I've spent the last few days at home with Seamus, working a little, writing a lot and reading Sara J. Henry's "Learning to Swim" (which is fabulous--if you haven't bought it yet, all I can say is what are you waiting for??!). I also received my signed copy of The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley, which, I will admit, I've also been peaking at more than a little. I'm looking forward to diving in and absorbing the whole thing soon.
Here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say about her memoir:
"China sat in the rooms of our house like a question," begins Conley in this luminous memoir of moving her family from Portland, Maine, to Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics. Conley's husband had accepted a dream job in Beijing, and they had decided to say "yes to all the unknowns that will now rain down on us" including common difficulties faced by many families moving to a new city: a new school for her two young sons, finding new friends, and adjusting to a new apartment all compounded by the intensity of learning a difficult new language and adapting to a new culture. Conley's writing is at once spare and strong, and her description of having to present an unflappable front to her children while being hit "with a rolling wave of homesickness" pulls the reader into her world like a close friend. As Conley starts to hit her stride in her adopted city, she discovers lumps in her breast and finds herself on a different kind of journey, which she describes as "an essential aloneness that cancer has woven into my days." She explains in this engaging memoir that after her treatment in the U.S. was over, she returned to Beijing, where she searched for the perfect Chinese talisman to "ward off the leftover cancer juju" and hoping to help her boys move past their own fears of their mother's mortality.
Susan was kind enough to stop by this li'l ol' blog on her whirlwind (real) book tour. So, with no further ado...here's my interview with Susan:
TDL: Susan—Thank you so much for stopping by my humble blog. I’ve interviewed a few authors on this blog and the first question is always the same, so let’s get started!
We here at The Dog Lived (and So Will I) love our wine. What do you recommend we pour when we first sit down to read The Foremost Good Fortune? And what should we sip when we finish it?
SC: When you sit down to read The Foremost Good Fortune you might start with a sparkling wine—Schrambsberg Blanc de Blanc. It was first brought to China by President Nixon in 1972 when he met with Mao. This wine is light and crisp and the opening of my memoir is a kind of travelogue and parenting handbook of successes and disasters that would go well with a really good sparkling wine. While you’re finishing the book, and my family and I have come out of what I call the circus that was my cancer treatments, maybe a wine that is a little more complex is in order—like an aged Pinot Noir.
TDL: I noted that on the first page of your book you mention a “legal career” (it’s just slipped in there ever so quietly). Were you a lawyer? How did you make the transition from the legal field to writing? (And I’m not at all asking that because I’ve been a lawyer for twenty-five years…not at all…)
SC: I was never a lawyer. But I had dreams of a legal career. I went so far as to try being a paralegal in San Francisco straight out of college. I worked for a well-known woman trial lawyer who brought a lot of gender cases to trial. Fascinating stuff. I learned a whole lot. Then after two years I realized that all the writing I was doing as a paralegal was writing I was meant to be doing in a graduate creative writing program.
TDL: As I understand it, when you left for Beijing with your family you had plans to finish writing a novel. How did that transition to a memoir about your time in China to a memoir that included your breast cancer experience? And…what’s the status with that novel?
SC: That novel is alive and well. Knopf bought it as well as the memoir. The novel traces the life of a thirty-year-old woman from California, who comes to terms with love and with her brother’s death in France. The plan is for the novel to come out fairly soon after the memoir. Moving from the novel to the memoir (and now back again to the novel as I complete another draft of it) has been a study for me in narrative arc. It’s all storytelling—but the voice is distinctly different in each book, and in one I was limited by my experience and in the other I was only limited by my imagination.
TDL: Can you share with us a little about your breast cancer? (What kind, what stage, how you found it… a lot of my readers are fellow BC warriors.) Is breast cancer very prevalent in China?
SC: My flavor of breast cancer was early stage—I think technically Stage 1b. I had estrogen positive cancer and HER/2/NEU negative. The grade of my cancer was aggressive and there were several tumors as well as DCIS. The hitch for me was additional cancer found after surgery in the mastectomy tissue which led to a concern about clean margins. I did a course of radiation and then I went on a hormonal suppression protocol, which I will do for about 5 years.
I found my cancer myself—the tumors appeared as small marbles in my chest wall. The mammogram I had in Beijing did not indicate any cancer. It was the ultrasound in China that revealed the tumors, though at first they appeared as cysts, which was confusing to everyone involved. I know each of our cancer stories has its own unexpected turns. No two are alike. I am three years out now and feeling very healthy.
TDL: You capture a tremendous amount of very vivid detail in your writing, and the photos on your blog (and in the book trailer) are gorgeous. Did you use the photos while you were writing? What techniques did you use to capture all the details? Did you keep a journal? (If you say it was all from memory…I’m just going to stop writing now. My memory was bad enough pre-chemo!)
SC: I am lucky to have a husband who is an avid photographer. So that has been a great thing in terms of having mental photos of the places I am writing about. But the way I capture detail in my writing is mostly through notes I take in a journal. My background, and that graduate school training I mentioned earlier, are in poetry. I was a poetry major in college and then again in grad school. I have taught poetry seminars and workshops for years at various colleges and schools. And I think that is where the eye for the details comes in for me. Poetry relies so much on that vivid image, and I was able to take that reliance on imagery in poetry and weave into the prose of the memoir.
TDL: You mention on your blog that you found yourself walking the path between poetry and memoir. Wow. I find this to be a gorge and there’s no walking it! (Writing Poetry scares the beejeezus out of me! But I’m loving writing a memoir.) Can you tell us more about that? Your memoir is not in rhyming stanzas or iambic pentameter, so I’m all confused.
SC: Okay. And I know. Poetry can be aloof. It can be scary! But here is what I think: narrative poetry is actually, as Mary Karr said so wisely not that long ago, memoir’s first cousin. Both forms are interested in tracking a story. Both forms are trying to translate experience and to do it an authentic way. Both forms need to rely on description and image. I started in poetry and so it doesn’t scare me. But I get how it alienates a whole lot of people! One of the things I often do when I am leading a poetry workshop is try to demystify poetry, so that all we are reading for in the stanzas is the delight of the language. We are not trying to “solve” some secret mystery.
TDL: I usually end with a dog question that is generally something along the lines of “why don’t you have a beagle?” But I assume there wasn’t a dog with you in China. So we’ll just go with, “is there a beagle in your future?”
Oh this is actually a sad question for me. There may be a beagle in my future because the boys and my husband, Tony, and I adopted a rescue puppy last fall from Alabama and she didn’t make it. She was sick upon arrival and though we tried to get her through, the virus she picked up in the Alabama soil was too strong. So talk of dogs is very much on the table right now. Which kind of dog? Maybe a beagle! Thanks so much for your great questions! Happy wine. Happy dog. Happy reading.
We like our wine and our dogs and our books around these parts. Thanks for stopping by.
P.S.--a beagle is a wonderful family dog. My theory is this: beagles are sturdy and "manly" looking enough that men aren't embarrassed to walk them; cute enough and small enough to make women happy, and energetic and friendly enough that kids love them.