“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive
Jo Reed:.From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.
Kevin Wilson: I myself grew up in isolated circumstances and felt strange inside my body, nervous tics and weird anxieties, and yet, in some ways, I felt like that helped me. It gave me more time inside my own head and inside my own imagination, and it allowed me to kind of work through the world in different ways. So, I am drawn to those characters who feel strange in their bodies.
Jo Reed:.That’s novelist Kevin Wilson a writer who trains his eye on quirky characters, he celebrates weirdness but does so with tenderness and is pretty clear-eyed about the way its perceived in the world. And he focuses on family the ones we’re born into and the ones we make. His novel and NEA Big Read title Nothing to See Here is a case in point. The book is about Lillian—a 28 year old woman living with her mother and stuck in dead-end jobs. She gets a letter from a wealthy old friend, Madison who is now married to US Senator from Tennessee. She invites Lillian to come to their estate to take care of her husband’s children, her step children—twins Bessie and Roland whose mother recently died. The thing is, when the children are upset or agitated they burst into flames. Not the metaphorical kind like the kid melting down—these kids spontaneously combust. And while they don’t burn themselves, they most certainly can burn others and destroy quite a bit of property. They are a political liability for this ambitious family and Lillian is asked to care for them for the summer while the family figures out next steps. Because Lillian herself isn’t in a great situation and because Madison has always had a magnetic effect on her, she agrees. What follows is a story that’s funny, outrageous, oddly familiar and very moving….what one reviewer called a brilliant parable of the dangers of childhood and child care. And it forces us to ask How do we take care of others, especially if they’re considered different in some way. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and I was so happy when it was chosen for the NEA Big Read program and happier still when I was able to speak with Kevin Wilson. Of course I began by asking him about spontaneous human combustion and how the idea first came to him
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, so, I think a couple of different places. So, one is I've always, since I was a child, been kind of obsessed with spontaneous human combustion. When I was probably 10, I read a book that mentioned it, these “Secrets of the Unknown” with Bigfoot. It was both terrifying to me, obviously, I didn't want to burst into flames, but it was also kind of alluring, the idea that there was something inside of you that was secret, that could make itself known. So, I've kind of worked that into a couple of my other books, but then I had kids, and I myself have Tourette syndrome, and I have two boys, Griff and Patch, and when Griff, my oldest, was quite young, he started to exhibit some of the same tendencies, and I started to think about that, of what it might mean to pass these on to your child. I've kind of learned to live with it, and I think I do fine, and I know how to take care of myself, but I started to think “Well, how do you protect the people that you love?” That's kind of where the book started, which is where Lillian is tasked with trying to keep these kids from bursting into flames. Also, I think anybody that has had kids, or even been around kids, knows that it's not that far off when a kid is about to have a tantrum that they might burst into flames. So, it felt easy for me to move into it.
Jo Reed: Oh god, that is so true. How often I've been with child that's about to spontaneously combust. <laughter>
Kevin Wilson: Exactly.
Jo Reed: But your twins, Roland and Bessie, they don't burn themselves. Their hair doesn't even burn. So, you managed to create a spontaneous combustion that they wreak havoc on other people, but for themselves they get, what, like a sunburn, and that's it in terms of the damage, the physical damage they do to themselves?
Kevin Wilson: Right, so they're unharmed by the physical effect of the fire, so they can destroy everything that's around them, but they'll be okay. But the flip side is because of this power, because of the strange thing inside of them, it keeps them isolated and distanced from other people. People won't come near them, or they're hidden away. So, even though they're not hurt by the flame, they're hurt by what's inside of them in the rest of the world.
Jo Reed: Yet, at the same time, at a particular point in the book, which I thought was so interesting, Bessie says to Lillian “I don't want to lose this, because how else would we protect ourselves?”
