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Pat Conroy talks about his literary marriage

If a man writes something in the forest and there’s no woman there to read it, does he still need editing?

If the man is novelist Pat Conroy, probably.

“I still have an enormous ability for pomposity, verbosity and absolute windiness,” said Conroy, author of “The Great Santini” and “Prince of Tides.”

(One might note that his confession to wordiness could have used some editing.)

In 1998 Conroy married novelist Cassandra King and found not only a like-minded spirit but a cool pair of eyes to scan his sometimes-overheated prose.

King is the author of five novels since 1995; her most recent is last year’s “Moonrise.” (In terms of pace, she matches her husband about five-to-one.)

The pair have since developed a congenial working style at their home in Beaufort, S.C. “I write on one side of the house and she writes on the other,” said Conroy.

“We can talk about what we’ve written that day, or that week. I have found that enormously stimulating.”

Conroy, 68 and King, 70, will appear together Aug. 30 at the AJC Decatur Book Festival in a panel discussion of literature and wedlock called “Marriage by the Book.” They will be joined by their friends Cliff and Cynthia Graubart, who are also both writers.

At the festival Conroy will also introduce a selection of writers from Story River Books, an imprint at the University of South Carolina Press that he edits. The book festival is calling it the “Pat Conroy Selects,” track and it’s the first time the festival has devoted a series of panels to a single author.

That the verbose Conroy is now an editor is amusing to his friends and editors who know that every time he tries to write just one novel, he turns in enough manuscript to fashion two or three. “They think it’s the most hilarious thing in the world,” he said.

As an editor, he’s not checking syntax. “I can’t line by line edit something,” Conroy confessed, “but I sure can tell when something’s good and somebody’s on to something — if they’re writing with passion and devotion… And I can suggest ways to make it better.”

Now the tricky part is making such suggestions to a spouse. Both Conroy and King praise their partners as excellent first readers. But care must be taken. Conroy said that King “receives everything I say quietly. She has 12 degrees of silence that I’ve learned to interpret over the years.” He describes three of them:

Hostile Silence: “I’ve overstepped my bounds.” Time to retreat.

Complete Silence: “I know what I’ve said is not worth anything.”

Involved Silence: “That is what I hope for. It says she’s listening.”

King says her husband is prone to exaggeration. “He’s certainly very kind and very encouraging.”

Conroy’s suggestions to King are usually a request for more action. Her characters are often “sitting around drinking dry martinis and eating chicken wings. I say ‘Let’s do something! Let’s move to another venue. I have to get out of this room. Let’s go down to the Burger King.’”

King’s suggestions to Conroy are sometimes a matter of tone, i.e. how about less purple? A typical note might be: “Uh-oh. A little overboard, big boy.” But she will also offer structural changes, as when she opined that he might pick another of the two or three beginnings he’d written for “South of Broad.”

Then there is the kind of advice that can shape a career. When the two were married there had been a 14-year gap between his previous two novels, “Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music.”

“What happened to Pat is that he realized time is really moving forward,” said King, who probably helped spur the realization. “If you’ve got books in you that you want to get out, you’d better do it now.”

Conroy got the message, and put out four books in the next 12 years (although only one novel.) His most recent was last year’s memoir “The Death of Santini.”

There is a lovely rumor that the two trade pages back and forth each day, King leaving some of hers on his pillow, Conroy leaving some of his on the stairs, so they can each read up on what the other is doing.

“That’s total B.S.” said King. “It’s a romantic idea, but we haven’t done that in forever.”

Being married to a writer who is considered one of the giants of Southern literature means being asked about his career, even at her book signings. “People are curious and I don’t mind,” said King.

Eventually they will bring the conversation back around to her, she said. “And if they don’t, I will.”

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