My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as Told to Katherine Clark.

Oh, the gift of this delightful book. The thing about Pat Conroy is those who get him really get him and can never get enough. It has been repeatedly written that readers feel as if they know him. That he wrote in the first person was part of what spawned the relationship between Conroy and his readers, the rest of it is that he had an uncanny way of unabashedly calling things by name and spoke for us. And any Conroy devotee knew he was healing his shattered history by veiling it in fiction. We knew it and didn’t care because not only was he charming, he was a master storyteller. Conroy wrote from the center of his sardonic personality. Once he had you, he dove down to universal truth and brought you to your knees. This business of life is not for the meek, he suggested, but there is rhyme to it, poetry, in fact, and in his fiction, he figured out how to survive it.
My Exaggerated Life gives us the man behind the curtain. On its cover is Conroy wearing his infamous flight jacket and Citadel ring, which his fans will recognize as symbols of his personal narrative. Conroy was that kind of writer. His books were mind-altering drugs and his readers were addicts who had to have more. Katherine Clark has given us more in what seems to me a labor of love. That she spent two hundred hours listening to Conroy spill out his life over the telephone to assemble this book makes me jealous, but I’ll overlook that in favor of the resounding result.
What struck me most in reading My Exaggerated Life was the realization that there was no separating the man from his craft. It’s Conroy’s voice that does it. In these pages speaks a storyteller of the highest order telling an incredibly entertaining story, it just so happens to be culled from a series of events in his life. You can intuit the haphazard way he stumbled from cause to effect as his writing career took shape. Reading Conroy’s books always made me feel they were born without effort, so to discover in this riveting book just where the struggle had been hit me as staggering—not because parts were painful to read, but because he framed it in such a human way that readers will think, you too?
At the end of My Exaggerated Life, Katherine Clark shares the speech Pat Conroy delivered spontaneously before a crowd of adoring fans in Beaufort, South Carolina at his 70th birthday celebration. In it, Conroy claims “What I wanted to be as a writer, I wanted to be a complete brave man that I am not in my real life.” He did just this in My Exaggerated Life. In an act of bravery, Pat Conroy told his story, and author Katherine Clark captured it in a book that is one for the archives.

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On the Southern author, Shelby Foote

Before I launch into writing about Follow Me Down, I want to make sure y’all know who Shelby Foote is. I’ll start with his author bio, because it will either remind you or introduce you to one of the best Southern writers of our times:

Shelby Foote was born on November 7, 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, and attended school there until he entered the University of North Carolina. During World War II he served as a captain of field artillery but never saw combat. After World War II he worked briefly for the Associated Press in their New York bureau. In 1953 he moved to Memphis, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Foote was the author of six novels: Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, Shiloh, Jordan County, and September, September. He is best remembered for his 3-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative, which took twenty years to complete and resulted in his being a featured expert in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Civil War documentary. Over the course of his writing career, Foote was also awarded three Guggenheim fellowships. Shelby Foote died in 2005 at the age of 88.

On a personal note, my mother was a life-long friend of Shelby Foote’s second wife, Gwyn, whom everyone called Ginny- with a hard G. She was statuesque, blue-eyed, and wore her hair in a grey page-boy before it was chic. The Footes lived right around the corner from where I grew up in Memphis. I am a contemporary of Ginny and Shelby’s son, Huggie, so nicknamed because his given name comes from Shelby’s family line and is Huger (pronounced Yoo-gee.) Best for a little kid to be called Huggie, as far as I’m concerned, and the name sticks to this day. Like his father, Huggie is an artist. He’s had an illustrious career as a photographer, and, after moving back to the states from Paris, he resides in New York City. If you’re interested in Photography, Huggie has a couple of books that you can find on Amazon. He admits to being influenced by Memphis’s renowned William Eggleston, and in my opinion, if you’re a photographer influenced by anyone, let it be Eggleston, but I digress.

I have a handful of Shelby Foote memories, one of which sees him sitting on the porch out at Cottondale in Collierville, Tennessee discussing the civil war with the erudite J. Tunkie Saunders, son of Clarence Saunders, who started Piggy Wiggly and built Memphis’s Pink Palace, which is now a museum. When you’re a little kid, you’re not impressed by much of anything, yet I recall running through the porch of what was once called The Old Stage Coach Inn, before J. Tunkie Saunders bought the establishment and turned it into a country retreat on the outskirts of Memphis. I was ‘at the farm,” as they called it, with Lucy Saunders, my age exactly, and we were making a beeline for the stables. Our plan had been to saddle up Buttons and Bows and ride her down to the levee, but I was stopped. “Claire, sit down,” J. Tunkie said, and I, being obliging to my elders, let Lucy run on ahead and did as I was told. For the next half hour, I listened to these two Southern gentlemen talk about the Civil War as if it were still going on somewhere down the road. Wasn’t a big deal to me then, but it is to me now, and I recall the pair matching wits, comparing notes over tumblers of cool, amber whiskey as the sun set through the pin oaks and thinking one day you’ll be glad you’re sitting here.  

Another vision that stays with me is of the day my mother brought me round to visit Shelby in his library. She’d just acquired the first volume of Shelby’s three volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, and she wanted it signed. The two of us stepped down three wooden steps into what would have been anyone else’s living room, in the ivy-covered, pitched roof brick Tudor tucked back off of East Parkway.  I’d never been to an author’s residence, and at thirteen or thereabouts, I hadn’t a clue what to expect from the man I thought of simply as Huggie’s dad.  Shelby didn’t disappoint. Were you to have envisioned your best-case scenario of what to expect from an author in his den, Shelby would have exceeded it. He smoked a pipe, he wore a beard and a vest over his rolled shirt sleeves. His steady blue eyes were mesmerizing, canopied with a thicket of black lashes, his warm voice was courtly in a fluid Southern drawl. He was a gentleman through and through and didn’t let on that we were interrupting him at his work in the prime of his working hour. He received my fawning mother graciously with a manner as though he had all the time in the world.

The world got a taste of the real Shelby Foote, when he narrated Ken Burns documentary miniseries, The Civil War, which aired on PBS in five consecutive nights in 1990. 40 million viewers watched it, and the series was awarded more than 40 major television and film honors. In the show, Shelby wore a pinstriped Oxford and simply told his version of the war as he interpreted it. With more than twenty years of research behind him and a narrative passion that verged on the personal, Shelby Foote, in all his poised authenticity, single-handedly debunked all myth and stereotype many outsiders have of those of us from down South.

It was the Goodreads group, On the Southern Literary Trail, that caused me to read Shelby Foote’s Follow Me Down. I’ll go on and say it: not only am I a Southerner, but I’m a writer, and it shamed me to admit I’d never read Shelby Foote’s fiction. I have no excuse for never getting around to it, other than to say that I, like many, equated Shelby Foote with his Civil War volumes. I’d done myself a disservice, but that’s all behind me, for after reading Follow Me Down, I now have Shelby Foote fever.

Follow Me Down was published in 1950. It sets the standard for Southern fiction at its finest. Set in Jordan County, Mississippi, the book opens with a murder trial, and the reader learns quickly that the defendant has already confessed. Luther Eustice, a fifty-one-year-old, nondescript farmer, got himself into a pickle, when he crossed paths with a disreputable woman, thirty years younger, named Beulah Ross. After running off with Beulah to a small island on the Mississippi, Eustice changed his mind and couldn’t think to do anything else but drown her. Narrated in chapters by a circuit clerk, a reporter, a half-wit named Dummy, Eustice himself, Beulah the victim, Eustice’s wife, Eustice’s lawyer, and the jailer with the key, we learn the detailed minutia of the crime from differing vantage points—each with a voice so Southern and unique, Foot’s feat of writing is showcased for what it is: nuanced, insightful, and chock full of character as to lay bare the hidden secrets of the rural South.  It’s the colloquialisms that captured me. An example is when Foote describes a man by writing, “He is the best example I ever saw of a man gone sour.”  Politically incorrect at points for this day and age, the reader is gifted with the mental accuracy of a bygone era, yet never once does it pull them out of the story.  Follow Me Down is a roughhewn and down-on-its-luck story written with such charisma and aplomb as to fascinate the reader on every page.

I’ll leave you here with one more Shelby Foote tidbit, since I’m being candid. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the great author and poet, Ron Rash, whose eyes grew wide when I mentioned I grew up in Memphis. The first question he asked was if I was familiar with Shelby Foote. I told him I was, though not as a reader, my acquaintance was personal. The look on Rash’s face as I recounted my affiliation with Shelby Foote was one of awestruck wonder. At the time I was thinking Mr. Rash must be a Civil War buff, but now I know why he had that look on his face: it was author admiration, pure and simple.

