Jul 07, 2011|
HK Magazine: Can you tell us about the initial idea for this memoir?
Susan Conley: The book actually started as a travelogue. I came to China with a writer’s mind, thinking that I’d write a book about what happens when you take two little boys—who don’t speak the language and don’t know a soul—and drop them into downtown Beijing. So initially I was going to tell a motherhood story that could resonate with foreign readers. Then I wrote about 100 pages of that before I found out I had cancer. So everything changed and I thought that book was over. It took me a long time to connect the mother side of me with the cancer patient side of me.
HK: How did you realize you could connect them together?
SC: I kept a very short, cryptic cancer journal—just little notes, because I didn’t want to remember much, but the writer in me couldn’t help it when really odd things happened. I remember my first oncologist took me into a room in front of a computer screen, and said, “Here are the statistics on how long it looks like you’re going to live based on your cancer. You’re going to be alive [until] your kids graduate from high school.” And I started to get ashen and feel hot, and almost fainted. She’s a very good and respected doctor, but I knew that she wasn’t the doctor for me. So I started writing about my medical experiences in China, then about the States, and finally realized I had this other half of my book. Another thing is that cancer treatments tend to make your memory murky, and writing kept my mind more attuned in a way.
HK: Did you have concerns about Chinese readers’ reaction to your book?
SC: Yes, I was a little nervous about that. I’m no China expert and I didn’t want to write a fluffy, light and opinionated foreigner story. The only way I found to do it with humanity was to write it in little frames, person by person. I didn’t come to write a book about what I think about China, but to simply tell human stories. I had my most gratifying moment when I heard from Chinese reporters and readers that the book was resonating with them. And the fact that those reviews may help the book reach more cancer survivors around the world is just great.
HK: I sensed a very genuine, raw honesty as I was reading the book. Was the writing process tough for you?
SC: Haha, a very insightful question. I’m a literature professor by trade and write novels, and writing a cancer memoir just wasn’t something I’d imagine myself doing. So as I began the process I wasn’t getting access to material in my mind. And one day, I was feeling flat and unwell after a treatment, and I went home and started writing very explicitly about what I’d been going through. As I revealed a lot of sadness and anger that I hadn’t been able to talk about, I found my voice in the book—a vehicle to carry the stories and emotions. And as a writer, that’s a very important thing—to find your voice.
HK: What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about Beijing?
SC: The obvious “least favorite” answer is the horrible, horrible pollution that hangs over the city. And you couple that with traffic. It gives you a sense of isolation, as if you’re sitting on the edge of the Gobi desert. What I like the most about Beijing is this raw energy. You feel like anything can happen in Beijing on a given day. It’s growing rapidly but still has one foot back in the past, so it’s straddling right now. You get the most fascinating contrast of old and new there. And I miss that. Oh, and dumplings. Me and my family were always hunting for dumplings!
HK: Have you been to Hong Kong before?
SC: I have. I was a backpack traveler here in 1989 on a shoestring budget, wondering how I could make a life out of writing. And 20 years later I’m back here again with my children for my new book—it’s really interesting. My ten-year-old couldn’t help but point out every single different television company name on the neon signs. So it’s definitely embracing commercialism and modernity. But gosh, what a breathtakingly beautiful city it is! I can’t wait to go up to the Peak to see the cityscapes.
Susan Conley’s memoir is now available in major bookstores in Hong Kong.