By Daniel Ford
From MBA to short story artist and novelist, Anne Leigh Parrish took an unconventional path to becoming an accomplished storyteller.
Her work, which has been featured in The Virginia Quarterly Review, New Pop Lit, and Crab Orchard Review, typically features family drama, love, and humor, and has resonated with both readers and literary critics.
Parrish recently answered some of my questions about her early influences, her writing process, and her debut novel What is Found, What Is Lost.
Daniel Ford: First things first, since you’re a native of the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York, I have to know your favorite winery!
Anne Leigh Parrish: Well, to be honest, I left that region a very long time ago, although obviously it continues to be a large presence in my fiction. I’ve lived in Washington State for more than 30 years, a place also well-known for its wine. My favorite wineries here are Columbia Crest and Chateau St. Michelle. But let me commend the Oregon and California wineries, too. From Oregon I love Willamette Valley, and from California Grghich Hills tops the list.
DF: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?
ALP: I wrote at a very early age, in elementary school. A fourth grade teacher was impressed with one of my pieces, and had me read it aloud to the class. Some of my progress reports from that time mentioned a gift for storytelling. However, I went in a different direction when I started taking piano lessons. My father bought a Baldwin baby grand piano from a store in Syracuse, and played regularly, until he moved out. He was a gifted musician, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be able to sound like him one day. For the next 10 years, my passion was all for classical music and performing, though I did manage to keep the love of writing alive through the books I read. Stressful family issues in high school made pursuing music very difficult, so I walked away from the idea of attending music school and applied to liberal arts colleges instead. I ended up majoring in Economics, a far cry from either creative writing or music, then went on to earn an MBA. By then I’d realized that I needed to get back into writing, which I did at age 27. I’ve been writing ever since.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
ALP: William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf because of how they manipulate language, particular Faulkner. His The Sound and the Fury absolutely fascinated me when I first read it in high school, though I didn’t really understand it fully at the time. I really admired how he time completely fluid in the first section of the book to underscore the feeble mind of Benjy. Virginia Woolf also focused hard on what an actual thought process was like, and tried to capture that in words. After those two would be Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Munro. In fact, my linked story collection, Our Love Could Light the World was compared to one of her story collections by Kirkus Review.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
ALP: No, to both. Sometimes I think I should be more dedicated to outlining, and realize that I do, in fact, outline, but mentally only. Rarely do those thoughts find their way to the page or screen. I always begin with one idea–a revelation someone has, a scene, often between two people, something unusual that I want to expand on. From there it tends to flow easily enough at this point, though not always!
DF: What’s your approach to character development? How much of yourself and your interactions with your family and friends do you put into your novels?
ALP: In my early writing years, my characters resembled members of my family very much. My first published short story, “A Painful Shade of Blue” (Autumn 1995 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review) was based on my parents’ divorce. My mother, father, and sister were all portrayed very realistically. Even my father’s future wife, then his girlfriend, was easy to recognize. After that I wrote a long series of stories featuring a protagonist named Nina, a sort of alter-ego, who had trouble finding a focus in life. But then I moved into wholly new people, unknown to me in life. This I found much easier, because even though they were completely invented, there was no risk whatsoever that anyone would recognize himself on the page.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone, and your second published work, Our Love Could Light the World, features 12 short stories featuring a dysfunctional family. What drew you to short stories originally and why did you make the decision to switch to the novel format with What is Found, What Is Lost?
ALP: I’m not sure why I developed such a fondness for short stories. I guess I read a lot of William Trevor, Louise Erdrich, and, of course, Alice Munro in The New Yorker. Over time, I reached a point where I wanted more room to roam, as it were. The Dugan family, in Our Love Could Light the World, offered me this opportunity. Each story is a stand-alone piece, yet connected by the characters, and events which had taken place before. Writing a novel seemed like a logical next step to first a collection of unrelated stories, followed by a collected of linked stories. Then, frankly, there was also the marketing aspect of a novel itself. I’d long been told–and suspected–that novels sell better than story collections do.
DF: What inspired you to write your novel? Was it an idea you've been thinking about for a long time?
ALP: I’ve been bothered by religious extremism for a long time, and this is one of the main tenets I address in the novel. Also, the first idea of the novel came in the form of a short story I wrote called “An Act of Concealment” (Crab Orchard Review). In the story, a newly married couple comes to Huron, S.D., from Constantinople where they met. This is the story of my own grandparents. My grandfather was a professor at Huron College for a brief time. My grandmother, Anna, for whom I’m named was Armenian and raised as a Catholic. My mother inherited a menorah from her, which never made sense to me, given her childhood religion. While my grandfather was Swiss and presumably a Calvinist, his last name was Jacob. I then wondered if the menorah had actually been his, that he was in fact Jewish, and asked Anna to assume that identity. This is where the reality ends and the fiction begins. Both are long dead, as is my mother, so the truth of my suspicions will never be known. But they made for the short story, and later the novel, though the novel spans four generations–Anna, her daughter Lorraine, Lorraine’s daughter’s Freddie and Holly, and. Lastly. Freddie’s daughter Beth.
DF: How long did it take you to complete What is Found, What Is Lost, and did you have to change anything about your writing process?
ALP: I’d say it took me about 15 months. It came very easily to me. One thing that did slow me down was completely restructuring the narrative because I was concerned that my reader might have a hard time staying grounded. So I lumped scenes together by time frame. In terms my actual process, I had to work very hard to keep all the many details straight and consistent. That took a great deal of time and intense editing.
DF: Now that you have your debut novel under your belt, what’s next?
ALP: Probably another novel. I’ve got two ideas I’m playing with at the moment. One is again multi-generational, though the women aren’t related by blood, only circumstance. The other features one protagonist, Nina, from years past, though she is more interesting now, or so I hope. I also am writing the occasional short story. I just had a new story appear in New Pop Lit called “An Angel Within.”
DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers?
ALP: My bullet points would be: Keep at it until it starts coming more easily; be open to feedback but know when the feedback is useful and when it’s not; focus on exactly what you want the reader to take away from your story (or novel); learn to switch sides of the table when you’re editing–become the reader, in other words; try not to get too hung up on how the marketplace is treating you–this is more for writers with a book out in the world; and, lastly, always stay true to yourself as a writer, how you define that.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
ALP: In between high school and college I went to a local community college in Colorado and learned how to rebuild a car engine.