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, and I think, so much of this book is how do you take care of people? How do you protect the people that you love? But also, how do you live with the things that other people might think of as disabilities? I remember with this Tourette's, I'd mentioned it in interviews, and I had a doctor write me from another state saying that he was working on this project to work with adults with Tourette's, and to try to kind of cure it. I thought at that point, I was 40 years old, I just thought “I don't know what I would do without it at this point.” I don't know who I would be if I lost it. I do think there's these moments, like with Bessie, and with Roland, that this is the way that their life works, and if it disappeared then who would they be?
Jo Reed: Right. I read it as yes, it's to protect her, but also, it's one of the things that makes her Bessie. I think that's part of why Lillian is such a good caretaker for both of them, against all odds, because she can really appreciate that in both of them.
Kevin Wilson: Oh, thank you. But Lillian doesn't want to cure it, she wants <laughs> them to learn how to live without setting her on fire.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Now, tell us about Lillian. She's the narrator of the book, how would you describe her?
Kevin Wilson: Well, I think Lillian is someone who came from an impoverished background, no father in the picture, and a mom who kind of overworked, and not really attentive to Lillian. But Lillian, in that absence, became hyper driven. She wanted to get out of this life, and she worked her way to get a scholarship to this incredibly expensive prestigious all-girls boarding school, which is where she meets Madison, who comes from wealth. None of this is new to her. Through a series of circumstances, Lillian is expelled from the school, and the moment she loses her grip on that possibility of a future, she kind of gives up. She kind of just sinks back into her old life until there's something that's going to shock her out of it. But so, Lillian is someone who for a while was hyper driven, really wanted to succeed in life, and that first moment when she realized the huge difference between what she had and what other people had came to light, she receded. So, this book takes place in the summer, and it's basically the summer where she starts to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
Jo Reed: She has such a distinctive voice, she's the narrator of the book. <laughs> I really would just love to spend some time with her. Did it take you time to come to Lillian in that voice, or was it there from the get-go?
Kevin Wilson: That's a really great question. I try to think through the books that I write before I actually start writing them, and I was trying to imagine it, and I think the very first draft, first chapter, I was trying to write it, and the voice was more subdued, and it just felt so serious and uninteresting to me. I kept thinking about who Lillian was and how she would narrate her story, and I knew “No, she'd be more sarcastic.” She'd be a little angry--using sarcasm as a defense. So, the moment I changed the voice, the story just opened up. Once I found Lillian's voice, the story was incredibly easy to write because I could figure out how she would report it to the reader.
Jo Reed: Lillian is so smart and so witty. You can literally just pick up the book and open it, and on any page you can just find a great Lillian line. For example when shw arrives at Madison’s house and she shown to her room, you write in the voice of Lillian: “She led me to a room that looked like there should be an exiled Princess in the bed.” <laughter> It just gives you such a picture of that room, but also of Lillian herself. Because one thing you do in that book is it also examines issues of class, and great wealth, and old money through Madison and Lillian's friendship, and through Lillian's right on the nose observations about the way big wealth can normalize things.
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, I mean, I think once I knew that Madison was rich and Lillian was not, there was no way that it wasn't going to be a crucial part of the narrative, which is that Lillian is this kind of spy who gets on the inside to see what life is like for people who have this kind of tremendous wealth, and the way that they treat problems, <laughs> and the way that they treat obstacles. So, yeah, I mean, Lillian, who wanted this life really badly and didn't get it, so when she looks at it now, there's a kind of absurdity to how she kind of examines all of this stuff. That was certainly a huge part of the book for me, was what would it be like to be around this obscene wealth but to know that you were only there temporarily?
Jo Reed: She's moved by and drawn to the twins, and really fiercely protective of them. I think, so, crucially, she really sees them.
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, I mean, she sees them in ways that nobody else does because to all the other people in their lives, they’re obstacles, they're <laughs> difficulties. They're things that could ruin the perfectly cultivated life that Madison and Jasper, her husband, have, and their political aspirations. But to Lillian, one, it's her job, right? She's supposed to take care of them. But two, she sees them as what they are, which is children who are trying to figure out how to live in this world. So, yeah, Lillian, in so many ways, is the only person who truly sees the children for who they are.
