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WRITERLY WAVE: Columbia trio hits the big time with new novels

"Fly to Me" Lise Saffran's next novel
 
By Steve Weinberg for the Columbia Heart Beat


Columbia, being a university town and cultural center, has always attracted its share of accomplished novelists.   But the wave of superbly written, well-published fiction emanating from Columbia during the past two years is remarkable by any measure.

It started in January 2011 with the publication of “Juno’s Daughters,” a novel by Lise Saffran.   The publisher is Plume, an imprint of the prestigious Penguin Group USA.   Set in the San Juan Islands, part of Washington State, “Juno’s Daughters” constitutes literary fiction at its best. 
 
In January 2012, Columbia resident Keija Parssinen published her first novel, The Ruins of Us,” with Harper Perennial, a major trade book imprint.   Then in February 2012, Columbia resident Alex George published his novel A Good Americanwith Amy Einhorn books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam Sons, a division of Penguin Group USA.
 
Both novels are literary and have received excellent reviews across the nation.  Parssinen and George have each been touring to bookstores and other venues promoting their novels.   (I have written about Parssinen and George and their local business lives for the Columbia Business Times.   In addition, I reviewed Parssinen’s novel for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and George’s novel for the Kansas City Star.)
 
Other Columbia novelists who have published quality fiction for general audiences include Speer Morgan, Marly Swick, Richard Schwartz and Trudy Lewis.  
 
 
Saffran writes for pleasure.   Like all novelists—all authors—she would be pleased with a larger audience.   But most novels (and most nonfiction trade books) sell poorly.    In a nation populated by hundreds of millions people—with bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores galore—a few thousand copies sold is the realistic expectation.   Fortunately, both Saffran and her husband (parents of two children) earn University of Missouri salaries, so she does not depend on income from her fiction.

Saffran’s day job is associate director of the MU master’s of public health program.   She has helped establish graduate-level courses, and teaches global health to undergraduates—teaching that has included a study abroad adventure to Ghana in West Africa.

Whenever she can squeeze in time away from her salaried job and her family life, Saffran writes.   The tentative title of her new novel is “Fly to Me.”  It is also set in the San Juan Islands, and to some extent the storyline is ripped from the headlines.  But it is not a good fit for her current publisher, Plume, so Saffran will almost surely work with a different publisher -- common in the world of book publishing. 
 
Imprints are notoriously disloyal to authors in a bottom-line driven business, even a business that involves art. 
 
Parssinen and George are both crafting new books too, even before the touring and the glowing reviews wear down.  "It’s terrific to have this community of writers in town and we all enjoy going to each others’ book parties and recommending each others’ books," Saffran said.  "I had the pleasure of writing [publicity] blurbs for both Alex’s and Keija’s books." 
 
 
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books, published by W.W. Norton; St. Martin’s Press; Little, Brown; and the University of Missouri Press, among others.

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