Conroy's 'South of Broad' a mix of fact, fiction, great storytelling

By Debi Chard

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The grand mansions along Charleston's famous battery set the stage for the tale that unfolds inside Pat Conroy's newest novel, "South of Broad."

For Conroy, "'South of Broad' is a presence... it defines that city." And there's a reason Conroy feels so strongly about the Holy City.Charleston had an extraordinary impact on Conroy as a young man. His years at the Citadel, South Carolina's military college, influenced his earlier books, but his high school experiences served as inspiration for Conroy's most recent book.

"I think the truth is everybody I write about is part of me," said Conroy.

Back then, the popular Conroy was the kid who felt like the odd man out. His Beaufort High School teacher Gene Norris would take young Conroy on trips to Charleston, to "someplace magical. Now, boy, I'm going to take you South of broad."

Conroy's Charleston would not remain so magical. The plebe system in his "Lords of Discipline" was so controversial Conroy was at odds with his alma mater.

Conroy novels are a mixture of reality and fiction and many didn't like what they read. "It's funny, I've been through this with the Citadel guys. You know it's embellished and I said when I wrote about the plebe system at the Citadel - that was journalism," he said.

This new book mends fences with the Citadel. His "South of Broad" character happily attends the military college. "I loved sending Leo King to the Citadel... and he loved it."

The Citadel is one of many real Charleston landmarks in the fictional story setin the 1960s and 1980s. Berlin's, Big John's, St. John the Baptist are there as are the historic streets like Tradd. Some places no longer stand, like the orphanage that has long since been demolished.

But Conroy's memories are not his only source of inspiration for "South of Broad."

His research included the work of Charleston newspaper columnist Ashley Cooper, including every article Cooper wrote in 1969. Conroy immersed himself in the setting at the South of Broad home of author and friend Ann Rivers Siddon.

"Annie and Heyward's guest house became central to me. I'd go out walking and talking and come back and write down what people had said," said Conroy.

Real people make brief appearances in this novel, including the Live 5 News team. "[Debi Chard's] in it. Bill [Sharpe's] in it."

Real people mixed with fictional characters who lived in the historic part of Charleston. "I'd had never seen a place more beautiful that Charleston and I had not gotten this down in a book, so before I died I wanted to do that," said Conroy.

From Fripp Island looking back

Fripp Island is home to writers Pat Conroy and Cassandra King. The couple have been married a dozen years, living and writing in this warm, comfortable home. Pat's writing room is a tribute to his love of reading. When he sits at his massive desk, he writes the old fashioned way -- in long hand.

Conroy blames his Marine Corps fighter pilot father for not letting him take typing. "As you can imagine, the Citadel did not have many typing courses.  I could have majored in bazooka and flame-throwing but not typing.  I never learned to type," said Conroy.

Conroy also blames his father for another lasting mark -- an abusive childhood.  It's the story of Conroy's "Great Santini." "He hated that book," said Conroy. "Was it real?  It wasn't a bit embellished."

Ironically, the fictional Great Santini softened... the real Great Santini. "Dad took this and changed himself and he became a greatly beloved man."

Conroy's newest book "South of Broad" covers a different range of hidden torments -- suicide, sex abuse, as well as integration and class division. The five year project is dedicated to his wife.

"We discussed South of Broad a lot," she said. King says her husband often writes about things he's experienced. "Years ago when I read him and didn't know him as a person, I thought, 'boy, he has a fabulous imagination.'"

In their early years of marriage, she would translate her husband's scribbles on yellow pads to the computer screen, "but then her career took off and she became too hoity-toity to simply type so now I have to hire people at enormous amounts of money," said Conroy.

King's writing room is upstairs. She is also a best-selling novelist. She's revising a book set in Highlands, North Carolina. "The name of it is 'Bridal Falls.'"

She churns out fiction faster than her husband. "Cassandra is like a hummingbird," he said. It's something he plans to work on. "I've got to write faster. If I want to write the books I want to write, I've got to do it quicker," said Conroy.

Whether he's writing faster or not, Conroy is working on a book about his father's miraculous change after "The Great Santini." Conroy says he owes his father that book.

Charleston, Hurricane Hugo, and moving forward

"I didn't think Charleston would recover -- yachts on Lockwood Boulevard." Hurricane Hugo brought Charleston to its knees in 1989, the catastrophic weather event Charlestonians lived through twenty years ago, appears in Pat Conroy's newest work.

"I knew I wanted to write about that storm," said Conroy.

Real events are woven into Conroy's fiction. His years at the Citadel influenced his "Lords of Discipline," "The Boo," and "My Losing Season."

In Conroy's latest book, his own volunteer work at Project Open Hand in San Francisco and helping people with AIDS wove its way into his "South of Broad" story. "It was emotional. It seemed like the whole city was dying," said Conroy.

Those emotions appear in his characters in South of Broad. Conroy's book offers a mixing bowl of fact and fiction, cooking up a captivating story. "One thing about being a novelist, I don't have to do it. I can make it up."

And the novel he made up this time is flying off the shelves.

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