- Books, Featured, Interview, Reading, Writing

What Happens When Language Takes Over: An Interview with Aimee Parkison

By Dan Magers

 

Aimee Parkison’s work defies easy description or categorization. Over the course of over fifteen years and five books, her work has variously been described as “Invented fables, ghost tales, murder mysteries” (as Mary Cappello says about Parkison’s Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman) or “Part dark angry fairy tales, part avant-gothic myths, part surreal fever dreams” (Lance Olsen describing Girl Zoo, which Parkison wrote in collaboration with Carol Guess). Blending narrative and lyric impulses, her work is frequently dark, disturbing, harrowing, but also playful, often very funny, but sometimes not funny. Sometimes gaspingly funny.

Parkison’s thematic concerns include: the suffering of women (usually caused by men), the preoccupation with watching, preoccupation with being watched, legacies of family history— particularly between siblings—the outsider status of criminals, weird and twisted desires, but especially women and their beauty and mystery, especially when suffering.

Sister Séance, Parkison’s sixth book, is a historical feminist horror novel, which takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, just after the Civil War. Spiritualism is sweeping the nation when Halloween calls for matchmaking in a traditional “dumb supper,” a dinner party where guests may not speak but must express their needs and desires through nonverbal communication. Mysterious intruders shock the party guests into confronting their pasts through materializations. These materializations unite sisters of séance with abolitionists, freed people, former slaveholders, wounded Civil War veterans, and a photographer pregnant with the child of a former slave.

Dan Magers: Tell me about the development of Sister Séance, which I’m guessing must have required copious research to write. How did you get the idea for the novel? How long did it take to develop and write? 

Aimee Parkison: I got the idea from researching the history of Halloween in Victorian American culture. That led me to the dumb supper, an Irish superstition reinterpreted by Victorian Americans as a courtship ritual. A pagan ritual, the dumb supper was sometimes thought of as a way to see or foretell who one was going to marry. Dumb suppers were often held on Halloween and had special interest during times of spiritualism and courtship. The idea being that the silence of the dinner invited a spirit to the table, though one might risk a different spirit attending than the one invited. If the silence was broken, that could shatter the connection with the spirit.

In Sister Séance, conflicts and themes revolve around the underlying tensions of repressed sexuality in a time of Spiritualism, slavery, war, Victorian morality, and complex gender issues in the realm of courtship and marriage. The novel explores the hidden sexual implications in parlor games and holiday courtship rituals of Victorian Americans.

Researching a historical novel was a journey marked by constant discovery, but also the frustrations of an evolving narrative with so many pieces. Where do all these facts and experiences and ideas from the past go into a novel? I had to allow the research to build the narrative and inform the experience of the characters.

The novel took me about a decade to write. My research into the historical details was supported by an American Antiquarian Society William Randolph Hearst Foundation Creative Artist Fellowship. I visited AAS, wrote and lived in their scholars’ housing in Worcester, Massachusetts, and had access to their vast library. Later, much of my writing of an early draft and revision was supported by a North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship.

During my residency at AAS (June 2-29th, 2013), I wrote approximately 30,000 words of my novel draft while also conducting research and making detailed notes from AAS library sources.  I completed a creative notebook of character sketches, plot notes, character arcs, synopses, and scene lists. I also completed another notebook of research notes and character scene notes and filled three small notepads of additional research. All of this became essential to the process of creating a fictional historical world and crafting a narrative.

Keeping an open mind in revision was essential, especially when I had to throw my first novel draft away and go back to my research to start over.

Magers: Sister Séance is your second novel. Most of your books consist of short fiction, which may be more conducive to formal experimentation and subversion of conventional narrative techniques. Your author biography says you “write to explore voices and open doors to unusual journeys through language.” In mainstream or commercial fiction, there is a prioritization of story and narrative. What does your approach afford, and what draws you to this? Do you feel like your work subverts this prioritization of narrative? Can they work together?

Parkison: Ideally, story and voice work together in fiction writing. However, I often find that language takes over. Language becomes narrative. Voice is plot.

Language carries its own tone, conflict, mood, implications, and even contradictions, assumptions, and accusations. That’s what draws me to writing—every sentence is an experiment. Certain words work together, bonding and weaving seamlessly in flow. Other words fight each other, creating tension and dynamic contradictions. Language sparks narrative. When it lives on the page, voice blossoms into story. Narrative can be highly structured or more implicitly an understory teased through voice.

Magers: Given this primacy of language, how it can take over, as well as what you say about how your research informed your narrative, what challenges did you face, and what did you learn from writing a long-form narrative?

Parkison: I struggled with having the core of the novel soundly in mind before beginning the first draft. When writing a longer project like a novel involving many characters, multiple viewpoints, and research, there is a temptation to sit down and start writing pages. Starting the draft too soon can be a trap.

On the other hand, I found so many exciting details about the time period and subject matter that the scope of the novel grew, expanding into more characters, subplots, and multiple points of view. In addition, my cast of characters became much more lively, dynamic, and complex. That was wonderful at first, but that was also a fight when I had to start getting rid of characters and pages. I used the delete button more than I thought I would in the process.

I started with eight characters and ended up with close to thirty, developing a detailed history and psychological profile for each character in order to understand each character’s place in the novel. As I studied sources from the library, I understood my characters more because I understood their history as well as the social concerns of their historical period. This allowed me to glimpse into the characters’ minds to better understand their internal conflicts and motivations.

Through researching historical details, I discovered a new method of writing fiction. I could add layers to the narrative as well as texture by studying the source materials for any details that stood out—anything that shocked, entertained, horrified, disgusted, raised questions, suggested concerns, or showed the setting and its people in a new or unusual light. I was able to process source materials through a particular creative lens so that diaries, newspapers, essays, medical studies, religious views, courtship accounts, holiday traditions, photographs, illustrations, and even parlor games could be understood in a new light in terms of how and where they fit into the novel’s structure.

While in the AAS library, I attempted to collect details as quickly as possible, so that my research notes became a collection of images and ideas that could be used to shape scenes. The research fed the novel, and the novel unlocked new meanings in the sources because I was seeing them through an artistic point-of-view on a scavenger hunt for details to use in my fiction.

Magers: Your work is distinctively feminist. Throughout your oeuvre, I note a fascination with—and critique of—the suffering of women as a literary trope (succinctly summarized in Edgar Allan Poe’s quote in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “The death, then, of a beautiful woman, is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”). Given that this trope has been used by men long before Poe, what is your relationship with this trope, and how do you think it figures in your work? Do you think Sister Séance builds on or deviates from that?

Parkison: Gendering and personifying death has been an obsession of the gothic. Poe glorified it in his “The Philosophy of Composition,” but the fascination with the suffering of beautiful women “succumbing” is ingrained in the arts and entertainment culture. I wonder why it’s considered poetic? I don’t know.

Doesn’t the death of a man move the audience in the same way as the death of a woman? No, for some reason, the death of a man is read and viewed much differently than the death of a woman.

Why the death of the “beautiful woman” in particular? Isn’t a woman’s death just as “poetic” if she isn’t “beautiful”? It would seem audiences don’t view it that way. That brings us to other questions, such as, what is beauty and who gets to define it? Why does beauty, like death, seem so gendered in our culture’s narratives? Is death the thief of beauty? Is beauty feminine? Does it feminize one to be considered beautiful? Are those deemed beautiful in danger of being offered for consumption? Is beauty raped by death? Is there something poetic about destroying what is beautiful? Perhaps that is the meaning of haunting.

Sister Séance examines and subverts gendered gothic obsessions by focusing on the suffering of a “beautiful man” at the hands of women. This man also happens to be a former slave and the women suffer because their love comes from so many different cultural delusions. Strangely, just as in the past, our culture is still not completely comfortable with male beauty. I suppose that has to do with the gaze—who owns the gaze, who gets to inhabit the gaze, and who is forced to become the object of the gaze. The tension in that gaze, the way it can turn ugliness to beauty and beauty to ugliness has been the subject of my work for some time. Haunted and haunting, there is violence to the poetry of beauty when one starts to question the gendering of the gaze.

Magers: Girl Zoo, your collaboration with Carol Guess, consists of fifty-six short pieces positioned somewhere between prose poem and flash fiction—each titled “Girl in ___” (“in Mansion,” “in Freak Accident,” “in Rape Kit,” “in Intelligence Test,” to name a few). The women of these pieces are depicted variously as dolls, animals, test subjects, medical subjects, sex objects, crime victims, criminals, children, mothers, young women, old women, playthings. While clearly feminist, the work is snarky in tonality and seems to signal a kind of political despair. Was this the result of the collaboration? Or of the political climate (this book was written and published during Trump’s presidency)? Both?

Parkison: Political despair formed part of the climate of the time in which Carol and I were writing Girl Zoo. Trump and his narrative loomed large, caging us even as we attempted to free ourselves by inventing our own narratives through artistic collaboration.

Collaboration became a playground where voices came together. Subverting each other’s tones and original intensions through snarky questioning or turning against a narrative expectation created a dynamic where nothing could be taken for granted.

Snark was a subversive pathway to agency. It was an escape from the cultural cages through language. Snark relieved tension and sometimes freed us from the emotional burden of exploring what it means to be a woman in a society obsessed with controlling women’s bodies, identities, sexuality, relationships, and reputations.

