An Interview With Kevin Wilson

by Jake Karlsruher


Kevin Wilson is the author of a story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, which won the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award, and a novel, The Family Fang. He lives and teaches in Sewanee, TN.

Interviewer: How did you get your start?

Wilson: I had read very little literature in high school; I mostly read comic books and Dragonlance novels, so when I got to college, I realized how far behind I was with fiction and I decided to give up on the Russian Heavies, Dickens, Faulkner, etc (though I’ve made up for this now), and just start fresh with contemporary fiction. And once I saw all this amazing stuff that people were writing, and I realized that these people were not dead, I wanted to be a part of it. So I guess I got started writing once I began reading seriously.

Interviewer: In Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, you manipulate the Absurd: exploding parents, substitute Grandmas, newborns with a full set of chompers. What’s behind that choice?

Wilson: Because I loved comic books as a child (and still do), I gravitated toward fiction that allowed for weirdness and the unexplainable. In a comic, the first panel can show someone flying and the reader immediately suspends their disbelief in the service of enjoying an amazing story. So, when I started writing fiction, that was what I tried to do in my own work, to create something bizarre as quickly as possible and then earn that weirdness by writing a narrative that could sustain it. Writers like Aimee Bender and George Saunders were inspiring to me because they were able to do this so convincingly that their stories felt like miracles. Also, as a beginning writer, the absurdity was a crutch to help me get through the story; it served as a propulsive device. I wrote a lot of stories that didn’t work simply because the narrative could not support the weirdness, but it was fun writing them and trying to figure out how they worked.

Interviewer: It seems that there is always some precariousness going on in your stories, a sense of impending doom. Something about to cave in, explode or come apart. In your non-fiction essay “World of Glass” (Oxford American Sept/Oct 1999), you wrote, “Potential is always more powerful than action,” a quotation that I really liked. How does that idea influence your fiction?

Wilson: I live in a constant state of anxiety that medicine only somewhat alleviates. With fiction, I can maintain some control over the proceedings, and yet, strangely, I like creating situations where my characters have to deal with the constant possibility of ruination. That says something about me that seems obvious, but I don’t want to analyze it.

Interviewer: In that essay you talk about how you have a fear of glass shattering. Has this limited or inspired your writing? Are you still coping with the phobia?

Wilson: I’m only a little nervous around glass now. For the most part, I’m able to forget about it and go on with my day to day existence. In a lot of ways, writing that essay helped me gain some kind of objective power over that fear. In terms of how it affects my writing, I’m not sure. My fixation on objects and circumstances has made me detail-oriented in ways that I think help my fiction.

Interviewer: I’m looking forward to The Family Fang coming out in August 2011. How was writing this book, your first novel, different than writing your Tunneling to the Center of the Earth collection?

Wilson: It seems, upon reflection, to have been an entirely different experience.

With the story collection, as I was writing most of the stories that eventually appeared in the book, I wasn’t writing them with the intention of getting a book deal. I was just writing them to try and figure out what I was doing. It was a lot of trial and error and it was exiting when it worked, but the goal wasn’t to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. So there really wasn’t any pressure. With the novel, it was the second book in a two-book deal, so the publisher was expecting the delivery of a novel by a certain deadline and that created expectations that I wasn’t initially suited to deal with. I had to burn the novel I was writing because it didn’t work, so I was feeling a little sick that I wouldn’t ever be able to write a novel.

I also think that writing stories provides you with a few extra levels that allow you feel confident about what you’re writing. Once I wrote a story, I could workshop it. Then I could take that feedback and revise. Then I could submit it to a journal and get rejected and try to revise it a little more. Then it could get accepted and I would feel happy and it would give me confidence that it might be a good story and that it was possible for me to write another story that might be good. And then it would appear in print, and I could feel proud of that and it was spur me to write more. With the novel, it was a lot of time alone, not really sure if it was working or not. I had my agent and my wife and that was it. Later, I had another friend and my editor read it and give me feedback, but, by that point, I was deep into it.

And, because I was so used to writing short stories, I had to resist the urge in the novel to end sections or scenes before it was time. I would write fifteen pages and think, “I better wrap this up,” and then I realized it was just a piece of something larger and it was connected to sections that I’d already written and sections that I would have to write. I had to keep reminding myself of all the various pieces of the novel so that I wouldn’t strike a wrong note. With stories, I liked the freedom that, if one of them sucked, I could throw it away and it would have no bearing on the next story.

All of this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the experience of writing the novel, but that’s not true. I really loved devoting my entire focus on a single work, on something that was coming together over a long span of time. I had a lot of fun once I found the voices of these characters and it was nice to not have to leave them behind so quickly.

Interviewer: Those both sound like gratifying experiences. But they also sound very different. In which direction do you see your career moving in the future?

Wilson: I really have no idea. At first, I was excited about returning to short stories for a while, but I have a few outlines for novel ideas and I’m hoping that I can start on one of them soon. Perhaps I can move back and forth for a while, because I love both forms so much that I’d hate to feel that I could only do one for the next few years. As far as the larger idea about my career and “the future”, I have no idea at all. I’d like to continue to publish books that are good and that’s as much as I can hope for.

Interviewer: Can you describe a real life experience that one of your stories was based off?

Wilson: My life is boring in a way that if I have a real life experience that ends up fitting into a story, it’s so different by the time it becomes fictionalized that it’s almost impossible to see the kernel of the real event. Fiction, for me, is what real life should be.

However, I have a story, “Housewarming” that appeared in the South Carolina Review and, later, New Stories From the South, about a man and his father who retrieve a dead deer from a pond. In real life, there was a dead deer in our pond in winter and I went into the freezing-cold water to retrieve it. The deer was beautiful. Everything about the event felt wrong, so I knew that I’d be figuring out a way to write about it.

Interviewer: You begin Tunneling with the epigraph, “One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned” from The Egg by Sherwood Anderson. For me, the quotation introduced your slightly dark sense of humor. Why did you choose that particular quotation?

Wilson: I love Sherwood Anderson, particularly Winesburg, Ohio, and this story “The Egg” has always stayed with me. And I have always remembered that line, which I think makes more sense in context. Here is what follows in the story:

“Small chickens, just setting out on the journey of life, look so bright and alert and they are in fact so dreadfully stupid. They are so much like people they mix one up in one’s judgments of life. If disease does not kill them, they wait until your expectations are thoroughly aroused and then walk under the wheels of a wagon-to go squashed and dead back to their maker. ”

I just love this idea of placing your hope in something that, ultimately, won’t amount to much. To me, it doesn’t discount the worth of believing in it. In a lot of ways, the stories in the collection are about failure and how the characters come to terms with the inevitability of failure. Perhaps I mean “death” when I say “failure” though I don’t think I do. I think I mean the impermanence of their situations, the fact that everything changes and we simply cannot keep everything that we hope to keep. Some of the characters, like the narrators in “Blowing Up on the Spot” or “Worst-Case Scenario”, come to understand that accepting the impending failure, to see the beauty in working to that point, is what’s worthwhile.

Also, I just thought the Anderson quote was a weird, slightly dark, slightly funny line, and so I went with it.

Interviewer: I thought your two most moving pieces were “Blowing up on the Spot” and “Mortal Kombat.” The two, in my opinion, have little in common. One deals with the implausible, a grown man dealing with the loss of his exploding parents. The other deals with the unseen, a study of teenage angst and sexuality. Yet both pack a strong emotional punch.

Wilson: That’s very kind. Thank you. It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I think those two stories are as far apart in terms of when I wrote them. “Blowing Up on the Spot” was written when I was an undergrad at Vanderbilt, for Tony Earley’s workshop. And “Mortal Kombat”, I believe, was the last story I wrote for the collection, so almost eight or nine years after “Blowing Up on the Spot.” I think those stories reveal the shift in my writing style, moving from the absurd and the magical that exists in the outside world to the absurd and magical that exists within a person.

Interviewer: “The Dead Sister Handbook” was quite morbid. I loved the piece, but I didn’t think it necessarily fit with the rest of the collection. Why did you choose to include this specific story with the others?

Wilson: Stylistically, you’re right. It’s very different from the rest of the stories in the collection. And maybe in tone, as well, but I think all of the stories are a little sad. My editor chose to include it because it seemed to fit with the idea of how the various characters in my stories try to define and redefine what family means. The characters in the book are constantly striving to make their own, new versions of a family (”Grand Stand-In;” “Blowing Up on the Spot”) or dealing with the fallout of their notions of family (”Birds in the House;” “Dead Sister Handbook”), so it seemed to fit.

Interviewer: Have you ever been disappointed in any of your work?

Wilson: I’ve been disappointed with myself a lot of times, when I feel like I can’t make the story do the necessary thing to have it work the way I imagined it. But I think that’s probably the problem a lot of people have, beyond writing even, that what you create is less than what you imagined it would be.

Thinking of this in another way, I’m sure my earlier stories are rough and a little awkward, but I honestly think some of my recent work is rough and a little awkward. I’m not embarrassed. I made it and it’s mine. I have pride of ownership. Someone, I think Padgett Powell, once said something to the effect of “we might be the worst writer in the world, but at least we have the proof.”

Interviewer: Speaking of your early stories, you mentioned that you wrote “Blowing Up On The Spot” as an undergrad. What was the hardest part about being a young writer at Vanderbilt?

Wilson: There was nothing hard about it. It was an amazing experience. I worked with Tony Earley, who changed my life. I worked with Mark Jarman and Kate Daniels and Walter Sullivan and these were the best teachers I had at Vanderbilt. I met some of my best friends in those workshops, people I still talk to and admire. I found something that I cared about and it was encouraged by the faculty and being surrounded by other enthusiastic students made me want to do it forever.

Interviewer: You say Tony Early changed your life. What made him so instrumental to you and your success?

Wilson: I took the first workshop Tony ever taught at Vanderbilt. At the time, I had no real experience with contemporary fiction, and none with short fiction. He introduced me to writers that I still read and admire. He encouraged me to continue writing and showed me how to get better. He told me to stop wearing huge baggy jeans and get rid of my beeper that my mom used to keep track of me. He helped me get a staff job at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. That led to getting a job on the staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is where I met my wife and how I got the full-time job I have now. Most of all, at a time when I was unsure of how to proceed with writing, he told me that I was good at it. He gave me confidence to keep writing.

Interviewer: Where on campus did you do your writing? Where was your special place?

Wilson: I lived off-campus for the last three years I was at Vanderbilt, so I did pretty much all of my writing in an apartment that I illegally shared with my cousin. But I spent all of my time between classes hanging out in Benson Hall and hoping Mark Jarman might walk by and say hello, though this happened rarely.

Interviewer: Was Tunneling your MFA thesis? What was your experience with your MFA thesis like?

Wilson: No, although I wrote some of the stories in the collection while I was at Florida. My thesis was Hit by Pitch, a magical realist novel about baseball. I started it at Vanderbilt and kept working on it at Florida. My thesis defense was at a spring training game between the Yankees and the Tigers. The novel ended up failing, but it was helpful to write.

Interviewer: What advice would you give to new writers working on their first series?

Wilson: Read as much as possible, try to copy those writers as much as possible until you develop your own voice, and write as much as possible.