Five Minutes With Pat Conroy
A guest post by In the Heart of the Dark Wood author Billy Coffey.
I see him at dinner that first night, standing to greet a well-dressed woman who has summoned the courage to say hello. Dress pants, solid T-shirt, sport coat. He smiles and extends his hand before sitting again, disappearing beneath a sea of other faces. Elizabeth leans in close so I can hear over the din. Her expression mirrors my own — jaw slackened, the eyes that have widened into moons. She speaks in the tone of one who has either just glimpsed a shooting star or witnessed a child wandering into traffic: “Did you see that?”
I can only nod.
“We have to meet him,” she says. “Okay? We have to.” And then, perhaps more to herself than to me, “That’s my mission.”
It seems a tall order, given her larger mission this night. Elizabeth has only fetched me from the airport a few hours earlier, a weary and terror-stricken man who woke this morning in his Virginia holler but who has somehow found himself on a distant planet called Nashville that evening. For a book conference, no less, where I am to speak and sign books and figure out which fork to use and try not to puke in my cowboy hat from being so far out of my element. As my publicist, that’s Elizabeth’s mission. That, and to make sure I don’t end up the child wandering into traffic.
I crane my neck, trying to see him again. I see a head of silver hair and think that’s him.
“Don’t worry,” she says.
But I do. The meal tonight is held inside the War Memorial Auditorium, hundreds of people gathered around dozens of tables to dine with authors both like me and not. Mostly not. My author kin on this night possess college degrees and write bestsellers and have day jobs at places like The New York Times and The Atlantic. One is a Congressman. So far as I can tell, none but me hail from a mountain town that contains more cows than people. My own table holds no less than five professors from nearby Lipscomb University, each of them here to break bread and hear about my books.
These things worry me, friend. I cannot emphasize that enough. But that has all fallen away beneath the overwhelming weight of this single and terrible truth: I am in the same room as Pat Conroy.
I’ve always believed every life contains signposts that mark how far we’ve traveled and how much change has taken place in between. For me, these signposts aren’t the events of my life as much as they are those I’ve sought to pattern my life by — my heroes. Look far enough back in my own past, you’ll see leaning and rusted posts with names like CAPTAIN AMERICA and LARRY COHRON (the former obvious, the latter the owner of our local hardware store when I was a boy). Others continue to stand tall and straight, even after forty-two years. The signpost bearing my father’s name is one. The one that reads PAT CONROY is another. The reasons are many and too involved to explain. For now, I’ll simply say this: That man’s books made me want to be a writer.
As it happens, dinner that night proceeds in fine fashion and without incident. Elizabeth, trooper that she is, explains the fork situation (“Go from the outside in, like from “Pretty Woman”?”). My nerves are not so great that I vomit into my hat. She makes a brief attempt at meeting Pat Conroy before we leave. It fails due to the crowd around him. I’m happy. I promise I will never say so out loud, but it’s true. We all have heroes we would love to someday meet, and deep down we all are horrified at the prospect because that moment is so built up in our minds. Better to admire them from afar.
Both my panel and my book signing are the next day. Wonderful events, both, if a bit tiring. Afterwards, Elizabeth suggests we visit the author’s lounge to catch our breath. It’s only after we walk through the doors that she says, “I think Pat Conroy’s here.”
He is, of course. Sitting at a table in back with another crowd, nodding and talking and shaking hands. Though moonshine will better calm my nerves, the bottle of water Elizabeth brings helps. She says we should sit. I agree, thinking that will look much better than me passing out right there. We find empty chairs at the table next to his, where two writers are sipping coffee. All of us speak in hushed tones, as though in the presence of royalty. Which is true, at least to me.
And you know what? This is good enough for me. I am no more than seven feet from my literary hero, and how many of us could ever say such a thing? Yes. I am happy and content and have a story to tell when I get home and oh my God in heaven Elizabeth is getting up. Elizabeth is getting up and she’s walking toward Pat Conroy and she’s smiling at me and I have to go. I have to run away because who meets Pat Conroy? People not from the holler, that’s who.
She’s waving me over. Pat Conroy is waving me over. They keep waving but I can’t move, something’s wrong with my boots or my feet, and when I finally step their way, the world wobbles. He extends my hand and says hello. I say something that resembles, “Maaahhh.”
Elizabeth has a copy of my novel. She gestures toward it, and he says he’s seen it before, Pat Conroy has seen my novel, someone had given it to him but he’d love that one, too, so long as I’ll sign it for him.
“Would you sign it?” he asks.
I write something that resembles, Maaahhh.
And that’s the story I tell, back home in the holler. That’s the one that makes everyone laugh and that one that makes me laugh, too—my five minutes with Pat Conroy. But when I’m upstairs lost among my books, I smile instead. Because there is where I look at his novels tucked into my shelves, and I think of my novel tucked into his.
Billy Coffey‘s critically acclaimed books, cited as recollections of Flannery O’Connor’s stories by BookPage, combine rural Southern charm with a vision far beyond the ordinary. He is a regular contributor to several publications, where he writes about faith and life. Billy lives with his wife and two children in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.