Kevin Wilson wandered into the book stacks at Powell’s, and I followed close behind him. I can learn everything I need to know about a person by looking at what they read, so I needed to see what he was buying.
Wilson was in town to promote the paperback release of his first novel, The Family Fang, a book that made its way onto several Top Ten Books lists last year including those of Kirkus, Time Magazine, Esquire, Booklist, and People Magazine, to name a few. It’s the story of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang and their children Buster and Annie. Ann Patchett had this to say about it: “A comedy, a tragedy, and a tour de force examination of what it means to make art and survive your family. The best single word description would be genius.”
I expected him to swagger in, strut his way to the podium, and carry on about his literary accomplishments. Instead he sat down next to me and worried no one would show up. Of course he had nothing to worry about because dozens of Portland fans showed up to shower him with questions and profess their extreme delight with the book that had to be the most off-beat and unique story I read last year. I adored it! Read my review HERE.
Wilson turned out to be as approachable as a Golden Retriever and as quirky as one of his characters, two of whom he had tattooed on his arm. He spoke from the heart in a self-deprecating and completely unfiltered manner. In fact, he was so unfiltered, I’ve held back some of the things he said. I’ll let him tell you himself.
“Thank you all for coming out. I’ve been on tour for almost a week. I was in San Francisco and LA and nobody came. I was used to it in the regular book tour, but I’ve been dreading every subsequent reading so this makes me really happy. Now I won’t have to go back to the hotel and eat a whole pizza in shame. It’ll be too late to even call my wife in Tennessee, so I can’t cry. I’m really glad that you all came. Out of pity, I know, but I appreciate it.”
When asked if The Family Fang resembled his own upbringing Wilson said,
“Not really. My parents, they’re both from Tennessee. My father was the captain of the football team and was incredibly handsome. My mom was the head cheerleader and she was beautiful. They were these beautiful people and they made me, but they were deeply strange underneath all that. They kind of kept it hidden until they had kids. My parents sort of have issues with social anxiety – they don’t like to leave the house. I don’t remember people coming to our house when we were growing up. It was just the four of us and they were intensely in love with us. In high school on Friday nights we just all played canasta together. We were really tightly knit and we were our parents best friends, and they were our best friends. They let us do whatever we wanted, so I wore superhero costumes to school all the time. My parents helped me make stop-motion Star Wars movies. We made all these movies in our house with my sister and I. It was really wonderful, and they never let us feel like we were strange people. But then what happened is I grew up and I had to go into the real world. My parents constantly would tell us, “What we have here is really wonderful and what’s out there is really terrifying and awful, and it’s not going to be like this, and you’re going to hate it, and they were right.” Well, maybe it’s a little like The Family Fang…
Wilson teaches fiction at The University of the South in Tennessee which he says is wonderful, “Cuz I don’t live in Portland. I live in Tennessee and nobody wants to talk about books, so the only chance I get is with my students. I look forward to that time because they have to sit there and I get to talk with them about all the books that I think are good.”
He thanked everyone for coming and said, “Y’all staved off depression for another day.” Oh, and the books he bought? Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and Leni Zuma’s The Listeners.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, 2009, which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts.