Susan Conley | photo by Michael Lionstar
Susan Conley believes in feeding her readers. Not in the literal sense, of course, but in a literary way; she peppers her writing with sensual details — taste, smell, touch — that give the prose a certain meatiness. She gives her reader something to bite into and hold onto. Something to feel.
Conley, a Mainer whose acclaimed first book was a memoir about her experience battling breast cancer in Beijing, China (see “Found in Translation,” by Deirdre Fulton, February 4, 2011), has shifted to fiction for her second release, Paris Was the Place (Knopf). The novel, which takes place primarily in France (with a brief foray into India), tells the story of Willow Pears, an American teaching poetry in Paris. In the City of Light, she lives near her brother, Luke, and her best friend from college, Sara. She may be an expat, but she is far from alone. “These people are my family,” she says after they all eat dinner together at an Indian restaurant, where the food arrives “on banged up round metal plates — fried cabbage with peanuts and coconut, curried eggplant, spinach, mutton, and heaps of rice.”
When the book begins, Willow, or “Willie,” as she is more commonly known, is just beginning a volunteer stint at an asylum center for young girls. Her task is to prepare the girls, who have fled from complicated and dangerous situations in places like Liberia, India, and Congo, for the hearings that will decide whether they can stay in France or be deported back to their countries of origin.
“We’re in a locked asylum center in the middle of Paris, and what the girls probably need most is a really good lawyer,” Willie reflects. “But poetry is concise. It can hold enormous amounts of emotion. Rajiv told me the girls’ hearings would rest on wildly compelling, condensed versions of how each girl ended up in France and why they can’t go back to their home countries. So they need poetry.”
So, here we have a poetry professor teaching immigrant girls how to use their words and become comfortable with their own stories. Conley has her MFA in poetry, lived in France as a young woman, and is a co-founder of the Telling Room, a local literacy organization that frequently works with young immigrants and refugees. I ask her how much of this tale is autobiographical.
Not much, though she acknowledges that she did borrow a lot of truth from her own experiences. There’s a middle ground that exists, perhaps especially for a memoirist, between fact and fantasy. But “Willie is not me, and I am not Willie,” she says. She greatly enjoyed the freedom of writing fiction, and of letting her characters plot their own courses.
Conley has said “the novel really took hold for me when Willie began to screw up and do things that I never would have done after I set her loose in Paris.”