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.