Jo Reed: We see the kids' evident vulnerability, but we really also see Lillian's, as she's assessing and often doubting her ability to actually take care of these two. Not fix them, but keep them safe enough, <laughs> to get through to the next day.
Kevin Wilson: <laughs> I mean, maybe it's because I'm a parent, and I'm just incredibly doubtful of how good I am at parenting. I wanted to write a book where pretty much everybody <laughs> is a bad parent. No one knows what they're doing, they're failing in so many different ways, and in a lot of ways, that's what human interaction is, is that you're failing, and in the failing you're figuring out ways to still survive, to still protect each other. So, yeah, Lillian is perfect because she's not afraid of messing up, and she's not-- she can't run away, right? She can't leave, she needs this. So, she'll keep trying until she gets it right. I also think I wanted to write a book where it wasn't like “Hey, have children and take care of them and your life will be so much better,” that your life will have meaning once you have kids. These are not Lillan’s kids, she's just taking care of them, and no matter how transformative it is, it's still difficult. It's still incredibly unpleasant at times.
Jo Reed: Oh, very much so. But she has this moment where I guess maybe when she was playing basketball with them, when she said “So, maybe that's what it really is about, you just show kids what you love and hope that <laughs> they're going to love it too.”
Kevin Wilson: I think especially when we had our kids, and I don't think this is unusual, and I think it's gone on forever, but there's about a thousand different books about how to raise a successful child, or a happy child--
Jo Reed: Oh god.
Kevin Wilson: -and they all have wildly varying ideas of how to do that. I think with Lillian, who's not interested in those books, who doesn't care about the professional opinion, she tries to break it down to the simplest thing possible, right? How do you protect somebody? How do you take care of them? You give them what they ask for, you watch over them, you give them the things that you love because they mean something to you, so that you can communicate with another person. So, yeah, Lillian, in so many ways, is like “Maybe taking care of someone is doing the simplest possible things and not overthinking it.”
Jo Reed: You write often about people who can be seen as outsiders, people who have oddities within them, and you kind of celebrate their weirdness so tenderly, and also show us the flip side, the power that it can hold for them as well.
Kevin Wilson: Oh, thank you. That's what I'm drawn to, those kinds of characters, and I think part of it is that I myself grew up in isolated circumstances and felt strange inside my body, nervous tics and weird anxieties, and yet, in some ways, I felt like that helped me. It gave me more time inside my own head and inside my own imagination, and it allowed me to kind of work through the world in different ways. So, I am drawn to those characters who feel strange in their bodies. Maybe I can put it a different way, as like as a kid, I was really drawn to magic, and weirdness, and fairy tales. I always love the idea of a normal person entering into this fantastical world. Like you go into Narnia, but you're just a regular human being. As I got older, the world became much less magical to me, the world was really kind of frightening, and strange, and oftentimes boring. What I realized is I think the weirdness and the magic is actually embedded inside of us, inside of other people, and that it is actually maybe harder to be a strange person in a normal world than to be a normal person in a strange world, and that's what I want to kind of write about. What's weird is I write a lot about these odd characters who feel isolated, and one of the most gratifying things is hearing from so many readers who have had so many different experiences, admit to feeling that kind of strangeness inside their own body. It makes me realize that pretty much everybody <laughs> feels weird and strange in this world.
Jo Reed: Yeah. You wrote, and it's at the end of the paperback version of Nothing to See Here, a really wonderful and moving essay about your own struggles with anxiety, and about being diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome as an adult. That, in fact, writing is one way that you come to terms with it.
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, because really and truly, external stimuli really makes me agitated. I'm afraid of the world sometimes, and so, writing is a way for me-- there's this space inside my brain and it's just mine. No one else can see it or touch it, and I can go inside that space and make whatever story that I want. Whether it's good or not is not really what I care about in that moment, but I can go in that little world and make that story, and I can control it, and I can touch it, and it's calming for me. What happens is after I've been in that space, when I come out of it and I go back into the real world, I feel a little less scared, a little less alone, and I'm able to navigate the real world because of it. I don't know how successful I'd be in the real world if I didn't have that kind of creative space.
