How Do We Get Out of This World?
Desire and its suppression in the stories of Kimberly King Parsons.
BY ALEX BEHR
BLACK LIGHT: STORIES (Vintage), Kimberly King Parsons’ debut collection, is a decadent gift. Her stories vibrate, born of a musician’s soul. The pages reveal desire and revenge, lost innocence, bad choices, and sketchy Texan hotels. The collection’s broken mothers, feral teens, and cynical office workers carouse through suburbs and empty highways. Their hunger quivers through a shock of language, poetic and jagged. Taste this: “In psalms the vowels are whole worlds, so long and slack you forget they’re part of something bigger.” It’s from one of my favorites, “The Light Will Pour In.” The tension in this sentence comes from the speaker, a man obsessed with his much younger girlfriend. He’s listening to her sing in a hotel’s bathroom shower. It’s a pause of beauty amid dread. Their room has twin beds crowned by a “dead-eyed watercolor deer split into two frames.” The man takes the “ass end.” His girlfriend has cobalt bruises on her arms. This will not go well, and I can’t stop reading it.
Before Father’s Day, Kim and I meet at a discount nail salon in northwest Portland, a spoof on celebrity profile outings. Lucky for us, they serve wine. I also chose it because Kim uses chipped nail polish in “Glow Hunter” as a shortcut to make her main character sticky and real. Sara, the teen protagonist, in lust with her girlfriend and out for fun, says, “I study the reckless places where I’ve scraped off my nail polish, the shrinking continents left behind.”
Kim is jet-lagged from a quick trip to New York to attend a Paris Review release party. The journal has published “Foxes”—another great story in Black Light, using a daughter’s fairy tale to reveal a family in crisis—in its latest issue. Kim tells me gossip and I tell her secrets, though I barely know her. She’s got that way. At a bar next door, we get into the grit of her craft and talk about infidelity, puberty, drugs…and those hotel rooms. —Alex Behr
Alex Behr: You describe your stories as voice-driven. I noticed many adjective-noun combinations that sound good in the mouth. They’re rhythmic with interior vowel or alliterative play: “her back teeth are all done up in dull metallic…gaping highway…bright spot on a lank dress.” They provide quick insights to the character or how the character sees the world. Is that part of what you mean about “voice-driven”?
Kimberly King Parsons: Everything streams from that first kernel of voice, which is how I get to character, setting, place, and plot. Once I know who’s talking, then I know who they’re talking to, who’s with them in the room, what room they’re in, what town they’re in, and what’s going on with them. I start at the first line, and every line following streams from that. There’s some little bit from that first line in everything that follows. There are two things I know: when a story starts and when it’s done. Those things don’t change. There’s no revision of that first line or that last line. I’m working toward that last line. I have to earn it.
Behr: You’re a musician. How does music play into how you experience language?
Parsons: Sonics are very important to me on the sentence level—how words sound after each other.
Behr: Are you writing your stories by hand before typing?
Parsons: No, a lot of times it’s in my head first—not entirely—but whole sections are repeated like a song until it’s right. Then once it’s right it’s locked in and I can sit down and write it. How I know that it’s right is that I’m not forgetting it.
Behr: When you take classes you hear “good writing rules,” such as don’t have rhymes or don’t rely on alliteration, but you’re not afraid of breaking those rules. I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest, and feeling that beauty, as if they’re saying, “This is our language and we’re going to explore how sounds move against each other.” I noticed that in your writing: “She pours Mountain Dew over her gash and watches it fizz,” or “Teeth gray with white flecks.”
Parsons: Alliteration gets a bad rap because it’s easy and a cheap way to get sonics—
Behr: Why cheap?
Parsons: I just mean there are so many other options like internal resonance or even looking at a sentence on a beat level. Sometimes instead of seeing six words in a sentence I’ll see thirteen syllables. There’s something so fun about breaking sentences into their basics. And then fucking with those basics until they make sense. That’s about rhythm.
Behr: I noticed the frequent use of us and we in your writing, if not in the first line than in the first paragraph. You bring us into that story gossip, yet there’s an intimacy we’re not part of because the main character’s already in that separate space, whether with adolescent friends, a best friend in an office, etc.
