The Stories in “Black Light” Capture the Heady Obsession Between Teen Girls
Kimberly King Parsons turns the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into a viewpoint character
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Kimberly King Parsons’ fiction has been around the lit journal world for a little while, appearing in No Tokens, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, and Joyland among others, and has been nominated for and won several awards. In her forthcoming debut short story collection, Black Light, the characters are all longing for something they can’t quite touch or even see. Children at camp and boarding school and in a bug-filled house; teenage girls who ache for each other; women and men who are driving away or drinking or disappearing into eating disorders or relationships or their child’s blanket fort—all of them are vividly rendered in a Texas setting that bursts off the page like Fourth of July fireworks. Black Light demands the attention of all the reader’s senses.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection lies in its weird, eerie, and sublimely beautiful details of setting and character. A short story that plunges the reader into its world from the first few words, and doesn’t dislodge until long after it’s finished, can be an incredibly satisfying reading experience. It seems that with recent collections like Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People, Lauren Groff’s Florida, and Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina (to name just a few), the short story form is being done a service by contemporary writers. Black Light is no exception to this emerging canon of exceptional stories.
I sat down with Parsons to discuss Black Light, perspective and voice, longing and obsession, naming characters, manic pixie dream girls, queerness, and more.
Sarah Neilson: Something that stood out across all the stories in Black Light is the concept of elsewhere. It’s a word the protagonists of “Glow Hunter” actually use and return to, but all of the stories have a strong element of longing to be elsewhere and the ways in which the characters pursue that desire. They take place in in-between places, elsewheres like schools, camp, a halfway house, a car, a blanket fort, a hotel room. How does the idea of being elsewhere inform your writing?
Kimberly King Parsons: I love that question. I think all of the characters in this collection are united by this idea that there’s some other life they long for that they’re not quite living. Whether that’s something they can reach through game playing, like in the case of kids, or through drugs or sex or all of the different things that these characters are doing to try to step outside of their real life—that’s definitely something that comes up for me a lot in my fiction. It wasn’t necessarily that I said, “Oh I want this story collection to be about that.” But it is; you kind of keep returning to your same desires.
I wrote these stories over a period of time from 2005 until 2017. I didn’t necessarily know that I was working at the same kind of ideas through some of them. But you’re still yourself whether you’re writing in 2005 or in 2017, and a lot of the things that I was interested in then I’m still interested in. That comes through the characters. And for me, some of it comes from growing up in a place that I kind of wanted to escape from, and having this feeling that there’s something different, there’s a different possibility that I am not able to access. So I think a lot of these characters have either stepped out of life on purpose or they’ve been, in the case of the girls at the boarding school in “Into the Fold,” essentially shipped off, pushed out of life.
All of the characters believe that there’s something beyond what’s simple. There’s something else. Whether that means you have to get it by sneaking off to a hotel room or building a blanket fort, somehow there’s a way to try to get to another life that’s underneath this one.
SN: Most of the first-person narrators are never named and a lot of the secondary characters are never named either. Can you talk about the decision to name or not name your characters? What goes into that?
KKP: Sometimes I will find a place where you can drop in a name and it doesn’t feel forced. I don’t want information to be deposited by the writer because that feels authorial to me in a way that I feel jerks me out of the story when I come across it. I don’t think of myself as my name, nor do I think of my loved ones or the people in my life by their names. I think of them either by some sort of term of endearment or I just think of them as my brother or something. I guess I have a certain commitment to realism, but it’s also just a personal preference as to how information is transmitted to the reader in a way that doesn’t, to me, feel writerly.
I also had a mentor who forbade us from ever naming characters, which was amazing and very helpful. But there are plenty of times where you will need to have a character name. If you’re trying to write a novel, you don’t necessarily have to name your protagonist, because you can be so in their head, but it can get confusing. My mentor’s idea was that everyone should serve as an archetype to a voice. So it should be the postman or the mother or the father or whatever, and I do tend to like that a little bit. He also said things like, “A name is a void on the page, because it could literally be anything and it doesn’t change anything.” And so I kept that. Some of his rules were a little bit wacky, but that was one of the ones that, to me, made a lot of sense.
I also love the feeling of being dropped into a world without having a lot of things explained to me. You can weave in details through the craft, but I don’t like deposits of information. I try to avoid them if I can.
