September 2011

J. T. Hill


An Interview with Kevin Wilson

"Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief." So begins The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson's first novel and the follow-up to his artful, mischievous story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Annie and Buster, the Fang children, return to their parents' home after years of keeping their distance. Annie, a serious actress, once nominated for an Oscar, is disgraced on the Internet by topless photos. Buster, a novelist and reluctant journalist, can barely eat after facial injuries sustained from a potato gun. Their parents, whose performance art found raw material in the lives of Annie and Buster, are excited to have them back. Mr. and Mrs. Fang have one more performance in which they would like their children to participate, but this time it might not be a performance.

The Family Fang explores the obligations parents have to their children, artists have to their art, and children have to themselves. In the short time since its release, the novel has earned high praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, among others. Kevin Wilson has been called the unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers, and The Family Fang may share some DNA with Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, the classic tale of carnival freaks whose parents have bred them for the family business.

The comparisons of Wilson to other writers says less about his work than it does about our desire to understand his imagination. In simple terms, he is very funny, generous to all his characters, and the author of books you feel an immediate urge to reread. In 2010, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth won the Shirley Jackson Award, honoring authors with a "knack for psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic." His work as appeared in four volumes of New Stories from the South, One Story, Ploughshares, and many other literary magazines. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his son, Griff. Recently, between stops on his book tour for The Family Fang, Kevin was kind enough to answer some questions about the novel, his love of comic books, and the ways he balances his own art with parenthood.

The first thing I want to ask you about is the cover of your new novel, which features the kind of art you don't typically find on a book of so-called literary fiction. Since your novel directly addresses questions about the categorization of art, I wondered if you could explain how the cover was chosen.

The book designer at Ecco, Allison Saltzman, commissioned the artist Julie Morstad to create an image for the cover. I actually knew and loved Morstad's work already, so I was excited about the possibilities for the cover. Later the image was built into a larger cover design, which I also like a lot. As for why it was chosen, I can't speak for Allison and I didn't really get involved because I trust her abilities. But I loved seeing a visual representation of the family and I think it helps set the tone that there are some wacky modes at play in the novel. It's a book that moves between lightness and darkness, and I think having that illustration makes it clearer.  

I suppose the fact that characters are depicted on the cover reminds me of the genre books my teenage self spent hours reading in the aisles of Waldenbooks. And your work, even when there are no fantastical elements, as is the case with The Family Fang, produces that same teenage fun when I turn the pages. Knowing your affinity for comics, was there ever a conscious decision not to abandon what Michael Chabon has called the "greasy kid stuff"?

I grew up reading YA and comic books and fantasy novels, so I pull those elements into my own writing. I have no desire to move away from those elements and I think it's what keeps my work from falling apart, the way the stories I try to tell connect up with these other genres. And my ideal reader would be teenagers who using existing texts to help them figure out what they want to be or what they want the world to be. 

It would be disingenuous to call The Family Fang straightforward, but the novel isn't fantastical, non-literal, fabulistic, etc., as many of your short stories have been. Was it the longer form of the novel or these characters that led you to write an essentially realistic book?

I think it's harder for me to stretch the fantastical elements of my work over the course of a novel. The stories were so dependent on a conceit that I think the shorter length helped make them effective. But that's not to say that I wouldn't attempt something fabulist in a longer work. This novel came to me and it seemed to be less concerned with the weirdness of the world and more concerned with the weirdness inherent in human beings.

Not that realism and a comic book sensibility are mutually exclusive. Danica Novgorodoff and James Ponsoldt did a great job adapting Ben Percy's Refresh, Refresh into a graphic novel. Has anyone approached you about adapting any of your stories into graphic form? Are there any you can see working particularly well?

No one has, though I'd love that idea. I thought of "The Shooting Man" from Tunneling as a literary attempt to copy those old EC Comics suspense stories. I could see it, with the weird twist at the end, as a horror comic.

