Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Southern author Cassandra King discusses life, books, literacy


Cassandra King
PANAMA CITY — Author Cassandra King loves “summer places” and admires efforts to advance literacy and literature, so it’s little wonder why she’s in town this week.

King and her author husband, Pat Conroy, are visiting Panama City to promote her new novel, “Moonrise,” at a pair of events in support of the Bay County Public Library. Thursday, the Bay County Library Foundation will host the couple for a ticketed reception to raise money for the annual Books Alive festival.

Today, King and Conroy will be at the library’s 11th Street HQ for a presentation and book signing from 10 a.m. to noon. The event is free to the public. Conroy, the author of modern classics including “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides,” will introduce King at the event.

Conroy isn’t traveling with King for the whole “Moonrise” book tour, she said. The Panama City stops are the only ones in which he’s directly participating, and King said that’s a testament to the Clemons family of Panama City.

“We’re very fond of Kathie and her parents,” King said, referring to her publicist, Kathie Clemons Bennett, and her parents, Gerry and Barbara Clemons. “Her mother, Barbara, is now gone, but they were so gracious to me when I first met them.”

Gerry, the former Panama City mayor, and Barbara, who died in 2010, were advocates for Books Alive since its inception in 1999. The festival of reading brings dozens of national and regional authors to town for a weekend celebration of literacy and creativity each year. Conroy and King both wanted to lend it their support.

“We very strongly support any town that wants to have a book fair,” King said in a telephone interview. “It’s quite an undertaking, and I think it’s wonderful — especially for a tourist-oriented town — to emphasize and celebrate the arts in some way.”

In addition, King said, Panama City and the beaches hold special places in her childhood memories. She grew up on a peanut farm in Dale County, Ala., only a couple of hours by car due north of Panama City. Her parents often took the family on summer vacations to the Florida seashore.

“We went mostly to Panama City or Pensacola, when I was growing up,” she said.

'Moonrise'
‘Moonrise’
At least in part inspired by “Rebecca,” Daphne DuMaurier’s classic Gothic romance, King’s new novel, “Moonrise,” is the story of a woman living in the shadow of her predecessor, a beautiful and much-beloved woman whose tragic death shattered the lives of her loved ones.

King is careful to say that “Moonrise” is not a modern retelling of “Rebecca.” She has read and enjoyed some of the novels that consciously set out to retell classic stories in updated dress, but that was not her intent.

“The only time I thought about that, I had already gotten into working on (‘Moonrise’),” she said. “With that in mind, I had talked with my agent, but I didn’t set out to do that. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to it sometime and actually try to (write a modern ‘Rebecca’).”

However, King also doesn’t downplay the important influence “Rebecca” had on her as a lover of books.

“It’s one of those that really caught my attention as a young teenager when I first read it, about 14 years old,” she said. “It was probably responsible for me becoming such an Anglophile. I’ve read almost anything by Daphne DuMaurier I could get my hands on. I know she’s not considered a great literary writer, but she’s excellent at what she does.”

King has read “Rebecca” at least three times, in different stages of her life.

“I read it first just for pleasure,” she said. “Then I became aware of how she created these wonderful, memorable characters, and I looked at how is she able to build the suspense like she does after I became interested in writing myself. I became a great admirer of how her books (were structured).”

“Moonrise” is King’s fifth novel, following “Making Waves in Zion” (1995), “The Sunday Wife” (2002), “The Same Sweet Girls” (2005), and “Queen of Broken Hearts” (2007). Her bestselling books have been recognized as Book-of-the-Month selections, Reader’s Choice award winners, and more. The paperback of “The Sunday Wife” was chosen by the Nestle Corp. in its campaign to promote reading groups.

In addition, King’s short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including “Callaloo,” “Alabama Bound: The Stories of a State,” “Belles’ Letters: Contemporary Fiction by Alabama Women,”  “Stories from Where We Live” and “Stories from The Blue Moon Café.” She has taught writing on the college level, conducted corporate seminars, worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, and published an article on her second-favorite pastime, cooking, in “Cooking Light” magazine.

Her earlier novels were set in Florida and Alabama, but when it came to the setting of “Moonrise,” King had a specific place in mind: the so-called “Highlands” of North Carolina.

“We have started spending a good bit of time there,” she said. “I thought it lent itself to a story because … it’s so much of a summer place, so places like Panama City can identify, where folks have had homes maybe for generations, and they have their own little group of friends you’ve known for years.”

She likes the “mysterious air” of the mountains and thought she could do something with setting the story there. “Moonrise” is told from three different viewpoints, which King thought was important for this story.

“I wanted to focus on the way we have to carve out an identity for ourselves,” she said. “What I was trying to do in the book, is look at a woman in a midlife marriage, kind of remaking herself, finding her place in this new phase of her life. I wanted to focus on that, but also look at (how) she’s trying to get in this group, so I have one member of the group looking at her, then a mountain woman giving us a different perspective on ‘the summer people.’ It was fun doing it that way.”

Pat Conroy
Life and Art
Conroy is known for mixing autobiographical material into his novels, so King was ready to address the concept as it pertained to whether her own experiences might have paralleled those of her heroine in “Moonrise.”

“In some ways, all our books have tie-ins to our experiences,” she said. “Not every (writer) does so to the extent Pat does. I tell him that some day he ought to write fiction.”

King and Conroy met in 1995, when he was asked to write a cover blurb for her first novel. They married in 1997, and she found herself welcomed into the extended Conroy family.

“It was a mid-life remarriage to a well known man, and we were both at the stage in our lives where we had our own circle of friends,” she said. “I was very fortunate I did not have the experience of trying to be accepted, but I’m sure that happens to people and you’re always kind of aware of it, (wondering) will these folks like me.

“Our kids were grown, but that might even be a little more difficult — adults might judge you a little harsher than a child would.”

The closest she came to writing what Truman Capote called a “non-fiction novel” might have been her third book, “The Same Sweet Girls.” King said she had to “really work” on disguising the characters so her friends wouldn’t immediately recognize themselves in the book.

The literary coupling between King and Conroy has been evolving over the years as well, she said. When they first started living and working in the same house, they shared their work as it developed. Now, not so much.

“When we first got married, it was such a novelty, so there was more of the sharing and talking about what we were working on,” King said. “The newness has worn off. He read my new book as a galley (a copy sent out for advance review before publication) for the first time. I didn’t even think to ask him.”

King tends to read more of Conroy’s work-in-progress because she helps him get it past the imaginary membrane into the cyberworld — from handwritten pages to digital document.


“The reason that I (read) Pat’s more is that he is totally inept — he hand writes everything,” she said. “I’m more likely to see his in progress, while I do all my stuff on the computer. Of course, if I have a Conroy chapter, I’m going to read it.”

MEET THE AUTHORS
Who: Cassandra King, introduced by Pat Conroy
When: 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12
Where: Harbor Village Social Room, 3001 W. 10th St.Panama City
Cost: $55 per person (includes the new novel, “Moonrise”)
RSVP: 624-4212 or mgfenimore@me.com

‘Moonrise’ Book Signing and Talk
Who: Cassandra King, introduced by Pat Conroy
When: 10 a.m. to noon, Friday, Sept. 13
Where: Bay County Public Library898 W. 11th St.Panama City
Cost: FREE
Details: 522-2120 or bmead@nwrls.com

More Author Events
l Writers Gallery is 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Chez Amavida, 2997 W. 10th St. Panama City’s longest-running open mic for writers. Details: Facebook.com/WritersGallery
l 14th Annual Gulf Coast Writers Conference is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21, at Gulf Coast State College, 5230 W. U.S. 98, Panama City. Admission is free. Details: GulfCoastWriters.com
l Karen Spears Zacharias, author of “Mother of Rain,” will be at Sundog Books in Seaside at 5 p.m. Sept. 24 to sign copies of her new book. Details: call (850) 231-5481 or visit SundogBooks.com
l Local Books Alive will showcase area authors at the Bay County Public Library in Panama City on Oct. 12. Details: nwrls.com
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