The Little Sparks: An Interview with Kimberly King Parsons on “Black Light”




WHEN I FIRST READ the work of Kimberly King Parsons, I felt like I’d stumbled across a long-lost literary cousin: someone else attuned to the compelling yammer of common folk, the voice of the overburdened and underappreciated — everyday people. It’s not just in the words or turns of phrase either; it’s their posture too. Her characters don’t just speak so much as they utter things from their bodies.

I’ve been following her work since 2017 and was over the moon to learn that in August 2019, her book of short stories, Black Light, was published by Vintage, with a novel forthcoming from Knopf tentatively next year. Black Light covers lots of ground, both literally and figuratively. Stories take place in living rooms, darkened movie theaters, motel rooms, highways, private schools, and gas stations. And while they tend to center Texas, they cover all types of relationships: mother-daughter fantasy storytelling, back-biting co-worker drama, confusing young queer love.

In addition, Kimberly King Parsons is getting buzzy, word-of-mouth props from the likes of T Kira Madden, Amy Hempel, and Carmen Maria Machado. And if you haven’t already read her stories or spied her bylines, you’re about to get to know her in a real big way. Meet my literary kin.

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GENE KWAK: Kim, there are such impressive ways that this collection coheres, and yet it doesn’t feel repetitive. Each story has its own cast of characters who have their own wants and needs. Can you give some insight into how you put this collection together?

KIMBERLY KING PARSONS: Thanks so much for saying that. I’m not sure if this is heartening to hear or if I should be embarrassed about it, but drafts of some stories in Black Light go as far back as 2005. My process is sort of glacial, with revisions taking years. Also, I should mention that I worked on these stories as I was working on a Serious Project, and for a long time I only considered them my sexy little side pieces, something I was doing for myself and nobody else. I believed what most writers believe — that you have to sell a novel first. I spent six years writing a really bad one — like, truly, irreparably bad — and eventually I realized I needed to write what was exciting to me. I threw out the Serious Project (never once have I regretted that) and I started looking hard at my short fiction. I had maybe a dozen stories I’d written in my MFA program, and in the years after, I forced myself to send them to a writer/editor I greatly admire, Dawn Raffel. Her collection In the Year of Long Division was so special to me, such a strange, dark beauty of a book, and it came to me at a really crucial point in my writing life. I wanted to know how she put those stories together, how she knew it was finished. Did I even have a collection? She was so very encouraging, and she was able to help me understand the friction between the individual stories and how they might work as a whole.

Everything I write centers on similar stuff — game playing, experimentation, escape, longing — but my primary obligation is to voice. Voice is of course filtered through my authorial choices, but the hope is that if I’m true to the way these narrators speak (their odd cadences and unique rhythms), the collection will feel varied while still being cohesive. As a reader, I’ve always loved short stories most of all, the compression and precision they require, and I’m so lucky to have found an agent and editors who love them too.

Your stories have such incredible idiomatic language, but also have so many other elements working as well. Not only are the voices individualistic, but the characters are all yearning for something. And the relationships between the characters, whether partners or siblings or unrequited lovers, are so fully realized. Sentences like

Eloise Sheen is half French and she never lets you forget. She fingernails free every foreign stamp. She re-licks, leaves plants and flags and prime ministers smeary, spit-stuck to the mirror all of us share. These new girls, their guilty parents still send gifts

have such a propulsive, Gary Lutz– or Christine Schutt–like muscularity to them and yet you also clearly care about the arc of a story, the grit of a character, et cetera. So what comes first in your drafting process?

I adore Lutz and Schutt — I even love the way their names look shoved up next to each other like that. They are two of my very favorite sentence makers. I feel exactly the same way you do about voice, both as a reader and a writer. In my favorite works of fiction, I find it deliciously impossible to extract voice from character or plot or setting or anything else, not that I’d ever want to.

