Author Susan Conley on motherhood, Maine’s fishing industry, and her latest novel

“It’s a question of, ‘what does Maine want to be?’ because I don’t think people realize that the commercial fishing industry is in such peril.”

Susan Conley’s latest novel, Landslide, takes readers to a fishing village in Maine where a family is in crisis. Jill, a documentary filmmaker, is caring for her two teenage sons—whom she calls “the wolves”—as her husband recovers in a Novia Scotia hospital after a fishing accident. Coastal Maine is familiar territory for the Portland-based author, who has written four other books, including Elsey Come Home, and grew up in Woolwich around fishermen. Like her protagonist in Landslide, Conley has two sons, ages 18 and 20. She says she wrote Landslide partly because she wanted to write a novel about the collapse of the groundfishing industry in Maine. “I knew it would involve the slow deaths of many working waterfronts, but I also really wanted to write a book about what happens when you’re a mother and your teenage boys are in the act of leaving,” says Conley. “Even though they’re not physically leaving yet, there’s this great separation that occurs.” 

Landslide was published on February 2 and can be preordered from bookstores everywhere. Read the beginning of the novel excerpted in the January/February issue of Maine magazine here.

How much of your own relationship with your sons and your own experience affected the novel?

It’s a very fictional novel. Lots of the life moments will line up with mine in some ways, but obviously I’m not married to a fisherman. I call this the amalgamation of all the teenage boys I’ve known, and I’ve known a lot of them. They are a wolf pack, and they roam, and they’re in my house a lot. And there’s this comic timing with them, with the dialogue, if you can pick up on it. It’s funny, we’re making a book trailer for the novel, and we’re filming it this weekend. I have some teenage boys playing the boys in the novel, and they started delivering the lines so naturally, like they had said these exact same things to their mother. It was kind of uncanny.

What do you think about teenage boys makes them an interesting or funny subject?

I think they’re very misconstrued. There’s this great myth about teenage boys that they are somehow menacing by and large and that they like trouble. And then when you actually get to spend time with teenage boys, they’re disarmingly innocent and authentic. They’re very authentic and perhaps even more naive than one might think. We’ve had the great pleasure of having exchange students here from other countries for different years, and it’s amazing how they also speak boy. They all speak boy, which sometimes orbits like sports and certain movies, music obviously. But there’s this wonderful shorthand. And maybe that gets at the funniness, because there’s so much that’s unsaid in the dialogue, and the whole thing operates off a great deal of irony. That is the bread and butter, I think, it’s the irony. And there’s this deep understanding between them. And then you have to pretend you’re in on it, too, when you’re the mom.

Part of the novel seems to be about the tension of wanting to hold on to parts of the past, even if you know they’re changing—whether it’s a relationship or something larger like the fishing industry. In your own life, how do you approach those situations when you want to hold on but know life is moving on?

That’s the great tension of being a parent. First, you are just growing and nurturing a child, and then it suddenly turns, and it’s almost this invisible moment. And then you’re preparing them for takeoff. It’s a very, very distinct difference, but you don’t really know it’s happening until it’s all but happened. And then of course, to your point, you’re not supposed to hold on. So, I suspect that as time goes on, I’ll realize that this book was like my way of processing their leave-taking, and also celebrating them. At the same time, I wanted to try to grab, and kind of nail on the page, this version of Maine—working waterfront Maine, fishing Maine, particularly groundfishing Maine—that is teetering now.

What did you do for research on the groundfishing industry and the individuals involved?

I’m a fourth-generation Mainer and my father was third-generation. Some of his best friends are and were lobstermen and fishermen. That was just part of the deal growing up in midcoast Maine, you know? It was very common for us to be on lobster boats. His best friend was a lobsterman, and we were on that boat a lot. So, I kind of knew the vernacular and the lay of the land to some degree. And I had lived in coastal Maine all my life. It wasn’t too much of a reach to be in conversation with fishermen pretty quickly. You talk to one person, and then you’re talking to another person, and then you’re talking to one of the remaining fishermen out of Port Clyde. These are iconic kinds of men. They are men, by and large, that I talked to, because there are so few left. And I hope that message gets across.

What message?

That this is an inflection point for commercial fishing in Maine and it’s teetering. It’s a question of, ‘what does Maine want to be?’ because I don’t think people realize that the commercial fishing industry is in such peril. They think lobstering and fishing are kind of the same. They see some boats, but they’re two very different industries. If you were someone who was holding onto some sort of nostalgic idea about what groundfishing was in Maine, you can let go of that. I think they might turn the corner, but people need to buy more Maine fish. That was really one of my biggest takeaways from my research—people need to buy Maine-caught fish. And I don’t think people realize that, you know?

Why do you think the image of a Maine fisherman is idealized and romanticized so much?

Because it really does ring true. It’s that the brand kind of delivers. It’s the authentic way of life. As one fisherman said to me, he is an independent cuss-er. They are really like salty dogs, I mean, self-described, and they’re hunters of the sea. They are autonomous. There is that idea that you can still be self-sufficient and have this life in nature when you’re a Maine fisherman. And then there’s the allure of the beautiful fishing hamlet, like the postcard villages.

Why do you think it’s important to protect the industry?

One guy I was talking to, he did a study, and his boat alone will generate $200,000 of income for the coastal community. There was this domino effect, from the icehouse to the gas station to the gear store and on and on. There’s also a huge movement in Maine to hold on to cultural legacy and cultural heritage. I mean, it is kind of what we are. Groundfishing was one of, if not the largest, industry in Maine for a really long time. In a way, it’s what our state—certainly the coastline of our state—was built on.

How do you balance that with the fact that some waterfront communities need more investment? You see this playing out in places like Boothbay, where there are people trying to develop parts of the waterfront and others wanting to protect it.

What it comes down to is waterfront access for fishermen. If they don’t have access to somewhere to store their gear, park their cars and trucks, and dock their boat, you lose the working nature of a village. You can become a one-trick tourist pony, and that’s risky, very risky. You lose the thing that fishermen came for and the people came for. So, then it becomes this meta thing, and you’re a petting zoo. I think that’s a huge risk. Also, again, hundreds and hundreds of people still orbit the fishing industry, and retraining fishermen is really hard. It’s really a very intense story. There’s a lot of desperation. I mean, we went from 300 boats in the Maine fleet in 1978 to 20 now. We’re talking perilous.

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