 

 

 

 

How Does One Become a Writer?

 

 

The Thing About Galway

Even on the best of days, when the weather is temperate and the sky soft and cloudless, Galway City has a worn, secondhand feel to it: an historic, pensive, erudite quality everywhere you roam down its serpentine streets. But there’s also an energetic undercurrent to Galway that seems to thrive on the idea of opposites, which lends the atmosphere a certain air of unpredictability. In many ways, Galway seems like a lively college town, bordered on one side by the dark gray patina of Galway Cathedral, and the ever turbulent River Corrib on the other, which flows straight to Galway Bay on its way through the Claddagh. It’s an undefinable, mood-setting, soul-stirring town with a split personality; it is vividly animated by its youthful culture, yet deeply haunted by its storied past.

To Debra Wallace, who was born and reared in Letterfrack, 50 miles north in rural Connemara, Galway was the pinnacle of urban grandeur. At the age of 27, she’d blown into town carrying her dreams and her guitar to set up house in a two-story rental, on the edge of lower Galway’s Henry Street. She was an accomplished musician with a whisky-edged singing voice, and her dreams involved joining Galway’s vibrant music scene. The second I met her, I thought she embodied everything it meant to be Irish: She was big eyed, russet-haired, quick-witted, nobody’s fool, howlingly funny, and spiritually attuned. She gave our friendship no probation period when we first met at The Galway Music Centre, for there was nothing suspicious or cynical about her, though she was disarmingly shrewd. Upon learning that I am an American, she put her hand on her hip, narrowed her eyes to a slit, and give me the once over. Then she set her guitar case down and invited me to call out to her house for a cup of tea.

I had no idea what to expect as I made my way to Debra Wallace’s blue-painted door. It rose up from the sidewalk, sandwiched in a row of matching gray structures, each with a pitched roof emitting turf smoke that permeated the residential area in an aroma so redolent it made my eyes water. I rapped thrice on the door, and it swung wide immediately. Stepping onto the uneven cobbled brick floor, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust in the shadowy room, for it had only one window and it seemed the haphazardly arranged turf in the fireplace had reached its crescendo and now glowed in a burnt orange aftermath. The heat in the small room was stifling. I took off my raincoat and made to set it aside on the folded futon against the wall, just as I brought the four chairs before it into focus, where three figures looked up at me expectantly. Debra lowered herself onto the fourth chair and motioned for me to take the futon as a voice disrupted the damp air.

“Well, you weren’t telling a tale about that blonde hair of hers, God bless it; must have taken ages to grow,” the voice said.

“Claire, this is my mother; Da sits there, and this is my sister Breda,” Debra introduced, handing me a cup of tea.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. It was then I recognized where Debra had acquired her penchant for the once over, for all three Wallace’s studied me head to foot.

“You’re an American,” Mr. Wallace stated. He was short and stout and leaned forward in his chair, with his hands on his knees and his steady stare beaming beneath his tweed flat cap.

“Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee,” I confirmed.

“Ah, Elvis and all that,” Mrs. Wallace said, who looked to be, in tandem with her husband, the second installment of a pair of square, blue-eyed bookends.

“That’s right,” I said, then I searched for a way to escape their scrutiny. I knew I could turn the tables if I could use the standard Irish conversational stand-by. “It looks like it’ll rain any minute,” I said, looking at Mr. Wallace.

“It does, yah. We brought the weather with us all the way from Letterfrack, so we did. If you haven’t been there, you should come see us. It’s God’s country up there; not much chance for the young ones to run the streets.”

“So I moved here,” Debra said with a wink.”

“Speaking of streets, we should get going,” Breda said. “We’ve only come to town for the one day.”

We all stood simultaneously, making our farewells, and after Debra closed the door behind her family, she asked me if I wanted to accompany her to the epicenter of Galway City, which is an area known as Eyre Square.

“There’s a card reader up there, her name is Harriet,” she said. “As long as you’re one of us now, I think you should see her.”

“Don’t you have to make an appointment?” I asked.

“For what?” Debra said. “Don’t be so American. Let’s just walk up the road and call out.”