When I’m writing, I find out who my characters are by what they say, whether in narrative or dialogue. Because I possess two small, noisy children, my writing life is kind of erratic and unstructured. A lot of the time I’m working off the page — acoustically — just carrying lines around in my head while I’m doing mom stuff at home. Once I get a first line right, I can start teasing the story out of it. For a while I’m in the dark, just feeling out who is talking, who they’re talking about, what room they’re in. I’ll take little sparks from each finished line and I’ll work them into the next one. And then, if I’m lucky, there’s a scene. And then hopefully another one. The little sparks eventually illuminate the shape of the story.

Can you talk about your thought process behind the order of the stories and how you envisioned some of the shorter flash pieces working for the reader in between some of the longer ones?

One of my favorite things about a short story collection is the way it can bend time, jerk you in and out of different worlds, immerse you in a situation, and then pluck you out and drop you somewhere else. I liked the idea of giving little moments of reprieve, so the flashes often come after the longer stories. I also tried to balance and vary the different narrators — urban and rural, child and adult, male and female, queer and straight. I always read collections in order, though I know a lot of people don’t. Friends tell me they read the last or shortest story first, or randomly, or that they read based on title alone. That’s fine too. I like not having control over the way people receive the work — to me it’s another great thing about collections in general. With a novel, you only have one way to get through it. (I’m writing one now and I will admit that kind of forced path is not without its virtues, it’s just a totally different thing.)

Starting with “Guts” seems like such an incredible gambit, because I kept going back to that first paragraph and noticing how it essentially sets up larger concerns for the entire collection. Even all the words that pertain to light: glow, radiant, gleaming, shines, halogen, et cetera, coupled with the metaphor of the woman who sees this light emanating from “the hearts and minds and ailing bodies of strangers” and how all of the “sick, broken people in the world begin to glow” foreshadows the idea of you shining the light on these overlooked characters. At what point in the formation of the book did you realize that the beginning of that story not only set up the story but the entire book?

One of my mentors taught me that the first sentence of a story should be primordial, that it should contain the DNA of the entire piece, and I think that concept extends to a collection as a whole. But “Guts” wasn’t always the first story. The title story was originally first when I sent it to my agent and even later when she sent it out to editors. My reasoning was that I wanted support from people who could get behind a more confrontational voice. The narrator of “Black Light” is brokenhearted and bitter, and she’s dealing with that heartbreak by lashing out at her town and her peers and her family and her religion. She’s not without charm, but it was important to me that the people I worked with be open to that kind of “unlikable” narrator (ugh, it’s such an exhausting, overused term, but it just will not go away, especially, it seems, for characters written by women). Once we sold the collection and spent a year on revisions, the draft became more cohesive, and I felt open to trying a new approach. I arranged the stories a million different ways, but “Guts” kept shifting to first place. Everything seems to stream from it thematically, but I also find the narrator, Sheila, to be one of the more palatable voices in the collection. We also meet her at a moment of discovery — her entire worldview has changed because she’s fallen for this patronizing med student — and she’s trying to make sense of things now that she sees people in this new, achingly empathetic light (ha!). In this way, I hope she serves as a kind of proxy for the reader.

I want to talk about bodies. People bump up against each other, hope to bump up against each other. They judge others, judge themselves. When did you realize that this focus on bodies kept coming up?

I find it impossible to write about people without writing about bodies — every experience and interaction is filtered through the skin. And I’m not even a person who walks around in the world feeling particularly “embodied,” if that makes sense. I have friends who are very connected to themselves physically, dancers or actors interested in and aware of their posture, the way they fill a space. I mostly live in my head, but I truly love bodies and even bodily functions. I find those processes so fascinating, the mechanics. People keep pointing out to me how gross some of that stuff is, and honestly, I didn’t even notice it at first. It seems very strange to me to omit certain details when describing a human. I’m always writing about characters who want to be seen, truly seen, and so there’s a certain amount of attention to the body, but also to that disconnect between the body and the brain, or between the way the body feels inside and the way it is perceived by others.

In an interview with LitHub, you said, “Texas means different things to different people,” and one of the things I loved about your collection was that it was so distinctly Southern in the ways that people talked with their own idiomatic flair (“trash with cash,” “don’t mangle yourself,” “no assassins around here,” et cetera) and yet it wasn’t all stereotypes of Texas. Did you set out to have all these stories take place in Texas? And how do you picture the world of your collection? Is this a universe in which these people could potentially run into each other?

