Pat Conroy isn't hosting a discussion at the finale of the Piccolo Spoleto Literary Festival. "It'll be me running my mouth," he jokes.
"I try not to bore men who are dragged kicking and screaming to Spoleto by their cultured wives, who would rather be back at the hotel watching a baseball game," he says with a husky laugh. "I consider myself the salvation of those men because I do not read from my own work."
And there's no plan to read from his latest book, My Reading Life, his own story, tied together with the authors and works that have shaped him.
From the time his mother first read him Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Conroy says his life was filled with books.
"I probably felt it when she first read it to me when I was 5 years old. It made my mother rapturous," he says. "Mom was born into the poorest Southern family possible. Scarlett O'Hara screaming out, 'I'll never go hungry again,' had a great resonance with my mother. I'm sure it was a complete identification with her and a character in a work of fiction. I saw how one book could change my mother's life."
Conroy felt his own connection when he first read Thomas Wolfe. It is the first time he went crazy for an author, he says, musing at how much he mimicked Wolfe in his first stories.
"I could have been sued by his estate for plagiarism until I went to the Citadel. I had Citadel professors gagging on my overwrought prose style."
But it was Gene Norris, his high school English teacher, who began to foster and cultivate Conroy's talent. When Conroy was a sophomore, Norris introduced him to Archibald Rutledge, South Carolina's poet laureate at the time. Rutledge instructed the budding writer to pay close attention to the details of nature. Conroy's particular attention to the Carolina coast has since won him overwhelming acclaim, and helped earn him a solid identity as a Southern writer.
"People want to visit and experience the arts of the Lowcountry," says Jane Tyler of the Charleston Library Society. "Pat Conroy is the epitome of the writer who draws upon a personal relationship with the South. He's been affected by the places he grew up and places he's been and people he has met, and he admits to that."
Rather than balk at the Southern author label, Conroy has embraced it, although it wasn't always easy. He can remember the first panel discussion he was invited to speak on, and the other writers who rejected the Southern label.
"They were as Southern as lima beans, but said, 'We write pre-universal themes, it is an insult to call us Southern writers,'" he recalls. "I was a military brat, we moved every year, it drove me crazy. When they finally called me a Southern writer, I loved it. I was finally something."
The identity may have been inevitable for Conroy, who says his mother raised him to be a Southern writer. And of course, there is his constant source of inspiration: his relatives.
"I was born in the most screwed-up family ever to come out of the American South. I can write forever and never get to the bottom of the family I was born into."
When asked what his family thought about "airing the dirty laundry," he laughs. "My mother would have loved that phrase. She died when I was writing The Prince of Tides. She would have hated that book. My father hated The Great Santini, but he got into it when Robert Duvall played him. He loved that."
Conroy's devotion to the Carolina Lowcountry has made him one of the area's biggest fans. He is still enraptured by its beauty and cast of characters.
"I've always just kind of hung around Charleston and wrote my books at the Citadel library," he says. "When I started walking the city, which I did during my Citadel years, I thought, 'I am going to write about this city one day. I am going to make it a character.' "