I'm thrilled to be interviewing Susan Conley today. Susan is a self-described Mainer, someone from Maine, who has written four books including a memoir called The Foremost Good Fortune, a novel, Paris Was The Place, and a photography book called Stop Here, This is the Place. Her latest novel, Elsey Come Home, was recently selected by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of the ten newly released books that will give you an excuse to stay indoors this winter. Her writing has appearing in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and other publications. A fellowship recipient from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and others, Susan is on the faculty at the University of Southern Maine and co-founded the Telling Room, a creative writing lab for kids.
Welcome, Susan. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Susan Conley: It’s terrific to be here.
Zibby: Elsey Come Home is an amazing novel. Can you tell listeners a little bit about what it’s about?
Susan: Elsey Come Home is about this secret that I started to realize many women I knew were carrying, which is that they couldn't be amazing mothers and have these amazing careers without compromising something. Elsey starts to unravel. Her husband suggests that she go away to this so-called retreat in the mountains in China and try to get it together. It’s really about her coming to terms with her own guilt and creativity.
Zibby: How did you end up setting it in China? I know you've spent a bunch of time in China. Is that how you came up with this idea to put it there?
Susan: Yeah. I've been saying on book tour that I always seem to want to get Americans out of America and push them into corners and challenge them and subvert all these expectations they have about the world. Because Elsey was already finding things untenable in her home life, China was a really good backdrop for her. It’s so chaotic and amazing and wonderful and vexing as a place to live, particularly for Westerners. I had lived there. I’d lived there for almost three years. I did go on something similar to what Elsey went on. I did go up into the mountains. I often say this is not an autobiographical novel because it’s really not. I had a moment on the mountain in the dark after a day of silence at the retreat where I thought, “Okay. This will be my next novel.”
Zibby: That's amazing. What propelled you to go on the retreat? Was it anything related to what Elsey was going through, just to really get it out there early in the conversation? [laughs]
Susan: Just to bear my soul.
Zibby: Please, go for it. We've known each other for five minutes. I think it’s time.
Susan: To tell all? I was one of those quasi-yoga people. I was trying to find my way in Beijing. I had met this amazing teacher who had announced she was going up to the mountains. Everything about living in China for me with really young boys was about taking risks. I said, “What the hell? Let's go.” I think that the part of Elsey that would be the closest to me would be the sense of, “What the hell am I doing here? I'm not a yogi. Oh, my god. Someone get me a taxi.” It was fairly transformative. The yoga retreat was about taking some risks. Also, I wanted to get stronger. I did want to go get better at yoga.
Zibby: One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me is how you showed the effects of Elsey’s alcoholism, but you did it in such a subtle way. The reader had to slowly figure it out. It’s all from the point of view of Elsey, the mom herself. She hasn’t really admitted she has a problem. I love how you did that. It was almost as if Elsey was writing in a journal and we’re hearing about it later. Tell me more about how you structured it that way.
Susan: Thank you for going there. That was a really big breakthrough for the novel when I realized that Elsey was going to be giving us this very frank, in her mind, candid accounting, really. She was accounting for her life. She had this guy in Beijing who she “paid” to ask her questions. She found this therapist. Those are rare -- they certainly were when I was there -- the western-trained “therapists.” She found one. I knew of maybe a few that were there. He was pretty tough with her and basically said, “Guilt, get over it. You don't have time for that now,” and asked her to do this reckoning on the page. She's the wildly acclaimed painter. She'd never written before. She tells us when she's writing the novel that she's not good at this. She doesn't know how to write. She's not used to getting to include everything. We can see, to your point, that she's kind of hiding stuff or she's hiding stuff from herself. I wanted her to try to explain or contextualize her drinking for a while so it would creep up on the reader. She has a transgression. There's one that really catalyzes her husband to say, “Let's go. Let's go try to change things for you.” I won't give that away right now.
Zibby: I hope I didn't give anything away by -- I thought that was one of the main -- I can take it out.
Susan: No, not at all.
Zibby: A big, influencing event in Elsey’s life is the loss that she suffered early in her own life. I won't give that away. It isn't until she comes to terms with it that she can move forward. I was wondering if you've seen this real-life effect of a loss like this for yourself or for someone close to you or if you just did this as some sort of literary device for Elsey.
