Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award, and a novel, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2011), which is being adapted into a film starring Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology as well as The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his sons, Griff and Patch, where he is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of the South.
On October 2nd 2014, Wilson visited Vanderbilt and gave a reading during which the audience sobbed and laughed at exactly the same time. The room reverberated with these strange, contradictory breathing patterns, as if Wilson himself had control of our innermost organs. Wilson’s prowess on the page that was so deftly demonstrated in The Family Fang and in Tunneling to the Center of the Earth was reflected and alive in these new stories, kicking off the page with each sentence he read, demanding us, the audience, to breath deeper, laugh harder, cry louder.
Earlier that day, Wilson delivered a lecture on the craft of writing. In between the lecture and the reading he and I met. Our conversation is below.
Interviewer: In The Family Fang there is a lot of circling around art as ritual and art as act. It seems logical that one would jump to the notion of art as religion. For Caleb and Camille Fang, art is a type of religion, is it not? Would you characterize their fanaticism as religious? In what ways do you personally conceive of art as religion? Would you ever call your practice of writing religious?
Kevin Wilson: Well, I am not institutionally religious. I don’t feel connected to a larger thing or that the world is connected to a larger thing. However, I do think writing is a mystical and magical experience. Caleb and Camille would posit art as being a kind of magic. When you are creating art you are creating magic. You know the secrets and how it works, but the viewer doesn’t. The viewer is emotionally transformed by the experience where as for you, the magician, it’s just craft. It is just this thing that you made. But, what you, as a writer, are trying to do is make this almost holy experience. You are trying to make these other people be transported or transformed. That is how I think of it. Writing, for me, is like making magic without knowing how to do magic. It is all accidental. I am just making stuff up and then hopefully it transforms, but I don’t know until I actually see the audience’s response to it. I think you could substitute the word “magic” for “religious” and we would be describing the same type of experience. I think the goal of art is to create artifice that becomes real, and that act does seem religious to me.
In your lecture, you described several writing exercises that you repeat daily. You described an exercise in which you took six random words from the front of a newspaper, or the like, and then made yourself make a narrative with them. This ritual of doing an exercise over and over again in hopes that something is illuminated, or even just that one’s narrative tools are maintained, struck me as religious. Or at least, if you were to put it another way, a way in which one might continue a close connection to art and magic making, even when one isn’t intentionally composing.
You are right, that ritual of exercise is very religious. I grew up Catholic and my parents are still very devout Catholics who pray the rosary all the time and I understand that you do the same thing over and over again and if you do it enough it’s transformative. You experience something mystical. There is an awakening that occurs. It is the same thing with yoga, the way you do these same poses again and again and then it is supposed to unlock something that you understand in a way you didn’t before. I believe in going through ritual in order to illuminate something greater.
You were interviewed by the Nashville Review in 2011. When that interview was published, your collection of short stories Tunneling to the Center of The Earth had been released, but your novel The Family Fang had not. How have things changed for you and for your writing since 2011 when your last Nashville Review interview was published?
I really don’t know. The Family Fang sold all right so, as a result, there is a better opportunity for me to publish something else, and that wasn’t the case with the book of short stories. After I published that I don’t think anyone was wondering when I was going to write my next book. It is exciting for me to know that if I write something else there might be an audience for it. That’s all you want as a writer is for people to read what you write. So, maybe my next book will have that opportunity. The Family Fang came out in 2011, and I finished writing it sometime before that, so it has been quite some time since it came out. However, between writing the stories and the novel many of my obsessions did change. I grew up loving comic books and fairy tales. When I was a kid that was all I wanted. I wanted to live in those worlds. So the first stories I wrote, because I was an average, ordinary kid, centered around an ordinary person who lived in extraordinary times. In these early stories, there are ordinary people who are surrounded by magic. For instance, there would be a baby with a full set of teeth, and then this ordinary man is now in the presence of this full-toothed baby and he is transformed by the presence of it. In these stories, mystical things happen and yet the person is normal. And that is the conflict, how does a normal person deal with a world that makes no sense to them? How do they make their way? So that is what all my short stories were. And then, as I got older, and reality kind of set in in my life, I understood that the world is not magical in a lot of ways. To me, the world is actually really oppressive and difficult. The larger world makes me uncomfortable, so I no longer thought of it as this magical space full of all these magical possibilities. And so what happened was that the stories that I started writing in the novel that I wrote were no longer about ordinary people in extraordinary times, but rather bizarre people in ordinary circumstances. How does a person beset by uncertainty or unhappiness or weirdness make their way in a world that is ordered and not allowing of that weirdness? So, I actually flipped the whole way that I write and look at the world. Now, the world is pretty basic for me. The world is the world, but the people are deeply weirder. They have a harder time. What I have learned, in some ways, is that it is easier for an ordinary person to make their way through a magical kingdom then it is for a weird person to walk through the ordinary world. That is my obsession now.
