"My work is voice-driven, and everyone (from the halfway house to the White House) has a unique voice. It’s not grand, sweeping gestures that compel me in a character—it’s a tiny facial tic, a strange word choice, a private, seemingly meaningless ritual."
Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Parsons, your debut collection of short fiction, Black Light (Vintage), will be published August 13. Please tell us about your first book. What do we need to know?
Kimberly King Parsons: Black Light is a collection of short stories set in Texas, featuring outsiders, weirdos, losers, children, and big-hearted screwups. The stories take place in high schools and on highways, in a bowling alley, at a fancy girls’ boarding school, and in a few different seedy motel rooms. Most of them are narrated by women and girls.
LSLL: The stories in Black Light have been described by acclaimed writers, in high praise, as brutal, savage, and filled with menace, but also celestial, charismatic, and hilarious. Where does this mix of characteristics come from?
KKP: This book deals with light and dark. Though the characters are often in dangerous situations and/or they’re making bad decisions, they are scrappy and resilient and most of them have a stellar sense of humor. They are self-aware enough to realize how stuck they are, and they’re constantly trying to justify, explain away, or reframe their circumstances.
LSLL: Reading your stories reminds me of Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. The characters are not extraordinary in any way immediately recognizable; they’re the anonymous women on buses, in secretarial pools, halfway houses in dusty towns. Yet the quotidian yields the profound. Now I’m going to ask you an annoying, maybe impossible question: How do you do this?
KKP: I like this question! My work is voice-driven, and everyone (from the halfway house to the White House) has a unique voice. It’s not grand, sweeping gestures that compel me in a character—it’s a tiny facial tic, a strange word choice, a private, seemingly meaningless ritual. I’m a noticer and a remember-er in real life, and I think this comes from many years of watching and listening and soaking things in as an only child. There’s magic in the minutia. People will show you everything there is to know about them by the way they do something ordinary—how they pour their coffee, how they order food at a restaurant. I love Beattie and Carver specifically for those reasons you mentioned — they present everyday people with urgent stories to tell.
LSLL: I want to talk about the book’s cover for a moment. I am intrigued. The young woman is dressed conservatively, facing the camera, and we only see the lower half of her face. She’s biting her lip diffidently, as if she’s just obtained something she thought she wanted, but now she’s not sure. Did you take part in the book’s design, and how was this image chosen? What does it signify for you?
KKP: First of all, I want to say that Mark Abrams is such a phenomenal designer. He’s done covers I’ve long admired for writers like Mary Gaitskill and Kevin Canty, and I feel really lucky to have worked with him.
I had a few choices presented to me, but when I saw that girl—backlit, biting her lip, unsure and yet somehow determined—I knew this was the right cover. I was intrigued, like you said. I couldn’t stop looking at her. We can tell by the velvet curtain behind her and by the way she’s haloed that she’s on a stage. Many of the characters in Black Light are performing—pretending to be the people they wish they were. There’s something vaguely western about the girl’s glittery blue shirt, but there’s also a streak of fussy composure in her choice to button it all the way up. This book is about desire and control and exhibition. It’s also about adolescence and growing up, kids and young adults behaving badly. I feel like this girl could narrate any number of the stories in this collection. I also love the thick black lettering, which comes across as both childlike and menacing—like the stories themselves.
LSLL: Your work has appeared in many literary magazines and has been nominated for and won many of those prizes, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. In addition, you were the editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. What is your advice to writers who are considering submitting their work? What did you look for as an editor? What are your current favorite literary magazines and why?
KKP: I love No Tokens, NOON, McSweeney‘s, and, of course, The Paris Review. Each of those journals consistently publish beautiful, thought-provoking work. From an editorial standpoint my best advice to any writer is to strive for 100 rejections every year. Publishing is a numbers game. If you get your rejections, one or two acceptances are bound to come in. Publishing is also a long game without shortcuts. Figure out a way to fold writing into your everyday life. Be prepared for it to take years to publish the book that’s in your head, but hey, why not devote your whole life to the thing that moves you?
LSLL: Mark Doten says that, “Black Light stakes out a Texas by turns drably oppressive and shot through with ultra-HD colors.” You grew up in Lubbock and went to college in Dallas. How has Texas formed you and your work? In what ways have the Rolling Plains and the Metroplex influenced you in different ways? What in Texas is drably oppressive for you, and what is ultra-HD? Now that you live in Oregon, do you perceive changes in your work, and if so, what is changing?
KKP: Texas is a huge part of who I am—my family goes back five generations and I lived there until I was twenty-five years old. I spend two weeks in Austin every summer, and my family and my partner’s family, plus so many of our friends, still live there. I think the parts of Texas that felt oppressive are exactly the same parts that also felt ultra-HD. There’s an intensity to the landscape and the people. It’s a place that felt stifling to me at times, but full of possibility at others. Whether you’re in the vast, flat plains or in some sprawling metroplex, you never forget you’re in Texas.
I lived in New York City for thirteen years, and the whole time I was there I was writing about Texas. Now that I’m in Portland, Oregon, besides getting used to all these mountains and trees, I’m beginning to write about New York. Maybe I’m the kind of person who has to be far away from a place before I can really see it.
LSLL: I’ve read that you have a novel, The Boiling River, forthcoming sometime in 2020 from Knopf. Please tell us about this book. Is this the first novel you’ve written? How is the process different from writing short stories? How do you know if the idea rattling around in your brain is supposed to be a novel or something shorter?
KKP: The Boiling River is about a woman compelled by a series of bizarre coincidences, and it’s the second novel I’ve written. The first one was a “drawer novel”—it will never see the light of day—and that is a very good thing. I learned a ton writing that bad book, but I gave myself permission to kill it in 2013.
I adore short fiction as a form. I love how tight it has to be, how not a single syllable can be out of place, but I appreciate the breathing room you get in a novel. I also love locking in and staying with a voice for a hundred plus pages. This novel started off as a short story that just kept getting longer and longer and weirder and weirder until it didn’t fit into the collection. I pulled it out and set it aside. When my publisher asked if I might have another project she could buy in a two-book deal, I opened the document and stared at it and realized this was a voice I could live with for the years it would take to finish.
LSLL: Which short fiction writers do you admire and why? How has your work been inspired by others?
KKP: I love Southern voices like Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Sandra Cisneros, and Cormac McCarthy. I was a Faulkner scholar at the University of Texas at Dallas, and I wrote my master’s thesis on his short fiction. I love edgy, language-driven stories by Denis Johnson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lucia Berlin, and Joy Williams. I’m inspired by the incredible work so many of my friends and colleagues are putting into the world right now. It’s exhilarating to see: Mark Doten’s brilliant and insane satirical novel Trump Sky Alpha, the impeccable style in Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math, and Chelsea Bieker’s forthcoming novel Godshot is going to blow people’s minds.
LSLL: Can you tell us what’s next for you?
KKP: I’m still finishing the novel, which is due in January, and I’m always writing short stories, no matter what, so I have several new ones. It’s possible I’ll try for another collection after the novel, but it’s a bit too early for me to say what’s next. I also have another novel idea kicking around, but it might evaporate. Right now, I’m only trying to think one book ahead—anything more and I’m afraid I’ll choke.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
KKP: Right now I’ve got Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Jess Arndt’s Large Animals, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, and, my pride, a first edition of Jack Gilbert’s Monolithos. I’ve read all of these books over and over, but I go back to them a lot, for different reasons, especially right before I go to sleep. I like to keep these voices close.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.