Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author Kevin Wilson about his latest novel Now Is Not The Time to Panic, a coming-of-age story about two teenagers whose anonymous art causes a small Tennessee town to panic. Kevin shares the story of his late friend Eric, who once wrote down two unforgettable sentences that inspired this story. He also talks about his own upbringing and current life in a rural Tennessee town; his job as a creative writing professor, which he adores; and the pieces of advice he always shares with his students and aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kevin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Now Is Not the Time to Panic.

Kevin Wilson: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I showed this book to my husband. He started laughing because I’m always panicking about something. He’s like, “Could we put that on a sign for you somewhere? This should be all over the place.” Thank you for that.

Kevin: I want to get it tattooed on my arm just to remind myself.

Zibby: This book is amazing. I’m sure you’ll hear this and have heard this already many, many times. It’s so good. I’m such a fan. The characters are so real. The whole thing, the backstory, the family, those funny triplets, the whole thing is so good. I’ve just been recommending it right and left. I’m a huge fan.

Kevin: Thank you.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners what it’s about and then — you include this in the book — how this whole phrase came to be? I was going to try to chant it for you, but I can’t. Tell that whole amazing story.

Kevin: Sure. The book itself is about this woman. She’s in her late thirties, Frankie Budge. She’s got a kid. She’s got a husband. She’s got a great life. Then this reporter calls her out of the blue and wants to talk about this event in her hometown that happened when she was sixteen in the summer of 1996, this strange mass pandemonium. The reporter has figured out that Frankie is at least one of the people responsible. She’s got this really nicely set up life. It’s about to get complicated. It forces her to go back in time to think about that one summer when she met this new boy in town, Zeke. They made this weird piece of art. I’m forty-four. I have kids. You get to a certain point in your life where you’ve got yourself where you want to be. Then you start looking back. You want to trace the line of, how did I get from that person to this person? That’s what Frankie has to reckon with in this book and maybe even track down some people she’s lost touch with. The book itself, there’s a line that Frankie writes that’s repeated throughout that creates the pandemonium. It goes, “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” It’s a strange line. It comes from my own life. I had a friend in college. We met. We spent a summer living together in an apartment. He was an actor. He was leaving after the summer to go to LA, Eric. He gave me that line. He just wrote it down out of nowhere. Being an impressionable nineteen-year-old, it just burned into my brain. I’ve never gotten rid of it. I’ve always tried to figure out, what do you with this thing someone gives you? It’s personal. It’s meaningful, but how does it go out into the world? I wrote this book. I wrote it, in a lot of ways, just to use that line.

Zibby: You mentioned in the letter that Eric passed away, and I’m so sorry about that, and that you struggled with what to do, if you should continue and how to keep writing through all of the craziness of life even when he wasn’t there. Did that make you want to do it more? Tell me about that.

Kevin: That summer was intense. Eric and I, we lived with my cousin as well. It was just the three of us. We made little short films. Eric was the first person that made me think art was something that you could do. It was actually something that a normal person could make. That inspired me. We’d stayed in touch. We would talk off and on. He was in LA. I was in Tennessee. We just kind of lost touch. I knew I was going to write this book. In my head, I was like, I’ll write this book, and it will bring Eric back into my orbit. We’ll be friends again. I’ll return us to that summer. I was halfway through the book, and I found out Eric had suddenly died. I heard from my cousin. I thought, well, I can’t write the book. What’s the point? It’s not going to bring him back. My wife and my agent, who are the two people who know me the best, they said, “It’s fiction. You’re writing a novel. It’s not you and Eric. It’s Frankie and Zeke.” I don’t know how I’d forgotten that, but it clicked into place. I was like, this is the story that I can write outside of myself so that it connects with other people. In some ways, I thought, if it can’t bring Eric back into my orbit, it can bring Eric to the larger world. I can open this line up and give it to everybody in this story. I found my way somehow to the end of the book because of that.

Zibby: Wow. What does your cousin think of the book?

