Susan Conley’s memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011), was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine and The Daily Beast. It was an Oprah Magazine Top Ten Pick of the Month, a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award, and won the Maine Literary Award for Memoir. Other work of hers has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, The Huffington Post and Ploughshares. She is a co-founder of The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative writing lab in Portland, Maine. Her debut novel, Paris Was the Place, was published by Knopf in 2013.
Why I write
I write because I want to try to crystallize these moments in life – moments of great joy and grief and excitement and anticipation that are really wordless. But I try anyways.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I like to write in that dreamy, associative head space that really only sticks around for me in the morning. So I write upon waking, and upon getting my two boys down the road to school. Not every day. But many days of the week. And I like longer stints – maybe four to five hours. I rarely know what it is I’m writing about until I really get into the material and get my hands dirty.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I write in a little rabbit warren of a room in the third floor of our house. The attic. It’s got a big double window that looks down on the yard and the huge historic cemetery behind our house which is more like a park since it’s not in use. And then there is a tiny glimpse of the Fore River further out from that, which pours into Portland Harbor. I am a big believer in having a little space you can call your own to write in.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Email is the kiss of death for me and my writing. If I tell myself, oh – just check that one email, then 30 minutes later I am still doing email and I’ve lost that dreamy, post-sleep phase I mentioned before. Sometimes it’s great to listen to very specific music: Patty Griffin songs, Lucinda Williams, The Pines. To get me in a very grounded, cinematic mood.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
I don’t really know that phrase. I don’t really believe it. I just think if the writing isn’t coming then I’m not sitting at my desk enough.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
Of course! Every time I have a deadline I wonder if I can hit it and I wonder what the quality of the work is and if I’ve considered it from every angle. It’s part of being a writer – judging the writing. I wish it was not so.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much since I can remember. Certainly by sixth grade. I used to write really sugary poems and song lyrics.
How did you get started writing?
I had a great sixth grade teacher who let us write anything we wanted in sixth grade English: poems and stories and novellas. He believed in the power of storytelling to engage kids’ minds. I loved it. I felt like there was so much to try to express and articulate.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Well, I’m glad that I got it out there. I had no idea what I was doing. It was all poetry for me back then.
Does writing change anything?
Writing helps me make sense of my life and the life I see around me. Maybe sometimes my writing connects with someone else and they recognize some small piece of their life in my writing and if they gain something from that, then that’s great too.
Contemporary writer you always read?
I tend to always read David Sedaris. And Joan Didion.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Favorite China book?
I love Waiting by Ha Jin.
Didion was really key for me.
So hard. Too hard. I thought Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was pretty terrific. So was Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Good Squad. I have loved Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse since I first read it 25 years ago.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
What are you working on and when is it out?
My novel, Paris Was the Place, just came out this month with Knopf. So I am working on giving this novel a long life.
Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2013