Jason Kingry Interviews Jonathan Haupt, Co-editor of “Our Prince of Scribes”

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JK: I am grateful for the opportunity to interview you about Our Prince of Scribes, which has already won more awards than there are fingers on my hands. Congratulations on your success. The literary community has benefited from the peer-to-peer mentoring that came out of this book and the inspiration it has generated. I imagine the contributors to this work appreciated being involved with it and included in the collection. Was it difficult to find contributors for Our Prince of Scribes, or did they find you?

JH: Thanks so much for the chance to talk about the origin of Scribes. It continues to be a good story to tell. Nicole Seitz and I had our first conversation about what would become this anthology two weeks before our friend Pat Conroy went on ahead. We were at the inaugural Deckle Edge Literary Festival in Columbia, South Carolina, and on his Facebook page, Pat had just announced to the world his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his intentions to fight for his life. So many of the heartbroken writers at that festival that weekend had Conroy stories and connections of their own. Some had met him and been mentored by him to varying degrees, as was the case for Nicole and me, and others had been influenced by his grace and brilliance on the page. At Deckle Edge, Nicole and I talked about the prospects of a small collection of recollections of Pat’s role in the lives of writers, something we thought we could do quickly and well, and in time for Pat himself to read these pieces and know how much he was beloved by the writers whose lives he touched.

But that wasn’t to be. Two weeks later, on March 4, 2016, Pat left this world for the next one. And the essay collection took on a different weight and meaning. It became something that we hoped would always be a valuable part of Pat’s legacy, as writer, as teacher, as friend, as champion. Something for the ages. But it was also a balm for the grief we were all feeling in that moment and the need to turn that grief into words that could honor Pat and maybe, on a good day, inspire others to aspire to a life of service to their communities as well.

Recruiting for Scribes wasn’t difficult. Pat’s circle of friends was wide and inclusive. And some writers were publishing remembrances of their own—like Pulitzer Prize winners Rick Bragg in Southern Living and Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post, both of whom are in the collection. Doug Marlette’s nephew Andy published a powerful article and an amazing editorial cartoon in memory of Pat in the Pensacola News Journal, Mark Childress posted a heartfelt remembrance on social media, Judge Alex Sanders had delivered an exceptional eulogy well worth publishing, Terry Kay wrote in an incredible remembrance of Pat for Atlanta magazine, and Steve Oney had done the same for the Bitter Southerner. So many of the pieces we invited for Scribes were appearing in print and online on their own.

But others we sought out on our own from writers we knew were dear to Pat and who had stories uniquely their own. And Pat’s widow and fellow southern writer Cassandra King, who wrote the afterword for Scribes, also helped point us to some of the contributors. Some were stories I had been told before, and others were completely new to me. Valerie Sayer’s essay, “Golden,” which spans from meeting Pat in 1969 as her high school psychology teacher to being a part of his 70th birthday celebration, still makes me cry every time I read it—now almost four years later. Nikky Finney’s story of meeting Pat at a Kinko’s in Atlanta when she was in college and just beginning to stake her claim to the mantle of “poet” is one she had told me before, but I knew she had a more recent serendipitous encounter with Pat as well, and she was kind share all of that in the collection.

But sometimes invited writers would surprise us too, like Cliff Graubart who told a wholly unknown and unexpected story of adventures with Pat in the Dominican Republic, and Sandra Brown who revealed Pat’s small but meaningful and heretofore unknown role in her son Ryan’s zombie football team novel Playing Dead. Connie May Fowler, Michael Morris, John Lane, Kathy L. Murphy, Tim Conroy, and so many others sent in essays about deeply personal, intimate conversations with Pat—these small, quiet moments in which Pat, still acting as teacher long after he left the classroom, was able to alter the arc of their lives for the better.

In reading those stories then as they were coming in, and re-reading them now as I teach from them and quote from them in my touring lectures and virtual tours, I feel like I’m still getting to know Pat through the experiences other writers shared with him. What a great big life he lived, and how fortunate each of us was to be pulled into his orbit.   

JK:  What was the process like, trying to put together such a large edition as Prince of Scribes?

JH: The recruiting was easy, but assembling the resulting pieces into a cohesive narrative was a challenge. Or it would have been. But Nicole is an extraordinary novelist, and from that vantage point, she was able to weave together the essays into storyline that unfolds in a loose chronology and in a way that celebrates Pat’s life and doesn’t just recount his death. (Because who wants to read a book in which the hero dies 67 times?) All praise to Nicole for this, but Scribes became a sort of crowd-sourced biography of Pat too, telling his story not as he told it in his own dozen books, but as we collectively experienced it alongside of him. It’s a story I wish he could have read so that he too could have re-imagined himself through our eyes.

