Kevin Wilson Talks The Family Fang, Fatherhood, and Irresponsible Tattoos
August 22, 2011 by Andrew.Toal
A couple of hours before we were scheduled to talk, Kevin Wilson contacts me on Facebook to see if we can move it back a few hours. The reason, he sheepishly explains, is that he’s at a photo shoot and it’s running late. He doesn’t seem that accustomed to the attention, but that could change quickly with the release of his first novel, The Family Fang. It’s the story of a family of oddball performance artists, and how the primacy of art in the lives of the parents—Caleb and Camille—has adversely affected the lives of their now adult children Annie and Buster. We eventually caught up post-photo shoot and talked about potato gun accidents, balancing art and life, and the decline and fall of shopping malls.
inReads: How was the photo shoot?
Kevin Wilson: Oh it was fine. I don’t know. It was weird. My author photo is from 2008, and we’ve had a kid since then and I’ve gained quite a bit of weight.
inReads: I hear that happens.
Wilson: It does. It certainly happened to me, so looking at the pictures was slightly shocking. In my mind, whenever I think of myself, it’s my author photo from 2008. I’m like, “You’re doing alright Kevin. You’re in good shape.” And I had gone on the Subway diet for two weeks before, but that didn’t help at all.
inReads: The meatball subs?
Wilson: Yeah, the meatball subs. The foot long meatball sub diet. Yeah.
inReads: So, the question I’m really burning to ask about your book is this: Have you yourself ever been shot in the face with a potato gun?
Wilson: [Laughs] No, but I’ve seen someone get shot in the foot, and that was horrifying enough. It didn’t fire, and when he turned it down to try and look at the firing mechanism, it went off on his foot. That was bad enough. It was hard to tell what was skin and what was potato. It was not pleasant. You know Tucker Carlson, the conservative pundit? He wrote an article about ten years ago for Esquire about potato guns and how wonderful they were.
inReads: I just have this picture in my mind of him out there in his bow tie, shooting spuds at cardboard cutouts of Nancy Pelosi.
Wilson: Yeah. Or Jon Stewart.
inReads: So this is your first novel. You at all nervous?
Wilson: I’m happy that it has come out. The scary part was whether I would be able to write one, having already been given the money in advance for writing it. It was a lot of pressure to make sure I delivered and didn’t have to return the advance. Having never written a novel, it seemed like maybe not a smart idea. There was a lot of intense pressure in the beginning, just to see if I could write one, but once I figured out that I had a narrative that would become the novel, I felt okay. Then it was much easier. So, with the actual book coming out, there’s nothing for me to worry about. Unless it tanks, which is really in a lot of ways something I don’t control. I was just pleased that I wrote it.
inReads: Well this isn’t the one you have to worry about. If Buster’s career as an author is any indication, it’s the follow up you have to worry about.
Wilson: That’s gonna be the one. We’ll see. I want to keep writing at a good clip, and I don’t want to take ten years between novels. But it was intense to write a book. I don’t know what it’s going to take to write a second book.
inReads: Second books seem tough. You should just give up and go straight to your third.
Wilson: [Laughs] I think I might. Or I might just make it a sequel, if this book does well. I like fantasy and detective novels because there’s a built-in audience. They just follow up from the previous story. So there’s not the same pressure on a genre writer as there is on a literary writer, where your second work is gonna be completely different from the thing you did last time that did so well. Like Game of Thrones, the second and third books for a fantasy or sci-fi series are often the best because the first book just builds the world and the second actually does something with it. But with literary stuff, you don’t have that safety net. You have to do it completely new, and there’s no guarantee that the people who liked the first one will even care about the second one.
inReads: The Fangs thrive on taking people out of their comfort zones. Do you think it’s important to have people like that around?
Wilson: Well, I don’t know if it’s important, but I think it is what it is. There are people like that. Maybe not to the extent of Caleb and Camille Fang, but there are people who enjoy chaos—who enjoy the fact that the world as we expect it may not be the best way for us to live. I personally am terrified of any chaos. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but I accept that there are people who create chaos for no other reason than there needs to be chaos.
inReads: You had your first kid around the same time as you started writing this book. How did that affect your writing comfort zone?
Wilson: It completely changed my ability to make stuff. We had him and he literally pushed me out of my writing room. My study became the baby room. My father and I then finished the basement, where I wrote this novel. I could hear Grif, my son, and my wife above me. I could hear them walking and talking, but I was underground.
inReads: You were furtively writing in dark corners.
Wilson: Yeah exactly. And I could hear him crying, so I couldn’t even escape it when I went to write. There was no escaping that we had made a kid, and now he was ours. I think that bled over into the writing of the book; the idea that there was this kid, and I was realizing that I was responsible for him. And then I started writing The Family Fang, and that these were obviously worse parents than me, just as a way to remind myself that I wasn’t totally fucking things up.
inReads: You learn as you go, I hear.
