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Aimee Parkison’s most recent book, Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, won the prestigious Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, and is currently available from FC2. Her other books include Woman with the Dark Horses, The Innocent Party, and The Petals of Your Eyes. Her fiction has appeared in such journals as North American Review, Fiction International, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, among many other journals. Stephen Graham Jones, who selected Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman for the Catherine Doctorow Prize, wrote: “Underneath, there’s a real emotional core, a dynamo surging way down deep…” I spoke with Aimee via email.
BRANDON HOBSON: Many of the stories in Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman are very short, some only a couple of pages long. Do you favor writing shorter pieces than longer stories? And do you find yourself doing more line editing as you go when you write shorter pieces?
AIMEE PARKINSON: I do a lot of line editing, especially on shorter pieces. Heightened sensitivity to language and tone is necessary for creating flash fiction, almost like the sensitivity I imagine Roderick Usher and other Poe characters having: “His heart is a lute strung tight; as soon as one touches, it resounds.”
BH: The first story in your collection, “Code Violations,” is not only concerned with urgency in a small space, but it’s also in a way an introduction to these stories all dealing with the idea of urgency and violation in some particular way it seems. In the writing process, do you find yourself focusing on maintaining this urgency, and if so, how?
AP: Without urgency, art is in trouble. I attempt to create urgency through diction, tone, situational irony, conflict, and surprise—an unusual or arresting detail—but the best way to maintain urgency is by raising questions in the reader’s mind and keeping those questions unanswered until logic will no longer allow.
BH: Do you often stress urgency to your students in your writing classes? Do they tend to struggle with it?
AP: I almost always find myself stressing urgency, as so many workshop stories struggle with it. A quick, easy way to stress urgency with student writers is to encourage them to start close to the conflict, in the middle of the action, and to “raise the stakes.” Of course, that’s workshop speak, but almost everyone tends to get it when thinking about revising fiction. An indirect and often more complicated way to stress urgency is to ask a very simple direct question that is often extremely hard for a writer to answer: “What is this fiction really about?”
BH: What do you love most about teaching fiction writing?
AP: When discussions get intense in a good way, when student writers are open to discovery and mature enough to take criticism, to hunger for feedback and remain creative and professional, that’s when it gets good. But it’s a hard balance for most students and even most professional writers to strike—to be creative and free when needed and then to shift to being professional and serious. The best classes are that way, but so much of that balance is a mood that depends on the “group unconsciousness,” as the surrealists used to say.
BH: In many of the stories there’s particular attention on the body. I’m thinking specifically of the title story, as well as “Fast Foodie,” “Hot Lunch Petition,” “Abortion,” and “Lover With Gun in Mouth, or Autopsy After Murder,” which has the majestic line, “Intelligence is a disease. That’s why my lover has a gun in his mouth.” Is how we treat our bodies (or how we’re destroying our bodies) important to your work?
AP: If violence and violation are about controlling the body, I want to examine many types of violation (even those that are less commonly called violence) to suggest that violence is everywhere, even in things we don’t normally realize. For instance, fast food can be violent. Hunger can become violence. Birth is violent, and abortion is violent. Sex can be violent. Surgical procedures are violent. There’s “good” violence and “bad” violence because each life is a violation of another’s life when violence is a necessary consequence of living. We can see this in the way we treat our bodies, the way the media encourages us to treat ourselves and others, as if the body is something to be controlled through all sorts of violence. When it comes to our bodies, there’s a fine line between taking and giving, nourishing and polluting, loving and harming. That’s why I hope Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman raises more questions than answers and inspires readers to reexamine everyday life and common platitudes about mental and physical wellbeing that society often accepts as truth.
BH: Stephen Graham Jones wrote that these stories, like the best fiction, has us grinning right before the plunge. “You grin so you won’t scream, and then you probably scream anyway.” How difficult or important is it to balance the line between humor and horror for you?
AP: I ask this question all the time—whether I should be laughing or horrified. If I feel disgusted or disturbed by something, later recalling it, suddenly, I’m laughing, even if it’s not funny because suddenly it is funny. Why? I don’t know. How could something be funny and the opposite of funny? The same way something can be both beautiful and ugly. Life is sometimes like that: a rare sort of humor, unexpected, transpires when recounting disturbing experiences. Is this type of laughter panic? Relief or disbelief that life can be so horrible? Delirium? Delirium, nature’s cheapest “high,” is perhaps a safety mechanism for self-preservation with the risk of knowing too much, to save us from disturbing realities by transporting us into unexpected hilarity.
BH: What books are you reading or have currently read that you can recommend?
AP: The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman: Stories by Courtney E. Morgan
Human-Ghost Hybrid Project by Carol Guess & Daniela Olszewska
Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack by Mary Cappello
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Dreamlives of Debris by Lance Olsen
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector
Remarkable by Dinah Cox