Conroy Favorite Books

Bestselling author Pat Conroy picks his favorite contemporary Southern novelists, from Ron Rash to his own wife. His new book, My Reading Life, is out now.

Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons

In 1973, I met the dazzling Atlanta writer Anne Rivers Siddons at a party at the governor’s mansion, hosted by Jimmy Carter. Annie and I grew up together as writers and we have talked passionately about books since the night we met. At a dinner party at her house, she took me into her kitchen and told me she had started to write her Atlanta novel, Peachtree Road. The first line is, “The South killed Lucy Bondurant on the day she was born.” The book is magisterial because Anne has never written a sentence without music in it. To me, it is the defining book of a Southern city to come out of the 20th century. Our talks continue.

To Dance With The White Dog by Terry Kay

I met Terry Kay when I served as chef for a group of men who met once a month in Atlanta. For a year, Terry would talk about his dad’s depression over the death of his wife of 57 years, Terry’s mother. Terry worried about his father’s senility because he kept telling his 12 children that a beautiful white dog came out of the woods each day to keep him company, and make him happy. Since no one else had ever seen such a dog, Terry was terrified the white dog was some delusion or strange vision. Then one of Terry’s sisters saw the dog standing up on their dad’s walker and dancing around the yard. Our men’s group went to Terry’s father’s funeral, where we heard that the white dog had disappeared. Terry turned that experience into To Dance With the White Dog], one of the most haunting, spiritual books ever written.

Serena by Ron Rash

My great friend Doug Marlette sent me a book of Ron Rash’s poetry, which hooked me on his work for life. He is one of those rare and lucky writers who gets better with every word he writes. Ron has mastered a prose style that is one of the purest I’ve ever read. He just returned from Ireland, where he was awarded the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, an international award for the best collection of short stories of the year. Serena is his masterpiece, a dark, Macbeth-haunted tale of the rape of the ancient forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ron takes possession of that mountain country better than anyone since Thomas Wolfe. I’ve watched him ripen into one of the best writers of the American South, and well on his way to becoming one of the best in America.

My Brother Michael by Janis Owens

Janis Owens is the best unknown writer I know. We both were eulogists at Doug Marlette’s funeral, and we grieved together for this nonpareil, irreplaceable friend. My Brother Michael is the first volume of a North Florida trilogy. Janis invented the literary geography of the Panhandle that runs roughly from Tallahassee to the Alabama Gulf Coast. Her voice carries a purity and authenticity that has reminded me at times of Louise Erdrich, Flannery O’Connor, and Mark Twain. Her prose style is light-filled and pretty, but shows the power of a stallion’s kick, or a thunderstorm approaching landfall. Janis is the poet of the Cracker Nation, the poor white South that has been ridiculed and vilified by writers like me. She makes her poor South sympathetic and even Shakespearian.

The Sunday Wife by Cassandra King

When I met the Alabama novelist Cassandra King, I liked her so well I married her. Now we both write novels in the same house, in writing rooms that overlook a saltwater lagoon where great blue herons hunt, ospreys dine, and egrets line the banks like pillars of tule. In this house, I have taken great pleasure in watching a novelist other than me form the blueprints, first drafts, and patient architecture of a novel. For two decades, Cassandra was married to a Methodist minister, an experience she fictionalized in The Sunday Wife. The book revealed a whole new world to me because it reads like a field manual of survival in a regiment about to go into battle. The intrigues and power struggles among the clergy are both hilarious and shocking. Her descriptions of the church committees are devastating, her ear for dialogue as accurate as Jane Austen’s. I loved this book, but hey—I’m prejudiced.