If you do an image search for Wink, Texas, you’ll find pictures of a wee Roy Orbison Museum, aerial photos of two massive sinkholes, and not much else. The small West Texas hamlet, about eight miles south of Kermit, is the setting for part of fifth-generation Texan Kimberly King Parsons’s debut novel, We Were the Universe. Kit, the main character and narrator, grew up in Wink and is living in a fictional Dallas suburb named Pivot. She’s a young stay-at-home mom reeling from the loss of her sister Julie to alcoholism, searching for a way to process her emotions. Her old comforts of casual sex and psychedelics don’t mesh with her desire to be a dependable, loving mom to her daughter, Gilda, so Kit starts to lose touch with reality as she grapples with the guilt and pain surrounding her sister’s death. 

“When you have kids, you really forfeit the option of self-destruction,” says Parsons, who was born in Lubbock before her family, too, moved to the Dallas ’burbs. “I wanted to write about a character who has to cope.”

The long-reigning mythology attached to Texas includes cowboys, wide-open spaces, and fierce independence. Parsons’s version weaves in horny moms, lost souls, and the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. In March, Parsons posted a video on Instagram in which she quotes someone from her publisher’s sales team, who described Kit as “Fleabag, if Fleabag were a mom living in Texas.” (Fleabag is the self-deprecating, irreverent British main character in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning eponymous series.) The comparison fits. Instead of wreaking minor havoc around London, Kit bounces from Pivot to Montana to Wink and back, juggling her toddler, her kind, vegan husband, and her hoarder mother who has an “armadillo room” full of ’dilla memorabilia. Kit distracts herself with sexual fantasies about Bad Dad (“an unshaven vision in a Sub Pop T-shirt”) and a mysterious woman at the local park, whom Kit nicknames Celadon because of the green shade of the pendant that hangs around her neck. The book’s inclusion of bisexual moms, LGBTQ+ characters, and psychedelic cactus connoisseurs expands the notion of what a modern-day Texan looks and sounds like. Parsons has created a world that feels deeply rooted in Texas culture, but mercifully devoid of any old-school, clichéd depictions of the state.

When I first sat down to read We Were the Universe, I braced myself. I knew it would hit close to home. Like Kit, I lost a younger sister to alcoholism. The way Parsons writes about Kit’s relationship with Julie once her sister descends into her addiction felt like a gut punch, and a recognition of the agony you experience when someone you love is spiraling deeper into substance abuse. I know all too well the dread that rises up when you imagine getting the news that someone’s addiction has taken their life. “You hope to at least be on the inside of the bad news, be the one making the terrible phone call, not receiving it,” Parsons writes in the book. “The call is coming either way.” 

Although Parsons hasn’t lost a sister, she says she’s had “two really big, fundamental experiences with grief,” which she prefers not to discuss in detail. The book is about mourning a sibling, but it’s also hilarious at times, especially when it comes to Kit’s hot takes about modern motherhood. When Kit talks about the mental toll of laundry, breastfeeding, tantrums, and playdates, she quips, “I used to have a better brain.” It’s one of the many Kit-isms in the book that made me laugh out loud. It’s easy to fall in love with the character. She’s a mess and she’s flailing, but she’s trying her damnedest. The main tension of the story quickly becomes the fear that Kit is going to do something that would completely upend her family, and her life. Her undoing could be Bad Dad, Celadon, a drug trip that would capsize her already shaky mental state, or all three at once.

“For Kit it’s almost torturous,” Parsons says of the character’s longing for drugs and sex as a temporary vacation from her inner pain. “We know there’s no shortcut to getting through grief, though. You just have to get through it.” 

It’s not just Parsons’s depictions of grief, parenthood, and loving an addict that ring so true in the book. It’s her portrayal of a modern-day Texas populated by outsiders—the high school kids who might be sixth generation but who listened to psychedelic pop instead of country and tripped on magic mushrooms in search of transcendence instead of cheering at the pep rally. Characters who are now attempting to act like adults but also are yearning to stay connected to the wild abandon youth afforded them. 

Parsons left Texas in 2005 for graduate school in New York, and she now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her partner and kids. Living far from home hasn’t dulled her love for the misfits, seekers, and lost souls that define her specific vision of Texas. Her first book of short stories, Black Light, which was longlisted for the National Book Award, is filled with characters, landscapes, and locations that defy stereotypes and expectations, from seedy Houston motels to the West Texas landscapes she knows so well.

Parsons returns to Texas often to see family, and she wrote much of the We Were the Universe at the Tasajillo Writers Residency, near Kyle. She says she never plots out a book but instead writes “sentence to sentence,” allowing the characters to guide her. Once she gets the first draft down, she goes back and creates an outline.

“I always think of a novel sort of like a house,” she says. “Are there closets I should go in? Is there a door I should close? Should I look under that rug?” 

We Were the Universe was inspired by a trip Parsons took to Montana with a friend, at a time when she was struggling with some of the same issues Kit faces. She was sitting in the Boiling River, which was rumored to have therapeutic powers, but the experience was the opposite of tranquil or healing.

“I just kept thinking about the worst things going on in my life, all the things I thought I was escaping from,” says Parsons. “I was like, if I don’t get out of this water I don’t know if I can keep it together. And then I imagined this sort of extreme character who was much more precarious than I ever felt, and I wanted to follow that down a path. All I really knew when I started the first draft was the image of this woman sitting in a river.”

About halfway through We Were the Universe, Kit is in an airplane flying back to Pivot after a quick trip to Montana with her friend Pete, who has just gone through a painful breakup with his longtime boyfriend. She tries the Boiling River, but, unlike Parsons, she doesn’t quite manage to hold it together. On the plane, Kit listens to “an old shoegaze record” on her headphones and says, “Sometimes I hate where I’m from, but the shape of Texas on a map—I can’t explain it—it chokes me up.”

This notion of feeling disconnected from a place but still knowing in your bones that it’s home is something that Parsons contends with in fiction, and in her own life. 

“Ever since I left, I just can’t shut up about Texas,” she says. Parsons and her family have built a life in Portland. She posts photos of gorgeous technicolor spring flowers in the Pacific Northwest that would not stand a chance in the Texas heat. Like Kit, she longed for something bigger than towns like Wink, but there’s something about those towns—sinkholes, ramshackle museums, and all—that keeps luring her back.

When I ask Parsons about the new novel she’s working on, which is in that early “sentence to sentence” phase, she says she keeps telling herself to not write about Texas this time. “But then I’m like, can’t I just write about it a little bit?” she says. “It’s home.”