Bookforum talks with Kimberly King Parsons

Kimberly King Parsons. Photo: Heather Hawksford

The Texan girls and women who populate Black Light, Kimberly King Parsons’s debut story collection, are messy and loud and unapologetic. They fall hard and fast. Parsons gives her characters ample space to make mistakes, and they do—repeatedly—but we love them no less for it. Case in point: in “Glow Hunter,” when the impossibly magnetic Bo gets shards of glass embedded in her hand while doing parking-lot cartwheels, she pours Mountain Dew on the gash, watches it fizz, and goes about her day (which involves hunting for magic mushrooms in roadside cowpats). Such is an ordinary sequence of events for a character fashioned by Parsons’s singular mind.

Parsons writes with bleak humor and offbeat wisdom about thwarted desire: aching friendships, doomed love affairs, marriages gone stale. I first encountered her work while reading submissions for the literary journal No Tokens back in 2016. It was her voice—fierce, gritty, twangy, and dark—that initially pulled me in; her use of language both unexpected and apt that kept me reading at an almost frightening pace. But what I couldn’t shake, even days later, was the depth of Parsons’s understanding of the human heart. For Bookforum, we recently discussed her “promiscuous” writing process, the joy she finds in being wrong, what she learned from Gordon Lish, and how growing up in Texas has shaped her work.

I read somewhere that you began Black Light unintentionally—you were writing a novel at the time and began “cheating” on it with the stories that would make up this collection. Did having more than one project going at once change the way you worked?

It’s critical for me to have at least two projects going on at once so I can flip between them when I get bored or need a break. Inevitably, the one that I’m not supposed to be working on will be more appealing to me. For years, I wrote a novel that didn’t move me because I’d had a tiny bit of interest from an editor. It actually turned out to be a good thing because it was this big, dumb project I could run around on. It was there being boring in the background and it made sneaking away with short stories or other novel ideas very exciting. I know some people follow one thing through at a time, but I definitely think promiscuity is an important part of my process. My different projects “talk” to each other and inform my perspective.

Is there a difference for you, process-wise, between stories and novels?

For me, stories come sentence by sentence and I’m constantly surprised, baffled, confused. I don’t go in with an idea about what might happen. With a novel there might be a kind of shape there in advance—I know basic movements, or I think I do. I’ve established a cast of characters maybe, or I know some event will sit at the center. There are many times my rough plans turn out to be totally wrong. I love that though—being wrong, being surprised.

Desire (and especially forbidden desire) is something all of the characters in Black Light grapple with, whether they’re giving in to it or repressing it. How do you see desire functioning in this collection?

Desire is the engine of every story I write, not just the ones in this collection. There has to be some reason this person is telling their story. Why now? Because the want is eating them up—they can’t go on like this. Sometimes it’s chaste and sometimes it’s filthy, and I look for this in every book I read, too. Carole Maso’s Aureole, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Heather Lewis’s Notice, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—these are all white-hot with want. Aureole is actually subtitled “An erotic sequence,” and I think many of those books fit that description. But I’m also drawn to the needs of children, their desire to fit into a family or make sense of the world, books like Justin Torres’s We the Animals or Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division.

I love the way your stories often end in motion, or “on the inhale,” resisting the urge to tie things up with a neat bow. It gives me the sense that your characters will keep on moving and interacting, whether they’re under observation or not. What compels you to end pieces on an upward motion, and what do you look for in an ending?

Amy Hempel says the ending of a short story should punch you in the heart, and, Lord, she knows just how to do that. But punching somebody in the heart isn’t about big sweeping gestures or sentimentality. Sentimentality is the anti-heart, a heart substitute, and nothing terrifies me more than tipping into it. I try to avoid it by keeping revelations as small, quiet, and specific to a character as possible. Another way is to leave a scene early, sometimes even before you’re ready to. If you resist the urge to tell a reader what happens in the end, or how to feel, you make space for their feelings. Whatever they bring to the page will always be superior to something you’ve handed them.

As experienced through the different lenses of each of your characters, the body is by turns grotesque and holy. Sheila in “Guts” sees sick people shimmering and glowing—her whole perspective on humanity is transformed by her relationship with a doctor—while the narrator of “We Don’t Come Natural To It,” who struggles with an eating disorder, seems to view the body as an enemy to be conquered. What connections do you see between these different outlooks on the body?

I think for all their different outlooks, each of my characters feel caged in their skin. Many of them want to get to some true connection with another human being—something beneath the body—but find it impossible to do so. The child narrators don’t feel in control of themselves—they exist in circumstances they didn’t ask for, they’re small, they’re physically weak. They want to grow up, to be bigger, to have control, but the reader knows nothing really changes in adulthood. When Sheila is seeing beauty in those strangers, it’s despite the bodies they inhabit. It’s something soul deep.

I had a teacher who would say, “Keep it on the body.” For him that meant every sensation should stay tied to the corporeal experience, but also, at the sentence level, every metaphor, every simile should do so as well. This makes so much sense to me. Why compare something rust-colored to a brick when you could compare it to a spleen? Why put a plane in the sky when you could put a floater on the back of somebody’s eyeball? Doing it that way builds bodies and worlds simultaneously.

Can you tell me a bit about your experience studying with Gordon Lish? What were some of your biggest takeaways from your time working with him?

Gordon is a polarizing figure in the literary scene (not without reason!), but he’s also the most tremendous teacher I’ve ever had, and he’s charming and funny as hell and (mostly) a delight to be around. I can’t talk about studying with him without dissolving into phrases like “life changing” and “amazing,” which he hates. But he is amazing—and he did change my life. I took three summer workshops with him at the Center for Fiction starting in 2009, and we stayed in touch for years after that, mostly by postcard.

My very first creative writing teacher, Dr. Robert Nelsen, was a student of Lish’s in the ’80s, so I’d been hearing about Gordon and feeling his influence since I was eighteen years old. I’d been reading writers he’d published—Hempel, of course, and William Tester, Greg Mulcahy, Christine Schutt, Yannick Murphy—for years before I ever met him, so I was already heavily influenced, deeply in awe of his aesthetic. Though his workshops have a terrifying reputation, I wanted so badly to study with him. The classes were intense and long and sometimes stressful. But Gordon has a way of pulling the best out of every writer. Everything is done by ear, with students reading aloud. You can hear when people are on to something. You can hear yourself getting better over the course of a summer. You can also hear yourself fucking up. I learned how to take rejection—right there in the moment, in front of everybody—and how to come back the next class ready to take it again. I also learned how to take praise, but I learned that a writer is only as good as her last good line. I learned that talent is a ridiculous concept, voice is something everyone has—style too. The most crucial thing I walked away with is an insane group of writers that I’m in very close contact with to this day. We share work and hold each other accountable. We were all changed in that room.

How did growing up in Texas influence the way you write, both formally and in terms of content?

I left home fifteen years ago, but in a lot of ways I feel like my body still lives in Texas, the memories are that intense. I had a very happy childhood, spent running around barefoot, drinking Coke floats, and setting off fireworks. It was also wild and violent: getting blisters on your thighs from a seat in a hot car, cornered horny toads spraying blood out of their eyes, my grandmother cutting a baby rattlesnake in half with a garden hoe. I think those experiences inform my work, certainly. And I guess it’s not a long shot to think all that vast, flat nothing might have something to do with my love of white space.

Annabel Graham is a writer, photographer, and illustrator from Malibu, California. She holds an MFA in fiction from NYU, and serves as fiction editor of No Tokens. For more, see