Parsons: I’ve definitely used the we and the us in a pointed way to invite people into these very contained environments. If you can make a little tear to bring people in at the beginning, then you don’t have to do it throughout. I love the strategic use of second person, too, or addressing the “you.” Like that last moment in Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which is first person until the very end with the hitchhiker saying, “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” It’s kind of a trick and it almost always fucking works. If I use you in that very pointed way, the reader feels brought in to whatever the containment is.
Behr: I felt that longing, while reading, for the person in my life who can pull me out. That person helps you see yourself in a different way, positive or negative. Are you that person in your friendships?
Parsons: I grew up an only child until I was much older and then I had six siblings. I’m versatile. I tend to pull stuff out of people in real life, but there are a few people who pull it out of me, and that’s always fascinating and fun, too. The characters in these stories want to pull or be pulled, too. With the drug stuff, sex stuff, deprivation—they’re all trying to figure out different ways to experience the world because they believe there’s something else going on, underneath the everyday. They’re always trying to get to that deeper place.
Behr: You’re an observer, attracted to people who are extreme in some ways. But you need to protect yourself, too.
Parsons: I’m a noticer, but also an extrovert. I can fall in love with anyone. There’s something compelling in everybody. I love people so much that I don’t feel like a distant observer. I feel like a very active observer.
Behr: In your stories, there’s claustrophobia and effective, deliberate gaps in what the reader needs to put into it, in what we see or don’t see or the trajectory beyond the story. You used to watch soap operas with your mom. Have soap operas affected your way of approaching short stories?
Parsons: We watched fucking all of them, but As the World Turns was my jam. Soap operas are pretty good at dropping you into scenes late and leaving scenes early. Like at the most critical moment the camera will zoom in on someone’s face and the scene ends and that story line drops out. You might not see them the next day or even the next week.
Behr: I saw a connection with your hotel rooms in this quote from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: “She left me the way people leave a hotel room. A hotel room is a place to be when you are doing something else. Of itself it is of no consequence to one’s major scheme. A hotel room is convenient. […] You hope it is comfortable, but prefer, rather, that it be anonymous. It is not, after all, where you live.” You notice details in hotel rooms that create a world, like the painted-over door knob or the curly hair on the wall.
Parsons: I love hotel rooms, even gross ones. I love who I am in hotel rooms. I love who other people are in hotel rooms. It’s not real life—just like soap operas aren’t real life—it’s a set, artificial. I love that the person in the room above me has the bed in the same place and the same picture on the wall. I like finding a hair or a fingernail. Some people are disgusted by this, but for me, it’s this weird connection to other people’s detritus. It’s evidence of a person who’s been in your same space, which I find to be really intimate. There’s also an element of performance in a hotel room because it’s blank, you have to bring in the attitude or the vibe. In “Starlite,” the couple, co-workers, do drugs in that room. That’s all they’re going to do. They can’t bring anything into that room and they can’t bring anything out of that room other than what’s on their bodies or in their bloodstream.
Behr: I recognize the childhood terror in the stories: the wrong kind of dad, the wrong kind of body, having the wrong brother, not knowing what kind of mother you’ll come home to. There’s also joyous, frenetic energy: we’re going to go out and have fun and throw dirt clods. The name of the game in “The Soft No” is so funny: “duck-duck-brick.” I see the fragility of not being your own person and vulnerable to outside authority. I like how you juxtaposed those childhood POV stories with those of adults who are probably fucked up from childhood, yet we don’t see how they were as children.
Parsons: In childhood you have so little autonomy; everyone’s telling you where to go and how to be—even though the kids I write about are pretty feral and unsupervised—but I like the idea of these kids who are in chaotic environments finding allies with each other, like in “The Soft No” they get to be leaders when they go outside to play. They’ve set up this vicious neighborhood game to have order in their chaotic lives. It’s the same thing for the kids in “Fiddlebacks”: that mom is a loving, wonderful mom, but there’s danger from this dude who’s coming into their lives. There’s a weird relationship happening that they don’t approve of, and no father. There are no fathers anywhere.
Behr: The older sister has this sexuality about her, walking along the highway, I understand that from when construction workers were whistling at me when I was about fourteen. The feeling of, I’m sexual now, not “sexual,” but you must have experienced it, too.
Parsons: I remember it happening the same way. I was a little bit of a late bloomer. It was an almost overnight thing where I remember one summer coming back to school, and all of a sudden there’s this weird difference in how people were receiving me. It was really fun and also really scary. You can’t exactly harness it, but you want to, because even then you know attention is power. I also felt at a remove from it. From that new me. In “Fiddlebacks,” there’s also the sexual urge coming from the mom, which the kids, of course, can’t fulfill for her. She has to seek it out in this man, who they don’t want in their house. Desire is scary to little kids.
