With her debut novel The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen became a literary force in Columbia. As both a Michener-Copernicus award winner and the 2013 Daniel Boone Regional Library One Read title, the novel enjoyed widespread success. Her second novel hit shelves on March 10. The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is already drawing stellar reviews.
Parssinen drew upon the first 12 years of her childhood in Saudi Arabia, where she lived in an expatriate community, to help create The Ruins of Us. Her grasp of cultural experience is evident in the story of interfaith and intercultural marriage.
After Harper Collins published The Ruins of Us, Parssinen became enchanted with the 2011 case of mass hysteria in LeRoy, N.Y.; a still unsolved story of 14 afflicted girls. The unknown causal factors focused on by the media grew into a novel about common stressors on the modern young woman.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, is rooted deep in Texas, where Parssinen spent her middle and high school years. Fictional location Port Sabine is a small Southern town, thick with evangelical and Cajun cultures and isolated enough for a mass hysteria event to fester.
“This novel was born out of my empathy for today’s teen girls for the barrage of conflicting messages they receive on how to behave,” she says. “I remember thinking that it would be incredibly difficult to come of age as a young woman in 21st-century America, to be weaned, on the one hand, on the hypersexualized images of femininity that saturate the media and culture at large, while on the other hand also being buffeted by endless criticism, both implicit and explicit, leveled against female sexuality.”
Parssinen uses narrators Mercy Louis and Illa Stark, along with Mercy’s fierce best friend, Annie Putnam, to show how inner strength, love and support from family can help or break young women as they navigate the terrors of becoming adults. The three young women, although caught up in politics, murder, family drama and environmental/factory crises as only a small town can deliver, find their salvation in basketball. The entire town seeks salvation through their success, especially that of super-athlete Mercy Louis, only adding to the pressure and confusion of the girls’ youth.
Parssinen dug into her own competitive basketball history to bring truth to the power of the basketball court. She admits to giving the girls strengths she envies.
“Annie represents a person I somewhat wish I could have been in high school. She’s tough. Even though at the root she has a deep void, she is incredibly bright, athletic, sharp and she is nobody’s fool.” Parssinen gifts the girls with power, compassion and friendship in such a way that they are able survive.
Now in its fifth year, Parssinen’s Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop is another success story. “I usually have eight to 10 people [in a class],” she says. “It tends to be a mixed bag; you have some people who have already published books, you have individuals with MFAs, but then you get students who have never been in a workshop before, but they have an amazing raw natural talent and incredible passion.”
A sense of community has formed between students and instructors. “It’s a real intense experience, and a lot of work, but the students keep coming back,” Parssinen says. “They want the discipline, having deadlines, being accountable to a group of people, but also they want the energy that comes from the group and experience. We can’t help ourselves; we almost always go over the two-hour class. People want to connect, especially writers who are sometimes loners; enjoying our solitude, we still need our feedback and our literary community.”
The young mother of a 2-year-old recently spent a semester teaching at Louisiana State University and is now working on her third novel. Tentatively titled Come Back to Lebanon, the new work is set in Beirut in 1973.
Learn more at www.keijaparssinen.com and www.quarryheightsworkshop.blogspot.com.