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The Ecotone Interview with Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson is the best-selling author of The Family Fang, which NPR’s Fresh Air describes as a “revitalizing blast of original thought.” He has been published in Ploughshares, Tin House, and One Story, among many other magazines. “A Birth in the Woods,” which was included in the spring 2011 issue of Ecotone, was recently awarded an O. Henry Prize and will be reprinted in PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. Wilson’s first short-story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his son, Griff, and teaches fiction at the University of the South. He recently corresponded with fiction editor Mike J. Bull about art, child-rearing, and the wellspring of strangeness.

You’ve said that when you were young your parents created an atmosphere for you to explore in any direction you wanted to, without fear of judgment. You’ve also described the world outside your home as being “always an ordeal,” a place of hyperawareness and fear of standing out. How do you think two worlds shaped you as an artist?

It helped me appreciate solitude, to make space for creating things in my head. If home was safe and the outside world was dangerous, then I could stay in my home and yet connect to the outside world with literature and art and TV and movies and comic books. Writing helped me feel connected to the outside world because I needed to empathize with people who weren’t my family and because I needed to understand how human beings really operated. Becoming a better writer helped me become a stronger person in the outside world, more willing to interact with people. If I didn’t write, I think I would be shut off from the world entirely.

Caleb Fang, the father figure in your new novel, exploits societal expectations when making his performance art. One of numerous examples is that he stages a scene where his two children, Annie and Buster, play terrible music to raise money for their sick dog. Then Caleb infiltrates the crowd as a bystander and begins to shout that he hopes the children’s dog dies. Where did this character come from?

He came out of the creation of the two children, Annie and Buster. I had the kids first and I knew they were damaged in some ways and artistic in other ways, and so I tried to figure out what kind of parent would make these kids. And I came up with Caleb. The kids made their parents.

Several colorful characters in The Family Fang opine about art and its function. What do you believe art is for?

My intention with art is primarily to entertain. Then, if I do it well enough, I hope the work becomes a part of something that exists beyond just myself and the reader, to be considered a single piece of a larger work, of all artistic work. I started writing because I wanted to feel a strong connection with the work I grew up reading and loving; I thought if I could create something good, it would pull me closer to those writers.

What do you the writer think of Caleb Fang’s art? What might he think of yours?

I think his is very interesting and completely terrifying. I would not want to be a part of it in any way. When I inflict something on a reader, I’m long gone and not standing next to the person. What Caleb does, the way he pushes his body into a public space and makes it detonate, is something I could not do. For Caleb, my writing would be a joke. I spend so much time revising and revising and then I have the work bound and sold in stores where people know what they’re getting, and Caleb would not consider that art.

What is a successful day of writing for you?

A successful day of writing is simply a day that I manage to write. I sometimes go weeks without writing, so if I can get words down on paper, I feel happy. If I can finish a story in the same day that I watched a movie and got to go eat ice cream with my family, it’s a good writing day. I guess I’m saying that any day that writing is part of the rest of my life and not totally separate from it is good for me.

In a recent New York Times profile, you mentioned having written and later discarded 150 pages of a novel involving a half bear, half human. At the risk of plot-spoiling the story you published in Ecotone, “A Birth in the Woods,” I’m wondering if this story was a remnant of that novel.

I was writing a novel set in the backwoods of Tennessee, and it involved a boy and his half-human, half-bear brother. It was my attempt to write a Cormac McCarthy fairy tale. It did not work very well; when I discarded the novel, I couldn’t shake the characters in the story, and so I wouldn’t let them go until I’d given them a story that deserved them. So I took one element of the novel, and, because it was a shorter span of time, the fairy tale aspects and the horror aspects were able to strike more quickly and more effectively. So, basically, “A Birth in the Woods” is my reward for having failed at writing a novel.

Any plans to revisit the idea?

In some form, perhaps. The thing I cared about was the relationship between this sibling who was “normal” and another sibling who was “wild.” The ways in which these two people would protect each other at the same time they might hurt each other. And, to be honest, I am infatuated with the idea of a half human, half bear creature. I cannot explain why this is, but our hearts want what they want, and who am I to say no to this?

Readers familiar with your fiction may come to it expecting an element of the unusual or fantastical—college grads digging a series of tunnels beneath an entire town, say, or a baby born with a full set of teeth. When does that element come in for you as the writer? Does that strangeness tend to be where you start, or do you discover it along the way?

The strangeness comes in immediately; it’s almost always how I start. Weirdness has a propulsive power for me that forces me to dig into the narrative in ways I wouldn’t otherwise. The unusual thing is that, sometimes, the initial weirdness that got me started on a story disappears by the final draft, but it’s useful for getting me going in the right direction. I have a feeling that this need for the fantastical comes from reading comic books my entire life, when the fantastical is not only encouraged, it’s expected. I began writing short stories as if my audience was made up of comic book readers, so I felt like I needed that baby with a full set of teeth to hook them.

Who are the writers you find yourself returning to frequently? Is there any difference for you between writers you draw readerly pleasure from and writers you draw writerly pleasure from?

I rarely reread any book, but there are some writers, Carson McCullers and George Saunders and Shirley Jackson and Ann Patchett, that I read over and over again to remind myself of what I want my own work to be. I don’t think there is much different between readerly and writerly pleasure for me. I read across genre, across style, and it’s all the same to me.

For a number of years you helped put on the Sewanee Writers Conference. What’s the best anecdote you can share that’s fit to print?

All of the good anecdotes involve infidelity and so I can’t tell them. I don’t want to ruin any already-ruined marriages.

I once had to drive Jill McCorkle to the airport early in the morning. I decided that I would simply stay up all night so as not to oversleep. I was probably drinking a lot when I made this decision. So the morning comes and we’re driving to the airport and I turn to ask Jill a question and it occurs to me that she is not in the car. I had forgotten to pick her up. I drove back to Sewanee and told her that I had driven for some time without realizing she wasn’t in the car. Then I had to coax her into the car because she thought I was insane.

What project are you most excited about now?

The project I’m most excited about is usually the project I just finished. But I’m hoping to start another novel and, when it clicks into place, I know I’ll be excited about it.