Kevin Wilson on the Weirdness of Family
The author of ‘Perfect Little World’ talks about raising children on communes, genre, and seeing his novel adapted for the big screen.
Kevin Wilson’s breakout novel, The Family Fang, earned him recognition in the literary world and also landed a film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman. Not bad for a second book. But it does add some pressure to the follow-up. Wilson spent years writing a story about a different kind of family. In Perfect Little World, he brought his sharp literary prose to a story with a plot that sounds like sci-fi: a commune where you live with your children, but they don’t know who their parents are. It’s clear that the author’s obsession with family is something he’ll continue to explore. Perfect Little World feels fresh every step of the way, at once breezy and thought-provoking. I recently reached out to Wilson at his home in Tennessee. We spoke about the success of The Family Fang, not trying to copy it in Perfect Little World, what it’s like to have a book adapted, and much more.
Adam Vitcavage: The Family Fang came out in 2011. Did you expect it to get all the praise and success that eventually came?
Kevin Wilson: No, I think unless you’re an insane person, your expectations for a work of literary fiction are pretty low key. You just hope some people read it and it gets reviewed. If you spend two years in your basement writing a novel, it’s crazy to think its going to be a bestseller and people will make a movie out of it. That’s not reasonable.
I just hoped it would get good reviews and people would read it. I wasn’t prepared at all. I don’t think anybody was expecting the response it got.
Vitcavage: Did the response trickle out slowly or did you find yourself under a tidal wave of praise overnight?
Wilson: It got some pre-publication reviews, and that helped. Then The New York Times did a profile of me, and I think that was a really big thing. People knew about the book before it came out, which is not generally expected. It did well fairly quickly with minor success, but when the option got picked up for a movie, that’s what really helped. More people started to check it out. It had the initial bump of publicity and as that started to wain, the option came in and that set it off again. It was kind of just pure luck.
Vitcavage: Luck is a huge player in the literary world.
Wilson: I feel like it’s all luck. My students sometime ask if I dislike anything, because I have a pretty optimistic outlook of literature. I feel like there are so many things that get published and so many amazing writers that it’s impossible to understand why some books get popular and other books don’t. It’s a combination of talent and luck, more than anything else.
Vitcavage: It’s interesting you bring that up. One of the questions I jotted down was what makes modern fiction popular and what makes it good. So you feel it’s pretty much luck?
Wilson: Yeah. I think there are those moments where a book can kind of ride the momentum of current events or the zeitgeist. You can’t plan for that because the book is written so far in advance of the book coming out. You can’t jump on trends, but sometimes a book can do that and it’s just luck.
For instance, there are two books that came out this year. One is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and the other is Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. I think both of those books are just stunning. But who would have thought that within months there’d be two books that reimagine the Underground Railroad? That’s insane. How could you plan for it?
Vitcavage: I remember, when those books first came out, thinking they were the same book but that people kept confusing the title. It is very interesting. Speaking of planning, you obviously didn’t plan seriously for The Family Fang to become a movie, but what were your experiences with the adaptation?
Wilson: It was one of those things. Nicole Kidman’s production company liked the book and wanted to see if they could adapt it for the screen. I had no problems with that, I was stoked. They asked if I wanted to write the screenplay, but I had never done anything like that. I have friends who have had options on their books and the odds of it happening are so slim because so many things have to go right. I didn’t want to write a shitty script and all of a sudden kill the chances of the book becoming a movie. So I stepped away pretty quickly and they got Pulizter Prize-winning writer David Lindsay-Abaire to do the adaptation. I feel like they made the right choice.
They would keep me posted and show me the script and they let me know when a director had been found, but I mostly stayed out of it. I love adaptations. I think it’s this really cool thing that exists and keeps certain elements of it while also making it new. I didn’t want to get in the way of that. My book is my book and whatever the movie became wasn’t going to change my book.
Vitcavage: So The Family Fang, the book and the film, are obviously about the family — it’s right there in the title. Your new novel Perfect Little World is also a family-oriented story. When did this come into your mind?
Wilson: For me the thing I am most interested in writing about is family. Especially the complexity of what it means to be connected with other people. I just find it fascinating and weird. The natural order of things doesn’t make much sense to me: that people make you and you live with them for a long time. That’s just weird to me. I like writing about it.
The main genesis for this book came when my TV and film agent said I should start thinking about writing a screenplay or something. I said, “Oh, I don’t know,” and one day when I was out to dinner with my wife while the kids were with a babysitter, I asked her what I should write about.
I was just talking and brought up a thought I had for awhile, from when we first had kids, which was: God, this is terrible. I wish we could just give our kids to some place, to a bunch of doctors to just raise for us and they would be perfect kids. Then we would meet back up with them later in their lives. She said it was terrible and asked when we would ever see our children, because you would never know them. I suggested you could live with them while the doctors raised them. She said it still sounded like a bad idea. I said let’s find out and started to think about it as a TV show, but wanted it as a book. It all came out of my own anxieties of being a parent and trying to find some other way. What was possible?
It all came out of my own anxieties of being a parent and trying to find some other way. What was possible?
Vitcavage: When you’re writing about family, are you just trying to find how family makes sense?
Wilson: A lot of what I write about family is taking my own experiences of raising a kid or being a kid and working through it. That’s why I write fiction: because I am able to take elements of my own life and hide them within a fictional landscape so that no one knows and it’s unrecognizable.
