Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Author Spotlight: Keija Parssinen

author, Kieja Parssinen
Hey everybody, I have another guest with me today on Legs! Meet  Keija (pronounced Kay-a) Parssinen, author of the novel The Ruins of Us, which was published by HarperCollins and debuted last month! Keija was born in Saudi Arabia as a third generation ex-patriot, studied at Princeton and the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she held a Truman-Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Keija now lives with her husband in Missouri. The Ruins of Us is Keija's first novel.

Keija, you lived in Saudi Arabia for several years as a third generation expatriate. What strikes you the most about the place you were born? How has being an expatriate influenced your writing?

Saudi Arabia is a complicated country where people are constantly trying to reconcile tradition with modernity. It’s an ancient land, birthplace of Islam, yet also an oil-rich country where the government can build entire cities almost overnight. And finally, it’s one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, yet its people are increasingly more educated and less inclined to accept their voicelessness. Though the Arab Spring hasn’t quite arrived in Saudi Arabia the way it has in neighboring states like Yemen and Bahrain, there is growing restlessness among Saudis who want more from their lives and expect more from their government. I find Saudi Arabia an endlessly fascinating and complex place, which is probably why I chose to write about it—a teacher once told me we write about the relationships that perplex us, and in this case, I’ve chosen to write about my relationship to my birthplace. As an expatriate child, I struggled to define where I was from; I’m still not entirely certain I know the answer to that question. But I think being caught between worlds is a marvelous standpoint for a writer, as it lends itself to a kind of outsider’s inquisitiveness.

Your main character, Rosalie, is an American-born and living in Saudi Arabia at the start of your novel. You yourself were born in Saudi Arabia. In what other ways are you different from your main character? In what ways do you feel you are similar?

Rosalie and I share an obsession with the country of our childhoods—Saudi Arabia—and a longing to return to that land. Unlike me, however, Rosalie is willing to sacrifice so much in order to achieve that reconnection with the country. As a staunch feminist, I know I’d never be able to immerse myself in Saudi culture the way Rosalie does, no matter how tempting it is to imagine marriage as a way to access the past.

What would you say was the most challenging part of writing The Ruins of Us?

The Ruins of Us,
by Kieja Parssinen, came
out January 2012
In the course of my research about Saudi Arabia, I learned some hard truths about the Saudi-American political relationship, and that knowledge threatened to turn me into a cynic about my childhood. I asked myself: did my family and families like ours even belong in the Gulf, where our everyday lives were lived in near total isolation from Saudi citizens? Was my childhood somehow fraudulent or fake because of that isolation? And in studying radical Islam, I also found myself questioning the tenets of multiculturalism I’d grown up believing in. Is it possible for the people of two vastly different cultures to understand and appreciate each other’s religious, social, and cultural traditions, or are they doomed to anger and misunderstanding fuelled by biased media on both sides? When I traveled back to Saudi Arabia in 2008, though, I was reminded of all the wonderful things about the country—the dramatic landscape, the generous and kind people, the ancient history and astounding growth and development. Traveling “home” restored legitimacy to my memories and experience.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer throughout this writing and publishing process?

I enjoy exploring characters’ minds more than anything else about the fiction writing process. If I’m not careful, I can spend paragraphs and paragraphs inside a character’s head, which is, of course, detrimental to the story! So I’ve learned to temper that habit in favor of moving the narrative forward. Now, I think I’ve achieved a nice balance in my work, but it took a while to arrive here!

What books have most influenced your writing?

A few books influenced me heavily during the writing of The Ruins of Us: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Light Years by James Salter; and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. From The Poisonwood Bible and The Hours, I learned so much about point-of-view and voice, and from Light Years and Housekeeping, I learned how to incorporate poetry and lyricism in prose. And all the books are character-driven works of fiction, which is what I strive to write.

What books are you currently reading?

I’m reading The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, about Sierra Leone before and after the civil war that gutted the country. It’s an outstanding book--captivating on a sentence-level, engrossing on a larger story-level. Through the book, she manages to teach so much about the heart of a complicated country, and to enmesh the personal and political through several love stories. I’m also reading Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, because I aspire to incorporate a thread of mystery into my next book, so why not learn from the best?

If you had to choose, which author would you consider a mentor?

Samantha Chang, Anthony Swofford, and Scott Spencer were such wonderful teachers. They valued my work and encouraged me to pursue the novel, even when it was nothing more than a mess of strung-together chapters. Sam was always very practical about how to approach novel-writing, sharing great craft-based tips that somehow made the mysterious process more manageable; Tony and Scott gave me confidence through their belief in my talent. They were funny and kind and generous with their time.

"...value process over product. If you care more about publishing a book than you do about writing, there's something wrong!"

Finally, what would you say to aspiring novelists?

I always tell my students to value process over product. If you care more about publishing a book than you do about writing, something’s wrong! Focus on the work, on bettering your craft, so you can make the best book you’re capable of making. If you’re talented, and if you do that, publication will hopefully follow, but it doesn’t always. I’ve known extremely talented writers who haven’t been able to publish beautiful manuscripts. But if you love the process of writing, you will find gratification in your art no matter what the end result.

I hope you enjoyed reading Keija's responses! If this interview was interesting or helpful to you, I know Keija would love to hear from you! Leave her a comment below! You can also visit her website. Click HERE.

Would you like to read The Ruins of Us for FREE? Keija and her publishers have agreed to give away a copy of this book to one lucky person. To be entered to win, fill out the rafflecopter form below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Thank you for the chance to win this book. It sounds fascinating - great for my book club!

  2. I was very pleased to be able to interview Keija! So glad you enjoyed this post, JD!

  3. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating story! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview (both of you), and I hope to get my hands on a copy of this book sometime soon :)



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