Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Fever-dream First Drafts: Susan Conley’s New Novel Landslide

Interview by Linda Mahal

April 2021

 

Stonecoast faculty member Susan Conley is the author of five critically-acclaimed books, including her newest, bestselling novel Landslide (Knopf ’21)named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, as well as a Best/Most Anticipated Book of Winter '21 by Good Morning America, The New York Post, Medium, Bustle, Biblio Lifestyle and others. She’s been awarded multiple MacDowell Colony Fellowships, as well as the Breadloaf Workshop Fellowship, the Maine Arts Commission Literary Fellowship, and the Massachusetts Art Commission Fellowship.

In Landslide, Conley’s novel of the Maine coast, Jill Archer must navigate the fraught joys of love and work after husband Kit is injured in a catastrophic fishing accident. As she and her teen boys struggle to find the sweet spot between connection and freedom, Jill must also decide whether to jump ship on her relationship with Kit or ride out the storm and hold her family together—all while keeping her artistic ambitions afloat. In this generous interview, Susan shares some of the secrets of the writing of Landslide as well as her thoughts on the inner lives of boys, writing and the climate crisis, teaching at Stonecoast, and her plans for the future.

 

Could you tell us the story of your process of writing Landslide, from its inception and your first drafts? What was the point at which you really knew what the novel was going to be about? 

Landslide was a novel that had been kicking around in my imagination for a few years. When I actually wrote it, it happened in one of those fever-dreams you hear about where the writing itself came pretty quickly. I probably had a draft done in the school year (about nine months), which is how I’ve tracked my writing time since my boys were born: when are they in school so I can really drop into my writing mind and go away for a while in my head? 

But the ideas of what the novel was about were cooking for a couple years before I did that fever-dream first draft. Case in point: while doing some thinking for these interview questions, I poked around in my old, sporadic, writing journals and found an entry from 2015 that goes like this:

“I could write a memoir about parenting boys. Pre-teen and teen boys. Day in the life. I could do that. Not sure if my boys would let me. Think not.”

I think I’d sold my previous novel Elsey Come Home then and was done with the first big round of copyedits. So I had some time on my hands. A month later there’s another kind of cryptic journal entry. The idea of Landslide is still there for me, but it’s not cohered or coalesced yet at all: 

“She has two sons. She is a Mainer who got away for a while and came back. But it hurts my head to think of another novel right now.”

At this point, I knew that part of me wanted to write a novel that captured teen boys and celebrated them in a way that I wasn’t seeing done in contemporary fiction much at all. Instead, many books seemed to skip the teen years or go for the easy, reductive masculine stereotypes that sell boys out. 

My imagination kept circling the idea of a new novel, and in a later journal entry the frame of it is clearer: 

“I am thinking about a novel that starts when the girl is ten in rural Maine and goes through the death of her husband, and how she has to raise her two sons by herself on the coast of Maine. It is a novel about telling the truth. One of the boys really struggles and almost becomes lost to the mother, and we chart his transformation, and this is the heart of the novel.” 

What’s really darn interesting to me in reading this entry, is that when I eventually began writing the novel that became Landslide, I did in fact have the father die. But then the book was far, far too sad for me to really continue with it. I saw, in writing it one way, that it couldn’t be written that way. And I learned something crucial. The scaffolding had begun: mother with two teen boys on Coast of Maine. 

Eventually the father would get badly injured and be stuck in a hospital up in Nova Scotia. This was a way for me to get around his death. He need not die to be absent from his family’s life, and in this way I could leverage the tension of his work as a fisherman and the danger inherent in that industry. What’s fascinating to me in terms of this process question that you’ve asked here and in terms of my journal entries which stand as a kind of proof, is that after I wrote the above entry in late December 2015, I then abandoned the idea of this novel again it seems. 

Or I should say that I only held the idea of the novel in my imagination. Because I am always holding a novel in my imagination—trying it out as I go through the day. Testing it for leaks. And for durability. In a subsequent journal entry, I appear to be toying with the idea (now seemingly delusional, because of how much I would have regretted it) of writing a book of historical non-fiction about the Maine fishing village I grew up near. I write in my journal that I will “trace family trees” and weave my own family life into the book as well as the settling of the land in the 1800’s that my family now lives on. This book will be in part about “class jumping” and how my own father, a third-generation Mainer, jumped class. I ended up doing some writing for this book idea that was focused mostly on place after this, and that place writing did in fact become the anchor of my novel Landslide. So go figure. It’s all iterative for me. It’s all organic. And it’s all about tension and heat and voice. 

