SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Peg Conroy got her son to read books. She said that books could change their lives, be constant companions as they moved around from Marine base to Marine base, changing schools and friends. But in his reading life, Pat Conroy just acquired more and more constant friends: Milton, Tolkien, Churchill, Roth, and Dickey.
Now Pat Conroy has written a memoir of the friends he made along the way through books. Its called "My Reading Life."
Pat Conroy, who's one of the best-read authors in America, author of "The Prince of Tides," "The Great Santini," and many other books, joins us from the studios of WKNO in Memphis.
Pat, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. PAT CONROY (Author, "My Reading Life"): It is an absolute pleasure.
SIMON: So tell us about your mother and how she regarded reading.
Mr. CONROY: What I remember about her from the very earliest time of my life is her reading to me before I went to bed. And she had a great tone, a warm style, a terrific Southern accent. And she read us lots of poetry.
The boy stood on the burning deck. The highway men came riding, riding, riding...
I can still hear her voice.
She read - "Gone with the Wind"�was the first novel she ever read to me. And her genius in reading that novel was being able to take players in that novel and compare them to people in our own life.
Melanie Wilkes was my tacky Aunt Helen, who lived in Orlando. And she'd have Frank Kennedy as my Uncle Joe, who lived in Jacksonville. Naturally she took on the role of Scarlett O'Hara. And that swashbuckling figure of a man was Rhett Butler, was my father, who was fighting in warplanes in Korea at that time.
And she gave me, you know, I think my first clues that there was a relationship between life and art that was very close. And you just had to pay attention to find it.
SIMON: I have to tell you, Pat - and I say this being a Chicagoan like your father - to some of us "Gone with the Wind" is about the death of a civilization that richly deserved to die.
Mr. CONROY: Of course. It is. And it did. But here's what I like about it, Scott.
Mr. CONROY: A girl from the place who lost out-wrote all you Yankee boys and girls who wrote about the victors.
SIMON: As long as we keep the victories literary, I guess that's all right.
Mr. CONROY: You don't want it to be politically and you don't want slavery. And I was just surprised when I went back to read it how extraordinarily good it was.
SIMON: Let me also get you to talk about, in this rich assortment of lives you present, that you, you met through literature, somebody who sounds really as vital as your mother in making you the man and writer you are, and that's Gene Norris, your English teacher.
Mr. CONROY: A fabulous man. He started teaching me when I was 15 years old. That summer he took me up to Ashville, North Carolina. And he showed me Thomas Wolfe's house, where he grew up in. And he took me through the house and he said there's where the boarders would eat at night. Thomas Wolfe's sister played the piano for the boarders and sang to them after dinner.
He took me downstairs, out in the backyard, and the guide said that Thomas Wolfe thought the apples in western North Carolina were the best in the world. So Gene jumped up, grabbed an apple, brought it down, and said: Eat it, boy. I ate it. And it seemed almost like a moment of communion to me. Almost a moment where I was given the keys to go out and try to write. And I was a 15-year-old kid I didn't know how to write, what to write, how to be a writer, how to go across it.
I ended up going to The Citadel, which is not a great crucible for American writers. It ain't the Iowa writer's school. And so I went through this. But I think it was my encounter with Gene Norris my encounter with this extraordinary mother that drove me toward being a writer in the first place.
SIMON: You know, Pat, it's inescapable that - obviously, I mean, you've written a book about - you've written I think in a number of places, including this book, that when you were growing up you were you thought your father might kill you and your family. And you were actually glad when he went off to war, because it...
Mr. CONROY: I used to pray for war against places like Vatican City. I didn't care where it was. But it would get him in the sky over some country that wasn't near me.
SIMON: Yeah. And did that - so therefore did you find a kind of refuge in reading?
Mr. CONROY: There's no question. Dad would not hit you if he saw you reading. He thought you were studying. And it was one time, you know, one place you would go to get away from his fists, and it worked every time.
SIMON: You know, there are some people that skip over the dedications in books. I read yours. Can I get you to talk about it?
Mr. CONROY: You certainly can.
SIMON: You say this book is dedicated to my lost daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy(ph). May I ask what the story is?
Mr. CONROY: Yes. Is - I got divorced from Susannah's mother. I think it happened in 1995, it was final. And since that time I've seen Susannah I think three weeks - and I think she was 10 years old when this all, you know, when it all began happening. But I've seen her three weeks - it was all court-ordered -but in California it has an interesting law where there comes a time - it's pretty early where the kid say she does not want to see you at all.
And Susannah evidently made that decision. And Scott, she has a perfect right not to see me. You know, she's 28 now.
Mr. CONROY: But I thought this was going to be the last cry of the heart. I'd at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. And it has been one of the most soul-killing things that's ever happened to me. And I'm delighted you mentioned it because I've simply run out of ways to try to, you know, figure it out. I didn't want to, you know, when I go to her door I don't want to knock the door down and do anything like that. But you know, it was a way - so I'm glad you noticed that, very happy you mentioned it.
SIMON: Boy, you sell millions of books all over the world.
Mr. CONROY: Can't talk to my kid.
SIMON: Well, Pat, this has been an extraordinary book and I wish both you and your daughter, I don't know, peace. Pat Conroy - his new book, "My Reading Life."
Mr. CONROY: Thank you so much, Scott.
SIMON: And Pat Conroy's memoir about reading also explains why he writes, and you can read that excerpt at our website, NPR.org.