Kevin Wilson on spontaneous human combustion, parenting, and his new novel


Kevin Wilson, author of the bestselling and beloved The Family Fang has a new novel out and it is funny, moving and big-hearted. Nothing to See Here is about a woman who is roped into taking care of the step-kids of a childhood friend whose husband is making a play for Secretary of State. The thing is, Lillian has never had kids, never wanted kids, and has never babysat before. And these aren’t ordinary kids: they’ve lost their mom, their Dad is an untouchable politician, and oh yea, they spontaneously burst into flames when they are mad, anxious, hurt, you name it. And so begins the very comical yet touching portrait of a woman learning how to parent, who just might find purpose and connection in the process.

Nothing to See Here is a joy to read, and it was an absolute joy to interview Kevin Wilson about his latest novel. He shares his thoughts on spontaneous human combustion (“something that’s been in my head for years”), “those thin lines of connection” between children and parents, protecting those you love, reading, and much more. 

Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: You’ve created exploding characters in previous books, so I have to ask: how did you come up with the idea of children bursting into flames?

Kevin Wilson: Spontaneous Human Combustion has always been an obsession of mine. I read the Mysteries of the Unknown series when I was quite young and was immediately drawn to the idea that we might, at any moment, burst into flames. And I loved comics as a kid and the Human Torch, the way he could become fire while not really affecting his hair or his uniform, not hurting him, made me want to have this power, to protect myself. So it’s just something that’s been inside my head for years and years, and so it felt pretty natural to work with this conceit in the novel.

I very much took it for a metaphor on parenting – as an adult, you can never quite know what’s going on inside your children’s heads, and conversely, children probably feel grossly misunderstood/ignored by adults. All of us have trouble controlling ourselves – whether we burst into flame, yell, or fidget when we can’t. What do you want readers to get out of the novel?

I never really have expectations for what the reader gets out of my work. I try to do my best with the story, to tell it as closely as it appears in my brain, but once the novel hits the open air, once someone else interacts with it, I have to accept that I don’t control it anymore.

But I do think that you’re absolutely right about parenting. Or just caring for someone else. No matter how close we get to knowing the entirety of someone we love, we never know it all. There’s always this hidden aspect. And as a kid, that makes you feel special, that no matter how hard someone tries, there will be this secret part of you that no one else can touch. And, then, as an adult, it becomes an anxiety, that a person you love might be unknown to you.

Bessie and Roland’s father and stepmother are fixated on optics and what the world will think if the potential Secretary of State has kids that ignite and can’t be controlled. Why do you think we are so obsessed with how we present ourselves publicly and what people think?

If we’re going to live in the world, it’s inevitable that you’ll become aware of how you appear to other people. And that can be quite jarring, right? To realize that how you see yourself isn’t necessarily how other people see you. And that can cause all this anxiety, of controlling your persona, this feeling that you have to hide all the aspects of yourself that you make you unique. I think of this a lot with regard to mental health, which I’ve struggled with for most of my life. So it feels like an easy source of conflict for stories, trying to control your true self.

Lillian, who is a bit of an underdog ends up being the kids protector and champion even more so than their father and stepmother. The bond she forms with the kids essentially turns her world around – she finds purpose and love. Are we all just looking to protect and be protected?

My instinct, always, is to burrow deeper into myself, to need nothing and no one, to hide from the world. And that’s what I think Lillian has done. But there’s a moment, and I don’t think it has to be children necessarily, where you realize that you have to reach out in order to protect someone else. And in the process, caring about someone opens you up in vulnerable ways, and you have to believe that someone will be there to protect you, too.

As a writer, you show such empathy for each of your characters. It’s funny and heartwarming and ultimately incredibly satisfying to read. Do you identify with one character or another; or, parts of characters?

The easy answer is that all of these characters have some piece of me. I think this speaks to my lack of talent as a writer, but that’s just how I work. But I completely connect with Lillian. Her voice is the voice inside my head, the way I interact with the world. But I also love Carl, honestly, who is a square, who is so rigid, but as I continued to write him, I found this warmth, this goodness, and that made me so happy because of how unexpected it was. Watching the two of them interact, like some kind of Abbott and Costello routine, was a lot of fun.

You often write about family dynamics – what interests you about parent and child relationships?

It’s just the weirdest thing to me. You are born into the world, not asking for it, and you’re immediately bound to these people. And you spend the first half of your life being shaped by these people. And then you break that all apart and reshape it into your own identity and you make your own family and maybe you have kids and then, all of a sudden, you have to watch those kids slowly become unrecognizable, their own person. You wait for that moment that they don’t need you anymore and you hope that you’ve been good enough, given them enough love, that they come back to you. I can’t stop writing about it, those thin lines of connection and the way that they vibrate.

I’m not sure if you talk about your writing with your kids, but if you do, what do they think about Bessie and Roland?

They’re interested in what I write, but the YA and kids books that they read are so rich and wonderful that I don’t think Bessie and Roland are all that surprising to them. They’re cool with weirdness. They desire it.

What have you been reading lately? What do your kids read?

I just read Lee Conell’s forthcoming novel, The Party Upstairs, which is just absolutely amazing, and I loved Marcy Dermansky’s Very NiceBiloxi by Mary Miller, and Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours.

My son Griff and I read every night, and we are loving the Steeplejack series by A.J. Hartley, and he so loved The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, Jason Reynolds’s As Brave as You and The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Oh, and he’s dying to read the new book in the Witch Boy series by Molly Knox Ostertag. Patch, my younger son, is obsessed with the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi. And he’s waiting patiently for the last book in the Hilo series by Judd Winick.

Honestly, children’s literature and YA is the most exciting thing to me, these amazing books that I wish I’d had when I was a kid.

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