Alabama native Cassandra King is not only the wife of author Pat Conroy, but she is also a celebrated novelist in her own right. She is currently touring the South to promote her most recent novel The Queen of Broken Hearts.
I met King on May 15th at a luncheon sponsored by the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library held at the Turtle Point Yacht and Country Club. There could scarcely be a more perfect venue for a southern author to talk about being a southern writer. The Turtle Point clubhouse sits on a knoll overlooking the magnificent Tennessee River, and the vista is breathtaking. My friends and I sat on the veranda and sipped our summer cocktails as the sailboats floated by.
Expecting a tasty but modest “ladies” luncheon, I had consumed a hearty breakfast. I am a great believer in never getting too hungry, and I often, in good Hobbit fashion, eat both first and second breakfast. When I glimpsed the luncheon plate, I immediately regretted my gluttony. The servings were more than generous, they was extravagant. There was a bright salad of mesclun greens, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds, red onions, and a tart yet sweet homemade dressing (of course, we asked for and received the recipe); a perfectly seasoned boneless chicken breast on a bed of wild and long grain rice; steamed asparagus, and hot homemade yeast rolls to die for. As if that was not enough, there was also dessert: fresh strawberry shortcake. And when Cassandra King stood up to speak, we all immediately felt she was our new best friend. Someone asked King which was more difficult writing a book or doing a book tour, and she did not hesitate. “Doing the tour is harder than writing the book,” she answered emphatically.
King is no stranger to book tours. The Queen of Broken Hearts is her fourth novel. Making Waves in Zion (1995) was reissued as Making Waves in 2004 after the phenomenal success of The Sunday Wife. Same Sweet Girls was her next blockbuster in 2005.
Cassandra King is a quintessential “southern” writer. “People tell me they just love southern writers,” she said. “They don’t say ‘I just love northern writers’ or ‘I just love mid-western writers.’ ”
So what makes a southern author unique someone asks.
“I think it has to do more with one’s relationship to an editor than anything else,” King quips. “Many editors have never been below the Mason-Dixon line.”
She said her editor would return her manuscripts covered with marginal notes such as “double-wide WHAT?” and “the phrase “pickup truck’ is redundant” and “what is ‘light bread?’” At that point, King tells a story about her father asking if he could have some light bread with his lunch at a restaurant in Dothan, Alabama. The waitress said they didn’t have any light bread. Her father reached into his wallet, took out a five dollar bill and said “Could you just run across the street and get me a loaf?' ” King laughed, and I thought to myself: never try to separate southerners from their light bread or their sweet tea.
King’s editor also questioned the use of the word “Coke.” She asked “Don’t you mean soda pop?” King said “I could not show my face in Pritchard, Alabama if I called a soft drink a soda pop. Everybody knows you call it a Coke." Her editor also could not believe that anyone in the south was actually called Bubba, not to mention Big Sister, Baby Sister, Sister Woman, Daddy Boy, or Billy Boy.
Furthermore, her editor corrected the sentence “I didn’t go to hurt your feelings” to read “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” and she refused to believe that “pea turkey” was a noun, as in “he don’t know pea turkey about nothing.”
Everything that King writes is drawn from her own personal experience. “Of course, I change a lot of things to make it fictional,” she continues. “But both The Sunday Wife and Same Sweet Girls came directly from my own life.” King still has reunions with the “same sweet girls” she went to college with.
Regarding her most recent book, King says that the genesis of The Queen of Broken Hearts was serendipitous. “I was touring for my book Same Sweet Girls, and it was a difficult time. My baby sister—thirteen years younger—was going through a divorce after twenty years of marriage. I wanted to write about loss. Then I just happened to be at Mercer in Atlanta at a book signing, and I met a woman who ran a non-profit organization for women going through divorce. She held retreats, so I immediately signed up my sister and I went along with her. That was the inspiration for my book about a divorce therapist who is the 'queen of broken hearts.' ”
King adds “My sister may have crawled into the retreat, but she danced out of it.”
Someone finally asks the inevitable question: “How did you meet Pat Conroy?”
“I met Pat in Birmingham,” she responds. Then, as if recalling a fond memory, she smiles and says, “Pat is a big tease. He will say the most outrageous things. He calls me his 'night wife.' Once when we were on an elevator, we met a man who asked if we were writers. Pat said ‘Yes, my wife writes pornography but I write Christian fiction’ The man grasped Pat’s hand and said, ‘That is fantastic. I have a gospel meeting tonight and I want you to come.’ ”
“Pat,” King added, “was speechless.”
- Penne J. Laubenthal
Visit - cassandrakingconroy.com