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Pat Conroy’s widow shares the secrets to success of their marriage in a new book

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

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Anyone who ever met Pat Conroy or read his novels knows it would take a magician-saint to make a go of marriage to him.

Cassandra King Conroy, a novelist in her own right, is that person. Married for nearly 18 years to the “Prince of Tides” author before his death in 2016, the Alabama native describes herself as “stiff upper lip” and “stoic to a fault.”

In her memoir, “Tell Me a Story” (due in October from Morrow), she describes with wit, honesty and insight their rich life together. She shows us a Conroy extravagantly maddening, entertaining and vulnerable — a larger-than-life man she loved to his tender core.

Q: Before you and Pat met, you were married to a Methodist minister and living in your native Alabama. Pat had been married twice. What if you’d been each other’s first marriage?

A: I teased him by saying I was luckier than his other wives, getting him in his old age after he’d mellowed. But there’s some truth to that. Evidently Pat was pretty volatile and unpredictable in his younger years. If we’d married earlier, I probably would’ve thought I could change him.

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“My Life with Pat Conroy” by Cassandra King Conroy

Q: You and Pat met at a literary party in Alabama. Then for two years, your relationship consisted mostly of “strictly friendly” phone calls from Pat.

A: If we’d plunged right in, it would’ve been a mistake. We both needed time to heal. Our friendship deepened over that two-year period, and I believe that the strongest attachments grow from friendships. You have to like each other a lot before you want to spend a life together.

Q: Pat struggled with a love of alcohol and rich food, neither of which were good for his health. You appear in the memoir to have infinite patience with his backsliding. Is nagging simply not in your nature?

A: I guess not, but neither did I want to be an enabler. I tried to make sure he understood how his destructive tendencies concerned me, but at the same time, I knew that was something only he could change. You cannot motivate anyone else. You can only provide an incentive. For example, I prepared healthy meals to show that food doesn’t have to be rich to be good... But Pat was healthier the last few years of his life than he’d been in a long, long time. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he told his doctors that healthy living would kill you faster than anything.

Q: You were a novelist in your own right. Your first novel, “Making Waves,” had been sold to a publisher before you met Pat, and you’ve since written four more bestselling novels. Did either of you ever feel any competitiveness or envy?

A: Well, any envy would’ve come from me, not him. Of course I envy Pat’s unbelievably beautiful language. It’s sheer poetry, and I’d love to be able to come up with some of the imagery he used. But I’ve never been particularly competitive, which is why I’m lousy at games.

In this 2004 file photo, Pat Conroy and his wife Cassandra King Conroy were in the kitchen promoting a cookbook Pat Conroy wrote. In her new memoir, “Tell Me a Story,” Cassandra King Conroy shares what it was like living with her late husband. Tim Dominick The State/file photo

Q: One of the strengths of your relationship it seems is that you allowed Pat space. Was this one of the secrets to being married to Pat?

A: Absolutely. And Pat gave me a lot of space as well. Thankfully, neither of us was a controlling kind of person by nature. Control freaks make me crazy.

Q: You write that when Pat based a character on himself, he made those characters saintly, heroic, godlike men of flawless character and integrity. His villains, on the other hand, he based on real people who had wronged him — so they were vile and despicable. Was Pat aware of this as he was writing?

A: Pat often said it himself, which makes me believe that yes, he was very aware of doing so. And I’ve discovered that it’s irresistible. I make my main characters beautiful, witty and desirable. And my villains recognize themselves — or so I hear, which thrills me more than it should.

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Pat Conroy and Cassandra King Conroy on their wedding day. Zoe Sanders

Q: Were there subjects you had to push yourself to write about? I’m thinking of Pat’s on-again-off-again relationship with one of his daughters. Others?

A: Writing anything about the dysfunction of our families I found fraught with danger and loaded with minefields. I didn’t like writing about Pat’s drinking, even though he talked about it himself. I didn’t like writing about our fights, preferring to pretend that we lived in perfect harmony every blissful minute of our life together. But mainly, I found writing about his illness and death extremely painful, and would have to put it away at times because it hurt to relive that awful time. But again, it was an important part of the story and couldn’t be ignored.

Q: Your low emotional temperature seems to have been uniquely suited to Pat’s volatility and need for support. But did this ever wear on you?

A: Oh Lord, yes! Pat once told me that he really had trouble with “intense” people. He looked me straight in the eye and asked (in all seriousness), “I’m not intense, am I?” I fell on the floor laughing. But I have to say that despite the intensity, Pat was a joy to live with. He was so entertaining, so funny and so fascinating. And really, he was such a sweet man.

Q: You say Pat’s devil-may-care demeanor often was a cover for his deepest feelings. When did he express those feelings?

A: I’ll always believe that Pat, like most abused children, developed a protective shield to guard himself from further pain. He had problems revealing his feelings to those he loved most, yet he could be over-the-top effusive to others. But in a real crisis or moment of need, he’d come through. He reacted instinctively, I think, from an essential goodness that he couldn’t hide, no matter how he tried.

Q: What did you learn about yourself from writing this memoir?

A: I already knew that I’m a very private, introverted person, but writing this book made it even clearer. It was really hard for me to reveal things that I don’t normally talk about. That’s just not in my nature.

Q: What did you learn from living with Pat that has sustained you?

A: I learned that life is full of surprises.

Q: How much of your head and your heart did Pat inhabit? And what is your life like without him?

A: My life will always be emptier without him. His loss has left a terrible void. I miss him every day.

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