Jo Reed: Kevin, I think many of us have an idea of Tourette's syndrome from watching television, in which one says words or phrases uncontrollably. That's not the way it manifests in you, that Tourette's actually is a pretty broad spectrum.
Kevin Wilson: It is, and I think you're right. I also didn't know exactly how it worked, and I'd only seen it or read about it. I want to be upfront and say this is what I was diagnosed with by a couple of doctors, but who knows? I <laughs> really am not 100% certain. But the way that it manifests itself with me is tics, especially if I'm in unfamiliar situations with my head, and movements, and noises. But it's still, I think, a lot of people wouldn't notice it in the same way, and I have lots of looping and repeating thoughts that I can't get out of my head, but that's all internal, and it results in a kind of movement or jitteriness. But yeah, I think that's the other thing, is like people have these ideas of what all these different forms of disability are, and they have trouble recognizing in the real world, in practical ways.
Jo Reed: I often think our best traits are so linked to our flaws, our impediments if you will, almost two sides of the same coin. So, I'm curious how perhaps the stories and images that go through your head, if that helps you with your writing in some way? If you're able to control them enough to use in your narratives?
Kevin Wilson: Well, I think about this a lot. That's a great question, because I often think that who we are as artists and who we are sometimes as people, but especially in our creative work, is not so much a representation of what we're good at, it's more a representation of what we can't do, and how we find methods and techniques to work around those inabilities. I liken it a lot to basketball, which is the sport I love the most and <laughs> I write about in Nothing to See Here. But if you're really short and you want to play basketball, you're going to be at a disadvantage, right? You can't just stroll down the court and jump over two people and slam dunk it. That's just not possible. So, that's the impediment, you're short, right? You can't play inside, you can't play post, but what you find the way around is you get better handles, you become a better dribbler, you get a more quick release on your shot so that a taller person can’t get close enough to you before the shot gets off. You have better court vision, so you're aware of where the play might develop. All that stuff is really a response to if you were seven foot two, you might not have the best dribbling skills because you don't need them. So, for me as a writer, there are things I can't do, there are elements of writing that are not my strong suit, and I find my ways around that in order to develop the style that I have. So, I think that goes in real life too, those things that seem like impediments are actually the ways in which you find survival techniques to do what you need to do.
Jo Reed: Let me just ask you this. You have two sons, you teach full time, so, writing time has to be hard to find. But I also wonder about the impact of both parenthood and teaching, but particularly parenthood on your writing, on the writing itself?
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, well, I mean, it's hugely influential. I would be a writer without a wife <laughs> and kids, that's not debatable to me, but I think I would be a different writer and I certainly wouldn't have access to some of the kind of points of inspiration that have come out and created these books. So, yeah, the world in which you occupy is going to influence the stories that you tell. So, my children are a huge part of that. As for writing time, I mean, that's the thing. In college, a writer came, and I really admired them. They were like “In order to be a writer, you need to put on a suit and tie, and get your briefcase, and walk out of the house and then walk right back into the house and sit down at the desk and write for eight hours a day.” You have to treat it like a job, and I was, I don't know, 19 or 20, I was like “Oh, that sounds awful. <laughter> I don't think I'm a writer. I don't think I can do this.” I talked to a lot of people, and I have friends who write every day for two hours in the morning, and you start to believe that there's like a singular way to be a writer. But I don't do that, my primary concerns are childcare, and my family, and teaching, which is my full-time job. So, writing is the thing that I love and it's not going to go away. But there are times where I have to put it away because it's just not possible, and it doesn't make me less of a writer. But what it's done, again, those impediments, right? I'm not good at writing in small little chunks every single day in a steady progression. My children want me a lot, I don't want to say no. I have to teach. So, I found my way around that, which is that I write a lot in my head whenever I'm just doing dishes, or folding laundry, or walking, so that then when I do find that brick of time that I need, I write really fast. That's my survival technique, is that I can get the story in my head the way I want it, so that when it comes time to write, it's super fast.