What are you reading?
I have been reading Elizabeth McCracken, Lydia Peelle, Imad Rahman and Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. Right this moment I am reading Emily St. John Mandel because her book got long-listed for the National Book Award. The book is called Station Eleven. What I can gather so far is that a flue epidemic wipes out what we know of as the world. In the aftermath the world is primitive again and now there is this traveling Shakespearean company that goes through these weird prairie border towns and performs Shakespeare for people. It’s like The Road but with this weird archaic art form traveling through it. It is really interesting, very unique and bizarre. I am completely digging it. I don’t think I write like that any more. I don’t write about the weird magical world, but I still am drawn to it. The minute I see someone that has a conceit, I think, God, that’s beautiful. And then what you can do with that conceit! If you have the structure already built you can do all these cool things as opposed to building from within. It’s harder to build from within, or perhaps not harder, just different. I really love what this book is doing so far. And it also has the things that are hip, like it is science fiction-y and fantastical in some way, but is, at the same time, very firmly rooted in the real and understandable.
I know you were a devoted Dragonlance reader. Were you ever a big science fiction reader? Or were you ever drawn to certain parts of science fiction?
Well, I read the fantasy Dragonlance novels because my cousins did, but I didn’t really like them as much as I liked comic books. What I love, and why I don’t read much fantasy or science fiction, are superheroes that live in New York. As a kid, that seemed really magical to me. I loved thinking that in my own town there could be a superhero. But I wasn’t as impressed if there were all these wizards living in a world that was not my world. I was like, why can’t there be wizards here? In this world? And that is why Harry Potter was appealing to me. Because it’s like: London! Muggles! So I dig that. I dig the wizards walking amongst us. I want Spiderman to be watching over me, I don’t want him to be watching over another planet. And that is why magical realism and fairy tales unlocked everything for me. They are our world, but strange things happen, and it was when reading fairy tales and magical realism stories that I thought, oh, this is what I want to do. I didn’t know you could do that in literary terms.
One of the most humorous parts of the The Family Fang for me was when Buster wins the beauty contest, refuses to give up his crown, and then Camille concedes in frustration that Buster can “re-appropriate the crown” if he really wants to. I think this scene elicited so much hilarity from me because of the comedic effect of placing academic jargon in a very un-academic scenario. Do you routinely find humor in this juxtaposition?
Well, I am an outsider to academia, in a way. I am in an English department that is filled with these brilliant scholars. They know literature inside and out. And I, on the other hand, am just this weird person who only reads weird magical realist novels and contemporary American short fiction, so I feel already not quite able to understand what people are talking about, even in my own department. But what I wish maybe there was more of an admission of, and I think some people do, and maybe I am just so outside of it that I don’t know, but I wish that academics would admit that what they are doing is a creative enterprise. The interpretation and analysis of a text is its own creative enterprise. When I read analysis of a book that does this weird twist of interpreting how the text works, I think, “What a brilliant thing.” Not that the analysis is necessarily correct, or that the author intended that, I just think what a creative way to think about it. And for some reason it seems that people have a lot of resistance to acknowledging that analysis is creative. There is a notion that analysis can’t be creative, it has to be scholarly. It needs to use this specific academic language, and that is some times disappointing to me, because I think textual analysis is really creative and wonderful. Creating a language that supports a very specific kind of analysis is fascinating. It’s like speaking Klingon. And I think there is humor inherent in that, humor in speaking a language that is only used for very specific things. Anytime someone is using a special language to talk about something that exists for everybody in another language it becomes kind of silly, but wonderful. I mean, it is exclusionary, but I think it also drives people to understand what it is that you are talking about. I use special language in stories too. Some of my characters adhere to academic jargon, sometimes maybe even to the detriment of their mission, because I think it is funny.
What other forms of art, besides writing, move you?