Kevin: He hasn’t read it yet. I know he’s excited to. I think he’s just waiting. It actually comes out, I think it’s a day before Eric’s birthday. I know he’s ready. When it comes out, he’ll sit down with it and read it. You sometimes wonder about the limitations of art. What can it do? I do know that in the making of art, it can get you through those moments that maybe you couldn’t have otherwise. Whatever happens with the book, no one can take away the generation of it, of how it got me through that moment.

Zibby: I feel like there’s a parallel with Frankie when she cuts her finger open, that line all the way down and how Zeke only has this — they were doing a blood thing for their — I’m not even explaining this well. The work of art they were producing, he wanted a little bit of blood. She uses an X-Acto knife. Next thing you know, it’s gushing. She needs stitches, which she doesn’t get. That is also part of the process. It can be that painful. You can hemorrhage, essentially. Then it just has to close up. Then you end up with your book.

Kevin: That’s excellent. Once you open the vein, you don’t know what’s going to happen after that. No matter what, if you open yourself up, there’ll be a scar that reminds you. Good or bad, you have that reminder forever.

Zibby: I love how you developed each character, not just Frankie and Zeke, but even the mom character. I mentioned the brothers, but just all these different supporting roles as if it’s a movie, the supporting characters. The night when the mom stays up all night long and is so worried that Frankie’s about to start having sex and she’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t sleep. I’m going to be up all night,” it’s just so funny. Does it just come when you’re writing? How do you craft all your characters so well?

Kevin: I really appreciate that. I’ve been happy to hear that people really like this mom. A lot of my books in the past, parents are awful. I always write about terrible parents. For this book, I just thought, you know what? I am going to make a parent who is a good parent. Part of it is I’m always so focused on the main characters. Sometimes I try to remind myself there are other people that can help them through these moments. The mom was that for me. I tried to think, what would it be like to be a single mom raising these three feral triplets and this weird, quiet girl? You want to help them, but how do you do that? Sometimes you help them by worrying in ways that you — you’re just saying, I want to be and I am going to talk to you. I am going to be a part of your life whether it’s awkward or not. I kind of fell in love with this mom for her refusal to just step into the background. She said, I don’t know what’s going on with you. You are weird. We are different. Here, take these things. We’ll figure out a way through it.

Zibby: How did you get your start writing anyway? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

Kevin: No. God no. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in this tiny town in Tennessee. I was so isolated. It was really rural. Books were just my window into the world. It made the world less scary. Each time I read a book, it would open up that circle just a little bit wider so I could imagine myself beyond that place. Strangely, I live in the same county where I grew up, but I went away. I did stuff. I had experiences. I just always loved reading. Then after a while when you love something so much, you think, what could I do to be a part of that? How could I make it? I loved movies too. I loved all these other forms of art. When you grow up in the middle of nowhere with no money, it’s not like I could get a camera. It’s not like I could convince people. I thought, what’s the thing I can do by myself alone? It was write stories. Each time I wrote a story, I felt, again, I was writing myself towards a future. Each story was fictional, but it was also helping me figure out, this is how you’re going to get where you want to go. What books did for me, writing did for me as well.

Zibby: Did you have other odd jobs along the way?

Kevin: No. I love that, when writers, they picked apples.

Zibby: Bartender. I know, right?

Kevin: I’m terrible at everything except writing. I just always knew I needed two things. I needed money and health insurance, and so I always worked secretarial jobs.

Zibby: I wouldn’t say becoming a writer is the sure path to either of those things.

Kevin: I know. I was like, how are you going to get this? I just took secretarial jobs, always. I worked in the gender studies program at Harvard. I was a secretary. I was a secretary for a writers’ conference. I loved those jobs. Sometimes they were awful. For the most part, the great thing about secretarial work is the people in charge don’t really know how long it takes to do anything. Sometimes it’s awful because they’re like, I need a five-hundred-page report in eight hours. Most of the time, they’re like, make these copies. I would be like, oh, that’s a four-hour job. They would have no idea. I would just go write or read. I’d get my work done, always. It was those kinds of jobs where you’re just at a desk. People kind of forget that you’re around. I always snuck my way into those jobs so that I could keep doing what I wanted to do.