Jo Reed: I read that you wrote Nothing to See Here in 10 days. Is that truly true? <laughs>
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, <laughs> I mean, I wish--
Jo Reed: I mean, on the page?
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, it hasn't manifested itself ever again. <laughs> I'm on another book and it's not taking 10 days. It's a little frustrating. But, I mean, it really was that I've been working on this book for so long in my head. I mean, really working through it. My wife and I just have this deal where-- she's a writer, she's a poet, and we find that it's really advantageous if we can go away. So, typically, we trade off, but we go get a Airbnb, or a cabin, or something, and we go away for 10 days, and 10 days is the most time that one of us can take care of our children without losing our minds. So, we've decided that's as long as we can go. I went to this cabin in North Carolina, and I said “I’m just going to just get to work on it,” and I started writing, and there's nothing else to do. I would wake up, and I would get the computer, I write in bed, I would write, and then I'd notice that it was getting dark outside, and I'd put the computer away and go to bed and wake up. After about five days, I called my wife, and I was like “I think I'm going to finish this book. I think I'm going to get a draft of it.” I felt that momentum and it was just easy to ride that wave because there literally was nothing keeping me from doing it. There was nothing else to do, there was no child asking me to play Legos, or laundry to fold. So, there was <laughs> nothing to distract me, and I wrote it really fast, yeah.
Jo Reed: I'm glad you used the word “Momentum”, because that's something that really struck me as I was reading the book. It has such a forward momentum, it's like you're getting in the car and man, you're taking off.
Kevin Wilson: <laughs> Oh, thank you. Yeah, I think the novel before this one, which was called “Perfect Little World”, and it's a book I'm really proud of, but it was such a huge book, there were a ton of characters, it took place over 10 years, and it was a really hard book for me to write. Because of that, when I started to think about “Nothing to See Here”, right from the beginning, I thought “Okay, this might not be what you're good at. You might be better at compression. So, let's do some things that make it easier for you.” So, I was like “You're only going to have a couple of characters, maybe four major characters. Okay, so you got that, that will make it easier.” Then I was like “It's only going to be a summer,” right? So, three months, at the most, “So, can you work with that?” Each time I gave myself these little restrictions to make it smaller, to make it easier, and the end result was that I could hold it all in my head, and the momentum I just knew I was writing to such a small point that I could do everything that I needed to do.
Jo Reed: Both Nothing to See Here and your most recent book, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, both of which have pretty fabulous titles, I would just like to say--
Kevin Wilson: <laughs> Thanks.
Jo Reed: -have teenage protagonists, or at least Lillian and Madison are when we meet them. I'm wondering what drew you to write about teenagers?
Kevin Wilson: Oh man, <laughs> there's so many reasons, but one is just like those are the incredibly formative years, and oftentimes as adults, when we look back into the past, it's a lot of times those moments when we're teenagers where we start to see the glimmers of who we're going to become, those formative moments. I just am drawn to those teenage years where the first experience is happening, right? Like the first time that you fall in love is going to be more chaotic, and strange, and weird than the tenth time. Or maybe not, but <laughs> I'm interested in that, where you believe like “Oh, this is the first time and the most important time,” and also this--
Jo Reed: Oh, the only time. <laughter>
Kevin Wilson: Right, yeah, you're like “This is my only shot.” So, I'm interested in that, but also being a teenager is strange. You know you're not a kid anymore, but you're also not an adult, but you can't tell where the line is. Again, I'm interested in those permeable moments where things that maybe are too adult for a teenager to handle are still seeping into them, and those childhood things that they're still interested are pulling them, but they're always going to get older. So, I don't know, it's fun for me to write about. Also, I mean, if I'm being 100% honest, I still-- I feel very stunted. I still feel like a teenager in my mind, I still have the same childhood obsessions, and strange interests. So, it's kind of fun for me to write in that voice.
Jo Reed: Nothing to See Here, as I said, is narrated by Lillian. Now Is Not the Time to Panic is narrated by Frankie, and you frequently have female narrators. Is there any particular reason why it shakes out that way?
Kevin Wilson: I feel like I get asked this question a lot, obviously, it makes a lot of sense, and you'd think that with this much time to think about it, I'd have a better answer, and I really don't. I think there's a couple of reasons. So, I like to write in the voice of female characters, one is that in fiction, it allows me to obscure myself so that it doesn't feel autobiographical, right? Like this is a character that is not me, and that allows me a slight bit of distance from it, even if these characters are really close to who I am. So that's one. Two, I think it creates a little bit more of a level of difficulty for me, which is that I know that I'm not a woman and I know that there are aspects of being a woman that no matter how hard I try, I'm not going to fully understand or get right. So, it forces me to be maybe a little more aware of the character, and their motivations, and the external stimuli that's affecting them. So, it keeps me on my toes, it makes me work harder to make sure I get stuff right, and it also means that I know I'm not going to get everything right. I know there's going to be elements that don't ring true, and so I have to work hard to get the reader to give me the benefit of the doubt. The last thing is just and it's complicated, and I think it's personal in some ways, which is just that in the writing, in the imaginary world of these narratives, it's comforting and comfortable to be in the voice of a woman. So, I like doing it, it's a way for me to kind of explore that in ways that I can't in the real world. So, what else is creative work for but to make things harder, but also find ways around it so that you can do what you need to do.
Jo Reed: Well, that's so interesting, both in apprehending creative work, and I wonder if in creating it too, you approach a book, a work of art, and it's so affirming to see a piece of yourself and at the same time it expands your sense of yourself, the world, the universe? It just opens things up in a way.
Kevin Wilson: Well, I mean, that's why I love reading, <laughs> As a young kid, reading books was so wondrous and lovely because I could read about such a diverse range of people with experiences way beyond my own, and I could learn, right? I could open myself up to be empathetic to people beyond myself, but then there was those moments of recognition where some small part of the character resonated so much with my own identity that I felt seen, and I felt connected to the larger world. I love that back and forth of this is how I'm similar and this is how I'm different. So, when I write, that's what I'm hoping to do for the reader as well, to find those moments of connection and disconnection that provides like a larger view of the world around us.
Jo Reed: Well, Now Is Not the Time to Panic is about <laughs> explosions as well, of a sort, of teenagers exploding when they find someone who actually sees them, and finding and losing themselves by making art together.
Kevin Wilson: Right, and again, it's <laughs> kind of similar to Nothing to See Here, it takes place over a single summer, really and truly, a kind of formative moment. But yeah, that's what I was interested in, is Frankie, this 16-year-old girl meets this boy, Zeke, who has just moved to the town, and in the course of the summer, it all feels hazy and magical because they don't know what will happen after the summer ends. Whenever things are hazy and unstable, you get weirdness, right? So, they make this poster that freaks out their town, and slowly it freaks out the country and the world, but it all starts with just really two characters who felt alone feeling seen by somebody else. Yeah, which is, again, what I'm interested in, those moments of connection.
Jo Reed: So, the immortal line that Frankie writes is “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” That line showed up in a previous book of yours as well, what's its history?
