“A lot of it, like anyone’s style, just comes out of what you can’t do.”
A few of Kevin Wilson’s all-time favorite short novels:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
The Member of the Wedding
I remember exactly where I was when I read Kevin Wilson’s novel Nothing to See Here—in the pool of a friend’s condo complex in Idaho. It was a scorching hot day and I took the book into the pool with me and stood in the shallow end and started to read. I planned to just cool off for a moment while a few kids wearing floaties splashed around me, but three hours passed and I finished the novel while still standing in the water. In retrospect, a pool seems an appropriate place to read a novel about kids who, when enraged, spontaneously combust.
When I learned Kevin Wilson was publishing a new novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, I knew I had to read it immediately. Once again, I was so engrossed by the specific and singular world Wilson created that I read the book in one sitting—this time on a plane. Upon arriving at my destination, I contacted Kevin and asked if I could interview him over email. This is our correspondence.
I. “We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.”
THE BELIEVER: Both Nothing to See Here and Now Is Not the Time to Panic have teenage protagonists and I’m wondering what it is that drew you to write about teenagers and, in the case of Panic, to write about teenagers with artistic inclinations?
KEVIN WILSON: I have two sons, who are now fourteen and nine, and some of it is that watching them grow up inevitably pushes me into the past to try to remember my own experiences. But even without that, honestly, my brain is kind of always on a loop, and so I keep going back to childhood, to adolescence, and I’m trying to remember growing up and have some context now so that I can think, Oh, no, that was really weird. I was right to be freaked out. Because a lot of growing up for me was just assuming that everyone else was in charge and knew what they were doing and so I tended to move through life believing that I was really bad at navigating the world and it isn’t until you’re an adult with some context that you can actually figure out the narrative.
I think the challenges of writing about teens is the same as writing about any group of people, just assuming there’s a universal experience. But also, at that age, it’s wild how quickly things shift, how permeable the line is between childhood and adulthood, how they never really fully separate. I thought about that a ton in your novel, We Run the Tides, which I thought was just brilliant in how it tried to pinpoint and then track that feeling of confusion while also trying to push forward.
But I also tend to write about teens in the ’90s, when I was a teen, rather than modern-day teens. I used to think it was so I could be authentic in the details, but when I was fifteen, I was cutting out pictures of Hugh Grant from People magazine and putting them in a folder, and taping episodes of Seinfeld on my dad’s micro recorder and listening to them in school, and drinking Sun Drop all day while reading books from the ’40s about kids with polio, so there’s no way I was representative of the teenage experience.
I liked how your novel also tried to navigate place, how it changes, what happens when you return. I live in the same county where I grew up, and that’s also a reason I keep coming back to adolescence, because I’m seeing my sons occupy literally the same spaces I did at their age, but then things have disappeared or become something new, so I’m layering our new experiences over my memories of these places and trying to recognize the difference. It feels a little like being on a very low dose of acid all the time.
This weekend, we were in this really fancy and hip new coffee shop on the square in Winchester, TN, and we were sitting on the sofa and I said, “this place was a hardware and pool supply store,” and my son Patch said, “no it wasn’t,” and I was like, “I think it was?” And he was just so assured that this space was never a pool supply store and he wasn’t going to discuss this bullshit any further. So then I have to sit there in my head and go backward and think, Yes, I think it was. For what? Nothing but my own stability in the world, I guess.
BLVR: Did you know when you were younger that you wanted to write? I love the portrait of teenage Frankie as a young artist in Now Is Not the Time to Panic. She comes up with these sentences that become like a mantra to her and that she and her new best friend, Zeke, print on posters and hang all over town. The words come to her suddenly one day in a burst—as she describes it: “There was this little voice in my head, and it was telling me what to write down. And I knew that this little voice, this tiny, insistent voice, was not God and it wasn’t some muse and it wasn’t anyone in the world except me. This voice was my voice.” I just love that description so much. Anyway, the words Frankie writes are: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Can you talk about how you came up with those sentences?
KW: So, that line, it’s complicated. It’s not something I wrote. I’ll try to be brief, but after my freshman year of college, which was just an awful year for me, I moved into an apartment with my cousin, and the summer before my sophomore year, his close friend lived with us. Eric Hailey. He was five years older than me, had gone for a while to NYU to study film and then got his MFA in acting at The University of Alabama. And he was insanely charismatic and talented but he was also really kind and generous. And I was hypnotized by him. He made little short films with me and he’d show me how to edit them, and he’d give me books to read. He was the first person who made art feel like something that was possible for me. He was the first non-adult who really encouraged me to write and said I was good at it. He created this little window where I could see the person that it was possible for me to become. And I just will never be able to thank him enough for that. I loved him.