Magers: You will soon publish another collaborative book of fiction—this time with Meg Pokrass. Collaborative fiction works are relatively rare, and now you have two. How would you compare the collaborative experience with individual composition? How would you compare the collaborative process with two different authors? What do you think collaboration affords a writer? Does it change anything for the reader?

Parkison: My first experience in collaboration was writing Girl Zoo with Carol Guess. My second experience was writing Disappearing Debutantes (Outpost19, 2023) with Meg Pokrass.  In Disappearing Debutantes, disappearing and ever present “female beginners” come of age in fantasy and reality. As children, girls, teens, “new adults,” middle-aged women, and old women, they keep having their debuts and going unnoticed. Erased by gender, time, age, and those they most want to see them, neglected females become strange in hopes of being loved, being listened to, being understood, and being seen. Though society has no interest in allowing them to make a grand entrance on a life they keep trying to live anew, and though the bloom is long off the rose that never fully opened, each disappearing woman refuses to make a graceful exit or to blossom into the perfect flowery fem society wants her to become. Instead, she boldly celebrates her oddly transformative disappearance from a life that didn’t go as planned by exploring a self-charted, self-made, surreal world of love, longing, lust, and lore.

Collaboration is freeing because you’re not alone in the artistic process. Where two writers are involved in the creation, two minds come together to produce a singular work. The very nature of collaboration challenges you and changes you as a writer. You can never quite anticipate what your writing partner will do or which direction a fiction will go if you are not the sole author. You have to give up the control you typically bring to the process while also letting go of the ego by deconstructing the notion of “the author.” There is no longer “the author” but “authors,” and it’s no longer “my work” but a shared work.

Both Meg and Carol are brilliant, playful innovators. They are also both incredibly prolific and generous in the way they see the world. They have written so many books and have a lot in common and were wonderful to work with in crafting stories.

Collaboration is like a laboratory. It’s an experiment, but it’s also a place where writers can go to commune and learn from each other’s techniques and process. Creatively, it took me in different directions than I might have gone if I was on the journey alone. The spontaneity of unpredictability in making art with two people changes the nature of the art. The technique is like improv in theater because the plot, characters and dialogue are made up in the moment.  Collaboration affords the writer freedom because it releases the writer from the prison of being “the author.” It also creates an environment for a new type of learning among artists and a place for friendships to evolve artistically.

Magers: How does your teaching fit into your writing? What do you want students to know? What do you want creative writing instructors to understand about students? Specific readings for students? Specific texts you use that you’d recommend?

Parkison: My teaching and my writing are connected through the process of creation. In class, we’re making things—we’re creating stories. I encourage students to learn by process and encourage them to understand creative writing as an inventive process by combining self-expression and discipline in reading, writing techniques, and process from prewriting to drafting to revision. I want my students to question their assumptions about reading and then to write fiction that inspires questions in the reader’s mind.

Keeping a journal is important to my process, so I encourage students to keep a fiction writer’s journal of reading responses and experiments based on prompts that lead to stories.

For instance, I’m teaching a graduate class called “Writing the Short Novel” where every student writes an original short novel during the semester. The discussions of the readings have been intense. In addition to the novels the students are writing, we’re reading the following:

Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates

Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, by Donald Antrim

Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin

Ghost Wall: A Novel, by Sarah Moss

McGlue: A Novella, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls

My Sister, the Serial Killer: A Novel, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Such Small Hands, by Andrés Barba

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka (translated by Susan Bernofsky)

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

We the Animals, by Justin Torres

Magers: That sounds like an exciting class! And this is a great reading list. You teach at Oklahoma State University. Did you grow up in Oklahoma? How has place influenced your writing?

Parkison: I grew up in Oklahoma and then moved away for years, going to graduate school in upstate New York to earn my MFA in fiction from Cornell University. Then, I moved to North Carolina, where I taught as a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for a decade. Finally, I moved back to Oklahoma. I’m now a full professor in the Creative Writing Program (BA, MFA, PhD) at Oklahoma State University, where I teach fiction writing.

Oklahoma has influenced my writing because I’m a dreamer. Fiction writers weave dreams into fiction. Oklahoma is a great place to dream because it has so much space: a lot of sky, fields, flat lands of highway that allow you to see for miles. Oklahoma is an open invitation to dreaming.

Magers: Who are the writers or stories that have influenced you? Who are you reading right now that has impacted you?

