Pat Conroy spent a couple of days in Tulsa telling stories.
Some that were completely true, some that were mildly or grandly embellished, some that were pure fabrication, some that were all these things at once.
But all were thoroughly entertaining, treating dark memories with humor and happy moments with unabashed joy.
Thursday evening, Conroy was the guest of the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, recounting stories prompted by the questions of about a dozen Oklahoma authors, including Rilla Askew, P.C. Cast, Kim Doner, Hannibal Johnson, Billie Letts and Michael Wallis.
Friday morning, the author of “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini” settled himself into a leather easy chair on the stage of the Tulsa PAC’s Chapman Music Hall to regale the near-capacity house with what was billed as “My Writing Life.”
Conroy said that this was his third visit to Tulsa, adding that what keeps drawing him back is because “there is something about Tulsa, Oklahoma, that’s good for America.
“When I’m here, I try to think like an Oklahoman,” he said. “You take your time, consider what you’re going to say. You have this wonderfully laid-back quality.”
And, Conroy added, “You don’t brag about yourself.” As examples, he pointed to the motto that used to adorn state license plates - “Oklahoma is OK” - and to switching on his hotel TV to watch a program titled “Discover Tulsa,” only to be confronted by a blank screen.
Soon after his long-time friend, the cartoonist and novelist Doug Marlette, moved to Tulsa to work for the Tulsa World, Conroy said he got a call from Marlette encouraging him to pay a visit to Tulsa.
“Doug took me around and I met all sorts of wonderful people, was hugged goodbye by people I’d never seen before,” Conroy said. “Finally, I said to Doug, ‘Why don’t you let me meet some jerks now?’ I thought that would give some balance to all this good feeling. And Doug said, ‘I haven’t found any yet.’?”
Conroy’s books - whether novels such as “The Lords of Discipline” and “Beach Music” or non-fiction such as “The Water is Wide” and “My Losing Season” - grow out of autobiography.
“I tried to write the truth about my family,” he said. “I tried to tell all the stories that went into the making of this family.”
Conroy finished work on his latest book, “The Death of Santini,” about his father’s last years, and how “the toughest man that ever lived” found ways to express the love he had for the children who, as Conroy said, “for many years hated his guts.”
And while he said that working on the book was for him a very moving and emotional experience, Conroy added that one thing he learned from the process was “my family was crazy.”
He recalled a book-signing event where a fashionable couple commented on the Conroy family’s diosyncracies, and Conroy asked them, “How far do you have to go in your family to get to the first crazy person?”
“And the wife broke,” he said. “She almost screamed, ‘His mother is nuts!’?”
“But that’s the thing,” Conroy said. “You do the best we can with what we have.”
He recounted the story of how his wife and mother enlisted a cadre of women to spend a feverish day typing the handwritten manuscript of Conroy’s first book - “The Water is Wide,” about his year of teaching students on Daufuskie Island, S.C. - in order to get it into the hands of a New York literary agent.
“But I didn’t specify,” Conroy said, “that they should all use the same kind of paper.
One chapter was on little yellow sheets. One was on big blue sheets. One was on onionskin. One was on legal pad. My favorite was Mrs. Harriet Keyserling, who typed her chapter on her personal stationary.”
The agent, upon receipt of the manuscript, called it “the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.” A week later, Conroy had a contract for the book and his career was launched.
Yet the literary renown and best-seller status Conroy has earned from his books does not always translate into the everyday world. He recounted a visit to a Cleveland, Ohio, bookstore when, after telling a fan that he was the Pat Conroy whose books she loved, was stopped outside the store by a woman.
“I saw what went on in that bookstore, and I thought it was disgusting,” the woman told Conroy. She went on to tell him, “I know Pat Conroy, and he’s much too modest a person to do something like that. And I intend to tell him, the next time I see him, that there is someone going around impersonating him.”
Conroy’s response: “I wish you would. And I’d like to know what he says about it.”