Anyways, at work, I was turning this huge 500-page policy and procedures manual into an online document, and I was bored and just wrote all kinds of nonsense into the individual files. And I asked Eric for a suggestion and he wrote, “the edge is a shanty town filled with gold seekers. We are the new fugitives and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” And so I put that in the manual, hid it in some section called GETTING INTO PRINT.
And it was just this trigger for me. It became a calming mantra. I said it all the time. I altered it slightly to take out the “new” so it was just “we are fugitives” but it’s all because of Eric. I have Tourette Syndrome and I have issues with recurring thoughts or unwanted thoughts or whatever. And I’ve just said this line in my head since I was nineteen years old and I say it all the time and I’ll never stop saying it.
I wrote it into my first novel, The Family Fang, and it had been in a previous failed novel. But I knew I wanted to write about it more. And so I started this novel. And then just as I was getting close to a final draft, Eric died suddenly, and we hadn’t talked in a while, and it just kind of broke me down. I’d kind of hoped that the book would really pull us back into each other’s orbit. We’d talk but not often, or I’d see him if he was in Nashville, but I kept thinking, Ah, this novel will be the thing. And then he died and I wasn’t really sure what the point was of those hopes. And then I thought that the point was the book, to write something beyond that experience, to make up a new story, and maybe it helped or maybe it didn’t, but I found my way through it.
So was there a voice in my head? Yeah, it was Eric. But then it was just me.
BLVR: I see you dedicated your book to his memory and now I know why. Thank you for sharing this with me. I love that you hid those words Eric said in a manual, and I wonder if anyone ever found them there. I had an experience a couple years ago when I decided to renew my kids’ passports in the height of COVID because I was so worried about the 2020 election and I was calling and calling the passport office without any luck. While calling I was reading fine print on the passport agency website and came across a sentence buried in there that said something like, “Don’t call us and tell us that the phone just rings and rings and rings and nobody ever answers it!” and I just knew that somebody was having fun with the small print on the otherwise very official passport site. It made me laugh when I was otherwise very tense and it made me feel that there was a human out there in the middle of all the bureaucracy.
II. Combustion and Propulsion
BLVR: You mention that you have Tourette Syndrome, and, if it’s not too personal, I’m curious how you first found out you had it and how it affects the way you go about your writing.
KW: I got diagnosed as an adult, so I don’t have a great grasp on it. I have tics and unwanted thoughts and anxiety but early in my life, when I was a teenager, they thought it might be OCD. And then I started having increasingly bad stuff happening and I saw a neurologist who started to believe it was Tourette Syndrome. From a young age, I’d have these flashes of bad things in my mind, sometimes really fantastical but usually not, and it was like a kind of lightning strike, and I would flinch. And I usually turn my head sharply to one side to kind of get the motor started and get it moving on. And I make noises to try and facilitate that as well. And I can make louder, more intense kind of screaming sounds but that’s more rare. It’s usually just kind of head nods and turns and I sometimes get stuck on words and have to pause and figure it out. I feel like my brain is kind of like a carousel, and things come to me in repetitive ways, and I can get it to keep moving but I always know it’s coming back. And then maybe something new gets added and so I have to adjust for it. And maybe it takes a while because some things seem to disappear for a while, but then they come back.
I don’t like to get into it too much because I think it makes people feel weird, but an example of a recurring image is the aftermath of falling from a really great height. I have trouble with heights but the flashes aren’t connected to my actual physical situation. But I see myself or someone making impact or a flash of that immediate aftermath, and I have to kind of recoil or get that to keep going in my head so I can move on. So in the real world, it looks like a stutter, a tiny malfunction, and then I rejoin the world.
But the thing with narrative is that I keep circling back. I tell stories over and over and over in my head, and so I don’t write all that much compared to how much I build in my head. I just keep worrying it and holding it and letting it expand and get weird and then figure it out. I know it’s going to come back around and I’ll get another crack at it. So I think that repetition and then the little tics that make that repetition get stranger are helpful for my writing. I mean, I would rather not have to deal with it at all, but I’ll be optimistic and say this component of my writing is connected to it. So when I finally write, it feels like I have this internal momentum already built up, and if I hit a problem, it’s OK, because I can go through the story again.
