When I read Owen King’s blurb for Kevin Wilson’s debut collection of short stories, tunneling to the center of the earth, I was instantly sucked in: “Kevin Wilson is the unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” An insanely -talented Southern weirdo with a dark sense of humor? There’s nothing I like more.
And while Wilson doesn’t consider himself a “Southern” writer per se, he’s quick to admit that 1. He’s fine with being lumped in with the likes of McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and his literary hero, Ann Patchett (Side note: He pet sat for her beloved pooch Rose in the past.) and 2. He’s spent all but a few years of his life in Tennessee, so it’s where his stories tend to take place. But it’s not like he’s sitting on his back porch in a rocker waxing sentimental about moonlight and magnolias.
“I started writing stories because I was lonely,” he explains. “It wasn’t just about getting girls — it was about getting girls, boys, anyone in college to spend time with me. I thought if I wrote something that was good enough, people would want to make out with me.” The loneliness that sparked his early writing career can still be found in his characters; in particular, the narrator in “Grand Stand-In,” a woman whose job it is to pose as a grandmother for families with a vacancy.
“I find her to be pretty compelling, someone who has lived most of her life without the need for companionship and family, or at least has convinced herself that she doesn’t need these things, and then, suddenly thrusts herself into other people’s lives in such an intimate way,” he has explained. “There’s a hidden desperation that sits beneath the formal decision on her part to take this job in order to make money.” Just when I’m about to feel sorry for him, Wilson adds with a cackle that the story was inspired by that episode of Seinfeld (“Do you know that show? It’s called “Seinfeld”?) where Elaine gets a new number and awkwardly poses as someone’s grandmother.
All of the stories in the collection involve equally quirky circumstances (“Weirdness has a way of sneaking into your life when your house is in the woods,” he explains. He lives in a rural part of the state with his wife Leigh Ann Couch, who is a poet, and their son, Griff). Examples? A baby with a full set of chompers who eats Big Macs (a delightful detail that his editor wanted to cut). A group of college graduates who are tunneling holes around their hometown and living underground. A boy who works in a Scrabble factory sorting Q’s in order to support his little brother after their parents explode on the train one night.
When I ask about the cinematic quality of his work, Wilson explains that he grew up on a steady diet of comics and movies rather than serious literature, and as a result, he tends to storyboard the scenes and rely on less traditional narrative conventions than many writers. Think: Pulp Fiction. “I usually start with an image or a line and work from that, building a story to support it,” he has said. “Take ‘Birds in the House.’ I had an image of a group of men pushing objects around a large table with hair-dryers. After many, many drafts, I had the finished product.” That one’s about a pack of brothers fighting over their parents’ plantation home via papercranes.
His favorite — “Worst-Case Scenario” — a tale about two isolated characters who desperately come together to become something stronger than who they were before is the first hopeful story that Wilson ever wrote. “I like the happiest ending. I’m always rooting for a happy ending, but that’s not always the way that it works out. I felt like the character in this one has as good shot at happiness, and it made writing the story worthwhile for me. I was so unhinged and depressed when writing it, but by the end, I felt like I had shown myself a way to keep from going crazy. Perhaps that’s my intent with all these stories.”
Kevin Wilson is reading tomorrow night with Amy Cohen and Colson Whitehead as part of the Happy Ending Music & Reading Series at Joe’s Pub. He’ll also be spending his time in NYC in search of the perfect burger, so leave any suggestions you might have for him in the comments.