You could easily imagine that with all the hilarious—and, well, less than hilarious—antics of his fabulous fictional family Fang, Kevin Wilson might have some serious family issues of his own. You would be wrong.
“I have incredible parents and I have a sister with whom I am very close,” Wilson says during a call to the “little cabin” in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife Leigh Anne, a poet, and their three-year-old son. Wilson, who recently turned 33, is the author of an award-winning story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. This fall he will become a full-time faculty member at The University of the South in Sewanee. Until then he will be “basically a secretary,” helping organize the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and teaching fiction-writing workshops.
Wilson’s parents live just a 20-minute drive down Monteagle mountain, where his father—whom he describes as “the most capable person” he’s ever known—sells insurance. “My parents didn’t really understand what I wanted to do when I wanted to write, but they were always supportive. My father was paying for me to go to this great school [Vanderbilt] in part because I was going to get a good job. When I told them I wanted to write, both of my parents said, ‘That’s what you should do.’ They just kind of embraced it. My father always reads everything I write.”
And his parents’ impressions of his first novel, The Family Fang? Or their thoughts about performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, who sow chaos wherever they go—with the reluctant help of their children Buster and Annie (known in the art world as Child A and Child B)?
“They loved it! The characters of Camille and Caleb are so divorced from them that it was pretty much impossible for them to mistakenly read themselves into them,” Wilson says. “Sometimes I think they worry about being characters in my stories. But with this book I think it was so bizarre that they just didn’t worry about it.”
The Family Fang is told from the alternating points of view of the older and perhaps wiser Buster and Annie, who woefully return as adults to live with their parents after a series of missteps. When their parents mysteriously disappear, Buster and Annie launch a skeptical search, more than half-believing that the disappearance is just another of their parents’ performance-art schemes. The setup allows Wilson to dazzle and amuse us with some very inventive and provocatively imagined performance art.
“I hesitate to say that I’m a fan of performance art because I know so little of it. But when I was in junior high or high school, I read about this guy who had someone shoot him for a performance piece, for an art piece! The way it was posited in the article was ‘isn’t this ridiculous, this is not real art, this is a kind of profanity.’ But I thought, this is the best art, this is the most incredible thing I can imagine. I was just so taken with the idea that art can bleed into the spaces where art is not supposed to enter.”
In this case, Wilson’s performance art pieces allow him to enter the deeply complicated spaces of family relationships.
“The thing that I most care about in writing is the ways in which we’re bound to these people who for all intents and purposes create you. They build you up, and the second step after they make you is that you unmake that and become your own person. I think that’s a really weird relationship.”
And so there is a startling point at which The Family Fang is suddenly something quite different from the satirical romp through the art world that it first appears to be.
“One of my strengths is humor. It’s easier for me to get into the darker stuff if I initially treat it as absurd. It gives me an entry point. One of the things I’ve always loved in the books or movies I admire is that moment when something funny shifts so quickly into sadness that you are laughing and you are crying. That’s a wonderful thing. It’s a magic trick. And it’s something I’ve tried to emulate. One of the things I want to do is make it light in a way that right up until the moment it becomes dark, you don’t notice how much light has disappeared from the story.”
Wilson continues, “I like the absurd, I like magical realism, I like fairy tales. When those things are done correctly, what is a dream and what is real bleeds into each other so much that you just cannot trust that yourself. I think those transformative moments when you are not sure what is reality are just wonderful. I’m very much interested in that kind of magic, where you’re amazed by the strangeness and weirdness of the world.”
The Family Fang. Magic indeed.