BLVR: Thank you so much for your really thoughtful answer. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I was talking with a writer friend in London the other day about how great it is when you come upon a book that you can’t put down. And we were saying that your books are like that—they just have this incredible momentum that sweeps you up from page one. And so it’s fascinating to hear that you talk about how you build a story and how you have this internal momentum built up when you finally sit down to write. I think readers can definitely feel that energy, and respond to it. It seems like every book should be written like that but I don’t know how someone could ever teach that momentum in a writing class—do you? Maybe it is a matter of keeping a story contained and in your head until the last possible moment…
KW: I know for NTSH, I really focused on momentum a lot. My second novel, Perfect Little World, although I’m really proud of it, was hard to write, just took me so long to figure out, and I know part of it was that the book was supposed to take place over ten years and have this cast of fifty people, and it was just overwhelming at times until I got a handle on it. I was like, This is going to be a 500-page book about babies. So for the next book, I knew I wanted it to be short and to have this kind of propulsive momentum. My all-time favorite books are typically really short novels (like We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Member of the Wedding or Mrs. Caliban or Train Dreams) and I thought that I’d like to do that. And I just said to myself, OK, Kevin, you get one summer. You get maybe five characters. And you just have to go. And then it became kind of wonderful because within that constraint, you know, I could do what I needed to do. I had enough play, like I didn’t need more than that. I didn’t even need the whole summer. I kept thinking I’d do more flashbacks and then I thought, You only get one, right at the beginning, and can you make it work? And if you can work within that compressed space, you can get combustion and propulsion. So I realized that maybe that works well for me. And the way my brain works, it lets me take advantage of it.
A lot of it, like anyone’s style, just comes out of what you can’t do, and I just don’t write every day or every month, and family and childcare is my primary concern, and so I have to kind of hold onto everything until I have that free space to write.
III. “That can be the most transformative moment of your life.”
BLVR: I’m wondering about the character of Mazzy, the New Yorker writer who contacts Frankie at the start of the novel. She calls Frankie, who’s now an adult, to ask her about the sentences she came up with when she was young. And it’s a great opening because we know that whatever Frankie did when she was younger was important and secretive enough that years later a reporter is calling her about it. I’m curious at what point in the writing process you knew you’d include Mazzy’s phone calls and questions? And did you always know that the book would open with Mazzy calling Frankie?
KW: I knew Mazzy was going to be there, and I had her right at the beginning. I feel like maybe now I’m leaning too hard on talking about momentum, but I think it’s just my general laziness or lack of ability that forces me to do that. But if the story is going to focus so heavily on the past, to look at this single transformative summer, I knew I needed a reason to send Frankie back in time. And, you know, that’s either death or rediscovery. And I try to avoid death at all costs. And I always knew the book would start with her being found, and it would seem kind of mysterious and maybe you think she’s done something pretty bad, and then we could go back to teenage Frankie and you realize, Oh, she made this weird-ass, beautiful thing, and then you realize, Oh, that can be the most transformative moment of your life. She was right to be terrified of being found out. I wanted her life, with her great kid and her husband, to be settled, and then the past comes back and asks her to figure it out.
I didn’t have Mazzy again until the second section of the book, but my editor, Helen Atsma, said that we needed that tension from Mazzy to push the book forward and increase the stakes. In the original draft, Frankie just immediately says, “oh, yeah, I did it, shit, what now?” And so it was actually nice to keep getting Mazzy in the story, this quietly insistent voice that wants Frankie not just to live in the past, but to clarify it and make it known to others. And I wanted Mazzy not to be some kind of dogged reporter out to ruin Frankie’s life. She wasn’t even really looking for it. She’s curious and she’s interested in the story and she’s willing to let Frankie explain it. I want tension, you know, but not too much.
BLVR: I’m also a fan of short novels—We Have Always Lived in the Castle is way up there for me. I really like Annie Ernaux’s novels too because they tend to be on the shorter side. I remember when I was twenty-one I had a conversation with a writer friend who said he was really jealous of people who wrote poetry because there existed the possibility of writing a perfect poem, whereas it was nearly impossible to write a perfect novel given that they were as Henry James called them “large, loose, baggy monsters.” James was talking about 19th-century novels but I think the terms can apply to any novel over a certain page count. I’m about to dive into Jean Rhys’s novels because I feel I haven’t read enough of them and they’re on the more compact side. Hitchcock has that famous quote about how he never thought movies should be more than one and half hours because he didn’t want anyone to go to the bathroom during the movie—which is totally relevant. I saw Power of the Dog with a friend of mine in the theater and she went to use the bathroom during what turned out to be a crucial scene and as a result didn’t understand the ending at all. Another friend and I had to explain it to her for half an hour. For me, my ideal novel can be read in the course of twenty-four hours. I read Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard on a flight to New York and I read your recent book, well, on a flight to New York. I started both books when the plane departed San Francisco, and finished them when I landed. That’s the best kind of novel for me—one where I’m completely consumed and read it in one sitting.
