Valves Wide Open: Kimberly King Parsons Interviewed by Lincoln Michel

The writer on her new story collection, working sentence by sentence, and giving in to her influences.

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Black Light

Kimberly King Parsons knows how to write a sentence. Her debut collection, Black Light (Knopf), announces its attention to sonics and lyricism from the opening lines of “Guts,” the first story in the collection: “When I start dating Tim, an almost-doctor, all of the sick, broken people in the world begin to glow. Light pours from careful limpers in the streets, from the wheezers and wet coughers who stop right in front of me to twist out their lungs.” The belief that sentence-driven stories are cold and unaffecting is certainly not the case with Black Light. These are stories bursting with feeling. Stories of heartbreak and humor, lust and friendship. It’s the kind of book that will break your heart while reminding you of the lush possibilities of language. 

—Lincoln Michel


Lincoln Michel First off, can I say what a pleasure it is to read a book that’s so deeply invested in the sonics of sentences. There’s a popular school of writing advice that says the writer should only care about character and story, not prose, which has always struck me as being like a painter saying they don’t care about the colors of the paint on their palette. Could you talk about how you approach the sentence as a unit of fiction building? 

Kimberly King Parsons Thanks for saying that—I’m definitely a sentence writer (and a sentence reader) first. Prose is always what attracts me, plot almost never. I’m one of those people who really doesn’t care what happens in books I’m reading, only how things happen. For me, sentences feed voice and voice feeds character and character feeds plot. It always goes it that order. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes find pleasure in plot, it’s just that if there’s no style, or if the prose isn’t compelling to me, I have a hard time seeing a project through. I never start off writing toward any idea or conflict—I’m just working sentence by sentence until I know what’s happening. There’s a point when things start to become clearer to me, but I can only get there by staying faithful to the sentence that came before or by “listening” to what I just put down.

LM You put listening in quotes, but I’m curious if you literally listen to the sentences during your writing process. That is, do you use text-to-voice software or read out loud as you edit? 

KKP I read every single sentence aloud over and over as I’m writing. This is critical to the way I write, and it also makes it impossible for me to write anywhere besides my house. I’ll also occasionally use the dictation setting in the notes app on my phone to capture something in the middle of the night or while I’m driving. Sometimes the mic doesn’t quite pick up what you’re saying correctly and you’ll get some bizarre word salad in there, which is a bonus.

LM The stories in Black Light are mostly set in Texas. How does that state and that geography inform your stories? 

KKP I didn’t set out to write a book about Texas. Initially I was just writing stories about people I knew or might have known or people I used to be. My agent asked me to clarify some of the locations, and though they were all in Texas in my head, I hadn’t stated it explicitly. For a long time that idea didn’t seem interesting to me because it was so familiar. But Texas has an undeniable mythos, and it felt like a relief to be able to say, okay, yeah, I’m writing about home. Place is a factor in my fiction, but for me it’s quiet, atmospheric. I’m not concerned with world-building so much as voice, but the landscape certainly seeps into everything.

King Parsons Kimberly C Heather Hawksford

Photograph by Heather Hawk.

LM When you’re writing about Texas, is there anything you do to call it back in your memory? Do you look up locations on Google Maps or listen to a type of music when writing? 

KKP I don’t have to reach far to remember Texas, because I’m there all the time. It’s where I was born and raised until I left for Columbia in 2005, and my family and my partner’s family still live there. We go back all the time and send our kids there for a few weeks every summer—most of our best friends are still there too. When I’m home I sleep in my childhood bedroom and it doesn’t feel like I ever left. The story “Fiddlebacks” is set at my grandma’s house in Quitaque; “The Soft No” is set at our first house in Lubbock. I used to ride the same Dallas bus Sheila takes in “Guts.”  I carry those places with me.

I don’t listen to music while I work, but I use it as a motivational tool. Finish this paragraph and I get a song, finish this chapter and I get a side of a record, that kind of thing.

LM Rewards are important! What else goes into your writing routine? 

KKP I usually have my laptop in actual bed with me or on this daybed in our living room. When I’m lying down, I can work for much longer than I can at a desk. I still have a desk, but it’s for show. There’s always a ton of caffeine, too much probably, and I used to be very into nootropics—supplements like theanine and piracetam and coluracetam. I would get kind of obsessive about my “stack” which is what you call the combination of stuff you take every day for maximum brain benefits. Like, the racetams are good for memory and creativity and seeing vivid colors, but they can cause headaches, so you have to take choline to deal with that. Modafinil is great for sound acuity (I sing and sometimes write dumb songs or do covers when I’m writing, as a break), but it makes you kind of hyper sensitive to outside stimulus. The theanine takes the edge off the modafinil. You can buy most of these at any GNC, but they’re expensive and possibly ridiculous. I don’t know, for a while there I felt like I had this huge, amazing secret to productivity, but now I think it’s just about getting out of your own way. Placebo is a hell of a drug. If I’m going to a residency, I’ll still take my caffeine/theanine combo, but honestly I think it’s just about deciding to work.