In an interview with Ellen Malphrus (also a Scribes contributor) not long before he died, Pat said that his roughly 50-year writing career had been a voyage inward, an ongoing attempt to get to know and understand and love that guy he saw in the mirror every day. And he didn’t think he was any closer to doing so than when he began. But in our remembrances of Pat, you can see him change and grow overtime, becoming through hard-fought experiences and seemingly endless losses that sage and wry tribal elder who was my mentor and friend during his final years.

JK:  The contributors themselves have spent a lot of time publicizing Scribes, which reads, in parts, to me, like a grand celebration of the author. Do any of those involved view this publicity as an act of gratitude toward Pat Conroy, their mentor?

JH: What a welcome and, frankly, unexpected experience that has been too. Of the 67 of us who shared our stories in Scribes, 54 of us have now also participated in at least one panel discussion for the book as well. I’ve lost track of just how many events have been held for Scribes in the almost two years since publication, but it was upwards of 60 at last count, and they’ve stretched from New York City to Jefferson, Texas. While many of the writers involved in the book knew each other, some met for the first time on a panel discussion for Scribes. And at least two have done the first book signings of their lives for Scribes too. We always seem to fall into an easy rhythm of conversation in these events, and more than a few new friendships have been blossomed as a result.

JK:  Tell us about the ongoing Our Prince of Scribes Writers Conferences.

While the panel discussions from the thankfully endless book tour for Scribes have been great fun for panelists and audiences alike, the Scribes Writers Conferences are what I’m most proud of. After a dozen or so of the panel discussions, I kept noticing how often the audience Q&As would take us into thoughtful questions about the writing craft and the profession of authorship. And so many of the contributors to Scribes are phenomenal teachers as well as writers, so their answers were inspiring and very much in the same generous spirit with which Pat would offer his advice to burgeoning writers. So that led to a one-day writers conference in Charleston in June 2019 with me as host and contributing writers Marjory Wentworth, Sean Scapellato, Ellen Malphrus, and Stephanie Austin Edwards as workshop instructors. My Beaufort High School intern Holland Perryman tagged along with us to assist in one of her first assignments too. That conference sold out quickly, so we raised our attendance cap. And it sold out again. It was an incredible day of peer-to-peer mentoring for a group of participants with all levels of experience—including none at all. With a rotating cast of instructors, two other Scribes Writers Conferences were held last year too, and both well attended. Three more were planned for this year, in and beyond South Carolina, before the pandemic.

But we’re about to announce another one for August 29, to be held as both an in-person event at the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage in Ridgeland, South Carolina, and as an online event through Zoom, our first hybrid conference. By happy coincidence, Sean, Ellen, and Stephanie will be returning to lead a new set of workshops with me, and intern Holland will be team-teaching with Sean as her first time to teach an adult audience. (I’m not going to tell you how old Holland is. I’ll simply say that she’s still two years away from being old enough to read a Pat Conroy novel on my watch, and also that I’m embarrassingly proud of the writer and teacher she’s already becoming.)

JK:  With so many awards already, and possibly more to come, did you expect this work to be so well received?

JH: Pat Conroy himself used to say, jokingly, that he had never won an award anyone had ever heard of. And while the baker’s dozen of awards Scribes has won to date includes some fairly obscure but nonetheless deeply appreciated honors, it also includes recognition in some of the major awards of independent publishing. I’m so grateful that the work of Scribes’ 67 contributing writers continues to garner high praise and well-earned attention like this. The awards are certainly one welcome form of that recognition, but the reviews and remarks from the readers who have embraced the project are the real treasures.

One of Pat’s Beaufort High School students (a classmate of Valerie Sayers) wrote my favorite note about the book just after it was published. She said that when she saw that Nicole and I were publishing this project she knew immediately that she wanted to buy it. But she wasn’t sure that she ever wanted to read it—because she didn’t want to be sad 67 times. She read Valerie’s essay first, and then skipped around to another, and then another, and so on. In the end, she told me that she came to know and understand Pat better than she ever had before—and she had known him for nearly 50 years. If we could bring her a new point of entrance to her beloved mentor Pat Conroy, then I knew we were on to something worthwhile. And so many reader reviews and thank-you notes since have echoed that same sentiment. It’s always wonderful to hear.

JK:  How did Pat Conroy’s love for and approach to teaching affect those familiar with his work?

JH: As I say so often in my tours and talks about Pat, he never stopped being a teacher. For Pat, writing was teaching, and teaching was an act love. He couldn’t write about teaching without also writing about love. Those words appear interwoven innumerable times in his books. Pat’s words on the page, his words spoken to auditoriums full of writers and readers, and his advice given freely on late-night phone calls and on screen porches while watching sunsets were also moments of teaching and mentoring. Teaching was his default setting—a path he was inspired to walk by so many of the incredible teachers he encountered as a boy: Joseph Monte, Gene Norris, Millen Ellis, Bill Dufford, Grace Dennis, Ann Head, John Doyle, the Boo, to name just a few. And they’re easy to name because of how often Pat named them and lovingly credited them in his own writing for kindling the flames that ignited his imagination and his sense of service to others as writer, as teacher, and as man.

