Ever since childhood, author Kevin Wilson has lived with disturbing images that flash through his mind without warning.
"I've always had this kind of agitation and looping thoughts and small tics," he says. "Falling off of tall buildings, getting stabbed, catching on fire — they were these just quick, kind of violent bursts in my head."
Not that Wilson would ever harm anyone else — the harm in these quick, intrusive thoughts was strictly internal. The images fed off of his own anxiety, and left him feeling terrified.
It wasn't until Wilson was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome as an adult that he began to understand what he was seeing. At first, he was skeptical of the diagnosis; Tourette's is a neurological disorder often characterized by involuntary vocal or motor tics, and Wilson's version wasn't what he'd seen portrayed on TV or in books.
"Mine is so much more internal," he says. "Those images and looping tics are in my head. And so a lot of the work that I'm doing is just keeping it in there."
One way that Wilson helps control the images is to include them through his writing. His new novel, Nothing to See Here, is about a woman who takes over the care of twin children who burst into flames when they're afraid or angry.
"Writing is, I think, the thing that saved me — being able to transfer what was in my head onto the page," he says. "There's this freedom that once it ... goes out into the world and you publish it, you're kind of free of it for a little while — at least it's somebody else's problem."
On his fascination with spontaneous combustion
I was an anxious kid, and I had all this agitation inside of me, and so it made sense that I just assumed I might burst into flames. It seemed entirely possible. And then as I got older and became a teenager and my anxiety kind of became more understandable, I kind of wanted to burst into flames, like that would burn out all the anxiety inside of me and I'd be kind of clean. So I just kind of wanted that. And so it just repeated in my head over and over again until I decided, "I've got to write about it." Knowing children — I have two little boys — and I think children when they have tantrums or even when they're agitated they look like they're going to combust. It's entirely possible to me that my boys might burst into flames.
On growing up, and hiding the intrusive thoughts he experienced from his family
My family is incredible. We were as close as we could be, like every Friday night when we were teenagers, my sister and I would play canasta with my parents. We were just always with each other. But there was still this kind of hidden part of me that I didn't want to talk about, because I was certain that once it kind of entered the open air it would change everything. ...
If I said, "I have this darkness inside of me," it might destroy the wonderful life that we had all built together — I would be the reason that it started to become complicated, that my agitation would cause anxiety for them. I think they easily could have handled it. They loved me and still love me, but when you're a kid you're not certain. You don't know what's the tipping point. So I hid it.
On what it feels like to have the intrusive thoughts and panic come to him suddenly
They do feel like tics — like, they pop into my brain. And a lot of times I can't predict when it will happen. Sometimes I'm just driving, we're going on a trip and it will hit — and it's this quick. I turn my head a little bit to kind of shake it out to try to break that loop. And there's a moment where there's this kind of panic internally, because it's come back or I see it clearly and then it flashes, it goes away. It goes deep back inside of my brain. Then the kind of agitation is the knowledge that, at some point, it's going to loop back around. That's the weird thing, is just not knowing when it will loop back. In each new agitation or weirdness or strange image — when I add it to the Rolodex, it doesn't get rid of another one. It just increases the kind of looping as it spins around in my head. ... If I'm near heights I see somebody or me falling off and I can see the impact and then I'd jump out of it. I shake my head out of that, but it will come back. I'm always certain of that.
On how he manages the tics
I've lived in this body and with this brain for so long that sometimes I'm not so much worried about me — like I live with it. I know what it is. The hard thing is when I go out into the world, because obviously you can't just walk into a crowded space and say, "Hey, I might have this weird image of bursting into flames, and that's why I'm going to have this weird look on my face or some anxiety." So then it's that weirdness of just trying to hold it together as you navigate this public space, so that you don't look like you're in trouble. So, for me, it's easiest — and I'm happiest — when I'm in a small, contained space and with people that I love and trust. That's why my family — those are the people that I spend most of my time with. Because they know me and I know them and I don't have to worry about explaining myself. So isolation is good for me up to a point.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kevin Wilson, writes novels about families - families where something extreme is happening. In his best-known novel, "The Family Fang," the parents are performance artists who make their children be part of the act. In Wilson's new novel, "Nothing To See Here," a 28-year-old single woman, Lillian, is asked to take care of two 10-year-old twins. She's warned that they have a unique affliction - when they are frightened or angry, they burst into flames. The flames don't damage the children, but the fire can spread and burn the people and things around them.
