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Pat Conroy

Novelist Pat Conroy was born on October 26, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia.  The author of several best-selling novels about dysfunctional Southern families, including The Great Santini (1976) and The Prince of Tides (1986), he was raised in a household where his father was an abusive Marine fighter pilot.  As mean and ornery as a man can get, he "...would make John Wayne look like a pansy," according to Conroy, who, along with his siblings, called his father "Godzilla" for good reason.  They frequently crossed paths with his ire and suffered repeated beatings as a result.

Conroy's mother, on the other hand, was as mild mannered as his father was tough.  She often read to him from Gone with the Wind and told him stories about her aristocratic ancestors, even though she didn't have any.  Conroy said, "She was poor white trash who spent her whole life denying it as bitterly and vehemently as she could...[she] was really the first fiction writer in the family."

Since the family moved frequently to different military bases around the South, Conroy changed schools often, finally ending up at the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, at his fatherís insistence.  While there, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, about a beloved teacher.  But altogether, he disliked the strict military lifestyle imposed there, and he once admitted to his mother that school was worse than living through his father's beatings.  Nevertheless, he stuck it out through graduation.

On his own at last, Conroy at first wanted to join the Peace Corps.  But when a job for an English teacher opened up in Beaufort, he took it.  While there, he met and married a young Vietnam War widow with two children.  When a new teaching position arose, he jumped at the chance to work with underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island off the South Carolina coast.  He was shocked to learn that the children there had been isolated from the mainland for so long that they didn't know they were Americans, didn't know the letters of the alphabet, and didn't even know that the world was round.

Instead of using the textbooks provided to him by the local school board, Conroy decided that his students needed to see the real world.  He took them on a series of field trips to his home town, to a basketball game, and to Washington D.C.  School board administrators were not amused: they fired him for failing to follow official school curriculum.  In response, he wrote a book about the experience, The Water Is Wide, which was published in 1972 and went on to win several awards before being made into the movie, Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

Conroy's first novel, The Great Santini (1976), was based on his own childhood, growing up with his father.  It was a best-seller that was turned into a movie starring Robert Duvall as a gung ho Marine pilot ("The Great Santini"), Michael O'Keefe as his eldest son, and Blythe Danner as the mother.  The film centers on the love and conflict that the sons--particularly the eldest--have with their father.  The expectation by Duvall is that his son will one day follow in his footsteps, but the differences in their personalities soon grow evident, and the father/son relationship is strained to the point of rupture.

Both Duvall and O'Keefe received Academy Award nominations for the film (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor).

When the book was published, Conroy's father didn't think much of it.  He threw it across the room when he was halfway through it.  But he softened toward the story considerably after seeing the movie, and he began signing copies of his son's novel as "the Great Santini."

After several years of intense personal conflict spurred on by the revelations in the book (his mother used it as evidence in a messy divorce proceeding from his father), Conroy and his first wife divorced, and he remarried shortly after.  The newlyweds moved to Rome where the author began a new novel called The Prince of Tides which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book.  Reviewers lauded him as a master storyteller and a gifted stylist.  The book was made into a film starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte.  Nolte's performance led to an Oscar nomination.

Conroy's most recent book, My Losing Season (2002), is the story of his basketball days at the Citadel.  It's a reconstruction of the author's senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life.  Although the season was a failure from a sporting point of view, it was a great character builder.  The book is filled with Conroy's recollections, as well as flashbacks of his childhood and insights into his early aspirations as a writer.  It's the first nonfiction book he wrote in 30 years.

Pat Conroy once said, "One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family."

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