Behr: I so appreciated how you ended the story. Someone like Updike, he would play it out: I’m the man, I’m going to take this scene and grind it into the dirt. You stopped it so well, with the kids and their lights approaching the car with the mother and her boyfriend inside. We don’t need to know what happens next.
Parsons: I was a Faulkner scholar when I was getting an MA at the University of Texas at Dallas. Faulkner always turns away at the moment of violence. There’s something much more fascinating to me in that choice rather than, say, Updike writing it all the way through. In “Fiddlebacks,” the brother’s going to see a side of his mother that will be impossible for him to “unsee,” but in a way he also already knows what’s about to happen. We’ve all had moments like that where you know what’s coming isn’t good, but you know there’s nothing you can do about it. And that’s growing up.
Behr: Before you get your period you have your body and you feel whole in it, and when you start developing hips and breasts your whole sense of yourself can get distorted by what is appropriate, desirable, and so on. In some stories you dive into characters who are either large and struggle with their body image, or have eating fixations, denying the self from food, with a supportive ally.
Parsons: I’ve felt like a brain in a jar my whole life. Which is kind of fucked up but also a good thing. Maybe it’s because of my delayed puberty. I didn’t get hips or breasts until much later. I don’t know if that saved me or protected me, but I feel like my brain was advanced enough to know what was bullshit and what wasn’t. I don’t have experience with body-based self-loathing. But I’ve found other ways of loathing myself, of course.
Behr: Some characters are obsessed about food and their bodies.
Parsons: I write about issues with desire and suppression of desire, and I understand what it feels like to want something and not get it, or to deprive yourself of something.
Behr: What drives you to write characters who are very conflicted, such as the main character in “Guts,” who seems like she’ll sabotage her relationship with her boyfriend, the doctor (I love their sexualized exams: tender and humorously erotic and transgressive)?
Parsons: It’s the need to be seen. In “Guts,” Sheila is larger than average, but she’s okay with her size and her partner’s okay with it. That story is about authority and how she doesn’t feel in charge of her life or her desires. As much as I say that I’m a head in a jar, sex, physical touch, and intimacy are very important to me. Somehow in my life I manage to skirt through some of the more complicated body image things that women deal with. But I understand that feeling of feeling wrong in a space. That’s how I felt growing up. Removed. Just wrong. Wrong bodied, wrong minded, wrong everything. And so the body is a fast way to get to that sensation in fiction.
Behr: When you write about teen sex in “Glow Hunter,” it’s so hopeful, but there’s an edge to that hope: wondering when it will happen again. You aren’t explicit, but it’s still erotic. Like in the scene in the bathroom with Sara and Bo—all the objects are pertinent but ordinary—they’re seared in the mind. It’s easy to imagine what happened and why Bo, the object of desire, is so tantalizing. Then the characters drive to country roads, looking for psychedelic mushrooms in cow shit, and encounter strangers in ways so unique to teens. They feel so special, and the “other,” like a counterperson, is only there to reflect on their intimacy. That’s what I meant by finding that someone to pull you out.
Parsons: A lot of queer stories talk about coming out or the first time characters have queer sex, and that’s fine, but I’m tired of it. There’s so much more than coming out. There’s a certain degree of anxiety when it comes to sex, especially when you’re a young person. You’re trying to get it to happen the first time, but you’re also trying to get it to happen every other time after, as well, or wondering, Is it going to happen again? Or feeling out of control in the same way that children aren’t in the world of their own volition, but feel that there’s someone organizing it. In that story hooking up is great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re home free. How do I get that feeling back?
Behr: You often write in first person.
Parsons: I like first person because it puts you in the head right away. I studied with Gordon Lish for many years, and most of the writing he held up as exemplary was in first person. A lot of third-person stuff has this weird artifice, or “writer writing” feeling, which I find totally embarrassing. To me it’s really awful to see the writer at a remove like that, describing things, making observations. So I mostly stick with the I. Of course it’s all a trick. All of it: first person, second person, third person; it’s all choice, preference. For somebody else third person probably feels more authentic. I just have strong ideas about what I like. Even when I’m writing an essay about me as a seven year old, it’s first-person present tense because I cannot bear to write in past tense. It feels false, which, of course, is maybe more real to many people.