Then I get the benefit of telling the story as well as work through these thoughts I’m having. As I’m writing, my views on how the world works shift.
Vitcavage: How long did this book take?
Wilson: Probably three years with some revisions at the end.
Vitcavage: Did you feel pressure during those years because of The Family Fang’s success?
Wilson: There was some pressure. The Family Fang felt like such a lucky thing, and I don’t think you could expect every book to do well. You just don’t know and it’s a crapshoot every time. But I wanted to write something that’s good and to build on the goodwill from the The Family Fang. It was hard. One thing about the book is that it’s not very funny, whereas The Family Fang had a lot of humor to push through the weirdness of the story.
As I continued to write this new book I kept thinking how it wasn’t funny, and how that is a crutch I rely on. I rely on humor to help with the dark things I’m trying to write about. I felt I needed to write a funny book because The Family Fang was funny and that’s what people liked about it, but Perfect Little World resisted that. It was impossible to make a silly book about these people in a scientific commune. It would just become absurd.
I had to keep constantly dialing back my expectations of what people wanted, so that I could write the book that it wanted to become. I don’t know if I made peace with that yet. This is a different book and I’m happy because I don’t want every book to be the same. There are elements that are similar, but I just can’t copy The Family Fang over and over. I know there will be some point when I’ll get real desperate and write a sequel to The Family Fang, but not yet.
Vitcavage: This isn’t a straightforward sci-fi book. It’s literary fiction, but when you explain the premise of the book, do people think this is some sort of pulpy sci-fi paperback?
Wilson: Yeah. I mean, when I explained that the first novel was titled The Family Fang people thought it was a vampire novel. I’m not good with this stuff. When you explain the plot, this book sounds very sinister, which it isn’t.
Say ,“There’s this weird scientific commune led by this child genius,” and they say that it sounds awful. My books don’t summarize well and it does sound very science fiction-y and sounds like it can easily exist way, way in the future. Part of that is that I really love what people call “genre” and I think it’s hard for people to differentiate what’s genre and what’s literary. It gets blurred more and more.
Vitcavage: I think now more than ever that the line between literary fiction and so-called genre fiction is blurred because every story has been told so now there needs to be a twist on everything.
Wilson: That’s a good point. That makes a lot of sense, and I think also people are becoming less and less embarrassed by their love of what people would call straight-up genre. I love that stuff and I don’t read it with any shame. I think it’s great and don’t think any less of it than literary fiction. The more you think like that, inevitably you’ll bring those elements into your work.
Vitcavage: You just mentioned how The Family Fang was a vampire novel and that you’re bad at titles. Was Perfect Little World your title?
Wilson: No, no. All three of my books have never been the titles I’ve chosen. I’m terrible at titles. I don’t what that is about me, but I just don’t do well with them. For the longest time, the title of this book was An Infinite Family. As we started to get closer An Infinite Family sounded too much like The Family Fang, and it’s pretty clear I write about family, so to have it in the title twice felt unnecessary. It took a crazy amount of time before I said I just don’t care what it’s called. My agent, editor, and I would sit on the phone for thirty minutes just saying titles. Finally my agent pointed out the line in the book that says “perfect little world” and asked how I felt about that.
We had other titles that worked, but they were already titles of other books. You get pissed off after searching on Amazon after coming up with a title and having to restart. We landed on Perfect Little World and like anything it took awhile to get used to it. It sounds great to me now.
Vitcavage: I read an interview recently that you did when The Family Fang came out about the painting on the cover of the book. You basically said it was marketing who picked it. At the beginning of this book, there is a family tree of sorts. Was that something you came up with or was it marketing again?
Wilson: No, I needed that as I was writing the book. The people that edited the book will tell you that I often changed the names of characters throughout the story. I needed a family tree just to tell who was who. I had that in the book as one of the first pages and they said that they would actually use it because it was interesting. I was very pleased because there are a lot of characters in the book and it’s hard to remember all of the names.
Vitcavage: It was really helpful. I love when books include stuff like that.
Wilson: Yeah, I dig that stuff, too. I like it when books have maps of the place.
Vitcavage: Exactly. Books aren’t just the story, it’s the world the story takes place in. You also mentioned your agent wanted you to write a screenplay. Are you working on something like that?
Wilson: My wife and I are tinkering around. My feeling is that I really am a fiction writer and what I love is writing fiction. I think people have this idea that if you can write one form, you can write any form. I don’t think that’s true. It took me a long time to become a decent writer of fiction. So, if I was going to write a screenplay or something, it will take me a long time to make it work.
Whenever I’m writing something other than fiction, I find myself just trying to smash my literary techniques into that. I’m a fiction writer and I was to stay with that because I finally figured out how it works.
I love TV and movies and it would be neat to be a part of that. I’m open to it, but don’t really know how long that would actually take for me to become proficient.
Vitcavage: You mentioned how this morphed from an idea while thinking about television. Can you see this becoming a long form project?
Wilson: That would be awesome. There’s this weird thing when your first book gets optioned by Nicole Kidman, you can’t go around thinking so and so is going to call me up and option by book. This feels cinematic. If it does become a long form TV show, it would be different from the book. That excites me, how it become a separate thing. It’s important to me that the book is always the book.
Vitcavage: I’m a big proponent of that. They are completely different things. The book is the book and the television show or the film will be different. And that’s okay.
Wilson: Yeah. There were some things that the screenplay did for the movie where I thought I would like to go back and change the book. He did things to streamline the narrative that were so good. It was very frustrating.