Kimberly King Parsons’s first book, Black Light, is aptly titled. Each story reflects light out of darkness. Equally, these stories find rot and provocative weirdness in the well-lit subdivisions of Texan America—middle-class parents stand at one or two removes from reality; hotels become heavens to the down-at-heel; children bully and are bullied and proceed by means of fictions. Take another look, Parsons’s book seems to say, at the regions you thought you knew, the offices spaces and highways and consumerist stretches of the Southwest—look again, look better, and you’ll find people like her narrators, who are half-insane and half-messianic, yearning to escape Texas while being embedded even more deeply into its fabric, a fabric constantly being torn, constantly being trampled on.
These are stories of the unseen, shining dark light on the people and places we might pass by some average afternoon—stories of the bored, the out-of-joint and hard-at-work, the high-school-confined and self-deceiving people we might drive by on our way to the store and ignore. Parsons’ book puts these people where they’re meant to be, where great literature puts them: at the center of our attention, in all their dark and regular light, in all their perversion, obsession and unwieldy oddity. These are stories that scald, stories that think and feel—that, much like Edna O’Brien’s and Alice Munro’s, are not at last about people so much as they are people, organisms like us, independent and singular and easily devastated like we are, trying to be strong like we are trying.
I spoke to Kimberly King Parsons over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I’m really glad we’re getting to do this. I loved the collection, congrats on the Paris Review—I love “Foxes” so much. It might be favorite in the collection, but it’s hard to say.
Kimberly King Parsons: That was my editor’s favorite story too.
Rail: What about it was your editor’s favorite? What made it stand out?
Parsons: I wrote that story much differently back then, but I have a draft from 2005. The actual story the girl is telling—that was missing before. I rewrote it in Austin last summer, last July, in an Air Bnb for ten days. I decided to put the daughter’s story on the page and something clicked. My editor is great at pushing me to go deeper. The work I did was pretty extensive; it was one of the only stories that was heavily revised after Vintage bought it. It came together at the very end and was the last thing I finished before I turned in.
Rail: It sticks out, maybe because of the dual narratives sort of. How did you go about conceiving of and realizing this story? How did it occur to you that the gap in the story was the lack of the second story—the daughter’s story?
Parsons: The mother is the dominant voice, and in the first version, everything was in her mouth. It still largely is--everything is filtered through the mother, but in the previous version, I didn’t show the daughter’s story because I didn’t think it was as important as the mother’s story. Later, I realized—I didn’t have kids when I first started this story—you can learn a lot about a kid’s family life based on the stories they tell. And that helped me get at what the mom didn’t realize was happening in her own household. I could show the divorce, and the father’s absence, and her drinking problem a lot more clearly through the daughter’s story.
Rail: The voice you use through the mother’s voice is so powerful and immediate, but it has its limitations. But then you have this countertenor which helps the story rise off the page. Another story different from the rest of the collection is the last story. It’s stuck in my head. What was the drafting process for that story like? What was it like to write a story that’s in the third person, more distant? That has a different temporal flow, is more concentrated in a single night? This one sticks in place. Was that different to compose?
Parsons: “Foxes” was the last I revised; “Starlite” is the last one I wrote. I wrote it on a train coming back from my friend’s place near Seattle; the train screwed up, and it was supposed to be a three-hour train ride and ended up six hours. I had been planning to do something with those characters, and I thought, “What if I did this entire story during this train ride? What if I wrote it all?” And of course there were revisions afterward, but I wanted to get the full arc of that beginning, middle and end of that day—sort of in real time. There’s not so much that happens in the story—they go in that hotel room, do what they do.
Rail: That’s interesting—it is in the span of a workday almost, and you were stuck in that train for almost the length of a workday. There’s so much withholding in that story—I felt there was going to be some climactic event, that he was going to have a heart attack, that they would have sex—which they do not.
Parsons: I like that word, “withholding.” I mean, he’s literally holding the drugs—there’s a lot of withholding between them, and then on my part, in terms of giving a limited perspective of what they’re thinking and feeling. I’m not the kind of writer who moves to climactic events. I wanted to get in that space where these lost people go into that room, they do drugs, and they leave the room. Everything that’s going to happen or not happen: we know it from the beginning.
Rail: I love the way you deal with the South; it’s almost fabulist, but not really. The one with the bricks—"The Soft No”—has an almost oral, fabulist quality. “Fiddlebacks” as well. Writers always deal with place and home, but how did you find writing about home to be?
