As part of our continuing Q& A series, we talked to visiting faculty member, Keija Parssinen, author of “The Ruins of Us”, and the soon to be published, “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”.
LSU CWP: Growing up in Saudi Arabia, and spending summers visiting family here in the U.S. obviously afforded you the experience of two very different cultures. What aspects of your multi-cultural childhood, if any, influenced your writing?
KP: It was the pull of childhood memories that drove me inexorably toward fiction writing! Saudi Arabia is one of the most complicated, extreme, and fascinating countries in the world. Spending my formative years there was like the ultimate writer’s gift–now I get to spend a lifetime trying to understand it all. Growing up an expatriate child also meant that I had no fixed idea about home, which means my fiction ranges widely in terms of setting. My first book is set in Saudi Arabia, my second in Southeast Texas, and my third in Lebanon. I feel first and foremost that I am a human being, and second, that I’m an American, and that’s very much a byproduct of the multi-cultural childhood.
LSU CWP: As a successful author, what fuels the ideas for your fiction projects, curiosity, imagination, or both?
KP: Because novel-writing demands so much time and attention, you have to be utterly in love with, and compelled by, your subject. A red-hot curiosity to know more about something usually fuels my first several months working on a project. With RUINS OF US, I wanted to better understand Saudi-American relations and what had led to 9/11; with my second novel, THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS, I read an article in the New York Times magazine about an outbreak of inexplicable physical and verbal tics in a group of high school girls in upstate New York. Experts seemed to conclude that it was a case of convergence disorder and mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria, caused primarily by anxiety. Yet the community and parents of the girls rejected that diagnosis and tried very hard to find an organic cause or “real” diagnosis. I found it all so mysterious and wild, and therefore the perfect novel premise. Unlike my first book, this second one doesn’t draw at all on my background, and so I wrote it purely from a place of imagination, rather than memory. It was freeing, but also intensely difficult to make the emotions sing.
LSU CWP: Research for your first novel “The Ruins of Us” which is set in Saudi Arabia, and based on the custom of plural marriage, met with some incendiary reactions. Did that have an effect on how you researched and wrote your soon to be published second book, “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”?
KP: I recently read a great piece of writing advice: The writer must never look away. It means that a writer has an obligation to write honestly, and I fully believe that. Some readers, Saudis in particular, accused me of being too critical of Saudi society. One woman wrote in her Goodreads review, “It must be exhausting to be so critical ALL THE TIME! Ha-Ha!” But that wasn’t at all my agenda. I hoped only to deliver a portrait of Saudi Arabia as I understood it to be, both through my research and my experiences. A writer’s work is also deeply personal–my book isn’t the story of all Saudis, everywhere. It is the story of a very particular family, at a very particular juncture in history. MERCY LOUIS also casts a critical eye on its societal milieu. I suppose like most writers, I am critical by nature, but my hope is that the criticality is counterbalanced by compassion for my characters. When Stephen Spielberg made “Munich,” about the taking of several Israeli hostages and the subsequent Israeli retaliation, both Israelis and Palestinians were angered by his treatment of the material, and he said he took it as a sign he was doing his job correctly–not serving as propagandist for one side or the other, but rather, presenting the material as honestly as he could. All writers must possess a certain degree of fearlessness.
LSU CWP: What advice would you offer creative writing students, especially aspiring novelists?
KP: Practice, practice, practice. Writing is a momentum game, so try to write every day until that beautiful moment when your project catches fire and you can’t bear to be away from it for even a minute. Also, develop a thick skin. This profession is not for the faint of heart–you must prepare yourself for an abundance of disappointment, rejection, and self-doubt. But just get back to the work–the work will set you free. Remember to take joy from the work itself, and you won’t have any trouble returning to the writing desk, even in the face of all of the difficulties that attend this undertaking.
LSU CWP: List five books you believe are “must read”.
KP: I’m going to cheat by listing five classics, as well as five contemporary works:
MRS. DALLOWAY, Virginia Woolf
ANNA KARENINA, Tolstoy
THE AWAKENING, Kate Chopin
THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, Edith Wharton
SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH, Tayib Saleh
HOUSEKEEPING, Marilynne Robinson
THE MEMORY OF LOVE, Aminatta Forna
Anything by Margaret Atwood
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, Jeffrey Eugenides
LIGHT YEARS, James Salter
Keija, along with a few other faculty members, will be featured at the following event, which is free, and open to the public: