an interview with Kevin Wilson
author of the New York Times Bestseller the Family Fang.
a brief introduction: Author Kevin Wilson’s work has been described as quirky, imaginative, bizzare, powerful, moving, genius… With unique characters reminiscent of those found in Wes Anderson films and the works of Salinger and Saunders, he creates stories laced with both humor and depth. His debut novel, the Family Fang, has garnered rave reviews since its release in 2011, including a spot on Time Magazine’s Top 10 Books of 2011 and the New York Times Bestseller’s list. Kevin has also penned a book of short stories titled, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.
THE ATOMY: I understand you just returned from a book tour, care to share about the experience? Is the life of a writer as glamourous and romantic as Hollywood leads us to believe?
KEVIN WILSON: I went to Spain with my sister. I got food poisoning on the flight to Madrid. When we arrived at the hotel, they told us that they only had a room with a single bed. And the air-conditioning was broken in that room. So I threw up for hours and then slept in a sweltering room while sharing a small bed with my sister. The next day I went to the Prado and almost passed out. My sister bought some Spanish Powerade for me. I barely remember anything else. It was not pleasant.
A: One thing that stood out to me in your writing are the memorable characters; the quirkiness, the depth, the complexity. I was wondering where you drew these from? Family, friends, your imagination… maybe yourself?
KW: I try as hard as I can to create characters out of nothing, but I always find aspects of myself in them. Essentially, I try to imagine people I would like to be, or people with whom I would like to have sex, or people so awful that I feel better about myself. Once I have that character established, I just start creating strange situations and seeing how they might react.
A: Do you have a favorite literary character?
KW: Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She is strange and feral and full of magic and violence. I love her so much.
A: Who were some authors, or novels that have influenced you as a writer?
KW: I think Aimee Bender and George Saunders were the first writers who showed me how to tap into something strange and yet still have it matter, to have a genuine heart underneath that weirdness. Ann Patchett’s work perfectly presented the idea of “family” in a way that was really thrilling to me, how these disparate people came together to become something stronger than they were on their own. And then Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson have always been two very important and meaningful writers for me, McCullers for her sensitivity and her portrayal of lonely and broken people and Jackson for her ability to tap into the darkness inherent in all people.
A: Whether they’re digging tunnels under a town, a Grandma-for-Hire, or children forced into live performances, many of your characters are “artists” in some aspect. What have you discovered about art, and the creative process, through these characters? What ideas are you exploring about creativity?
KW: I have a very liberal definition of what constitutes “art”. I really love your categorization of those characters as artists, and I think of them that way as well. Those characters have helped reinforce my understanding that art exists in many forms and not all of them may be entirely worthwhile, but they still exists.
Early in my life, growing up in a small, rural town with not much emphasis placed on art, my parents really cultivated the idea that I could make something beautiful and weird. I knew I didn’t have access to much, so I began to think of my own life as an artistic enterprise. I began to think that, as long as I thought my actions as somehow connected to art, that I was producing something. It was thrilling, in that way, to believe that making out with the pages of a comic book in my closet or hiding food in my room was some ways an artistic expression.
A: Your characters explore or struggle with, to some extent, their purpose and place in the world, what draws you to this coming of age theme?
KW: I love writing about that time in our lives when we’re experiencing important things for the first time. The first time you fall in love creates a strangeness that doesn’t exist the fifth or sixth time. It’s more raw and weird and that makes for interesting stories. That shifting that happens to all people, of knowing nothing to knowing something, is perfect for writers
A: I’ve seen multiple reviews suggest your writing reflects the spirit and quirkiness of Wes Anderson. Do you see that in your work? Are you a fan of his, or is it just examples of shared influence and brilliant minds thinking alike?
KW: I like Wes Anderson’s films very much. I think he gets unfairly critiqued for a practiced quirkiness and not enough credit for what I believe is a genuine, heartfelt desire for connection in his movies. I see small similarities in my work when comparing it to his films. But I see similarities, on a small scale, with the Glass family in Salinger’s work. I’m writing about damaged, artistic kids and their brilliant but distant parents. That’s Wes Anderson’s world.
A: Which is your favorite film of his?
KW: My favorite is probably Rushmore, the way Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman play off each other is a genuine and beautiful, albeit strange, friendship. And I love the soundtrack.
A: A brief diversion from writing… our theme for the month is OCEAN, so here are some random/fun questions, rapid fire, in that vein.
What do you think happened to Atlantis?
KW: Misuse of magic.
A: You are vacationing at the beach… Worst case scenario. Go.
KW: Sand touching my body. I do not like the beach.
A: What’s one piece of art (dealing with the sea) that you love?
KW: Without a doubt, it would be A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. Quick summary: Kids kidnapped by pirates.
A: Your quick summary has me hooked.
KW: It is an amazing work, nearly a perfect book.
A: OK, last one, if you were any sea creature what would you be (and why)?
KW: Blue ringed octopus: size of a golf ball, enough venom to kill a man. I don’t want to be some huge, lumbering eating machine. I don’t want to be sleek. I just want to be small and have the ability to protect myself.
A: I thought you might say the Kraken, but I like the Blue ringed octopus pick better.
Back to writing. What’s your creative process like? Do you have a certain time or place you write best at?
KW: I don’t write every day or even every month. I don’t have many rituals when it comes to writing. I spend most of my time trying to assemble the story in my head before I ever sit down to write. I try to get at least the first few pages in my mind, the way I want it, before I finally start typing it out. Once I do sit down, I’m pretty good at writing a lot, very fast. I just sit on the floor in my pj’s and eat lots of candy and drink lots of soda and I try to write as much as I possibly can. Then I go back to my day to day life, watching TV, playing Star Wars with my son, hiking with my wife, until another story starts to assemble itself in my brain. I sometimes feel like a failure because I don’t write every day for three hours or that I don’t treat writing like a full-time job, but I try to remind myself that writing isn’t just the time spent at the computer. I really like staying away from the computer when a story is coming together. I don’t like to start writing until it’s absolutely necessary.
A: For the other writers out there… do you have any tips or possibly a secret antidote for the deadly curse that is writer’s block?
KW: I simply take a break. I read the books I want to read and see if that helps suggest a new story or idea. I watch lots of TV. I eat lots of food. I try not to worry about it. I’ve written enough stories now that I have a decent idea that I can write another one.
And if I absolutely need to push through and find it difficult to write, then I just start writing gibberish. I type random sentences until one starts to make sense and then I go back and edit that sentence and then I go back and rewrite it again, and then I try to figure out why that sentence sounds good and then I try to figure out if another sentence might be necessary and then I go back to writing gibberish until something else comes to me. It’s slow and ugly, but no one but me has to see it and no one but me has to know that this is the way that the story actually began.
A: What’s next for you? Are you working on your second novel?
KW: I’m just at the point that I’m about to sit down and start writing another book, I hope. I’ve had an idea for a long time now, and I’ve been working on the first few chapters in my head and I think I need to start typing and see where it goes. It’s a novel about family, again, a weird family, but hopefully it’s different enough that it feels like something new once I get going.
Check out Kevin’s website to find more information about his work.
interview by: The Atomy.