As a child growing up in a military family, Conroy learned from his mother that books could be his constant companions as the family shuttled from Marine base to Marine base.
"What I remember about her, from the very earliest time of my life, is her reading to me," Conroy tells NPR's Scott Simon. "She had a great tone, a warm style, a terrific Southern accent. She read us lots of poetry ... I can still hear her voice." She read him Gone With the Wind, and gave all the roles to family members--Melanie Wilkes was an aunt, Frank Kennedy was an uncle.
Reading was a refuge for him, both emotionally and physically. Conroy's father wouldn't hit him when he was reading; he thought his son was studying and approved of it. "It was the one place you could go to get away from his fists," says Conroy. "And it worked every time."