SN: You play with objectification in this collection in a lot of the stories. For example, in “Glow Hunter,” Bo is kind of a manic pixie dream girl, but it’s clear that the manic-pixie-dream-girl-ness is in the eye of the beholder. It makes sense that the narrator would see Bo as this fairy-like figure, given her age and budding sexuality. Can you talk a little about the genesis of “Glow Hunter,” and how you developed the character of Bo, who the reader sees only through the prism of the narrator’s infatuation with her?
KKP: It was important to me that Bo was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in some ways. There’s a part of me that resists that trope, but it’s also very clear to me that she’s filtered through the imagination and perception of the narrator. But even the narrator starts to see the cracks and say, “Okay, she’s telling a lie and she’s actually really fake and she’s really needy and kind of awful, but so am I.” They’re both just being a teenagers trying on different identities, which is something else that I touch on in the title story quite a bit.
The character of Bo starts off sort of magical, because it feels magical when you’re in the presence of charisma. It’s unexplainable. Everyone wants to look at her. Everyone wants to see her, but it’s not a traditional beauty. Her hand is bleeding and she’s barefoot but she has a pull and the narrator of course feels like she just wants to get close to it. Does she want her? Does she want to be her? Probably both.
I could have been and/or was 90% of these characters in my life. These are people that I’ve met and known and been, and with Bo, I think most people have that person in high school who is just that focus that you can’t explain but can’t deny. It’s that first dramatic fixation and obsession that comes at such a crucial time when you’re coming up with your own identity.
SN: A lot of the stories in Black Light feature women who have this borderline obsessive desire for, or fixation on, another woman. You capture the murky love between teenage girls so perfectly. It’s kind of the blur between friendship and romantic love and the deep intimacy that is also so precarious because it exists on this razor thin edge of overwhelm that kind of defines adolescence. Can you talk about the portrayal of female desire in the collection, and/or the portrayal of queerness?
KKP: Sure. I love women, and when I’m writing into these characters who are existing in that overwhelm, I’m writing my experience of the world. It’s being in a small town growing up and feeling very outside of things. A lot of the narrators’ experiences are not far off from my own personal experience. I don’t want to say I’ve just pulled things from my own life because there’s a lot of craft that goes into it and these stories are fiction, but these are still Own Voices stories.
There’s also something about a high school where you’re not allowed to be queer because it’s not something that is an option; you have to find ways around it. I think for some of these girls, when they develop intense friendships they question where the lines are. “Am I imagining this? Is this crazy? Did that happen? Will it happen again?” It’s so fraught, I think because of the fact that it’s happening with someone in a way that’s taboo or unaccepted, especially in these little Texas towns.
SN: Finally, I know this is an over-asked question, but I really love hearing about what writers are reading. So, what are you reading right now, and/or who are some of your literary inspirations, contemporary or not?
KKP: I have a huge love for T Kira Madden. Her book Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is beautiful and she’s a wonderful person and friend. I read drafts of that book for a very long time, and even through reading the ARC and then the final edition, I keep going back to it over and over again because the sentences are so devastatingly beautiful. I keep picking it up.
I am a huge Amy Hempel fan and there’s some stories in Sing To It that bring me back to that exact same place and feeling I had when I read some of her stories in Reasons to Live a long time ago. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is another one I return to over and over again as a book that challenges the idea of what a novel can be. Because I’m working on a novel right now, and it’s terrifying, Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler’s Speedboat are where I go to get through it. They help me imagine how novels might be different, or that there’s some kind of form that hasn’t even been written yet.
Right now there’s also some things that I’m excited about that aren’t out yet. Justin Taylor has a new memoir coming out next year called Riding With The Ghosts. I’m excited about that. It’s about his complex relationship with his father.
Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which is based on a real historical person, is another one I love. It’s strange — the first page of Coming Through Slaughter is an ultrasound of a whale sound. It’s bizarre. There’s photos, there’s weird separate texts. It’s very poetic.
I like things that mess with form and things that are not afraid to be really voicey and really experimental. But at the same time, I love just having something that’s a comfort. I feel like with T Kira Madden’s book, there’s just this comforting voice that makes it so you can pick it up and open it and it feels like someone’s speaking to you; you feel chosen when you read it and it’s such a gift.