Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...
WRITING IN A MAJOR KEY
"MUSIC AND BOOKS HAVE BEEN GREAT passions all my life," says Frank Conroy who, at 57, has fused the two in his first novel. "Even as a kid, when I wasn't reading, I was playing boogie woogie." Music (self-taught jazz piano) and books (Dickens, Stendhal, Balzac) offered a safe passage from the painful New York City childhood he chronicled in his memoir, Stop-Time.
The son of a brittle, unloving Danish mother, Conroy hardly knew his father, a manic-depressive who lived in institutions. "One time he came home and almost threw me out a window," says the .writer, who found an escape in 19th-century novels. "I knew someday I would try to write a modern response to that great stuff."
After bumming around Paris, graduating from Pennsylvania's Haverford College and failing at his first marriage (which produced two sons, Dan, 30, and Will, 29), Conroy at 35 fled to Nantucket, Mass., where he made a patchwork living playing jazz in clubs, scalloping and hustling free-lance writing assignments. There he met his second wife, Maggie, in 1973 when she was hitchhiking after her car broke down. Today, the couple live with their son Tim, 6, in Iowa City, where Conroy directs the celebrated University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Having sold screen and foreign rights to Body & Soul, Conroy, who relied on food stamps one winter in the '70s, is prospering but not profligate. "By the time the government takes half and the retirement plan gets some, if you get a new sweater, it's cashmere instead of wool," says Conroy. "But if you measure it from the lowest point, it's quite a trip."
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