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February 18, 2011

Book Notes - Susan Conley ("The Foremost Good Fortune")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Susan Conley marvelously blends her experience as an expatriate in China, motherhood, and her experience with breast cancer into the thought provoking memoir The Foremost Good Fortune. With rare humor and a vivid obsession for detail, Conley honestly shares the story of her own travels both geographic and personal.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Humorous, emotionally up-front, and politically challenging, Conley paints cultural landscapes for others who may not get the chance or choose not to live abroad."

In her own words, here is Susan Conley's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune:

I wrote the first draft of my memoir The Foremost Good Fortune in a Beijing music black out. I was living in China for two years with my husband and two young sons and internet connections were sketchy (this was back before the 2008 Olympics—before China's great coming out party) and my iTunes account didn't work. I'd brought a few CDs with me to Beijing. But after a month of writing to the same Van Morrison and Madeleine Peyroux, it felt like it was going to be a long Beijing winter if I didn't find more music in China.

There were black market CD stores in Beijing's back alleys and I started going to them for anything to shake up my playlist. These stores carried Dolly Parton and Frank Sinatra and Abba. Lots of Abba. There wasn't a lot there to add to my sound track. But eight months after we'd moved to China, I found out I had cancer.

The Foremost Good Fortune changed from being a book about mothering in China to a book that was also about contending with cancer in a foreign land. My book changed. My life changed. And then my playlist changed.

We moved back to the States for a summer of cancer treatments and here is where I began gobbling up enough songs to get me through the next year in Beijing after my radiation was over. The playlist I chose here is a soundtrack of what I listened to when I wrote the memoir. The memoir is a kind of road trip through China and then through cancer. And then home again.

"All of My Days" by Alexi Murdoch from the Away We Go movie soundtrack

This song was how I started most of my writing days in China. It is a quiet, meditative, gentle song and it got me into a writing place, day after day, no matter how bad the pollution was in Beijing. No matter how bad the homesickness was at first.

R.E.M "Night Swimming"

China's capital city is a dazzling, wondrous place. But there is this sense of how far the sea lies beyond our reach. I longed for the ocean in Beijing. This song would take me back to the skinny-dipping and the cold water. The song is also a study in quiet and a distillation of a very simple story. This was the kind of crystallized narrative I worked towards in the book. I like to play music before I write to set the mood and tone. I listen and move about the apartment getting ready, and then I turn the music off and go to my desk to carry on more of the conversation with the songs on the page. This is what I do with "Night swimming" anyway. It's part of the pre-writing ritual.

Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" has a sacred spot on the book's playlist. This is because my younger son, Aidan, wouldn't stop playing this song the first few months we lived in China. He played it over and over, compulsively—and the song made its way into my head. We were all exhilarated and wobbly from living in China that first season. And this song got us through. We didn't speak the language. I got cancer. But at least Johnny Cash was having a harder time than we were, and he'd written this great song about it—with a big band, mariachi sound and those opening trumpets. What I did was take Aidan's obsession with this song and turn it into an early chapter of The Foremost Good Fortune, so in a way this song became part of the very bedrock of the book.

"Long May You Run" by Neil Young is the best love song to a child that I know of—Young's scratchy, melodic ode to his son. I have two sons of my own. And this song was on my playlist long before I got cancer. This song helped me to write my memoir with an open heart and a frame wide enough to capture my boys in China, translating their own experiences into a little boy dialect they could understand.

"I Must Be Saved" by Madeleine Peyroux was part of the morning writing playlist. I go to her when I want my writing to be very still—when I want it to be as transparent as I can make it. I didn't need to be saved in Beijing, the way the woman in this song does. But my book needed access to the kind of vulnerability that Peyroux's voice can evoke. And I needed to understand a woman who must be saved.

"And the Healing Has Begun" by Van Morrison

Back in the States during my summer of cancer treatments this was the first song I got my hands on. I needed this song. I love almost everything Van Morrison does, but this song was important for all the obvious reasons and because of its great musicality—its big symphonic moments that inspire bursts of hope in me.

David Torn's "Lars and Margo" from the Lars and the Real Girl Soundtrack

This soundtrack is trippy and lovely and has a haunting quality. All of which I love. I put this song on the playlist very early on in the writing of the The Foremost Good Fortune, because this song made me get quiet. And so it made the book better.

"No Bad News" by Patty Griffin

When I finished the second draft of The Foremost Good Fortune I was living in a cottage down a long dirt road in the woods in Maine, listening to a lot of music. I came downstairs after I'd written the last word of the draft, put this song on and turned it up loud. I can't not dance to this song. There is an urgency to its acoustic guitar and to Griffin's big vocals. The song is warding off disease. It's a song that refuses to allow for bad news: "So leave the rest of us, because there's a lot of us, who want to live in peace to live in peace." So I danced that day in Maine to this song and it became a kind of anthem for me. And for the book.

Susan Conley and The Foremost Good Fortune links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book
excerpt from the book (at the author's website)
excerpt from the book (at
excerpt from the book (at the Daily Beast)

BookPage review
Boston Globe review
Brews and Books review
Portland Phoenix review

Blog Talk radio interview with the author
Christina Baker Kline guest post by the author
She Writes interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists