On Tuesday, May 22 7p we’ll welcome author Kevin Wilson to BookPeople to speak about and sign his acclaimed novel, now in paperback, The Family Fang. This reading is another in our monthly series with American Short Fiction. Liz Wyckoff, BP Event Leader and Outreach Coordinator for ASF, recently had the opportunity to ask Kevin a few questions about the book, writing funny prose, and books he recommends.
BP:The Family Fang challenges us to consider the importance of art and the extent to which artists must make personal sacrifices to produce art. I’m curious to hear your perspective on this as a professional writer. Do the social and familial sacrifices that your characters (Caleb and Camille Fang) make in the name of their performance art translate into the writing world, too?
KEVIN WILSON: I think so. I think family, no matter what your profession happens to be, asks you to reconfigure your life. It’s usually for the best, but there is that shift in priority and it can be disconcerting. My wife and I, both of us writers, felt it intensely when our son was born, the way we shifted our focus from our own work to our new work, our son Griff. There comes a time, however, when you have to decide if your writing (or whatever it is that moves you) deserves the time necessary to make it happen. In that respect, and perhaps only in that respect, I could sympathize with the Fang parents, their desire to give everything over to their art.
BP: While giving readers these serious issues to mull over, though, you’ve also created a series of performance art pieces that are delightfully inventive and entertaining. Your characters use their children as decoys, fake their own deaths, and catch fire while emerging from a burning house. How did you come up with these fantastic concepts? Were any inspired by real-life occurrences?
KW: I just kept asking myself how these characters could cause low-level but definitive chaos and that inevitably led me to malls and parks and places where people would group together but not be expecting strangeness. It became my favorite part of the novel; the parents do some incredibly cruel things to their children and it was hard to write about that betrayal when the children were older, but I really enjoyed finding ways for the parents to push their children into weird situations. I think I let my imagination get away from me sometimes.
BP: Without spoiling too much, I must say that a certain turn of events at the end of this novel surprised me (in a great way) and made me wonder about your writing process. Did you know what would happen to the Fang family when you started writing? In general, do outlines factor into your writing and, if so, to what degree do you usually find yourself sticking to them?
KW: I tend to spend a pretty long time trying to figure out the narrative in my head before I start writing. For short stories, I try to get the whole story rig in my head and then write it, which is why the writing process doesn’t take me as long as it might otherwise. That said, I rarely end up sticking to that imagined narrative, as the story always becomes more complicated and more difficult as I deal with it on the page. For the novel, I knew I wanted that particular ending, but I had no idea how to get there. It was like writing a mystery with no idea how it would be solved. It was, truth be told, a lot of fun.
BP: Several reviewers have compared The Family Fang to Wes Anderson’s fantastic film The Royal Tenenbaums, which, I think, is an apt—and flattering!—comparison in a lot of ways. Both works portray the peculiar dynamics of a family full of brilliant, artistic, high-achieving individuals. This premise follows in the tradition, even, of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. What would you say compelled you to write about a bizarrely talented family?
KW: I love the Glass family from Salinger’s work. I love the Tenenbaums from the Anderson movie. I love The Fantastic Four, especially Reed and Susan Richards’ children. I guess I just like looking at brilliant children who came from weird parents. I don’t know why, exactly, but I have always loved to write about the strangeness of family, of being defined by the people who made you and the people who are related to you.
BP: Though it can be quite serious at points, this novel is bursting with humorous characters, sentences, and bits of dialogue. Do you find yourself laughing when you read some of your own work? Are there any tricks or bits of advice you can share about writing funny prose?
KW: I never laugh at my own work. I’ve rewritten the lines too many times for them to have much effect on me. But I am, to be honest, trying very hard to keep the tone light in places, to make the dialogue have that awkward but funny rhythm. As far as advice goes, I would say that the line between what is sad and what is funny is very thin and that space is a great place to work. I find blunt language to also help; the less adorned the lines of dialogue are, the less chance the rhythm will get messed up and the reader will stumble over the joke. Straightforward sentences are a good vehicle for letting the reader find what is funny in your work. Then, once you feel confident in that sentence, you can, little by little, add weirdness in syntax to experiment with it.
BP: As both a novelist and a short story writer, could you make some recommendations for BookPeople customers in both genres? Are there any particular authors out there writing novels and stories that really knock your socks off?
KW: For novels, I cannot recommend Ann Patchett enough. I am always amazed by the way in which the plots of her novels seem so different from each other and yet she is able to tell a compelling and unique story each and every time out. She is, if we could calculate writing as a batting average, batting 1.000. Beyond Hall of Fame number. Ann Patchett: State of Wonder; Bel Canto; Taft.
I also love the novels of Chris Adrian. They are big and messy and not everything always comes together, but the grandness of the narrative, the depth of emotion on display, are so wonderful, that I can’t get enough. They are unbelievably sad and yet so life-affirming. Chris Adrian: Gob’s Grief; The Children’s Hospital; The Great Night.
For a book that I think exists in that space between a novel and a story collection, though everyone has probably read it already, but I love Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It is a perfect, brilliant book. The way in which the narrative shifts in time and between characters is virtuosic. It is touching and funny and exceptionally deep. Jennifer Egan: A Visit From the Goon Squad.
Finally, for short story collections, I loved Caitlin Horrocks’ This Is Not Your City, which I thought was beautifully written, with great humor and yet a sharp awareness of how we hurt each other. I also love Jim Shepard, who writes stories that usually have non-fictional elements. He’ll write about a family involved in the disaster at Chernobyl or the first Russian woman in space, and I love how he mixes the two elements together. I think he writes perfect stories. Caitlin Horrocks: This Is Not Your City. Jim Shepard: Like You’d Understand Anyway; Love and Hydrogen
Join BookPeople & American Short Fiction when we welcome Kevin Wilson to BookPeople on Tuesday, May 22 7p.