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Kevin Wilson on his new novel, 'Now Is Not the Time to Panic'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I'm going to ask Kevin Wilson to read a line that sets off so much in his new novel, "Now Is Not the Time to Panic. Mr. Wilson.

KEVIN WILSON: (Reading) The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.

SIMON: What ever those words may mean, two teens, Frankie and Zeke growing up in Coalfield, Tenn., in the '90s turned them into an art project - a much-reproduced poster that becomes a national phenomenon. But its history stays buried and obscured until Frankie Budge, all grown up now and a writer, gets a call from a journalist. Kevin Wilson, author of "Nothing to See Here" and other novels, joins us now from Swansea, Tenn., where he teaches at the University of the South.

Thank you so much for being with us.

WILSON: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You heard these words in your own life, didn't you?

WILSON: Yeah. This goes all the way back to the summer after my freshman year of college, which would have been, I think, '97. I was living in an apartment with my cousin and his best friend, whose name was Eric Haley (ph), who had gone to NYU film school. He'd finished up grad school for acting and was moving after the summer to Los Angeles to be an actor. And that summer, we made movies. He was kind of super charismatic, and I was working for the medical center at Vanderbilt, where my job was to type the policy and procedures manual and put it online. And I got so bored, I just started making up stuff and putting it in there. And I figured no one would ever notice or see it. I was just writing random things in all the policies. And I asked Eric if he wanted to add something, and he gave me a version of that line. The minute he said it, it just kind of exploded in my brain. And I've held on to it ever since.

SIMON: Wow. And I gather Eric left us during COVID.

WILSON: Yeah. So I was writing this book. He knew I was writing it, and we'd fallen out of touch. He was in LA. And I kind of assumed that the book would be the thing that brought us back into each other's orbit. And then he passed away suddenly, unexpectedly. And I felt like all I really had left was my memories of him. But then I realized I had this book, that I could write my way toward something with these fictional characters, that it was now their story. And that was freeing, in a way.

SIMON: What do Frankie and Zeke find in each other that summer? A lot of people think it's, you know, kind of an adolescent crush.

WILSON: Well, I'm sure there's elements of that, you know, to see somebody who is interested in you and to feel that spark of recognition. But for me, I think what I was interested in is when you're isolated, when you're lonely, when you feel separate from the world, more than romance, it's the recognition that somebody else sees you for who you are. And, you know, you can have adults tell you, like, you can be anything you want or you have talent. But to have someone your own age look at you and see you and imagine you in the future - I feel like that can be more powerful.

SIMON: Yeah. They begin by putting their artwork with those lines on bulletin boards, on the backs of cereal boxes, inside shoeboxes in stores, on the gravestone of an old Confederate soldier. What puts wings on those lines, though? What do you think in your novel began to set off really in city after city?

WILSON: So much of art - you know, there's a source. You know, it's attached to someone who can claim ownership of it. And what we hope is that person can maybe explain some of it to give us clarity. And so this anonymous poster - it leaves it in the hands of the viewer or the receiver to fill it with meaning and to imbue it with meaning. And most people are pretty chaotic and strange. And they fill it with the weirdest things. And I think that's what gives it wings is that there's no one saying it's correct or wrong, and people just take it and run with it.

SIMON: This novel, this lovely novel, raises the question, what makes something stick with people?

WILSON: Well, it's - I'm sure it's tied. Like, why do I remember this nonsense line, you know? It's because a person that I loved who meant the world to me, who was one of the first people to tell me that I could make art said it, right? And so I held on to it because when I would say it in my head, I wasn't just hearing the line. I was remembering myself at 19 years old, not sure of what I was going to do and having this other person show me this little sliver of light that I could walk towards if I wanted to. And that's why I remember it.

SIMON: I'm going to get to say at this time. (Reading) The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.

You know, I think it almost means something.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Oh, it's just so nice to hear someone else say it instead of just rattling around in my head, honestly.

SIMON: It's quite beautiful. And I don't know why. And I guess that's the point.

WILSON: Yeah, I've had 25 years with it, and I still haven't figured it out.

SIMON: Kevin Wilson. His novel, "Now Is Not The Time To Panic."

Thank you so much for being with us.

WILSON: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.