Susan Conley returns with her novel Paris Was the Place

June 18th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

On a very lovely day in May author Susan Conley stopped on her way to the Black Fly Writing Retreat in Grand Lake Stream to read from and discuss her new novel, Paris Was the Place. As author of both a novel and a memoir, the latter being the award-winning The Foremost Good Fortune (2011), Conley had some engaging things to say to our group about place, about belonging, and about the “middle ground” (as she calls it) created when elements from real life are woven into a work of fiction.

The bulk of Paris Was the Place takes place in a Paris that is “more of a real Paris than a romanticized Paris. It’s not meant to be a postcard of Paris that perpetuates the myth. Still, there is a lot of enjoyment of Paris and a lot of savoring of it,” Conley said. “The characters also go to India for a brief stint,” she added.

The narrator, a 30 year-old American woman named Willow, called Willie, has moved to Paris to be with her brother and volunteer teach at a refugee center for immigrant girls seeking French asylum. She also teaches poetry full-time at the American exchange college there. From the author we learned that there is a rich middle ground between the fictional story and Conley’s own life experience. “This is not an autobiographical novel at all, really, but there are a lot of things in here that did happen to me. I have taught refugees – I do that in Portland through the Telling Room, an organization I’m very involved with. I have lived in France, and I have taught poetry, but I have never taught refugee girls in France. The refugee center is based on a lot of research but it is entirely fictive.”

Conley is a skilled and experienced teacher, and we were in such good hands as she took us on an illuminating journey through three incarnations of the book, showing us the progression of one particular passage through two drafts and on to the third and final version. She hand wrote the entire first draft in a collection of notebooks, and it was enlightening for her, too, to revisit that early prose as she read it, remarking on the multiple chapter drafts and the notes to herself, one of which said, “I feel like I’m finished with the first draft.” That was in 2010.

She then read the same passage from the second, printed out and copyedited version, dated 2011, with thoughtful comments from her editor at Knopf, with whom she also worked on The Foremost Good Fortune.

Before moving on to the published version, Conley explained her motivation for walking us through these drafts. “I thought this might be interesting because a couple of things happened structurally with this novel. The first is that it moved from a whole draft in third person to the final version in first person. A writer friend in Portland, Lewis Robinson, inspired me to make that shift. When he asked me if I was going to change it to first person, I said no, but it stuck in my head.”

Cally Gurley, Director of Special Collections at UNE, wanted to hear the first version again for comparison, wondering which parts of the final book had come out early on.

“I think for me, writing any kind of book–forgive the rather obvious analogy–is like building a house,” Conley said. “You put up your outside walls first and the structure is very rough. That’s sort of what the first draft was, sort of a sketch. And then you’ll notice that in the second draft, I focused on place and gave it a really specific location.” She really wants us to be in that little alley with the narrator as she makes her way through in the first chapter, before she knows what she’ll find at its end. From the published form:

“A high cement wall runs along the start of Rue de Metz—a one-way alley off Boulevard de Strasbourg. Four blue suns have been painted on the wall and the bodice of a woman’s lime green dress. The end of the wall is a deeper cerulean, and the graffiti here looks done with chalk—spaceships and loopy sea creatures and messy stars.”
— Paris Was the Place

All the way along, Conley knew that she really needed to capture place, even before she knew the title of the book, and she sees the first two drafts as writing she needed to do in order to start to understand it.

“I named the novel after a line from a Gertrude Stein essay,” Conley shared, “a line I only discovered when I was furiously writing the final draft in a cabin near Southwest Harbor. ‘And so when hats in Paris are lovely and french and / everywhere then France is alright. So Paris was the place.’ I thought, oh, that’s it, I finally have my title. But when I landed on that title it called for a whole reexamining of the book, to really map place in the book. I got a little crazy and created multiple maps in my little writing studio and made sure I knew every street corner and every metro stop. I felt like I had to live up to the title. But I’m always interested in place as character. [In The Foremost Good Fortune] I made China come alive as a character in that memoir. I wanted to bring the reader to China and then here I wanted to bring the reader to Paris.”

