"Put Them All In a Jar": A Normal, Everyday Conversation with Kimberly King Parsons
by Robb Todd
(pictured above: Black Light: Stories, Vintage: 224 pages; $15)
Black Light is a rare book. Kimberly King Parsons has delivered a work of truth and beauty that will transcend generations.
If that sounds too effusive, it is not. This is also the rare book that bears promotional blurbs indistinguishable from critical reviews:
“The bad-ass gals in these terrific stories are all attitude, and as funny and appealing in their imperfection and thwarted desire as you’ll find in any fiction out there. Parsons opens and ends stories brilliantly. I just finished this book, and I’m going to read it again right away.”
"Parsons’ is an exhilarating, enchanting, charming and irresistible new voice. Imagine the punk rock stylings of the criminally underappreciated Jeff Parker. Add the full-throated roar of weird Karen Russell, plus the deft sparkle of Denis Johnson and all of the gesturing and spooky direction of Carmen Maria Machado. This is real-deal fiction. You’ll want more."
Amy Hempel offered the first quote for the jacket of the book. The second quote comes from the review of Black Light in the Los Angeles Times.
Parsons won these accolades with sentences that astonish. She never leans on belated language. This book delivers firstness and, with that, it shimmers like no other, but does so in a way that seems natural—and maybe it is for Parsons. Readers who care about language will love her for what she has put on these pages, while some writers will hate her for the same thing. Because she made it look so easy.
Black Light is impossible to skim for fear of what might be missed. She fills empty spaces, small and large, with spells where others would waste their words on banal exposition.
"We’ve got bitter jewels buzzing in our guts. They’re bright and gaudy and we couldn't ignore them if we wanted to. We don't want to. It’s the starving that makes us glow—the gimcrack ache, that’s what Suki calls this. It’s dark and shining, nothing like what you have, what your everyday snack seeker has. It’s not a pang. What we’ve got cuts diamond sharp."
"Men stutter blood onto snow."
"Days this hot belong to us. See us run both sides of this street, every lawn our lawn. We are sprinkler kids, shoeless and soaked through, blistered and noisy, playing duck-duck-brick while some window mother—not ours—yells for us to not get concussed."
"There is some kind of golden fur on Bo, on everything I look at, really. I can see these rainbow hairs all over her clothes, too, like she's been wrestling iridescent cats."
"I wish sometimes I could use my magic on her, read her dog thoughts, tell her she’s got a treat coming, or ask her why she thinks she can lick the sparkle off the sidewalk."
"Light pours from careful limpers in the streets, from the wheezers and wet coughers who stop right in front of me to twist out their lungs. People I once found gross or contagious are radiant, gleaming with need. The newborn on my bus shines like swaddled halogen—harnessed to his tired mother’s chest, he turns his jaundiced little face toward me, no matter where I sit."
Every page has a line to highlight, and most have many.
Parsons is on her book tour now but took the time to answer a few questions about the collection and how she created it.
Q: Can you tell me how light came to be such an important piece of this book, from the sentences, to the quote from Richard Siken, to the title?
A: I'm always noticing light and shadow when I'm just walking around in the world—I'm not sure why, but it's something that's always compelled me. I'm particularly interested in the way light falls on people's faces and how someone can suddenly look beautiful or strange or even gruesome just by changing the light. At one point the collection was called Unseen in Natural Light, but something about that seemed too fussy or pretentious (and also it made me think of beer). Black Light as a title gets the same concept in there—that there is a world underneath this one that we can't see without shining a certain light.
The Siken quote ("Cut me open and the light streams out.") came last, after the collection was assembled, and it's from "The Dislocated Room," a poem I recite in my head all the time. Thematically, the poem fits with the collection—lots of lust, longing, and self-destruction in a hotel room—and I like the melding of the corporeal and light in that single line.
Q: Which story in this collection did you begin working on first? How long ago was that?
A: "Foxes" is the oldest story—I started it back in 2005. It was also the last one I turned in in 2018. I wasn't working on it constantly during that time, but I knew something was messed up about it and it took me years to figure it out. Once I realized it needed a braided narrative structure (with two stories running concurrently: the mother's and the daughter's) it came pretty quickly, but it took a lot of years of it just feeling off before that.
Q: Which story took the least amount of time to complete?