Wilson: I guess so. I wish I picked things up a little more quickly. He’s three and a half now, so I feel like we’ve reached a nice middle ground toward keeping him alive. It’s not just on us. That was when it was really terrible. He seemed to be daring us to let him not live, by not eating and not sleeping and crying all the time. Once he gained agency, it became much easier.
inReads: I’m not a parent, and maybe this is a reason why I shouldn’t be, but I think there has got to be a huge compulsion to use little kids as props like the Fangs did.
Wilson: It’s actually the other way around. I can’t get him to do anything, but he can get me to do the most ridiculous shit in service of his whims. I’ve gone to the weirdest places, so many train museums. I’ve pretended to be a pig for like an hour and a half straight. Whatever he wants me to do. And if I just want him to put his shoes on, it takes every ounce of strength I have just to get that to happen. I feel like more a prop in his art pieces than the other way around.
inReads: Grif the puppet master.
Wilson: Yes, he is the puppet master.
Wilson: Those might be my two favorite writers of all time. I know Carson McCullers is probably my favorite. And Saunders, I don’t think I’d write the way I write if I hadn’t read his stuff. He really very clearly affected how I thought about what you could do with ridiculousness and wacky modes.
inReads: One of my favorite parts in the book is the piece at the Chicken Queen, where Caleb and Camille fail unspectacularly. The decline of once great artists can be sad to behold.
Wilson: When your pieces start out with you actually shooting another human being, where do you go from there? And then when the world adjusts to that craziness, how do you surprise them the next time? That’s the terrifying and wonderful thing about all forms of art. The minute you create something new, the world adjusts and you have to figure out a new way to do it. With the Fangs, you can see they really are slipping. I can sympathize with them, and the fact that I want to write a second book about the Fangs speaks to that. It’s hard, once you’ve established something, to try something new and not fuck it up.
inReads: I like that many of their pieces took place in shopping malls. Like the Fangs, malls are on the decline. I haven’t yet read the definitive book on the cultural footprint of malls, but I think there are a lot of stories there.
Wilson: Yeah, I haven’t read that book either. When I was a kid, the mall was the only place to go to where anything was happening. They were the most incredible places. You were just in this big huge building filled with shit, and there were all these people walking around and you could just walk around as long as you wanted to. One of my best friends in high school did city planning and stuff in college, but he had a list of all the malls. We would travel to cities just to see the mall. He would tell you what the anchor stores were, he knew all about these malls. Some of these were already ghost malls. We would drive four hours and walk around and there would be like one record shop, a baby clothes shop, and then we’d drive home. He was really infatuated, and then I became kind of infatuated. They’ve kind of outlived their purpose, but I just loved them. And I thought they would just be the best place for weirdness. The potential for bizarre stuff to happen just seemed so high.
inReads: And the Mrs. Fields cookies…
Wilson: Some guy had rented a kiosk at the Northgate Mall and he just had a bunch of snakes. That just seemed not legal, but he just had this kiosk with snakes.
inReads: Mall cops aren’t going to stop the Northgate snake guy.
Wilson: He was in there. He existed. I think once you set up at the mall you can just do whatever you want.
inReads: I read on your blog that you got a Fang tattoo. It reminded me of the Dallas Maverick’s Jason Terry, who got a tattoo of the Larry O’Brien trophy before the season even started. That’s kind of what you did, right?
Wilson: [Laughs] No, I waited until the Publishers Weekly and Kirkus reviews came out. Once those were starred reviews, then I went to get the tattoo. I was like, that was enough to push me into getting this permanent reminder of the book on my arm. So I didn’t get it right away. I have a tattoo of a cat playing a marching band drum, so I obviously don’t put a lot of thought into them. This is the most responsible tattoo I’ve got. It’s not just that I wanted to mark up my arm to distract from how fat I’ve gotten, there’s a real genuine reason for it.
inReads: The Miami Heat could’ve used a couple of role players like Caleb and Camille to take Terry out of his comfort zone when he was busy drilling crucial threes.
Wilson: Yeah, that would’ve been nice. I can’t believe that the Fangs never went to a big sporting event!
inReads: Maybe in the sequel.
Wilson: Yes, maybe in the sequel.
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Elsewhere in inReads: A first-person take on writing by an author who wrote about a very different kind of family in a very different kind of darkness.
About The Author:
Drew Toal is a freelance writer and photo booth operator. He currently resides in Brooklyn. Some of his tattoos were featured in the 2010 book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos From Bookworms Worldwide.