Aimee Parkison Interview
And a New Book
Aimee Parkison, Author of “Sister Seance”, “The Inoocent Party”, “The Petals of Your Eyes” And More
Unmooring the Reader:
Interview with Aimee Parkison
by Jon Berry
Author Bio: Aimee Parkison’s newest book Suburban Death Project, published by Unbound Edition Press, is a collection of stories about people who haunt each other while still alive. Parkison is the author of 7 books, including her recent novel, Sister Séance (Kernpunkt). She writes to explore voices and open doors to unusual journeys through language. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, in translation in Italian, and in the Best Small Fictions. Parkison serves on the FC2 Board of Directors. Her fiction has won awards, including the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, the Kurt Vonnegut Prize from North American Review, the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, the Jack Dyer Prize from Crab Orchard Review, a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, a Writers at Work Fellowship, a Puffin Foundation Fellowship, an American Antiquarian Society William Randolph Hearst Creative Artist Fellowship, and a William Faulkner Literary Competition Prize for the Novel. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University and is online at www.aimeeparkison.com
Questions by Jon Berry (JB) and answers by Aimee Parkison (AP).
JB: What was the first story you remember writing? What was it about?
AP: The first story I ever wrote was about a family of toads. I was six years old. I loved the toads that lived in little hollows of the brick patio and under the wood pile and concrete steps of the porch of my family’s house. One morning, I opened the porch door and saw the toads sitting on the Welcome mat, as if waiting for me. I was certain the toads had a secret life and I was part of it.
JB: Be it a novel or movie, a work of art needs to be an experience or it is quickly forgotten. How do you envision and then execute the creation of works of art that make the reader vividly feel and see the experience of the characters and the world in which they live?
AP: More than creating a character, a plot, or even a story, when I’m writing fiction, I’m trying to create an experience for my readers and for me. At first, there are creative goals and the frustration and labor and joy of the creative process, then there’s a moment, far into several drafts and revisions, when I become the reader, no longer the writer, but someone having an experience that lives in the mind due to language and the experience of reading. The language is not only capturing and translating what’s in my imagination but creating it. The experience has a lot to do with voice, musicality, implication, tone, and imagery. Though language and texture should not be mistaken for substance, sometimes you find a voice and follow it to an experience.
JB: With each novel and story collection you appear to be exploring new worlds and themes. However, one area that connects your works, I would argue, is your focus on the brutalities committed against women. Your depiction of the physical and psychological suffering of females, in particular, when enduring extraordinarily horrific scenarios is as much a physical experience to read as it is psychologically unmooring—is that your goal? And what other authors succeed in pulling this feat off for you?
AP: Thanks, Jon. There are so many brutalities against women, historically but also in the present day, and my work attempts to address that suffering.
Horrific scenarios of gendered violence tend to lead to a physical reading experience accompanied by a psychological unmooring for the sensitive reader. That is certainly a goal for me, artistically and politically, because I believe a key factor that allows gendered violence to thrive through generations is complicity, which typically functions through gaslighting and denial.
In my opinion, remarkable books on violence against women are the following:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
The Collector by John Fowles
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison
JB: Sister Séance (Kernpunkt) is yet another highly unnerving experience that makes the reader feel a great many things often at once with a torrential pouring of horror or throughout succeeding pages wherein multiple emotions (from the sublime to the romantic to the grotesque) hectically intrude at a dizzying pace—this approach seems to work well in short fiction, and yet with Sister Séance you manage to keep this technique going without fail throughout the length of an entire novel. I guess my question is: were you cognizant of all this? And were you at all worried that this onslaught of one extreme emotion after another could take away from the equally accomplished and layered story you’re telling?
AP: Oh, certainly, that was always a creative concern and a fear while I was working on the project and one of the reasons I had to keep starting over. Creatively, it was a risk I had to take as part of the experiment. While I was writing, I was aware that more layers and points of view, more complications, created a risk of losing the thread that connects not just every character in the narrative but the human thread that unites every character with each other and the reader. Some characters did lose the human thread as they snapped out of the realm of traditional reality due to stepping outside of the realm of accepted human experience, but that happened to those who betrayed themselves. I hope that sense of unhinging within certain characters late in the narrative starts to become apparent near the novel’s spiritualist climax from which certain character’s reality never really recovers.
When reality falls apart, the realm of the spirits bleeds into the physical reality of the living until the dead are alive and the living are ghosts. The sublime, the romantic, and the grotesque were intricately twisted from scene to scene because of the characters having such conflicts within themselves, their pasts, and what they thought was hidden yet was obvious: everywhere they went, the one person they couldn’t escape was themselves, their doubles, the hidden lives and the lies that followed them.
JB: How much of a role does music play in your writing? “Sister Séance” in particular has a wonderful musicality to it and concludes with an ending that reads as operatic to such an extent that it’s difficult to form a sentence to describe the experience of reading it?
AP: I work with sound because I’m moved by musicality. Music is mood. Musicality informs meaning. I work a sentence until it sings to say something beyond the originally planned meaning but also past it and through it.
The ending of my novel wasn’t so much an ending but a non-ending for certain characters who would never have their own resolution. They see an unresolved resolution like a ghostly reflection of what they could not experience when gazing into the window of a house they were leaving behind.
JB: You’re spoken about the symbolism of hands and your fascination with the dumb supper—what can you say about the preponderance of doubles?
AP: In Sister Séance, the doubling is a symbol of the divided country—the North and the South, the Union and the Confederacy. The doubling divide is always there, especially in one of the families where twins are born in multiple generations and each twin has a distinct divide like a single nation in Civil War—one but also two, the same but not the same, the self but also the other.
JB: Have you ever written something you found to go too far and were afraid to publish?
AP: Yes, fear is necessary for art, which should be disruptive. Even after something is published, I sometimes feel a bit of regret that maybe I could have gone even farther to disrupt the narrative and to have taken more risks. It’s tempting as a writer to keep writing and revising, even after a project is published. It’s hard to let go—either way, going too far, not going far enough.
JB: You stated you had to throw your first draft of Sister Séance away and start your research all over again. This book took you ten years to research—how far into the research were you when you decided to start over? How did you push yourself forward after such turmoil?
AP: I started filling notebooks of research at the American Antiquarian Society during my creative artist’s fellowship residency. As many details as I wanted to include, it was hard to find the story. Much of what I threw away were pages where I was finding my way, drafts that I read and realized I was on the wrong path and it was easier to start over. My research is what I saved, but it was not what saved me as an artist. What saved me as an artist was the pages I threw away.
JB: The ending. How much of it did you have in mind when you conceived this novel and how much of it changed through your research and in the writing of the book over the years?
AP: The ending came to me mid-way through the final draft. I saw the sequence and heard some of the language of the final pages. That’s how I knew I was getting to something. For fiction writing, it’s often a very good sign if the ending comes to you while you're writing the middle of the story. When I’m drafting, the ending isn’t really about what happened but the sound of the words on that final page. If I can find the right words to end on, if I can hear them, I have a pathway to finish the fiction.
JB: You wrote an amazing piece about taboo in Lithub (Ghostly Taboos: Superstitious Rules and Gendered Restrictions ‹ Literary Hub (lithub.com)). In it, you wrote the following:
“My novel became about saying goodbye when guilt and grief wouldn’t let go. Spiritualism became a pathway, allowing
communication with the dead, helping to overcome the taboo
of bad death.”
This seems like an important observation when looking at the state of the world today. People were once finding comfort in a specific delusion during the turbulent time after the Civil War. What, in your view, if anything, has replaced the role of mediums and spiritualism? Or have matters become simply hopeless?
AP: Spiritualism was a form of technology during the Civil War times—mediums promised a “telephone” to speak to the dead about the other side, a technology for those in deep depression, grief, uncertainty, and despair.
Today, the “technology” of despair and desperation and uncertainty is social media, Twitter, and fake news, and the stock market numbers people track for signs to interpret what is happening, what will happen, and why.
Speaking of social media, I see an uncanny valley of accidental horror in how curious the altered, filtered digital photos of faces and bodies start to look. Digital photographs become so unreal so that people resemble ghosts in historical photographs, washed out, ethereal, no longer physical. Ever notice how digitally altered faces and faces with too much contouring and plastic surgery or Botox can start to look like postmortems? Something is there, before our eyes, that shouldn’t be there, because we cling to the uncanny to give us a sense of eternity.
JB: These days, from what I can observe, it appears most people have little time away from the pace of life to find a moment to watch a news segment. Do you have any advice on how aspiring writers might find time to focus more on what’s required to enrich their imagination and, subsequently, put it to paper?
AP: Meditation and journaling help to slow time. So does turning off the TV, getting away from the computer, and starting to dream. Take a breath, slow down, look within for focus, then write.
JB: You have two upcoming books that everybody will need to wait an awful long time to read. What can you say about Disappearing Debutantes and Suburban Death Project?
AP: Thanks, Jon! Both of my forthcoming books are story collections of experimental contemporary fiction, and they are very different from each other.
Disappearing Debutantes, forthcoming from Outpost19 Books of San Francisco in 2023, is a co-authored collaborative collection of surreal flash fictions I wrote with the wildly innovative Meg Pokrass (Home - Meg Pokrass). We were both in the midst of pandemic isolation but writing fiction together while living in different countries.
Suburban Death Project, forthcoming from Unbound Edition Press in 2022, is a book of 12 stories about families who haunt each other while still alive as they recompose into dragonflies, peach trees, squirrels, ducks, owls, shadows, tunnels, and zoos of endangered species. Pinned to boards for study, peered at by voyeurs, videoed by neighbors, or vivisected for the greater good, each body undergoes an unflinching examination. More information is available at Suburban Death Project | Aimee Parkison | Short Fiction - Unbound Edition Press.