Off-Kilter: A Conversation with Kevin Wilson
Jan 23 ● BY Molly Yingling
In October 2022, at the Katherine Ann Porter House in Kyle, Texas, I sat down with writer Kevin Wilson to discuss creative inspiration, spontaneous combustion, generating fiction from fact, and his November 2022 novel Now Is Not the Time to Panic. At the time of the interview, I was just about two months away from my graduation from Texas State University’s MFA program, and I had spent a good amount of my time in the program looking for any opportunity to recommend Wilson’s work to my fellow graduate students. The opportunity to interview Wilson as a fellow writer after years of admiring his work as a fan was, and will remain, a high point in my graduate studies.
Molly Yingling: I’m acknowledging that it feels a bit like a cliché to ask where you get your ideas from, but I do find it interesting to know what inspires writers. I was wondering if you could share even just a couple moments of inspiration that you’ve experienced for your work . . . and if you have any tactics that you turn to when you need to feel inspired or need to get a jump out of writer’s block.
Kevin Wilson: I think just like [for] a ton of writers, inspiration is coming from my own experiences, and the reason that I don’t write nonfiction is because it’s not comfortable for me and I don’t trust my memory . . . I don’t trust a lot of the things about nonfiction. What I know is I can take this real kernel of truth and I can hide it inside of fiction and make it do something different than how it happened in the real world. And my reaction to that piece of true information generates the momentum of the story. So a lot of times, it’s just that: I start with something very small and just see what shakes out.
For me, I’ve kind of been a person who loops back a lot. I write about the same things over and over again, just in slightly different ways. As a kid I was super obsessed—from ages eight to fifteen—with spontaneous human combustion.
Yingling: That was another question that I had.
Wilson: I read a Mysteries of the Unknown book and there were UFOs and Bigfoot and that stuff just felt so away from me, but the idea that a human being could just burst into flames—that felt like something that I could get anxious about. And I just thought about it forever until eventually I put it in three of the books that I’ve written. Each time, I’m trying to do something different with it. I’ll take this real-life anxiety and I’ll work through it in a way that gets me to the end of it. And we’ll see what happens. The tiny kernel of truth that starts off the fiction.
Yingling: I feel the same way. I think everything that I write is based off of something that I experienced.
You already answered my question [laughs]. I was going to ask what your introduction to spontaneous combustion was. [Your story] “Blowing Up on the Spot” is one of my favorite short stories. It was assigned in one of my college creative writing classes and I’ve just loved it ever since. So, you said spontaneous combustion attracts you as a topic for fiction because it’s an anxiety.
Wilson: When I wrote that, I was young. I was just out of college. In that story, it’s the parents who blow up and it’s the main character who is worried that they are going to [spontaneously combust]. At that age, that’s what I was worried about: who are the people that made me and what am I going to take from them? By the time I got older and had my own kids . . . now my worry is what happens if I make a kid who bursts into flames.
Yingling: Another story that I really love is “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.” Especially because I’m about to graduate this year, I’m curious about your inspiration for that story. I find the characters—the directionless college students without a lot of prospects—to be quite relevant and relatable.
Wilson: After college I worked for two years. I worked in the Gender Studies program at Harvard as an assistant. I was like “Ok, I’m an adult I guess.” And I basically had a nervous breakdown and my parents came to get me. I was living in their house, wearing my pjs all the time and helping my mom make dinner. I was like, this is kind of seductive, you know? I think I could live the rest of my life in this house and not do anything else. I was thinking about just that weird feeling of being told, “Ok go out into the world after college and do whatever you’re going to do.” Maybe I can and maybe I can’t, but it felt strange to think that I was an adult. I wrote that story in some ways to try to figure out what happens when you sink so far down that it’s hard for you to figure out how to get back to where you were. Just like anything, I was writing because I was trying to figure it out for myself—how do I get back to the surface?
Yingling: Something else that I have noticed in several of your stories and in The Family Fang and your upcoming novel—you write either about children or from the perspective of children. We often discuss in fiction workshops that writing children can be really difficult. I’m curious if you find that writing children differs significantly from writing adult characters. Where does that difference occur? What is your process for creating believable adolescent characters?
Wilson: Most of my favorite books have children as the main characters. Partly that’s because I love watching someone navigate something for the first time instead of the twentieth time. When I’m writing children—especially now that I have kids—I really try to resist the urge to make them little adults. Children are not oracular. They don’t know everything and when they do figure stuff out, it’s sometimes just by happenstance or chance. So, a lot of times when I’m writing children, I’m trying to remember that—in almost every experience that a child has—the only framework that they have is the language of adults. They can’t talk about it in the way that an adult would frame it. That creates a lot of weirdness. Children don’t have experience when they encounter something, but they still have to process it and move through it. A lot of times when I’m writing kids, I’m doing two things at once: I’m making them instantly respond on the spot without prior knowledge as to what’s going on, and then [acknowledging] the awkwardness of not knowing if what they’ve done is correct or not. So, you can get a lot of tension and anxiety out of the newness. . . as a child, even your perspective is slightly off. I ask myself, “What does a child see that an adult can’t?”
Yingling: Your short story “Blowing Up on the Spot” was turned into a short film, correct? I am curious what that experience is like, knowing that your work is being adapted by someone else.
