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This novel makes fun of your child's meltdown


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A child's tantrum is rarely humorous, but a new and highly acclaimed novel, "Nothing to See Here," from author Kevin Wilson takes an otherwise dreaded situation and turns it into satire.

As a part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, Jeffrey Brown sat down with Wilson and began by asking why he felt a compulsion to explore family dynamics.

Kevin Wilson: Well, for me, compulsion is love, so, yes, I love to write about families.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Kevin Wilson: I come back to it again and again, yes.

I started out, I wrote about family from the perspective of a child, because that's how I grew up, thinking of the weirdness of being born into a family.

And maybe it would have stopped.

Jeffrey Brown: The weirdness of being born. I mean, we're all born into a family.

Kevin Wilson: Yes. Yes. But you don't ask for it. You just -- all of a sudden, there's these people and they're like we're going to take care of you and raise you.

And that's always a very strange kind of feeling where you think, I'm made of these people, but, slowly, I'm going to become my own person. And maybe the writing about family would have stopped, but then I had kids, and then I was on the other side of it, of watching these children develop and leave me.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Kevin Wilson: And so I thought, oh, I will just keep writing about it.

Jeffrey Brown: So what is this book about, ultimately?

Kevin Wilson: To me, the idea of family, I wanted to broaden that.

It's not just the people -- our immediate family, right? I'm starting to think of family of how you can expand it to include the people who are important to you, right, the people that protect you.

And so, in this book, a lot of the people are not actually biologically linked, and yet they're in this space, and they basically somehow form a family. Right? So I'm trying to think about family in broader terms with this book.

Jeffrey Brown: So, to fill in a little bit of the plot here, so your main protagonist, Lillian, late 20s.

Kevin Wilson: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: A self-described loser.

Kevin Wilson: Yes, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Right? Going nowhere.

Kevin Wilson: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: Gets a call from her old friend, Madison, who's a very wealthy woman married to a senator, with an unusual request. Come take care of his two 10-year-old twins by a former wife.

Kevin Wilson: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: Right?

Kevin Wilson: Yes.

So the catch is that these children, when they're agitated, spontaneously combust. They burst into flames.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Now, you got to stop that, because they literally catch on fire when they get agitated, angry or upset.

Kevin Wilson: Right. Right. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Which sounds crazy.

Kevin Wilson: It is. Yes.

I think that's been -- it's a hard book to sell off that initial premise, where it's a book about children who burst into flames.

But the flames don't harm them. They can harm everyone around them, the surroundings, but they're fine, right? And so the book becomes Lillian trying to figure out how to take care of these children with this strange kind of power.

Jeffrey Brown: An instant, unexpected family.

Kevin Wilson: Yes.

If we go back to family, Lillian finds herself in possession of these two children, and she becomes their caretaker. So, again, it's this idea of, how do you protect the people that you love, how do you keep them safe, how do you keep yourself safe, when you're dealing with these vulnerable children?

So, even though she's not their mother, it's still family.

Jeffrey Brown: I'm thinking people watching, they're hearing children that combust, catch on fire, that sounds horrible, it sounds awful.

Kevin Wilson: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: But you somehow make it a kind of normal and even if -- this is a very funny book.

Kevin Wilson: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: How are we to understand the fire in this case?

Kevin Wilson: Anybody, to my mind, if you have had a kid or been around, like, a 3-year-old, this metaphor isn't that crazy to me.

Like, if you're in a store, right, and you're leading your 3-year-old around and you're in a public place, and their shoes feel funny, and they want a cookie, and they're tired, and you can...

Jeffrey Brown: It's just a meltdown, yes.

Kevin Wilson: I have seen it. I can see that kid.

Their face starts to get red. And you know they're about to blow up. And it's happening. And then, a lot of times, you can't stop it, right? You just have to contain it, right?

And so, to me, the children bursting into flames made perfect sense. I thought, yes, that's what kids do. They're combustible.

Jeffrey Brown: What is normal, right? I mean, in a way, these kids become normalized to me, as a reader.

Kevin Wilson: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: But, of course, they're not normal, and this is not a normal situation.

Kevin Wilson: Right. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: So is that part of what you're looking at? What is normal? How do we think about it?

Kevin Wilson: Because I live a pretty isolated existence on a mountain in Tennessee, and everything is weird to me.

The world is very bizarre and strange to me. And so, when I think of normal, what I think of are those people who, pretty much against all odds, try to contain weirdness. Right?

And, to me, that's what normal is. It's not actually a regular state of being. It's an enforced state of being. In order for, like, society to function, people think that, OK, normality needs to override weirdness.

But, for me, there's just no containing it. Weirdness spills out no matter what, and so it's kind of a fool's errand.

Jeffrey Brown: This is also a kind of wildly funny satirical look at other issues like class, right?

Kevin Wilson: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And I'm wondering, who are your models?

Kevin Wilson: Ann Patchett, to me, is a writer that her stories are many times about family, but also a diverse group of people who, under strange circumstances, have to become a family.

And Ann is, to my mind -- especially in her new novel, "The Dutch House," just writes so eloquently about class and about what it means to have privilege.

But that book, to me, even -- and what I love about it, it has these fairy tale elements that make the story slightly magical to me.

And then the other writer is George Saunders, who -- as you know, he's so wild and so strange. But a story like "Sea Oak" is really about the inescapability of poverty. But instead of coming at it head on, he has this aunt come back from the dead who becomes this profane oracle.

And that really influenced me. I was like, if I'm going to write about this stuff, I don't know that I have the authority to do it. So, I'm going to come at it in a strange way.

And then, that way, that will give me -- if I'm funny at first, then I can work my way into the larger topics.

Jeffrey Brown: So, childhood and family and what is the meaning of normal class issues?

Kevin Wilson: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: I use the word satire.

Kevin Wilson: I'm fine with that.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Kevin Wilson: That works for me.

I mean, I think, especially with this book, it is satirical in the way that it examines kind of Old South money, Old South politics, the way that privilege kind of protects you from distress or affliction, for as long as you possibly can.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Kevin Wilson.

The book is "Nothing to See Here."

Thank you very much.

Kevin Wilson: Thank you so much.

Judy Woodruff: A book for parents and many others.

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