Q&A: Novelist Kevin Wilson

If you know even just a little bit about the publishing industry, then you know what malarkey book jacket blurbs are. But Owen King’s blurb on the back of Kevin Wilson’s 2009 book, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco), couldn’t be more true: “Jesus Christ, is this guy good.”

Because Wilson is good. Really, really good. The stories in Tunneling occupy a netherworld between heartfelt and weird. In one, an employee at a Scrabble factory mourns the spontaneous combustion of his parents; in another, three recent college graduates dig a network of tunnels under their town instead of facing the “real world.” Yet while the situations may be fanciful, the pathos is real.

If Wilson’s novel The Family Fang, due in August from HarperCollins, is anywhere as good as his short stories, he might soon be up there as one of Tennessee’s literary superstars. (The 32-year-old grew up in Winchester and went to Vanderbilt; he now teaches English at the University of the South at Sewanee and helps run the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.)

So go see him on Valentine’s Day so you can say you saw him when.

Even though you stayed in the South for college and your MFA and are now back living in Tennessee, your work doesn’t scream “Southern writer.” Are you one of those Southern writers who hates to be called a Southern writer?

I don’t mind being called a Southern writer. It’s a true enough statement. … I am quite certain that growing up in a rural Southern town had some affect on me and has become a part of my writing. Though setting is not something I spend a lot of paragraphs on (which is one reason that I don’t think my work seems overtly Southern), my fiction is always set in the South because it’s the easiest for me to imagine. And the South that I grew up in, aside from being from a small town, wasn’t the South that Faulkner grew up in. We had Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. My family has season tickets to the Nashville Predators hockey team.

The stories in Tunneling reminded me of a male Lorrie Moore, with maybe a dash of Barry Hannah—a good thing—except weirder. Like if Lorrie Moore were really into science fiction and video games.

This is unbelievably kind. Barry Hannah slayed me when I was in college and I first discovered Airships. I tried so hard to copy the rhythm of his narrators’ voices. And Lorrie Moore has such a wonderful and strange sense of humor that I saw that you could have these awkward, funny moments and still hang onto the sadness the surrounded that moment.

Can readers expect something similar from your first novel?

The novel is less fantastical in terms of how the world works. There aren’t any rules being broken in the universe. But the people are perhaps weirder as a result. Placing my characters in strange situations makes them seem less strange, but if you take away the weird circumstances, the characters get much more room to go crazy. The novel is about a family of performance artists. The parents forced their young children to participate in their art and now the kids are damaged because of it. Weirdness ensues.

It seems like there are a lot of young(ish) writers playing around with the parameters of reality in their fiction—kind of a post-modern, whimsical magic realism. What are your thoughts on this?

I loved magical realism because I had grown up reading comic books and the possibility for wonder is so great in those stories that the characters simply accept anything. When I started writing stories, I relied on those same elements. And then I found out about Gabriel García Márquez and Steven Millhauser, and I saw how you could take these magical elements and weave them into something deeper and more resonant. And then George Saunders and Aimee Bender and Chris Adrian showed me how to be even more audacious in developing the weirdness of the circumstances and yet never lose sight of the genuine emotions going on in the story. So I think there’s a history of magical realism that comes before my generation. But perhaps I took to it because my connection to literature wasn’t as hard-wired as my connection to movies and comic books and video games, where magic is necessary and encouraged.

It seemed like there was a pretty powerful undercurrent of grief in Tunneling. Had someone close to you died, or are you just a Sad Young Literary Man?

I have so far lived an uneventful life. A very pleasant life, honestly, with very little drama. I do, however, have mental issues that have required hospitalization and treatment and medicine, and part of that is based in my fear of everything being ruined, of being aware of how precarious things are and how easily I could be busted up if I wasn’t very careful. So when I write stories, I push that character’s pleasant life just a little further in the wrong direction and see how that changes the way the narrative unfolds. I have so many bouts of anxiety each day that have no real basis or source and, when I write, it’s easier to have the large, looming grief for my characters and work within that framework. My stories need conflict and loss is something I fear and empathize with and so I push my stories in that direction.

You help run the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is a pretty prestigious conference. Still, do you ever find yourself getting sick of dealing with writers? I mean, ordering all the bourbon for those weeks has got to be exhausting.

Conferees have a staggering ability to consume bourbon, that is true. I don’t get sick of dealing with writers, but I get nervous dealing with writers, with anyone really, so I spend most of my time hiding in my office, doing grunt work, and staying out of the way of everyone. But I met my wife at the conference. I met most of my best friends there. So if the trade-off is getting yelled at by someone because their name is spelled wrong on their name tag, that’s a fair trade, I think.

Sewanee’s a pretty weird place. I’m not saying that with any malice whatsoever, but the gowns, the gossip, the booze—it’s a world unto itself. Has living there made your fiction any weirder?

I don’t drink and I live pretty far away from campus and no one tells me any gossip, so I’m slightly removed from some of the Sewanee lifestyle. Still, I recognize the weirdness of a place like Sewanee, the isolation of it, the push and pull between the university and those who live beyond the domain. And, yeah, living here has given me some added strangeness for my stories. I’ve removed a dead deer from our pond; I’ve had a bat infestation in my study; I’ve had to untangle goats from our neighbor’s fencing an a weekly basis.

What happened to Pearl’s? I was driving through in November and wanted to eat there, and it was gone.

Fire. Now we have a Sonic Drive-In. I realize this is not a fair trade, but I have made the best of it by eating several hundred corn dogs in the past year and a half.

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