Parkison: I’ve been influenced by many writers and believe most writers are influenced by what they read, whether they mean to be or not. Some of my favorites inspire and inform me by showing what is possible artistically and through the imagination: Borges, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Tallent, Donald Barthelme, Dennis Cooper, Aimee Bender, William Gay, Denis Johnson, Cris Mazza, John Edgar Wideman, Edwidge Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, Steve Tomasula, Lance Olsen, Brian Evenson, Debra Di Blasi, and James Purdy.

Currently, I’m reading Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia; The Town of Whispering Dolls, by Susan Neville; Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, by Donald Antrim; and Messiahs, by Marc Anthony Richardson.

Magers: Are you interested in genre fiction? I’m using this term capaciously and include YA in this. What is your relationship with genre fiction?

Parkison: Genre fiction can be interesting and innovative if exploring real social issues while challenging the reader by breaking the narrative formula to destroy clichés and subvert the stereotypes of the genre. I’ll read and love anything that moves me, genre or not. I think certain types of audiences naturally gravitate toward certain genres.

Genre is a word for a type of audience, but things become entangled for fiction when genre means content, form, and audience. The traditional notion that realism is the opposite of genre and that only realism can say something about the “real” seems to be changing because escapism is becoming more complicated, political, formally challenging, and literary in contemporary times.

I’m a horror fan and a fan of gothic art when it challenges and reveals. Stephen Graham Jones, Carmen Maria Machado, Shirley Jackson, and Paul Tremblay come to mind in terms of innovative horror that is also literary.

By the way, in my spare time, vintage horror films are a guilty pleasure for me. Movies like Suspiria, The Descent, The Brood, The Exorcist, Hellraiser, and Burnt Offerings get a lot of play in my house. I collect DVDs. I prefer to keep my favorite horror films on physical media, not streaming.

Magers: My wife recently asked me if I have “comfort film” that I watch over and over. After thinking about it, I realized that it is The Exorcist, which I first saw when I was way too young, traumatizing me in ways I’m still unraveling. It’s a film I’m fascinated with in so many ways. It’s also incredibly fucked up. I coordinated a “live” viewing of it via Twitter a couple years ago with writers around the country. The excellent poet and editor Marisa Crawford remarked during this live tweet that the story of The Exorcist is basically a bunch of men freaking out about a young girl’s burgeoning sexuality. Yes, absolutely!

Horror is so strange because it often taps into reactionary desires and sensibilities of its creators and/or audience. A lot has been written about this with regards to slasher films, but it has roots stretching back to the origins of the gothic, which you alluded to earlier. One example I’m thinking of is Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796), which indulges in both weird, craven depictions of male sexuality, as well as an anti-Catholic sentiment.

There is definitely a gothic strain in your work, which often becomes the stage for subverting some of the reactionary tropes that we’ve been touching on throughout the conversation. What draws you to the gothic, to horror? What makes a pleasure guilty? How does that compare with just “pleasure” itself?

Parkison: Dan, so odd that you mention The Exorcist as a comfort film! I agree. In graduate school, I watched it with a friend who said she had been afraid to see it for years, but when we watched it, she was laughing and said it was just hysterically offensive. I still think it’s scary…yet oddly comforting. And also troubling for all the reasons you mention about the gendered narrative and where the horror is coming from in the film.

The gothic and horror are a “guilty pleasure” for me because of their troubling tension and the problematic revelations about what horror is, where the horror is coming from, and what truly terrifies us as a society.

There’s something so psychological about realizing the audience is more horrified by a young girl tied to a bed than a demon. That seems to be saying something more evil and real about our society than any demonic force could ever tell. That level of psychological reality and the uncomfortable truths behind it is strangely comforting to me because of the level of honesty about who we are as a people. No matter how unpleasant that may be, it’s much more comforting to me than narratives that deny and sugarcoat and gaslight uncomfortable truths through feel-good stories, which make me the opposite of comforted.

Magers: What is the most helpful thing you have learned as a writer?

Sometimes the delete button is your friend.

Magers: Do you have any other upcoming writing projects you’d like to talk about? Or other fascinations, obsessions, interests?

I feel it’s time to turn the page, literally and figuratively, to reevaluate life, work, and process. I have three books that are under contract and finished, each coming out on a schedule of one per year starting this year. The first is Sister Séance. The second is The Ambassador Owl (Unbound Editions, 2022), a story collection. The third is the co-authored collection of flash fiction with Meg Pokrass called Disappearing Debutantes (Outpost19, 2023).

I’m not sure that the next book will be. I have many ideas, and I’m collecting research in the form of vintage photographs.  I want to dive in deeply, but I also want to skip around like a frog on lily pads.

 

Dan Magers is the author of Partyknife. His writing appears in Big Other, Fanzine, Hyperallergic, New Pages, Vice, and elsewhere. Founding editor of Sink Review, he is currently a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department of University of Illinois at Chicago.

Leave a Reply