Keija Parssinen became a full-time author after 'The Ruins of Us'

Thursday, September 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:04 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 27, 2013
Keija Parssinen, author of "The Ruins of Us" and a Columbia resident, continues to be a full-time author while raising her 8-month-old son.

COLUMBIA — The framing was all wrong, and the structure could be better.

Keija Parssinen had just gotten off the phone with her agent, and things weren’t going well.

One Read Author's Talk

Keija Parssinen will be giving her last One Read Author's Talk on Thursday evening. The Columbia author's debut novel, "The Ruins of Us," was chosen as the 2013 One Reads selection, and she'll answer questions and sign copies of the novel after the talk.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: William Woods University Library Auditorium in Fulton

Cost: Free

The draft of her second novel had major issues; she needed to rework the whole thing. She was panicking — partly because her agent was right, and she knew it.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Her debut novel, "The Ruins of Us," had been well received, and this second book, "The Girls of Port Sabine," was supposed to cement her career as an author — allowing her to quit her day job and focus on her writing.

Instead, it was crushing her.

She needed to get out of the house. Parssinen, six months pregnant, huffed up and down a nearby walking trail with her husband, Michael Robertson.

The story was strong, he told her, and her second draft would be even better. If she didn’t finish it before the baby arrived, well, they would work it out.

Four months later, on a Friday morning in January, she hit send on an email to her agent with the new draft attached. Moments later she bundled up, got in the car and went to the hospital to deliver her son, Malcolm.

Parssinen's debut novel, set in Saudi Arabia, is often discussed in terms of its relationship to the author's past. But for the Columbia author, whose novel was chosen as this year's One Read by the Daniel Boone Regional Library, the past is only part of the story.

Her maturation and identity as an author owe just as much to her marriage and the birth of her son as they do to her time in Saudi Arabia, which was so vividly evoked the "The Ruins of Us."

The author as a young woman

For Parssinen, her first novel grew out of a jumbled sense of identity and a feeling of never having had a true homeland.

Her early years were spent on an oil compound in Saudi Arabia. Her father worked for the Arabian American Oil Co., and she was raised among the other company families.

Her early memories of the country are still vivid: the grains of sand underfoot as she raced to summit the dunes, the smell of shawarma (a way of preparing meat) roasting on spits in the streets of Al Khobar, the wet sound of camels belching.

Her family left the country "for good" when she was 12 and settled in Texas. Although she was among people who looked, dressed and spoke as she did, she felt out of place in a way she hadn’t in the kingdom.

Instead of belonging to two worlds, she felt as if she didn’t belong in either.

She became fixated on her one-time home. She studied Arabic and the region’s politics at Princeton. But writing became a way for her to recapture the emotional resonance of her experience.

"When I was first friends with her, she was really approaching this material — that she knew in this emotional, intuitive way — in a very academic way," said Jennifer DuBois, one of Parssinen’s literary confidantes and a friend from their master's program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Parssinen finished writing “The Ruins of Us” in 2010, and Harper Perennial published it in 2012 — almost exactly one year before Malcolm was born.

The library chose "Ruins" for One Read more than a year after it was published and more than three years after Parssinen finished writing it.

The story follows Rosalie, an American who marries a Saudi oil billionaire, Abdullah. Years into their marriage, Rosalie discovers that Abdullah has taken a second wife, and their marriage begins to collapse. The novel's central conflict explores Rosalie's burgeoning feeling of being alienated, not just from her marriage, but also from Saudi Arabia.

Why is she smiling?

But Parssinen's relationship with the novel now reveals that she's not singularly obsessed with the past — with her time in Saudi Arabia — but predominantly with her maturation as a writer.

A scene in the middle of the novel describes a Bedouin woman giving birth to a stillborn infant in a tent on the edge of the desert. The woman cradles her child, kisses its head and smiles. "Why is she smiling?" Rosalie asks her friend, "That baby’s dead."

Her friend asks the woman in Arabic and tells Rosalie that the woman's smiling because, even though the child is dead, she is still alive.

