'Tides' author writes to explain his life to himself

January 13, 1992|By Sherryl Connelly | Sherryl Connelly,New York Daily News

He was "the son of a wordstruck mother," his father a career Marine who brutalized the family, his life the source for several novels and now a major motion picture -- again.

Pat Conroy is the author of "The Water Is Wide," which came to the screen as "Conrack," and "The Lords of Discipline," which was filmed as "Taps." He also wrote "Prince of Tides," a title that Barbra Streisand retained.

From respect, likely. Ms. Streisand was long in the pursuit of the rights to the 1988 best seller, which was originally the property of Robert Redford until his option expired from lack of interest. The diva put in repeated calls to the author, which he didn't return.

"I don't know what you'd think when 'call Barbra Streisand' appears on your message pad. How does that strike y'all?" says the author by way of explaining what he thought was a fraud. Mr. Conroy has a friend, Bernie, who once tricked him into calling the White House under the presumption that Jimmy Carter was waiting to hear from him.

"Barbra got real tough. She called my agent. I get her on the phone and she says: 'This is Barbra Streisand. Why do you refuse to return my phone calls?' I realized Bernie doesn't talk like a woman that well. I'd been rude and I felt bad about it."

He came to New York and worked with Ms. Streisand on the first draft, after which it went through "a thousand other Hollywood hands." The writer came back to aid in the final polish, a process that pleased him..

"I enjoyed working with her," says Mr. Conroy, 46, who now lives in San Francisco with his second wife. "I'd heard through the press she was a monster. She turned out to be a total delight. I was stunned."

He is prepared to defend "Prince of Tides," the movie, against all comers. Critics have said that the film, starring Nick Nolte in the lead role, sacrifices the Southern flavor of the novel, thereby robbing the story of essential nutrients.

"If they did the Southern part of this book, this movie would be 17 hours long," Mr. Conroy says. "The emotional center of this movie is a man who is having a great deal of trouble coming to New York after his sister's suicide attempt and trying to tell her shrink what had brought her to her knees."

Mr. Conroy once said he wrote "Prince of Tides" to explain his life to himself. "Yeah, that's true I went crazy in 1970. I don't know how you did in 1970, but I had a very tough time. So I was in insane asylums hanging from my feet, with wall-to-wall shrinks.

"It never occurred to me from my past that I would have what they call a nervous breakdown. So I started writing this book. I wanted to write about that time when I did not know if I was going to make it. How you fight your way out of it. What you have to do to fight your way out of it. What I had to do was go to a shrink for many years."

The emotional disintegration came after writing "The Great Santini," another book of his that made it to the screen under the same name. Starring Robert Duvall, it is a boy's story of life with father, father being a Marine fighter pilot who beat his family bloody.

"I started flipping out. Because we had kept this thing secret in my family that my father knocked us around. When I was writing it, I realized you pay a price for it, a price for telling the truth when you've lied your whole life.

"Facing this boy that I was, I looked at pictures of myself, and I couldn't figure out why Dad wanted to hit a kid like that," Mr. Conroy reflects. "And my little brothers, the cutest in the world, I couldn't figure why he wanted to hit us kids. So it was a gradual unraveling, what seemed like years of suffering, it ended my marriage. But it was writing the book itself that began the collapse."

Mr. Conroy's father made a recent public denial that he'd struck his wife -- who divorced him following his retirement -- or children.

The two daughters in the family have allied with their father, Mr. Conroy says, and the five brothers coalesced in their mother's camp. She is a central character in "Prince of Tides" (played by Kate Nelligan), "a much loved woman" who died seven years ago.

"It stunned us when she died. She was 59. There are the brothers bringing the casket in and then I'm looking down the pew and all five of us are bent double crying.

"I can't quit writing about my mother," he continues. "She's as complicated as King Lear. If she had been small, short and French, she would have been Napoleon Bonaparte."

The next book will be a "brothers' book," opening with his mother's funeral. "It's about 400 or 500 pages long. I keep writing these books that are too long," Mr. Conroy says.

But he is far enough along that he can confidently project the book will find its conclusion, that it will be seen in stores someday, somewhere.

"I expect to finish it sometime in my lifetime," he says. "Or at least I hope to."

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