pay attention: allie rowbottom in conversation with kimberly king parsons

Kimberly King Parsons has written a novel and it’s stunning, a testament to the power of prose, a portal. The cover of We Were the Universe is bright pink, bedizened in dancing stars, which once you read the book, you will understand to be psychedelic stars, grief stricken stars, stars that keen for a girlhood gone by at the same time they shine on the present moment: motherhood in all its glory and mundanity, its trips to the park with snacks packed into the belly of a stroller, its trips to the bathroom to stream PornHub and jerk off. We Were the Universe is a novel of contradictions and confluences, a novel of language and experience, an iconic follow up to Black Light, which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award. Reading KKP is like taking a drug that amps you up and calms you down, somehow all at once. How does she do it? Most likely we will never really know. But here’s what she said when I asked.

Allie Rowbottom: You are known for good reason as a sentence savant. Can you tell us about where your love for sentences came from?

Kimberly King Parsons: Ultimately what I love most about writing is the sound of words. I was an early reader, but I grew up in a house without a lot of books. We had the Bible of course, and an “A” volume of the encyclopedia we got for free, and this science fiction book my dad loved called Friday — God, I used to drool over this cover. So not a lot of books, but music was constantly playing — lyrical folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan, plus those catchy, clever British Invasion bands, and some psychedelic rock thrown in there too, especially Pink Floyd. I wasn’t a great student, but senior year we read Camus’s The Stranger and it blew my mind. It was everything I loved about music but filtered through voice. I’d never met a narrator as hilarious and mean as Meursault, and I’d never read such stylish sentences. The next year in college, I had a professor who introduced me to Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Dawn Raffel, Isaac Babel, and Barry Hannah all in one semester –– what a Godsend this man was! It turns out this professor had worked with Gordon Lish in the early ‘80s, and after that class I went down a total rabbit hole of Lishian writers. They lit me up and changed my brain with their voice-driven, sentence-focused prose. And then, 10 years later, I studied with Lish, too.

AR: What was it like studying with Lish?

KKP: He’s a controversial figure, but he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. Sam Lipsyte and Victoria Redel tie for second, but both of them were Lish’s students too. Lish is notorious for having a certain aesthetic, but as I said, it just so happens to perfectly align with the kind of work I love. He’s incredibly stubborn and could be cruel when students didn’t adhere to his rules, but again, most of those rules resonated with me, so I could always understand –– at least aesthetically –– why he was so hard on some writers. Also, I never got why some people came in with preconceived ideas about writing, totally unwilling to learn. Like, why not just try it his way, at least in his class? Go all in! Later, you can pick and choose what works for you, but in that room, why not play the game? Some of his rules: Use archetypes instead of names when you can (i.e., The Postman is stronger than Tim). Why is it Tim and not Doug? Because names are basically a fill-in-the-blank void, and they don’t really matter. In that same vein, be suspicious of details that are specific without being illuminating: nobody cares about exact numbers, dates, times, temperatures, precise directions, or whether a character does something with their right or left hand. Beginning a sentence with “I” doesn’t grant you the authority you might think –– and there’s no room for ego on the page, only authority. Never allow a narrator to paint themselves as the hero–make sure they believe they are the shittiest person in the book (even if the reader knows they really aren’t). But Lish could also be delighted when people broke his rules, if they did so with intention and style (Redel notoriously began a story with a string of adverbs when she was a student, and he loved it). Another thing I want to say is that he’s hilarious –– he doesn’t get enough credit for how funny he is. But by far the biggest takeaway was just to pay attention –– to the sentence, the word, the syllable, the sound. It all matters.

AR: How do sentences come to you? Sonically in your head? Or is it more a channeling when you’re actually writing?

KKP: I’ve been singing since I was a little girl, so when I start something new it generally happens in my head, off the page, the same way I would write a song. I’ll make the sounds click into place so I can remember them, and then I’ll kind of recite lines in my mind over and over until I feel enough momentum to write them down. But once I’ve got the first few sentences right, the voice comes through, and it does start to feel more like listening or channeling. That’s when writing gets really fun.

AR: Can you tell us a little bit about how you balance exquisite language and narrative propulsion in We Were the Universe? Never once did I feel slowed down by the language, nor did I ever feel language was sacrificed in the service of plot.

KKP: God, that means everything coming from you –– I’m so glad you feel that way! I do think this balance was trickier for me, because plot isn’t something I’m naturally attuned to. My hope was to write a character charming enough that a reader would follow her around, even if she didn’t go very far. That said, the first draft of We Were the Universe was 52 fractured vignettes, organized by emotional time, not chronology, all told in the present tense. My agent (bless her) was like, “Hey, these are beautiful, but maybe this isn’t quiiite a novel yet?” I put the manuscript in a drawer for something like 18 months and thought long and hard about ways to organize and tether scenes. I just felt I couldn’t rush it. In fact, I ended up being over two years late turning it in. I knew I wanted the past to loom darkly and eat away at the present, so I reread Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica and Joy Williams’s State of Grace — not that those novels are exactly pillars of plot, but both of them exquisitely walk that line between propulsion and acoustics. When I finally went back to revise, the scenes started to reach out and touch each other, and I found all of these portals and mirrors I could examine to make the world of the book cohesive. The present plane emerged, and suddenly it felt much more like a traditional novel.

AR: I’m curious if you’re up for musing on the merits of The Drawer for a minute. I feel like the drawer is something many of us are adverse to. But it’s also something that should not be so shied away from and frankly, I see a lot of books come out that might have benefited from a year or two in the drawer. How did you feel about the drawer going into using it? And how about now?

KKP: I love the drawer! When confronted with a problem in a project, I’m a big believer in doing nothing for as long as possible. We often feel like we need to solve things right away, but it’s so easy to toss out what’s good — or write something new that makes no real sense — in a fit of reaction. Taking time to read a dozen books or watch a dozen films is always going to be more helpful to me than to keep banging out 1200 words a day or whatever when I’m feeling uninspired. Maintaining enthusiasm for your project is critical, and constantly looking at something you think is shitty or not working is a surefire way to dull that enthusiasm. And I agree –– so many books could have used a year in the drawer. Every book could use a month or two in there, at the very least.

AR: This novel shines in its enmeshment of seemingly separate spheres: motherhood and hallucinogenics; porn and Tiny Toads gymnastic classes –– all of this is in the service of showing the interconnectedness of all things. How did you come to the themes in this book? How did you come to the plot?

KKP: The themes come from a lot of exhaustive, hands-on, personal research. But honestly, motherhood was such a mindfuck for me. It’s this huge sea change, but at the same time, your desires and fixations stay the same –– you can be an amazing mother and wife and still be as curious and open-minded and lusty as you’ve always been. It’s a constant act of reconciliation as old as time. The Madonna/Whore thing. So for Kit it’s porn and gymnastics class, psychedelics and the playground. Plot is a byproduct of voice for me. I listen for a voice and just let it tell me what it wants to until I start to see the bigger picture. Or, to mix metaphors, it’s kind of like pointing a flashlight around a dark room until you know where you are.

AR: Your first book Black Light was a story collection –– what was the biggest shift for you in transitioning from short fiction to the novel form? What’s different and what is the same?

KKP: There’s this great Joy Williams quote, “A novel wants to befriend you ––  a short story almost never.” This isn’t to say friendliness is always such a virtue — Williams definitely doesn’t seem to think so — I just find I pick up one or the other based on what I’m needing at a given moment. Reading a short story feels like spying through a keyhole at a perfectly composed scene, but a novel invites you to come inside the house, take a tour, poke around in drawers and closets. For years I thought the short story was the superior form (maybe because I’m a voyeur at heart), but these days I appreciate both equally. I write the same way no matter what I’m writing — sentence to sentence, with no real plan or idea where I’m going — but I do think readers expect more hospitality from a novelist. I sometimes start stories with lines that are confrontational, syntactically antagonistic, or purposely opaque, but in my novels my instinct is to hold the reader’s hand a little, especially in those early pages. You can fuck with them once they’re in your house.

Allie Rowbottom is the author of the novel Aesthetica and the memoir Jell-O Girls. Her essays and short fiction can be found in Vanity Fair, Elle, The New York Times, NY Tyrant, Forever Mag and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston and lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer Jon Lindsey.

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the novel We Were the Universe and the short story collection Black Light, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and the Story Prize. A recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia University, Parsons won the 2020 National Magazine Award for “Foxes,” a story published in The Paris Review. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and children.

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