In Kimberly King Parsons’s debut story collection, Black Light, we see the wide world of Texas, and of her character lives, drawn for us in fine and lovely lines. Their bodies and surroundings, their desires and anxieties are fully rendered, inside and out, in every story. These characters watch and want each other; they touch each other, or try to; they get so close they’re in (inside, in love, in trouble), or close as. And they want to tell you about it. They want to turn their lives over and have a look underneath. They want to see it all as best they can.
Parsons’s gifts all of them with language: beautiful, strange turns of phrase; surprising syntax; real and regional jewels scattered across every page. Everything is so specific. They are defiant, and dirty, this lot, lovers and leavers, and they are telling you the truth. In turns both wise and funny, Black Light takes your breath regularly with its elegant observations. “I don’t know if there’s a word for the ache of missing something when you still have it. I’d kiss her and taste my doom,” the narrator in the title story ruminates. And you can’t but empathize. You can’t but feel you’ve felt something near to that same truth, yourself. Or wanted to.
Not too long ago, Parsons and I had a good, long talk about bodies, secrets, the patriarchy, escaping it, revision, Amy Hempel, and more.
The Millions: The narrators in your short story collection, Black Light, all have a confessional urgency to their tone and telling, there seems to be something that they really need you to know. How do you treat storytelling as theme?
Kimberly King Parsons: There’s a reason that someone is telling you what’s happening, right? I like when you said confessional tone. We’re meeting them at these moments that are critical moments in these characters’ lives. And so they do seem to be very urgently telling something. And not only telling, but trying to make sense and process whatever it is that’s happening to them, even if they aren’t 100 percent self-aware of what’s happening to them. So, in the case of those kids in “The Soft No,” they think that the game is the story, and the narrator is like, “Let me tell you about this game that we play, and here’s how we play it. And this was a really good one, and here’s how it ended.” But the real story is just these kids trying to make sense of this really chaotic home life and uncertainty.
I think that these are the stories that the characters are telling themselves to get through this life, right? “How can I provide some kind of structure or escape from this thing that’s actually a problem for me?” In “Foxes,” this kid wants to tell these stories to her mom, because she is trying to deal with this father that’s gone. How do you deal with that feeling of rejection that every kid must feel when a parent leaves the picture? And deal with the resentment that the daughter has toward the mom, who is left, who is the caretaker. None of these things were [the kid’s] decision.
TM: Bodies are a constant meditation in the stories. Characters are obsessed with their weight, or the weight of others. There’s self-starvation, there’s fat-fetishism, fat-shaming and teasing, and it happens over and over. Both children and adults do it. The too-thin are weak and bad, and the too-fat are, too. The only perfect bodies are observed by the narrators, who are blinded by want when they encounter a sort of physical perfection in another character. How are bodies, and their shapes and flaws, treated through these stories, or by you?
KKP: That’s a beautifully constructed question, thank you. I, as a human being, do not feel particularly embodied in my life. I feel much more like a brain in a jar or something, and I don’t often feel physically connected like unless I’m altered in some way, or unless I’m engaged in something physical. Unless I’m like working out, or having sex, I feel very removed from my body. And yet, I’m fascinated by embodiment, and I also think that I really do find every type of body so appealing, for all of those reasons. And I know that some of the narrators have the idea that the too-thin are weak, or the too-fat, but there’s problems on all sides. All of those bodies are, in the eye of the beholder, really beautiful, right? And I guess you could say it’s fat-fetishism in places, and in a couple stories it’s thin-fetishism, too. It’s this idea of fetishizing the body almost because these characters really want to get below the body. They want to get past it, and so some of that fetishizing happens in a surface way. I think it’s just people really trying to get inside.
TM: Let’s talk about the title story, “Black Light,” which illuminates both the magic and the mundane that course through all of your stories. We see high school students and bowling and Jesus and sexual experimentation—all these things that are very sort of normal, against this black light that takes everything you see and turns it different, kind of grotesque. What draws you to the ugly wrapped up in the beautiful?
KKP: All of these characters, and to an extent I feel this personally, have this idea that there’s some sort of bigger, underlying thing happening. There’s a world underneath this world that we could get to, maybe, if we tried. Or, if you made the right connection, you could be your bigger self, or your best self. So, I think that the idea of the actual black light in that scene is that it’s grotesque, right? Because your teeth look weird in the black light, and you can see the ready whiteheads on people’s faces. The skin is weird. But it’s also magical because it’s underneath, and it’s there all along. It’s always there, but we just don’t see it. It’s getting to the things that we can’t always see. So, when you have a bowling alley, just this mundane place, but then you have this light that shows you these things that aren’t there, but are always there. Like, this will be us, but better. Like, there is this thing, and it’s been there all along.
TM: You mean the better them has been there all along?
