authors who contributed essays to the book have also participated in a regional series of Our Prince of Scribes literary events, another outreach of the Conroy Center.
“Of the sixty-seven writers in Our Prince of Scribes, fifty-four of us have participated in at least one event,” says Jonathan. “These are writers who were influenced in some way by Pat, and now they can pay it forward. Many of those writers are now Conroy Center partners, as teachers, as donors, as supporters. It speaks volumes about him, to have that many people engaged and active. It’s one thing to say something nice in print but to participate in an ongoing way is another level of commitment.”
Patti Callahan Henry, bestselling author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, is among the contributors to Our Prince of Scribes. She is also on the advisory council of the Conroy Center. Patti, who lives in the area, says that although the center draws visitors from all over the world to Beaufort, its significance to the community runs much deeper than tourism.
“A place that honors storytelling is an anchor in any community,” she says. “A library, a bookstore, those are the cornerstones of a community. The Conroy Center is not just another fun thing to do. It’s an anchor in the community that recognizes and honors Pat’s belief in the power of story. As writers we can take pieces of our own lives, even if they were tragic or difficult, and build on them to tell a story that makes a difference to someone else. When people come to the center, it’s not just a pilgrimage to the land he wrote about and loved, it’s the legacy of the power of story being carried forward.”
Recurring in many conversations about Pat Conroy and the Conroy center is this quote from his book My Reading Life: “The most powerful words in English are, ‘Tell me a story.’”
Those eleven words of Pat’s sum up a philosophy he believed and the center embodies: that everyone’s story matters. Four of those words also appear in the title of Cassandra’s book Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy.
Tell Me a Story by Cassandra King Conroy“ Pat believed very strongly in the power of story,” says Cassandra. “He believed every person has a voice that deserves to be heard … Reading about the struggles and triumphs of others is one of the most important ways that we learn empathy and understanding. He worked through some of his personal tragedies by writing and sharing his story, and in doing so, he touched the lives of so many others. I cannot begin to tell you the letters he got from readers saying his books changed their lives.”
Margaret Evans, editor and columnist at Beaufort’s Lowcountry Weekly newspaper, is among the readers touched by Pat’s writing and later his mentorship. Margaret was Pat’s research assistant for his novel Beach Music, a contributor to Our Prince of Scribes, and is on the center’s advisory council.
“Pat Conroy believed that storytelling could save the world. That reading heals. He also believed that writers have an obligation to their readers—his endless book-signing lines were legendary— and that successful writers should help other writers find success,” Margaret says. “Now that he’s gone, the Conroy Center is keeping his legacy alive. Much like Pat himself, it’s (Beaufort’s) pride and joy. It’s preserving his legacy, which is to nurture writers and readers—and the world needs it.”
Another way the center nurtures young writers and creatives is through Camp Conroy, a summer workshop for middle school students. This year’s camp was completely virtual, connecting a dozen students from five states with a group of educators, writers, and artists leading classes from the Conroy Center. Videos of camp sessions are also available on the center’s YouTube channel.
In 2019, Camp Conroy took place at Beaufort Middle School, the same campus where Pat Conroy was first a student and later a teacher in his early professional career, though in his day it was a high school. Jonathan says he likes the way this story has come full circle, but he also hopes the circle will grow even wider.
“I confess, I’m really looking forward to the day when an author on an interview show says, ‘I became a writer because I went to Camp Conroy, having never heard of Pat Conroy, and that’s where it started for me,’” says Jonathan. “We want young writers to have that shot, the opportunity to become great writers whether they knew about Pat or not. What we do is about more than Pat Conroy. His writing will endure. We want the legacy of Conroy to endure as well.”
Photo Below: Authors Johnnie Bernhard and Cassandra King meet and chat at a book-signing event at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Photo courtesy of the Pat Conroy Literary Center.
Pat Conroy Literary Center
Pat Conroy Literary Festival
Pat Conroy (author)
Official Website: PatConroy.com
Pat Conroy (author)
Official Website: PatConroy.com
Readers Guides and more:
All photos courtesy of Cassandra King or the Pat Conroy Center.
About Terri Barnes
Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, and senior editor for Elva Resa Publishing. A lifetime member of a military family, she has an affinity for Pat Conroy’s military background, which led him, as it led her, to an adopted hometown in South Carolina.
This article was first published October 2020. Books Make A Difference.