Behr: There’s a rule you shouldn’t write about dreams, and writing about drugs could be similar in that you have to accept this character’s viewpoint of an altered reality. Yet you do it in “Starlite,” with the adulterous couple snorting cocaine in the hotel room, and the teens doing psychedelic mushrooms in a car in “Glow Hunter.” Both are set in enclosed spaces, but the teen world opens and is beautiful, although there’s all the blood, and in the hotel room it’s trapped and desperate.
Parsons: I like altered reality, whether it’s drugs or dreams. I don’t think dreams in stories are doing anything different from what sex is doing. Sex is just a very strange thing when you think about how outside of the everyday it is. You have to sneak off to do it; it’s this private thing everybody does and yet it’s so removed from real life. Sex and drugs both heighten the senses, heighten intimacy, and I like all that stuff. I like well-written drug scenes and extreme situations, as in some of Denis Johnson’s stories, or Heather Lewis’s novels. There’s not that much difference between kids playing games and grownups doing drugs in hotel rooms; it’s just escapism. How do we get out of this world?
Behr: In a Paris Review interview, Diane Williams was asked about infidelity in her stories and she responded, “Infidelity has been an inescapable subject for me. The fantasy of security is difficult to relinquish, as are the notions of invincibility and recklessness.”
Parsons: If fidelity is real life—families we construct—then infidelity is outside real life. And that’s what’s interesting or appealing to me. I write these characters that have verve, a lust for life, wanting to get the most out of it. How can I be all of these things at once? With you I’m this way—with you I’m this other way. They want to be all the things you can be in this life because it’s short and beautiful. Infidelity is interesting to me because it’s about breaking rules. That goes along with the games kids play. There are specific rules they’re adhering to, but there’s also the choice to disregard them. That’s the thing with infidelity: you set up marriage based on certain rules, but people sometimes choose to break them. Marriage is a game people agree to play.
Behr: Why did you chose this quote from Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush, “Cut me open and the light streams out,” as your epigraph?
Parsons: Siken’s book Crush takes up a lot of real estate in my heart. That particular line is from “The Dislocated Room,” about two men in a motel. It works with Black Light thematically and resonates for so many reasons: the urgency of the voice, the brutal disregard of the self as it tries to connect with another. Everyone should be reading Siken. We should all be forced to memorize him.
Behr: Why do you prefer writing fiction more than creative nonfiction?
Parsons: It’s like the difference between a selfie on my phone and a painting I made. I can’t imagine why anyone would care about a selfie when they could see the painting. When I’m writing a personal essay I want to change the sonics of a sentence, like I want my mom to have driven a Honda instead of a Firebird because the word Firebird fucks with the rhythm, or I need another syllable or I need it to start with an H, you know what I mean? I want to change the truth to make a true sentence, a good sentence, and I can’t. It’s been really hard to write personal essays to promote this book, where to every fucking line I think, who cares, who cares, who cares? With fiction I’m crafting something separate from me, so who cares is lower in volume. It’s still there, obviously. Who cares about anything?
Behr: In “Glow Hunters” there are the characters who trip on mushrooms, and your forthcoming novel deals with LSD. What is the appeal of psychedelics?
Parsons: When you’re on LSD you’re so removed from your body and your own ego that you can be like, Oh, my neck is just a hose that turns my head or look at your legs and think, These are the moving sticks. It’s exactly what my characters want—total escape from reality.
Behr: When I did mushrooms at the dorms I felt anxious: How do I know my pants are up after I pee? Do people see me staring at that jiggly key lime pie?
Parsons: But I love that because who cares? I guess my thing is like, What even are pants? This pie is really jiggly. Does it know that? What is pie? When you’re so far out, who needs any of it? It’s great.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the short story collection Black Light, forthcoming from Vintage August 13, 2019, and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf in 2020ish. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, Best Small Fictions 2017, New South, Black Warrior Review, No Tokens, Joyland, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her book reviews and interviews have appeared in Bookforum, Fanzine, Time Out New York, The Millions, and elsewhere. She lives with her partner and sons in Portland, Oregon, where she is completing a novel about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.
Alex Behr’s debut collection, Planet Grim, came out in 2017 (7.13 Books). Her previous interview for Propeller was with Jenny Forrester on her memoir, Narrow River, Big Sky.