Kimberly King Parsons

On Mothers as Monoliths, Psychedelics, Burning Ourselves Down for Clarity, and Her Debut Novel ‘We Were the Universe’

Cover of Kimberly King Parsons: On Mothers as Monoliths, Psychedelics, Burning Ourselves Down for Clarity, and Her Debut Novel ‘We Were the Universe’

“If anyone’s mean to you, you tell me and I’ll beat them up!” That was how Kimberly King Parsons ended our phone call the night before the publication of my debut novel. When I think about Kim and her kindness and her badassery and how she carries many worlds inside her heart, I think of that Meredith Brooks song:

I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother

I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed

I’m your hell, I’m your dream, I’m nothing in between

You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

—Meredith Brooks, “Bitch”

And no, us readers wouldn’t want it any other way. And Kit, the main character of Parsons’s debut novel, We Were the Universe, is also a bitch, lover, child, mother, etc. I use the word “bitch” fondly here, of course, as in order to traverse parenthood, a multitude of quotidian relationships, and most heavy of all–grief–I’d argue Kit has to be a bit of a bitch. We all do.

As a woman, as a daughter, as the sister of an addict, as a new mom, as a human being living on planet earth during the anthropocene, this book ripped me open, turned me inside out, and then spat me out somehow more whole than before. 

 

Brittany Ackerman: Holy shit. I’ve spent the last few days trying to figure out where to begin with my questions, so in total nerd fashion, I suppose I’ll start with a line of dialogue from the book.

“‘Everything moves right through me,’ he said, ‘that’s how stupid I am,’ and I said, ‘No, not at all, you’ve got the whole game figured out.’”

This is a conversation between Kit and Pete, two toxic besties that both have a lot of growing to do. But while Pete thinks he’s worse off because he’s able to be still and let the world around him fade away so he can conjure peace, Kit thinks he’s got it right, that we should be able to let pain, trauma, or really any emotion, move through us without setting up camp and staying a while.

What do you think? Especially as a writer, is it best for you when the writing can flow through you, or when it grabs hold of you and won’t let go?

Kimberly King Parsons: First of all, thank you for taking the time to read Universe so closely and generously—I love that our paths have crossed again this way!

As far as writing goes, I think it’s a combo—maybe you see some arresting image or gesture out in the world and it knocks you on your ass. Maybe you get a little obsessed or stuck, especially if you can’t quite capture what you want to in words. But then you do capture it, and a voice springs from those first few good lines. Now you’re in the flow! On good days, writing feels like listening.

From a craft perspective, I have fixations and preoccupations that seem to come up again and again in my work, and I honestly find that very reassuring (i.e. every time a gross motel room appears I’m like, Ahhh, there I am!). If the goal is to come from a place of authenticity—to write work that truly excites you, to write the work that only you can write—then it’s to your advantage to let your strongest impulses have their way with you. My favorite writers seem to hover over similar subjects or vibes in everything they write. Not only do I not mind this, I’m very much here for it.

As far as inner peace goes, I’m actually more of a Pete than a Kit. This novel is largely about grief, which I’ve experienced, but I’m not a person who has anxiety day-to-day. I think this is mostly just my personality and not something I’ve necessarily “achieved.” Even when things go wrong, I have this overwhelming (maybe stupid and false!) sense that everything will ultimately be okay. I’m very good at quieting my mind (meditation for the win) but I’m a natural compartmentalizer, which, I mean, we all know that has its drawbacks too.

BA: Speaking of things grabbing hold, let’s talk about drugs. So many scenes in WWTU made me think of “The Midnight Gospel.” Not sure if you’re familiar with the show, but it’s a cartoon created by Pendleton Ward and Duncan Trussell that follows lil spacecaster dude named Clancy Gilroy as he podcasts across the cosmos (the podcast interviews are real, but are set to these beautiful, surreal animations). Clancy has a multiverse simulator and through it, he travels to all kinds of disastrous worlds where he interviews residents for his spacecast. There are episodes that deal with psychedelics (although every episode feels psychedelic), religions, self-acceptance and awareness, collective unconscious, death, and so on. The show was sadly canceled after one season, but I bring it up because I feel like it did a great job of illuminating misconceptions about these larger cultural topics—especially psychedelics.

