Begin your story in the middle of the action — that's one of the most valuable lessons I learned from my former creative writing professor Aimee Parkison during my time at UNC-Charlotte. But now, a year and a half later, I wonder: How do I start off a piece about the person who returned my own short stories dripping in red ink?
I met with Parkison recently in the coffee shop in the Fretwell building on campus. But instead of discussing my graduate project, Parkison shared details about her different writing projects. She will be one of the speakers at a Nov. 13 Personally Speaking event, held at UNCC's J. Murrey Atkins Library. During the catered lecture — yes, there will be wine — she'll talk about her creative process and share an excerpt from her story collection The Innocent Party, which published last year.
In all of the encounters I had with Parkison during my time at UNCC, it was rare to see her without some kind of caffeinated drink in hand. An associate professor of English by day and fiction writer and poet by night — often late nights, in fact — it's understandable why the 36-year-old would need the boost of energy.
Parkison's work spans the spectrum of literary adult fiction, from traditional realism to surreal and speculative. She says she loves to write in a way that's "painterly." For example, from the story "The Glass Girl" (found in The Innocent Party), she writes, "On certain evenings in dark motels, she could transform her lip into the edge of the bottle, imagining her face was made of amber glass and the men paused above her only to take a drink of breath."
Parkison received her Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University and says she's inspired by art: "I'm a very visual person." Her upcoming novel The Petals of Your Eyes (due out in spring 2014) is a short, surreal work that channels poetry and shares the story of kidnapped girls who work in a secret theater.
Her biggest project to date, though, is the historical novel she's currently working on, tentatively titled The Dumb Supper. Last month, the work nabbed her a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship. She was also given the opportunity to spend some time in Massachusetts earlier this summer researching her novel after she was named a 2013 William Randolph Hearst Creative Artist Fellow for historical fiction.
The Dumb Supper is based on Irish folklore and Victorian-American courtship rituals. One of those rituals that particularly fascinated Parkison was a dinner party for a group of marriageable people who must communicate with each other without speaking. One empty chair is reserved at the table for an invisible, deceased guest, and others are asked to burn by candlelight a note with a question they would like to ask someone who's died.
"It's almost like a séance that got turned into a courtship ritual," Parkison says. "It's been a lot of research because the Victorians were so different in terms of how they didn't like to talk about certain things that we are more open about today, like sexuality and gender roles."
Parkison certainly isn't afraid to explore those topics. Another check mark along the list of literary genres she writes is erotic fiction, which has become a specialty of hers in the last several years. In 2011, her short story "Uncradled," about a male sex addict secretly in love with his best friend who is also a sex addict, was published in Men Undressed, an anthology that features works by women authors writing explicitly about sex from the male point of view.
After E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey was published, Parkison says, there was a big push for explicit works from literary writers, and specifically women writers. "[Fifty Shades of Grey] was supposed to be extremely shocking and a new take on things, and it wasn't," Parkison says. "It was just a romance novel where the woman was even more subservient than usual. There was a big reaction among women in the area of creative writing to that."
During our chat, I notice Parkison seems to have trouble taking the professor hat off. As she explains how important free-writing is for finding story ideas, in place of "I"s, Parkison uses "you"s: "When free-writing is working well, you're not having to think so much with your conscious mind; the words are flowing, the characters are acting. In order to let that happen, you just need to free-write as much as possible."
I'm her student all over again.