New Books We Love: The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

I first met Keija Parnissen last summer when she and her husband Michael stopped by The Missouri Review’s summer launch party. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but we talked for a solid half-hour about … well, a little bit of everything, with that effortless rhythm that happens when I speak to someone genuinely interesting. And it is also really wonderful to know that there is a writer here in Columbia not immediately connected to the university, and thriving with her own work.

Keija has just released her deubt novel, The Ruins of Us, on Harper Perennial. Calling her a local writer is only half-accurate: she’s lived in Saudi Arabia, Texas, New Jersey, Iowa, and now, right here in Columbia where, among other things, she runs the Quarry Heights Workshop. Between flying around the country to give readings and celebrate her book publication with her family and friends, she took the time to sit down and answer a few questions for TMR about her new novel.

TMR: When asked about his famous character, Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, she is me.” I’m sure you get lots of questions about how autobiographical your characters are. What elements of yourself do you see in Rosalie? In Abdullah? In Faisal? In Miriam?

Parssinen: While I find it irksome that people assume every work of fiction is autobiographical, Flaubert’s quote gets at the heart of the matter—obviously he’s not a housewife who embarks on a disastrous adulterous affair, but it is he who breathed life into Emma and established her emotional and psychological being. In that way, the author is every character in her book, for she is their creator. So while Rosalie, Abdullah, Miriam, Dan, and Faisal are removed from my biography by virtue of our differences in age, religion, provenance, and in some cases, sex, they are born of my imagination, cultivated from my knowledge of pain, joy, betrayal, love. They are, indeed, me.

TMR: How did you decide to expand your narrative outside the family to Dan Coleman? Why does Isra not also get her own storyline?

Parssinen: The novel actually began as Dan’s story because I felt most comfortable writing in his voice. He’s the battle-hardened expat living as a stranger in a strange world, and I’d known his kind, both within my family and without. I wanted him to serve as the novel’s Nick Carraway, to observe the family in turmoil and report to the reader from a distance. But of course, as Nick and Dan both discover, the observer inevitably becomes enmeshed in the storyline, and that’s where things get tricky. To me, Isra is the catalyst of the narrative but she is unimportant to it—she reveals the cracks in the façade, but she’s peripheral. And while I found her an interesting character—an educated, progressive Arab woman who agrees to become a second wife—there was no room for her voice in this already-crowded story. Much of the book dwells on what it means to be an outsider, and she truly is one, even down to her authorially-enforced silence.

TMR: What was the most difficult scene to write and why?

Parssinen: I nearly cry every time I read the scene between Dan and Rosalie on the dune, when they’re talking about their failed marriages and whether love is worth it. My parents divorced and it was immensely painful for me and my siblings; even though my parents are now back together, none of us kids has fully recovered from that early pain. It was my first real experience with loss, after leaving Saudi Arabia—and to imagine through Dan and Rosalie’s dialogue the pain of negotiating lost love was excruciating for me, but it also helped me understand my parents’ decisions and work towards forgiving them.

TMR: Often in novels, there are storylines and even characters that have to be “cut” in order to make the novel work. Would you please share one or two things that you had to make the hard choice on, and eliminate from the book?

Parssinen: Thankfully, I didn’t have to cut any of my major characters, but I did have to eliminate pages and pages of character rumination. My poor agent and editor, drowning in all those swirling thoughts and wondering how the devil to create a sense of pacing! They were both very honest with me—“Look, Dan is becoming a HUGE drag, could you please just pep him up a little bit, have him actually do something instead of just be sad and ponder his losses?” I probably cut 40 pages of Dan, pages where I really liked the writing and the mood created and had carefully constructed each sentence. It was incredibly tough but absolutely necessary to excise those parts.

TMR: Do you consider Rosalie and Abdullah’s marriage a “failed marriage”?

