Kevin Wilson is the author of two novels, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2012) and Perfect Little World (Ecco, 2017), as well as a collection of stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009). He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, and teaches in the English Department at the University of the South. An excerpt from his story “Door to Door” can be found here. It appears in the July/Aug 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Door to Door”?
My mother grew up in Nashville in the ’60s, raised by her Japanese mother in truly impoverished circumstances. My mom doesn’t speak much about her childhood, but there are a few stories that she’s told me that stick in my mind, including one about how she and her sisters took some random items from their house and went door to door trying to sell them in order to make money, which spurred my grandmother to great anger and embarrassment. There are times that I feel truly cut off from this aspect of my heritage, as assimilation was so paramount in the Deep South at this time that my grandmother and mother rarely talk about their experiences. And so I find myself trying to tell the stories in my head, trying to get closer to these two women who I love very much. This story was one of those exercises, one where I simultaneously feel scared of trying to tell a story that isn’t mine while also finding a thrill in trying, technically, to build a story that will make up for my lack.
Can you talk a bit about the role of wealth in this story? Early on, a connection is made between light and wealth when Daisy explains that she understands rich people as “rays of pure light” while her financially-struggling mother has to walk home in the dark everyday after long shifts of work. Would you consider this comparison of Daisy’s to be glorifying richness or glorifying the rich? Does the story as a whole aim to understand wealth as an element of heritage or more as a changeable aspect of self?
One of my favorite books is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I’ve always thought about all the moments in that book where characters seem to associate wealth with lightness, like all the children in a wealthy neighborhood being blonde. I think Daisy wants wealth, or the freedom that it allows, the ability to not care about how you fit into the larger world. It’s a child’s perspective, but I feel like Daisy believes that gaining agency, money, will negate the aspects of her upbringing that currently make her feel ashamed.
Ena, Daisy, and Jennifer all contend with both being in the spotlight (as Japanese girls in white-dominated space) as well as with the invisibility of being regularly belittled or disregarded. While these are seemingly contradictory statuses, both conjure a sense of un-belonging; is this an intended similarity and do both unhealthy attention and unhealthy ignorance contribute to the othering of the children in this story?
I think so. From my conversations with my mother, there was a sense of being Japanese in the Deep South was that you were never your own person. You were constantly placed in opposition to white people or ignored entirely. And I think my mother, who has a truly fierce intensity, spent her childhood pushing against that in whatever way that she could while remaining an inherently shy person.
At this piece’s conclusion, Daisy touches her face and moves her hands across it in mimicry of the clay busts she was shown earlier by Mitchell. Is this more an act of attempting to understand or to change who she is?
I think it’s simply the weirdness of trying to understand yourself through any experience other than your own. I feel unknowable at times to myself. No matter how hard I try to figure out how I might be viewed from the outside, it merely perverts my understanding of myself, almost always for the worst.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
It’s the same in many ways. I spend a long, long time with the story in my head, working it out, considering my options, telling it over and over to myself until it catches fire. But the actual writing is always fast, a kind of mania. It’s why I love writing, the slow burn of the private act of making the story just for myself and then the intense mania of trying to record it for someone else.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
All advice that people give me or have given me always sounds really wonderful, and it’s energizing, even if I ultimately find out that it doesn’t actually work for me. My own failings as a writer or a person make it so that good advice falls apart when I put it into practice. But the act of writing is so isolated that hearing someone else talk about it feels important to me, even if it’s really, really bad advice. But the best for me has always been the simplest, which is that you have to be prepared to fail, and make peace with that failure, so that you can eventually make work that you love. And I do believe that the way to grow as a writer is to broaden the work that you read. I think if nothing else, if you read widely and with empathy for other people’s stories, it will only make your own writing better.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m finishing up edits on a story collection that will come out next year, and I’ve been telling myself this weird story for a few years and I’m almost at the point where I need to start writing it down and see if it’s going to be a novel.