Interview with Susan Conley – Paris Was The Place

Paris Was The Place



354 pages

Release date: August 7, 2013
from Knopf/Random House

Paris Was The Place



With her new novel, Paris Was the Place (Knopf, 2013), Susan Conley offers a beautiful meditation on how much it matters to belong: to a family, to a country, to any one place, and how this belonging can mean the difference in our survival. Novelist Richard Russo calls Paris Was the Place, “by turns achingly beautiful and brutally unjust, as vividly rendered as its characters, whose joys and struggles we embrace as our own.”

When Willie Pears begins teaching at a center for immigrant girls in Paris all hoping for French asylum, the lines between teaching and mothering quickly begin to blur. Willie has fled to Paris to create a new family, and she soon falls for Macon, a passionate French lawyer. Gita, a young girl at the detention center, becomes determined to escape her circumstances, no matter the cost. And just as Willie is faced with a decision that could have dire consequences for Macon and the future of the center, her brother is taken with a serious, as-yet-unnamed illness. The writer Ayelet Waldman calls Paris Was the Place “a gorgeous love story and a wise, intimate journal of dislocation that examines how far we’ll go for the people we love most.” Named on the Indie Next List for August 2013 and on the Slate Summer Reading List, this is a story that reaffirms the ties that bind us to one another. [provided by the author]




Susan Conley2Susan Conley is a writer and teacher. Her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011), chronicles her family’s experiences in modern China as well as her journey through breast cancer. The Oprah Magazine listed it as a Top Ten Pick, Slate Magazine chose it as “Book of the Week,” and The Washington Post called it “a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.” Excerpts from the memoir have been published in The New York Times Magazine and The Daily Beast.

Susan’s writing has also appeared in The Paris Review, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, The North American Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. A native of Maine, she earned her B.A. from Middlebury College and her M.F.A. in creative writing from San Diego State University. After teaching poetry and literature at Emerson College in Boston, Susan returned to Portland, where she cofounded and served as executive director of The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative writing center. She currently teaches at The Telling Room and at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program.

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Today, as part of the Virtual Book Tour of Susan CONLEY with her literary fiction, I’m delighted to interview Susan on things French in her novel!

reading bug 1. Susan, your book focuses on the world of young immigrants in Paris.
It is a very hot topic in France.
What made you choose to tackle this very sensitive aspect of our society?

Susan Conley2I lived in Paris as a college student in the late 1980’s and I fell in love with the city:  with its flan (apparently I have my characters in Paris Was the Place eating flan eight times!) and its fashion and its architecture. I wanted to try to bring the reader to Paris and to make them feel like they were inside the story I was telling:  that they could see the Seine and hear the jazz singer in the cave-like bar in the 6th. In the Paris of 1989 that I lived in, I was an outsider. I was someone who was watching and learning about this amazing country. One of the things I realized back then was that France was beginning to have polarizing opinions about immigrants in their country. These opinions would later codify into party platforms and decisiveness across the whole country.

2. Why did you send your heroine Wiilie to work in an immigration center in Paris? Why not New York or L.A., for instance? Gita, one of the main character, comes from India; and Willie is researching about an Indian poet. Why did you choose India?

I am always trying to get people on the road in my writing:  I believe that once people are in trains and planes and automobiles then their minds become more malleable and more open. When someone is an ex-pat (and I’ve been one for a time in Paris and for a longer time in China) and on the road they have to re-invent themselves. It isn’t always easy. We want to belong but we don’t belong. How do we recreate family when we are a foreigner? How do we fit in? I knew a version of Paris in 1989 because I lived there then and I could say something about that Paris. But Willie settles in Paris and it becomes her home and then she needs to disrupt that all over again by getting on a plane to India. I thought India was a vast, fascinating country to land Willie in. I had also traveled there extensively in the early nineties and really wanted to write about its flavor and its complex, rich culture. So even though Willie was living as an ex-pat in Paris and felt very much the foreigner, I took her to India so we could see her face to face with a different, much more unknown culture.

3. Willie grew up in California. Why did you decide to give her the American nationality? In her eyes, how does France compare to the US or to India? What do these 3 countries represent for you?

I wanted the driving power of a good memoir to infuse my novel and so while Willie was a foreigner, looking at Paris from outside its proverbial gates, I needed in contrast to be very much inside her head. I know mostly American women. Though I’ve thankfully spent enough time living outside the States that I call women from many different countries my friends. But it was that American and more specifically Californian (because Californians who are born and raised there are very different than say, your East Coast American women) sentiment that I wanted to get at. Willie was raised by bohemians (smart, driven bohemians but bohemians nonetheless) in the 1960’s in Northern California and this makes her more open I think, to discovering parts of Paris that are off the beaten track. Paris is alluring to her:  she is entranced by the way the women dress, by the delicious food from all over the world, by the Parisian man, Macon, whom she falls in love with. India is much more complicated for Willie than Paris. Time sort of stops for Willie in India and she gets that kind of perspective on her life that we hope travel will give us. I have a feeling she will be living in Paris for a long time and going back to the Himachel Pradesh in Northern India before too long.

4. I enjoyed very much following Willie as she walks or take le métro in Paris. Any out of the beaten path places you would recommend to a tourist going for the first time to Paris?

I think the best part of being a tourist in Paris is getting off the beaten path, so any time you have a chance to explore an unknown corner of Paris, do it! You will invariably find amazing food and people and culture. This is what I discovered when I followed Willie into the 10th and 11th arrondisements and when I dug around back in the 6th with her, looking for a great jazz bar. Gita’s immigrant version of Paris is also very interesting to me. When I go back to Paris I want to see that Indian community:  Brady Passage and the street food there. I will need a month to take it all in.






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4 thoughts on “Interview with Susan Conley – Paris Was The Place

  1. Thank you for the introduction to Susan Conley and her writing. Both books sound of great interest to me! There will definitely be some notes for my next visit to Paris to be made from Paris Was The Place.


  2. Pingback: Susan Conley on Tour: Paris Was The Place | France Book Tours

  3. Pingback: Book Club: 10 titles for October 2013 | Words And Peace

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