I am an obsessive consumer of many different art forms. I love comic books. I watch tons of TV. I watch tons of movies. I love superhero movies. I love animated TV shows. I knew a guy that worked at Marvel and he said that what everybody used to say at Marvel was that the golden age is ten. What he means by that is that everybody believes that the best stuff was made when they were ten years old. So, in comic book terms, the Spiderman version you read when you were ten is better than the Spiderman version that came before it or after it. And for me, ten really was the golden age. That was when I first learned about rap, and cartoons, and comic books and professional wrestling and, of course, when I first learned to love reading. When I was ten, I became obsessed with reading. For whatever reason, all those things from when I was ten still hold today, to the exclusion of things that I should, as a mature adult, care about. I am still in that fantasy world of how wonderful life was when I was ten years old. I love all that stuff and I still actively pursue all of it. I watch so much TV. So much. The music I like is very specific. I listen to rap almost exclusively. But, if I am not listening to rap, then I listen to black metal.
What are your favorite rappers and black metal bands?
Well, black metal is problematic. I don’t really want to say that I have any favorites because so much of it came from this Norse, weird, white supremacy thing, so it’s hard to disconnect it from all that. I mean, they murdered each other and ate each other, so it’s really hard for me to really claim them. But, I do like this band, Wolves in the Throne Room. They are new and I like them a lot. I just love the aggressiveness of it. Listening to it allows me to put a barrier between myself and the rest of the world. I love that students don’t want to come into my office if I have Liturgy playing. I like that they know to stay away. That’s what black metal is for me. And with rap, it is one of those things where, well, when I grew up, I must have been ten, my cousins, who are a little older than me, had this tape called Laff Attack Rappin’ & Goofin’. It was funny rap songs so it had the Rappin’ Duke, and Hambo, and the Honeymooner’s rap, but it also had Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di,” and I heard this tape and I thought—there is nothing in the world that exists that is this. I was instantly mesmerized. And then I heard Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” that goes: “Clap your hands everybody/If you got what it takes/Because I am Kurtis Blow and I want you to know/That these are the breaks.” I heard that song when I was ten and my brain exploded. I just became obsessed with it. And so I listened and listened and New York was where all the cool rap was coming from. For a long while I only listened to New York rap and then my sister, who is four years younger than me, only listened to Southern rap, like No Limit and stuff out of Houston, and Memphis Three 6 Mafia. And, my sister and I, we would constantly talk about this. I would say, “That’s not authentic, that’s embarrassing rap music.” And she would say, “No, this Southern rap music is like us. This is our landscape. We aren’t black, but we know this landscape of the South and how it’s so complicated and weird.” And that’s what my sister loved, was the way the music sounded weird and complicated and reflected these places she knew. And, as I got older, I listened to all that Southern rap ten years after the fact and I loved it. She was right. Now pretty much all I listen to is Southern rap. I just love it all. And, it is a problematic thing. I know I am not the intended audience for that music, and I know that I am separate from so much of what is talked about in the songs, and I know that I can’t truly understand it, in the way that the artists perhaps do, but it doesn’t prevent me from trying. It makes me want to know a world that I don’t have any experience with and it makes me appreciate this artistic pursuit that I don’t know anything about. I have always loved rap, but I have always been careful in the ways that I love it.
Could you talk a little more about your interest in wrestling? I have been reading a lot of authors recently, such as Jesse Ball and Joe Wenderoth, who are big combat fans.
Well, the thing about professional wrestling is that it’s fake. So much of it is narratively driven. In the ring, because the outcome is decided, the wrestlers can craft narrative. As a writer, I love watching how physical action without speech can craft a narrative. The wrestlers can tell a story in the ring: good against evil. They employ very specific narrative tropes to make that happen, and, by the end, you, as a viewer, are emotionally transformed by what’s real and what’s not. And then, it gets meta-fictional. Because then, they acknowledge that some parts of it are fake, but this time it’s real, even though it’s not. And then they’ll do these things called “a work.” A “work” is something that is fake and a “shoot” is something that is real, but they have something called a “worked shoot” which is something that they want you to think is off script but, it is actually scripted. It will blow your mind. When I was ten this stuff all flew over my head but the older and older I got, the more I was like, what in the hell are they doing? What in the hell is actually going on? It is an insane level of layers to pile on what is essentially grown men wailing on each other. Thus, I think it lends itself to a kind of academic exploration. I believe that it is more than what it is. I mean, there are just so many weird meta-fictional layers packed on these handsome dudes beating up on each other, which is what is immediately appealing about it to me. It is just so supremely strange. All these things that I love go towards narrative, how you tell stories. And I love the different ways that it is possible to tell a story. I mean, all I can do is write. I don’t have any other facility with narrative. But there are so many other ways it is possible to make narrative! And it makes me really happy to see them.