[dropcap letter=”W”]hen Susan Conley was a teenager washing dishes at Phippsburg’s Sebasco Lodge, she would have laughed if you’d told her she’d be living and raising kids in Maine as an adult. “I was waiting for my ride south,” says the 51-year-old writer, whose newest novel, Elsey Come Home, hits shelves this month. “I was just twiddling my thumbs. I knew there was more out there.”
The memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (2011), the novel Paris Was the Place (2013), and Stop Here, This is the Place (2016), a collection of micro-stories and photographs.
Cofounded The Telling Room, Portland’s youth-focused, nonprofit creative writing center
Of course, she’s now seen a lot of it. She lived for years in Vermont, then California. Elsey Come Home, set at a spiritual retreat on a mountain in China, draws from two years Conley and her family spent living in Beijing. The main character is, well, more troubled than Conley, but has a set of concerns the author can relate to. Elsey is a painter struggling to balance the demands of her art, marriage, and motherhood — or, perhaps more accurately, to balance the world’s expectations of artists, wives, and mothers. If Conley’s travels have been explorations, her character’s are more unambiguously flight.
“Elsey goes to China for an exhibition and never leaves, and that’s very compelling to me, in a way,” Conley says, “to always go, to always take the trip. But maybe it’s because it’s so good here in Maine that we just know we’re coming back to it.”
The place that Conley will always come back to is her family’s camp, near West Point village in Phippsburg. She grew up in Woolwich, but the family spent summers on the peninsula from the time she was in grade school. The property is an old boys camp, built in the 1880s (initials from the first generation of campers are still carved into the walls). At the end of a dirt road, it overlooks an inlet called Water Cove, with Burnt Coat Island just across a stretch of water known as “the gut.”
Things have changed some since the family bought the property more than 40 years ago. Conley’s old employer is now Sebasco Harbor Resort (“it was a lodge then — what’s with this word, ‘resort?’”). As a kid, Conley remembers seeing as many as eight fishing trawlers in the gut; these days, she’s lucky to spot one. The camp itself has been renovated — her parents now live there year-round — but its centrality to her family remains unchanged.
“That’s where we gather,” Conley says. “It’s our sacred place.”