Zibby: So you’re basically the world’s worst employee.

Kevin: But no one ever knew. It was a great secret. As long as you can keep that secret, as long as no one else knows you’re the worst employee, you’re fine. You’re golden.

Zibby: You think that if you’re the worst employee but your boss never finds out, then you’re not a bad employee?

Kevin: As long as you get the work done, who cares?

Zibby: Okay. I get it.

Kevin: I remember once, though, I was in the library reading. Someone that I worked with, an administrator who was above me, saw me and said, “Working hard?” I didn’t really click. I said, “No, hardly working.” Then I realized, she has power over me. I should probably not have been so flippant in reading a book when I was supposed to be working. Maybe it was just the Southern accent. I got away with a lot.

Zibby: I could see that. What was it like, then, to go from writing story after story and then becoming a New York Times best-selling author?

Kevin: It’s pure luck and magic. That stuff’s all great, but you don’t finish a novel and you’re like, ah, a New York Times best-selling book. You’d be insane. I’m yelling up to my wife that I’ve finished this great book. For me, it was always the pleasure of writing. That’s what matters to me because the minute the book touches the open air, you can’t control it. You can certainly — I’m with a great press. I have a great publicist, a great editor. Those people can position the book. I feel really lucky. A lot of the success is due to them, but it’s still just luck. I just feel like I got really lucky. It worked out. Even if it hadn’t, I got the pleasure that I wanted out of writing it. Of course, obviously, I’d love to be successful. I want people to read my books. Really, all I want is to do well enough that I can publish another book, that somebody wants the next thing that I make. I feel like that’s the sweet spot that I want to live in, to never worry that the next thing will disappear.

Zibby: What about health insurance?

Kevin: I teach full time, so I around. Sometimes my wife is like, “Maybe we could figure out a way that you could write full time.” I was like, “Oh, no.” I’m too nervous. I need a lot of things in place that keep me settled so that I can focus on the making of things.

Zibby: I like that. What do you teach?

Kevin: I teach creative writing at a small university on a mountain in Tennessee. It’s called the University of the South. There’s 1,700 students. Tennessee Williams left his estate to the university, which is why I’m there. I teach creative writing. I teach literature. Three or four times a week, I’m in this classroom with fifteen students who are all really lovely and wonderful and smart and engaged. I’m really grateful to be on this podcast. It’s hard sometimes to find people that care about books. You want to talk about this amazing book you’ve read. It’s hard to find those people sometimes. Teaching, for me, is like, oh, I get to be with these fifteen people who are eager to read. We’ll talk about books. It’s a gift. It is work. In those great moments when you’re just with these kids and you’re talking about this incredible piece of art, it doesn’t feel like work at all.

Zibby: If you ever need to talk about books with anybody, you just call me up.

Kevin: I’m glad to know that. Duly noted.

Zibby: I’m always talking about books all the time. Have you read anything, personally, great? Do you work on anything with your class that’s a hallmark book for you that is a great example of what we should all aspire to or teaches some kind of a lesson?

Kevin: I try to vary it. I try to teach super-new books a lot. I’ll try to bring a book that’s a couple of years old just to keep it fresh but also because I want them to know, here’s what’s out in the world right now. We just finished this book by Bryan Washington, a story collection called Lot. They all loved it. The book that I almost always teach no matter what the class is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I just loved so much. It’s fun for them because it’s nonlinear. It’s a linked collection of stories. One of the stories is in the form of a PowerPoint. There’s all this weird stuff that they’re like, what’s going on here? At the heart of it, it’s just a beautiful book about the acceptance of the passage of time. What happens to us? How do we get from point A to point B? How do we reinvent ourselves so we don’t slip under the surface? How do we see those moments where it feels like everything is ending? We say, no, it’s not ending yet. There’s still time for me to do the thing that I want to do. These kids are so young. Sometimes I’m like, is this going to land? I’m forty-four. I’m always, ah, yes, the cruel passage of time. Even when you’re nineteen and twenty and you’re on the precipice of the life that you’re about to have, there’s still that worry. How fast are things moving? Will I get what I want? This is a book that teaches you time will never stop, but there are moments when you can slow it down and get the thing that you need. I just love teaching it. I’ve probably taught it thirty times.

Zibby: Wow. How do you apply that to parenting?

Kevin: Everything goes out the window with your own kids. You have a plan in place. There’s moments with those texts, too, where I’m just trying to think about the passage of time. You can hold onto it, but you have to let it move forward. My kids now are fourteen and ten. I can still remember so clearly when they were three years old. There’s something lovely about that weirdness where I’m like, sometimes my children are unrecognizable to me. I’m like, you are not the kid that you were when you were four. Sometimes it’s really sad. Sometimes I’m like, this is hard. I think what starts to happen with kids is you hold onto all the different versions of them. You can hold them all in your heart even as they move, eventually, beyond you to become their own person. For me, maybe it’s the novelist in me, but I love being like, here’s the story of you at this time. Here’s the story of you at this time. I can connect that line even as they get further and further away from me. Maybe it’s just, I’m learning to hold onto the piece that I can and let go of the things that I have to let go of.

Zibby: That is really great advice, I have to say.

Kevin: It’s not easy to do, though. I hate to tell you.

Zibby: I know. I’m going to aspire to that. That’s true. The whole thing is made all the crazier by the fact that they don’t even remember all the things that you remember about them.

Kevin: Griff and Patch, they’re so tired of me being like, when you were three… They’re like, shut up about when I was three. I don’t remember it. I have no memory of it.

Zibby: I have fifteen-year-old twins. Then I also have a nine and a seven-year-old. I feel like I have had a do-over with the little guys. I’m like, all right, I see how this goes. You want to sleep in my bed? Come on in.

Kevin: Also, what I love about having a second and having more than one kid is that you think, this is what children are. I’ve had one. Then there’s these beautiful moments where the second one or the third one, they’re different in these incredible ways that allow you to do different things. The things that my oldest son didn’t care about, all of a sudden, I’m learning all these new things with my second kid. It’s fresh. It’s different. You think that you’re just going to do the same things over and over, but they’re so unique that you’re adapting each time.

Zibby: The more kids I have, the more I realize I have almost nothing to do with how they turn out. My goal is just not to mess them up too much.

Kevin: I was so full of myself when I first had kids. I was like, everything that’s bad about me, they’ll get, everything that’s good. Then I was like, oh, they’re unrecognizable.

Zibby: Where did you come from? How did we end up here in the kitchen? What are you working on now?

Kevin: Oh, man. I’m trying to figure my way to a new book. It’s weird. The way that I tend to write is, I go back to old books. I’m like, I have to keep writing, so I’m going to steal something that was very small. There’s a moment in this book where Frankie has written — she’s a YA writer, but she’s written this book for adults that’s about this woman who goes to pick up all of her half-siblings who have the same name as her. Her father’s had multiple families. He’s dying. She’s picking them up. In the book that I’ve written, it was not a critical success. It didn’t sell any copies. For whatever reason, the way my brain works, I was like, what a good idea. I’m going to do that. This new book is about a woman who meets this guy who shows up at her farm and says, hey, I’m your half-brother. We have the same dad. What they find out is every ten years, their father has left the family he’s made and started a new one. He has all these children that he leaves. They’re mad. They want to track him down. They’re just driving cross-country picking up all of their half-siblings for the first time meeting them so that they can go have this reckoning with their dad.

Zibby: I love that. I read a book — now I’m blanking on what it was. There are these four half-siblings. Somebody does drive around and picks up four of them all over town. It takes place, I want to say, in London. No, it’s not. It’s somewhere in Africa. I’m going to figure out the book.

Kevin: Yeah, I got to get this so I can figure out if I’m copying.

Zibby: It’s not the same. You’re not copying. There are only five of them, five siblings. Right in the beginning, they go and pick them all up. My brain will catch up with me at some point. If I find it, I’ll send it your way.

Kevin: I’m going to add it to the to-read list.

Zibby: Add it to the to-read list. I thought you were going to say you were going to write the bad, not critically acclaimed YA book.

Kevin: No, no, that’s not in me just yet. I would love to be able to.

Zibby: That would be hilarious. You should commission that. You could pair it almost like a gift set.

Kevin: I like that.

Zibby: It would be funny. Maybe not. Maybe to me. What do you do when you’re not writing and teaching?

Kevin: It’s just me and the kids. We live on a mountain in Tennessee. My wife and I and our kids, we’re kind of a world unto ourselves. We have a pond in our backyard, a little treehouse, some woods. So much of our life is just the four of us always on top of each other. The times that I’m not writing or not teaching, a lot of times what we’re trying to do is just expand our circle a little. We’re constantly doing little road trips, three, four, five hours away, to explore these cities. We’re going to Louisville. We’re going to Atlanta. We’re going to Little Rock. Then in the summers — we just got back from London and Ireland. When you live in a small place, everyone’s like, it’s so tiny. What do you do? I’m like, we have great fun. We swim every day in the pond. We do this stuff. Then it gives you the excuse to say, it would be nice to see a museum. It would be nice to eat in a restaurant. That forces us out into the larger world. Mostly, what we do is travel and explore.

Zibby: That’s exciting. I have not been to a lot of those. I’ve been to Atlanta, but that’s it.

Kevin: A lot of people are like, you spent a whole weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas? We’re like, yeah, twice. We couldn’t get enough of it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. What is your best piece of advice for your students that we can share with aspiring authors?

Kevin: I don’t think this is just writing. I think it’s just life advice. A lot of times what I tell my students is — also, they’ve done well. They’ve excelled in high school. They’re overachievers. I just want to tell them that the pleasure of art is making it, but you are going to fail. You just have to accept that. There is a period of time where the things that you make don’t match up to how you had envisioned them. People’s response is not what you had hoped. You don’t have the success. You get rejections. A lot of times, what I try to tell them is that’s just a natural part of the process. What really matters is what you do in the aftermath of that, which is just refusing to quit. A lot of times, the way that you succeed is that you just don’t stop. You send out a story, and it gets rejected. You’re like, nevertheless, that’s it. You quit. Sometimes my students that I see making it are not the ones who were naturally the best writer. They’re the ones that were like, I love this enough that I don’t care if it’s not good. I like looking at it. I like thinking about it. I’m going to keep doing it. Almost always, those are the students that make it. That’s what I was like too. Obviously, I have very few other skills. I’m just not going to quit. I’m going to outlast everyone else and make the best of it. I won’t mind because I get pleasure from making it. A lot of times, it is just who sticks around.

Zibby: Did you ever see — I’m forty-six, so I’m hoping maybe this will not be the most ridiculous reference. There was a movie called Wildcats with Goldie Hawn.

Kevin: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: She runs around the track so many times that she beats every guy on the football team and outlasts them all.

Kevin: This is where she’s the coach of the football team, right?

Zibby: Yes, she’s the coach of the football team. She has no respect from the team, and so she challenges them to a run. It’s pouring rain. She’s the only one still standing. She’s like, see? I feel like that’s your approach. That’s becoming a writer.

Kevin: Writing is a lifelong pursuit. It’s a lifelong pursuit. As long as you do it for as long as you possibly can, you’ll get somewhere further than where you started.

Zibby: I love it. Thank you so much. This was really fun.

Kevin: It was the best.

Zibby: I’m sorry for starting it out with what you thought was Halloween music and is really New York City traffic. Thank you for your time. I’ll make sure never to hire you for anything.

Kevin: Yes, yes, please don’t. It was so lovely to talk.

Zibby: You too. Congratulations on your book.

Kevin: Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.



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