The Penmen Profile: Bestselling Novelist Kevin Wilson

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Kevin Wilson’s third book, “Perfect Little World,” hit stores this year and has since been commended by the Washington Post, NPR, GQ and Entertainment Weekly, among others, and earned stared reviews from Booklist and Kirkus. “Perfect Little World” follows a young, single mother and her son who are placed in a home with nine other children and their parents. In this social experiment, the adults act as collective parents for all 10 children.

Wilson, whose 2011 novel, “The Family Fang,” landed on the bestsellers list, lives in Tennessee with his family.

Have you always written?
I’ve always enjoyed making up stories, but that existed entirely in my head, and it was solely to entertain myself. It wasn’t until high school that I had the desire to take these private narratives and somehow make them public by putting them on the page. And once I started writing, it was really amazing, as if I could relieve the pressure on my brain by putting those stories somewhere else.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
For my novels, I generally start with a character, entirely divorced from a narrative. I find myself thinking about the character, little by little gaining a better understanding of who they are. Once they start to come alive for me, I try to find a narrative that will do justice to them. The story is shaped by what the character will allow. But with stories, it’s almost the exact opposite. I start with a conceit, a weird idea, and then I build everything around that idea.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
I love writing, even when it’s not working, so my biggest challenge is finding time to write, balancing it alongside being a teacher and a parent. And for a long time, I felt like a failure because I didn’t write every day and it made me feel like a hobbyist. But more and more, I realize how much writing happens in my head, shaping the story, so that when I finally sit down to write, a lot of it has already been done.

I think I also struggle with the fear that what I’m writing isn’t very good, but that usually comes after it’s done and there’s nothing else that I can do to improve it. There’s always this nagging feeling that I’m a fraud and people will hate it, but that’s a kind of catastrophic thinking that I have beyond writing. So, I know the ways to calm myself and work through it.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I wrote stories and tried to perfect my style and craft. I sent out to journals, which has always been very exciting, a kind of dream that you hope comes true. Once I started to get a few publications, it gave me the confidence to keep pursuing it. I found an agent, and that’s when my career really started to move in a direction that made me feel like this could be my life. She sold my first collection and novel, and from that moment I’ve simply hoped that I can keep writing. All I want is to be able to publish what I write, to share it with a larger audience. I spent so much of my early career being rejected, and I find that the experience of rejection was helpful. It made me grateful for the times when something goes right, but it also helped me consider my work and become confident in what I was doing, even when other people weren’t responding to it.

How do you market your work?
I’m bad at this. I struggle with mental illness and I really have a hard time putting myself in a public situation. I don’t have Facebook or Twitter and I have a hard time with conferences or festivals or readings. I know that I’m limiting my career in some ways by not doing more to promote my work. It’s not that I feel that I’m above these things. It’s just difficult for me and in order to keep my mental state in a place that I can function, I have to be honest with what I can and can’t do. That said, I love books, and I try to be a good literary citizen. I support publishers and journals and I reach out to writers that I admire. When I do go out into the world, I try to be open and kind and grateful for any attention that the books might receive.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I had this intensity when I first started writing where I felt like I needed to be successful or to be a fully-formed writer immediately. I wish I’d considered the fact that writing is a lifelong pursuit. I think I would have appreciated the process more, of slowly getting better, to appreciate any success.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
My two big authors are Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson. McCullers showed me how to write with empathy about strange people, to allow their freakishness to be human instead of monstrous. I felt freakish as a child, and McCullers made me feel like I could still live in this world despite those anxieties. Jackson mesmerized me because she understood and could perfectly render the darkness that resides within us. She understood that, for the most part, what’s inside of us is scarier than the outside world.

For contemporary writers, I’m completely in the debt of Ann Patchett and George Saunders and Aimee Bender and Victor LaValle; I loved their work and they provided a map for me to develop my own style. Their stories spoke to me, and once I decided to become a writer, they were the people that I tried to mimic until I could figure out my own way.

The list of writers that have inspired me is ridiculously long. Jennifer Egan, Sherman Alexie, Tayari Jones, Tony Earley, Padgett Powell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Octavia Butler, Jim Shepard, Denis Johnson, Kelly Link, Hisaye Yamamoto and on and on and on.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, because of how it contains such complexity within a single book. Stylistically and thematically, it does so much that, even though I’ve read it more than 10 times, I always find something new that opens the book up again.

“The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, because it was the first book that I truly loved. The depth of childhood emotion and the way that it rendered a landscape and people that felt just slightly beyond me was really amazing. I named my son after one of the characters in the novel.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson, because it’s dark and strange and it so perfectly renders a state of being that, however bizarre it might seem, resonates with me and my own mind

Check out Wilson’s website for more information about him and his writing.