In Portland, Susan Conley is perhaps best known as one of the founders of The Telling Room, a creative writing lab that mentors young people who have something to say and stories to tell.

Lately, though, she’s been getting lots of positive national attention for her new memoir, “The Foremost Good Fortune” (Knopf, $25.95), which recounts her two-and-a-half-year journey living in China and battling breast cancer.

In January, The New York Times Magazine ran “Starter Buddha,” an excerpt from the book about Conley’s attempts to buy a big Buddha head as a good-luck talisman at a Beijing market. In February, O, The Oprah Magazine selected Conley’s memoir as one of its top 10 reads for February. The Washington Post called the book “a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.”

Conley’s husband, Tony, followed a job opportunity to China in 2007, and Conley and their two young boys, Aidan and Thorne, soon followed. Her memoir describes the family’s adjustment to their new home, and what happens when Conley discovers a lump in her breast.

Conley, 43, grew up in Woolwich, the oldest of three children. She has published her poetry in The Paris Review, The Harvard Review and The North American Review, and was an editor at Ploughshares magazine in Boston, where she wrote book reviews and profiles. She has taught creative writing and literature at Emerson College, Simmons College and the University of New England.

Conley and her family are now back from China and living in Portland once again, this time with a house guest — her “starter Buddha.” 

Q: Did you always plan to write about your time in China, even before you discovered the cancer? Or was writing the book a kind of cathartic experience to deal with what had happened to you?

A: Well, it was very cathartic in the end, but I had intended to write the book before we even landed. I often explain that I wrote the first 100 pages of the book thinking that it was kind of a travelogue and a parenting, ex-pat handbook of sorts. And then I found out I had cancer, and I kind of thought that first book was over. It took me a while to reconcile that I could connect the travelogue to the cancer story, and that I could make this one book. 

Q: Was it difficult writing about something so personal and trying to blend those two stories together?

A: Now it reads pretty fluidly, like the narrative was always meant to be this way. But no one ever expects cancer, do they? For me, it was a coming to terms with the disease through writing. At first, I had a lot of wariness. I didn’t really want to go back into the material. But I had taken notes, just short notes, all throughout my cancer treatments. I’ve been a writer and a writing teacher a long time, so I think that sort of note-taking was ingrained in me.

It took me three months or so to decide I’d go look at that cancer material I’d written. I was in Beijing, and I was going through what I call in the book a “cancer slump,” which I have now learned many survivors go through. You’re done with treatment, you think you should be doing cartwheels, but you’re actually feeling flatter than you did when you were in treatment. And I now know that that’s really common, and very much kind of on schedule for recovery from cancer.

But I didn’t know that at the time. I was just feeling low. I hadn’t sorted through what had happened. It had all happened so quickly. And then I went back and looked at that cancer material and I realized, it was very clear, that I had the second half of the book and I could weave both stories. I realized it was all still a story about motherhood. 

Q: How is your health now?

A: I’m healthy now, thanks for asking. I always try to get that in, in the readings and things, because I realize it is sitting there. But I am three years healthy. There’s a caveat there. Breast cancer, and I would think any cancer, has all these unexpected turns and complexities, so it’s very much still in my life. But I’m healthy. 

Q: You’ve talked about how the experience with cancer really complicated your time in China, obviously. This is going to sound like an odd question, but how do you think it complicated your boys’ experience in China? Do you think they’ll always associate their time there with what happened to you?

A: I think that the 4-year-old takes cues from the 6-year-old, for starters, and he will remember very little. The whole breast cancer conversation just sort of flows by him. He doesn’t hold onto that at all. The 6-year-old who’s now turning 10, he keeps track: Oh, you’re talking about breast cancer. Oh, you’ve got a doctor’s appointment. But he’s very comfortable in his skin, too. I think they think back on China as this great adventure and this great family time. I think we were able to shield them from most of the harrowing aspects of the cancer. 

Q: I’m curious, what happened to your “starter Buddha”? Did you bring it home with you?

A: We did. It sits very happily in the living room, keeping watch over all of us. 

Q: What does that Buddha represent to you now? Do you have a different kind of relationship with it?

A: That Buddha represents the hopefulness of the story and the sheer fun of our China adventures. The Buddha is not a bad memory at all. It’s funny; it really is about hope. For me, writing the book was a way to think through our time there, and I learned about myself and about cancer when I wrote the book. And for me, that’s always the most exciting writing, when I’m learning something that I didn’t expect. 

Q: Did this whole experience make you want to immerse yourself in some other culture in the world, or are you perfectly happy staying here in Portland?

A: That’s a very complicated question. I wanted to come home very much. I talk about that at the end of the book. I needed to kind of come home in all senses of that word — into my own home, my house, my community. I thought it would be a way to get traction on what had happened.

But at the same time, I feel like our two and a half years in China got us in good traveling shape. I felt like we could have gone anywhere after that. It’s hard to explain, but I felt like my kids had become risk takers, and they had become confident in Mandarin and they understood the whole concept of world travel.

So if someone had said, “Now you have to move to a remote town in India,” we could have done it, you know? And I suspect that we are not done with our travel. There’s nothing on the horizon, but I think we all got the bug when we were there. 

Q: What’s next on your plate? You’ve got your new novel coming out, but are you already working on something else?

A: I’m going to do another draft of that novel this spring/summer, and then I’ve got some notes for a novel, actually, that’s set in China. That might be the next project, which would be exciting. We shall see.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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