Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here celebrates weirdness. “A writer like Carson McCullers was so important to me, to reveal that freakishness but to also assert the humanity of being freakish, that meant the world to me,” Wilson told The Millions. “And so I try to do that in my work, try to build a story that lets us live in this strange place and still retain those elements that make us who we are.”
Wilson’s latest novel follows the complicated friendship of Lillian and Madison, two women who were college roommates until a scandal forced their separation. Out of the blue, Lillian receives a letter from Madison, welcoming her back into her life. But (major) strings are attached. Madison needs Lillian to be the nanny for her twin, spontaneously combusting stepchildren, Bessie and Roland. It doesn’t take long for Lillian to find herself more connected to the two children that she could’ve ever imagined.
Nothing to See Here is a hilarious yet tender exploration of what it means to be a family—and to love. Wilson and I spoke recently about parenthood, home, and, of course, Nothing to See Here.
The Millions: I love the weirdness of “Wildfire Johnny” in your most recent collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. In that story, the protagonist transports back in time by slitting his throat with a magical razor. Your new novel, Nothing to See Here, exists in a similar realm of magic. For you, when you set out to write this new book, did the magical element come to you first? Or was it the initial story of Lillian and Madison, the two ex-roommates and best friends, that drew you into the more fantastic story with the children?
Kevin Wilson: The magical element came first, the weirdness. For me, stories begin with conceit and novels begin with character, and that’s typically how it works, but this time the magic was pushing me toward finding the narrative to support it. And that just happened to be a novel.
TM: Speaking of magic, Bessie and Roland, the two children at the center of the novel, have a pretty distinctive trait: When they get agitated, they spontaneously combust. What sparked the idea?
KW: It’s an obsession of mine, has been since I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I might be wrong about this, but I remember a friend of mine in grade school had the Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown set of books—which I wanted so badly but was so expensive and my parents were not going to let me order something over the phone—and there was a small section on spontaneous human combustion and it just locked into my brain forever. I thought about it a lot, this recurring image in my head of people bursting into flames. And then I kind of worried that I might burst into flames. That felt logical to me. And then I kind of wanted to burst into flames, that it might help me feel better if I could just burn off all this anxiety inside of me.
In my first collection of stories, I wrote about a character who lost his parents when they spontaneously combusted. And I thought that might be the end of it, that my obsession had a little pressure relieved and I could move on. But then I wrote my first novel, The Family Fang, and one of the characters gets a role in a movie as a nanny for kids who bursts into flames. And it still didn’t get rid of the images in my head. I kept going back to that little plot point in the novel and worrying it again and again and thinking about the nanny and the kids, and I knew that I was going back into it.
TM: So much of the novel is about parenthood. When writing about the way Lillian and the other adults handle Bessie and Roland, did you find yourself channeling your own personal experience of parenting?
KW: Raising a regular kid is pretty similar to caring for a child who might, at any time, burst into flames. Children are combustible. They’re mysterious in wonderful and also scary ways. I know, in my heart, that I’m a decent parent. I know that my children are wonderful. But I feel some guilt that in those early years, I sometimes was afraid of not only what I might do to them, mess them up in some profound way, but also of what they might do to me, how I might crumble under the weight of their need.
I think parenting, even when you put your whole heart into it, is fraught with anxiety, the worry that you’re making a person and hoping they survive. There are times when I feel like I’m not capable of caring for another person, that I’m not strong enough to do that. But I have to find a way to do it. And I think writing about that anxiety, working through it on the page, helps me deal with it in the real world.
