Geneva-based author Anne Korkeakivi talks to Jill Marsh about her novels and writing style, the question of identity, cultural adaptation and withstanding the waves of contemporary politics.
Let’s start with the books. They could hardly be more different. An Unexpected Guest is very close, in terms of time, perspective and location. Shining Sea ranges across decades and continents. Did you deliberately set out to embrace a wider world in your second novel?
When it comes to writing novels, the sky is the limit. It was a joy to allow my characters to run a little wild in Shining Sea.
Ultimately, though, the structural and narrative choices for each of my novels came as a function of the story it told. An Unexpected Guest is, in certain ways, a literary thriller. Taut timing and a singular perspective are integral to it. Shining Sea is about life and the effect of historical events on generations—it stretches.
Both novels cover considerable territory. An Unexpected Guest is principally set in Paris, but flashbacks take the reader to Boston, Dublin and Washington, DC. There’s one fleeting scene in Cairo and another on the Maryland shore. Still, Shining Sea is certainly the outlier, starting in Los Angeles and moving back and forth from there to San Francisco, Arizona, New York City, upstate New York and Massachusetts within the US, and through a series of remote islands off the western coast of Scotland down to Northern Ireland in Europe. London, Paris, Mallorca and the Philippines also make cameo appearances in the novel. Shining Sea is about family, and family members may scatter. Again, place was a part of telling the story.
An Unexpected Guest has won praise for its precise emotional observations, frequently compared to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. How much of this flowed as a natural first draft and how much was the chiselled edit?
I want to understand human beings, what makes them who they are and why they do the things they do. Before I put pen to paper, I spend a long time getting to know my characters. When I write my first sentence, sharing their thoughts and feelings comes quite naturally. I know these people. I see them, down to their smallest gestures. At the same time, the language in my novels is often described as ‘clean’ and, true, every word employed is cherry-picked. I edit ruthlessly also, cutting away anything that feels repetitive or redundant; for me, editing is another form of writing. So, I would have to say both of the above descriptions give accurate portrayals of my writing process. The emotional observations flow naturally onto the page, and chisel is an excellent word.
In Shining Sea, the range of characters over decades, the political backdrop and the development of individuals come across as a personal panorama of America’s last 60 years. A daunting prospect for an author, or did you always plan to tackle such an epic sweep?
Shining Sea required enormous work, both in terms of research and of managing content so as to achieve such a sweep within only 276 pages. And some of the research, particularly on the experience of American POWs in the Pacific during WWII—which profoundly informed the character of this fictional family’s father, affecting in turn all of those around him—was painful. But I also found the research riveting. In addition to many questions of history, I came away knowing the construction of the traditional Irish fishing boat called a currach and how to read tidal race charts; I can tell you why Richie Havens opened the Woodstock rock festival and how many crimes were reported during the festival’s duration (none); I’ve learned how adobe dwellers in Arizona once approximated air conditioning and how climate change affects maple sugaring (badly). Many little things, but my world is that much bigger for them. Plus, I loved this fictional family. It was clear to me from the start that telling their story properly would require an epic sweep.
Your novels made me consider the question of identity. How we define ourselves in the context of our circumstances, environments, political climate, relationships and of course, our own past histories. Is this something you set out to explore?
The interplay between personal identity and circumstance, environment, etc., is likely of particular interest to me as someone who has, among other things, been a serial expat, lived in many different places—and through a variety of defining political events—and is the parent of third-culture offspring. Moreover, in some ways, divergent constructs of personal identity lie at the heart of many of today’s central issues so are very much worth studying.
Both of my novels, however, were inspired by questions that dogged me, and mostly I was just exploring these questions and telling a story in doing so. These questions both had moral and political aspects, and I’d ask myself: what sort of person would find him or herself in this predicament and how would choosing to respond in a certain way make this person feel about him or herself? How would being in this situation inform this person’s sense of identity? In other words, it was a natural circle. Breathing life into the characters depended upon the exploration of personal identity.
Which leads me to you and your nomadic existence. How has your experience of living in other cultures influenced you a) as a person and b) as a writer?
I grew up in New York City, so living with other cultures was a part of my childhood. Living within someone else’s culture presents a whole other level of experience, however. I would say this was nearly as true for me moving from New York City to Southern California in my twenties as it was for me subsequently moving to Finland. Not only does the experience open you up to other ways of being, it gives you a new recognition of your own habits and expectations by casting them into relief. This definitely translates into my writing.
Look, living in another culture inevitably makes you something of an outsider not only in your adopted surroundings, but also on your home turf. Because life doesn’t stand still and neither does your own human development. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again”: you return to the familiar streets of your hometown and it’s heart-warming and maybe even a relief, but inevitably you are making comparisons, whether positively or negatively, to the new world you’re inhabiting elsewhere. It can be alienating, even lonely. But becoming an outsider does give you the gift of seeing in unique, clear-eyed ways. I hope people will find this in my work.
You told us a little about your involvement in Writers Resist (Woolf Spring 17). What role can a writer play in an ‘alternative facts’ scenario? How can the ‘little people’ take charge of the narrative?
We need to defend fact. That doesn’t mean choosing nonfiction over fiction—fiction can be an extremely powerful manner of both spreading information and taking charge of the narrative. You don’t have to be a writer, either. Consider social media: I’m on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and on each I engage with followers in a somewhat different way. Anyone with a social media account can use it to create whatever narrative he or she wishes. (Indeed, in America we’ve seen how badly this can go, so I would say, do think before you share info or opinions, and research your sources.)
Supporting serious journalism is absolutely crucial, too. Everyone should subscribe to at least one real newspaper. No excuses. Your subscription will help to keep journalists on staff, so they can continue to investigate and report the very important stories of our time, thoroughly and reliably.
There are many additional ways that ‘little people’ can be part of taking charge of the narrative, and January in Switzerland saw two excellent examples: the Writers Resist event in Zürich and the Women’s March that was held in Geneva (and later in Zürich). Organize. Engage. And don’t forget small acts. Take the time to talk to people. Be an example of the world you’d like to live in.
From intimate portraits to a large canvas, what can we expect from you next?
The paperback edition of Shining Sea will come out in August. Meanwhile, ha! As a novelist, I’ve got a restless hand. Stay tuned …
Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novels An Unexpected Guest (2012) and Shining Sea (2016), both from Little, Brown. She was born in New York City, raised there and in western Massachusetts, and has since lived also in Helsinki, Finland; Los Angeles; Washington, DC; Cambridge, MA; and Strasbourg in eastern France. She currently splits her time between New York City and Geneva, Switzerland, where her husband is a human-rights lawyer with the UN. They have two daughters.