The novel is partly inspired by how Kevin Wilson felt as a child when he couldn't control the terrifying images that flashed through his mind. When he was an adult, he was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome. In the novel, the person who asked Lillian to take care of the twins is Lillian's former prep school roommate, Madison. Lillian couldn't afford the tuition, but she had a scholarship. Madison was from a wealthy family and has since married Jasper, a senator on the verge of being nominated to serve as secretary of state. The twins are children from his previous marriage. Their mother has just died, so the twins are coming to live with Jasper and Madison, who see these combustible children as a burden and a threat to Jasper's political career.
Kevin Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I'd like you to start with a reading, where Lillian for the first time witnesses the children catching on fire. Place this section in context for us, and describe if you will what sets the children off.
KEVIN WILSON: Sure. So Lillian has brought the two children, Bessie and Roland, to meet Jasper and Madison. And there is another man, Carl, who is a handler for the family, who is also there. And the children have been estranged from their father, Jasper, for several years, and simply the sight of him sort of agitates them and kind of starts off this process.
(Reading) Smoke started coming off the children, their cheap clothes now singed. Oh, Madison said. And everyone was just standing there, not doing anything while these children increased the intensity of the fire that was inside them. That's what it seemed like, like the fire was inside them - children made afire. And I knew it would get worse if something didn't happen to stop it. Madison and Jasper seemed stunned, and Carl's only concern was keeping Jasper from getting burned. I took off my muumuu - which was so easy to remove, by the way - and then I used it to cover my hands and gently lower the children to a squatting position on the ground.
Hey, Bessie. Bessie, calm down now, OK? She was rigid, and so was Roland. But the fire was just rolling across them, yellow and red, like what you draw with a limited supply of crayons. Can you turn it off? I asked. Almost whispering. But they weren't listening. So then I started smothering the flames with the muumuu, which caused it to smolder and spark. I patted the children all over their arms, their backs, on top of their little heads. I went pat, pat, pat, pat, pat and kept whispering, it's OK, it's OK, it's OK. I could feel the heat, but I just kept lightly tapping them, and the fire seemed to finally die out.
As if they had been holding their breath the entire time, Bessie and Roland each took in a deep gulp of air and then sighed, suddenly sleepy. I leaned against them, and they kind of slumped onto to me. And Carl finally ran over and scooped them both up, one in each arm, and put them back in the van, gently closing the doors.
GROSS: That's Kevin Wilson reading a section of his new novel, "Nothing To See Here." Where does the image of children expressing their anger or their fear or their attempt to protect themselves as catching on fire - I mean, in a way it's almost like a tantrum, and we all understand children's tantrums. We've either witnessed them or, you know, experienced them. But why this image of catching fire?
WILSON: I mean, for me, it starts when I was a child. When I was probably 9 or 10 years old, I was obsessed with these commercials on TV for the Time-Life "Mysteries Of The Unknown" set of books, which you could order. And I wanted them so badly, but they were very expensive, and my parents were never going to order something over the phone. But I had a friend, my best friend Tony Patrachko (ph) had them, and I would go over to his house and read them. And I was obsessed with them.
And there was this really small section, maybe even just a panel, on spontaneous human combustion, and the moment I saw it and understood that possibility, it just locked into my brain forever. I thought about it a lot, this kind of reoccurring image in my head of people bursting into flames. And I was an anxious kid, and I had all this agitation inside of me, and so it made sense that I just assumed I might burst into flames. It seemed entirely possible. And then as I got older and became a teenager and my anxiety kind of became more understandable, I kind of wanted to burst into flames, you know, like that would burn out all the anxiety inside of me, and I'd be kind of clean.
So I just kind of wanted that. And so it just kind of repeated in my head over and over again until I decided I've got to write about it. And like you said with knowing children, I have two little boys. And I think children, when they have tantrums or even when they're agitated, they look like they're going to combust. It's entirely possible to me that my boys might burst into flames.
GROSS: I think my mother, when things would get out of hand and the kids or the cousins were getting too excited, she'd say, they're getting overheated.
WILSON: It's true. And even my son, Griff, who when he gets anxious, he feels it all in his ears as a heat, and he'll just dunk his head in water. And to me, I was like, yes, that makes perfect sense. That's what I would do, too.
