Language Before Language: A Conversation with Kimberly King Parsons

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the 2019 National Book Award-longlisted short story collection Black Light (Vintage) 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, Black Warrior ReviewNo 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.


Immediate” is the first word I thought of when I was, I don’t know, maybe a paragraph into “Guts,” the first story in Black Light, Kimberly King Parsons’s first book. The immediacy comes from “voice,” that craftiest of craft terms that is so hard to pin down.

I’m tempted to think of these stories, most of which are in some variation of the first-person present, as one-sided conversations of a sort, perhaps overheard at a party where the punch got spiked with MDMA. These conversationalists, they’re relaying turning points (some up, some down) in their lives, and they just want to reiterate what it was really like to be there. You’re a willfully captive audience; you don’t want to stop listening.

Consider this early moment from “The Soft No,” one of my favorite stories from the collection:

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. It is boys versus girls, and Chip and I are the leaders. Our teams are pink and peeling, kids willing to do whatever it is we say.

What kind of violence is a game called “duck-duck-brick”? And what kinds of kids would play that game? You read on to find out, of course, even though the part of you that listens to people talk already knows, can already see those kids outside with their rocks in the bright light of summer. In all of these stories, you read for a kind of confirmation, to see the stories play out what the characters’ voices are already indicating.

I spoke with Parsons via email; she kindly answered my questions in quiet moments when she wasn’t touring behind Black Light. We talked a lot about sentences and craft, and I’m grateful for the conversation. It’s hard for me to think of anyone else I’d rather hear from when it comes to constructing incandescent sentences, brick by voicey brick.


Chase Burke: You were interviewed on Brad Listi’s Otherppl podcast a bit ago, and nearish the start of that conversation, you two talked about what a book “means” to an author in comparison to what it “means” to a reviewer (or, an interviewer). These ideas or these “meanings” we derive from a book don’t always align—you said that sometimes people don’t get what a writer was trying to do, even if they liked the book. So that makes me wonder (loaded question incoming): what is the right read of the stories in Black Light? What were you trying to do with this book?

Kimberly King Parsons: A reviewer on Goodreads recently gave Black Light two stars and said the book was full of “very disgusting characters whom I cannot seem to forget.” I joked on Twitter that this was my new favorite review, but there’s real truth to that. I don’t see my characters as disgusting—I see them as good people trying and failing and making mistakes—but I do want them to be unforgettable, and I consider that review to be a real compliment. There’s another review out there that says something like, “Black Light is a collection of fun stories about women and girls.” That person gave the book five stars, but I can’t help thinking they’ve missed the bigger point? I wouldn’t call these stories fun, even though I find most of the narrators endearing. My biggest goal with this book was to give voices to characters who might stretch the limits of a reader’s empathy, to really pull people into the weird, unforgettable headspace of these flawed people.

CB: To me, the stories in Black Light seem to be about whatever is inside of us coming to the surface. Anxieties, desires, whatever. What’s invisible suddenly made visible as if under… you know… a black light. People glow, either figuratively or literally. People read minds, either figuratively or literally. Someone’s deeper sense of self (or, another sense of self) might be brought to the fore from drugs, for example. Do I have that right?

KKP: I think you have this exactly right. I love the idea that there’s a self underneath this one—that every action or reaction has some deeper, double meaning. Most of these characters are looking for transcendent moments of connection; they just have grimy ways of getting there. They try to take shortcuts: through drugs or drinking or sex or games or deprivation. They’re not in therapy, not meditating or doing something healthy. But even that urge to get a quick fix is endearing to me. Of course, starving yourself won’t make your straight friend fall in love with you, of course doing drugs in a motel room all day won’t leave you feeling satisfied with your life choices. But there’s something about the desire to change that I find appealing. These characters are all curious about how their lives might be different. They all have some kernel of hope that things could be better than they are.