KKP: The better them or the different them, or the more true them. Just the real them that’s maybe not able to be their full, whole selves. There’s a moment in “Glow Hunter” where she says, when the mushrooms kick in, something like, “What’s clean looks dirty, and what’s dirty looks filthy.” It’s seeing the minutia of these particles, the things that are there all the time, but we don’t notice or think about them. In “Starlight,” they’re in that motel, and it’s filthy and there’s this long hair on the wall, and she’s sort of playing with this hair and all of this detritus from other people that’s in the room. That to me is not disgusting. That to me is exciting, because it’s connection to those people who were in that space before you were. I want to experience this room and the people that were in it in a different sort of way. And that’s something about bodies too—it’s not about perfection, it’s about all those hairs and the flaws and the scars.
KKP: Yeah, exactly.
TM: In your stories, home is a place fraught with danger. We see houses where characters have to shake out their shoes for Fiddleback spiders, or “anything angry and able to We see mothers whose spirits swing from light to dark, who drink too much. Children who watch their mother’s faces so they know how to feel. What is the danger of home for your characters?
KKP: I think it is dangerous because it’s familiar. All of these stories are set in and around Texas, and a lot of them are set in these small towns. The home is a kind of microcosm for the feelings of anxiety that are in the town itself. And maybe it’s getting back to that whole, true self. If you can’t really let your guard down in your house, and in a lot of these stories, they can’t, then where can you? Then there’s nowhere. It’s supposed to be the place that’s the safest, and it’s stifling. And yet, I feel like these households are pretty joyous, too.
TM: What do you think gets revealed when women write women?
KKP: I like that question. I didn’t know you were going to ask that. What gets revealed when women write women? I think that the male gaze infects everything, always. It affects every woman.
TM: And certainly every woman in literature.
KKP: Absolutely. And so there’s no way to be free of the male gaze. There’s no way. But I feel like when women are writing other women, or women are reading other women, you can try. I don’t think there’s any escaping it—it’s the patriarchy, right?
TM: It feels like a secret, almost, this book. And you’d think, as a woman reading a woman, understanding women, it shouldn’t feel that way, or it wouldn’t. But it does; it’s a little like, “nobody talks about this, nobody says this.” It almost feels a little wrong.
KKP: Yeah! And there’s something that’s interesting about the idea of writing scenes—even if we step outside of gender roles in general—and not being as concerned about these characters being women or men. This is sort of an aside, but another interviewer was like, “Oh, the men in this book are really immature and kind of fucked up.” But I was like “so are the women.” They’re all fucked up. They’re all just trying and failing and making mistakes.
I feel like when I read writing by other women I feel chosen. I feel like I’m being told something, like a secret, like you said. That’s maybe something that we’re not supposed to talk about, or that we haven’t been able to talk about freely up until this point. But we’ve come to it, we’ve come to it. When I read a book by a woman, I have a different feeling about it. And I have a different feeling when I’m writing women, especially women loving other women, because it’s completely independent of the patriarchy in that moment. As much as it can be, because you can never be independent of the patriarchy. Ever.
TM: And when the patriarchy writes women loving women, it’s exotic—like everyone’s a super babe. Your stories are about humans who are attracted to one other. Or, the power dynamic at play between anybody that’s attracted to anybody. And I think that’s part of the secret too, that it’s not that wild. It’s not that exotic.
KKP: Exactly, exactly! It’s saying, “These are just people in the dark feeling around for each other.”
TM: That’s great. Who are the women that you read that make you feel that secret?
KKP: Maggie Nelson makes me feel that secret. Genevieve Hudson, she wrote a really beautiful short story collection called Pretend We Live Here, and she has a new book coming out called Boys of Alabama next year, I think. But her sentences are just so beautifully composed. Obviously Amy Hempel. I wouldn’t necessarily think of Amy Hempel as “feminist writing,” like there’s no agenda behind it, it’s just a voice. It’s a voice that I can get behind. Heather Lewis’s book Notice definitely feels like this sort of secret story that you haven’t heard before, but it’s made just for you.
Joy Williams is someone who I love, and come back to again and again. People say that Joy Williams has a masculine voice, and you’re like, what does that mean? Or, whenever people say someone has a muscular prose—it’s interesting that’s what valued. I mean I had a person in a workshop many years ago say, “Your writing is just so feminine.” And it was said as a terrible thing, like that’s the worst thing that it could be. It’s interesting to me to think about what that means. It’s essentially saying, “You don’t throw like a girl,” right?
TM: That’s 100 percent what it is.
KKP: So, muscular is just synonymous with men, which is synonymous with good. That’s it, right? Oh, and Mary Gaitskill has this new story in The New Yorker. It’s crazy, you gotta read it. Again, you’re not expecting a woman to talk about sex in that way, or talk about desire in that way. So you do feel sort of chosen to receive that information.
TM: You’ve got two young sons. With all of the energy and noise associated, how have you managed making art and being a mother? Keeping the kids alive, and getting the work done, and well?
