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Author Kevin Wilson says becoming a father inspired his latest work

| Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011

After publishing "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth," a well-regarded collection of short stories, Kevin Wilson wondered whether he could write about one of "the grand themes of literature."

Wilson, who lives in Sewanee, Tenn., and teaches writing at the University of the South, wanted to explore the nature of family, even though there are countless novels about parents and their children.

But were there books about families such as his?

Ostensibly, Wilson's parents were All-American archetypes. In high school, his father was the captain of the football and wrestling teams, and his mother was a cheerleader.

As he grew older, Wilson discovered they weren't typical at all.

"I realized they were incredibly wonderful, weird people who were masquerading as normal people," he says. "My parents really didn't have friends. They isolated themselves. ... My parents were my best friends from my childhood into my teenage years, and the same with my sister. Our nights were spent playing cards with my parents. We created a world for ourselves that was separate from everyone else.

"In a lot of ways, my parents do not like the outside world; they do not trust it. Not that they think it's evil, they just don't think its worth our time."

From that template, Wilson wrote "The Family Fang," a book about an off-kilter unit of performance artists. Caleb and Camille Fang live to create chaos, and they have no qualms about including their children, Annie and Buster (referred to as Child A and Child B) in their work. Whether it's passing out bogus coupons for free sandwiches at a restaurant, or entering Buster in a Little Miss Crimson beauty pageant, the Fangs sole intent is to disrupt the status quo. If people, including their children, get hurt along the way, it's unavoidable collateral damage.

"I don't think that it's necessary, that, in order to create something beautiful, you have to push yourself to the limit," Wilson says. "But it's something that's interesting to me. I wonder, in my own life, what I'm willing to do to make something."

In Wilson's case, he was at least willing to lose some sleep. He signed a two-book deal with his publisher, Ecco, after "Tunneling" was published. Wilson's initial idea for a novel fell apart. Desperation set in as he started working on "The Family Fang." Wilson wasn't afraid of failure, but he was worried about disappointing his agent and editor.

Then his son Griff was born.

"Everything was hitting at once," says Wilson, who is married to the poet Leigh Anne Couch. "Our boy, he's really beautiful, but it was really difficult, especially for someone who never had a child before. Learning how to do that at the same time I was learning how to write a novel was really difficult. But, at the same time, I don't know if I could have written the book if we hadn't had Griff. The idea of being a parent and what it means to be the person who makes a child really fed into the book a lot."

In the novel, Annie and Buster try to distance themselves from their childhood when they come of age. Annie turns to acting, and Buster becomes a writer. When they experience personal and professional disappointments, they return to their family home. Before Annie and Buster know it, they are unwilling participants in a piece their parents have designed as their masterpiece.

Wilson's interest in performance art dates back to his high-school years when he read an article about Chris Burden. Burden, a performance artist born in 1946, often put his physical well-being at risk in order to create art.

Wilson was especially amazed by an incident (or performance) in which Burden was purposely shot in the arm.

"I thought that was the most incredible thing," Wilson says. "I could not get over the fact that, one, someone would do that, but, two, that someone could do that and you could posit it in a way that it would be defined as art. To me, that was the most thrilling thing. It really opened me up to the ways in which you could interpret artistic endeavor. That was liberating."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

The characters in Kevin Wilson's 'The Family Fang' aren't the most likable or endearing a reader will encounter in contemporary literature. But the Fangs • performance artists Caleb and Camille, and their children Annie and Buster • are among the most interesting and intriguing fictional creations of any book published this summer. Wilson's offbeat cast is abetted by a compelling story about what it means to create art, served up in equal measure of comedy and pathos.

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