It took me a long time to realize I was writing specifically about Texas. My agent is actually the one who pointed it out to me. Some of the stories originally took place in small, unnamed towns, and for a while I resisted pinning any real geography to them. My relationship with home is complicated. I felt profoundly loved and happy in my household but isolated in school and in my neighborhood and even around extended family. My beliefs were just so radically different socially and politically when I was growing up, but I wasn’t loud about it. I was “good” and followed the rules and kind of seethed until I found my people, which I eventually did. Most of my closest friends still live in Texas, and I met my partner there, and our families are still there. My kids think it’s the greatest place on earth, and we spend part of every summer there. Sometimes I feel like the worst kind of traitor — it took me years to claw my way out of that place and now that I’m gone it’s all I write about. But Texas is so much a part of who I am, and it has such mythos. It’s undeniably influential.

I definitely think these characters are inhabiting the same universe, and I love the idea of them running into each other. I imagine them passing on highways, maybe going to the same Cowboys games or out to Padre Island in the summertime. As far as revisiting some of these characters, I have a real fondness for all of them and I do feel like I could sink back into those voices at any time, though I probably won’t. Part of my novel takes place in Texas too, but nobody from Black Light has shown up yet.

Touching on the novel, what inspired you to eventually write one? Was it the right story? The right voice?

The novel was borne of the ashes of a failed short story, or not failed exactly, but one that didn’t fit into the collection. It was geographically wrong, but also something about the voice was looser, kind of rambling. My agent and editor really liked that narrator, and for the first time I felt like she had a voice and a set of circumstances I could ride for 200 pages. I’m slow at writing stories and I’m even slower at writing this novel, but it’s this huge relationship in my life at this point, something I’ve touched every day for years now. I love it and I hate it and I think about it all the time. It has its own rules and constraints and goals and it’s getting weirder every day (for better or worse). Since it was part of a two-book deal, it also has a hard deadline, which is a completely new experience for me, one that so far has been really motivating and positive.

Amy Hempel gave you an incredible blurb. She talks about how you “open and end stories so beautifully.” So to close, can you give us some of your favorite opening lines to your favorite stories, your favorite opening line from Black Light, and maybe your favorite opening line to a story that didn’t end up being the opening line?

Amy is the queen of great first and last lines — I have half of one of her lasts tattooed on my forearm: “fluent now in the language of grief,” from “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” That ending broke my 19-year-old heart and got me hooked on short stories forever. I’ve never met her but we’re having a conversation in New York in September, and I’m deliriously happy about that. I love the stark simplicity of first line of “Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado: “One girl.” Or Sam Lipsyte’s “Old Soul”: “You could touch for a couple of bucks.” Rebecca Schiff’s first (and second, I can’t help myself) lines of the title story of her collection The Bed Moved: “There were film majors in my bed — they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.”

In Black Light, the only first line that changed was in “The Soft No.” It used to be, “Days this hot belong to us,” but that got shifted down because my editor suggested we start with the dog. Now it’s: “Our Chow Chow Shasta is going berserk along her fence, barking and snuffling through the knotholes Chip and I pushed out so she can watch over us.” I’m so happy with that switch — the new first line is kinetic and frenzied, like the rest of the story, but it’s also about being mothered, being supervised, whereas the original line was about the heat and the neighborhood, which are secondary. As for favorites in the collection, I’m partial to the first line of the title story, “Jesus, that’s who.” It’s not exactly clear what’s happening, but the tone says a lot. We enter in the middle of the action, already deep into voice. Something about the immediacy of that line compelled me to keep writing, and hopefully it compels the reader to keep reading.

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Gene Kwak is the author of two chapbooks: Orphans Burning Orphans, available from Greying Ghost Press, and a self-titled collection available from Awst Press. He has published fiction and nonfiction both in print and online with The RumpusJukedRedividerHobartElectric Literature, and others. He is from Omaha, Nebraska.


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