Friday, March 11, 2011

Susan Conley

Susan Conley is a native of Maine whose work has been published in magazines such as The Paris Review, the Harvard Review and The North American Review. Her New York Times Magazine “Lives” column about living in China and contending with the H1N1 epidemic got the attention of a lot of readers. As an editor at Ploughshares Magazine in Boston, she wrote book reviews and profiles. She’s also taught creative writing and literature at several colleges.

Conley's new book is the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune.

Last month I asked her what she reading. Her reply:
The book that I want to talk about is one that I read kind of by accident. I mean I bought the book. But that was at one of those airport bookstore kiosks when I was on the run last fall. How Tracy Kidder’s beautiful, resonant stories even end up at LaGuardia is a mystery to me but there was one Strength in What Remains and I grabbed it because Borders was having a two for one book sale. It’s not that I didn’t want to read Strength in What Remains. I love just about anything Kidder writes.

It’s that I knew the book would ask something of me and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to deliver. I’d just finished writing The Foremost Good Fortune — a memoir about living in China and getting cancer, and my head was full of white noise: book tour logistics and how to register for a Facebook account. So I sat in the blue bucket seat at Gate 23B and read the forgettable novel I’d just bought and waited for my plane to board. And when it did board, I stood up, gathered my things, and accidentally on purpose left that forgettable novel on the seat.

After take off, I needed something else to read. What finishing my own book had done was create this chatter in my head about book launches and to Twitter or not to Twitter and who could take my author headshot. Some of it was really silly stuff. Arcane. But stuff that can look like a big deal when you’re in New York City meeting with your agent and your editor and you want your own little book to matter somehow.

So I took a big breath on the airplane and opened the first page of Strength in What Remains, and right away I was in deep. What the book did was clear out the white noise. Kidder’s writing is so quiet and crystallized that it drew me in entirely and I was humbled. I forgot anything I’d been thinking about Facebook. I was enthralled and horrified with the story Kidder told. The tension and transparency of his prose kept me rapt—so much so that I still carry the book around with me now that I’m actually on my book tour. Kidder’s book speaks of great, human atrocities and just as great reserves of strength and humanity. There is a kind of balance sheet. And the pure luck involved in surviving to tell the story is also staggering. I look at the book in my hotel room, and I still feel wonder at how Kidder was able to write it, and I also still feel awe for the people who live inside the pages.
Visit Susan Conley's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue