That Texture of Longing and Loss: A Q&A with Keija Parssinen

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

 

The language in Keija Parssinen’s new novel, THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS, recalls the sensation of walking into the ocean at low tide, the lush sentences moving around rather than against me. Though the novel explores dark subjects, the quality of her prose feels warm, inviting--a reminder that sometimes beautiful writing can feel like home.

 

Parssinen’s debut, THE RUINS OF US, took place in Saudi Arabia, her childhood home until she moved to Austin, Texas, at age twelve. Now, with her second novel, she turns to the sticky, Tex-Mex, slow drawl glory that is the American South. What emerges is young Mercy Louis, resident hometown hero and up-and-coming basketball star. But summer brings strange happenings, and no one is spared scrutiny--not even Mercy Louis.

 

Parssinen no longer lives in either Saudi Arabia or Texas--she lives in Columbia, Missouri--but her message is clear: home is the place that always pulls you back.

 

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Brazos Bookstore: Though you've spent your career publishing fiction, the prose in THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS shows you're still very connected to the sound and moves of poetry. A good example is when Mercy illustrates her grandfather's death: "He was fishing at the end of the dock out back of the house when the stroke buzzed through his brain and toppled him into Chocolate Bayou." Have you always been attracted to more imagistic writing?

 

Keija Parssinen: I'm so glad you think the writing is poetic! Yes, I've always been drawn to imagistic writing, both when I read and write. I came to creative writing through an undergraduate poetry class with Susan Wheeler, and when I moved to New York City after graduation, I sought out poetry communities: the 92nd Street Y, Poets' House, the Bowery Poetry Club. I wrote a ton of poetry back then, some of it good, most of it unremarkable; but that poetic education very much shaped my prose voice, and I'm glad of it, even though it means I have to be extra-vigilant when I edit in order to make sure that my sentences don't feel overburdened with poetry. In fiction, clarity is king, but my favorite writers are still the lyrical ones--Woolf, Joyce, Garcia Marquez, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides. 

 

BB: Was finding Mercy’s voice a challenge?

 

KP: It was a joy to write; it sprang pretty organically from the cadences of my youth--country music and that wonderful Texas drawl, with a Biblical twist.

 

BB: In this novel, suspense is a key element. Was that outside of your comfort zone?

 

KP: As most writers will tell you, plot is a bitch--excuse my french--and MERCY'S plot was no exception. I agonized over the plotting, both macro and micro, in this novel, so that I wound up doing about four complete overhauls of the book. Recently, I found my stash of notebooks, and I filled four legal pads, front to back, with outlines and notes about plot. In suspense fiction, where pacing is crucial, the details must lock into place at just the right time or the whole machine feels out of whack. So nailing down the timing, and paring back the interiority that I naturally gravitate toward, were the two biggest challenges I faced. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go write my quiet, interior novel about a single character who never leaves her house!

 

BB: Mercy's grandmother tells her every night, “Live to meet the end without dread,” and, “Be better than good.” In her locker, Mercy keeps a post-it with other daily reminders such as, “Be twice as good as the other girls,” and “You get out what you put in.” What are the mantras in your family?

 

KP: What a wonderful question! Parssinen family mantras included:

 

-Respect the bread! This was something that our French friend, Henri, once told my brother when, as a child, he used a baguette as a sword. We often invoked Henri's mantra when talking about food and how to respond to it.

 

-Read! We spent Saturday nights at Borders and BookPeople in Austin. We'd all wander away and find a stack of books, then reconvene in the coffee shop to read. Now that means that we're all writers of one stripe or another, of course.

 

Other than those, though, we didn't really have any mantras. We were a pretty free-wheeling family.

 

BB: Your first novel called back to your childhood home in Saudi Arabia, whereas MERCY LOUIS tackles the south where you have spent most of your life. What place does memory have when you're thinking about a story?

 

KP: I started writing THE RUINS OF US with two things in mind: place and tone. The place was, of course, Saudi Arabia, and I wanted the tone to be nostalgic, because I was still processing my feelings of grief at having left behind my childhood home. I adore books like Ishiguro's THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO that just drip with a melancholy nostalgia. But in MERCY, the tone is quite different. The novel is written in the present tense and so, by its very structure, does not engage much with the past or flashback. However, Mercy's absent mother and her past haunt the story, thus giving it that texture of longing and loss that I seem to gravitate toward.

 

BB: What inspires you besides books?

 

KP: I'm inspired by women who aren't afraid to raise hell, like Hillary Clinton, Ann and Cecile Richards, and Wendy Davis; I worked in a school for several years and witnessed day in and day out the amount of energy and love that it takes to educate young people, so teachers very much inspire me. And I'm inspired by climate change activists: it's perhaps the most important work of our time, but so many people, me included, feel hopeless about the situation. I applaud those people working tirelessly for what amounts to the future of the human race on this planet.

 

BB: If you could do a reading tour with anyone, who would you choose?

 

KP: Gary Shtyengart seems like he'd be a lot of fun to travel/read with! The cover and title of LITTLE FAILURE alone had me cackling. I'd love to tour with my mentor and one of my first fiction teachers, Julia Fierro, because she is wise and warm and wonderful and knows how to have fun. Plus she has a dark imagination like me, so we could huddle together and watch murder mystery shows on Netflix at the end of each day!

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis Cover Image
$25.99
ISBN: 9780062319098
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper - March 10th, 2015

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