His first novel, The Family Fang (Ecco, $23.99) only been out for a few weeks, but Kevin Wilson is already making waves as an author. The book’s received rave reviews, including a full page in Time magazine and a profile of the author in the New York Times, and has appeared on that paper’s bestseller list.
The strange, tragic and very funny tale of two siblings coming to terms with being part of their parents’ performance art experiments as children (from the boy infliltrating a beauty pageant in a dress to the parents staging a mock failed proposal on an airplane), Fang is a personal story for Wilson, though not in the way you’d think. On the phone from his home in Sewanee, Tenn., the soft-spoken Wilson, who appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music tonight at 7:30, answered our questions about the book’s roots—and why his own childhood wasn’t like the Fangs’.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So the book’s been getting strong reviews—what’s your reaction to that, and what do you feel is the source of the story’s appeal?
Kevin Wilson: Oh, it’s beyond what I had expected. I’m overwhelmed.
I’m thinking that it’s the age-old story of dysfunctional families, which I think strikes a chord with people, and that this dysfunctional family is particularly strange because of the art they create. It taps into that disconnect that children feel from their parents—something that’s been done hundreds of times, and tries to find some new spin on it.
From what you’ve said elsewhere, it sounds the Fangs’ childhood resembles your own—at least superficially.
I grew up in a household where my parents were, I think, very much interested in creating a world separate from the real world for myself and my sister. They were not fond of the outside world, so they created this great place in our house. Not a lot of people came in—they didn’t have many friends—so we were their best friends in a lot of ways, and allowed to do whatever we wanted.
If we wanted to be superheroes, they got us capes. If we wanted to make movies, they showed us how to make stop-motion-animated movies with our Star Wars figures. They allowed us to have this childhood where the outside world existed, and we knew it was there, but it just wasn’t as interesting as what went on between the four of us inside our house.
I drew upon the idea of how we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world growing up, because all you need is your family, and the way that becomes complicated as you get older, and you need to leave it and become your own person.
But your parents weren’t like the Fangs’…
Oh, my parents were awesome! With this book, I tried to create terrible parents, who took things to such an extreme they were ruining their children. While I relate to them in some ways, they’re probably the least fit people to have children.
Are your parents still alive, and if so, what’d they think of the book?
Both my parents are still alive—in fact, Dad is on the book tour with me. He rides with me whenever I do a book tour. They’re savvy enough to separate themselves from the characters in the story, and to recognize that this is a family that is similar to us in some ways and in other ways completely different. They really liked it—I think this is the first thing I’ve written where they really, totally gave their whole heart over to the story.
Dad and I drive in the car together and stay in the same motel rooms. He gets a kick out of going on these things more than I do—after every signing he pulls the bookstore manager aside and thanks them in such a sincere way that I feel like a Make-A-Wish kid and my dad has arranged all this without my knowledge.
Speaking from personal experience, I can say if you and your dad can take a trip together with that level of closeness and still be speaking at the end, you’re not only better off than the Fangs, but most parents and children, period.
I think it works because I am pretty much anxious 100 percent of the time, while my dad is one of the most calm, upbeat, optimistic people I’ve ever met. So in many ways, he’s like medication for me.
It’s very calming to be around him. Three people will show up for a reading and I feel like the biggest loser in the world, and my dad is wanting to take pictures of me with the three people. He’s happy all the time, and in a lot of ways, that keeps me from going crazy.
What type of research did you do for the book?
I think E.L. Doctorow said, “You do the least amount of research possible—enough to get away with it.” That’s what I try to do. Research is a black hole for me—I’ll keep going and going down the rabbit hole and never write.
I remembered things like Chris Burden, the performance artist, and the Fluxus movement, and I went back and did some cursory research to remind me of it. I did some research into music that I thought the Fangs would listen to that I would listen to, but I mostly stayed away from research because the Fangs are so absurd that I don’t think that doing too much research would be beneficial for creating that family. They need to be separate from the real world in some ways.
The comedian Patton Oswalt has a routine about how the more liberal the parents, the more conservative the kids are when they grow up, and vice versa. Did you find this to be true of your upbringing?
With the Fangs, the kids don’t want to be their parents, but they also don’t know how the real world works. The idea of being an accountant, for example, is so foreign to them that that doesn’t work. So they become artists in their own right, but in different art forms, but also unable to move away from their parents. They’re just completely unable to fathom a world that’s divorced from the one they grew up in.
And for me, my parents were actually squares who were secretly strange. My dad was captain of the football team in high school; my mom was homecoming queen. They were these beautiful, charismatic people who were secretly incredibly shy and isolated themselves from the world as much as they possibly could.
For me, it was kind of bizarre to see that there was this secret strangeness they could access in private, and still have these secondary primary identities apart from that. Following that, I just felt weird all the time.
How therapeutic has it been to write about something like this?
It’s been very therapeutic. Writing about these characters has, for me, been…I don’t know, I don’t consider myself deficient in any way, but human interaction is pretty difficult for me. It makes me anxious to be around people for the most part, so writing for me is a way to try and connect with the human element in some way and gain empathy for people.
I think writing actually helps me become a better person in the real world. I think if I didn’t write, I’d be a lot more of a misanthrope and a lot more of a hermit. Writing helps me access emotions that I might not possess otherwise.
This book in particular, with writing about these strange people, has been especially helpful. Writing about these strange people in a way that I sympathize or empathize with the parents was intensely helpful.
As a parent yourself, what do you want to do and not want to do?
My wife and I have a son who’s three and a half, and we live out in the woods in a pretty remote area. Our goal is just to raise a happy kid—our definition of “happy” might be different than some other people’s, but we’re both basically trying to keep him alive. That’s our number-one goal.
Beyond that, we want to make sure he’s not sad. So we try to create a world in our house—we live in this little cabin—where chaos is okay, uncertainty is fine, and that in the end he’ll be safe to try to do any weird thing or any normal thing he wants to do. And hopefully, that’ll work out in the long run.
Kevin Wilson appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug.25.