Conroy conquers the South -- again

It has been 14 years since we've had a new novel by Pat Conroy, whose "The Great Santini," "The Prince of Tides" and "Beach Music" made him wildly popular. Conroy, 62, lives on Fripp Island, S.C., with his wife, the writer Cassandra King. We caught up with him by phone the day "South of Broad" was released earlier this month. He is on a tour that brings him to Charlotte in September.

Q: You have such a loyal readership, especially in the South.

It's a great thing. I'm mostly going to the South on this tour. That's always a pleasure for me. I know all the bookstore owners, I've been in the game long enough. They're suffering. Everybody connected to anything seems to suffer in this economy.

Q: Why did it take so long to get the novel finished?

One reason is my father would not let me take typing in high school. The Citadel had no typing course. I did all my early writing by hand and just kept it up. I never learned how to type. Now I'm about three or four revolutions behind. The one thing I had, I knew Charleston so well. I always wanted to write about it, put another novel right in the middle of Charleston.

Q: Charleston is such a rich place for a writer.

It's almost too rich. It's a tough city to walk into as a writer. How to describe something that lush, something that beautiful, something that overwhelming? I wanted the city to be one of the characters. It's always a city of moods, a city of strangeness even. It's turned away from itself. The most beautiful gardens I've seen in Charleston the tourists cannot see. They're turned inward from all prying eyes in backyards and side gardens.

Q: Are there Southern writers you're reading now?

I always have to read my wife. She gets angry if I don't. She's finishing a novel now. Cassandra leaves new chapters on my pillow. If I'm writing, I leave a handwritten chapter on her desk. Anne Rivers Siddons -- we grew up together as writers in Atlanta. Terry Kay -- we've been friends for years. Usually you end up reading the people you get to know and love.

Q: Your writing style is lavish. Kirkus Reviews described this new book as "mock-epic and gothic." Where does that come from?

It comes up every time there's a new book. I seem to write differently than other people do. The Hemingway school did not get to me -- "It is good. It is fine. It is fair." -- It didn't do much for me. My first great influence was Thomas Wolfe. He just hit me like a ton of bricks in high school. It's growing rarer now.

Q: I wonder why?

One reason why is they want shorter books.

Q: The publishing industry is in bad shape.

Oh, horrible shape. They're panicking. They don't know what the future is going to hold. They have no idea what Kindle is going to do to them. They have no idea how to enter into this new phase in publishing, where the Internet conquers everything.

Q:On a much sadder note, two years ago your close friend [writer, newspaper cartoonist and Hillsborough resident] Doug Marlette died [in a car crash in Mississippi]. How are you coping?

It's one of the great tragedies of my life. I didn't know Doug was going to be irreplaceable. Like me, he was a lover of newspapers. He got me to love political cartooning. I've missed him so many times when something happens. I would have loved to see him cartoon the Obama administration. It would have been great fun for him.

Q: Did that pain work its way into this book?

It may not have worked its way into this one, but it will work its way into one of the books, depending on how long I live. I can still barely talk with his widow, Melinda.

Q: Is it too soon to talk about what's next?

I've started writing a nonfiction book about the death of my father and his amazing turnaround as a father. He was the worst father I ever saw when I was growing up. After I wrote "The Great Santini" -- a book he loathed -- he decided to change. He did a good job.