Susan Conley wrote her first book, “The Foremost Good Fortune,” about things that actually happened to her.

She wrote her second book, “Paris Was the Place” (Knopf, $26.95) about a place she actually went, but about things she only imagined might happen.

Going from a memoir to a novel was freeing, yet challenging, Conley says.

She set the book in Paris in the late 1980s, when she was studying there, but then created characters and let them take over.

“I really like seeing the characters make choices I would never make,” she said.

“Paris Was the Place” came out in August. Conley, 46, lives in Portland and teaches writing in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

She grew up in Woolwich and is a cofounder of The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative writing lab in Portland. 

Q: Where did the idea for “Paris Was the Place” come from?

A: I had lived in Paris in 1989, and it’s set in Paris in 1989, but it’s not autobiographical. It borrows from my life. In the book there’s a sweeping love affair, and there’s a story of an American teacher, which definitely borrows from my time teaching refugee kids.

But I was trying to capture what it’s like to be an American woman on the road in her late 20s, trying to figure out who she is. I was inspired by the city and the country, and I’ve always loved books about people in transit, about moving around. Besides Paris, I traveled to India, and for my husband’s job, we lived in China. So I’ve always been interested in travel. 

Q: What do you think got you interested in travel?

A: I spent a year abroad in college (at Middlebury College in Vermont), going to Paris. After college I saved my money working at a bookstore and hit the road with my backpack. I just wanted to see the world, and I think I needed to get out of Maine.

My mom was a traveler. She was the kind of mom who always said, “When you get the chance, go.” She’d never tell me not to go. It was a great lesson for me to see her be like that.

I think once we get out of our little comfort zones we start to learn differently. 

Q: Why did you decide to write your memoir, “The Foremost Good Fortune”?

A: Moving to China. My husband is a Mandarin speaker, and he got a job that had us move to China for almost three years, beginning in 2007. The boys (ages 4 and 6 then) and I learned Mandarin. I started writing about our experiences there, because I thought there was a story there.

I found out while in China that I had cancer, which was wild, then we came back here and I finished treatment.

Then I knew that if I was going to write about our time in China, I’d have to make it a lot more personal. (Conley is now free of cancer.) 

Q: What were the challenges of writing a novel after a memoir?

A: With a memoir, the story is pre-ordained, it’s just deciding how you will tell it. With a novel, there are endless choices, it’s either paralysis or great freedom, and for me it was both.

I learned that with a novel you are extraordinarily defined by the plot.

You may think you have more room, but you are beholden to the characters and what they want to do.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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