I befriended Parker Young quite recently. Though we had been Twitter mutuals for a while, we’d never spoken before, and I asked on a whim if he might be interested in talking with me about his new collection, Cheap Therapist Says You’re Insane, out from Future Tense Books.
I fell in love with his work from the very first line:
I was walking around my neighborhood from block to block, trying to think, trying to figure out why everyone hated me, or why I felt that to be the case at least, getting nowhere, when I realized I was being followed.
It is best to read Young’s writing through the lens of a detective story: What is missing? What is hidden? What is being left behind? Young arranges the withered stalks of dead-end jobs and the browned stems of unraveling minds into a dazzling bouquet. As a passionate florist, Young knows the origins of even the most unfamiliar flowers, the tragedy of their births, and nourishes them with Xanax, bedroom lamps, and chicken sandwiches.
As I read through his stories, I often didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Young’s vivid portraits of lives both imagined and real—though the two converge more often than not—will make you want to read them over and over again, trying to understand the impossible. And once you’ve understood, you’ll go back to the beginning, knowing now that nothing stays the same.
Note: It seems important now to mention that Young and I are both from the tri-state area of upstate South Carolina, which led me into a brief spout of paranoia and disbelief. And that may very well be the right state of mind in which to read these stories.
Daisuke Shen: Your narrators range across many different circumstances and professions: unemployed, virtual photo booth attendant, traveling assistant, screenwriter, novelist, aspiring novelist. Some might be experiencing what might be termed acute psychosis, believing that they are being followed by someone who “looks exactly like them” (“Golden Hour”); others must witness this mental distress in others, like the narrator in “Flo-Rite,” whose father is convinced that there are spiders where his family sees none. What they all seem to share is a common belief in an inevitable doom or tragedy. But there’s a lot of curiosity in their terror.
I’ve noticed that you write most of your stories through the first-person POV. Are there specific things that you’ve noticed your narrators pay attention to first, when you’re dropped inside their worlds? Why do you think you tend toward the first-person?
Parker Young: I probably like first-person perspective because it automatically adds a layer of distortion to the story that I find compelling. I like to find those points of distortion and lean into them a little. It’s like if you’re in the middle of telling a story at dinner and you begin to surprise yourself, everything shifts in a way you hadn’t expected, the tone changes, and maybe the sad story you thought you were telling turns out to also be funny. Or maybe you realize that on some level the true story you’re supposed to be telling is impossible, it doesn’t all hold together. I guess the first-person perspective helps me take the stories to that place I like. It allows me to interrogate the story itself in a way that actually adds tension instead of destroying it. Because my narrators are usually people who, at heart, really want to get the story right.
As for what my narrators look for first, the simplest answer, as you noted above, is probably that they tend to be expecting something terrible to happen. There’s this move I noticed Bolaño making—later I noticed Poe doing it too, and Bolaño loved Poe, so he must have stolen it from him—and it’s just that early in a scene, the narrator will say something along the lines of, “I knew something terrible would happen.” It’s so straightforward that it’s almost ridiculous, but it works; it helps create this totally menacing atmosphere. And the best part is that it’s not always clear in retrospect if the narrator was right. Did something terrible actually happen in that scene? It’s an important question, but the answer isn’t always apparent at first glance. Anyway, I guess that’s the kind of atmosphere my narrators in this book tend to find themselves in as well.
When reading through this collection, I was terrified to discover that we both grew up in upstate South Carolina. You made a joke to me the other day about “Missing Person,” which features a man living in Greenville, South Carolina with his D.C. lobbyist roommate, saying it was a horror story.
Were there any ghost or horror stories imparted to you via storytellers in your childhood (relatives, friends, neighbors)? What separates true horror from, say, simple, cheap horror?
I actually can’t think of any childhood ghost stories aside from stuff I saw on TV. But I remember in college, back when I was trying to be very religious, a Calvinist basically, and most of my friends were too, hearing a ghost story from one of the de facto leaders of our group. The specifics of the story escape me now except that at one point, the ghost followed her mom from the house to the elementary school where she worked. But it was a powerful experience because it allowed us to acknowledge a question we had worked hard to repress: Is God (or whatever gives the universe order) actually asleep at the wheel? Maybe that’s what I think of as true horror. Cheap horror is when you pose the question for dramatic effect but don’t really care about the answer.
To circle back to Bolaño, I thought about him a lot when reading your work, even before you mention him in “Writing Fiction”—“I don’t know exactly what Roberto Bolaño meant when he wrote, The killer sleeps as the victim photographs him, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably about writing fiction.”
