Kimberly King Parsons is a writer who lives in the wilderness. When we spoke on the phone, we were interrupted by the cawing of a large bird outside the window of her Oregon home, which sits on a hill surrounded by a forest populated with “loud squirrels, loud birds, and voles.” She grew up in Lubbock, Texas, with generations of ancestors rooted in the nearby cities of Quitaque and Turkey, where unsettled land stretches endlessly. She would pass the time by walking miles in any direction.
Wildness is in her fiction as well; the story “Fiddlebacks” begins with three children shaking out their shoes before putting them on, expelling poisonous insects hidden in the toes. There is also something untamed in her deeply flawed characters, who are constantly caught between reining themselves in and indulging their feral darkness. However, Parsons’s true gift is couching the savage in the great beauty of her prose. Her story “Foxes” appears in The Paris Review’s Summer 2019 issue, and her debut collection, Black Light, was published this month. Our conversation revealed her to be an exacting craftswoman, someone for whom the articulation of each sentence is an act of listening to the character and knowing just when to leave a story.
Have you always known you would be a writer?
I grew up an only child, so I used to really love going to birthday parties or hanging out with groups, and at a certain point my role became designated scary-story teller. I don’t know why they chose me, but I loved it. There’s something about having a captive audience and having a room full of terrified people listening to you. I remember knowing that I wanted to be a storyteller or a writer in some way.
Do you remember some of the scary stories you used to tell?
Oh, y’know, a lot of them were just cribbed, personalized versions of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I’d insert people in the room into those stories or insert our little town into them as the setting. There was this story about there being someone at your window and you’re calling the police, but you’re in between police districts. So you call one precinct and they say, Oh, sorry you know you’re actually in the other county, and then you call the other one and they’re like, No, that’s their problem. And I just loved it. That seems like a very Texas, or a very regional problem to have, to be caught between counties like that.
What are some of the other touchstones of growing up in Texas?
Heat is pervasive, you’re overwhelmingly uncomfortable when you’re outside. There’s the wind and sand and the threat of storms. For me, the geography felt a bit menacing. But also, it meant going to my grandmother’s house and driving on these long roads and looking up at the sky. My dad used to turn off the headlights and we would look at the stars, and it was sort of terrifying. There’s nothing, it’s just a lot of vast nothing in that particular part of Texas where my family was from. There’s boredom that comes with that, but then tons of space to think and tons of wandering around, killing time, going out behind my grandma’s house and just walking for miles in different directions.
There’s definitely a Texan flavor to what you write—it’s set in Texas, there is a twang to your characters’ voices. Do you think your prose has a distinctly Texan feeling?
My mom’s voice is all over the characters and some of that is the particular colorful language that she uses, which can be kind of filthy and kind of bizarre. There’s also a certain volume that goes along with the way people talk in Texas—there’s a lot of shouting. It’s not like other parts of the South where it’s this soft-spoken drawl. It is a twang. I heard it growing up and it was so familiar I didn’t notice it. It wasn’t really until I left that I realized all the ways those little things seep into the writing. It’s more than an accent. It’s something in the syntax.
Who are some of the characters where you can hear your mom’s voice?
One character is in the story “In Our Circle,” which is only two pages, about this guy in a treatment program for rage, and he says of their crafting with clay, “It didn’t matter if we pinched pots or rolled out dicks and balls.” That’s the kind of thing that my mom would say, not shying away from bodily stuff. It would embarrass me a lot as a young person, but I love the way that all of that bodily stuff seeped in. I feel like that’s a hundred percent my mom.
There’s a music to your writing as well. Have you worked to cultivate a kind of music to your prose or does it come naturally to you?
I do work at the sentence level and I’m really hyperaware of what gets to stay in the sentence. I grew up in a household with parents who spoke constantly. My mom would tell the same stories a thousand times and I would know the story but would still be listening to the music of her speaking. She loves talking to everyone, and I was used to listening to her talk to other people or on the phone, just constant conversation. Also since a lot of these stories are told in first person, it’s kind of like they’re all dialogue, in a way. So some of those patterns come pretty naturally from listening to or being held captive by the conversations in the house that I grew up in.
You say the stories are in the first person so it’s almost all dialogue—can you say more about that?
The way that I approach first person is almost as though the narrator is speaking directly to the reader. Even when they’re not actually speaking in direct address, there’s this urgency in the way that the stories are told so that we know we’re plugged into a precise moment that the narrator is experiencing. To me, it should feel like you’ve just picked up the telephone and this is the story that a person is telling. And so, a lot of the same tics and colloquialisms and odd turns of phrase that would be in dialogue can come through in the actual body of the text. I love first person for that reason, because you immediately get into someone’s head. It feels like dialogue to me in that way.
I want to talk a little bit about the title because it’s really a keynote throughout the collection. It seems every story has some mention of glitter or a glow or light refracting in an artificial way. Glitter is artificial. A black light is not natural. What is this theme? What’s happening here?
