Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Kimberly King Parsons

Image is the book cover for WE WERE THE UNIVERSE by Kimberly King Parsons; title card for the new interview with Rowena Leong Singer.


Kimberly King Parsons, whose sparkling debut novel We Were the Universe is a USA Today national bestseller, is serving as our guest judge for the CRAFT 2024 First Chapters Contest. From the outset, Associate Editor Rowena Leong Singer was struck by the literary swerves throughout Kimberly’s novel, which both surprised and delighted her as a reader and which Kimberly explained further during the CRAFT 2024 Summer Salon. In this interview conducted over email, Rowena and Kimberly discuss time travel, unusual structure, voice-driven narratives, the “shimmery world,” and writerly obsessions. We are so grateful for Kimberly’s collaboration on this contest, the summer salon, and this interview.  —CRAFT


Rowena Leong Singer: Thank you for taking the time to correspond with me about your debut novel! I admire so many aspects of this novel and your writing—the self-deprecating yet sharply observant humor, the way you weave disparate elements into a cohesive whole, and of course, your unforgettably chaotic main character, whose palpable memories, desires, and fears destabilize her everyday existence. The novel’s story is set in the present with Kit, the conflicted main character, reflecting back on her sister, Julie, and how she died. What made you decide to set the narrative in the present day looking at the past rather than in the past moving toward the present? How did this timeline work to more effectively convey your intentions for the novel?

Kimberly King Parsons: Thank you so much—I love CRAFT and am so happy to get the chance to answer your questions.

We Were the Universe is ultimately a novel about grief, and grief turns you into a time traveler. Any small reminder—a street name, a color, a gesture from a stranger—can launch a grieving person backward, to a time before their loss. Grief makes it impossible for Kit to fully exist in the present, and I wanted to show that in the narrative by examining the friction between the past and the present, both internally and structurally.


RLS: I was also intrigued by the way you structured and titled the six parts of the novel. How did you decide on this structure with these long, almost novella-like arcs rather than traditional chapters? What inspired this type of structure?

KKP: The novel is structured like a fractal, with the core story spilling out from the center: the Boiling River (which I use as both a literal location and also a figurative way to signify the simmering unsaid that is roiling in Kit). The four longer sections mirror each other as Kit moves around in time and space (home, away, away, home), and the two short psychedelic trips are different perspectives of the exact same moment.


RLS: You include a large cast of characters, many with these wonderfully descriptive names like Celadon, Big Large, and The Water Witch—some of whom earn a less descriptive name as the story develops. How did you determine the number of characters—was it something that came about organically as the story developed or did you have an expansive world in mind when you started the novel? Along these lines, what drove your decision to use more descriptive or associative names for these secondary characters?

KKP: Voice dictates every choice I make—I don’t outline or plan or have any ideas as I’m writing a first draft (in fact, when I get some “big idea” about a project, that’s usually an indicator that I’ve taken a very wrong turn). I want to cultivate curiosity for as long as possible, and I try not to disturb the slow unfolding of a project. For months (or even years) I just move around in the dark bumping into stuff, feeling my way from one line to the next until I eventually understand who is speaking to me and what their story is. Everything emerges from that initial voice, and in Universe, Kit emerged loud and clear as my guide. Everything I learned about the world of the book came from her, and every other character is heavily filtered through her perspective. You know how they say you’re every character in your dreams? For me, that’s how voice functions in fiction. Everything the reader comes to know about the cast of Universe—their names, their gestures, the things they say—is just a deeper way of knowing Kit.


RLS: The novel comes off as effortlessly hilarious. One moment that comes to mind is when Kit has these made-up games that allow her to “slack” off while parenting Gilda. How important was it to interject humor into the story, and were these humorous elements planned for certain scenes or did they spontaneously arise as you delved further into Kit’s character?

KKP: Thank you so much for saying that—I value humor more than almost anything else in fiction. Some of my favorite novels manage to be both heartbreaking and very funny—Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever.

Kit’s brand of comedy is black and biting and full of self-deprecation, and this also came through as a byproduct of her voice. As soon as I knew We Were the Universe was a novel about grief, I also knew it was a funny novel about grief.


RLS: Though this story is grounded in reality, we see hints of speculative fiction, such as the lights turning on unexpectedly and the odd encounter with The Water Witch. How did you determine whether or not to include these somewhat speculative elements in the novel? Did you want the reader to believe that these elements were linked to Julie or just another series of strange events that Kit encounters?

KKP: I’m fascinated by moments that hint at some shimmery world above (or below) the everyday—probably this is why I love writing about psychedelics and dreams and sex so much. Drug spaces and dream spaces and sex spaces feel magical, and yet entering these spaces is actually very common and easy to do.

I’m interested in the zone where the weird rubs up against the ordinary, and in Universe there are several tilted moments that hint at a transcendent connection between Kit and Julie. Grief has made Kit’s mental state fragile, but she’s also wide open and curious—the scrim seems to lift and lower for her. It ultimately doesn’t matter if these glittery moments of connection are “real” or not—Kit doesn’t spend much time wondering about this herself. These little sparks are simply a byproduct of being immersed in Kit’s strange perspective—they are as real as a sexual fantasy or a hallucination or a beautiful dream.


RLS: What compelled you to write this story and this character for your first novel?

KKP: I think the best thing a writer can do is pay close attention to their obsessions and preoccupations and then make work in service of those things, even if they seem weird or contrary to the current trends or like they have no command in the marketplace. When you write the work that truly moves you, you become magnetic, and your ideal reader will be drawn to you. In an ideal scenario the subject matter chooses the writer, not the other way around.

Kit and I have a lot in common: we’re both from small Texas towns, and we’re both intensely curious about psychedelics and the other playground moms. We’ve both experienced loss, and we both probably spend too much time in our heads. But the specifics and peculiarities of Universe just sprang from trusting my obsessions to pull me in the right direction. That’s my favorite part of writing: surrendering to what compels you and trusting that the work will get you where you need to go. You want to write the book that only you can write.


KIMBERLY KING PARSONS is the author of the national bestselling novel We Were the Universe, a Dakota Johnson Book Club pick The New York Times calls “a profound, gutsy tale of grief’s dismantling power.” Parsons’s story collection, Black Light, 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. Find her on Instagram @kimberlykingparsons.

ROWENA LEONG SINGER is published in The New York Times, Black Warrior Review, Narrative Magazine, and KQED’s Perspectives. She is the grand-prize winner in literary fiction for the Book Pipeline Unpublished Contest, a semifinalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship Contest, and a fellowship recipient for the International Literary Seminar Fiction Contest, Rooted & Written Conference, and Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Summer Writers’ Conference. She received her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she was awarded the Barry Hannah Merit Scholarship in Fiction. She is an associate editor at CRAFT and a member of The Writers Grotto. Find her on Instagram at @rowenaleongsinger.