Susan: You're picking up on all the good stuff. You're picking up on the true engines of the book. I call it the legacy of grief. Many of the people I love carry that legacy. Many families I know, the constellation of the family can have a legacy of grief around it. I certainly have loved ones who carry that legacy. It came to a point for me where I really wanted to explore it. I gave that to Elsey. I do it think it shifts and shapes lives entirely. I showed the book to some of the people who are very affected by grief. They were so supportive of the book. That really gave me more permission to keep going in that direction.
Zibby: I had a period of time when I went through a lot of loss in my life. I feel that I can now almost sniff out people who have the same sensibility because of loss that they’ve had. Do you know what I mean? Once you've gone through loss, there's a new outlook on life. You can see it in someone even as you're just chatting with them. “Oh, okay. You get it. You get the plot.”
Susan: That's so well said. That's it. That's really it. I’ll also share -- here, I really will tell all -- I did have cancer when I was quite young, when I was forty. My kids were very young. I think that part of me writing deeply into Elsey’s grief was some kind of catharsis projection of the grief I felt had I not been able to watch my kids grow up. I definitely was orbiting grief when I was in China. There was a lot of uncertainty about my prognosis. The kids were so young. I definitely think that sits over the book. I haven't actually articulated that until now.
Zibby: Thank you for doing so now. I'm really sorry, obviously, to hear about your cancer diagnosis. I'm so sorry you went through that. It explains to me some of the context now. I don't know how you got to that so well. You really got the reader to feel all that.
Susan: Thank you. Really good point, if you've known grief and trauma, it informs everything about how you live after that. Delving into Elsey’s grief was scarily easy for me. I'm also here to say I'm on the other side of that immediate fear and grief. Maybe that's why I also could write the book. I gave Elsey a really manageable illness. I don't know if you realized or noticed. It’s a thyroid condition. It’s manageable. I wanted her to have that little hiccup, that little vulnerability hit that sickness can give people. I'm also fascinated by how many people struggle with some kind of illness or disease and they just manage it. They just keep going. I wanted to give her that as well.
Zibby: You also did that when one of Elsey’s daughter has a little health scare towards the end of the book. You wrote, “When you're in the hospital with a small girl, everything becomes clear. It really does.” It’s the same thing. Everything else just stops. All the important stuff comes to the front. I love how you wove that in in so many different ways.
Susan: Thank you. You're right. That scene is so key to the whole book in a way. That's when she starts to have some clarity.
Zibby: Another thing you did that I really liked -- can you tell I really enjoyed this book? [laughs] Elsey, she struggles to find the balance between her painting, her professional life, and her children. They seem to come from the same place inside her. She feels, in a way, she can't do both. You wrote, “What I will say is that I couldn't understand how to be obsessed with my children and obsessed with my painting at the same time. I thought both called for obsession.” Later you say, “It was my sickness in a way, not to be in the painting when I was painting and not to be with the girls when I was with the girls.” Tell me more about that. I was also wondering if you felt that way with your writing.
Susan: What you just read is really the most resonant, important -- those are the two most important lines in the whole book. Those were the kernel, the seed of the book. Those feel so true to me when you read them out loud. I can't tell you how many women I know who've read the book, quote those lines back to me or write those lines to me. They don't have to be artists. They're just women having all kinds of varied careers. That's really the secret that I was talking about when you asked me what this book is about. It’s that obsession and not being able to really be obsessed with both. That does ring really true to my life. Yesterday, we had a snow day in Portland, Maine. I love snow days. I have high schoolers. I still love snow days. What happened was I have another novel to deliver to my editor. I wiped that day. There was going to be no creativity. The day was gone once we had the snow day. I kind of articulated this to myself as I got ready for the day. There's a word Elsey uses for it, which is recklessness. The recklessness, the obsessive quality of fully giving yourself over to something other than your kids, that is gone the minute your kids are home on a snow day.
It’s really this incredible high-wire act that so many women do. I know we hear it over and over. It doesn't go away, this sense of parceling out the day, parceling out the hours, and wanting to be fully with our children, fully giving of ourselves, and then also fully giving to our ambitions. It’s really a hard, hard thing to figure out. This cuts across class and race. This is about the fact that we don't have any good child care in America. We could go on and on about how much it becomes, unfortunately, gendered in a lot of households, whether they're heteronormative households or not. Who's the emotional hub? Whoever’s the emotional hub is also probably trying to work. It’s really hard.
Zibby: That's very well said. I'm sorry to have quoted the same lines everybody quotes. I felt like those had flashing lights around them when I was reading.
Susan: No, that makes me so happy that you quoted those. That's really the essence of the book. I didn't realize how many women -- I knew it; I must have known it intuitively or I wouldn’t have written the book -- how women are like, “Yup, there. That's it. How do we do this?” We could explore it further and say how many women tamp down their ambitions and their obsessions?
Zibby: If you have a pie slice, as soon as you have the kids, they take up everything. Everything else becomes just this one tiny, little slice. How do you gradually take back more of that maybe as they get older? The going from pursuing whatever you were doing to having your brain fill with the need to take care of these kids -- which is a pleasure, it’s why you have kids -- you don't mind it at first, but then it creeps up on you. I'm sorry for talking so much about this.
Susan: It’s a pleasure. It’s so many things. It’s also, “Oh, these children need to survive. I am responsible.” Then this becomes kind of meta. You, right now, are following this whole wonderful creative calling to do this amazing podcast about moms who don't have time to read while you're a mom who doesn't have time to read. It’s really interesting to me.
Zibby: Right, but now that I've found the time somehow to put this back into my life, I'm being such a better mom. I miss this. I missed it so much. I just couldn't figure it out before, how to make it all work. Now, I do the podcast, but I just went to my kid’s school assembly. I'm at my desk. It’s a constant shifting struggle to find a way to fit it in.
Susan: Absolutely. That's it and so cool that you're doing it again. It’s so cool. I'm thinking that what it’s really about, it’s the figuring it out. What Elsey learned and what she's talking about -- I learned a lot from her. She was so blisteringly honest. I really had to let her talk. Once she started talking, I realized she was going to say some stuff that I was going to be uncomfortable with because of its candor. I was just going to let her go. She had to forgive herself. That is a big lesson for a lot of us, myself included.
Zibby: It’s the prioritizing too. Do I have to do it now? Could this wait? When you talked about Elsey’s daughter Myla’s separation anxiety in the book, I'm going to read this little passage. It totally speaks to this. Is it worth it? You wrote -- Elsey’s talking about her daughter Myla here -- “It got so that she’d ask me every morning if I was going out, and when I was honest and told her yes I was, it made things worse because she’d perseverate on my leaving. Then I tried not telling her I was leaving until I walked out the door, and she’d shriek and throw herself at me so violently I wanted to lie down on the floor with her and cry. I know it’s not uncommon for children to fixate on a parent like this for a time, and it’s better now and I can see it more clearly, but I wonder what was so important about going out back then that I couldn't stay home?”
That was so awesome. Every parent has dealt with this, I assume. I've certainly dealt with this so much with the separation anxiety and the kids not wanting you to go. I even now look back, my big kids are almost twelve. Why did I make them have those tantrums? Was it worth it? On the other hand, I can't have my kids hold me hostage. That's not good. Anyway, I loved that.
Susan: It’s amazing what the shifting vantage point does for it. Everything for Elsey in the novel is a little bit extreme. She's pushed to extremes so that we can see these things that we’re all going through amplified. I remember my beloved editor at Knopf said, “Are we worried about Myla? Does she have a problem? Does she have a condition? Should they be getting help?” I was like, “No, sorry. It’s very normal.”
Susan: You're leading me to, also, this feeling I had around the writing of the book, which was children struggle. They have these obsessive patches. They go through these phases. I wanted to normalize it a little. I wanted to honor and celebrate the wonderful quirkiness of children. I do not know a mother whose child isn't doing something wildly idiosyncratic and crazy in that given week. We all think everyone else is leading this very, very [indiscernible] life and we’re the ones that are weird, but no. Myla keeps reminding everyone how audacious kids can be, and odd and wonderful.
Zibby: It always helps when you read something and recognize that something you struggle with in your own life is like, “Oh, someone else is having this problem too.” Tell me a little more about your process of writing. When do you write? When did you write this book? When do you usually write? Do you start with outlines? Tell me about how you do it.