It’s in the final version that, while still focusing on the setting, Conley introduces the characters more quickly than she had in the previous drafts. “Conflict is the engine of fiction. There’s only so long you can wait before you start to introduce conflict. I felt like the guard [in the first chapter] was sort of hinting at that, and then Sophie, who runs the detention center, starts to lay out some of the dilemmas, and that had to happen pretty fast.”

Beth Dyer, Reference & Instruction Librarian here at UNE, asked Conley if she also had been to India. “I would imagine it would be hard to write about a place that you’ve never been. That would be a real leap,” Beth said.

“Yes, I had been to India for only about six weeks in the early ‘90s, but it’s one of those places that stayed with me really vividly and I really wanted to write about it. When I think of the kernel for the novel, it was actually a woman on a train in India…I had really wanted India to be a dominant setting in the book but it didn’t work to have both Paris and India be so big. How much can I ask of you as the reader? I ask a lot of you in this book, because I have three fairly distinct plot lines. So I thought, ok, this has to be a true research junket. She goes to learn what she needs to learn about this poet that she’s researching and she gets out and she still has her mind blown.”

Beth then asked, “In India, a sort of goal of Willie’s was to deliver the letter to the grandmother, and I couldn’t help wondering if the woman she gave it to might not really have been the grandmother. It seemed she kind of stopped at the first old lady she saw. But she felt good about it.

“That’s really cool to hear,” Susan said. “I like that ambiguity, actually. That character was inspired by a granny I met in a remote parish in India where I stayed for a week or so. She had a long white braid and she would come and sit by us at the little tiny store, almost like a canteen, and in one of the pictures she had taken my sunglasses and put them on, and she thought was a hysterical thing. That’s in the book, actually. Gita’s grandmother is wearing those sunglasses.”

Another group member said, “I’m curious about Willow. How would you describe her? What were you hoping to achieve with her? There were times when she didn’t behave like I thought she would.

Conley agreed. “No, she doesn’t behave like I thought she would, either. She screws up and you could almost lose your patience with her. I was interested that people could really screw up and that they could also be forgiven. Another inspiration for this was work I used to do for the Maine Humanities Council at the Long Creek youth prison. I had a grant to teach poetry to the male youth there. We’d meet in a library and everything was locked and all of the furniture was bolted to the floor. There were several times when the kids would be let out on work duty and they would just disappear. A volunteer/guard would take them out to do litter pickup or something and the kids would just disappear so easily. I was fascinated by that. What do you mean, you lost him? What do you mean, John is gone? And I thought, who is culpable? Did the guard help? It’s so easy for people to just disappear for a while, so that’s why I let Willie do that…I think Willie was naïve and she thought she was highly principled.

MWWC curator Cathleen Miller asked Conley why she chose Paris in the first place. What was compelling about telling the story in Paris?

“That’s such a good question. Aside from the obvious conceit that I lived there,” she began, “I wanted to do two things. I wanted to talk about the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that was growing in France in the late 1980s. It’s gotten so much worse, so I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning of that. Similarly, there is the specter of AIDS in this book. I wanted to capture that at that time, it actually was possible to fool yourself about whether AIDS was happening. If there was someone in your life who had AIDS, you could really allow yourself to think that they were just sick. That happened to me. There have been a few reviewers who have thought that wasn’t possible–how could she not know? But we don’t know what we choose not to know. Particularly I thought, get them to France, keep them out of the mainstream, keep them out of what might be happening in the States. I’m really interested in what happens when we move around, when we get dislocated. I think we change. I think we might be more open, we might be more associative.”

Conley closed by saying what a great thing it is to be a writer in this state. She has a work of nonfiction in progress and a novel set in China on the horizon, and she added, “I grew up in Maine in Woolwich on the river, and I feel like I have a Maine story in me, too. I just haven’t gotten there yet.”

To learn more about Susan Conley and her work, visit susanconley.com.

Cooking with Maine Women Writers: Standard Baking Co. Pastries

June 11th, 2014 by Laura Taylor

Have you had a morning bun from Standard Baking Co.? Have you perused their cookbook – Standard Baking Co. Pastries? If not, I highly recommend it. Their morning buns are one of my very favorite foods…ever. Made with croissant dough, then stuffed with cinnamon and brown sugar (and nuts, if you like), they are sweet, flaky and delicious. Imagine my delight when I received their cookbook for Christmas last year and realized that the morning bun recipe was in there. Oh the possibilities!