CB: One thing I loved about the stories is that they are often very funny! Of course, the collection is at times bleak, and some of its central citizens are fuck-ups, but still, humor comes through here so loud and clear, usually through someone’s voice, their way of observing the world. I’m thinking about humor on the line level, mostly, and the kind of juxtapositions that can come from weird words put together, weird observations, that kind of thing. Not necessarily, like, comic escapades. Can you talk a bit about how you see humor functioning in your fiction, and maybe about how it can be used to make a reader feel empathy for people they might otherwise (by design or not) dislike?

KKP: Humor is a critical part of the voices I write—whether the characters themselves are funny or whether they are so lacking in self-awareness that they become funny to the reader. This definitely happens at the line level, but it’s locked into voice. I do everything I can to avoid the feeling of external cleverness imparted directly by me (as the writer). Of course it’s all me and it’s all a trick, but as a reader, nothing throws me out of a story faster than writerly cleverness.

With the exception of the last story, these are first-person narratives, which makes all my narrators storytellers (even if the person they’re telling the story to is themselves). On top of that, most of these stories are told in present tense. There’s urgency baked in, but humor is also about being quick, on top of things, ready to observe and comment in real time. Humor is also useful when things start to drift toward sentimentality (which I loathe and try to avoid at all costs). It’s a great way to undercut moments that might otherwise veer toward the too-lyrical.

CB: It’s worth pointing out that this is your first book, and it was long-listed for the National Book Award. First of all: congrats, that’s fantastic. Can you talk about what that experience was like/has been like?

KKP: It’s been crazy to see my weird little stories landing the right way with so many people. The past two years have been an exercise in conjuring confidence—believing that the thing I most wanted to write would be the thing people would want to read. For a long time I didn’t hold that to be true—I assumed I’d need to write a more “commercial” novel to get an agent, sell a book, get any attention. For years I tried to write the book I thought would sell. I hated every page of it, and I hated myself for writing it. There was no joy in it. At a certain point, I gave up and decided to go all in and write exactly what I wanted to, almost as an experiment. I only did it for myself, to put the fun back in.

CB: Would you say you have a favorite story here? Do you feel like the older stories (you’ve said elsewhere that some originated way back in 2005 or so) are from a different “you”? I imagine it might be strange (or illuminating, maybe) to see such relatively old pieces find not only a new audience but also a certain kind of spotlight that can accompany award nods.

KKP: The way I revise is almost exclusively through addition—whether by adding a line here or there or by adding whole scenes. So even though some of these stories go back to 2005, I’ve touched them all in the years since then, some extensively. There’s even a bad, baby ghost version of Black Light called Who Here is Heartbroken that I turned in as my MFA thesis at Columbia back in 2010, but I suspect it’s pretty unrecognizable as such.

Every story has taken its turn being my least favorite, with some of them being bigger pains in the ass than others. “Starlite” was the easiest and is also the newest, written in 2017 in a big rush all in one day (revised many times of course, though even that was painless and quicker than usual). I’d had the first line in my head for years and was just waiting for the right feeling to finally commit. I ended up being stuck on a broken train from Seattle to Portland and something about that specific claustrophobia worked for me.

I wanted to get that speedy rush of experience in there—the way people on certain powdery drugs speak. Euphoria tinged with aggression. I wanted to catch the loops and spikes of the conversation between the characters in a sort of faux real-time. I wanted the reader to be fascinated, enchanted, and annoyed over and over again, like “Keep talking. Keep talking. Keep talking. Okay, shut the fuck up.” Something about that approach made the whole process easier. (Plus, I’d like to think I’m maybe getting more efficient after more than a dozen years, though who knows if that’s true?) “Starlite” is one of the longest stories in the collection, but it came out hot and fast and I love it for that.

CB: You are from Texas, and Texas is a focal point of these stories, an essential element to them, I’d say. Something about all that wide-open space, all that sprawling sky. Like you, I am from an easily-misunderstood state (I am from Florida, lord help me). I don’t know if you do this, but I think a lot about what it means to set a story in Florida, especially in regards to the hypothetical/invisible reader and the preconceptions they will assuredly bring with them regarding Florida as a place with a number of very particular reputations. I often find myself wanting to play off of those expectations, undermine them, whatever. Do you think about those kinds of expectations re: Texas?