Susan: This novel, the process will take us back to your first question, which is how did you come to write this novel? What was the idea for this novel? When I was at this wildly rustic yoga retreat, which is a stretch to even call it a yoga retreat, in Beijing, we were really on a little, forgotten mountain. There really wasn’t very much electricity. It couldn't have been more austere. I had this little notebook in my room. I wrote some quick, little, stream-of-conscious scene about what was happening. I kept those for the better part of ten years, the way writers hoard. We hoard our material. We keep it. It would be over on the side. You're often asked, “What's your next project?” I would say, “I think I'm writing about expats in this mash-up on a mountain in Beijing.” I thought it was going to be a [indiscernible] of three different strong women. They were each going to speak. I thought it would be Tasmin and Mei and Elsey. There are three characters in the book. Elsey took over. Once she took over, the whole thing really opened up.
I write in the morning. I love to go from the dream world right into the writing, which is really hard when you have children. I often tell all my grad students and anyone I can that you have to banish the electronics. Banish all contact with the outside world except the providing, perhaps, of the breakfast or the help of getting the children off. My kids walk to school. Then go right to the desk. Go right back to the dream world, imagination world. If I get too caught up in what I might call the secular world, I'm totally dead for the day. No writing will happen. I'm not a night person at all in terms of creativity. It’s morning for me. It’s like gold.
Zibby: How long did it take to write this book?
Susan: This book, in some ways, happened really fast. It’s, as the kind reviewers have called it, “a slim novel.” I love that phrase. It’s a slim novel. I wanted it to be short and pack a punch. I wanted it to move really fast, seven days on a mountain. It didn't take probably more than a year to write, all told. I did move it from third person, in the voices of those three women, into Elsey’s voice. That took a whole nother iteration.
Zibby: I wanted to ask what the book that you referenced earlier is about, your next book.
Susan: In some ways, it feels like a sequel right now as we’re talking. The working title is How to Talk to Wolves. It is coming out with Knopf probably in ’21. It is a novel about a mother who is raising teenage boys in Maine on an island. They come from a fishing family, fishing community. This is a world I grew up in, I know really well. I'm really excited to shift my gaze fully to Maine. Elsey gets me halfway to Maine because in the novel she is from Maine. I find that as I've aged, I have a lot more to say about Maine and the changing Maine. I'm finally able to not take the reader out of America. I feel like I'm able to stay calmer and more patient here in Maine and say the things I want to say about class and culture in Maine. I think I can do it in Maine.
I actually have a draft of that novel. On a good day, it’s a really comedic novel because it’s really comedic to live with teenage boys. It has to be funny. One of the boys goes off the rails. The father becomes very injured and isn't really able to be part of the family. It’s again very much about a woman and her strength and her power and her reckoning with herself as a mother. This woman is a wildly acclaimed rock musician videographer. I'm having a lot of fun with it. She has been travelling the world spending time with some of the great women musicians of our time. Then she's called back to Maine for a reason. It’s about shifting ambitions, shifting scope of your life as a woman.
Zibby: That's awesome. I can't wait to read that. Do you have advice to aspiring authors out there?
Susan: Let me see, yes. I teach in this grad program called Stonecoast. It’s here in Portland. I love it. I've been there for six years. I say to my students, every semester I come up with a new mantra for my seminar talk. I always give a seminar talk on something every semester. I used to think that it was about sentences, if I could only get my students to understand the beauty of sentences and language. Then I would say it’s about mining setting. Then I would give talks on pace and temporality. What I really think it’s about and what I would want to encourage all writers to do is to trust yourself to create unique, singular voices on the page. The voices have to levitate off the page and speak to the reader. We can all talk about craft ‘til the cows come home. It’s about actually trusting this emotional current that's carrying you to write and giving it to a character so they have this voice. How's that's?
Zibby: I’ll take it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for writing your beautiful novel. I can't wait to read your next one.
Susan: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for what you're doing. I love the podcast. It’s been a great treat to talk to you.
Zibby: Thanks so much. I really appreciate that.
Susan: Take care. I’ll keep following, see what you're up to.
Zibby: Please do. Thank you. Bye.
Susan: I will. Bye.