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The drinking, the fighting, the public genteelness and the private hell (“My father had kept his abuse secret by mostly confining it to the fortresses of family routine,” Conroy wrote) — it all feels rather Southern Gothic, doesn’t it?
“It’s peculiar how geography shaped me,” Conroy said. “Certainly violence shaped me — being in a house where you never knew when you were going to be hit, or why you were going to be hit. These things have worked their way into my books. With me, it all went right to the page.
“I’ve met many, many writers who say they would never write about their family, never write about people they did not totally make up. But that is not the composition of my character. I’m fascinated by the people I grew up with, and the mistakes I made — and God, I have screwed up. I like writing about where it all went off course. How do you get it back on course? How do you live a good life? How do you live a life of quality? These things interest me a lot.”
The contradictions of life
“The Death of Santini” is filled with contradictions: Conroy hates his father, he loves his father; his father is a brute, his father is a pussycat; Conroy himself is tough, but he frequently breaks down and sobs — the whole book is both macho and sentimental.
This dichotomy makes perfect sense to Conroy. “I have found human nature a bit contradictory in my living of it,” he said. “Human life is incredibly strange.”
He writes by hand on yellow paper, leaving chapters on the stairs for his wife to find and comment on. (She leaves him her rough drafts on his pillow.) With memoir, he consults his siblings on their memories. “Sometimes I get very different answers, and different dialogue, and the point of view is different every time. But as the writer, I’ve got to figure out which point of view seems the most true.”
How true, of course, is open to dispute. “Here’s what my brothers and sisters and my father said: I write a lot about my family, and they are despicable, horrible, nose-picking, unbearable people,” Conroy said. “But the main character is always sort of cute, witty, all-knowing, philosophical, always has the last word, is always a fabulous human being. And it is their claim that it is always me.” He chuckled.
“I find that particularly good literary criticism, to tell you the truth. There’s always a version of me who is the narrator. And I make myself look better than other people.”
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 Twitter: @StribBooks