Parssinen bristles when she reads that passage now, largely because of the birth of her own son.

Her pregnancy was potentially dangerous. Malcolm was oriented head up in the womb, making anything but a cesarean section risky. Her operation went smoothly, but her turbulent entrance into motherhood gave her an opportunity to compare her real-life feelings with the emotions she had to conjure for her characters.

She realized that "no matter how harsh a climate you live in and how relieved you are that you're also not dead, you're going to be really grief-stricken by" the death of a child.

Imagining marriage wasn’t difficult, she said, because she’d been in long-term relationships before; nor was it a stretch to imagine the end of marriage, since her parents divorced a few years after they returned to the states.

But while the book chronicles the crumbling relationship between Rosalie and Abdullah, Parssinen emerged from the process convinced that marriage "is something worth fighting for."

She married Robertson right after she finished her first draft of "Ruins."

Robertson, for his part, was impressed that her understanding of marriage was so sophisticated.

"When you’re going into a marriage, you don’t want to see the end point, you just see the dawn of it," he said. "And she saw the sun going down on that."

It’s more difficult to assess how successfully she portrayed Saudi culture, particularly her implicit critique of the way women in Saudi Arabia are treated. She began composing "Ruins" without thinking anyone would publish it.

But she was still an outsider, writing about a culture she hadn't seen since she was a child. To counter this, she learned as much about Saudi Arabia as she could and returned to the kingdom in 2008 to reassess her childhood impressions.

At the same time, she embraced her separation as a way to objectively assess the culture.

"I just think that the writer has a special opportunity to really turn an honest eye on society," she said. "Yes, it's critical of Saudi society — but the Americans aren't heroes, either."

Her second novel, set in Texas, turns a critical eye toward the way women in America are treated. But she feels "gutsier" about its subtext this time around. She doesn’t have to pull any punches.

Going full time

After Parssinen sold her second novel, she left her job at Columbia Independent School to focus on writing. Her last day was Sept. 6, a few days after KOPN/89.5 FM. aired sections of her book for One Read. The station reads the entire book chosen for One Read over the course of the month.

This was a seminal moment for Parssinen; she was walking out of her day job to the sound of her own success.

In a way, it was as momentous as selling her novel — it was the moment she went all in.

But not everyone understood this.

When she turned in her resignation, people just assumed, "She's going to be a mom; she's having a baby. Of course, she's going to leave," Parssinen said.

"So they'd say these really nice, wonderful things, like, 'Enjoy that baby boy; you're going to have so much more time with him now,'" Parssinen said.

Sometimes, she just had to interject that she would not be seeing her child any more than when did when she was working at Columbia Independent, she said. She was leaving to become a full-time author. 

Robertson said Parssinen has struggled to shake the perception of a homemaker.

"Work has always been important to me, and after Malcolm was born, it remained important for me to have an identity outside of the home," she said.

To that end, she often leaves the house to write, in essence treating writing as an office job.

Portions of "Ruins" were composed in a shared studio on Orr Street. Lately, she’s been writing at her neighbor’s house while the couple spends the season in Maine.

But that's not to say that her role as a wife, mother and daughter are absent from her fiction.

Although Robertson and Malcolm came into her life too late to find themselves incorporated into her first book, her parents shadow nearly every aspect of “Ruins.”

Robertson said he felt as if she wrote the novel to her father, since his letters from Saudi helped her piece together her image of the country.

But after eight years of writing, researching and talking about Saudi Arabia, she seems to have quieted the part of her that pines for the country she was born in.

"I don’t cling as ardently to my memories, don’t ache to reclaim the vanished land,"  she wrote in a 2012 essay. "I understand that while our homelands shape our story, they cannot be possessed."

She's now the full-time author she dreamed of becoming. And each morning she's able to leave the house to practice her craft. She keeps moving forward, and her second novel, the one that she felt was crushing her, is slated for publication in spring 2015.

As she writes in the essay, "Ever forward we keep moving — people and countries, the world over."

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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