TM: I think that, oftentimes, it’s easy to write kids as being the ones who need love, care, and attention from their parents and to forget that parents appreciate—and even need—some of these similar things from their kids. Nothing to See Here captures that parental desire for affection through Lillian: “I imagined them walking the aisles of the library in town, picking out books, books that we could confidently check out without worrying about them catching on fire, dead lord, the rescinding of our library card. I imagined them inside the mansion, then leaving for school, then coming back home. I imagined them sleeping in a bad that wasn’t mine. Where was I during all this? Far away, right? Like, if I got the kids to this level of normalcy, they wouldn’t need me anymore. And I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sad about it.” When you set out to write this book, did you know you wanted to look at some of that parental vulnerability? Or is it something that just comes naturally to you in your writing?
KW: Every night, I read to my oldest son, who is now 11. He lets me read to him, a book we pick out together, and then, because he reads on his own, when I’m done he’ll then read his own book by himself. So we sit in this bed, so close to each other, and I read to him. And I know that this will eventually end, that he will not need this. And maybe, even now, I need it more than him. Most days, that 30 minutes when I’m reading to Griff is the happiest part of my day. The goal is that Griff and Patch, my other son, eventually don’t need me anymore. But I can’t reconcile that yet. So, again, I write about that anxiety.
TM: I want to ask about the thematic emphasis of home. Early on, when Roland and Bessie arrive at the guesthouse at which they’ll live, Lillian tells them they are home. But she adds this: “I knew it wasn’t my home. And it wasn’t their home. But we would steal it. We had a whole summer to take this house and make it ours. And who could stop us? Jesus, we had fire.” Finding a place we know as home is complicated for many of us, isn’t it?
KW: I write a lot about home. At the heart of it, I’m a domestic writer and my focus is almost always small and contained, trying to build a world that will hold a few people safely. And I think that’s just my nature. Because I live so fully inside my brain—that it’s always kind of racing alongside the real world—having a physical space that I know will hold me is important. I think we’re constantly looking for that space that will contain us and the people that we love, and it just goes on and on and on, constantly adjusting that space to accommodate people who leave or come into it.
TM: Near the end of the novel, Bessie admits of her fire, “I don’t ever want it to go away…I don’t know what I’d do if it never came back.” Then, she asks Lillian, “How else would we protect ourselves?” I’ve thought about this exchange several times since I first read Nothing to See Here. Bessie seems to have accepted her power as a part of her identity, but at the same time, that desire for the fire is for protection. For you, did you think of this fire as a blessing or a curse? Or is it something else altogether?
KW: I think about that line a lot, too. I think the world can be so scary, that sometimes we need to hold onto those elements of ourselves that cause us the most anxiety, that keep us separate from other people. This just occurred to me, but I received an email a few weeks ago from a young man who a few years ago came to a reading of mine. And I had talked about Tourette syndrome and my trouble with bad thoughts, with looping, constant thoughts that can overwhelm me. And those thoughts make me obsessive, makes it hard for me to ever let go of anything. And he said that he’s been working to develop these methods to erase those tics, to help people not have those aspects, and he wondered if I might meet with him and begin that process. And I never wrote back. And the reason is that I don’t want to lose those things anymore. Maybe earlier, it would have been nice. But I honestly don’t know what I’d do if my brain worked differently than it does now. I think I’d be frightened of not having that stuff in my head, or what would replace it. It keeps me separate from the world enough to feel safe, to have a place inside of me that, even if it’s scary, it’s mine.
TM: Nothing to See Here celebrates outcasts and weirdness in such a tender, affecting way. I think many of us who love books and reading probably self-identify as being outcasts in some kind of way, and to read a book that so boldly celebrates weirdness and shows the inherent power in being different—well—it’s special.
KW: I think at an early age, because my parents were the most supportive and loving people because my sister took care of me and watched out for me—even though I felt so different from them sometimes, felt like something was wrong with me—I knew that I was human. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I mean is that even when I thought of myself as weird, as deficient, I always asserted my humanity, believed that I deserved to be in this world. And a writer like Carson McCullers was so important to me, to reveal that freakishness but to also assert the humanity of being freakish, that meant the world to me. And so I try to do that in my work, try to build a story that lets us live in this strange place and still retain those elements that make us who we are.