The way Kit is able to articulate her trips felt beyond true to the mind melt and mental dissolution and reconstruction that can happen. Modern medicine is beginning to speak out on positive effects of controlled dosing as treatment for many different medical ailments and psychological disorders . Yet there’s a stigma that says you lose all your creativity if you partake in these types of experiences, you burn your brain down. Or that life is already a trip, so we don’t need to trip. Could you share your thoughts here?

KKP: I’ve never seen that show, but now I want to watch it! 

I love that people are starting to look to psychedelics as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and addiction—I’m fascinated by neuroplasticity, and the lasting, positive effects many people gain from these drugs. I’ve been reading a lot about therapeutic trips (clinical, guided macrodosing sessions) which are now legal and accessible here in Oregon. Patients report huge breakthroughs they feel they couldn’t have achieved in traditional therapy. The brilliant novel The Red Arrow by William Brewer depicts a fictionalized version of a clinical mushroom session, but Brewer himself has real-life experience treating his depression with psychedelics. It’s still early days, but the possibilities feel promising.

This is probably not a surprise to anyone who has read We Were the Universe, but I’ve also personally had a few positive, formative experiences with psychedelics (and a few not so positive ones that I felt were equally informative and important). I’ve actually never felt there was a stigma around psychedelics and losing one’s creativity—if anything, I’ve always thought of it as the opposite, that they act as an amplifier (at least in the visual art and music world). For every Syd Barrett there are a thousand artists who used those drugs as a tool and were (maybe?) better for it. Psychedelic experimentation is absolutely not for everyone, but I felt it “improved” my brain as a teenager (it definitely improved my self-image/comforted me/beautifully obliterated my ego), but perhaps I might have come to those thoughts, feelings, and conclusions on my own anyway.

BA: I would seriously read Kit doing just about anything. I’d read her eating a sandwich. I’d read her picking off her nail polish. And while I wanted Kit to be my big sister, I was also kind of afraid of her (lol). 

What was it like trying to paint this figure of comfort who is also scary (and scared!)? How do you paint fear alongside the monolith of consolation that a mother is supposed to be?

KKP: It wasn’t necessarily my intention to make any sweeping statements about the complexities of motherhood, though I’m so happy with how Kit (in all her messy glory) turned out. I wrote this book the same way I write everything—sentence to sentence, focusing on the granular until a voice comes through, then dialing in on that voice, working each line until it sounds just right for that character. I have no idea what the big picture is while I’m writing a first draft, but I love that feeling of surrender and surprise that comes in the early stages. 

Once I could see Kit’s whole story, I could also see the bigger pronouncements about motherhood in general—that society doesn’t “allow” mothers to do much more than caregiving, that it’s expected (and even preferred) for a woman’s children to eclipse her entire personality, and that she certainly doesn’t have time for grief or lust or quiet rumination. Because Kit was so underparented herself, she’s made it her mission to ignore her needs and devote herself totally to her daughter, even as this proves to be untenable.

BA: More on mothering. You are a mother of two IRL and Kit is a mother to Gilda in the book. I’m still a new-ish mom (can I say that after thirteen months?) but I felt Kit’s mothering all over the page. I felt her fears and struggles and small triumphs and her wanting alone time but then hating it and missing her daughter and I felt her unsure of her own identity outside of being a mom and seeking how to be a person and return to the world in her skin, the same skin that stretched and bore a child.

How does being a mom inform your writing? And vice versa?

