Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Susan Conley’s "The Foremost Good Fortune"

Susan Conley is a native of Maine whose work has been published in magazines such as The Paris Review, the Harvard Review and The North American Review. Her New York Times Magazine “Lives” column about living in China and contending with the H1N1 epidemic got the attention of a lot of readers. As an editor at Ploughshares Magazine in Boston, she wrote book reviews and profiles. She’s also taught creative writing and literature at several colleges.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Foremost Good Fortune is one third of the way through the book. Which means the page lives in a chapter that is still cancer-free, and the book is still a journal of a great family road-trip—part travelogue and part parenting handbook of successes and disasters after my husband, Tony, and I moved our two boys to China.

But in just ten more pages the book paints an uncomfortable scene in an ultrasound room at a Beijing hospital when I begin to learn I have cancer. So what page 99 does is crystallize a few themes the book has been circling: mortality, family history, and candor with kids. On this page the boys and Tony and I have just seen where Mao’s body lies embalmed in an enormous tomb in Tiananmen Square. We’re back in our Buick minivan—partly fascinated by what the Chinese have done with their dead leader and partly creeped out.

And this talk about Mao’s body and his death leads us all into a deep conversation about how my grandfather died and where he is buried back in the States. I don’t know how my boys have connected the dots, but they see Mao’s tomb and begin to think they have a handle on immortality. My younger son, Aidan, says that whenever we want to see my dead grandfather, all we have to do is drive to Vermont and “move the gravestone over” to take a look. So what I also do on page 99 is try to disabuse my kids of this notion. “It must be Mao’s tomb that’s sparked them,” I write.

But first I get air space for a little dramatic monologue about my grandfather. Call it an ode. I never thought the man would feature so much in my book. But he had a huge laugh and an even bigger heart, and I think he helped make me the kind of writer who could move her family to China on the eve of the Olympics. So for this book of mine the Page 99 Test is uncannily good fit.
Learn more about the book and author at Susan Conley's website and blog.

Writers Read: Susan Conley.

--Marshal Zeringue