KKP: Definitely. Texas, like Florida, has this mythos you can’t help but play into or undermine. Even though these stories have always been set in Texas, for a long time I didn’t want to mention that. I worried that the long shadow of my home state would make it harder for people to project their own experiences onto the places I write about. It took a gentle nudge from my agent to really own up to the fact that all these characters are Texans, that it was okay to say so. She could sense I was writing around that fact in places, and it felt like withholding something from the reader for no good reason. I felt a huge relief to be able to say, yes, this is the little town my family is from, these are the schools and bowling alleys and convenience stores in the places where I grew up.

CB: Is there something you want people to know about Texas after they have read Black Light?

KKP: Texas is so huge it means different things to everyone who lives there. It’s a vastly different experience depending on which part you’re in—the geography and industry and cultures vary so wildly. I’m not trying to make any blanket statements about Texas—I just want people to really sink into the voices of my characters, and those voices are certainly shaped by the speech patterns and landscape and social constructs in those specific suburbs, little towns, and cities.

CB: Is it those speech patterns that shaped your approach to sentences? Or is it that combined with the Lishian idea of consecution (you worked with him before, right?), where the sentence, and its sonics and movements, comes first, while plot or story or whatever stems from those elements?

KKP: I think it’s a combination. I grew up shy in a bigmouth family. I’ve always been a good listener and I’ve always paid attention to the way people talk, and one of Lish’s big goals is for writers to plug into their “aboriginal voice”—the mother tongue, the language before language. I was born in Lubbock, but we later moved to a Dallas suburb where there were lots of transplants from all over the country (people my mom would call “Yankees”). Suddenly I could hear my parents’ drawl, but more than that, I could hear mine. I wanted to fit in, so I made a conscious effort to sublimate any twang or odd colloquialism that might set me apart. I’ve always had a heightened sensitivity to that, which has become very useful in fiction.

Incidentally, I thought I’d scrubbed every trace of accent away at this point (which I really regret doing now, to be honest) but a new publishing friend from the South pointed out that I still slip. The word “penguin” tipped her off. I say it “peeen-gwin” and I was shocked to learn there was any other way.

CB: In The Believer, you said this about your story origins:

It always starts with the first line. That’s how I know a story has begun, and the way I find the first line is usually by sound, and not by the way it looks on the page. And the first line never changes. The last line never changes.

I want to ask you two things about this, and both, I think, tie into the sentence-first sentiment. Can you articulate what it is about the first line that’s important to you? And regarding last lines, do you find that early on in the drafting of a story you have the last line in mind already, and you write toward it, or is it more of a situation where you arrive at a last line and find that it is the right one, because it has followed, naturally and consecutively, the preceding sentences?

KKP: The first line is like a magic cup—everything after flows from it. And it’s really a gut thing—I have to feel certain that this line is the line, and that’s something I can’t fake. It’s important because it signifies that there’s a story to tell at all. I’ll ride that line through the rest of the story using consecution, but then there is this other gut feeling that comes for the last line. Sometimes you’re writing for years and years without that last line, waiting for it. Sometimes it’s early in the process, like a paragraph or two in I’ll have a little flash and I can “hear” where I’m supposed to end up. Then I know I have a place I’m trying to get to, to earn, and I can write toward it. So maybe it’s less like a magic cup and more like a magic sandwich? Whatever it is, it feels very much beyond my control and sort of outside the realm of craft. Craft is the meat, but the bread is always a miracle.

CB: To go back from something from earlier, is revision for you mostly an act of nuts-and-bolts tweaking on the sentence level, or is there also a focus on global components? I’m curious about this because I can imagine working sentence-to-sentence could lead to a need for “global” revisions (meaning, a perceived need to change around whole plot points to pull the story’s arc forward)—but I could be very wrong about this!

KKP: I mentioned before that revision for me is almost always addition. I feel like so much of the plot only comes in the later stages. It’s like the first draft is pure, uncut voice and it’s not until much farther along that I’m taking those voices and shoving them into characters (and then moving those characters around and crashing them into each other).

