“I’m most interested in intimacy, and sometimes that’s about sex and sometimes it’s not. I feel the weight of that history too, and though I write about sex, it’s not really explicit and doesn’t go on for long.”
Potential ways to solve personal problems:
Ride a train cross-country
Read all of Dana Spiotta’s books
I first met Kimberly King Parsons at a bar on the east side of Portland that’s across the street from Powell’s Bookstore. Neither of us had lived in the city long enough to know where to go drinking and neither of us went drinking anymore anyway, as parents of young children, so we picked a nerdy landmark, a bookstore, and found a place nearby. I’d just moved from Los Angeles a few weeks prior. She had relocated from New York the year before. She was the first person I asked on a friend-date, knowing nothing more about her than what I found on Twitter. She had gone to Columbia for an MFA and had two books coming out from Vintage/Knopf in 2019 and 2020. Though one of the stories from Black Light was just published in The Paris Review, at the time of our meeting, a year and a half ago, I couldn’t find her work online. I’m glad about that now. I might have been intimidated by her prowess, and embarrassed by the strength of my feelings for her work.
It was December, and I was colder than I’d been in a decade. We drank whiskey and immediately felt as though we were old friends. We talked about being queer women married to men, desire, the psychedelic potential of natural childbirth, and about so-called “extended nursing.” My memoir was just about to come out, and I felt the same 3rd trimester anticipation I’d felt at the threshold of motherhood. And though Kim hadn’t yet published her books, she knew a lot more about it than I did. She was my publication doula in a sense, and my first real writer friend. She offered to interview me about my book and pitch it to a variety of publications. In the intervening weeks, and initial throes of friendship, we tried not to blow our interview wad and talk about all the things she was planning to ask me. That restraint was a good exercise.
I find that the interview is a great way to give yourself permission to ask your friends the questions you want to ask, but don’t. Once I finally got to read Kim’s work, I was desperate to know how she does it. Her prose, even in the darkest corners, sparkles. Her characters are full and solid, and at the same time light as air. They hang in the ether, flitting in and out of my head like spirits. Her stories are perfectly structured. You can live in them. We conducted this interview at my house so I could introduce Kim to my daughter and then promptly put her to bed so I could pour Kim some sherry (her favorite), and pick her brain about how she does what she does, and how she does it so well.
THE BELIEVER: I often think about this one time when we were hanging out with a friend and she asked the question: “What did your mothers teach you?” And you said…
KIMBERLY KING PARSONS: …she taught me how to lie.
BLVR: Do you see that as a compliment?
KKP: I do in a way. I think it’s an important skill to have. For my mom, lying allowed her to do what she wanted. I think she was aware of her place in her marriage and in society at large, and knew she had to say certain things to appease people and get around rules.
BLVR: Lying is by nature, creative. Do you feel like there’s a connection between what your mother taught you and your predilection for fiction?
KKP: Yeah. I find writing personal essay to be really problematic, because I can’t do whatever I want. There are facts and dates and names to adhere to, and sometimes I want to bend those details because of the way they sound in a sentence. In fiction, I can make it as pretty or as dirty as I want it to be on the page. In that way, lying is control.
BLVR: How do you start a story? Is it a character, or a line, or is every story different?
KKP: It always starts with the first line. That’s how I know a story has begun, and the way I find the first line is usually by sound, and not by the way it looks on the page. And the first line never changes. The last line never changes.
BLVR: That’s funny because I was going to ask about your first and last lines. They kill me. What does it feel like to write those lines?
KKP: There’s a feeling with the first line like: “I’ve finally said something true,” which is funny since we just talked about lying, but by true I mean encompassing. I’ve said something that contains everything I need for the story and now I can start writing it. The oldest story in the collection is one I wrote in a [Gordon] Lish workshop—“Fiddlebacks.” The first sentence is: “This house is a house where you shake out your shoes.”
His workshops are kind of infamous for this, but he goes around the room and asks each writer to read one line. If that line works, you get to read the next one and so on, until you fuck it up. You stand up in front of everybody and say your line out loud, so there has to be a certain thing happening sonically. Usually, you have something written on a piece of paper in front of you that you think is okay, and then you realize really quickly that it’s not. You’ve been working on it since the last class, writing it out a hundred times, but in that room you know for sure it’s terrible. It’s the worst thing. So as he’s going around the circle getting closer and closer to you, you think of how you might fix it, and sometimes there’s a little miracle and something new and less terrible comes out. I’d been shut down a dozen times before but when I said that sentence, I knew it was the sentence. I’d had this family in my head and I’d been sitting with them for a long time. I didn’t know how to get the story going, but in class I thought, I’ll start with the shoes and everything can come from that. Everything in the story gets tipped out of those shoes. The kids’ fear of the spiders is the same fear that’s happening in the house, in that family. It’s all the threat from outside, all the danger. That was the first time I was really aware of how a first line can inform the rest of the story, or the first time I was able to do it myself. That had a huge impact on my process.
BLVR: Speaking of process… how has your writing practice evolved since having children?
KKP: Before I had kids, I was unproductive and would spend hours dicking around…
BLVR: As we all do.
KKP: I had lots of time to write, I see that now, but I squandered it. Then, after my kids were born, I didn’t write at all for a long time, and when I started to write again, I was paying a babysitter $25 an hour—
BLVR: Which is a lot.
KKP: It is a lot! She was a very sought-after babysitter in our neighborhood, and I was desperate for time, so I was willing to pay whatever. My younger son was actually still home with me—I wrote with him strapped to my chest, but the babysitter would take my older son out for three hours, two days a week. So I would write for those six hours.
BLVR: What were you working on then?
KKP: A novel, and it was really bad. It was not the novel I was supposed to be writing, although I didn’t know it then.
BLVR: What was it about?
KKP: It was about an elephant trainer in turn-of-the-century Coney Island. This sounds so crazy to me now, so far from what moves me. But the reason I’d started it was because David Ebershoff, who was a professor of mine at Columbia, had thought it was a good idea. It was like a three-page assignment and he said, “This is good,” so I—
BLVR: —decided you’d devote your life to turning it into a novel.
KKP: Yes! I wrote it for four years. I should have known a lot sooner that it wasn’t my book. It was based on a true story and I’d fall into these awful research rabbit holes, like Did pants have pockets then? But I was making progress, I thought. I was doing work, doing my six hours a week, and I was afraid to give it up.
BLVR: How did you decide to stop writing it?
KKP: So, this is maybe a weird approach, but as a young person there were times in my life when I’d have a big problem or need to have some sort of deep reflection about something, so I would take LSD and focus on that issue and work it out for myself. I knew this novel was a problem I needed to solve. But having children and being a grown-ass lady, I don’t do psychedelics anymore. So instead, I took a train from New York to Dallas to L.A. with the intention that it would be a trip that would trap me with that question, and that I would answer it by the time I got off the train. I would know whether or not I was supposed to continue writing that book.
BLVR: What did you do on the train all day?
KKP: I read. I read all of Dana Spiotta’s books (whom I hadn’t read before), and I read my manuscript, and I just thought about stuff, and waited to know. And I did know, pretty quickly, actually. Early in the trip, I realized what I needed to do. I had been cheating on the elephant book with these illicit little stories that were exciting to me, that I’d started back in graduate school but sort of left behind. When I got off the train, I gave myself permission to not touch the novel again.
BLVR: Did it feel like a weight had been lifted? Or was it more of a loss?
KKP: I felt huge relief. It felt great to not have to think about it anymore.
BLVR: You begin the collection with a line from Richard Siken’s poem “The Dislocated Room,” can you tell me more about the significance of this poem to you?
KKP: I love Siken’s book Crush, and that poem in particular. I have it memorized. I’ve always had a fondness for hotel rooms, both in fiction and in real life. There are two stories in Black Light that take place in hotel rooms. Siken calls them dislocated rooms—these rooms that are outside the space of normal life. A lot of my characters are interested in getting to something underneath the real world.
BLVR: What role do hotels play in that pursuit?
KKP: They’re this sort of blank space where you can project. The room is a stage.
BLVR: Right. A place to perform that’s parallel to real life. It seems like drug experiences maybe serve the same purpose for the characters in your work. Are there pieces of literature or film that involve drugs that have influenced you?
KKP: Jesus’ Son is hugely influential, but my favorite drug books are not really about the drug, they’re more about people leaving their lives, escaping what they’re supposed to be doing. Shirking responsibility. Sometimes that’s drug stuff, or sex stuff, or sometimes it’s just quitting your job and going to the movies.
BLVR: You mentioned that you don’t do LSD anymore because you have kids. Do you do any other drugs?
KKP: Caffeine, always. But besides that, my drug of choice is sleep.
BLVR: You once told me you’re a bad sleeper. What kind of a bad sleeper?
KKP: I have extremely vivid, disturbing—not always in a bad way—dreams. Like the other night I dreamt I was in the car trying to take a picture of a sunset that was brilliant oranges and reds, and there were these black clouds with black, ink-like water coming from them. I was trying to take a picture with my phone and drive at the same time, enter a freeway. I wake up from these dreams and my heart’s racing and I’m so tired. I just want to really sleep, like sleep sleep, but I also sleep with small children in my bed every night, so that might have something to do with it.
BLVR: Yeah, you probably can’t really relax.
KKP: When I’m at away at a residency, I actually start to feel high, just from getting sleep. Colors are more vivid. Sleep is the best psychedelic there is.
BLVR: For real. So, we’ve talked about drug references, but what about queer ones? Your stories that deal with same-gender relationships are so good. I wondered if there were works of gay literature that were important in your past?
KKP: There so many great new queer books, like yours [Vanishing Twins], and T Kira Madden’s book [Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls], fiction like Genevieve Hudson’s Pretend We Live Here and Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Jess Arndt’s Large Animals. Growing up, there weren’t as many queer books as I wanted, or I didn’t know where to find them. I got tired of the coming-out story, not that that’s the worst thing in the world, but I also wanted characters who could be queer without having to go into some big explanation about what that means. I especially wanted stories about bisexual characters that weren’t about being bisexual.
BLVR: I agree. I think we’re finally in a time when that explanation is no longer necessary.
KKP: “Black Light” is a story about sexuality, but it’s also about adolescence. About the main character’s friend sort of moving through these phases, and trying on different personalities and identities in high school.
BLVR: Is there any sex between men and women in the book? I’m trying to think. Maybe in “Guts”?
KKP: Oh, right. But there’s no, like, penetrative sex shown between men and women. In “Guts” we just get the doctor boyfriend doing the physical examinations.
BLVR: That’s true. I still see that as sex though. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but when I write, I feel like I don’t have as much to say about so-called heterosexual sex. Maybe because it’s been written about so many times, and I feel the weight of that history, but also, I feel a mission to write same-sex scenes in a way that are accurate and specific. You do this so well.
KKP: Thanks for saying that. I’m most interested in intimacy, and sometimes that’s about sex and sometimes it’s not. I feel the weight of that history too, and though I write about sex, it’s not really explicit and doesn’t go on for long.
BLVR: Do you revise your sex scenes? The one at the end of “Glow Hunters” feels improvisational. I imagined it coming out in one go.
KKP: Well, that sex scene is tangled up with the last lines of the story, so for me the beginnings and endings are always there. I had the last line I’d been working toward for months, but yeah, the sex leading up to it did come out quickly. I revise individual sentences forever but by the time I commit them to the page they’ve been worked and reworked in my mind.
BLVR: I once read that when Justin Torres first started writing, he’d work in his head, like while waiting for the subway, and that the lines had to have a rhythm, so he’d remember them. Then on the other end of the spectrum I heard Melissa Broder say in an interview say that she dictated The Pisces onto her iPhone while driving in the car. Do you have any tools or methods like that?
KKP: With the openings and the endings, I work them in my head until they’re polished, like a song. I’ll be running through something while I’m doing the kids’ bath or whatever, because I don’t want to forget it, but I know that if I do forget it, it wasn’t right. Sometimes I’ll think “maybe there could be a scene about this,” and I’ll write a few words in the Notes app.
BLVR: That’s what I do. It’s like a code. It makes sense to you, but it would be gibberish to anyone else.
KKP: Exactly. I probably have some good ones right now. Lemme look… This one says “Crunch. High click. Mormon chicken place. Turd rolls down the slide.” I know exactly what that means and where it goes. Every once in a while, you get one that makes no sense, at least at first. I woke up once and I’d written something over night that said, “It upsets them when you feed them.” I had no idea what that meant for weeks, but I actually just figured it out. I was writing a different note for my novel, with a nurse talking about spoon-feeding patients at a memory care center, how they don’t like the feeling of the spoon in their mouths when it’s not of their own volition. I realized then that I’d already written the shorthand, half-asleep version. There was this great moment like, “So that’s what that line means!” The idea had been simmering in there for a while. Some of those overnight notes are garbage, but now this one feels more “true,” since it’s come up twice.
BLVR: It always surfaces.
KKP: That would actually be a good ending.
BLVR: Let’s do it.