Susan Conley was drawn early to storytelling. She devoured books in school and on her own, and kept a secret spy journal where she wrote about what she saw every day, just like the main character in one of her favorite books, “Harriet the Spy.”

When it came time for her to pick a form of story-telling to concentrate on in college and grad school, she chose poetry. Poetry, she decided, was the field where she heard the most female voices.

“There was this wild dearth, for me, of women’s voices in literature. We were fed on Shakespeare, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Updike, and we were not reading many women’s voices,” said Conley, 51, of Portland. “The only place I really found women’s voices was in poetry. I was living on poetry.”

Since her college days, Conley has found her own storytelling voice in a variety of forms, including poetry, a memoir and two novels. She’s also helped thousands of Mainers – men and boys, women and girls – find their own voices as a co-founder of The Telling Room, a nationally recognized nonprofit writing center in Portland, and as a teacher in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program. Her latest novel, “Elsey Come Home” (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95), deals with themes Conley has been exploring and giving voice to for years, including the importance of place and the challenges of modern motherhood. The book’s heroine, Elsey, is a once-famed painter living in China (as Conley did for nearly three years) with her husband and two children and dealing with alcoholism. The book’s tight focus is the seven days that Elsey spends, after an ultimatum from her husband, at a yoga retreat. There, she struggles to find herself and come to grips with the idea, which Conley says she and many women of her generation grew up clinging to, that she can “have it all” in terms of family and career.

“There was a belief by many that you were going to meet these great ambitions, and it was going to be easy, but there are enormous compromises to be made,” said Conley. “I think it’s a story that resonates with other women, who realize they can’t do it all either, and this deep sense of guilt of having these ambitions.”

The book goes on sale Jan. 15, and Conley will be having a book launch event Jan. 17 at Mechanics Hall on Congress Street in Portland, organized by Print: A Bookstore. At the free event, she’ll sign books and have a conversation with the audience, moderated by fellow Maine author Lily King.

Well-known in Maine’s writing community, Conley has gotten advance praise for her book from noted Maine authors Richard Russo, Lewis Robinson and Bill Roorbach, among others. A pretty well-known non-Maine author, Judy Blume, said in a blurb for the book that Conley’s writing was “spare and lovely.” She said she loved the exotic setting, the characters and Elsey’s dilemma.


When she was growing up in Woolwich, Conley’s father was a lawyer who had his own practice in Bath, and her mother was a music teacher and ran a pre-school literacy program. Before getting married, Conley’s mother had lived on her own in New York City and Minneapolis and had toured Europe for a time in a Volkswagen Beetle. Her mother always encouraged her to explore the world, to be curious about it, and Conley took her advice.

“I remember reading somebody talking about saving money for (children’s) college and whether you should save every dime or take that trip you wanted to take. The quote was ‘always take the trip.’ And that’s my mom. She would always say to take the trip,” said Conley.

As a youngster, Conley rode the bus for 45 minutes to school, plenty of time to make observations and think of stories. Her teachers in Woolwich, and at Morse High School in Bath, encouraged her creative writing. Living in a rural area – in a house “at the end of a long driveway in the woods” – she dreamed of seeing the world and finding new stories. She went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where she wrote a book of poetry and minored in French. When the opportunity came to spend a semester in France, her parents encouraged her and came to visit her.

She used what she saw in Paris, while studying there in 1989, for her first novel, “Paris Was the Place,” which came out in 2013. She set the book in 1989 Paris, but then created characters that were fresh and new.

After college, she moved to San Francisco, because it was about as far as she could go in the U.S., and worked at a bookstore. She saved her money and bought a $900 open-ended plane ticket that allowed her, basically, to travel the world on the fly. She knew when she was departing, but other than that, she didn’t know what airlines she’d fly or what the other dates of her trip would be. She just had to be ready when she found out when and from where a flight was leaving. Traveling this way, she visited Hong Kong, Thailand, Java, India and Bali.

While in San Francisco, she met her future husband, Tony Kieffer. After her globe-trotting, she enrolled in grad school at San Diego State University. Kieffer was also in grad school in San Diego, focusing on Asian studies. They married while in school and eventually moved to Boston, where they lived for about eight years and where Conley taught literature and creative writing at Emerson College. The couple had two sons, who are now 15 and 18.

In 2002, Conley felt a “calling” to move back to Maine, so the family moved to Portland.

Conley’s next novel, tentatively due out in 2021, is about raising teenage boys in Maine.


In Portland, she was friendly with other writers, including husband and wife Michael Paterniti and Sara Corbett.

One day, while taking a run around Back Cove with Corbett, Conley started talking about an idea she had for a writing center, where writers and other volunteers would help young people who liked to write work on their stories, outside of traditional classroom settings. Corbett was blown away, because Paterniti had a similar idea and had already been discussing it with other Portland people who might help make it happen.

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what Mike has been talking about.’ But when Susan had the same thought, it gave us all more energy to really go out and do it,” said Corbett, an author and journalist. “Susan has an incredible energy. She has a great work ethic and sense of optimism.”

Conley, Paterniti and Corbett founded the writing center they had planned, The Telling Room, in Portland in 2004. Today, the nonprofit writing center, based on Commercial Street in Portland, runs programs, focused on writers ages 6 to 18, to increase their confidence and literary skills and find audiences for their work. The writers and teachers at The Telling Room work with about 4,000 students a year, from more than 70 towns and 100 different schools across Maine. The core programs are free to students, though there are fees for summer camp programs.

In 2015, The Telling Room was presented a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House. In November, when Obama was in Boston to talk about her book “Becoming” at TD Garden, she invited 50 students and adult chaperones from The Telling Room to attend the event as her guests.

“It’s far exceeded my expectations, yet it’s right where I imagined it might be,” said Conley.


In 2008, Conley’s husband got a job in China, working for a financial company trying to infuse more credit into the Chinese economy. While in China, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She came back to the U.S. for treatment, and then went back to China. Though she says she knows she’ll never be “cured” of cancer, she’s been healthy for about 10 years. She wrote a memoir about her time in China called “The Foremost Good Fortune,” which came out in 2011 to critical praise.

During the time her family lived in China, Conley became fascinated with the relationship between Chinese and the foreigners living among them, as she was. She also learned what it was like to live within an American ex-patriot community in a foreign country.

While in China, she also found peace and help when taking a yoga class from a local teacher, both before and after her cancer treatments. All of her experiences in China helped inform “Elsey Come Home,” though the story is from her imagination.

“I like the idea of getting American readers to leave America, to read about another place and get a sense of that place,” said Conley. “I’m fascinated with place, and China is such an extraordinary place.”

Her next novel, which she has already sold to Alfred A. Knopf and is tentatively due out in 2021, is about raising teenage boys (which she is doing) in the place she knows best, Maine.

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