LM In the fantastic story “Foxes,” a daughter tells her mother a fairy tale. “Can I borrow bread crumbs?” the daughter asks at one point. “From the one with the kids and the oven witch?” The mother responds: “Take whatever you need.” This seems like an artistic declaration. Can I ask what you borrow from (art or otherwise) in your writing? 

KKP When I’m deep in a project, it’s like my valves are wide open, ready to suck stuff in. Everything is suddenly useful, whether it’s a line in a song or the structure of a ghost story a childhood friend told me. There are rewards for paying attention, for remembering what people tell you. I’ll be eavesdropping in the park and a stranger will say something odd that illuminates a dialogue problem I didn’t even know I was having. A while back I read a bad translation on a box of tea that said: “A homely refresher, a vicious gift.” There’s something so acoustically pleasing about that sentence. So much swagger in the flaw. It’s not like I’m going to try to write a whole story in that voice, but I live for those moments when language gets weird. 

Children are great for this because they’re constantly saying bizarre things. The other day my younger son asked me to count “spaceship style,” which, I finally figured out, is just backwards. I’m constantly stealing lines from my kids’ mouths (in fact, “Foxes” is full of their words) or from the insane animated shows they watch. I like using fairy tale tropes or biblical language or office jargon in my fiction. Everything is up for grabs. Maybe I’ll synthesize a childhood memory but fold in a TV jingle or a nightmare I had or describe an expression on Tilda Swinton’s face in Only Lovers Left Alive. Whatever compels me. There’s something freeing about giving in to your influences—however mundane—instead of sublimating them.

LM A “vicious” gift is such a pleasing and surprising adjective, which reminds me of many of the pleasing and surprising lines I underlined in Black Light such as “We’ve got bitter jewels buzzing in our guts.” Adjectives and adverbs tend to get short shift in the modern publishing world. Could you talk about how you approach those modifiers? 

KKP I’m generally in the pro-adjective, anti-adverb camp, though there are always exceptions. Sometimes using three or four adverbs in a row gets you somewhere special—I learned that from Victoria Redel. I love strange adjective/noun combos more than almost anything else in literature. And I’m very pro weird verb. Ultimately the thing I look for is a feeling like surprise, or swerve, as Amy Hempel calls it. I like to be a little bit unsteady in every story, unsure of what’s coming next, and I like to feel and create that at the sentence level too. This goes back to my issue with plot, probably. I think some people feel genuinely comforted by seeing the pieces fall where they expect them to. That’s just not me. I like to be confused for as long as possible, and then astonished.

LM Light is flickering through these stories, including in titles (“Glow Hunter,” “The Light Will Pour In,” “Black Light”). Did you think about light, or other elements, as something to unify the stories? And more generally, how you decided which stories would go in this collection? 

KKP I wasn’t consciously using light as a unifying theme when I wrote these stories, but light is something I’m very aware of as a human being walking around in the world. Light moves me, especially the way it falls on a face. Contours, color, shadow—I consider those things a lot. And one of the unifying themes I was aware of during the drafting of these stories is desire. There’s this radiating heat, the characters glowing with want. That’s in everything I write.

There were a few stories that were cut during revisions with my agent, before we even sent the book out. One story was firmly, inextricably set in California. One was actually not a story at all, but the first part of a novel, though I didn’t know it then (when we were in negotiations later, that one became the second book in the deal). Once those stories (and another one that was too weird and confrontational to fit with the rest) were taken out, the ones we had left felt like they belonged together. 

LM As you mention, desire runs through these stories, especially sexual desire and often between young women. Sex is something the literary world still seems sadly squeemish about (we still have a “Bad Sex in Fiction” award and writers frequently talk about how hard it is to write). How did you approach translating something so physical and emotional into words? 

KKP I think one way to make writing about sex easier is to keep it firmly in a character’s head. Seeing sex from the outside attempts to take on the reader’s gaze, which is impossible to predict. What turns one person on will be gross—or worse, boring—to another. If you tie proclivities to voice, and if that voice is convincing, your reader will take that character’s word that what’s happening is hot. Andrea Lawlor is so incredibly great at doing this in Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I think bad sex writing is usually just an extension of bad writing. I can’t think of a writer who excels in all ways except for their sex scenes, though maybe I’m missing somebody.

LM You’re currently finishing up a novel “about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.” Can you tell us anything more about that? 

KKP Sure—it’s the story of a new mother (a woman with a history of positive, formative experiences with LSD) who is compelled by a series of strange coincidences to return to her dismal hometown. Other topics include intense female friendship, grief, open marriage, hoarding, bisexual erasure, and synthesizers. It’s due in January but still getting weirder by the day. 

Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015) and the co-editor of the anthologies Gigantic Worlds (Gigantic Books 2015) and Tiny Crimes (Black Balloon Publishing 2018). His fiction appears in The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize XXXIX, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.

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