Along with Bolaño, I was thinking also about Donald Barthleme and Jorge Luis Borges—all of whom provide “clues”, so to speak, in their work so that readers can make sense of the narrative when they’re going into more absurdist/surrealist directions. You do this a lot in your stories, and quite masterfully. Sometimes, the clues are in the endings themselves—a man hitting himself in the head with a book on the War on Terror, a patient telling his therapist that the lead paint in the walls act as a Faraday cage. Just when we think we’re at the end of a story, you present new information to us that makes us reconsider the story in a new light.
What are some of the things that surprised you about your stories, in how they diverged from your original ideas for them? What are some of your favorite images from your writing?
The examples you mention were all surprises to me when I wrote them; I rarely have the ending of a piece figured out in advance. Sometimes it takes me a long time to find it. Other times it appears right away. But that sense of surprise is usually what I’m chasing. Also a sense of balance. The pieces that are hardest to balance tonally are probably the most satisfying to complete, and they also tend to yield the best surprises.
My favorite images probably wouldn’t be anybody else’s favorite, because they’re just the things that ended up making certain stories work, rescuing them from the trash heap. In “Sleeplessness,” for example, adding the ghost gun is what did it. Everything fell into place after that.
Speaking about the “trash heap,” how do you feel when revisiting older work of yours? What makes you decide that an idea is worth pursuing, or is worth discarding (at least for the time being)?
That’s hard to talk about or make sense of. Some stories just won’t leave you alone. There’s a story in this book, I won’t say which one, that I’ve probably written fifty drafts of over the past four years, drafts ranging in length from four pages to thirty-five or forty. Now that it’s done, it’s a five-page story. Basically, I didn’t get much out of all that pursuit in terms of finished product. But I don’t really regret it either. I guess I enjoyed doing all that pointless work. For the most part, when I’m willing to spend time rewriting or expanding a story, that lets me know that something interesting is going on.
The stories in this collection are on the shorter side; many could be considered flash pieces. What can we accomplish within the miniature, that we can’t within longer forms?
I think compression is interesting in fiction because it embodies one of the main problems with language. We’re always trying to compress experience into words, our lives into stories, and it’s impossible to get it exactly right. But almost everything that’s beautiful in life comes from giving it an honest shot.
Writers can either lean into the problem of compression by taking it further and further, so that the process of meaning-making becomes somewhat translucent, or they can work against it by dilating time and trying furiously to account for everything, which can be a lot of fun too. It just depends on which way you want the language to bend.
I love this paragraph from “Two Bathtubs in Memphis,” wherein his wife, Daphne, tells him that she’s just seen his ex-wife, Kristen, upstairs:
The longer I sat on the barstool, looking at the picture of myself in the mirror, the more Daphne seemed to look like Kristen. I guess I was slowly forgetting what Kristen looked like, unlearning her face, her gaze, her voice, and it seemed that Daphne helped me reverse this process, but maybe it was an illusion, maybe Daphne’s face was simply replacing Kristen’s, taking up residence in the Kristen part of my brain, and I didn’t know why.
Why is pain such a necessary part of survival? What do you think would happen if we were allowed to carry all our memories in the conscious storefronts of our minds?
Pain is important just because it’s inevitable. Everyone understands that on some level. Some people tend to spend a lot of time privately bracing themselves, waiting for the inevitable to come. But once you find out that you can take a few blows and still keep going, you don’t waste as much time bracing for impact. I don’t know. Now I’m not sure if I agree with myself. It’s not easy.
But the second half of your question reminds me of a story I heard on the radio once about a woman who was traumatized by a home break-in. She woke up from a nap on her couch and there was a strange man standing over her, and she had to lie that way, frozen, watching him until he decided to leave. She couldn’t get over this memory, she couldn’t function at work or in social settings because it was too vivid, she couldn’t shut it out, she tried all kinds of therapy. After months or maybe years of trying to get better, she had a conversation with some guy, I want to say he was a magician or a clown or something; he advised her to sit down every day and intentionally play back the memory of what happened, like queuing up a video. But when you play it back, he said to her, add your own soundtrack, some kind of ridiculous music. Pick a song that will make you laugh. According to the radio story, this was what worked for her. By bringing this unresolved terror into the realm of play, she granted herself some agency over it. At its very best, maybe fiction can do something similar.
Daisuke Shen is the author of the forthcoming short story collection Vague Predictions & Prophecies (CLASH Books. August 2024), as well as the novella Funeral (with Vi Khi Nao, KERNPUNKT Press, 2023). You can find them on Twitter @dai__joubuInstagram and Intstagram @ginsengmasque.
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