Intro: The publication of my debut novel, The Bystanders, in 2023 meant of plethora of author events, conferences, and book and literary festivals. Reflecting upon last year, I decided to share some favorite literary destinations with Southern Literary Review’s readers starting with Beaufort, SC where I attended the Eighth Annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival (PCLF) last October. I apologize in advance for the initialisms. The Pat Conroy Literary Center (PCLC) celebrates Conroy’s work—his love of writing and literature, his love of the low country, and his support of writers—by hosting the festival with includes a schedule of one and one author conversations, panels, workshops, film screenings, poetry readings. PCLF lasts four days as close to Pat Conroy’s birthday of October 26th as possible and is held at the Center for the Arts, USCB (USCB) in Beaufort, SC.

In 2022, I became friends with Mary Ellen Thompson. Mary Ellen offers her guest house, MarshSong, for writers selected for the Pat Conroy Writer Residency twice per year, and the 2022 resident writer and author friend of mine, Robert Gwaltney, wrote a piece called “Kiss The Sherbert Sky” for Southern Literary Review (SLR) highlighting his stay in the low country. Mary Ellen’s name popped up in his piece and I instantly wanted to know her. In turn, I interviewed Mary Ellen at SLR. She invited me down for the PCLF and her friend, Barbara, graciously hosted me and my sister, Aleea. Now that you have the who, what, when, where, I must make a quick note for newbies visiting the town and also comment on the spelling of “forth” in MARCH FORTH.

A short lesson in pronunciation: Do not make the error of pronouncing the town like another Beaufort in NC. “Beaufort, SC” should be pronounced “‘BOO’” fort,” as opposed to “Beaufort, NC,” which is pronounced “‘BOW’” fort.” I learned that within minutes of entering Frogmore County.

Most have already caught onto the spelling of MARCH FORTH, but this fifty-year-old brain had to do a little more digging. Sometimes the most obvious things are not so obvious sort of like when I’m on a scavenger hunt for my keys, glasses, or phone that I’ve been holding in my hand the entire time. For the word nerds reading this, March Forth is an example of a homophone which means a word or expression that sounds the same but has a different meaning. In this case, March Fourth marks a date and a holiday with instructions to boot. It is an unofficial holiday that encourages people to use the day to achieve their dreams, to turn off the volume inside your head that tells you, “You will never make it. You can’t do that. Everyone will think you’re crazy.” Evict your inner Doubting Thomas and March Forth. Maybe this is the day that you decide to quit your corporate job with a good income and benefits to pursue your dream of writing. No wait. That was me seven years ago and it was sometime in September, but anyway, you get the picture.

Ron Rash and Dawn Major, PCLF 2023 photo taken by USCB writer in residence Ellen Malphrus

In addition, MARCH FORTH commemorates the anniversary of Pat Conroy’s passing on March 4, 2016, and again PCLC celebrates as close to the date of that anniversary. It’s a two-day event and this year it’s held on Saturday, March 2nd, and Sunday, March 3rd  in Port Royal, Beaufort, and St. Helena Island. The “programs center on major themes of Conroy’s writing and teaching life, including social justice, inclusivity, conservation, education, and storytelling.” That part comes directly from the PCLC’s website. When you visit the site, you may notice that the 2024 resident writer is Jeffrey Dale Lofton. Lofton’s novel, Red Clay Susie, was named as one of 2023 Southern Literary Review’s 2023 TOP TEN BOOKS, and he will be present at MARCH FORTH this year to speak about his book. This is an event for everyone who revels in literature, nature, music, and photography and there is even an event for children. Other wonderful guest speakers include “Brendan Slocumb, author of Symphony of Secrets and The Violin Conspiracy (A Good Morning America Book Club Selection); naturalist and biographer Patrick Dean, author of Nature’s Messenger: Mark Catesby and His Adventures in a New World; award-winning nature photographer and educator Kelley Luikey; Spring Island Trust and Lowcountry Institute executive director Andy Jones; National Park Service Ranger Katherine Freeman; and the students of DAYLO.” Also, from PCLC’s site, but do stay with me and don’t start Googling.

While I never met Pat Conroy, listening Cassandra Conroy King, the late author’s wife, and distinguished author herself, the members of the King family, and Conroy’s friends and colleagues speak about him at the festival and the ensuing parties made me understand the impact he had on this part of the country. Writers who flocked to Beaufort because of him never left. The natural beauty certainly entices artists, but there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on here. Some magic is at work in this town. Mary Ellen arranged for us to do a nighttime ghost tour with author, Kim Poovey. Poovey writes the Dreamist series, and she and her husband welcomed us into their home before they took us down the block to the Parish Church of Saint Helena Anglican and it’s phantastic cemetery. On the way she pointed out local hauntings and local author homes. Apparently, there are as many spectral residents as living breathing authors who inhabit Beaufort. Like I said, it’s the type of place that you visit and never want to leave.

Ellen Malphrus in conversation with Ron Rash

We unfortunately missed the Thursday speakers because we were driving, but the conversation with Ron Rash on Friday more than made up for it. Rash is an award-winning poet, novelist, and short story writer. He spoke with USCB writer in residence and author, Ellen Malphrus, about his latest novel, The Caretaker, a historical fiction novel set in Appalachia during the Korean War. I’m a huge fan of Rash’s work and I finally got to meet him and have a picture to prove it. I always get intimidated or say something utterly ridiculous when I meet an author I admire, hence the crabwise eyes I’m making in this photo. I should have put an alien invasion backdrop to make it more eye-catching, but there we are with him sitting very close to the exit sign which I hope doesn’t indicate something deeper. I am jesting of course. He was very amicable, and we spoke a little at his signing about the late author, William Gay.

“Leading Ladies in Southern of Fiction” panel with Cassandra Conroy King as moderator with Mary Alice Monroe, Mary Kay Andrews, Victoria Frank, and Carrie Efron

The “Leading Ladies in Southern of Fiction” panel with Cassandra Conroy King as the ringleader (btw, we were introduced in the ladies restroom with my wet hands, so see what I mean about awkward author introductions?) was hysterical. Cassandra said at the start of the conversation she was just going to let the ladies—Mary Alice Monroe, Mary Kay Andrews, Victoria Frank, and Carrie Efron—just gab and that’s basically what she did adding her two cents along the way. I’m fairly certain the low country had a small earthquake emanating from the stage at the art’s center. There may still be aftershocks today.

Regrettably, we missed the panel, The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan, with New York Times bestselling author Mitchell Zuckoff and former U.S. State Department Special Agent and diplomat, Sam Aronson, in conversation with Landon K. Thorne as moderator. I heard it was quite powerful. The Secret Gate depicts the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan and specifically how Aronson helped an Afghan feminist writer on the Taliban’s kill list, Homeira Qaderi, escape on the final day of evacuation with her eight-year-old son, Siawash.

Valerie Sayers in conversation with Homeira Qaderi speaking about her memoir, Dancing in the Mosque at PCLF

We did, however, attend the conversation with Homeira Qaderi, who spoke about her memoir, Dancing in the Mosque—an open letter to her son who taken away from her when she divorced her husband after he decided to marry a second wife. Qaderi defied a patriarchal system and lost everything in doing so, her house, her family, even her son. Her incredible story is testimony to her undeniable strength and courage, and we left with so much respect and admiration for this woman.

 During the festival, PCLC (that’s the center if you have forgotten by now) offers designated times for free tours of the center, and my sister, the current resident writer, Kaye Wilkinson Barley, and I were given a private tour by Conroy’s sister, Kathy Harvey. This was very special. The center has classroom spaces, two writer rooms dedicated to Anne Rivers Siddons and Cassandra King Conroy, and three gallery spaces marking major events in Conroy’s life and writing career. There’s also gift shop as well. Pat Conroy’s writing desk is in the center and one of my favorites parts of the center tour was being able to sit where he once wrote. I sat on the bench where Stephen King wrote much of the novel, “It,” in Bangor, Maine. I have a thing I like to call “author osmosis,” where I hope to absorb a bit of an author’s energy and perspective by visiting locales where they worked or settings that influenced their writing. As for absorbing residual talent, well, time will tell.

