Writer Kimberly King Parsons on Bodies, Blood Banks, and Her New Book of Uncanny Short Stories

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Writer Kimberly King Parsons on Bodies, Blood Banks, and Her New Book of Uncanny Short Stories
Image:Vintage Books / Heather Hawksford

“Dark” is a word Kimberly King Parsons often uses to describe the short stories collected in her first book, Black Light. But make no mistake: These are not horror stories. They don’t follow any particular gothic tradition, they frequently take place underneath the blazing Texas sunshine, and if they suggest a threat of death it’s only of the ambient variety that is implicit in any excavation of human condition. Parsons likes the word because, as she told Jezebel, her stories deal with “edgier themes or maybe things people don’t typically like to investigate, parts that people like to keep hidden.” The darkness, then, is straightforward: These are themes, characters, and observations rarely discussed in the light of day.

In her dozen Black Light stories, Parsons beams us into scenes of class struggle in private school for girls, through an outdoor fantasia of neighbors’ lawns that provide a refuge to a pair of young siblings from the instability of domestic life with their mentally ill mother, into the minds of two office co-workers with eating disorders and generalized misanthropy, into the gruesome storytelling of a young child who’s coping with the estrangement of her parents. Parson’s prose is spry in its curdled wisdom (“I’ve had almost no loss in my life, but I still believe we’re always in between tragedies, that anything good is a lull before the next devastation”) frequently hilarious (“If it weren’t for the woman’s head, she could be a model”), and generous in its poetry (“When she lets it, Trish’s voice puts a fullness in you that is beautiful and awful, makes you feel like a glass of something waiting to be spilled”). So honed is Parsons’s craft that she can do vagueness specifically: The connection between two teenage girls that’s somewhere between obsessive companionship and all-out romance in “Glow Hunter” she describes as “this electric something.”

I felt a strange simultaneity when reading most of Black Light’s stories: I didn’t want them to end but couldn’t wait for the next one. Rarely is it such a joy to spend time with people who are so fucked up. Parsons, who was born in Lubbock, Texas, and now lives in Portland, worked on these stories from 2005 to 2018. Many of them came as the result of her “cheating on the novel” she was writing that her heart wasn’t in. The resulting stories are frequently linked in their themes and subject matter, the primary being “the idea of everything changing before your eyes but it was there all along,” according to Parsons.

“Getting to the true, un-self-conscious version of yourself I think is the goal for all of them,” Parsons told Jezebel regarding her characters. Our interview has edited and condensed for clarity.

JEZEBEL: Many of your stories share common themes and concepts—storytelling is one. Do you have this sense of your own consistency as you’re writing, that you’re creating multiple pieces of a unified body of work, or is each story its own universe and such commonalties are inevitable as they’re all coming from a single person (you)?

KIMBERLY KING PARSONS: I think I return to the same obsessions and preoccupations over and over again and writing about them doesn’t seem to relieve the infatuation. I write them as standalone. I wasn’t putting them together as a collection initially, but I come back to those same things over and over again that seem to fascinate me. Storytelling is one of them. Hotel rooms come up quite a bit. Or secrets and game-playing.

The primary failing of the human body is that it only allows its inhabitants one perspective. In this book, you jump into the minds of over a dozen characters. That’s a primary function of a short story collection, even more so than in novels. The ability to have multiple points of view strikes me as something like godliness. Does writing these stories make you feel powerful?

I feel kind. I feel like I’m open-minded and I’m open to experiences and I’m open to these characters that are maybe people who haven’t had voices. It makes me feel like a better person to try to inhabit those heads, those thoughts. If there’s godliness, it’s in the idea of loving every person or wanting to enter every person’s headspace, however fucked-up it is. Every single person is living a life as rich and vivid as your life, and we can plunge into these different heads and experience the way they experience the world.

Every single person is living a life as rich and vivid as your life

Does that always feel good? Is it ever emotionally challenging?

It always feels good. I always am very aware that this is a craft and this is an exercise. I never forget that I’m working with sentences. I know that what I’m trying to create is a picture of a person or an experience, but when I’m doing it, I’m not swept up in it. I’m pretty aware of the mechanics because I’m working.

Is it fun to go to the places the characters go in “We Don’t Come Natural to It?” They aren’t terrible people, but given what they say about their coworkers, I think a lot of people would call them terrible in the light of day.

Exactly. They’re extremely judgmental, they’re definitely flawed. All of these characters are. But I think that’s it too: It’s sort of setting up this situation whereas a reader, when you’re plunged into the head so thoroughly, you understand why they’re like that. You understand their views of the world if I’ve done my job. Even people are who are terrible and judgmental deserve to be heard. That’s something that’s very tricky politically and socially right now. There is something about going into their heads that is fun.

Does writing about what you do at all feel political otherwise?