It’s the part of Pat’s legacy that we honor and continue at our nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center. We can’t write like Pat; only he could do that. But we can continue to teach and champion other writers and readers as Pat did. I’m honored to be entrusted to do that each and every day—not just for Pat, but in so many ways with Pat. The bittersweet part of being the Conroy Center’s executive director is that I never forget that I’m here because Pat isn’t. But I’m also here because he was—because he changed the direction of my life, as he did for some many others.

JK:  There is an art exhibition associated with Prince of Scribes. Tell us about what went into this project and how it has helped the book reach larger audiences.

JH: Scribes has lived so many unexpected lives, and this too is one of them. In addition to being an exceptional novelist, editor, and teacher, and one of the kindest and most inspiring people you could ever meet, Nicole Seitz is also a gifted visual artist. About 70 days before the publication of Scribes, as our book launch and tour plans were being announced, Nicole drew a an incredible sketch of Pat which captured his warm and wry expression perfectly. She posted it online, to welcome and deserved praise. The next day, she drew and posted a sketch of Barbra Streisand, who wrote a loving foreword for Scribes. Again, responses were supportive. Then Nicole did the math: 67 contributing writers and about as many days until publication. She challenged herself to sketch all of us, one a day, as her way of thanking the contributors for their generosity to the project and honoring them as writers as well as honoring Pat. And here I must also point out that Nicole had not yet met many of the writers in the book. Yet she captured everyone perfectly in this wholly unplanned series of sketches.

That might have been enough. But I’m a curator of an interpretive center and I’m in the legacy-building business. With Nicole’s blessing, I turned the sketches into an exhibition which debuted in the Conroy Center during the 2019 Pat Conroy Literary Festival. The exhibition subsequently toured to the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance tradeshow and had an extended run at the annual Crescendo arts festival on Hilton Head. Additional invitations for tour resulted from both of those exhibitions. Two showings of the portraits exhibit in Florida have been postponed, along with their corresponding Scribes panel discussions. But the exhibit will be going up at the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage, conjoined to our Scribes Writers Conference in August. And it will be going back to Hilton Head, where Nicole was raised, for a showing with the Art League of Hilton Head sometime early next year. Like the author panels, the writers conferences, and the book itself, the portraits exhibition has now taken on a momentum all its own. That’s the power of Pat—and of his readers and fellow writers.

JK:  Have any of the contributors developed closer relationships through this project?

JH: Friendships among writers can be precarious, and they can also be wondrous. And Scribes has most certainly brought many of the contributors into one another’s orbits for the first time, forging some new friendships and strengthening others. It has brought me into the lives of some of my dearest friends. And it has made welcome, unexpected connections for others too. Because of Scribes, William Walsh (one of the great Swiss army knives of literature) reached out to artist, author, and fellow Scribes contributor Wendell Minor about painting and designing a cover for Bill’s new poetry book, Fly Fishing in Times Square. And Wendell delivered an incredible cover for the collection—and at the friends and family discount, too. Scribes gave Sean Scapellato an avenue back into teaching at our conferences and rekindled his writer’s spark too. It’s done so for me as well. And those are just a handful of examples. All of it is more in a series of gifts to us from Mr. Conroy, still looking out for us and encouraging us along from the beyond.

JK:  Do you think the compilation of Our Prince of Scribes, the relationships made in the act of putting it together, would confer the type of joy and satisfaction Pat sustained from teaching?

JH: I’ve been in the business of literature for more than 20 years now, invited in by my first publishing mentor (and now my publisher and friend) Lisa Bayer, and fortunate to earn my way into Pat Conroy’s circle as well. I spent most of that time in the idiosyncratic world of university press publishing, where I must have worked on close to a thousand books. Even in that context, I’ve never seen or experienced anything like what has happened to Scribes. All of it continues to be such a blessing—the myriad ways in which the book, its stories, and its writers honor the memory of our friend while also continuing his legacy as educator and advocate for his fellow writers.

I’ve often been asked what I think Pat might say about all of this, the Conroy Center, the book, the conferences, the panels, the exhibition. After he got over the initial embarrassment that his name is on everything, I think he would be tremendously proud and deeply grateful that the emphasis of all of this remains so focused on teaching and inspiring more writers to journey inward and tell their own stories, for their own benefit and for others. Isn’t that what Mr. Conroy assured us we all were and must be, after all, storytellers in generous service to one another?   

JK:  Thank you for the interview!

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