Parsons: I spent a long time trying to extricate myself from Texas when I actually lived there, but when I moved to New York I felt sort of homesick. Stories kept being set in my childhood house in Lubbock, or on my grandma’s land in Quitaque, or on the highways in between. It’s such a huge state, and it’s so hard to sum up. The landscape, the people, the geography—it’s so vast. But the stories in Black Light were always set in Texas in my mind, though in the past I had been sublimating that. When I was a younger writer, I wanted to make the settings more accessible or something, kind of with a generic Everytown, USA vibe, which I thought would be more appealing. That was precisely the opposite of true. People will always be compelled by specificity and strangeness. It took moving to east coast and kind of looking backward to really see Texas, and how weird it is, and how fascinating. Giving in to the idea of writing about real places definitely opened something up for me.
Rail: You have to take the right distance from home, I guess.
Parsons: Yeah, I never wrote about home when I was at home. It was too familiar, maybe. I moved to New York in 2005; I went there for my MFA and haven’t lived in Texas since.
Rail: There’s such an immediacy to the language in so many of these stories. It’s so striking throughout the collection, how the language glides along but at the same time doesn’t, there’s always a reverse motion. How do you tend to write sentences? By ear? Do you read aloud to yourself?
Parsons: You can’t hide when you’re reading aloud. I start acoustically. You’re writing to find that sentence, and once you find the sentence that pleases you sonically, you scrap everything that came before that, and then you build a world from that one kernel. The story comes relatively quickly, once you plug in to a character’s voice.
Rail: I’m interested in the peculiar self-awareness of a lot of these characters. They are seemingly aware of their problems, their conflicts, but cannot vocalize it directly—except to the reader. What level of self-awareness did you want for these narrators?
Parsons: These characters are somewhat aware that they’re trapped, and they’re playing at different ways to feel free. I feel like there’s so much in common between the games children play and the games grown-ups play. I don’t think there’s much difference between kids trying to make sense out of the chaos of their life by collecting bugs (as in “Fiddlebacks”) or adults skipping work to do drugs all day (“Starlite”). That may be one of the nagging themes of the whole book, that they’re all self-aware but can’t do anything about it. Just because you know you’re trapped doesn’t mean you can do anything about it.
Rail: So they develop this dark sense of humor, this self-hatred projected outward. That’s interesting. Do you ever have false starts, where you think you have the voice for the story, but it’s not?
Parsons: All the time. For me, there are the acoustics of the sentence, but that sentence is always tied to a voice. If that voice isn’t right—there are tons of times I’ve had a voice that didn’t click for me. I have a whole failed novel, in a voice that wasn’t authentic. But there are plenty of times I’ve started a story in a voice and thought, “That’s wrong.” With the kids’ stories, I wanted to avoid having precocious narrative voices. I try to remember what it felt like to be a kid. I have two sons, five and seven, and they are so weird. The way they look at the world is so bizarre. I try to pay attention to how they make sense of things—and to how brutal they can be, how dark. We forget how dark and scary childhood was. Children will try to make sense of the world, but the world doesn’t make sense, so they create weird spells and weird beliefs to explain what they can’t understand.
Rail: That extends to most of these stories. There’s a way of making sense of the world you’re confronted with with the weirdness of your imagination; these narrators encounter a weird world, and they project their inner singularity outward. It’s also interesting the role men play in these stories. The men are childlike. Even the boyfriend from “Guts”, who’s a medical resident, is like a giant child. I love that. Can you talk a little about how you draw your male characters?
Parsons: In the case of many of these stories, authority and power play really big roles. Authority emanates from Tim, the medical student. He walks around with this stethoscope around his neck. He has this power and control in the world that the narrator doesn’t have. But still, he’s childlike—he’s stubborn and kind of self-centered though not very self-aware. Nobody in this collection truly has their shit together, but the women aren’t given the same privileges that the men are. Most of the characters in this collection seem like huge children to me, and the men don’t seem that different from the women, they’re just perceived differently. They all come from the same stuff.
Rail: Maybe it’s that more of the narrators are women, and so you see more men from outside, and then it’s easier to see their childlike behaviors. Are there any stories that gave you particular trouble?
Parsons: They all did! My editor could only help to a certain point—no one can help you with any of this, you just have to figure it out on your own. Revisions take me a really long time, but I write a lot off the page.
Rail: What is the writing off the page like?