They’re a terrifically indulgent treat (hello, butter!) and they take quite some time to make, so they definitely won’t be making it onto my regular breakfast schedule. Normally, I post the recipes I’ve made here for you to try at home but in this case, I’m not going to – it’s far too long and involved. The buns start with butter croissant dough – the ingredients list is short but the instructions are long. There are many steps, requiring a bit of planning and forethought.

For those of you who’ve never made croissant dough before, the process is lengthy but not especially complicated. It starts with a yeasted dough, which is left to rise for a bit. The dough is then wrapped in plastic and transferred to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Following this resting period, a large square of butter is wrapped in dough and rolled out, then folded and allowed to rest in the refrigerator for an hour or so. The dough gets rolled out and folded several times (call “laminating”), with an hour’s rest in between each folding/rolling, which is what makes the process so lengthy. It’s not an especially complicated or difficult process, but it definitely requires a certain investment of time. When the dough is finally ready, it rests in the refrigerator for another 2 hours before shaping. (Alternately, it can be frozen for up to 10 days and then thawed overnight before shaping, which is what I did.)

At this point, it can be shaped into croissants or…morning buns! To make the morning buns, the dough is rolled out one last time, then covered with a cinnamon and brown sugar mixture. You roll it up and slice it into 12 pieces and then put each piece in a buttered muffin tin into which has been placed a teaspoon of the cinnamon sugar mixture and some chopped walnuts, if that’s your thing. (I love the addition of walnuts, but my kids don’t, so I did half of each.) The buns are left to rise again, then baked. Finally they’re tipped out of their tins onto a piece of parchment paper and all that delicious melted cinnamon/sugar/nut mixture drizzles down.

This was my first attempt at making croissant dough and I’m incredibly pleased with how it turned out. The buns were amazing – the whole family agrees! The instructions were clear and well-written and, despite the fact that I’m a pretty regular baker, I do think someone without much (or any) baking experience could follow these directions without too much difficulty.

The authors of the cookbook, Alison Pray and Tara Smith, gave a great lunchtime talk at Portland Public Library last week, where they discussed how they got into baking, the process of writing a cookbook and the local food scene in Maine, among other topics.

It was fascinating to hear a behind-the-scenes account of writing a cookbook, particularly one devoted to baking. The process takes years. They have to scale down recipes from bakery-quantities to home cook-quantities – most home cooks don’t need to make a batch of hundreds of cookies. (Delicious though that may be.) They convert ingredients from weights to measures for the convenience of the home cook who generally uses measuring cups and spoons instead of a scale. (If you have a kitchen scale, use it! The results will be more accurate and consistent.) They have to do research to make sure the ingredients required are commonly available to the home cook. The recipes were tested – by the authors, bakers, family members, friends – and re-tested to make sure that they were clear and could be easily followed by folks who don’t have any baking experience at all. (This is likely why the directions for laminating the croissant dough are so lengthy – so those of us who’ve never done it before feel comfortable attempting the process!) The cookbook was edited and proofread repeatedly. (It’s probably a good idea to make sure the instructions don’t direct you to add salt by the cupful to a recipe for biscotti.)

The pair also talked about a typical day in a bakery and gave some interesting statistics on the volume of baking involved. For instance, during a typical week in the summertime, the bakery will make 300 bags of molasses cookies. At 8 cookies per bag, that’s 2400 cookies, all shaped and rolled in sugar by hand. (That’s 150 lbs of dough, if you’re wondering.) And that’s only one of the numerous varieties of cookies. And that’s just cookies – not to mention breakfast pastries, tarts, cakes, other snacks and, of course, bread. Having never worked in a bakery, this is just mind boggling to me!

I was quite pleased to see that they had (as I’d hoped they might) brought along a few samples for the crowd at the library. I didn’t arrive in time to snag a molasses cookie but the chocolate one I was able to get was delightful.

I think perhaps I’ll next have to attempt the molasses spice cookies at home…or perhaps coconut macaroons? So many delicious choices…