 The price you pay when you put forward a literary festival as a mini vacation might mean you miss a couple of sessions. When you have maxed out your travel partner’s attention span, I recommend getting a daily dose of shopping in town. From art galleries to boutiques Beaufort boasts many delights in that arena. Definitely check out Never More Books, an Edgar Allen Poe themed bookshop featuring new, used, and collectible books. The clerk informed us that the owner was a set designer and much of what decorates the interior comes from movie sets. It’s a must for all bookstore lovers, but especially for those with those readers who favor Southern Gothic and the macabre. Also, this is a foodie haven. We were spoiled on seafood, but especially the shrimp.

On the subject of movies and shrimp, much of “Forest Gump” was filmed in Frogmore County. Mary Ellen gave us a quick movie tour of Beaufort and Saint Helena Island. I’m aging myself here with movie references but recall that gorgeous white mansion in “The Big Chill” and “The Great Santini.” The house is located off Port Royal Sound, so maybe take a peek but also keep in mind it’s a private residence, so just a peek. And naturally, “The Prince of Tides” was filmed in the surrounding landscapes. I admit I had a MARCH FORTH moment and had to resist reenacting the scene when Forest ran down the graveled road lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and then didn’t stop running. Maybe another time.

Chapel of Ease on Saint Helena Island, SC

On our whirlwind tour of Saint Helena Island our first stop was the ruins of the Chapel of Ease constructed of tabby, a material made of oyster shells, water, lime, and ash. From there we visited two Praise Houses. For readers unfamiliar with what a Praise House is they offered Sunday houses of worship for slaves designed deliberately small due to the slave owners fear that larger gatherings of enslaved peoples could result in insurrection. St. Helena Island boasts the largest community of Gullah-Geechee, descendants of enslaved peoples from Central and West Africa. On the outside the houses appear to be a charming child’s playhouse with tidy, white, pristine exteriors—an ironic contrast to the house’s sad history and dark past.

Pat Conroy’s gravesite at Saint Helena Memorial Gardens, Saint Helena Island, SC

My theory about author osmosis (see above) applies to visiting cemeteries where authors are buried. There’s so much history associated with burial grounds. When and wherever I travel, I make it a point to visit cemeteries. Those who count themselves as cemetery people have their reasons. Sometimes, it’s a historical or ancestral connection or sometimes it’s the sheer beauty and symbolism a cemetery offers. Many authors “collect” character names from tombstones. I enjoy visiting cemeteries for all of those reasons, but I am also intrigued by the variants in cultural burial practices and even what Mother Nature allows. Pat Conroy grave is a modest marker; he’s buried in an all-Black cemetery at Saint Helena Memorial Gardens. I contemplated his decision as well as the Black community’s acceptance. Perhaps knowing accolades and fans would want to visit his gravesite, he would give them a taste of the low country’s splendor, but also an accurate reflection of the economic disparities echoed by the people who still live and work on the island. Beaufort is stunning for sure, but there is another side that respected and recognized.

Have I convinced you now to attend MARCH FORTH in Beaufort, SC? Yes? Excellent. I know you are jonesing to click something else right about now. Go ahead and click MARCH FORTH, check out the events, register, and vert importantly here, SHARE with others, but DO return to me ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………And you are back. Great!

Alas, our time in Beaufort came to an end. The evening before we returned to Atlanta Mary Ellen and her friend, Mike, threw a cocktail party in Kaye’s and my honor. It was a lovely wrap-up to the festival where speakers, authors, and attendants gathered at Mike’s. We will never forget those four days spent in Pat Conroy country. We were strangers for all intents and purposes, but you would have never known. This is more than southern hospitality. This was magic.

So, I leave with how I began: HOW WILL YOU MARCH FORTH?




  1. John Shelton Reed says

    Sounds wonderful, but the link in “Go ahead and click MARCH FORTH” is dead.

  2. nancy love says

    You still don’t have it right: Beaufort is pronounced with the BEAU as in beautiful. I have been here 50 years…trust me!

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