Kevin Wilson: Yeah, it's really complicated and strange. I said I have kind of things with repetition and looping in my brain, and I have obsessive tendencies. So, in the same way that so much of Frankie's narrative begins in the single summer when she's 16, in the summer of 1997, it was right after my freshman year of college, I was living in an apartment with my cousin who was about 4 or 5 years older than me. I was working a summer job and my friend-- my cousin, Brian's, best friend was a guy named Eric Haley, who had gone to NYU film school and had gotten his MFA in theater at Alabama. He was going to live with us for the summer and then move to LA to pursue acting. I'd known Eric, but now we were living together, and he was just incredibly charismatic, really beautiful, really lovely, and he would make these little short films with me, and show me how to use editing equipment. He really was maybe the first person close to my own age who made art feel like a tangible thing that I could do, and he was just so influential to me. My thing was that I was working that summer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and my job was to-- this was in the early stages of the internet. I was taking the policy and procedures manual and typing it by hand in HTML so that there'd be a version of it online, and it was so boring. Nobody knew what I was doing, I never saw anybody, and I got so bored that I just started making stuff up and writing it into the manual, and no one noticed. I was writing a lot of just weird stuff in between the lines, and I asked Eric if he had anything, and he made this line up kind of on the spot and I put that on the policy and procedures manual. For whatever reason, in the same way Frankie's not quite sure where it comes from, when I heard it, it just burned itself into my brain, and for the next twenty-two years I've said it at least once or twice a day in my head. I just repeat it over and over. So, yeah, I put it in The Family Fang. It's a line in the novel, and I still wasn't done with it. I thought I could ease some of the tension by just putting the line out, and years passed, and I thought “Oh, it's not gone, I’ve got to work with it even more. I need to make it the central thing,” and so, I wrote this book. Really and truly, it all started with that line.
Jo Reed: “The Edge is a shantytown” is written by Frankie in your book, and she thinks it is the best thing that she's ever written. She's captivated by it, and the way you captured that all-encompassing thrill of creating something when you're an adolescent, and that power that you feel that it has, and how transformative you're sure it's going to be, and you don't mock it at all. You just sort of show the awe that a teenager feels. <laughs> I thought it was just wonderful.
Kevin Wilson: Oh, thank you. One of the things I wanted to think about is like I'm not against the idea of divine inspiration or the muse. I've never really experienced it, but one of the things that's like when Frankie makes this, she's like “It's not anyone but me.” For the first time in her life, she's like “I made this. This came-- even if I don't know why, it came from inside of my own mind.” Just how thrilling that is when you're so young to know “I can make something, and I think I might remember it forever.” It's transformative.
Jo Reed: Well, Frankie thinks that she and Zeke's created meaning where there was none, and they make posters of their work, Zeke’s drawing, Frankie's words, and leave them around town. Again, this is in 1996. But they find many people have <laughs> many meanings for this, and some of them are quite destructive.
Kevin Wilson: I think <laughs> I wanted to write a little bit about like that it was possible to go viral before the internet was a thing. <laughs> You can place a thing in the world, and you can have all the intention that you want for what it is, but the moment art touches the open air, you can't really control the response. What you find a lot of times, and you see that with all the banned books, and all these hysterical responses to pieces of art, is that a lot of times people place all of their own kind of weirdnesses [sic] or obsessions inside of what they think of as an empty vessel that's art. The way it can get twisted, and changed, and expand is really interesting to me.
Jo Reed: What you wrote in the essay that I mentioned earlier, that's at the end of Nothing to See Here, that you don't think art can change the world, but you think art can help you survive it. I'd like you to say a little bit more and tease that out a little bit, if you don't mind?
Kevin Wilson: Sure. So, <laughs> I think a lot of times when I talk like this, it's more about being kind of practical and realistic about what I do. Absolutely, art can change the world. Art can reverberate in such ways that you actually see the world change, and there's certain definite instances of that. Like “Uncle Tom's Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is certainly a work of art that had real-life ramifications for changing the world that we live in. So yes, it can do that, but I also think that's just in practical terms a lot to ask of an <laughs> artistic work. I don't necessarily know that that's the absolute way in which art should be utilized. So, for me, in the absence of that, so, let's say art maybe can't change the world, it can't. There are too many structures in place that might make that impossible. What I believe though, is one of the things that art can do really, really well is that it can help you through the difficulties of those external things that make life difficult. In a lot of ways, it can open our eyes up to what those external roadblocks are. For me, that's what's really lovely about art, is that it can make you feel less alone in the world in which you live and help you then figure out ways in which to survive and move forward, and even thrive. That's still a huge thing to ask of art, <laughs> to make people feel less alone in the world. But when I write, that's my ultimate goal, is to send up this flare into the sky and hope that somebody sees it, and that both of us in that moment have a point of connection.
