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Pat Conroy honored for a life of literary storytelling at FIU tonight.

March 24, 2011

Pat Conroy

When Pat Conroy was starting out in the middle of the last century, the divide between literary fiction and popular novels was at its widest. Tonight Conroy picks up a lifetime achievement award for combining those very qualities: literary excellence and old-fashioned storytelling.

Everyone knows Conroy, probably the most popular Southern novelist since Margaret Mitchell. His big, romantic books, with their epic sweep and lyrical language, are filled with vivid characters drawn from his own dramatically dysfunctional upbringing.

His novels have found scads of sympathetic readers, with The Prince of Tides (1986), his magnum opus, selling five million copies to date.

“I didn’t know it was possible to be that popular,” Conroy says by phone from his Uncle Ed’s house in Naples. “I wanted to be like the great writers of my youth — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wolfe — and it remains my dream today.”

Conroy will be at the North Miami Beach campus of Florida International University this evening at 8 p.m. to pick up the 2nd annual Lawrence Sanders Award for Fiction, along with its $5,000 cash prize.

Sanders, a bestselling and critically well-regarded thriller writer who lived the last half of his life in Boca Raton. He left $14 million in his will to establish the prize in recognition of lifetime achievement combining, as Sanders always tried to do, literary excellence and commercial storytelling.

“I like this award a lot,” Conroy says, “It’s practically the definition of what I do. It tickled me when I read the description. The high literati in this country goes berserk if you sell more than 12 copies. I was a literary writer before Prince of Tides, and then suddenly I didn’t matter anymore.”

Looking at that list of Conroy influences, it’s easy to see that some have weighed more heavily on his development than others. With his lush, orotund writing style, he probably owes more to Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Mitchell than the laconic rhythms of Hemingway or the wised-up grace of Fitzgerald.

“My mother read Gone with the Wind to me when I was five,” Conroy says. “It was my first novel. That book had tremendous impact on me. Theat’s when I feel in love with books with tremendous historical sweep.”

Given the cultural impact of his books, it’s a little startling to realize that Conroy, who is 65, has published only five novels . That is, until you consider how labor intensive it must be to produce these big, complex stories.

Conroy sees himself and everything he does in the grand tradition of Southern literature.

“The South is my natural habitat,” he says. “I could not write about Chicago where my aunt and uncle live. If I’d grown up there my books would be Chicago novels. But I grew up in the South, it’s the only think I know, the South, the landscape, the feel, and how it molds character.”

Conroy’s latest book, A Reading Life, is nonfiction, a collection of essays on his passion for reading and general love of literature. He says the response from readers, as he’s toured the country, has been among the best he’s ever received.

“I love those old books, like The Brothers Karamozov, Madame Bovary,” he says. “I could have written another 500 pages, but the publisher cut me off. They wanted the damned book.”

What readers who love Conroy’s work may not know, unless they seen him in person, is that he is a gifted and entertaining speaker. At last fall’s Miami Book Fair International, he spoke for a solid hour without notes and he was consistently hilarious, with nary a pause or stammer.

“Don’t you hate [writers] aren’t funny?” Conroy says. “I’ve had to sit through a million boring readings in my life. And I can’t fall asleep, it pisses them off.”

Tonight at 8, Pat Conroy will receive the Lawrence A. Sanders Award in the Wolfe University Center Ballroom on Florida International University’s North Miami campus, 3000 NE 151 St. Admission is free. Info: 305-919-5857.

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