My sentences usually come out how I want them to, or pretty damn close, because they’ve been worked and reworked a thousand times in my head by sound alone before I ever sit down to write. Sometimes whole paragraphs will get shifted, but the way I write is based so much on acoustics that the rhythms of the sentences within those paragraphs—and the words within those sentences, syllables within those words—stay locked.

I had such an incredible experience with my editor at Vintage, Margaux Weisman, where she would just sort of make these broad, brilliant suggestions like, “What if we had more brother in this story?” And then I’d write a scene or two and she’d say, “Now I think now we need more sister.” Every once in a while a new scene wouldn’t work and we’d just pull it out, no harm done, but she was almost always right and really tuned in to the story underneath the story—the thing I’d been hoping to say but hadn’t quite yet.

CB: This makes me want to ask you about titles. The title story was originally called “Fellowship,” and it was the runner-up in Black Warrior Review’s fiction contest a handful of years ago. (Fun fact: I believe that would have been the first year I read for that journal as part of my MFA.) Where did the original title come from, and what made you change it? And, even more interestingly, what made you make that new title the title story of your collection?

I am fascinated by the work that goes into these kinds of decisions, and I would love to hear a little bit about your process. Titles are so important, after all, and they seem especially important to a writer such as yourself, since they can almost function as a first sentence before that incredibly important first sentence.

KKP: Ah, I love what a small world the lit scene really is! That story was originally called “Fellowship” because the athletic religious group the love interest joins is based on a real organization, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, that I, ahem, know about from something I really experienced in my personal life. Originally, I liked the idea of the various changing fellowships between the narrator and the tall girl, the tall girl and her teammates, the narrator and her brother, and so on. The way the allegiances are always shifting.

The title of the collection actually changed first—for a while I was calling it Glow Hunters, which I wasn’t quite sold on, and then a mentor mentioned using a partial line from “Fellowship” instead. She suggested Unseen in Natural Light (from this scene about glow bowling: “At the Gutter on Friday nights, they turn on black lights and this flourescent world shows up…Even the balls are glazed with a luminous resin, unseen in natural light.”) I loved how encompassing that line was with the collection as a whole, but something about natural light made me think of Natty Light (the beer!) and it also felt a little too… precious? I had a shower thought one night and came up with Black Light. I immediately texted the idea to my agent. She loved it and also suggested we retitle “Fellowship” as “Black Light” to tie everything together and to point the reader to that specific line. All of this felt exactly right.

CB: I know you’ve been busy and traveling a lot to promote Black Light. I hope the travel is lending you plenty of time for reading! Assuming it has: What are you reading now? What books have struck you? Is there anything in 2020 we should be on the lookout for?

KKP: I have a novel due to Knopf soon, so I’ve been re-reading a lot of old favorites: Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Don DeLillo’s The Names, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Faulkner’s The Wild Palms—novels that continually light up my brain as they mess with expectation and form. I’m also reading Muriel Spark for the first time—The Driver’s Seat is blowing my mind. Carmen Maria Machado’s gorgeous In the Dream House is a memoir, but I’m thinking about how some of that innovation speaks to fractured fiction, which to me feels like the truest narrative approach to a novel. Oh, and I loved Susan Steinberg’s Machine so much I wanted to lick the pages.

As far as forthcoming books go, The Complete Gary Lutz is out this month, and I’ve been looking forward to that for so long. In 2020 I’m excited about Jenny Offill’s Weather, Kathryn Scanlan’s collection, The Dominant Animal, and Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8.


Chase Burke

Chase Burke's stories can be found in Glimmer Train, Sycamore Review, Salt Hill, Western Humanities Review, and The Rupture, among other journals. He is the 2020 winner of the Cecilia Joyce Johnson Award for the short story from the Key West Literary Seminar, and his chapbook of very short stories, 'Lecture,' is forthcoming from Paper Nautilus Press as a winner of their 2019 Debut Series Contest. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama, where he was the fiction editor of Black Warrior Review. He lives in Northeast Florida and is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

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