Parsons: A lot of reading. I’m always reading, I read really quickly and if I’m not reading, something’s going terribly wrong in my life. The amount of time actually spent typing on a computer is minimal for me. Whatever I’m working on is always in the back of my head, being composed. When I sit down, it comes out very quickly. I play music and grew up singing, and for me writing is just like that song that’s in your head all day. Kind of in the background, doing its own thing. And sometimes you can work out problems in fiction just by living your life. Taking a walk, giving your kids a bath. You just have to trust it’ll get done eventually. Sometimes it feels like you’ll never write again, but it always comes.
Rail: You’re working on a novel, right? How is that different from crafting each of these stories?
Parsons: There was a story from the collection that didn’t fit quite right with the others, but my agent and editor liked it. I liked the voice, and I thought it was a narrator I could ride it for 300 pages. The novel is based on the short story, just the voice; I don’t know whether the events from that initial short story will make it in.
Rail: It is markedly different from drafting stories?
Parsons: No. Writing the collection, I was starting to write these longer stories. I felt like I could sit with the narrator of “Guts” forever. I wanted to follow a lot of these narrators around longer; I was starting to get to a point where characters were interesting to me, and I wanted to see what they would do next. I used to write flash fiction, crazy-short stuff, and it’s been growing over time. A novel is much more to hold in your head at once. But I think once I figured out once the basic elements were, I thought, “Okay, I know what I can do.” Of course, I’m often like, “Is this book not over yet?” I feel like this every day, and it’s still not done. I love the idea of sitting down and writing the whole arc of a story—I love the compression in short stories. But I’m learning that great things can happen in novels, too.
Rail: What is it about those narrators that you want to stick with for a while?
Parsons: I like the way they see the world For all of their mistakes and bad ideas, I find them so charming. In the case of the young people in those stories, I wonder how are these kids going to grow up? Are they going to grow up to responsible citizens? Or are they going to grow up to be the people in the Starlite motel room?
Rail: I wanted to ask about how you do spaces. Offices, hotel rooms—these feel like such lived-in spaces, almost like combustion engines that stir together all these elements and make all these chain reactions. Your offices are so good. How important are these spaces to you and how do you define them in your mind?
Parsons: Space is about presentation and authority. The way your space looks says something about you. In “Guts,” they want that office space to look comfortable and homey, like a house, but it doesn’t. You can’t make an institutional space look like a house. It’s not possible. My mom sells real estate and I used to love sitting in open houses with her. I’d hang out in the fake kid’s bedroom with the bunk beds and the board games on the floor, spread out. It’s a set. It’s a stage. It’s the same think I love about hotel rooms. I love writing in them, sleeping in them, everything. You can be anything in that room; it’s a blank canvas. In “Starlite,” despite making good money, they go to this shitty motel room, whereas the characters in “The Light Will Pour In” spring for a nice hotel room, or rather, a hotel room the narrator hopes will be nice, though it really isn’t. There’s this idea that you can raise or lower your class by staying in a certain place. In Starlite, they can be despicable in this slummy hotel. But in the other story, they can raise their status; they have a kitchenette. I like that idea that status shifts based on the space you’re occupying.
Rail: Are there any spaces you don’t like to write about?
Parsons: Psychedelic space and time is really tricky, but I keep trying. It’s kind of like telling somebody about a dream you had—it kind of has to be experienced individually to be captured. My favorite characters are characters who are trying to get to the world beneath the world, the world inside this world.
Rail: Would you say that’s something a lot of your characters have in common—trying to get into the world underneath the world? They’re trapped in the world above and want to get underneath?
Parsons: Yeah. And I think a lot of that feeling comes back to living in a place you don’t want to live, and feeling like an outsider in that space. Or you don’t have control over your family, or you’re a kid—that desire to have some control. These characters are trying very hard to change something. They’re making up weird rules or weird games. The kids in “The Soft No” will eventually have to go back inside to their ill mother, but they can invent the complicated, interesting lives for themselves out in the neighborhood. How do you control the uncontrollable? All my characters also refuse to believe this is all there is: there must be something better somewhere, and whether they get there through psychedelics or altering their inner or outer environments, they’re compelled to try and find it.
Rail: You said you don’t like to do climaxes. Where does the tension lie in these stories, to you?
Parsons: I think tension is in the failed escape. Like in “Starlite”--they go off to do all the drugs in that hotel room; they’re trying to be different people for the day. But then the day ends, and they come down. They can’t get to that world underneath the world. At some point all the characters in this book realize it’s not possible to escape--they become more self-aware and thus more trapped. But these stories don’t feel bleak to me. The characters are scrappy, and even if they don’t succeed—even if their tricks don’t work out—they’re trying.