Parssinen: Yes, but not necessarily for the reasons you might imagine (his taking a second wife, etc). It failed for those most mundane reasons: they stopped communicating with each other and became complacent within the marriage. And while the second wife presents obvious problems (!) for the union, it had started to die before her emergence on the scene.

TMR: Writers read diversely. The books that are recommended in the back of The Ruins of Us are thematically similar. Take your readers in another direction: what is one book that you recommend and love that is completely different from your writing?

Parssinen: Great question! I love Yannick Murphy’s recent novel, The Call. In it, she experiments with form while telling the story of a Vermont veterinarian’s family living in a creaking old house in the countryside. She takes incredible structural risks, novelistically, and somehow manages to pull off a story that is emotionally resonant and incredibly funny. Though on the surface of things, it’s a domestic, pastoral story, it’s pure magic. I plan to read all of her earlier work, I loved it so much!

If you’re a Columbia resident, Keija’s book launch party here in town is free and open to the public: this Saturday, January 28th, at 7:00 pm, swing by Orr Street Studios and meet her, buy the book (what—you haven’t already?!), and hang out for a few hours. If you’re not in Columbia, skip over to Keija’s site to find out when she is coming to your town and, of course, snag a copy of her book.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye

On Literary Readings and Community

The number of “Best of 2011” lists is pretty daunting. Not only does ever major media outlet have a “Best of 2011” list, some even have a “Worst of 2011.” There are lists for Most Overlooked and Underrated and Overrated and probably several others that my brain is unable to process at the moment. Often the effect of these lists is to remind me that there were many terrific books this past year that I did not read and, perhaps even worse, never heard of in the first place.

While I missed many books this year, I went to a ton of author readings. Last semester alone, I attended about seven events at the University of Missouri (new PhD student readings and visiting writers), probably three more at Orr Street Studios, and another, oh, let’s call it five at Get Lost Bookstore in Columbia. Over the last five months, I probably went to an average of a reading per week. If I sit and think about it for a while, there are also all the readings from this past summer and this past spring, which would then include readings I went to in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., where the AWP Conference was in February.

Believe me, all semester long, I bitched and moaned about going to readings. We all did. Hey, people like to complain. There was definitely a time this semester when I looked at my calendar, and there was something like seven readings in ten days. I tried to make all of them, too. But why? Why did I want to go to all these things? Especially when, as you probably can guess from this, more than once, I had the sinking feeling I didn’t want to go at all.

But readings aren’t just about me. They are about my literary community, my arts community, and even when I’m cranky, it was always the right decision to get myself in gear and attend.

Readings are, in many ways, just like editing a magazine journal. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, editing is a we, and one can get somewhat tired of an I. She was talking, of course, about the difference between being an editor and being a writer, and why being a magazine editor is an attractive vocation. But the same idea – being involved and being for other people rather than just yourself – applies to readings.

Writers, when writing, spend their time alone. The solitude is essential for deep thinking and the process of creation. Loneliness, of course, goes hand-in-hand with this quiet, and after spending years working on something – poems, a novel, stories – getting in front of an audience of people and sharing that work can be a welcome shift.

It can also be a disaster. Many of us, I’m sure, have been to readings that were … well, lackluster. We’ve also been to readings where people are trying a wee bit too hard to be “entertaining.” There are plenty of these stories. This makes the readings that are really and truly an amazing experience. For me, hearing Edward P. Jones read his work is still one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard.

Readings are the chance for writers to be outgoing, extroverted, friendly, celebratory. Listeners, often writers and avid readers too, are warm and gregarious. Alcohol is (hopefully) involved. We gossip. Laugh. Shake hands. We crave remarks and thoughts about the work, discover what other people are working on, what we’re reading: we want to know who and what is being read not just published. We’re eager to talk.

Here in Columbia, there are three regular spots for readings: any event our English Department holds, the Hearing Voices series at Orr Street Studios, and at Get Lost Bookshop down on Ninth Street. I attend as many as I can, and hope that wherever you’re reading this from, you’re doing the same in your part of the world.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye