Kimberly King Parsons’ short story collection, Black Light is a debut like no other. Her stories take us through the dark and gritty lives of everyday people in Texas. From confused queer love to drugs in motel rooms to co-worker drama to all-girl boarding schools to unpredictable mothers, Parson’s characters struggle with disappointment, self-loathing and belonging, with that ever present itch of desiring more than you have. Readers are invited into private spaces where there is violence and poverty, but also love and tenderness.
Black Light was just longlisted for the National Book Award and has received rave reviews from the likes of NPR, LA Times and Publishers Weekly. Given that this was one of my favorite books of 2019 (and perhaps one of the best short story collections I have ever read) I was particularly excited to speak with Kimberly. Check out our interview below where Parsons talks about the consideration of women’s physical bodies, taking up space, her experience with psychedelics, motherhood and writing about adolescence.
I love how Black Light tells stories about women from multiple age groups— from a child’s perspective to the coming of age of teenagers to an adult. When writing women is there a certain age you favor or find the most exciting to explore?
I’m especially interested in writing from the perspective of those who feel bewildered and confounded. Young adults and teens generally fall into this category as they struggle with issues of identity and selfhood. There’s something about the intensity and novelty of young people’s feelings—how fickle they are, how uncomfortable in their own skin, how resistant to adult help—that I find endearing and profound.
The mothers throughout your stories are very interesting characters. Flawed, mentally ill, addicts, but most still loving in nature towards their children. Can you talk about how motherhood has changed you as a writer? What parts of motherhood do you like exploring in your work?
Motherhood has had a huge positive impact on my writing life. Before I had kids, I had too much free time and I wasn’t great about using it wisely. I’m a person who finds obstruction and obligation greatly valuable—whether in the form of deadlines or a limited workday. Now that I have little kids, I have to be productive during set hours, which for me is very motivating.
Children are my absolute favorite people. They are brutally honest and weird and half-formed and uncivilized in the best way. I love how my kids have remade my world into something new and strange and wonderful again. That said, it’s my job as a mom to be the voice of reason, to make rules and provide guidelines that keep everybody safe and happy. I like writing about the interplay of power and control between children and their parents. Kids often seem powerless, but any mother who has tried and failed to brush their child’s tiny teeth will tell you otherwise.
Your stories focus a lot on the body. We see fat-shaming, fetishization, and eating disorders. But we also see female desire and the exploration of sexuality. The female body is explored a lot in literature (and I’m not saying that it's been done well or "correctly"), but what did you want to bring to the forefront that you felt you weren’t seeing? What do you think gets acknowledged or unveiled when women talk about other women’s bodies?
It astonishes me just how much most women consider their physical body throughout any given day. Things like posture, the way clothes fit, the way we are regarded in an elevator if we’re taking up space too much space, if we are safer walking on the other side of the street, if we’re being taken seriously or objectified. There is a scrolling dialogue that happens between women and their own bodies, between women and other women’s bodies. For many of my characters, there’s a push-pull of wanting to be in the body (to feel pleasure, to connect physically with others, etc.) and wanting to discard the body entirely, to get to the true self that’s beneath the physical.
You speak about hallucinogens in “Glow Hunter” —magic mushrooms— and you also write about LSD. What is your attraction to exploring psychedelics? Do you think they are misunderstood in our society? Have you had positive experiences using them yourself?
Yes, I’ve had several huge, formative, positive experiences with psychedelics. As an adolescent, I had my ego beautifully obliterated and I still—still!—feel the overwhelming affirmative effects. Psychedelics skewed my brain toward social curiosity and radical empathy—I forgave people, I understood where people were coming from, I looked at myself in a mirror and saw a glorious mammal trying her best. I think people are catching up with this notion. Michael Pollan’s popular book How to Change Your Mind touches on some of the therapeutic aspects of LSD, and Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day covers the benefits of microdosing to treat depression and anxiety (personally, I’ve only ever macrodosed, ha).
A lot of your characters long for something they don’t have — a kind of light within their life that is lacking— which is reminiscent of that small-town boredom (that I think we all find fascinating?) Can you talk about how Texas plays a role within your work?
Texas is home. It’s where I came into consciousness and where I formed my core personality—it’s also the place where I first felt a longing to be elsewhere. The heat, vast landscape, menacing weather, and listlessness certainly shapes the way I write sentences, but at the forefront of my fiction are the voices of the people who raised me.
What drew you to writing? When did your writing journey begin?
As a little kid growing up an only child in a place where I felt very removed, I turned to books for companionship and comfort. A devoted reader first and foremost, for a long time I thought I wanted to be a book critic (I have an MA in Literary Studies with an emphasis on Faulkner’s works). I’d applied for PhD programs to pursue that, but at the last minute, I learned that two writers I adored, Ben Marcus and Sam Lipsyte, were teaching in the Columbia MFA program. I applied there with the idea that if I got in, I was supposed to change my life. So I did and I did.
Can you speak about your approach to writing short stories? Do you have a writing routine?
My partner and I are raising two little kids and I’m the primary caregiver during the week, so my workday revolves entirely around their school day. I try to be in full mom-mode after I pick them up, but often I’m still whirring through stuff in the back of my brain. My partner and I usually go to sleep when our kids do, crazy early, like 8:30 or 9, because our kids are the kind that make you lie down in the dark with them. But then we wake up around midnight and hang out together in the living room and work until we drop. I feel really lucky to have a partner who gets what I do and who is also really driven and loves what he does—his field is totally different from mine, but there’s a vibe at our house like we’re in a studio or at a residency. We both feel a sense of urgency. Sometimes I’ll write until 4 am and come up with this kind of bleary, dreamy stuff that doesn’t sound like me. I’ll pass out and wake up and wonder who wrote it.
What is your new novel, The Boiling River, about?
The novel is not a big departure from the subject matter in Black Light: a series of bizarre coincidences compels a new mom to return to her dismal hometown to deal with her mother’s disordered thinking and hoarding. Grief, sibling relationships, psychedelics, music, sexual identity, and remote Texas settings play a part in this book as well. My draft is due to my editor in January, though I am not precisely sure when the book will be released (slated for 2020 or early 2021).
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the short story collection Black Light (Vintage, 2019) and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf. A recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, her fiction has been published in The Paris Review, Best Small Fictions 2017, Black Warrior Review, No Tokens, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her partner and sons in Portland, OR, where she is completing a novel about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.