GROSS: Tell me what it said about spontaneous combustion.
WILSON: Well, I mean...
GROSS: About human spontaneous combustion.
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, the important thing about spontaneous human combustion is that you die, you know, and you burst into flames, and the flame works on the fat in your body and you burn down. And a lot of times, that's so self-contained that, like, even the chair that you're sitting in is kind of untouched. But that was not interesting to me (laughter). I didn't want to burst into flames and die; I wanted to burst into flames over and over again, as many times as I needed to. So once I understood the mystery of it, I thought that's not mysterious enough; I want more than that. I need it to happen again and again.
GROSS: Well, you have the kind of opposite - like, the children who burst into flames are not harmed by the flames, but people around them could be. They can burn the house down. They can burn a tree down.
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, that's for me how agitation and anger and tantrums work. I mean, it may be affecting you internally, but it's the external world that it really affects, that it kind of disrupts.
GROSS: So a question in the book is, like, where did the children get this crazy ability? Is it inherited and, if so, is it the mother or the father who passed on this, like, strange power? And I know that's been an issue for you because you're concerned that you've passed on some of your problems to your oldest son. You were diagnosed, as an adult, with Tourette's syndrome.
WILSON: Yeah. And you know, I've always had this kind of agitation and looping thoughts and small tics. And finally, as an adult, a neurologist said, I think you might have Tourette's. And again, it wasn't how it was portrayed on TV or in books so I didn't fully believe that. But I wanted to get better so that's what I accepted.
GROSS: Can we just interrupt here and say the way it's portrayed on TV is that you keep saying things that you ordinarily wouldn't say - and some of those things are very, like, insulting and it shows what's going on in your brain - that other people would censor, but you would just, like, shout it out. But that's not what you have.
WILSON: Right. I mean, mine is so much more internal. Those images and looping tics are in my head. And so a lot of the work that I'm doing is just keeping it in there. And so you know, once I realized this, we were also thinking about having kids. And I knew we wanted them, but I also wasn't sure how to take care of them. And I knew one of the things I was worried about was - genetically, what am I passing on to my children? What am I responsible for with them? And my boys, you know, they're 11 and 7, and Griff certainly has shown issues of anxiety. And that became a huge worry.
But frankly, (laughter) I think maybe I was a little self-important. Like, I thought - oh, you know, I'm going to ruin my children. But I think maybe my children won't let me ruin them. They're tougher and more stable than maybe I had imagined. They're incredible and wild and weird. But you know, that initial worry - like, oh, God, when you have a kid, you just ruin them - starts to fall away as the children learn how to survive without you.
GROSS: And have their own will that you can't necessarily shape (laughter).
WILSON: Yeah. And then it becomes scary in a different way. You're worried at first that they're too much like you. And then you realize that they're not you at all. And then that's terrifying because then - how are you going to keep them close to you?
GROSS: Well, I read an article about you in which you were talking about how, when your son was young, he wouldn't eat. And you were afraid, like - I mean, you need to eat to stay alive. And he just wouldn't eat. And he was obviously very afraid of something, but he wouldn't tell you what he was afraid of. Can you talk about what it was like to handle that?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, he - you know, Griff would have what he would say bad thoughts. You know, I'm having these kind of stressful, strange thoughts, which he didn't want to tell us about. And I understood that clearly because that's how my brain works, too. You know, my brain doesn't care if I want to think about it or not. It gives me what it gives me. And so those moments can be so stressful that you don't want to eat. You don't want to communicate. You want to move inside of yourself to protect yourself.
And so when I saw that happening with Griff, I both understood it very clearly but I also understood that whatever is inside of him is mysterious to me. It's not exactly the same, no matter how much I think it might be. But yeah, it was that initial worry that - oh, this is me - this is me all over again.
GROSS: What were your fears when you had - when you were terrified as a kid but wouldn't tell anyone?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, they were mostly these kind of repeating images of doom, of danger, of - and it wasn't always me - but falling off of tall buildings, getting stabbed, catching on fire. They were these just quick, kind of violent bursts in my head.
And I have to say, like, my family is incredible. They were - we were as close as we could be. I mean, like, every Friday night when we were teenagers, my sister and I would play canasta with my parents. We were just always with each other. But there was still this kind of hidden part of me that I didn't want to talk about because I was certain that once it kind of entered the open air, it would change everything.
