Keija Parssinen

I’d like to introduce you to the forty-second interviewee in my ‘Meet the Author’ series. She is Keija Parssinen.

Hi, Keija! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer?

My first formal brush with creative writing came in the form of a poetry workshop I took with Susan Wheeler in the spring of my senior year of college. There were only four other students in the class, and we had to produce a poem a week. I’d been scribbling poems for several years, but it was thrilling to have deadlines to meet and a peer group who cared just as deeply for language as I did. Looking back, I see that class as the beginning of it all, and I’m so grateful I took it just before launching myself out into the world. Even though I was working an entry-level job I wasn’t thrilled about, the promise of poetry and books kept me going because I knew that I had a passion, even if I hadn’t discovered a way to make it my job. I continued to write poetry in my free time, and eventually, two years out of college, I realized I had a longer story to tell, one that wasn’t suited to the poetic form; I sat down and scribbled a few paragraphs and joined a fiction-writing workshop. The work grew, as did my enthusiasm for it. My workshop instructor encouraged me to apply to MFA programs, so I did and received a fellowship to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When I received the acceptance letter, I was temporarily living at my mother’s house in Texas, and I raced out into the yard screaming with joy. She was watering the garden, and she turned the hose on me and soaked me through. It was an incredible moment, and one that changed the course of my life. At Iowa, I met teachers who believed in my writing and encouraged me, and I learned from fellow students who were astonishingly talented and bright and generous with their critiques. Before Iowa, I’d never actually met, let alone interacted with, a real published writer, so it took me a little while to get over being awestruck by these funny, intelligent people who had created actual beautiful books that I could hold in my hand. It was incredibly affirming to be taken seriously as a writer, and the program gave me precious time to devote strictly to writing and reading. Eventually, those paragraphs I scribbled down in Brooklyn became THE RUINS OF US.

Your novel, The Ruins of Us, was published by the Harper Perennial Imprint of HarperCollins Publishing in January, 2012. Can you tell us about your book? What inspired you to write it?

The novel follows the Baylani family, a bi-cultural, bi-racial family living in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Mother Rosalie is American, father Abdullah is an influential Saudi businessman, and their two children, Faisal and Mariam, are poised on opposite ends of a cultural revolution between conservative and liberalizing forces that has been long simmering in the Kingdom. Rosalie’s discovery that Abdullah has taken a second wife rocks the family, and the book follows their struggle in the aftermath of her discovery.

You lived in Saudia Arabia when you were young. Have you gone back to visit since you returned to the U.S.? Is your book well-received in the Middle East?

I returned to Saudi Arabia in 2008 in order to do research for the book. It was an edifying and eye-opening trip back that provided much fodder for the novel. As far as the book’s reception in the Middle East, my UK publisher, Faber & Faber, sells the book in many places across the Middle East, from the UAE to Bahrain to Egypt and Israel. THE RUINS OF US was featured on the news channel Al Arabiyya, along with books by Zoe Ferraris and Kim Barnes that are also set in the Kingdom. I’ve had a few Saudi and Arab readers write to me that they’ve enjoyed the book. A translator from Aleppo, Syria recently offered to translate the book into Arabic! If it happens, it would be wonderful.

You have just finished your second novel. Can you tell us about it? Will it be published by Harper Perennial also?

The novel’s working title is THE GIRLS OF PORT SABINE. It’s set in a small Southeast Texas refinery town at the turn of the 21st century and tells the story of a group of high school girls who develop a mystery illness that manifests in the form of physical and verbal tics. The novel explores the girls’ relationships and secrets and how the various pressures in their lives contribute to the outbreak.

As a brand new mother, how did you find time to write your new novel? Do you have a writing routine?

I wrote the majority of the book while I was pregnant, a time that included a month-long writing sabbatical spent in Texas, where the book is set and where I grew up after my family left Saudi Arabia. I sent the draft to my agent the day before my son was born. Since his birth, I’ve been pecking away at revisions during his nap times and after he goes to sleep at night. It’s complete madness, and I don’t recommend the routine to anyone, because it’s unsustainable and exhausting! I’ve onky been able to keep it up because I’m close to having a final draft. My routine is in flux, now that I have a child’s needs to work around. I read a fantastic interview with a writer whose name now eludes me, but she has four children and mentioned that she now does a lot less dreaming in front of her computer screen. When she is walking or nursing a baby, she spends time working through scenes in her head, so that when she sits down at the computer, she’s ready to focus. Once I started doing that—using that “idle” time to let my imagination roam, I found that the book really came together on the page.

What has your experience with your publisher been like? Is it everything you’d hoped for? Also, can you describe your experience with your editor and your literary agent?

Harper Perennial has been a wonderful publisher to work with. My editor is passionate and energetic and delightful and smart and responsive, and the marketing team did an outstanding job publicizing the book when it came out last winter.

My current editor is not, however, the editor who originally bought THE RUINS OF US. Because of the way the publishing industry is structured, an editor often has to change publishing houses in order to move up the professional ladder, and my original editor took a promotion at Viking about six months after buying my book. At the time, I was devastated; you don’t want to lose the person who is the most passionate about your book, who risked their name to convince the house to spend money on your work! Next, I landed with an executive editor who had years of experience and thoughtfully and carefully shepherded my book through a crucial editing phase. But then she, too, departed to take a position as the Editorial Director of Touchstone at Simon & Schuster. I cried some bitter tears over her departure because as with my first editor, I felt a true connection with her both personally and professionally. But I had no control over the situation and gradually resigned myself to it. In the end, I wound up with an editor who not only cares a great deal about my book but who has also become a dear friend. And as a result of all the changes, I now have three lovely and talented editor friends scattered around at three of the Big Six publishing houses, and over the past three years, it’s been a lot of fun to follow their careers.

You are the Director of the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop in Columbia, Missouri. How did you get involved in teaching? What is the most important advice you can give new authors? How can Missouri authors find out more about your workshops?

I first taught fiction writing at the University of Iowa, as a Teaching-Writing fellow. There, I honed my skills as an instructor and developed a substantive curriculum, but it was actually my experience as a student in a workshop many years earlier that first alerted me to the importance of passionate, dedicated teaching to the development of a writer’s craft. I signed up for my first fiction workshop through Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Workshop, where I met teacher Julia Fierro, who became a great friend and mentor. Seeing how much my writing changed for the better through her workshops sold me on the benefits of the workshop model and inspired me to start the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop after I earned my MFA. Students often come to class with the misconception that they will learn the most when their work is being critiqued by the class, but it is actually through the careful critique of others’ work that you gain the most insight into what does and doesn’t work well in a story or novel. I attribute this to the fact that when we discuss others’ work, we are less emotional and therefore more clear-eyed about how the work can be improved.

The most important advice I can give to new authors is to protect their love of the process of writing. After a person publishes a book and makes the leap from amateur to professional, she starts to see how the gears of the publishing industry work and can perhaps become a bit too caught up in the trappings of financial and critical success. Those external rewards for her work are nice, but it’s crucial that she maintain a kind of purity of heart when it comes to the work, taking joy in the act of writing for the pure pleasure of producing a beautiful, honest sentence, rather than for the attention that the work might attract, or how commercially viable the work might be down the line.

You live on a limestone cliff on the edge of a quarry in Columbia, Missouri. Does that location help inspire you in your writing?

It hasn’t yet! First I wrote my Saudi book, then my Texas book. Maybe my Missouri book is taking root somewhere deep in my imagination.

If you could meet any book character, who would it be, and what would you do with them?

I would love to have coffee with Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables. I’m convinced we’d be bosom friends. And I’d like to have a martini with Lily Bart of The House of Mirth. She needs a good girlfriend to give her some better dating advice.

What books or authors have most influenced you in your own writing?

I adore the psychological complexity and gorgeous lyricism of Virginia Woolf’s books. The biting social commentary in Edith Wharton’s novels reminds me that books are powerful tools of subversion. James Salter writes sensuous and poetic novels that inspire me. As for more contemporary authors, Kate Atkinson’s books are tough, smart, fun, and genre-defying, and reading her helps me recall that, yes, books should be artful, but they should also be entertaining. Aminatta Forna and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie transport me in their books, while courageously grappling with the most difficult material–war, politics, country, identity, race.

Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!
On Facebook at “Keija Parssinen”
On Twitter: KeijaParssinen


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