Can you say anything more about your next book? Are you taking notes or letting it percolate in your mind?
KW: Steven Millhauser wrote this really amazing essay about the beauty of the short story and compared it to the novel and basically he said that the novel, in trying to encompass the world and be everything, fails, while a short story just wants to look at a grain of sand but if it’s done correctly, the story can represent within that tiny perfection the entire beach, the water that touches the beach, the land beyond the beach, the entire world, and that’s its secret ability, and I think that works for short novels, too.
I was thinking about your friend and then thinking about your comment on movies, and it reminded me of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, and how his idea of the perfect film, the best thing ever committed to film, was Jorgen Leth’s The Perfect Human, and it’s such a short little film, and for von Trier, who is so expansive and weird and angry and emotional, it was interesting that he considered this very precise and controlled thing to be perfection.
The new novel is not fully formed and I’ll have to work it out, but it’s a recurrence of something in NINTTTP. I tend to go backward even in my work. Like, in my first collection of stories, there was one about spontaneous human combustion. And then I used it again in Family Fang, where the main character stars in a movie where she’s a governess to children who burst into flames. And so I went back and used that for NTSH. And then in Family Fang, the line that I use in NINTTTP is in that, just this thing that Buster hears on a tape recorder he finds in his dad’s jacket. And in NINTTTP, Frankie writes a novel for adults that isn’t as successful and it’s about a woman who drives cross-country to pick up all of her half-sisters who have the same name, to go to their father’s funeral. And so I couldn’t stop thinking about that, of driving to pick up these people connected to you but that you don’t know and trying to make sense of each other. So it’ll be some version of that, which might be fun because I hate making my characters go anywhere. I try to get them to never leave their house or their town, so I want to see if I can have this compressed narrative, this little thing, but have it go across the country, to have a literal engine moving the characters toward their reckoning. We’ll see.
IV. The Grizzlies
BLVR: My son (age thirteen) is a huge Ja Morant fan and I’m assuming because you live in Tennessee that you might be a Grizzlies fan, yes? Also, I know some writers who are basketball fans who have a lot of comparisons between basketball and writing. Do you have any? It’s OK if you don’t, I’m just curious.
KW: I LOVE Ja Morant. So much. My favorite player in so long, maybe since Allen Iverson. Strangely, as a kid growing up in TN, I loved the Golden State Warriors because of Run TMC, Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond, and I loved that fast style of play and they weren’t great, but so much fun. But they were underdogs and I tend to hate continued excellence. So I really dislike the Warriors now, especially since they aren’t in Oakland anymore. I love Giannis and I love Jokic and Embiid and Dame, but Ja is just special.
I have loved the Grizzlies since they came to Memphis, but they have either been 1) absolutely awful or 2) very scrappy and would make better teams sweat and have to work hard and sometimes they’d upset someone. But I’ve never loved a team quite like this. My best friend, Caki, lives in Memphis and loves the Grizz, and so we go to games. And I remember those years when the tickets were cheaper than the concessions food, and it was so joyless, just so much frustration evident for the players. But Ja and Jaren put them in a new space. We saw them play Utah in the playoffs last year, and I saw the Grizz a few times this year and I took Patch to see Ja in his comeback game in April and it was a surprise and they kicked ass. So much fun.
With regard to basketball and writing, I don’t have great ideas on this. Mostly, I just think about how writing style is more about what you can’t do, and how you make up for that by building up these other skills. I’m not lyrical in any way, my sentences are so simple, and my plots are weird, not big grand American novels, and so I make up for that with tenderness and silliness and humor and then, if I can use that to get the reader on my side, I can then get darker or more serious and have something heartfelt and I can do what I need to do. And I think about players who have to develop an outside shot or a quick release or great handles or court vision, because otherwise you won’t be able to compete. It’s rare to have Wilt Chamberlain or Candace Parker or LeBron James, just these insanely talented players who can do anything. When you watch basketball, you’re usually watching a player cover up their limitations by being unbelievably good at certain aspects of the game, to make them indispensable, and I love watching that.
But, also, writing is muscle memory, right? You do it over and over and over and eventually it starts to become second nature, because you’re internalizing the mechanics of how you make the thing you want to make, and that feels like sports, where you have to practice so much in order to make it happen when you need it.