As you may or may not know, another great author has passed away. On the Friday evening, March 4, 2016, New York Times bestselling author Pat Conroy lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.
Unlike many authors who hit the big time by having several of his novels turned into movies, Pat never forgot his beginnings. Never forgot what it was like to be an unknown and to have to struggle with sales. And never thought he was too good to mingle with those, like me, who are not traditionally published or on the the New York Times bestseller list.
A couple of years ago, February 2014 to be exact, I had the distinct privilege to be one of the presenters at the Books Alive Festival of Reading in Panama City, Florida—the town where I spent the first 18 years of my life. Pat Conroy was the keynote speaker that same year where I had the honor of meeting the man and his wife, author Cassandra King. Although I was a last minute add on due to the illness of one of the scheduled presenters, I will never forget Pat Conroy…and here’s why.
During his keynote speech he told a story from his past shortly after the publication of his first book published by a New York traditional publishing house. His publisher, it seemed, thought it would be a good start for his career, even though he was an unknown, if he were placed at an author signing event table with two of their New York Times bestselling authors. They put him in the middle seat figuring he would be bound to get plenty of spillover attention (and sales) from the crowds of fans and readers who came to see the big time authors. The crowds came and lined up on either end of the table waiting to get a book signed from the authors. Lines that extended out the doors. The other authors, that was. Pat said he could have fired a bullet in front of him and never hit a soul.
Now, I can’t really do this story justice because, in his own unique way, in a way only Pat Conroy could do, he made this story hilarious and kept the audience in stitches.
Afterward his keynote speech, all the presenters migrated to their tables in the large atrium outside the auditorium waiting for readers to come by their tables and get a book signed, including Pat whose table, by now, had a line wrapping around the building. After the fans had their book signed, some would wander to the tables of the other authors. A few would buy books from other authors, some would not. After all, they did come to see Pat Conroy and now they had his book clutched tightly under their arm.
As it turned out, what had happened to Pat Conroy in his keynote speech happened to me. And to add insult to injury, I grew up in that town. (I realize some people might question whether I have ever grown up…just older…and bald)
So, I sat at my designated table, alone, waiting for someone to come along and buy my books, any book, just a book would have been great. (Okay not really alone, my wife was sitting next to me, supporting me as she always does)
Anyhow, I could have fired a bullet in front of me and never hit a soul.
As the Books Alive event started winding down and Pat Conroy’s line finally dwindled to nothing, he stood and made his way around the atrium talking to the other authors—they all had at least one or two people standing at their tables.
And then he got to me. He walked up to my table and looked in front of it and then looked back at me. He stuck his hand out and as we shook, he said, “Looks familiar.”
I guess he felt sorry for me or perhaps he truly was a man who truly remembered his past, or both because he grabbed one of each of my books, stacked them nicely on the corner of my table, pulled out his wallet, and bought them all. Then he said, “You have to sign them all. I don’t want them if they aren’t signed.”
What did I do? Of course, I signed them and thanked him for his generosity. I even told him he didn’t have to do that, but by then his wife, Cassandra, had walked up and told me not to waste my breath. Afterwards, he didn’t walk off to talk to the other authors. He and his wife stayed at my table and talked to my wife and me for quite a while, at least until his publicist came and told him it was time to leave the event.
In that brief few minutes, I got a glimpse into the soul of the man who had written so many wonderful, heartfelt books. A man who was genuine through and through. He wasn’t pretentious. He was full of generosity. A man who, regardless of how much fame had been heaped upon him, never lost touch with his past.
Pat Conroy, rest in peace, you will be sorely missed.