Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline, among many other books, and a writer beloved by booksellers, died on Friday. He was 70 and had pancreatic cancer.
Conroy's "tortured family life and the scenic marshlands of coastal South Carolina served as unending sources of inspiration for his fiction," the New York Times wrote. His novels and memoirs "captivated readers with their openly emotional tone, lurid family stories and lush prose that often reached its most affecting, lyrical pitch when evoking the wetlands around Beaufort, S.C."
Many of his novels were made into blockbuster films, most notably, in 1991, The Prince of Tides, directed by Barbra Streisand (who had a major role in the movie) and starring Nick Nolte as Tom Wingo, the novel's protagonist.
On February 15, in a Facebook post, Conroy announced that he had pancreatic cancer, writing:
Hey out there,
I celebrated my 70th birthday in October and realized that I've spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don't believe I've even come close. It was in Beaufort in sight of a river's sinuous turn, and the movements of its dolphin-proud tides that I began to discover myself and where my life began at fifteen.
I have recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With the help of the wonderful people at M.D. Anderson I intend to fight it hard. I am grateful to all my beloved readers, my friends and my family for their prayers. I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it.
Many booksellers have wonderful stories to tell about Conroy. Only last week, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance renamed its annual book award program in Conroy's honor. On that occasion, SIBA executive director Wanda Jewell said that Conroy "has been a force for good in the world of southern books and literature and we want to acknowledge that. He has not just written some of our favorite books, he has been incredibly generous in his support of readers, of booksellers, and of other writers. The world of southern literature is a rich place today because of the encouragement he extends to new authors and the commitment he has always shown towards the southern literary community."
SIBA noted that it was "a regular occurrence for [Conroy] to show up at their doors with each new book, often signing copies for customers for hours and hours. On one now legendary occasion he signed books for eight hours straight, and the store arranged to have a masseuse on hand to help with writer's cramp." Jewell commented: "Pat Conroy is a storemaker, a writer whose single visit can make the difference to a bookstore's year end bottom line."
Jane Friedman, co-founder and CEO of Open Road Integrated Media, noted: "I admired Pat Conroy from afar for so, so many years. So, you can imagine my glee when he embraced the idea of e-books and became one of Open Road's first authors in 2010. He experimented with us; he cheered us on; he believed in us."
She added: "Pat holds a special place in my heart, but it was his heart that was the biggest of all. He was fun and generous, and everyone who worked with him fell under his spell. His spirit lives on in everyone who knew him and in everyone who has read or will ever read his books."
Patty Berg, director of retail marketing at Crown Publishing Group, remembered an appearance by Conroy at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., where she was director of marketing in the late '90s. "We had a capacity crowd at a large venue, and he told a story about one of his very first times at a bookselling conference. He was seated at an autographing table next to the one for Irving Stone. A relative unknown at the time, there was nobody in Pat's line while the line for Irving Stone wound all through the hall. Realizing he had some time on his hands, he got up and went over to help Mr. Stone open the books to make it easier for him to sign. He was gracious, kind, and generous to everyone who stood in the long line after our event. And he is gone too soon."
In his latest post on his blog Classics Rock!, which explores the intersection of books and popular music, Larry Hughes wrote about songs inspired by Conroy's work, particularly Jimmy Buffett's "The Prince of Tides," from his 1988 album Hot Water.
Hughes wrote in part: "Buffett's song is largely a lament about the development and commercialization of Dafuskie Island [where Conroy spent a year teaching, which he wrote about in The Water Is Wide]. The recording opens and closes with Buffett reading passages directly from Conroy's novel. The lyrics namecheck the Wingo family (African drums are silent and the Wingos are poets at last), and Buffett alludes to the dedication from Savannah's poetry volume with the refrain: Now I realize who killed the Prince of Tides.
"Near the end, the song segues into a version of "Save the Last Dance for Me," co-written by Doc Pomus, who along with Conroy is acknowledged in Buffett's dedication. The last line of the song, before the concluding passage from The Prince of Tides, is: And beach music, beach music, beach music just plays on."
Conroy was apparently pleased with the song, telling the Fayetteville Observer: "It gave me status with my children, for about eight hours."