The 2017 Fiction Prize is open September 1 through October 31! In this interview, the 2016 Fiction Prize winner, Kimberly King Parsons, discusses the real/surreal divide of “Nothing Before Something,” writerly obsessions, and advice to those submitting pieces for this year’s Fiction Prize.
Fiction by Kimberly King Parsons has been published or is forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2017, No Tokens, New South, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her literary criticism has appeared in Bookforum, Time Out New York, Fanzine, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2016 Indiana Review Fiction Prize, placed second in the Joyland Open Border Fiction Prize, and was runner-up in the 2017 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Find her at kimberlykingparsons.com
1) “Nothing Before Something” reads mostly as a realist story, yet there is a dreamlike strangeness to how the narrator observes light pouring from sick and wounded people. How did this balance of realism and surrealism come about, and how do you see the two threads interacting?
Sheila has fallen hard for Tim, and suddenly she’s seeing the world differently. I think love can do that—irrevocably fuck with your worldview—and in Sheila’s case this manifests as an extreme sensitivity to the human animal. What she sees is surreal—some of it is utterly bizarre: glowing disease, glittering wounds. But for Sheila, simply having a body is the strangest thing of all. Something has shifted since Tim has come into her life, and now she can’t see others (or herself) as she once did. She sees cells dividing, synapses firing. She sees mammals in various states of decay. I think for Sheila, the real and the surreal are not so very far apart—she might even consider what she’s experiencing to be a kind of hyperrealism.
2) Tim is a fascinating character. He’s not exactly antagonistic, but his casual appraisals of Sheila’s body suggest a power dynamic between them that is unsettling. Can you talk a little about how his character developed?
One of my close friends is a doctor, and he once described himself as a meat mechanic. There’s a detachment that has to take place in order for doctors to treat patients. That remove is a good thing—it’s expected. You don’t want a doctor to be marveling at your intestines during a physical, going on about the miracle of the flu virus, you know? You want someone who can get down to business, write a prescription, solve the problem. My doctor friend also told me about the rather thorny concept of medical touch. They’ve done these studies that prove people can “sense” the difference between medical touch and sensual touch (even when it’s technically the same exact touch, i.e., tapping a vertebra in someone’s spine). This was fascinating to me—that there’s something deeper going on behind the way we touch each other, the way that touch is perceived. Intention. And how does touching patients all day, being a meat mechanic, affect your sex life? Does it spill over? I started thinking about a character who brings certain aspects of his profession into his personal life, and that’s how I found Tim. He’s clinical and a little bit cold. He’s a good med student. He’s maybe not a great boyfriend, but Sheila has made him into a god. And whatever power dynamic is inherent in their relationship is magnified because of their jobs and appearances and the way the world perceives them (and the way they perceive themselves). I’m intrigued by the role objectification plays in their relationship (and all relationships, really). Sometimes Sheila wants to be Sheila and sometimes she wants to be meat. And Tim wants the same thing. But something about that dynamic, however unsettling it is from the outside, is working for them.
3) What was your revision process like for this story?
I wrote this story almost completely backwards—that is, I started with the final scene, where Sheila shows up drunk and high at the hospital where Tim is on call. For years I thought it was meant to be a little flash and that’s it, but I ended up expanding it for my first workshop at Columbia. I think by then I had a couple of new scenes, but it was still very much a fragmented, splintered thing.
It stood as a tight little five-pager for a while and when I turned in my thesis, Jonathan Dee, who was one of my readers, called me out on a troublesome aspect that kept occurring in my stories at that time. He told me my frames were too small, too controlled. I think what he said specifically was “let your narrators fucking speak.” It was great advice, and it only took me five more years to understand it. I (eventually!) realized I’d been keeping things so snug—so pretty—that I wasn’t letting Sheila’s sprawling, messy voice come through. Once I got out of her way I could just kind of listen, and then this final version came (relatively) quickly.
4) What are your writerly obsessions? What are the subjects, characters, places, or images you find yourself returning to again and again?
I recently completed my first short story manuscript, and it was so very bizarre to see all of my desires/obsessions set out side by side like that. My characters are big-hearted fuckups who are compelled to be with people who are maybe not great for them. They wander into gross motel rooms, bowling alleys, fast food places. They fuck in cars; they drink too much; they play ridiculous games; they lie about things that don’t matter. Most have a pretty stellar sense of humor and a bunch of them live in Texas.
5) What advice do you have for people submitting to this year’s Fiction Prize?
My advice for submitting to a contest is the same as my advice for submitting, period:
1. Be familiar with the journal you’re submitting to (and be familiar with the contest judge’s work).
2. Give your guts in the first paragraph. Don’t assume a reader will flip the page to get to the good stuff.
3. The second you hit send, start something new.
Don’t miss out on the 2017 Fiction Prize! Submissions close October 31.