GROSS: How? How would it change everything?
WILSON: Because if I said I have this darkness inside of me, it might kind of destroy the kind of wonderful life that we had all built together, that I would be the reason that it started to become complicated - you know? - that my agitation would cause anxiety for them. You know? And of course, I think they easily could have handled it. They loved me and still love me. But when you're a kid, you're not certain. Right? You don't know what's the tipping point. So I hid it.
GROSS: So you mentioned these images that would just come into your mind, like falling off a tall building or being stabbed. I mean, I worry about all kinds of things, but I don't have these, like, images coming to my mind, these, like, frightening pictures that come up in my mind without me asking for them. So would you describe what it's like to have those images? It sounds like they're maybe fleeting but extremely disturbing and very...
GROSS: ...Very graphic and specific.
WILSON: They feel like - they do feel like tics. Like, they pop into my brain. And a lot of times, it's - I can't, you know, predict when it will happen. Sometimes I'm just driving. You know, we're going on a trip, and it will hit. And it's this quick - I kind of turn my head a little bit to kind of shake it out, to try to break that loop. And there's a moment where there's this kind of panic internally because it's come back or I see it clearly. And then it flashes. You know, it goes away. It kind of goes deep back inside of my brain.
And then the kind of agitation is the knowledge that, at some point, it's going to loop back around. And that's the weird thing, is just not knowing when it will loop back. And each new agitation or weirdness or strange image, when I add it to the Rolodex (laughter), it doesn't get rid of another one. It just increases the kind of looping as it spins around in my head.
GROSS: Do they repeat themselves, or is it constantly new images?
WILSON: Oh, yeah - always. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like, you know. And if I'm near heights, I see somebody or me falling off, and I can see the impact. And then, you know, I jump out of it. I kind of shake my head out of that. But it will come back. I'm always certain of that.
GROSS: To what extent do these images make you afraid of the world versus making you afraid of yourself and your brain?
WILSON: Well, I mean, I don't - I've lived in this body and with this brain for so long that it's - sometimes I'm not so much worried about me. Like, I live with it. I know what it is. The hard thing is when I go out into the world because, obviously, you can't just walk into a crowded space and say, hey, I might have this weird image of bursting into flames, and that's why I'm going to have this weird look on my face or some anxiety. So - you know, so then it's that weirdness of just trying to hold it together as you navigate this public space so that you don't look like you're in trouble.
And so for me, it's easiest and I'm happiest when I'm in a small, contained space and with people that I love and trust. You know, that's why my family is the - those are the people that I spend most of my time with because they know me and I know them. And I don't have to worry about explaining myself. So isolation is - you know, it's good for me up to a point.
GROSS: But you also teach. Do you tell your students?
WILSON: I think they get a sense that I have some weirdness. I don't like to make eye contact with them because I don't want them to see, like, my facial expressions or the changing of it. But frankly, like, actually, teaching is one of the best things for me because I'm talking about something that I really love, which is writing and literature and the craft of creative writing. And there are these 15 kids that are all really curious and intelligent and smart and that's - for me, I can feel that worry and stuff kind of bleed away because I'm kind of in control of the narrative, and they're with me and they're willing to go with me. So teaching, actually, is when I'm calmest.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Wilson. He's the author of the novel "The Family Fang" and the new novel "Nothing To See Here." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR-ON-SIX")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Kevin Wilson, and his new novel is called "Nothing To See Here."
You've said that you live in your head. And I'm wondering how the Tourette's affects your life as a writer and if it affects your need to write.
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, I think from a young age I always had narrative in my head. There were these images and ideas, and I loop a lot. And when I read or see things that I like, I tend to watch them again and again so that I can kind of memorize the sound of it and so that that can kind of stay inside my head. And it wasn't until, like, college really that I realized, oh, these are narratives. These are stories.
And there's a way that - you know, part of the problem was they were in my head for so long that they started to repeat and get weirder and weirder. And there was a point where I thought if I can just put this on paper, I might have some control over it. And I thought, oh, it'll get rid of it. And it doesn't quite do that, but it allows me this way to kind of control and deal with those images. So writing is, I think, the thing that saved me, being able to transfer what was in my head onto the page. And then there's this freedom that once it hits the open air, once it goes out into the world and you publish it, you're kind of free of it for a little while, at least. It's somebody else's problem.