There was never a clear moment when I knew what Landslide was “about.” I honestly believe that aboutness shifts: scene to scene. Chapter to chapter, as we write. And reader to reader when they read. But I did very consciously narrow my lane of the book. I got very clear about what it was and wasn’t going to cover in terms of its cinema, and I knew that it would depict teen boys with respect, and it would render the inner life of a feminist Mom who was left to raise these boys by herself while she tried to be an artist who made enough money to get by. This I knew. Then it was my job to see what the characters really wanted, and to keep the novel in its narrow lane. 

 

Was it a conscious decision to overturn gender expectations by choosing a female character to be the rock to which the male characters are tethered? What spurred you to write about female strength and male vulnerability?

I have been fixated on gender bias and on the masculinization of our culture for years. I have two of the boy species that I am raising. My boys and I have candid, uncomfortable talks about misogyny and consent and sex and pleasure and drugs and loneliness. The inner lives of boys and the sheer vulnerability of boys goes unnoticed so often in our culture and in our literature. So I pointedly wanted to show those inner lives in my novel, and I very much wanted to do it via dialogue with a strong Mom character. 

We were living through a presidency during which women’s strength and women’s knowledge and feminism were derided. By feminism I mean that simple belief that men and women are equal and deserve to be treated as such. So yeah—I made Jill, who is the mom, the anchor of Landslide, and then I piled up all these pressures on her, the way any Mom I know lives with a pile of pressures. I watched to see what she would do after that, and if she could “carry” her family and carry the book.

 

The shadow side of Jill’s ability to keep it all together is her denial. We see her turning away from truths or presenting half-truths, but we also see moments where she’s accountable, at least to herself. She’s reading a book about an expedition to the South Pole and at one point admits, “It is so cold I could be at the South Pole. I’m no leader. I have not walked us to safety.” Wow. 

Yes. The stakes are high for Jill. I was very intentional about making them so. She’s alone on a very small island with her two teen “wolves.” Winter is closing in. They should be off the island by now. It’s only where they live during fishing season. One of her sons is doing drugs, and her husband is becoming more and more distant up in that hospital in Nova Scotia. She doesn’t feel like she’s getting it right. Her husband wants her up there with him. Her boys want her with them. She has a larger sense here in this scene that you’ve grabbed, of not getting it right—of not doing it right. This moment is also a reference to all the smaller misses she’s had in the novel—moments where her boys call her out for little things like her cringey singing in the car and her attempt to use “text” language to talk to them LOL. 

One of the keys for me in writing the book was calibrating Jill’s voice—both her external voice and her internal voice that she uses to talk to herself. She is often drily funny. Or at least she thinks so. The boys maybe not so much. This moment where she admits that she’s not a leader is meant to elicit just the reaction that you just shared here above: wow. And it’s complicated. Jill is a good leader, actually. I certainly think so. Her beloveds are all alive, and everyone is fed and dressed, and there’s hope that things may be okay. Part of Jill actually believes that she’s a good leader. Part of her doubts herself. Therein lies one of the novel’s key tensions. 

 

The novel strikes at the heart of a parent’s fears about losing their children—to suffering, failure, adulthood, other people, and death. The boys are most like wolves, Jillian’s nickname for them, to me, when they circle and taunt her with their knowledge of these fears. Her younger son Sam warns her, “Did you know that I’m almost ready to leave this place? You should be ready . . . You should watch out. Any day now.” Is such cruelty an inescapable part of intimacy?

Oh yes. Speaking from experience, teen boy wolves can be exceedingly cruel in the name of intimacy. They’ll cut you down and put you in your place, over and over. When I began to pull the extended metaphor of boys as “wolves” through the whole book, I was conscious of how much boys love to live in packs and are devoted and fiercely loyal to the pack. In the case of Landslide, the “pack” is really their brotherhood: Sam and his older brother Charlie. The two of them wrestle like wolves, and they protect each other in the end. They are also smart and stealthy like a good wolf and at times a bit feral. 