A: I wrote the basic shape of "Starlite" over a period of 6 hours. I was stuck on a train coming back from Washington and the train had a malfunction. The trip should have been three hours but ended up being six. I wrote it in a kind of modified real-time—it's about these characters skipping work to hang out in a hotel room during office hours, and that's about the length of time the train was stuck. At the end of that trip, I had a solid beginning, middle, and end, and a lot of notes about places to revise. It was by far the fastest story I wrote in the collection.
Q: How did you decide which story would be first in the book? And how many revisions did you make on its first sentence?
A: I don't revise the first sentence on the page because if it doesn't feel right it doesn't get written down (and therefore never gets to be the first sentence, if that makes sense). The first sentence is done exclusively in my head, and once it's committed to the page, it's done. The rest of the sentences might be revised a dozen times or a hundred times, but that first one is different.
I started with "Guts" because I think Sheila is the most affable narrator in the bunch, and her current predicament—seeing the world in this bizarre new medical way—kind of runs alongside the feeling I want the reader to have when they enter this collection. She's a bit unsteady in her surroundings, full of new empathy, and open to connection with people that have until that point felt closed off. That's exactly what I want my reader to experience, too.
Q: Let's talk about the origin of the first sentence of the book: "When I start dating Tim, an almost-doctor, all of the sick, broken people in the world begin to glow." Can you tell me where a sentence like that comes from?
A: Like all first sentences, the origins are kind of a mystery to me. What I do know is that the sentence came backwards—it started with "sick, broken people begin to glow." Even after I pinned down Sheila and Tim, it took me the rest of the story to really unspool that sentence. Maybe that's a microcosm for the way all my stories work: I come up with one sentence in a voice that is a little bizarre or hard to follow and then I spend the rest of the pages justifying and explaining why a narrator believes that first line to be true.
Q: What's your favorite sentence in the book and why?
A: This is a harder question than you might imagine. I have a good reason for picking the one I did, though if you ask me again in five minutes, I suspect I’d have a different answer. In “Glow Hunter” once the mushrooms kick in, Sara wants Bo to stop talking about her ex-boyfriend Jeff and his family. Sara is in love with Bo, so mentioning the ex is a little threatening, and this is messing with Sara’s very first trip. Sara wants to be alone with Bo in that psychedelic world, so she asks if it would be okay if they just put Jeff and his mom and dad and sister into jars. This is precisely the logic of a person on mushrooms, but it’s the next sentence I like: “And we do—we put them all in jars.” The psychedelic logic seeps from Sara into Bo. They are suddenly on the same page, and the page is totally insane. This sentence isn’t sonically interesting or even particularly pretty—it’s just that it was the defining moment when I realized this collection could be as weird and dark and bizarre as I needed it to be. You can do anything in your work—it’s your goddamn world—you’re in charge. You want to put people in jars? Do it—put them all in jars.
Q: Are there any sentences in this collection that you wish you had one more chance to revise?
A: I’m so happy to be able to say no to this question. There are some sentences I think I might approach differently now, but I spent more than a decade getting them where I wanted them. I think of them like a very thoughtful tattoo you get as a young person—you might not get the same one again tomorrow, but it marks who you were at a specific time in your life, and you wouldn’t change it for anyone.
The one tiny thing that does bother me is the copyediting specification that the world “day-glow” be capitalized. Turns out it’s a trademarked color! What the fuck? In each round, my copyeditors kept capitalizing it and I kept uncapitalizing it and eventually they basically said, This isn’t a style issue, it’s a legal issue, and I was like, Okay, fine. They asked about using fluorescent or neon instead. But once I fall in love with a word it stays my word forever, so I decided I’d rather let them mutilate it.
Q: Most readers and writers care about character and plot before language. Why is language first for you?
A: I’ve spent my whole life keeping track of what people say and then synthesizing it and writing it down. For me language equals voice, and voice is intimacy, somebody whispering in your ear. It’s immediate and intense. It feels like a person reaching out to you directly. And the person reaching out becomes a character by necessity. Language not only gets you voice, it gets you character. The one thing I’m not thinking about a ton is plot. Plot still happens. I don’t feel like I have to force it once I have a true voice speaking. Deliberate plot is, what? A hand reaching down, arranging a series of events? A writer writing? It feels embarrassing to me, the idea of a reader watching me line stuff up and knock it down.