KKP: It should be known that I never did a single thing before I had kids. I never was published. I was writing, but it was in a very haphazard, lazy way. I wasn’t confident in what I was doing, I didn’t feel any rush, which is funny now. I know back then a lot of my friends were publishing books at 22 and 25, but I never felt that compelled to do that. Once I had kids, it gave me this motivation, because you’re literally paying someone to do this amazing thing, that before kids, you got to go do every day. So you’re like, I better make this count. The other thing that it did was let me put down some projects that I thought might sell, but that weren’t actually my thing. They weren’t pleasing to me. I had a novel that I had been working on that wasn’t really supposed to be my novel. It was just something that I thought might be good.
TM: The Coney Island one?
KKP: Yeah! So I was like, this is something that I’ve heard back from editors on, and they said they liked the idea. But for a long time I had six hours a week to write, that’s it. And for those six hours I didn’t want to write that goddamn Coney Island book. I wanted to write stuff that was hot and exciting to me, and so I stopped writing the stuff that I didn’t want to write.
TM: And there’s really no recipe or template to follow that you know is going to work, anyway. I think it can be really tempting to try to write in ways that aren’t as true to you, because they seem to be working for somebody else.
KKP: Yeah, and we’re human. We get impatient and we want so much, and we want it now. We want everything now. But, I think that my particular proclivities have worked in my favor. So that means writing these weird, dark short stories about sex stuff and drug stuff and people making bad decisions. That is nothing like the historical novel I was trying to write.
TM: You mentioned Amy Hempel earlier. I know you’re are both really big fans of one another, and very excited to meet. It feels like a real romance is in the making, and I’m excited to see it take place at Books are Magic, in Brooklyn, in September. How has it felt to have such a personal and literary hero really championing your work?
KKP: I mean it’s been the most surprising. And what Amy thinks of my work means more to me than almost what anyone could possibly think. When I was 19, I read Reasons to Live and I don’t think it’s an understatement to say it changed my life. It showed me that there was this whole world of short fiction—this compression and this electric language—and that’s something I did not know was a thing. I felt shattered by it in a really good way, and I felt like I couldn’t believe this person could break my heart in this small space. How did she do it? And I wanted to figure it out. I feel like it put me on this path to find out how to do that to someone else [Laughs]. How can I do that? It’s funny because on the one hand, it’s such a thrilling surprise to see that she has been so supportive, but at the same time, she’s been in my head like half my life. Her actual words from her stories, but also just as a presence, like as an almost “What Would Amy Do?”
TM: We were chatting the other day, and you said, “My favorite revision is always just ‘delete this bit.’” Can you talk a little bit more about revision, and how it helps you get closer to what you see as the final vision for your work?
KKP: I love “delete that bit” because I’m lazy, first and foremost. That is very easy to do, and when you’re done you realize that it was something you weren’t sure you needed to say anyway. But my editor, Margaux Weisman, was really great at finding the places where I could be pushed further and saying, “You know, in the story about women starving themselves, I think it would be really nice to see one of them eat. I think it would be really interesting.” And then she would say, “I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but wouldn’t that be cool?” And then I’d be like, “I don’t know, do we really need to do that?” And then later, “Of course, she’s totally right.” The deletion is so much easier than any addition.
TM: I feel like we come from a school of take it away, take it away, take it away. Your best advice to me was, “You write one clause too many.” But I find addition to be really helpful advice too. Like, there needs to be more here, or more somewhere.
KKP: I always love revising. My very favorite thing is that feeling of not knowing what’s coming next, which is the first draft part. But then my second favorite thing is sort of chipping away at the block and finding the real story that’s in there.
TM: In each of these stories we can hear how the place sounds. We can hear it through the description of the landscape and through dialogue of the characters. How do you use syntax and language to create such a richness of place and character?
KKP: With first person, everything is filtered through the experience of that narrator. It’s about singular experience and specificity. That urgency of telling, which we’ve established from the beginning, that’s the driving force behind all these stories. There’s also this idea of “let me tell you what you need to know.” And it’s not necessarily everything, right? Third third-person narrators, or stories narrated in third person, can sometimes be like “let me set this scene for you. Let me give you this information.” And I bristle at received information from fiction. To me it’s authorial, and it’s an intrusion, and I don’t like it. So I try to have these characters who give you just enough, and who leave the right things out, so that you get a sense of their space and their world. It’s funny, because these stories are all set in Texas, but there’s not a lot of sweeping, descriptive paragraphs of what Texas is like. It’s a couple of little things, or it’s like a specific detail about a gas station, and you’re like, “Oh I know that town,” or “I know that gas station.”
TM: Right, it’s less Texas than it is a yard, or a car, or a motel, or a body.
KKP: Yeah! Exactly. And if your focus is always on voice, then everything that comes filtered through that voice is specific and precise to the particular story that you’re telling. Hopefully. That’s the goal, right?