I think that Sam, the younger wolf in the book, loves his mother, Jill, fiercely, and he’s always testing her. Testing what it will be like to actually leave her. He will not want to leave when the time really comes, and he already knows that and that he’ll still have to go. It’s one of the most archetypal separations. The boy from the mother. And thus the meanness. Jill knows all this—she knows it’s her invisible work to suffer his blows and lances and to keep him on the rails and keep him moving forward with humor and love and old Fleetwood Mac songs on the car radio, which he hates. 

 

The environmental catastrophes of global heating, rising sea levels, and the disastrous loss of fishing stocks cast a shadow across the plot and are intrinsic to the setting of Landslide. As Jill says with regard to a particular storm, “It’s a completely helpless feeling. You want to do something. You want to go outside and physically do something, anything, but you can’t stop the weather . . . We could never make it back across the channel now in any kind of boat.” Could you speak about your feelings as a writer living at this time, amidst these apocalyptic concerns? 

I recently had some great correspondence with my friend and fellow Stonecoast faculty member, Rick Bass. We were getting ready for an event we were doing together, and he told me he was going to ask me this question: how do you choose? Novel writing or activism? The question really distills the larger question that you’re asking me here. For me, the novel was the activism. The novel itself. Not the writing of it. But the actual end-product novel. 

So as much as any novel can be an action, it’s my action. But it is not protest. It is not effecting political change by moving through the grinding gears of local or state politics to talk about urgent omens like warming ocean waters. But in my middle-age I know what tools I have in my toolkit: and one of my tools is to be able on a good day to write. So I write stories that I hope change and open minds. 

Landslide is part of a state-wide dialogue in Maine with fishermen here and with non-profits committed to sustainable fishing. The book is going to be involved with several larger-scale Maine events that will spotlight sustainable fishing and climate change. I’m also hearing from a lot of readers who are really moved by the personal story that frames the larger story of climate change in the novel. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve heard from fishing families who say that the book gets it right: their struggle to fish and to have a sustainable fishery. 

 

You have taught creative writing in a number of programs with a variety of students. What do you think is unique about Stonecoast MFA, and how does being part of the Stonecoast MFA community influence your writing?

Stonecoast has this ethos of risk-taking and of capital C Community. Maybe it’s because we really encourage the cross-pollination of genre. Maybe it’s because we are all about inclusivity and about building people up, not taking them down. Maybe it’s because of the wicked talented (as we like to say in Maine) faculty that I get to teach with—but our students are held up and supported and encouraged to take risks from the moment they start in the program. 

Our semester-long, one-on-one mentorships are unlike anything I’d ever been a part of until I came to Stonecoast. I was honestly skeptical at first. But then I experienced that deep level of trust and intimacy that comes from being immersed in the writing journey with one student for five months. You really get to know the work and to trust the process during those five months. And time and time again, I watch writers emerge from a semester emboldened. 

 

What’s next for you, your writing, and your life?

I’m just coming off the (virtual) book tour for Landslide, so I’m exhaling and looking around and letting ideas cook in my mind. I’m also doing that thing in my journal that I did with earliest, nascent ideas for Landslide: trying out storylines and plot points and tension levers and voice. Then seeing what rises to the top in my imagination. The new novel will be about girls and power. That much I know. But the rest won’t reveal itself until I start writing “into” the idea and letting the characters talk in time and place. Then I’ll see what they’re telling me. I’ll see the questions the characters are asking of eachother and of themselves in scenes, and I’ll begin to cohere a shape. So exciting and so scary. Here I go again.

As far as my other life goes, for several summers I’d led a week-long writing retreat in this old villa on top of a small mountain in Tuscany. It sounds like I’m making this up. The place is truly ancient, and we write in this big, open library. These workshops were really pivotal to a number of writers (several of whom were actually Stonecoast grads), so I plan to go back there and do that in the summer of ’22. I’m also cooking up some ideas for other community writing adventures for adult writers in Portland, Maine, where I live and where I co-founded the Telling Room, a community writing space for youth that’s thriving here. Maybe now that I feel kind of ancient and have a son who was six when I wrote my first book—a memoir—and is now TWENTY, I’m thinking about how to hold space for more adults to take risks on the page and to find their voices so that we can be in more dialogue. 

 

To learn more about Susan Conley’s life and work, please visit her Stonecoast faculty bio and her author website. Landslide is available from Penguin Random House.