Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine: Stories

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The Humanity of Being Freakish: The Millions Interviews Kevin Wilson

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.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Aciman, NDiaye, Wilson, Garrett, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of André Aciman, Marie NDiaye, Kevin Wilson, Natalie Eve Garrett, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Find Me by André Aciman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Find Me: “The elegant sequel to Aciman’s celebrated first novel, Call Me by Your Name, revisits his best-known characters some 20 years later. The story opens as Samuel, a classics professor who has abandoned hope of love, boards the train from Florence to Rome to visit his pianist son, Elio, the earlier novel’s narrator. On the train, Samuel strikes up a conversation with a beautiful photographer named Miranda, an American expatriate like him, though she’s half his age. In dialogue that quickly turns searching, they sense in each other a soul mate (‘I’ve known you for less than an hour on a train. Yet you totally understand me’); later that day, once they arrive in Rome, they begin planning new lives together. Several years later, Elio has moved to Paris. He begins a satisfying relationship with Michael, an attorney two decades or so his senior, but Elio’s memories of Oliver, whom he loved and lost as a teen, reawaken. A third segment focuses on Oliver, now a married father yet unable to leave the past and its passion behind, before Elio and Oliver meet again in the novel’s brief coda. Elio is the heart of the novel, as its core themes—including fatherhood, music, the nature of time and fate, the weight and promise of the past—are infused with eroticism, nostalgia and tenderness in fluid prose. The novel again demonstrates Aciman’s capacity to fuse the sensual and the cerebral in stories that touch the heart.”

Eat Joy edited by Natalie Eve Garrett (illustrated by Meryl Rowin)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eat Joy: “In this delightful anthology, Garrett (The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, editor) presents culinary essays from notable authors and the dishes associated with them. In ‘Comfort with Eggs,’ short story writer Laura van den Berg, addressing her anorexia as a teen, faces ‘the ghost of the person who believed it was… reasonable to starve herself to death’; novelist Chantel Acevedo cherishes hours with her grandmother toasting stove-top ‘Merenguitos’ (‘gooey like a marshmallow’); and for novelist Rakesh Satyal in ‘Bake Your Fear,’ baking pies was ‘waving a Pride flag before I could officially come out.’ Prominent writers shine, including Colum McCann, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Alexander Chee, whose story about a juice cleanse entertains. Accompanying recipes often prioritize comfort over ambition: Edwidge Danticat shares diri blan (white rice) on her father’s deathbed; short story writer Carmen Maria Machado mixes Kraft macaroni and cheese with tomato soup and hot dogs in ‘Meals of My Twenties’; and novelist Anthony Doerr slurps brownie batter in the wilderness in ‘Homesick at the Outer Edge of the World.’ Garrett has selected the best kind of culinary writing—unfussy recipes and heartfelt stories that use food as an avenue for reflection. Foodies and fiction readers alike will devour this excellent collection.”

The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cheffe: “The life and career of a majestically talented, intensely private master chef is narrated by her greatest admirer and loyal employee in NDiaye’s engrossing psychological novel (following My Heart Hemmed In). Born in the early 1950s in the southwestern French town of Sainte-Bazeille, to a large, poor family, the Cheffe leaves school at 14 to work as a maid for the Clapeaus, a wealthy older couple who ‘loved eating with a fervent, unrelenting love.’ She finds her calling in replacing the Clapeaus’ vacationing cook and goes on to devote herself to cooking, moving through kitchens ‘with the kind of controlled, dynamic, galvanizing intentness that attracted miraculous ideas’ and eventually opening her own award-winning restaurant. But this single-mindedness is also the source of painful lifelong conflict between the Cheffe and her only daughter, whom the narrator resents for what he sees as ingratitude. Deeply in love with the taciturn Cheffe, who makes him her confidante but doesn’t return his feelings, the narrator acknowledges his bias but insists on the accuracy of his insights. Like the Cheffe’s recipes, at first tantalizingly simple but eventually so austere they threaten to ‘tumble into fruitlessness’ and become useless, the narrator’s efforts to describe the Cheffe’s mind and heart are both enthralling and fundamentally unreliable as a record of her life. Readers will be consumed by this tale of talent and obsession, even as the Cheffe herself remains both fascinating and mysterious.”

