I've been a Kevin Wilson fan since his debut story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, first found it's way into my hands, one way or another. I've been reading and re-reading the stories ever since—it is the book (tied with, or maybe second only to, Chris Bachelder's Bear v. Shark) I have bought and given away the most; more semesters than not, I teach one or another of the stories (sometimes "Mortal Kombat," other times the title story, with those perfect first two sentences, "First of all, we were never tunneling to the center of the earth. I mean, we're not stupid."). I read and loved Family Fang, and as soon as I saw a picture of an advance reader's copy of his new novel appear on Twitter, I started bugging people for a copy. In his first answer, Kevin says, "I'm more comfortable with characters who are like me, incredibly self-absored..." In our few interactions over the years—at AWP, or when we've been lucky enough to publish one of his stories on Hobart, or when he emails me a clip of Silver Spoons because "The bully who torments Ricky Schroeder is named Hobart. Hobart "Ox" Doyle."—I've only ever found him to be one of the nicest, sweetest writers I've met. Which is to note either the self-deprecation that comes through in the humor throughout all of Kevin's writing, or maybe just that all of us writers, even the nicest and sweetest among us, are horribly self-absorbed creatutes.
I emailed back and forth for a couple of months last year, right after devouring an ARC of Perfect Little World.
Maybe this is a lazy entry point, and maybe you don't really want to start an interview with something you said via email, but when I mentioned that I was reading the book, you said you were "pretty nervous... It's a lot less weird than my other stuff, it's a little more straightforward and earnest."
I don't think earnest is the word I would have gone to, but I know what you mean, and I think it's a really interesting word, especially with regard to writing and novels. And I wonder if you can just speak about it some. Did you know from the outset that it would be less weird, more "earnest"? Did that just happen along the way? Why do you think we writers get a little itchy around the word?
Well, stylistically, I return often to a kind of writing that begins with lightness, silliness, and then works its way slowly towards darkness. I guess I mean that I try to write funny stuff that slowly becomes sad. Humor is how I try to interact with topics that are difficult for me to deal with. I often have silly conceits that give way to genuine emotion. So when I don't do that, I tend to worry more. And there's not a lot of overt humor in this book, so I had to keep assuring myself that it didn't need to be silly, that the characters were going to do a lot of the work for me.
I had a feeling that the novel would be less weird because the characters were going to be less overtly weird. After writing The Family Fang, where the characters were kind of combustible and difficult, I knew that the two main characters of this novel, Izzy and Dr. Grind, were just inherently good people. And that was a weird sensation, to write about people who, though fucked up in specific ways, wanted to be good people, wanted to do good things for other people, wanted the world to be a better place. That also made me nervous. I'm more comfortable with characters who are like me, incredibly self-absored, very insulated from the world, always making bad decisions. But it became really fun to realize that inherently good characters can be weird and do strange things because they have this depth to them that makes them a little scary to deal with.
I think writers get itchy around the word "earnest" because if you fail at it, you look like a self-important goober. You look like you're trying to write the Great American Novel, which makes me want to barf.
I like how you put this, and also that it was something you "realized": "inherently good characters can be weird and do strange things because they have this depth to them that makes them a little scary to deal with."
I wonder, now, about examples. Are there any novels (or stories?) that you might feel like work in this territory, any that you think Perfect might especially be in conversation with? Any that you read or reread to remind yourself, while in the middle of working on the book, or that helped you embrace this idea?
Well, I think Ann Patchett's work fits into that idea. I'm thinking of characters like Sabine in The Magician's Assistant or Marina Singh in State of Wonder, where, given time and strange circumstances, they start to dig deeper into their own desires and there's a kind of wildness there that wasn't apparent at the beginning.
Tom Drury is another good example, especially The End of Vandalism. Maybe Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings.
This is super broad, and could possibly be a question posed about any book, but because this novel is pretty centrally focused around essentially an "experiment," and Dr. Grind is trying to roll with the unexpected as it happens, I wondered at some point and so am going to ask: What surprised you about the novel, while you were working on it?
I think it surprised me that it kept opening up and opening up and opening up, and I had to write to accommodate all those issues, because they were interesting to me. The book was much longer than I had anticipated. And then I cut back in the final draft, just to keep it from getting too far away from me. And even then, it was still a bigger book than I had imagined.
And I don't think it ruins anything to say that the experiment, bringing all these families together to work as one unit, starts to fracture and problems develop. And I think I was surprised by the ways in which things fall apart. When I started, I just knew that I wanted this utopian experiment to blow up so that something better could take its place. But I didn't know how that would happen. So each time a new little fracture happened, I was trying to hold it all together so that it didn't fall apart too quickly, to keep the family together. In a way, I became Dr. Grind, trying to keep everyone together, but always realizing that there were new issues to look out for.
In part building on this idea of experimentation, and in part circling back to the above "After writing The Family Fang, where the characters were kind of combustible and difficult, I knew that the two main characters of this novel, Izzy and Dr. Grind, were just inherently good people"... Both of these book have as their central premise some kind of idea of... experimenting with family dynamics/norms, with people trying to think of child rearing in totally new ways. Do you think this is just something you're fascinated by, so it's happened a couple of times? Or was this maybe built on ideas left lingering after Fang?
I am fascinated by it because I was a strange kid, partly genetic and partly nurtured to be such. I am fascinated by it because I have kids and I think constantly about what the hell I'm doing and how I'm going to keep them alive. I think it's what I'll always write about, the strangeness of family, the family that you're born into and the family that you make for yourself. I think I've said this once or twice before, but I'm a domestic writer and that's where I'm most comfortable and that's where the world opens up for me. Familial dynamics are endlessly fascinating to me because I think these are the relationships that we go back to again and again, trying to make sense of our lives. Already, my next novel is about a difficult family dynamic, children and parents, etc. I feel like, if I keep writing these stories, I'll finally figure it out. I know, realistically, I'll never get it right, but it feels like a necessary thing for me to do.