Wilson: Oh yeah! So that one was really interesting because I never had anything really to do with it. It was someone who liked the story and asked if he could adapt it for a short film. I love movies and TV, but for me, an adaptation is an adaptation. It’s not mine. The minute I tell someone that they can have it—it’s nice if they ask me questions and I hope it’s at least close to the spirit [of the writing]—it’s theirs. My story is still my story. The adaptation is way different than my story. It was cool to see someone take that tiny idea that I had and make it visual. But always—once I say yes, it’s yours.
Yingling: Something I’m particularly interested in—because it’s something I am striving to do whenever I write—a lot of your work inhabits a world that is like reality but contains unreal elements. I wonder if you have a particular way in which you categorize this type of writing. I always find myself using the phrase “several degrees off of reality” because I’m not sure if it’s quite absurdism or surrealism. Do you have a way that you describe that kind of writing? What draws you into that realm of fiction?
Wilson: You said “degrees” and that’s how I think about it. I don’t think necessarily that what I’m doing is a genre unto itself. I’m not saying that it’s sci-fi, it’s not that; I’m not fulfilling the expectations of that genre. But it’s a degree of fiction where it’s tilted just slightly enough that you get a weird feeling. I don’t even think that it’s magical realism or fabulism exactly . . . The way I think about it, and I think other people have said this: if you take a house and you turn it on its side, everything in the house just slides to the wall. Anyone in that house will think, “Oh my god, my house is sideways!” I’m not trying to do that kind of intense flip of the world. What I’m trying to do is get that house several degrees off the ground so that, by the look of it, nothing would seem weird. But if you put your pencil on the table, it rolls off. As you walk, it feels slightly off, but you can’t quite see it. That’s what I like—you can get weirdness just by tilting it a little bit. But I’m still indebted to what makes that house a house. I’m always figuring out the degree or turning—I’m trying to calibrate the right amount of weirdness so that people will still believe it.
Yingling: Something that I think is top of mind for a lot of aspiring writers is confidence in your own work. Every other day I’ll think my own writing is great and the next day I’ll think it’s terrible and just go back and forth. Do you have any advice that you would offer writers to speak to finding confidence in your role as a writer? What would you say to a writer who feels discouraged?
Wilson: I think anything you do over time, you’ll eventually get a sense of what you do well and what you don’t and you learn to play up what you’re good at. I don’t mean this to sound falsely humble, because it’s not, but I do think I’m a good writer and I think I’ve gotten better over time. I just loved writing so much that I was ok with rejection, I was ok with criticism, I was ok with someone thinking the story wasn’t very good, because I knew I was going to keep writing. There have definitely been writers I have known who are more talented, but once they hit rejection, they quit. I figured, eventually I’ll just outlast everyone—I’ll wait them out, I’ll just keep writing. Each time, I’ll get a little better and get a little closer. And I’m ok with failure. I don’t have any other option but to make it work, so I’ll just write six stories instead of five. And that’s worked out really well for me. I’ve just held on and slowly gotten better. You have to be prepared to say that the failure is worth it if it means at the end of it, you have something you can be proud of.
Yingling: So it’s a process, like training for a marathon. You know you have to get stronger. It’s nice to be reminded that endurance and training can lead to improvement.
Wilson: Yes. And art is so subjective. A lot of it is just luck. And the only way you can get lucky is that on that day, that editor read your story and liked it. And the only way to get there is to play the odds—to write as many stories and to submit as often as possible so that luck goes up.
Yingling: Do you have something you’ve written that you’re most proud of?
Wilson: That’s a cool question! In some ways, I think it’s the novel I wrote Nothing to See Here. Not necessarily because I think it’s better than anything else I’ve written . . . I thought so much about it, and I worked my way through it, and it ended up exactly how I wanted it to be. I’m not saying it’s my best book, but it’s the one that became exactly what I’d intended at the start. That made me feel like it was possible to work through a piece hard enough to get what I need.
Yingling: You have a new novel coming out next month [November 2022]. What has the self-promotion experience been like for you? I know a lot of writers can feel awkward or unprepared to promote their own work.
Wilson: When my first collection of stories came out, the main social media platform was Facebook. So, I was told to get on Facebook and to start a blog. And I didn’t really like it; it didn’t feel natural to me. I stopped doing it, and that was comfortable for me. But here’s the thing: if you don’t promote yourself and you don’t use social media, you can’t get mad when nobody comes to your reading, because they have no clue what you’re doing. I had to figure out what the happy medium is for me. I got on Instagram earlier this year. And that felt manageable; that felt comfortable enough. Everyone should promote themselves however they feel comfortable. But you also have to accept the limitations of that decision. There are also other ways to make connections by being a literary citizen.
Yingling: To follow up on that—and to close out the interview—do you have a plug for Now Is Not the Time to Panic that you’d like to share?
Wilson: I don’t really! But one thing I’m realizing is that I like short books. My wheelhouse is at about two hundred pages, that’s where I’m really comfortable. Short novels are such a cool form; within that space you can do a lot, but the momentum is still fast. So, it’s kind of a lame pitch, but if you like short novels, I think you’ll like this one!