Rick Bragg’s Tribute to Pat Conroy

Rick Bragg’s Tribute to Pat Conroy

Image of Rick Bragg and Mark Powell


You can’t be a good Southerner without being a hypocrite

I attended the Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors in downtown Winston-Salem yesterday. My favorite session was Our Prince of Scribes: Remembering Pat Conroy. If you’ve read my former blogs, you know that Conroy remains my favorite southern author.

In the picture above, Rick Bragg prefaces the tribute by explaining that we southerners believe in hypocrisy. (This was after he had slid the pulpit lectern at Calvary Moravian Church back to the wall and positioned the chairs into a more conversational arrangement. “We’re not having church,” he said. “At no point will you have to come up for an altar call.”)

Returning to his theory of hypocrisy, Bragg says we can get on a plane and fly down to some third world country, and help build a library or fix up a church. Then we fly back home in time to vote against health insurance that would protect the struggling waitress at our local café. “You can’t be a good southerner, without being a good hypocrite.” About half the audience applauded.

Is it up to me to keep this dying friendship afloat?

And then Bragg turns to Mark Powell, who joined him in the tribute. “He would make me feel like I could walk on water and then lambaste me for being a terrible man who doesn’t keep up with his friends.” Powell nods in agreement.

They both remember receiving notes like these from Connroy:

Is it up to me to keep this dying friendship afloat?

Ours could have been a father/son relationship but...(and he would fill in the blank with something very specific every time.)

Writing Porn on the Side

Bragg next gives an example of how far Conroy would go to carry out a prank. Conroy was speaking to a group of little old ladies at one of Bragg’s book gatherings. (Bragg pauses here to explain that by “little old ladies,” he means ladies his age).

One of the women came up to speak to Conroy and was going on about how wonderful it was that he had been so supportive of  “Our Rick Bragg.”

Conroy shook his head and said Bragg had been a great disappointment to him after he’d turned to writing pornography to support himself. The woman was predictably horrified.

Bragg throws up his hands and says that none of his books contain profanity, much less pornography. He remembers using the F-word in quotes only once. “But my mama took that out,” he says.

Bragg did get a chance to speak with the old ladies’ group and tell them that Conroy was just joking. And then, at a later gathering, the same woman came up to Conroy.

“Tee hee,” she said. “I’m so relieved to find out you were just having fun with us.”

Conroy shook his head and replied, “Did he tell you that?”

Bragg says that out there in the deep South there are sweet old ladies who still think he writes porn.

Pat went to his grave with that lie.

Mayo or Mustard ?

Someone had given Bragg a container of fresh tomatoes, which he’d placed on a table nearby, visible to the audience. During the question and answer session, a man asked him what he was going to do with them.

Bragg said they were for his dinner back at the hotel. He’d have a tomato sandwich on white bread, with a glass of milk and a small package of potato chips. The sandwich would need a thin layer of mayonnaise, a dash of salt, and a heavy sprinkling of black pepper.

And then he expounded on the difference between mayonnaise and mustard people. He predicted that Mark Powell is a mustard person, to which Powell nodded in agreement.

“I can always tell,” said Bragg. “You know how? Just look at us!”

Bragg says that mustard people

  • go everywhere fast
  • buy their clothes from catalogs
  • wear nice loafers
  • own canoes

On the other hand, mayonnaise people

  • Don’t go anywhere fast that we can’t go in a Pontiac
  • Would never be in a canoe unless we use it to cover us in a rain storm
  • Like nice loafers
  • Wear our nice, soft loafers to walk slowly to the mailbox to get our catalogs
If Pat said you could write, you could write

As Bragg and Powell began to talk about the qualities that made Pat Conroy such a great author, they agreed that there was a certain elegance to how he wrote. He was one of those authors who, when you read him, made you feel bad about yourself as an author. He was that good.

Bragg contends that too many books about the Deep South are little more than a parody. But it was Pat’s elegance that made his books so much more than that.

“I wanna hear Pat read his books forever,” said Rick Bragg. “Just like I wanna hear Sam Cooke sing for all time.”

Both Bragg and Powell concluded “If Pat said you could write, you could write.” Both authors had received personal, written confirmation that Pat considered them worthy. Both said that it’s the reason they’re writers today.



Image of Pat Conroy|Bookmarks Festival|2015

Pat Conroy at the 2015 Bookmarks Festival


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