The Book World's Newest Darling

Four novels to be released in two years, and for Katherine Arn Clark 87G 92PhD, the literary journey is just beginning.

By Michelle Valigursky

Headmaster's Darlings

The Headmaster’s Darlings is Clark’s debut novel, edited by literary legend Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides, The Great Santini).

Some stories need to be told and characters brought to life. For Katherine Arn Clark 87G 92PhD, The Headmaster’s Darlings: A Mountain Brook Novel is her current masterpiece. As her editor and friend, the legendary author Pat Conroy says, “Katherine Clark knows how to capture a world, turn a phrase, tell a story, and write a comedy of manners that peels the beautiful layers off Mountain Brook society and shows the rancor and ugliness and tragedy below. . . .”

In the Mountain Brook novels to be released through Story River Books, an original southern fiction imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, Clark weaves a rare story about how one larger-than-life teacher impacts the lives of an entire community. With a talent for subtlety and humor, Clark has released this first novel to rave reviews. Some have likened her style to Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff). Kirkus Reviews called The Headmaster’s Darlings “a funny, gossipy look at a slice of the South through the eyes of an indelible character.”

Her editor Conroy is best known for his gifted voice in bestselling novels like The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music. In the book’s foreword, he writes that Clark “will write her name in the book of great Alabama writers, and she will long be remembered as the creator of Norman Laney, the greatest portrait of an American teacher I have ever read, immortalized, as I believe he richly deserves, by one of his golden girls, one of his darlings. Here's how good this book is--for the rest of my life I will also be one of Norman Laney's darlings."

Katherine Arn Clark

Katherine Arn Clark 87G 92PhD

A New Journey Begins with Story River Books

Clark has embarked on a publishing journey few authors will ever experience. At the center of The Headmaster’s Darlings is “morbidly obese Norman Laney, an unorthodox, inspirational English teacher and college counselor for an elite private school in Mountain Brook, a privileged community outside of Birmingham.” The character is based on her real-life teacher, the late Martin Hames.

Rejected by publishers for reasons she didn’t respect, she was tired of defending her book’s concept. “I was hitting my head against a brick wall with the New York publishing world.” Editors told her that “readers are not going to want to read about a fat man – they won’t fall in love with him,” Clark says. “It was all so incredibly shallow.”

Needing a new strategy, “Pat suggested I submit to Story River Books and I did it right away.” The course of action paid off. Over the next two years, Clark’s first four novels in the Mountain Brook series will be released in rapid succession. Following The Headmaster’s Darlings will come All the Governor's Men, The Harvard Bride, and The Ex-Suicide.

So what was it like to have Pat Conroy as an editor? “It was amazing. He’s a cheerleader and he gets your confidence up. He loves to give praise – he’ll boost your confidence, get you believing in your own work, then he will start suggesting something here and there to improve the book,” she says. “I’m ready to jump on these nuggets of wisdom. I’ve learned a lot about how to introduce constructive criticism and suggestions into my work.”

Though she had been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for previous nonfiction work, Clark understood the new challenges for her writing career. “It’s incredibly difficult to launch fiction and new writers,” Clark admits. “I know that as a reader I love reading a series. We thought we would launch the books quickly to jump start some momentum and get the buzz going.”

Milking the Moon

Milking the Moon is the memoir that inspired Pat Conroy to collaborate with Clark to write his own personal story.

Life as Conroy’s Biographer

So how did Clark’s friendship with Conroy begin? In 2009, Clark was on assignment for the Mobile Register to interview Conroy. Set to conduct the session via phone, Clark recalls, “I was ready with a speech about how much I loved his books.” She laughs. “I didn’t have chance to get the words out.” Conroy immediately told her he had been trying to track her down for years. “I was afraid he had the wrong person in mind.”

But Conroy was insistent. “He is a fan of a book I did called Milking the Moon, an oral biography of a Capote-esque southern character from Mobile named Eugene Walter. Eugene was a great raconteur and I collected his life stories on tape to create the book,” she explains. Conroy loved her approach to biography.

One conversation led to the next, and Clark ended up introducing Conroy to his fans at his book signing in Fair Hope, Alabama. In the following years, the two stayed in touch. “I eventually sent him the manuscript of the first novel – he could not have been more encouraging and motivational. He is great at inspiring writers.

“At one point he remarked that if I’d been tape-recording our conversations over the years, I’d have a book by now.  Naturally this idea stuck in my head. How could it not?” Clark remembers. “Then after a health scare, he began musing about his biography, and I’m the one who told him I wasn’t interested in doing a scholarly biography, but I’d love to do an oral biography where I tape-recorded our conversations and edited that material into a narrative.  And he said, ‘Let’s do it.’” 

Story River Books arranged for literary transcription services to be donated by the University of South Carolina library. In exchange, the recordings will become part of their Pat Conroy archives to be available to scholars, historians, and the general public.

This summer, Clark is editing their recorded conversations into a finished manuscript, and the oral biography will be published by University of South Carolina Press. “For the book you skim the cream off the top. There is a wealth of material for others to use. The University of South Carolina made this process happen very quickly,” she says. “It has been such an incredible privilege.”

Clark observes something important about her friend and editor. “Pat wants to help other writers get out there. I’ve generally found writers of his stature to be kind of competitive. Not Pat. He’s been an incredible mentor.”

Editor’s Note:

Meet Katherine Clark at this year’s Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, September 5 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. Join her in the Emory tent on Ponce de Leon Avenue at Clairmont Avenue.

Katherine Clark holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard and a PhD in English from Emory. She is the coauthor of the oral biographies Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife's Story, with Onnie Lee Logan, and Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet with Eugene Walter (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award). Learn more about her life and work at http://www.katherineclarkbooks.com/.

A 2009 inductee in the South Carolina Hall of Fame, Pat Conroy is the author of five novels and a total of ten previous books, most recently The Death of Santini. Two of his novels, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, were made into Oscar-nominated films.

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Michelle Valigursky