GROSS: Like me, the reader (laughter)?
WILSON: Yeah (laughter) I'm inflicting these weird things on the reader so I don't have to deal with them.
GROSS: What - could you describe one of the frightening images that came unbidden to your mind and scared you and recurred that you kind of took out and described and put into a book?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, so - obviously, there's this one with spontaneous human combustion. But I think there's more to that. Like, this is - I realize now this is going to make me sound like I'm an insane person, but for some reason, I always have this image looping in my head of someone getting stabbed in the back of the head. And so all through college and into my early 20s, I was just writing story after story that always began with so-and-so was stabbed in the back of the head, you know, and they live. And so I wrote that again and again and again. I must have written six stories that began. And if you went through my papers and saw all these beginnings, you would think there's something going on here. And there was. I was just trying to figure out, again, how to take that strange moment and make it into a narrative.
And in a lot of ways - like, another one I have as a throat being slashed with a razor. And that's from this French film "Cache" that I saw when I was in my mid-20s, and it just stuck in my head. And the character, obviously, dies when they do that. And in a lot of times, those images, when I write them, what I'm trying to figure out is I don't want that person to die. How could you slash your throat and live and keep going? And so in my last book of stories, there's a story called "Wildfire Johnny" about a man who finds a magical razor, and if he slashes his throat, he can go back in time 24 hours to change any outcome. And, again, I think I'm always trying to figure out how can this strange, awful thing be survived, right? How can we get through that to the next thing?
GROSS: Since you say that you live in your head, what do you do about the rest of your body? Like (laughter) do you work out? Do you care about the rest of your body?
WILSON: I don't take good care of it, that's for sure. No. I like the walk. I like to walk with the kids. My son will put on an audiobook, and I'll put on an audiobook, and we walk side by side, and I can feel the closeness of him to me. And we just keep walking. We keep moving. And as we do that, we're listening to these narratives that can kind of take the place of whatever is in our head. And it's really calming and wonderful. But most of the time, I'm trying to make my space as small as possible. I'm trying to keep my body as tightly contained as it can be so that it's protected. So I don't like to leave the house, and I will and I can do it, but the happiest is when it's just me and my family and we're close enough that we sense each other is there.
GROSS: My guest is Kevin Wilson. His new novel is called "Nothing To See Here." After a break, we'll talk about the phrase that he's been repeating to himself for many years, which is the starting point for the novel he's now working on. And John Powers will review the new season of the Amazon Prime video series "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan" starring John Krasinski. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "MALAGA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with writer Kevin Wilson. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan describes his 2011 novel "The Family Fang" as strange and wonderful. His new novel, "Nothing To See Here," is about a 28-year-old woman who gets a job taking care of twin 10-year-olds with a bizarre disorder - when they are frightened or angry, they burst into flames. Family is the subject Wilson most often writes about. When he was a child, he was terrified by the alarming images that would loop around his brain. As an adult, he was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, which helped explain those alarming images.
So you've said that you're working on a novel built off a single phrase that you've repeated to yourself constantly since you were 10. Are you still working on that book?
WILSON: I am, yeah. It's a phrase that I actually put in "The Family Fang." "The Family Fang" was my first novel, and I was pretty certain I would never write another novel, like this was my one shot. And so I put everything into it. And then what happened was I was like, oh, God, I have to keep writing...
WILSON: ...If I'm going to have a career. So I just started taking things from that novel and expanding them, like the governess taking care of the children on fire. And there was that phrase I'd used as a tossed-off line. And I was like, oh, no, that's - I need that back. I got to get that back. So I am working on a novel now that - I mean, it sounds terrible as I say it, but it's - it really is just all about this single line that I've said in my head. I've said it multiple times a week for every week that I've been alive since I was 19, I think.
GROSS: Could you say that line now, or is it too soon to say it?
WILSON: No, I can say it. I say it all the time in my head. It's a - it's, the edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.
The summer after my freshman year in college in Nashville, I lived with a boy named Eric Haley (ph). He was older than me. He was four years older, and he was an actor. He had gotten his MFA at Alabamam, and he was moving after that summer to LA to act and write. And he was unbelievably charismatic. I was in love with him and just thought he was the most amazing person I'd ever met. And he talked about art in ways that were really easy to understand and seemed possible.
And he wrote that line once for me to give it to me. And it's gibberish in some ways, but it became so comforting to say it, and so I just did, over and over again. And sometimes when I get agitated, it's a kind of thing that I say to calm down. I just like...
GROSS: Why does that have a calming effect?
WILSON: I don't know. It's this...
GROSS: It doesn't sound calm to me (laughter).
WILSON: It's this - I know (laughter). I think maybe what I think is calming is not the same as other people. But there's something about the rhythm of it, the certainty of the line, that I know it every time, that it will always be that line again and again is calming, that the world may change, the things around me may change, but that line is there - right? - from when I was 19. It will never change. I'll always have it.
GROSS: So have you - what was it like to try to figure out, I have this line. I need to use this line. But what is the rest of the story?
WILSON: (Laughter) Well, I'm still figuring that out. I mean, what it is is it's a summer. A woman is looking back on this one summer when she was a teenager when this new boy moved to town for three months. And they both want to be artists, and they're not quite sure how to do that. And so the boy is a visual artist, and she's a writer. And he creates this kind of strange image of these huge hands reaching down into these small beds, kind of hovering over them in a threatening way. And she writes that line.
And they start posting it all over their small town, and it creates a kind of strange terror in the town that spreads throughout the country. It gets featured on "20/20." People are panicking about what it means, and they start to realize what they've kind of created. And then it's about living with the thing that you've put out into the world.
GROSS: That's so interesting because it has a resonance with "Family Fang," where people are doing their art in public spaces. And it's a very kind of break-down-the-fourth-wall kind of art because, like, if you do this in a shopping mall, like, everyone around you becomes part of the piece, like it or not.
GROSS: And they create kind of mayhem. But again, it's, like, kind of art getting out in the world and having consequences.
WILSON: Yeah. Performance art is, to my mind, the best form of art. But it's also the most terrifying to me. Like, I would not in any way want to be a part of it. But I love imagining it. I love the way that it functions. I love how it requires a response and an audience in some ways. And to me, that's - as a writer, where, you know, you write the thing, but you're not there when the reader experiences it, there's something really thrilling about that. But I could never in any way, shape or form be a part of it.
GROSS: I'm so surprised to hear you say you really like performance art. It's the opposite of what I'd expect since you like to be isolated. You like to be kind of protected from the world and not go out and kind of confront it.
WILSON: Well, I think - I mean, the important thing about performance art is that it's performance, right? I mean, there is that level of artifice, and that's comforting to me, as opposed to the - real life, which is terrifying to me. But as long as it's kind of placed within this artistic expression, then I can understand it. It makes a little more sense to me, and it's not as scary.
GROSS: Describe for us one of the performance art pieces you created for your novel "The Family Fang."
WILSON: Yeah. So the parents have basically - they are performance artists, and they have drafted their children, who they call Child A and Child B, into service. And so a lot of their work is the tension of those children putting themselves in public places.
And so one is the children, who do not know how to sing or play music, have a guitar and drums, and they perform in this park for the public. They're trying to raise money for their sick dog - who does not exist - who needs an operation. And they sing this song, and it's intense and not very good. But the audience is watching it. But the parents have planted themselves in the audience, and they start to heckle and boo the children.
And so as the children perform, they allow their real emotions start to come into play of having your parents kind of boo your work. And then the audience kind of turns on the parents, and it creates this huge kind of conflagration, right? And then the children run away from it and hide until their parents find them. And the parents are so happy. You know, they're so proud that they've created this disturbance.
GROSS: That gets exactly to what what I don't like about certain performance art, is that the audience is so totally played, you know, so totally manipulated. Like, you can't win. (Laughter) You know? Like...
GROSS: Because you're - if you have feelings, you're going to be manipulated by it. But in a way, that's going to force you to act where you're just being used. You know what I mean?
WILSON: Yeah, but (laughter)...
GROSS: As opposed to, like, if you're sitting in a theater, and you're watching it. It's like, you know your role, and the actors know their role. And you could just, like, watch it and not feel like - like, maybe your emotions are being, you know, manipulated in an artful way, but you're not being toyed with.
WILSON: (Laughter) I think, for me - I mean, one of the things that I love about all art is that it's artifice, right? It's not real.
GROSS: But in the shopping mall when they do their - or in the street when they do their art, like, you don't know it's artifice.
WILSON: Exactly. But it also - I mean, that's the wonderful thing about writing, is you create this thing, and it says on the book that it's fiction, and the reader comes to it knowing that it's artifice, and yet somehow, through the magic of how you ordered the words, they have an emotional response. They feel something, even though it doesn't exist except in their heads and on the page. And I understand that performance art is toying with people in some ways. And that's a certain kind maybe of performance art.
WILSON: But I still appreciate it.
GROSS: Like the kind that "The Family Fang" does.
WILSON: I still love it. I still think it's wonderful.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. You know, that novel raises the question, like, how much sacrifice is justified in art when the sacrifice you're asking is the sacrifice of others?
GROSS: Like, they're using their children. Their children are sacrificing for the parents' art. The parents will do anything for their art, but should they be involving their children that way?
WILSON: Yeah, I mean...
GROSS: Did you think about that a lot?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, obviously. I wrote "The Family Fang" after the birth of my son, and so one of the worries that I had was, is this the end of me as a writer? Is this all I'm going to do? As I kind of place myself in - you know, to take care of my child. And you know - and even now, like, when I talk about my son's anxiety or just talk about my kids, there is this sense that I'm using them towards my own goals, you know. And that is a weird strangeness, but I also don't know how to make art except by reaching inside of myself. So that's what I do.
And you know, that was my early anxiety, was that the kids are going to keep me from writing. And what's happened and what's so wonderful is that I don't write very much. I write maybe two months out of the year.
WILSON: Yeah, I don't write very much. I'm writing in my head all the time, but I don't sit down and write hardly at all because the kids want me to play with them, and I don't want to tell them that I've got to go write. I've written way less than I would have, but if it can't exist even with my kids, then it didn't deserve to exist. I mean, they killed all the bad art that I was going to make.
WILSON: And they forced me to be serious about - this is the amount of time that I have. This is what matters to me. This is what I'm going to make. And so the kids, in many ways, are the best editor I could ever have. They're like, if you don't care about it enough to make it, then, you know, just come play with us. And that works out great for me.
GROSS: What a lovely way of looking at it. Let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Wilson, and his new novel is called "Nothing To See Here." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Kevin Wilson. His new novel is called "Nothing To See Here."
In the new novel, the father and stepmother of the children who catch on fire when they get upset, the children who spontaneously combust, the parents want to send them to boarding school. Like, let the professionals handle them. We can't deal with it. That's especially true because, you know, the father is a senator who thinks he's about to be nominated to be secretary of state. He's going to go through the vetting process, and the last thing he needs is, like, kids who set themselves on fire.
This is a terrifying thought. And I think the whole idea to you of, like, sending children to be raised by professionals or having this utopian community where parents kind of share in the child raising is something you've thought about a lot (laughter).
GROSS: Because it's reflected in other books that you've written, too. Did you have that fear, like, when you became a parent, like I'm not going to do a good enough job? Is there a doctor? Is there a school? Is there, like, somebody who could do this right for me?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, I think after we had our first child, my wife Leigh Anne, who is gifted in every way that I'm not with children - she's so intuitive and so wonderful and doesn't worry in the same way that I do. But I remember we - my parents were watching Griff, and we went out to dinner. It was a rare night to the two of us.
And I said, I'm thinking about this new book, and it's - I kind of had been thinking about - I just wish we could send our child to a place where professionals, experts, would raise him. And he would get everything that he needed, and he would be the stronger, better person at the end of it. And Leigh Anne said, well, what would we do the whole time that was happening? And I said, oh. Oh, right. OK. And I was like, maybe we could be there, too?
WILSON: Maybe we could be a part of it, and we would learn as well? And there's something to my mind that even though I am - I love isolation, and I need it, small communities where we all make each other stronger is appealing to me, in theory (laughter) - this idea that if we all come together, some of that anxiety will be lessened because we're all working towards this common goal.
GROSS: Can you describe the perfect world you tried to create in your novel "Perfect World" - "Perfect Little World"?
