LITERATURE - INTERVIEW - KEVIN WILSON:
Debut Novel - THE FAMILY FANG - Strange and Beautiful
The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson’s debut novel from Ecco Press, opens with: Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief. ‘You make a mess and then you walk away from it,’ their daughter, Annie, told them.
And what a mess Caleb and Camille Fang have made of Annie and her younger brother Buster! Labeled “Child A” and “Child B,” from infancy they were pressed into service—not always willingly, or even wittingly—as key players in their parents’ notorious performance art pieces. The settings changed, but whether at a shopping mall, children’s beauty pageant or high school play, chaos always ensued, to be captured on film and displayed in art installations. “It’s like, hey guys, here’s the source of your shame, framed and much larger than you remembered it,” teenage Buster says to his equally horrified sister at a museum reception.
The siblings have grown up and moved far away, but their lives are in shambles. Annie’s career as a movie actress is on the skids after topless photos of her go viral. Buster’s latest freelance writing gig literally blows up in his face when he’s shot with an exploding potato. So they go back home to recover from their psychic and physical wounds, only to find themselves caught up in another mess. Is this their parents’ biggest performance piece yet, or unscripted real life…and does the answer even matter?
Having attended art school and hung around the Manhattan art/music scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I came of age with people like Caleb and Camille Fang. I was curious how Kevin Wilson managed to capture them and their milieu with such piercing, tragicomic accuracy. He answered my questions by phone from Sewanee, Tenn., where he teaches at the University of the South.
WRR: How did you get the idea for The Family Fang?
Kevin Wilson: The beginning is that I wanted to write about siblings who had been collectively ruined in some way by their parents. I had started a story about a brother and sister who had been forced to be Romeo and Juliet in a play, and a second story with the same characters. I couldn’t figure out how to finish them, but I was always intrigued by this brother and sister.
When my son Griff was born in 2008, I was finishing copy edits on my story collection [Tunneling to the Center of the Earth] and figuring out what the novel was going to be. The first year of having that boy in our house was really difficult. I felt like my shortcomings as a parent were going to ruin him for all time; that his being my son was a form of abuse. These were very melodramatic thoughts, but they felt real. You have so much power over this person, but you have no idea whether what you are doing is ruining them or not.
The brother and sister characters started to click into place when I decided to write about their parents—what kind of people the children became because of their upbringing, the ways in which as adults they might reinvent themselves and lessen the damage that had been done to them.
WRR: Mr. and Mrs. Fang are monsters.
Wilson: I agree with that very much. On the other hand I feel great sympathy for them in some ways. It’s misguided, but they’re trying to take the two things that are most important in their lives and force them together. Their family and their art are inextricably interwound. In their heads they think they’re doing something quite wonderful for the children, but they don’t understand what a terrible idea it is.
A much milder version of this is the photographer Sally Mann, who took nude pictures of her young children. Her work is beautiful, and her son and two daughters were delighted to be complicit in it. I imagined what it would it be like if you weren’t happy to be part of it. I took such an extreme version of events that the parents became monstrous.
WRR: Buster says to students in a creative writing club, “These weird thoughts come into my head, and I don’t even really want to think about it, but I can’t let go of it until I take it as far as I can, until I reach some kind of ending, and then I can move on. That’s what writing is like for me.” Is that your process?
Wilson: Yes; take some event and push it as far as possible. I took a brother and sister and said, “What if they were children of artists? What would it be like if they were performance artists? What if they were forced into this?” At some point it feels like there is no other way to go but the way the story is heading.
WRR: As Buster is working on his novel, he has to "remind himself to slow down, to let the words arrange themselves on the page, in order to prevent himself from smashing the story into tiny little pieces.”
Wilson: When I’m writing I feel I’m being pulled by the narrative. Mostly I have to tell myself to slow down so I can maintain some control of the story. When machines run too fast for too long they start to fall apart.
WRR: Nobody cares about freelance writers, according to Buster.
Wilson: [Laughs.] In some way I think that’s true.
WRR: Have you worked as a freelancer?
Wilson: No. I find nonfiction writing to be incredibly difficult. I have a friend who writes for travel and gourmet magazines. You get to go to these incredible places and eat incredible things, and they pay you. I’m amazed when people can write about these different subjects with precision and clarity. It’s not a thing I have any facility for.
WRR: The settings and characters in The Family Fang are spot-on. How much research did you do?
Wilson: As little as I could get away with. In the past I’ve gotten so worked up about research that it prevented me from writing anything. Most of what I know about in the novel is from being a movie fan, being a music fan, being an art fan—just the things I managed to pick up somehow out here. I’m 33 and have spent 29 years in Tennessee. I grew up at the base of Sewanee Mountain; now I live at the top. Except for two years in Florida and two in Boston, I haven’t left.
In high school I read a little magazine that mentioned Chris Burden’s “Shoot.” [The conceptual artist had someone shoot him; see 1971 video.] I found out as much as possible about performance art, what could push the envelope of what was considered “art,” what’s considered “artistic.” I tried to remember all that without doing so much research that I’d get bogged down.
WRR: The Fangs dance to “Contort Yourself” by the No Wave band James Chance and the Contortions. Is that the sort of music you listened to?
Wilson: I mostly listened to pop songs on the radio. On a trip to Nashville in high school, I found a record by James Chance and Contortions. So much effort was put into making these strange sounds. To go from listening to songs on the radio to James Chance, your brain just couldn’t handle it. But to the Fangs it would be the most normal music in the world. [Listen to the 1979 recording of “Contort Yourself” here; see 2008 video of a performance with some of the original band members here.]
WRR: Your narrative refers to art that is strange and beautiful.
Wilson: I kind of gravitate towards weirdness. My favorite novel is The Yearling. I read it as a child and have always loved it. In the book the boy Jody comes into possession of a young fawn. His friend Fodder-wing, who is known for communicating with animals, is going to dream the name. “After a long time Fodder-wing would speak, and what he said would be perhaps peculiar, but it would be beautiful.”
What’s always stayed with me is that the strangeness of something is tied into the beauty of it. For the Fangs, something cannot possibly be beautiful unless it’s so strange that it’s impossible to classify.
WRR: Caleb learns this from his graduate school mentor: “Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it.”
Wilson: William Faulkner said, “The writer's only responsibility is to his art. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” I don’t think that’s true, but the Fangs would totally believe that. What is genuine comes out of chaos and uncertainty. They think it’s their job to create that chaos.
WRR: The Fangs’ performances incite strong emotions in other people, yet Caleb is incapable of having feelings.
Wilson: If at all times you’re prepared for chaos, it’s impossible to be touched by anything. Emotions are just things that people in Caleb’s art feel; they’re silly and unnecessary. Caleb and Camille Fang are deficient people; there’s no way around that.
The Family Fang is on sale August 9, 2011. For Ecco Press page, click here.
For Kevin Wilson’s website, click here.
To read the New York Times review of The Family Fang, click here.
NPR: A Delightful Portrait of The Screwball 'Family Fang' by Maureen Corrigan - click here.