In The Family Fang, an art critic refers to Caleb and Camille's art as outdated, and in the context of twentieth-century performance art, your critic's assessment is probably accurate. But parts of your novel, the family's dynamic if not their art, struck me as potentially prescient. Few people on YouTube and the Internet are performance artists, but there's a common denominator of craving attention. Might today's media and technology produce more Calebs and Camilles than that of previous eras?

Caleb and Camille are working in an outdated form, perhaps, and one that could actually get them into a lot more trouble than when they were first creating art. I think what separates Caleb and Camille from people on YouTube, for the most part, is that, despite how weird the art is and despite how much Caleb and Camille want to be known as the creators of these pieces, they have a concept of what the piece means beyond simply getting attention. They have very rigid ideas of art and how it is made and how it plays out, so there's more to the work, perhaps. In calmer, more traditional forms of art, this question has been explored with the photographer Sally Mann. I think her work is amazing and beautiful, but people got a little crazy over the fact that she used her own children in her photographs. From what I understand, the kids, now older, were happy to be complicit in this art. I tried to make the Fang family an experiment in what would happen if you weren't happy to be complicit in the art.

If you were visiting a museum with a Fang exhibit, what would your reaction be?  

I would probably wonder how this functioned as a work of art and then just accept it and figure that the museum did their due diligence. Or, perhaps more likely, I would love it because I like things that are perhaps more interesting in theory than in execution.

Do you have a favorite among the pieces described in the novel?

My favorite piece is the one that doesn't get recorded for use in a museum, "The Sound and the Fury." It feels most like performance art that makes a statement beyond creating chaos, the way Caleb and Camille elicit a performance from the bystanders, who are also commenting on an art form, the children playing music. It's got layers, I think, of ridiculousness.

Readers of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth saw a writer in love with the short story. Having read The Family Fang, it's obvious you're just as fond of -- and comfortable with -- the longer form. How different do they feel to you? What's the best and hardest part of each?

They most certainly feel different. At the heart of it, you're trying to tell a compelling story, but the ways in which you go about it, for me at least, are completely different. Your intent is still the same, but the way in which you go about creating that story changes. With stories, I try to find a quick entry into the narrative and then make it explode before the reader has too much time to get settled. I end the story before the end of the character's story. With the novel, I understood that I had more space to explore aspects of the characters and their concerns. I could spend more time letting the narrative unfold. But the end result, to move the reader, to unsettle them, was the same. I love each of the forms, though I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the way in which the novel allowed me to spend so much time with a single narrative. It helped me grow attached to the characters in ways I hadn't expected.

The Family Fang is your first novel and second book, but fans of your work know you write a lot. We're infinitely grateful for and perplexed by the volume of original ideas you have at your disposal. Do they come to you often? When do you know if an idea will work as a story?

I don't get a lot of ideas, but I write the hell out of the ideas that come to me. I will not let go of something, failing over and over until it finally works. I never know if it will work until I get to the end. And sometimes I don't realize it won't work until my wife or my friend reads and tells me it doesn't work. Then I go back and try again. Because so many of my stories have a conceit at the heart of them, I have a high potential for failure. With the novel, I made damn sure that I had something that could sustain itself and be more than a conceit.

The novel unfolds largely in the point of view of Annie and Buster, and perhaps for that reason my heart breaks for them in ways it doesn't for Caleb and Camille. At the same time, the writer in me understands the special allegiance these parents have to their art. You're a writer with a wife and a son. Is it a struggle to be your best at all three?

Sometimes I wonder if my family comes before my writing only because I'm sometimes very lazy when it comes to writing and I'd much rather play with Griff or watch a movie with Leigh Anne. But all artists have that struggle to carve out space for their work while still being a good and kind and generous person. I think being married and having kids means that maybe I devote less time to writing, but my wife, who is a poet, is in the same boat. And, ultimately, if the basic needs of a kid keep me from writing a book, then it probably didn't need to exist anyway.