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nothing to See Here: “Wilson (Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine) turns a bizarre premise into a beguiling novel about unexpected motherhood. When aimless, low-achieving 28-year-old Lillian Breaker receives a mysterious invitation from Madison Roberts, her former roommate at a prestigious high school, longtime correspondent, and now wife to a senator, she does not hesitate to travel to Franklin, Tenn. Madison offers her a job as a very discreet governess for the senator’s twin children from a prior marriage. Ten-year-olds Bessie and Roland sometimes burst into flames, and Madison is desperate to avoid a scandal upsetting the senator’s chances of becoming secretary of state. Lillian accepts and, with begrudging help from Carl, the senator’s shadowy right-hand man, guides the children through coping mechanisms in the guest house on the family’s lavish estate while Madison and Senator Roberts remain icy toward them. Their progress is upended, though, when the senator’s prospects rapidly change and Lillian has to decide where her loyalties are. Lillian’s deadpan observations zip from funny to heartbreaking while her hesitancy and messy love satisfyingly contrasts with Madison’s raw drive for power and tightly controlled affection. Wilson captures the wrenching emotions of caring for children in this exceptional, and exceptionally hilarious, novel.”

The Intangibles by Elaine Equi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Intangibles: “‘I write because certain combinations of words really are magical,’ Equi explains in her enchanting 14th collection. Her signature quirkiness and alien perspectives on the quotidian (including T-shirts, rhubarb and radishes, and poems built from the ‘invisible architecture’ of scents) make appearances, and, as in previous volumes, many of these poems are written in response to modern technology: ‘Once upon a time, everything was not / connected to everything else… People knew too / how to inhabit a moment, / even while daydreaming, / all the way to the far edges.’ ‘Deep in the Rectangular Forest’ offers a slightly ominous look at post-internet, post-social-media behavior and the role individuals play in this technological habitat: ‘we pollinated the mostly mediocre content / with an innocuous brand of wit. // Left to our own devices, we’d eavesdrop / on conversations around the world. / If something was unpleasant, we deleted it.’ These poems suggest people should enjoy the fun of language while it lasts, before it’s ‘ground to numeric sand’ and ‘the rabbit / of the alphabet / drops back / into the void / of the black hat.’ Like her ‘Monogrammed Aspirin’—in which E is for both Excedrin and Elaine—Equi’s poems are easy-to-swallow capsules, so filled with ideas that, occasionally, they feel curtailed, as though they could have gone on longer.”

Vanity Fair’s Women on Women edited by Radhika Jones and Tad Friend

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Vanity Fair’s Women on Women: “This dazzling collection features 28 profiles of famous women, including politicians, artists, musicians, and actresses, from the last 36 years of Vanity Fair. The profiles, each of which was written by a woman, offer snapshots of their subjects at key points in time, often with remarkable prescience. For a 1992 piece about Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail stumping for her husband, author Gail Sheehy is present to witness Clinton watching Gennifer Flowers’s CNN interview on her affair with Bill, but more importantly, she captures her personality astutely, as the ‘tougher, cooler, and more intellectually tart of the two’ Clintons. Amy Fine Collins’s 1995 piece on Audrey Hepburn explores how the legendary actress’s relationship with designer Hubert de Givenchy helped shape her career. In 1985, Tina Brown articulates the precise nature of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s mismatch, 11 years before their divorce, while, in 1984, Janet Coleman finds Whoopi Goldberg, just prior to the release of The Color Purple, wrestling with the implications of stardom, as ‘she had never yet been censored and was concerned for her integrity.’ This is an ideal collection for those who enjoy celebrity profiles with a bit more substance.”

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