Q: There are a couple of inexplicable reviews of Black Light on Goodreads. One complained about "unlikeable and often disgusting people." Why do you think some people have a difficult time differentiating between drawing a portrait of an unlikable person versus celebrating or promoting bad behavior? Or do you think this type of negative reaction is placed somewhere else?
A: I think some people confuse their visceral response to a character with their response to a writer. I also think a lot of people hate women in general (and this frequently includes other women, by the way). I try to take it as a compliment when somebody on Goodreads says they hated the book because the characters are disgusting. These people are moved to anger, and I like that. It’s certainly more exciting than a three-star rating with no review attached. Sometimes people are just revealing their bigotry: maybe they don’t like to see queer sex, or maybe they feel some sense of moral repulsion at the characters’ choices. But who wants to read about people doing the right, healthy, good thing all the time? I live a very stable, peaceful life these days, but I’m drawn toward wildness in art. I seek out “unlikeable” characters, even the truly despicable, in movies, TV, and books. I don’t actually find those characters unlikeable at all—I find them compelling and complicated and even more deserving of love than the average “likeable” person.
Q: Have you encountered any criticism yet that made you see the book, or just a part of it, in a different way?
A: Nope. Though I have had a couple of people cut the character Tim from “Guts” a lot more slack than I would as a reader. People have told me how much they like him, that he’s funny or that he basically saves Sheila at the end of that story with this huge generous act. I see the ending as much more sinister than that. It’s not that I think he’s a sociopath—I just see Sheila as wasting herself on Tim, and I see the world in the story eating up his bullshit because he’s an almost-doctor. I wonder if it’s possible his authority even infects readers?
Q: What's the most astute observation anyone has written so far about your book?
A: I just got two reviews that really see the work exactly the way I want it to be seen, and both of them say something similar. NPR says the writing “bring[s] flashes of illumination to people who struggle with disappointment, both in themselves and others,” and the LA Times says, “This is a book for the lonely, for the losers poised for more — it’s a celebration of and a deeply felt meditation on the injustice, cruelty and a million private horrors endured by the weak and the unloved.” I tried very hard not to have any big ideas while I was writing this book—to just move along sentence by sentence and stay true at that level, but at a certain point I fell for these troubled characters. I’m so glad people to think I’m doing justice to the misfits and fuckups and strugglers I love so much.
Q: You're on your tour right now, and thanks for making time to do this interview while that's happening. Has anyone one startled/impressed/stumped you with a question after a reading?
A: I brought my kids to my launch at Powell’s so they could see what I’ve been sneaking off to work on all these years. During the Q. and A., my 7-year-old asked a pretty great question. He said, “Now that you’re finished writing this book, do you feel relieved and happy? Or maybe just depressed?” I love that question—how even a little kid understands that getting what you want is a kind of death. I am, at this point anyway, very happy and not at all depressed about having finished. I think having another looming deadline helps. There’s no time to feel wistful about this first book because I’m so deep into the next one.
Q: What's the most important lesson anyone taught you about writing and who was it?
A: I owe our teacher Gordon Lish tremendous thanks for so many lessons. The one I use pretty much daily is simple recursion: paying attention to what came before, making sure every sentence is communicating with the previous sentence. It’s so comforting to know the answers are always behind you.
Q: I've had the pleasure of hearing early versions of your sentences, including many in this collection, for a decade in classes and workshops. One of our teachers said that writing can be taught — he claimed he could teach a dog to write — but I suspect the way you write, your voice, cannot be taught. Where did that ability come from, beyond the work you've put into your craft?
A: Thank you for saying that. I think listening is the thing I’m really the best at, and I grew up in a family that talked and talked and talked and said the weirdest, most off-the-wall shit. I have a really good memory, and maybe there’s a reward for paying attention and not letting go of the things that move you.
Q: What's the title of the novel you're working on, what's it about, and when can we read it?
A: Right now it’s called The Boiling River, which is a real place, a thermal river I visited once in Montana, but I’m not sure that title is going to stick. It’s a slim little novel about disordered thinking, hoarders, intense female friendships, synthesizers, and LSD. A draft is due to my editor in January, but I really have no idea what the timeline will be for revisions after that. I guess it’ll take how long it takes.
Q: Starting now, can you write all the sentences everywhere forever? I think that should be your job.
A: I love you for saying that, Robb. And I’ll be over here writing sentences forever, just like I’ve been doing for the last 15 damn years. I’ll keep making it my job even if nobody is hiring.
Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.