Pat Conroy is just about the perfect guy to appear at Miami Book Fair International: Nobody loves reading more than he. Get him talking about books, and he doesn't want to stop, whether the subject is William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying "changed my life"); which Russian novel is greater, War and Peace or Anna Karenina (depends on which he's read most recently); J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, all of which he devoured as a way of chatting with kids whose parents come to his events ("Those books were so important in the history of reading") or fellow book-fair presenter Jonathan Franzen's hyped novel Freedom ("he taps into contemporary life like no writer I have ever read").
"I read too much. I am the great bore about books, " admits the novelist best known for The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline and Beach Music. "I'm an addict, and this addiction has been going on a long time. I'm surrounded by books right now. I'm looking at 'em all. I've read a lot."
Conroy will be in the right place Thursday night at the 27th edition of the fair, which opens Sunday and runs through Nov. 21 at Miami Dade College in downtown Miami. At "An Evening with Pat Conroy, " he'll talk about My Reading Life (Nan A.Talese/Doubleday, $25), in which he revisits some of the books and authors he has loved best over the years and the mentors who guided him, from Gene Norris, his high-school English teacher, to the poet James Dickey, author of the novel Deliverance.
Conroy writes hilariously about being snubbed by Alice Walker and booted from a workshop by Adrienne Rich. And he can't stop gushing about Thomas Wolfe. "Before my complete submersion into the undertow of Wolfe's work, I wrote like any other normal American kid, " he writes.
"This book has been the happiest book we've worked on, " says Conroy's longtime editor Nan Talese, who adds that the publishing house plans to reprint My Reading Life in a graduation-gift edition. "For years I have asked him, 'Won't you do a list of recommended reading that booksellers can have?' He didn't want to do it because he said what if he slighted one of his friends? His agent came up with the idea of his writing about the books he read as a child, which I instantly concurred with. ... He has such stories. He's a wonderful storyteller."
"I was surprised I enjoyed writing it, " Conroy admits. "I almost never enjoy writing. But I realized nobody kills themselves, and nobody goes crazy, and nobody's in agony for 500 pages as they usually are in my novels. So I enjoyed it."
My Reading Life also pays tribute to Conroy's mother, who instilled in him a passion for reading. "She read so many books that she was famous among the librarians in every town she entered, " he writes. She read to her children every night. She adored Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and "bought countless copies to hand out as gifts or to replace the ones she read so frequently that they came apart in her hands." She was the antidote to Conroy's abusive U.S. Marine Corps pilot father, with whom Conroy shared a stormy relationship (see The Great Santini for more on this subject; Conroy frequently excavates his past for material).
"I had a magnificent mother, " says Conroy, 65, who lives in Fripp Island, S.C., with his novelist wife, Cassandra King. "She was one of the most passionate readers I've ever come across. She shaped my life, and she gave it direction. She told me I was going to be a Southern writer, with the emphasis on 'Southern.'
"I did not realize at all that she had come from the poor South, the redneck South, the Cracker South, because she hid it from us. I remember going to her family seat in Piedmont, Ala., one time during my childhood. I realized later she didn't want to expose us to that grinding rural poverty. She was a pretty girl like both my aunts; they all got out in World War II by marrying officers in the Navy and the Marine Corps. ... She would tell us to never be ashamed of where you came from. I now realize she was talking about herself, not us."
So that "Southern" distinction has never bothered Conroy.
"I was on a panel once where I was asked: 'Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?' I go first, so I say, 'Yeah, I'm proud to be a Southern writer!' I was a Marine Corps kid. We moved 23 times before I came to Buford when I was 15. ... I didn't have any roots at all. So when people call me a Southern writer I feel like I'm from somewhere. I never felt like I was from anywhere, so it means a lot to me. Of course, every other writer on the panel attacked me and said they all wrote for all the peoples of the world. And some of those writers were more Southern than a boiled peanut."
Conroy is a fervent disciple of the classics; he rhapsodizes over George Eliot's Middlemarch and says one of the biggest surprises in his life "has been my love of Henry James, because it seems like nothing in Henry's life corresponds to my own. Yet in college I took this modern-novel course, and I simply went nuts over Portrait of a Lady. I read it two or three times. I fell in love with Isabel Archer."
He tries to keep up with contemporary novels, too. He likes the work of Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon and Anne Rivers Siddons, with whom he's had a 30-year friendship.
One thing you won't see Conroy doing, though: indulging in his passion on an e-reader. A self-proclaimed "ignoramus'' about the digital world - "They say I have a Twitter account, but I don't know what Twitter is" - he's the sort of guy who thinks "books make a room beautiful" and likes to check out people's bookshelves.
"I see my books being read in Kindle, and I tell myself, 'It's still reading; it's still the language.' But I don't understand it."