What could have been a 10-minute walk up Shop Street took 45 minutes, for such is the nature of Galway. There is no way to set out from point A to point B within the confines of scheduled time because there are too many people milling around, everybody knows everybody, and it is a crime against Irish society not to stop and chat to the point of exhaustion. I stood idly by as Debra engaged in Irish banter time and again, which is to say that each exchange felt like joining a running joke that had been going on for a while, and we had simply stumbled into its midst. It is a game of wit-topping one-upmanship, this business of Irish banter, and as we made our way to Eyre Square, I was starting to catch the rhythm.

Two heavy wooden doors led the way into the back of an atrium on the north side of Eyre Square. Debra heaved the doors apart and ushered me inside to where a canvas marquee had a chalkboard before it, which read, “Readings with Harriet: 12 euros.”

What happened next is another story.

But the thing about that day is that it was exemplary of the spirit of Galway, where anything can and does happen, on any given day. This wasn’t the first or last time I’d slid into the day thinking it would go one way only to discover it had segued into quite another. Because there’s an energy to Galway that will catch the unsuspecting unaware. It emanates from the dichotomy of its nature, its marriage of opposites, its union of past and present, and at its foundation are the fluid Irish people, who know a thing or two about embracing the flow.

Claire is the author of contemporary fiction set in Connemara, “Dancing to an Irish Reel”  Http://www.clairefullerton.com

 

One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain

One Good Mama Bone

Once you attune yourself to the voice of this emotionally evocative story, it’ll submerge you in language like water running in a creek bed. Author Bren McClain takes the reader to a down on its luck farm, in the esoteric pocket of rural 1950’s Anderson, South Carolina, and delivers lines, such as “Get the by God out of my clean yard” and “He’d probably be drunk as a coot and trying to have relations with his common law.” It is McClain’s uncompromising use of language that gives us the consciousness of each character in this purpose driven story, who are all linked to each other by the common pursuit of raising a steer to enter into the 1952 Fat Cattle Show and Sale, with dreams of winning the monetary prize awarded to its Grand Champion. Every character has its own agenda, and the best and worst of human nature is depicted as we follow the motivation of each principal character to the destination of one fateful day. One Good Mama Bone opens with a birth’s gripping drama and never turns the reader loose throughout its breath-catching, suspenseful build. It gives us a protagonist in single mother Sarah Creamer, who doggedly fights the constraints of poverty and wrestles with her own beaten down identity, all in the name of selfless love for her young son, Emerson Bridge. Sarah’s quest tugs at the heartstrings with the lure of her incremental maternal awakening, as reflected in her relationship with a mother cow named Mama Red. That this story contains a nemesis in the contentious, self-serving cattleman Luther Dobbins, who throws up one heart-stopping obstacle after another on the road to Sarah and Emerson Bridges’ goal keeps the pages turning to the very end. I loved this book for the mood that descended every time I returned to its pages. It’s a rare book that hands you a life you can slip into, and an even rarer writer that’ll give you a million reasons to do it.     

A Southern Voice

A Southern Voice

The first voice to caress my infant ears rolled with such lyrical beauty that I’m offended by other accents to this day. It soothed in its quicksilver fluidity, lacked hard edges, and whispered in promises so compelling it could turn the most resistant of souls into a willing adherent. I know now that sound travels queerly and can double back upon itself in time. I often hear the voice of my Southern mother when I least expect it; it comes to me more as reminder than recollection, and carries a way of being in the world along a template so firmly etched that its resonance is guiding and indelible.

For Complete Piece:

Claire Fullerton: A Southern Voice

The Man from Derry

His name was Eoghan, and I never did catch his last name. A solid year spent with the desultory coming and going of this enigmatic man through the door of The Galway Music Center, and I came to accept him as Kieran’s friend from Derry. Kieran rarely explained himself, much less anyone attendant, and because he was the head of The Center, the rest of us were not in the habit of asking. They talked alike, Kieran and Eoghan, but half of the time I couldn’t discern what they were saying. In each other’s company, neither enunciated; they’d slip into a flat, guttural diction that lacked the singing high notes of the west of Ireland’s accent, and I confess it took too much effort to attune my ear to their patois. On Kieran’s lips, the name Eoghan was levelled to the convenience of “Own.” I figured it was a linguistic vortex from there, so I settled with gathering the essence.