No, I can’t worry about anything but the world in the space of the story in the moment that I’m writing it. I couldn’t. It would be too paralyzing. There’s plenty of words these characters use that I would never use in real life. Plenty of thoughts or ideas I’m sort of regurgitating from people I know I’d never want to be.

More to the point, writing about women the way that you do, does that at all strike you as a prosocial contribution?

I think what happens with it once it leaves my screen is what happens with it and I don’t have any control over the way it’s received. I think if you’re truly making voices that seem as real and as true as possible to the characters, people can receive them however they want. And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes it means that people understand more about intense female friendship or queer characters or teenage girls that are in lust with each other. Maybe that is helping people in some way. But you could say the opposite because I’m writing characters that I think are pretty endearing, even the ones I find awful. I find them to be charming in their own ways. Maybe some people would say that’s doing a disservice, but I certainly don’t think so.

I think they’re charming and endearing for the reasons we’re discussing: They break rules of etiquette. It’s cathartic to spend time with fictional characters who are so real.

It’s exhilarating for me to see some of the things they say. It feels wild in a good way. With tweeting, there’s a sort of performative aspect to almost everything that we say, and these characters are removed from that in these moments. They’re being true to themselves, even if their true self isn’t the kind of person that you want to be or hang out with.

It’s wild to think of fiction as a way of existing closer to the truth.

The truest revelations of my life that I’ve ever felt as a human being have come through fiction.

The truest revelations of my life that I’ve ever felt as a human being have come through fiction.

Some online outlets have referred to Black Light as a queer book. Does that seem right to you? Is that a word you identify with?

I identify with the word. There are definitely two stories where it’s full-on, officially queer, and there are a couple more where you’re like, “Maybe.” But there are also children, who aren’t aware of their sexuality yet. And there are straight stories. It’s interesting to me that two queer stories can make a book queer, but I’m here for it. I love that. I think it is a queer book but I think that the queerness goes beyond the sexuality in the stories. All of the characters, I think, are feeling this experience of otherness. And it’s maybe on the sentence level, that they’re doing something outside the expected.

“Guts,” opens this collection and in retrospect contains many lines that seem to speak to your motives as an author: “People I once found gross or contagious are radiant, gleaming with need,” a “crust punk” is “dazzling under the streetlights—so pitiful and pretty he may as well be wrapped in tinsel,” you write of “cutting people open.”

“Guts” wasn’t always the first story, but I felt like Sheila was the most affable narrator. I’ve been told otherwise since, but she’s entering into this strange, new experience of the world and I thought she served as a great proxy for the reader, who is entering into these worlds. Her whole worldview has changed as a result of this relationship with a medical student. I love those moments when you’re reading fiction that teach you how to read the book. I didn’t plan it or do it on purpose but I kept coming back to the idea that that does sort of unify the overarching themes of the collection. Finding that kernel or the light that’s threaded through people who are otherwise dark or people you wouldn’t feel like you could approach.

How do you know when a short story is done? Are you just going by your gut?

I think it’s gut, but a lot of times about halfway through, I’ll know what the last line is. And then it’s a matter of justifying it.

My kids say really creepy stuff all the time

How did having kids affect your process and/or the content of your work? Did they inform “Foxes”?

Oh yeah, a ton. My kids say really creepy stuff all the time. There’s a lot of things I pulled straight from their mouths and put into “Foxes.” I was explaining the concept of blood banks to my five-year-old, and he was like, “Wait a second, there’s a building full of blood?” “Yeah.” “People go there and they give their blood and other people take it?” “Yup.” Kids see the world in such a strange way and I love that because it makes me see all these weird subliminal properties in everyday things, like a blood bank. It’s so bizarre that we just accept that there are blood banks. I think the reason I was able to [finish] “Foxes” was because I knew how children spoke. When I first [started] writing it, I didn’t have kids. I was a teacher, but I didn’t have a relationship with little kids.

Also, I’ve been writing forever, but before I had kids I wasn’t sending stuff out. I was very paralyzed by the idea of it. I felt too self-conscious and then when I had kids, I was so tired that I just didn’t care anymore about rejection. It seemed like just a thing I should start doing, sending things out. For me it ended up being a great thing, also I am naturally sort of lazy or unmotivated and having them made me really focus on the few hours a week that I got to write suddenly.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s name comes up a lot in comparisons to your work. What do you think of that?

While the book was in copyedits, I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and I loved it. I had not read her [before]. There’s something happening with her at the sentence level, these striking sentences, but also I read that book in three hours. I inhaled it, I loved it. I don’t know, I’m flattered by the comparison because I think she’s amazing. I think it’s maybe something about not being afraid to talk about bodies, or bodily functions. Or blood?

In “Glow Hunter,” you write, “There’s no better place than this—on the cusp, aching at the start of something.” You could be describing your life right now, your book-publishing life.

Let’s hope so. It’s fun because there’s so much possibility. I want so many things, I’ve wanted so many things for so long, but then also I want the wanting, too. I want to stay. I want to always want it. I identify with that line a lot.

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