Kimberly King Parsons’s debut short story collection Black Light was longlisted for a 2019 National Book Award. Her fiction has been published in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions 2017, Black Warrior Review, No Tokens, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Melissa Duclos is the author of the novel Besotted. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, The Offing, and Bustle, among other venues.
Duclos and Parsons are the co-founders of Amplify, a project that offers classes, retreats, and networking events to support women and non-binary writers’ career development. In this conversation, they discuss the work of promoting debut fiction and the expectations placed on female writers.
Melissa Duclos: I’m excited to chat with you about the work of promoting a book. Your collection, Black Light, came out in August, and my novel, Besotted, was released in March, so we’ve both been doing that work for a little while now. How do you think about the work of marketing your book?
Kimberly King Parsons: My mantra is to say yes to everything that I can. I’ve been writing book reviews for the last ten years, so engaging critically with my work and other writing has been easy. For Black Light promotion, I wrote listicles and a number of craft essays: some general and one about a story that took the longest for me to finish. I like writing that stuff and I like reading it from other writers, too. It’s interesting to get insights about how something was made. What about you?
Duclos: I’ve written about the long path toward publishing Besotted. I think that kind of work resonates with writers because a lot of us have gone through similar, agonizingly long processes. I’ve also written more personal essays about the relationships I’ve been in that informed my novel and the revision process. I’m relieved that I like writing stuff like that, because personal essays are a great tool for marketing new books. At the same time, it seems unfair to expect fiction writers to have the ability and interest to mine our personal lives to promote our books.
Parsons: It’s true. I’m less interested in writing personal essays—there’s a reason that I write fiction! What interests me the most is sentence-level stuff like sonics. In an essay, I can’t manipulate facts from my life to better suit my acoustic needs. If I’m writing about my mom picking me up from school, I remember that she drove a Firebird, but what if I don’t like the way the word Firebird sounds in a sentence? I can’t change it to Honda because I need an H sound. That sort of shit makes me feel restricted. I don’t like having to adhere to the truth.
Duclos: As I’ve written more essays that delve into my writing, I find myself thinking a lot more about the relationship between truth and fiction, and the ways in which readers seem to like when those lines are blurred. Do you find that readers assume your fiction is autobiographical?
Parsons: Yeah, I think that it’s especially tricky writing in first person, which we both did in our books. My book is set in Texas, which is where I’m from, and yours is set Shanghai, where you lived for six months. There’s this line of truth going through the work that people can easily trace and say, “If you were born and raised in Texas and these stories are in Texas, then is this you?” And some of it is me. But this is fiction—these are sentences I’ve crafted and revised over years and years. A stranger read my story “Foxes”—about an alcoholic mother and her traumatized, violent daughter—in the Paris Review and emailed to tell me how much he liked it, but then he ended with a P.S. that said, “I hope you and your troubled daughter get the help you need.” Being misunderstood is a really terrible feeling.
Duclos: I think I’ve written essays in a way to stave off the possibility of being misunderstood. I was nervous before Besotted came out that I hadn’t done a good enough job portraying the relationship between Sasha and Liz, or even that I didn’t have a right to tell that story because I’ve never been in a long-term relationship with another woman. I’ve had various experiences, but I don’t identify as queer. I worried that I didn’t have the authority to tell the story, so I wrote essays that draw connections between my actual relationships and the dynamics I created in the novel. I had a feeling that I had to justify my right to tell the story because the plot wasn’t “authentic enough” to my own experience. But what does authentic enough mean when you’re talking about fiction?
Parsons: I think as fiction writers we’re trying, with every word we write, to establish authority. We’re trying to be credible and believable. That’s my favorite part actually, winning that authority through voice—that electric feeling of earning your space on the page. But it also feels risky. In “Foxes” I wanted to establish a believable alcoholic mother on the page. And yet as a non-alcoholic mother of two very real small children in a world full of judgmental people, it’s scary to lean into that voice and say, “Oh, I really hope that people walk away from this believing it’s real.” Because I don’t want people to think this is how I interact with my children or that this is who I am. There’s a sort of push-pull where you want to be believed wholeheartedly in the space of the story—you even want the voice to be convincing enough that it’s perpetual, existing after the reader stops reading—but you don’t necessarily want those stories tied to you personally.
Duclos: I think that tension is more acute for women. We’re judged more harshly as women in the world to start, and then on top of that our female narrators are also scrutinized more closely than male characters. We and our characters have to be likable all the time! I really felt that pressure when I was first drafting Besotted. It made it more difficult to embrace and identify with the messy, fucked-up characters I was creating. I was afraid of being seen as a fuckup myself, and so I skirted around my characters’ ugliness. It feels intensely vulnerable for me to write messy, emotionally ugly characters in the book, who don’t make the right choices or treat each other very well. So, I’m nervous that people will challenge my authority to tell a story that didn’t really happen to me, and at the same time that they’ll assume I’m as shitty a person as my characters are!
Parsons: Yeah. My first thought when that guy emailed to ask about my troubled daughter was to wonder if CPS was going to knock on my door, or if the moms at the playground were going to say something to me… Being a good person in my real life is extremely important to me, but I have to grant myself permission with every line to be messy on the page. Part of the job I’ve given myself is to really go into those dark places. Nobody wants to read about people who have their shit together—it’s not interesting. Also, nobody has their shit together, by the way.
Duclos: I wonder if it’s easier for male writers to claim that right to be messy on the page, and the authority to tell whatever stories they want. We’re conditioned to accept men’s authority. Women have to work harder than men to give ourselves that authority. The stakes feel higher.
Parsons: They do, because maybe we’re judged more harshly and we’re more likely to be mapped onto our characters in ways that male authors aren’t. And historically women simply aren’t believed. We have to fight for our authority on the page. No one’s going to give it to you, you just have to take it.
Duclos: I love that idea. Just take the authority. It’s ours.
Photograph of Kimberly King Parsons by Kimberly King Parsons. Photograph of Melissa Duclos by Melissa Duclos.