Jo Reed: Well, as I’ve said, Nothing to See Here is a Big Read title, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about the importance of a dialogue created through a story? The importance of community reads, and the way we can come together through story?
Kevin Wilson: Well, yeah, so, I think about this a lot. So, there’s a couple of things I'll say. One is growing up in a small rural town, the public library, which was severely underfunded, there were just so many books from the ‘50s about kids with polio, but I read them all. But those community spaces where you know that everyone has equal access to the stories was hugely important to me, and it's what started me on that goal of reading. But you can read in your own little world forever, but there's something really lovely and expansive when you share that reading experience with other people, and you start to realize how many different ways a book can be interpreted, or how many ways it can resonate. I do think these kind of community reads are really incredible and really lovely, and I can speak just from being a teacher, and in my classes, I have 15 students who are all pretty much the same age, but they all have come through different experiences, different realities. When we talk about a text, the ways in which I watch individual students respond to different parts of the book, it's just so helpful for me as an individual to see things that I wouldn't have seen otherwise, to pay closer attention to things that I might’ve breezed over. So, I love these kind of community moments where people share a single text or work of art.
Jo Reed: Have you participated in any Big Read events around the book?
Kevin Wilson: I've not been able to yet, but I'm really hoping that I can. That's the other thing you learn, is that as much as I've talked about the way in which people can twist and bend art, there is-- and one of the reasons I've loved being a writer is that it pulls you closer to a group of people in ways that you might not have otherwise. I love that moment of talking to other people about the book and hearing their thoughts on it. So yeah, I'd really love to do it.
Jo Reed: I wonder what discussions you might like the book to generate, or what questions you’d like participants to ask of the book, or of each other?
Kevin Wilson: Oh, I think the two main things for me that feel like huge things to talk about in the book is just class. What does it mean that the most powerful people in the book are the ones least willing to help these children in need? If the strong are supposed to protect the weak, why is that not happening? Then maybe we ask ourselves “Well, is that how the world works, or is it that the weak protect the even weaker in order to survive?” So, I'm interested in that, and then the other thing is just like how do we care for people who are different than us, or who on the surface may seem like there are things about them that make them challenging or difficult? What it means to truly protect someone even if you don't know them, you know that it's important to make sure that they exist in the world.
Jo Reed: I think that is a good place to leave it. Kevin, thank you so much. Thank you for writing that terrific book, Nothing to See Here and thank you for writing your most recent book too, Now Is Not the Time to Panic. I'm a great fan. Thank you. <laughs>
Kevin Wilson: I'm so grateful. Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: You're welcome.
That was writer Kevin Wilson. We were talking about his novel and NEA Big Read title Nothing to See Here. His most recent book is Now Is Not the Time to Panic. Learn more the Big Read at arts.gov—just click on initiatives. And keep up with Kevin at Kevin Wilson.com. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Kevin Wilson, author of the NEA Big Read title Nothing to See Here, explains his long-time obsession with spontaneous human combustion—a condition that figures prominently in the novel. In a nutshell, 28-year-old Lillian is tasked with minding the stepchildren of a wealthy old school friend whose politician husband has two kids who literally burst into flames when they get angry or agitated. One reviewer called the novel a brilliant parable about childhood and child care. But, in our lengthy discussion about this wise and funny book, Wilson points out that at its core, the novel asks, "How do we take care of people?" and "How do we live with conditions that others might see as disabilities?" Wilson discusses his own issues with life-long anxiety that was diagnosed as Tourette's Syndrome when he was an adult and the ways that writing has helped him to come terms with it. He talks about parenthood, the joy he takes in being very active in his sons' lives, and how his initial anxiety around parenting informs Nothing to See Here. And we discuss the extraordinary joy he has always gotten from reading, the importance of the library as he was growing up in a small rural town, and the connection and expansiveness created by bringing a community together around a single book.
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