Frank Conroy, the memoirist and longtime director of the celebrated University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, died Wednesday at 69, according to a colleague.
Conroy died at his home in Iowa City of colon cancer, said James Alan McPherson, acting co-director of the workshop. “Frank took a great program and made it an extraordinary one,” McPherson said.
Conroy won literary praise with his 1967 book “Stop Time,” an impressionistic memoir about his youth in Brooklyn that was nominated for a National Book Award before he turned 30.
It was a classic story of innocence, violence and violation, as elemental as his mastery of the yo-yo and as troubling as a gang of boys — Conroy included — tormenting a schoolmate, punch by punch. His other works never surpassed it.
Instead, he gained even greater stature, and welcome stability, by helping others. In 1987, he traded life on the East Coast for the slower-paced Midwest when he accepted the job of directing the Writers’ Workshop, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious creative writing program.
Famously demanding, to the point of reducing students to tears, he held the post for 18 years before announcing his resignation last year. ZZ Packer, Nathan Englander and Thisbe Nissen were the among the young writers he worked with.
He returned to teaching last year after a bout with colon cancer, but became ill again in recent months with cancer and entered hospice care in Iowa City.
Conroy’s books also include “Time & Tide, A Walk Through Nantucket,” a collection of essays entitled “Dogs Bark, But the Caravan Rolls On,” “Body & Soul,” and “Midair.” He sold his first short story when he was a senior at Haverford College, dabbled in journalism, wrote short stories and essays for a variety of magazines and served as literary director at the National Endowment of the Arts.
'Innately hip'A lover of jazz, Conroy also played piano in clubs in New York for several years and befriended such musicians as Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis. Conroy’s friend David Halberstam once called him “innately hip, the first true counterculture person I had ever met.”
After his stint with the NEA, Conroy moved to Iowa City and became the workshop’s fourth director. Founded in 1936, the workshop was the nation’s first creative writing program and boasts alumni and past faculty such as Kurt Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, John Irving and Flannery O’Connor.
Conroy was known for favoring old-fashioned narration to experimental writing and for being a no-nonsense, curmudgeonly instructor. His reputation for classroom criticism admittedly made at least one student cry and another student faint.
“But luckily one of the students in that class was a doctor, so he saw it happening and got to her before she fell down,” Conroy said with a laugh during a 2004 Associated Press interview.
“You have to get across to them that the work is separate from them. That’s what good work is: a life independent of the life of the author. So you have unintended qualities in the prose — personal tics, pretending to write, instead of really writing. All writers have to go through this and get it past them. I try to make that quicker for them rather than longer.”
But overseeing the workshop, the faculty and its endless stream of talented, young writers was a job he loved. Conroy rejoiced in his ability to help emerging writers along and then read their published works.
“I don’t know what could be more satisfying or enjoyable,” Conroy, seated behind his desk cluttered with newly published books and papers, told the AP last year.
Conroy is survived by his second wife, Maggie, his three sons and three grandchildren.