Eoghan was older than the rest of us by a good 10 years, but this wasn’t what gave him his arresting gravitas. He had a way of standing that meant business: feet planted, weight centered, eyes with an unambiguous stare. And although I’m an innocuous little thing in stature, no threat to anybody in any conceivable way, the day I met Eoghan, he took his time looking me over. There was a nerve-wracking tenor to his streetwise swagger that seemed crouched and coiled between fight and flight. Kieran once hinted that Eoghan had, and I quote, “Northern Irish connections,” but I paid it no heed because Eoghan’s blue eyes settled the score between his tough-guy countenance and his poetic mind. His eyes were the color of liquid innocence, round and clear and all-knowing; the kind of eyes that saw between layers; the kind of eyes you knew you could trust.

And so it evolved that on a windswept, December’s Saturday, I took the bus into Galway and followed the directions Eoghan had given me to Scoil Lan-Ghaeilge. It was there I found him in the back of the room, wearing a Santa Claus costume and speaking to a passel of fresh-faced children in the Irish language, while a pack of smiling mothers stood by, cameras in hand. It was a scene so incongruous to everything I knew of Eoghan that I had to study it for a moment because he’d never bothered to tell me he taught the Irish language in his spare time. It turned out this was just the beginning of Eoghan’s love for all things Irish. He took a warrior’s pride in his country and possessed a knowledge so deep in its history you would have thought he’d been personally involved at every turn of Ireland’s storied past. Which is why he took it upon himself to invite me to the gentle fields of Oughterard, on the shores of Lough Corrib. He hadn’t divulged our destination; he simply told me to get in his blue Honda Civic, then sped out of Galway on the Headford Road. Twenty six cork-screw miles and 45 minutes later, Eoghan stopped the car on an uneven dirt road. A cattle grate lay before a rusted gate with a padlock, and climbing over it, we stood at the mouth of an unkempt field.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see it: the unfathomable immensity of winter-torn acreage, its wooded grassland beaten to a faded ochre beneath an overcast sky.  The earth was sodden beneath my boots as we trudged through the unmarked expanse. Blackbirds and hawks swooped above watching; they sailed in a majestic current with the rights of jurisdiction, and I knew myself to be an interloper in this dreary landscape, where the wind pitched and rolled with a chill that touched bone. Eoghan roved forward in his loose, ambling stride. He held his head with fierce intention, his eyes on the horizon between earth and sky. It was there beyond the rise that I saw it. It rose out of the earth and spread ominously, a thunderous ancient castle, in parts without a roof. A grey stone wall stacked around the manse declaring its prominence. At one time it must have been impressive, but now shrubbery defaced the castle walls, and tangled ivy and moss ravaged through the windows. But still, she upheld her imperious grandeur. There was something queenly in her stately elegance; safe in her desolation, and validating to the soul as we walked her interior then circled her venerable grounds. You simply cannot walk grounds such as this with any amount of Irish blood in your veins without it speaking to you. Something longing and haunting descends like the call of atavistic memory. Something turns in your blood that is probably DNA. I don’t think you can be Irish without Ireland’s history being part of your personal story. I started to say something to Eoghan about this, but from the way he was looking at me, he already knew. And the thing about that day was I half expected Eoghan to hold forth in erudite commentary, but he didn’t. There are some moments so sacred they require no words, and to share them with someone creates an unnamable intimacy best not disturbed. In that moment, I knew something, though I couldn’t tell you what I knew; I just knew. I was there and experienced something ineffably integral to being of Irish descent, and from the manner of his quietude, I thought Eoghan did, too. I suspected it was why he’d brought me here, to this place without a name. It was Eoghan’s way of sharing his homeland, and I am warmed to this day by the gesture. I took the above photograph as we walked towards the castle. It’s unfortunately small and lacks the impact the structure made, but I keep it in a standing frame just the same. It doesn’t capture much of what I saw that day, yet every time I look at it, it brings to mind the most important memory: a peacock proud Irishman in love with his country, that swashbuckling Derry man named Eoghan, whom I’ll never forget.

Claire Fullerton is the author of A Portal in Time and the 2016, Readers’ Favorite award winner for cultural fiction, Dancing to an Irish Reel.

http://www.clairefullerton.com