When I’m walking around in the world, light is something that I think about a lot. Particularly the way light falls on a face and can make people can look beautiful or scary, or how the light in a room can change your perception of the person who is standing in front of you. I wasn’t planning to put these stories together, all of these pieces were written as standalone works. It wasn’t like I was trying to unify them by this theme, that’s just my preoccupation. Everyone has a dark thread and there’s an interplay of light and dark in all people and in all situations. The light on the face doesn’t change the face, it just changes the perception of the face. These stories are trying to get to a true face, to that true thing that doesn’t need light to be illuminated.
Your characters can be so cruel. How do you shape a character, and where you see yourself as a writer? Do you feel like you’re getting into their heads, when you’re writing these characters who can be so vicious?
I definitely am writing flawed characters and judgmental characters and people who use words I would never use and who speak to each other in ways I would never speak to another person. When you’re deeply embedded in a narrative voice, you have to be true to that voice, even when they start to say things that you know are ugly. You would never say those things yourself, but you’re just listening at that point. I don’t want to shy away from it because I feel like it does a disservice to the character and to the voice. I also truly believe that everyone, even people who are terrible, deserves to have a voice. That’s not an easy position to come from all the time but I believe that all of these characters are making mistakes. I can’t imagine trying to build the story around the person who’s really healthy and really kind and generous and giving and wonderful. I don’t know what the story is with that! I don’t know how I would construct a narrative around it, and I also think it’s just not true. Every single person is hanging on and holding their shit together, and what I’m trying to find are the cracks and the flaws, not to take them down but to have moments of extreme empathy, enough that we want to stick around with them and hear what they have to say.
Do you feel like your characters have minds of their own at a certain point?
Yeah, and it starts to feel really weird because then there’s a certain point where I’m just listening. I know that sounds bizarre. I’m always working with syllables and acoustics and sound and looking to the sentence that came before and using all that recursion, but there’s a certain point where things start to get fast and that—that’s the best part. Because then I can put down the work and go and live my life and there’s still a voice in my head that’s talking, saying, And another thing! And another thing! I know which things are going to stick in the story because they’re the things I don’t forget, and over the course of the day, I have this nagging thing in my head that feels like it’s coming straight from a narrator. It starts to have its own engine.
Your endings can be pretty brutal. I was devastated by the end of the title story, “Black Light,” which is so abrupt. How do you know when to end a story?
It’s always better, in my experience, to arrive late and leave early in every story. I don’t want to follow through to conclusions, and I want to leave a lot of space for the reader. I studied Faulkner in graduate school—Faulkner is a very different writer than I am in all the ways, but one thing that Faulkner does is he always turns away at the moment of violence. There’s a lot of violence in Faulkner’s stories, in Faulkner’s novels, in all of Faulkner’s work. But there’s always this space that opens up for the reader, rather than telling the reader how they’re supposed to feel. I have always adhered to that as a rule. That if you do all the work leading up to the ending, then you don’t have to conclude, you don’t have to finish it. You don’t have to make the landing really hard. You can let the reader fill it in for themselves. It’s possible that at the end of “Starlite,” Jill could get back in her car and go home and never do drugs again and that would be the end of it. But there’s impending doom, amassing tension, that happens when you don’t fill in those blanks.
Do you write beyond the ending and then cut back? Or do you just stop writing?
I write sentence to sentence all the time. I never start a story with an idea or a concept or a plot in mind. I’m just going from one line to the next to the next, but there’s usually a certain point, sometimes it’s halfway through, sometimes it’s further along, when I know the ending. I’ll know the last line usually. Exactly the last line. And then it’s just a matter of justifying it or working toward it. But sometimes an ending doesn’t come and then you just know that you need to keep writing until something comes. When I find the ending, I always know it.
If you write sentence to sentence, where do your first sentences come from?
The first one is the hard one. I had a mentor who always talked about how you just have to come up with one sentence. You just have to come up with what he called one true sentence. And if you can find the one true sentence then you’re good, because then you can use recursion through the rest of the story. Every sentence that follows you’re looking backward to see what came before. You’re taking these little seeds from the sentences that came prior and you’re putting them in the next sentence and you’re growing and moving and growing and that’s how you know who is talking and what room they’re in and where they are and what’s their situation and character comes through all those—through the voice. And then plot comes almost as a byproduct of the sentences, so coming up with the first one is the trick. And for me that is usually done almost exclusively off the page. I’m not sitting down writing a thousand versions, it’s something that I’m walking around with, like you would a song that gets stuck in your head, trying to figure out if it’s right. In the same way that I know the last sentence when I come to the last sentence, I know the first sentence. And when I know the first sentence, I can begin.
Lauren Kane is a writer who lives in New York. She is the assistant editor at The Paris Review.
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