WILSON: Yeah, so this doctor, Dr. Grind, he comes up with this idea that if he can get 10 families, 10 couples, who are all about to have a child and he can raise them and they can all live together in this compound - it's a kind of scientific commune - everyone's working towards this goal, and none of the children know who their actual parent is. To them, all 19 - because the main character is coming without a partner - all 19 of those adults are the children's parents. And so what would it be like if you had to pretend that your child, in some ways, was just one of your 10 children? And what would it be like to be a child and understand that you had not two parents but 19?
GROSS: How does it go?
WILSON: And in my mind, it's - it doesn't go well at all. I mean, that's the thing - that's the kind of thing about community - right? - is that we have the best intentions, but then we're human, and the minute our weirdnesses (ph) touch other weirdnesses, things get complicated. It'll never be anything other than messy.
GROSS: How were you raised?
WILSON: Wonderfully (laughter). I had the most wonderful parents you could ever ask for. They supported me in everything that I wanted to do. We lived a close, isolated life. My sister is younger than me by four years, but in many ways, she protected me and took care of me and watched out for me. She's also incredibly capable.
But I think the thing that really is that - you know, as I needed help and as my parents, you know, living in Winchester, Tenn. - like, when I was in high school and I was like, I need help, they drove me an hour and a half to Nashville to see a therapist. You know, they knew that I needed something, and they were going to help me figure that out. And sometimes, I think what was necessary and why I survived my childhood was because even though I wanted to keep everything hidden, I also knew that whatever I said, my parents would accept it. They would figure out how to work with me.
And they also were really wonderful because they loved art, too, and they exposed us to weirdness. It was such a interesting, wonderful household to be in. They let us - like, I remember being six years old and listening to Richard Pryor albums.
GROSS: Wow - six years old.
WILSON: They let me watch "Seinfeld" when I was a kid, Eddie Murphy. They really loved humor and the cadence of humor. They appreciated it, and so a lot of times, I think we liked to make each other laugh. We'd like to come up with that weirdness that would kind of spark in the other person. And so it was just the four of us in our house, and we would tell stories. My parents, when I was very young, made with the Super 8 camera stop-motion animated "Star Wars" movies with me.
They were just game for anything. And when I told my dad - I remember we were - I was mowing the grass, and we were sitting on the bed of his truck, and I said, I think I want to be a writer. I was in college. I said, I think I'm going to try to do this. And that's probably the worst thing you can tell your parents - is that you want to be a writer. And he was just like, yeah. This makes perfect sense. You should do it. There was never a moment that they hesitated when I wanted to kind of make something.
GROSS: Was it helpful to see a lot of comics when you were young who had unusual thoughts or strange experiences or strange, you know, emotions that felt strange to them and talking about it and making it funny? Did you find that reassuring?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, you could see that what they were doing was trying to figure out their obsessions and then how to make those understandable to an audience. And one of the easiest ways to make strangeness understandable is by humor, to my mind - that if you can make it approachable and understandable in that funny way, then you can hit them with the darkness as you move forward. So that's kind of what I learned from comedians. It's not something I'd ever want to do. It seems like the worst job in the world, but I always appreciated it. I loved the rhythm of how they built those narratives, how they would have those callbacks. There is just - it's virtuosic.
GROSS: Can I ask what your parents did professionally?
WILSON: Yeah. My dad sold insurance. My mom was a nurse until she had us, and then she raised us. My family was always - our No. 1 priority was always each other. We were around each other all the time.
GROSS: Are your parents still alive?
WILSON: They are. Yep. They live in the same town that I do.
GROSS: Oh, that's so nice.
GROSS: And do they read your novels?
WILSON: I know that my dad does. He was - when I first said I wanted to be a writer, I gave him some stories I had written. And they were weird, but he loved them. And he was so supportive, and he is the one, you know, that reads my work for sure. And I know my mom and my sister do, too, but I think my dad is the one who seems most fully invested in it as a way to kind of understand me. And when he read this "Nothing To See Here," he was like, this is my favorite, which meant something to me because he's read me since I was 17 years old. So I felt like if I could please him, then maybe I was onto something.
GROSS: Well, Kevin Wilson, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
WILSON: Oh, I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Kevin Wilson's new novel is called "Nothing To See Here." He teaches English and creative writing at Sewanee: The University of the South. After we take a short break, John Powers will review Season 2 of the Amazon Prime Video Series "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan" starring John Krasinski. It launches Friday. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "WEATHER SHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.