KKP: I credit my kids with making me a writer, both for practical reasons and magical ones. When my first son was born, I suddenly had to budget my time, and anything that took me away from him had to be 100% worth it (I also had to be seriously productive during that time away). When my second son was born, and as both of my kids got older, I felt even more ambitious and clear headed about my goals. Publishing a book isn’t everything, but it’s nice to have something concrete to hold up to illustrate what mommy is off doing. As for the magic—my kids completely remade the world for me, reminding me how stunningly beautiful it is and how very lucky we are to experience it together.

BA: You are the queen of grants and residencies and writing retreats! All hail! What about the time away (besides the time away itself) is conducive to your writing? Does inspiration strike best when you’re out on one of these things, or does it also happen for you when you’re driving to Target or taking a shower? Asking for a friend.

KKP: As my kids have gotten older, I don’t feel the need to leave home as much. I’m going to the Hermitage Artist Retreat this summer, but they allow you to bring your whole family, which is amazing. More residencies should offer this option. 

When my kids were younger (and noisier!), I used to go away two or three times a year, not only to write, but to read and think and sleep deeply in a new place. I used to feel guilty if I wasn’t churning out words, but eventually I realized not-writing is a big part of my writing process. I once went to Yaddo for two weeks and didn’t write a word—I read a dozen books and watched a bunch of movies and had so many vivid dreams. When I came home, the work just poured out.

BA: You were my first blurb for The Brittanys, but more importantly, you were one of the first real authors that gave me real encouragement and support of my work (see line of dialogue above in the introduction).

We (writers) are writing in a time of cutthroat competition, of noxious comparison, and while I could be wrong in saying you don’t strike me as a jealous person or someone who concerns themselves with petty drama, how do you navigate the literary world? Are there things you straight up avoid or is there anything you advise writers to hold onto?

KKP: While it’s true that I don’t typically operate from a scarcity mindset, I think this question comes back to authenticity too. When you’re writing work that truly lights you up (the work that only you can write), you don’t ever have to worry about competition or comparison. Nobody else sounds like you. Nobody has the precise combination of style and perspective that you have. Nobody will consistently make the same syntactical choices you do, and nobody’s desires are identical to yours. I think things get sticky when people start sublimating what they love in favor of what they believe the marketplace loves. Writers get into trouble when they try to bend the work to suit everyone. Only water is for everyone—colorless, flavorless, and boring—but if you lean into what really moves you, your readers (the right readers) will sense that exuberance, and they will be drawn to you. 

I also want to mention how absolutely crucial my writer friends are to me. We read each other’s stuff and come to each other’s events and hype each other up. We’re deep in this shit together, and we share the wins and console the losses and just generally support each other. We’re not competitors—I can’t do what they do and they can’t do what I do–we’re just genuine fans of each other’s work.

BA: A part two: I’ve heard writers say it’s perseverance, it’s never giving up, it’s a numbers game, it’s time, it’s it’ll happen when it’s supposed to, it’s who you know, it’s talent, it’s something you’re born with, it’s all luck, it’s your accolades, it’s your own damn decision.

What do you think has gotten you to where you are today as a writer? 

KKP: Reading. Reading a shitload. Reading closely and carefully, every day. 

BA: I want to end with Kit’s reflection here: “It seems to me these lost pastimes—being a psychonaut and being slutty–are connected. Maybe because they’re two things I enjoyed being that I’m not allowed to be anymore. Identities that induced a feeling of security, false as it might have been. My old coping mechanisms have become incompatible with my life choices.” This is a moment from the Boiling River when Kit is slowly losing it in the scalding water. Despite her extreme discomfort, she’s able to have clarity of mind. She really sees herself. 

Has breaking down Kit on the page helped you understand yourself better? Do you think character work can be an instrument for our own clarity?

KKP: For me, the best thing about writing is the blissful meditative state that comes from giving your sustained attention to the same project every day. Kit’s voice isn’t my voice and her story isn’t my story, but I find her so endearing—it was definitely beneficial (and entertaining) to spend so many years in her head. When I first finished the book, I felt a bit bereft without her, but now I’m just so excited to hand her over to readers.

 

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of the debut 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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