Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

“The Law is Skinny with Hunger for Us”

Why novelist Kevin Wilson waited for more than a decade to use a single line

In my book The Family Fang, one of the main characters listens to a tape recording of his father saying this line: “We live on the edge…a shantytown filled with gold-seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” It serves as inspiration for the character, Buster, a writer, to begin a new novel. It’s a weird line, a wonderful line, and it’s a line I did not write. The line began almost twelve years ago, just as I was becoming interested in the idea of writing stories, but before I’d written much of anything in the way of fiction.

When I attended Vanderbilt University, from 1996 to 2000, I worked part-time for Network Computing Services at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I got the job because my cousin was a friend of someone who worked there. When I met with the boss for my interview, he asked me if I knew HTML. I thought he was asking me if I had heard of the term, so I nodded. He said, “Well, if you know HTML, you’ll be fine,” and I had the job. I had the job, and it was now impossible to ask, just to refresh my memory, what HTML was, exactly.

They moved me into a tiny room and gave me the Medical Center’s Policy and Procedures Manual. It was huge, a tower of paper, and it was my job to get this information onto the web site. They gave me a scanner, but it did not work and eventually broke. So, I bought a book about HTML and basically typed the entire manual by myself. No one ever really checked on me. There was no timeline for finishing the manual. I sat in a room and typed for hours at a time. One time, when there was a tornado in the area, everyone had moved from the top floors, but no one remembered that I worked there, and I simply sat in my room and typed until the tornado had passed.

Eventually, I became bored with constantly typing policies and procedures, and I decided I would insert a single line of my own into certain sections of the manual. They were strange, open-ended sentences that generally spoke to some apocalyptic outcome. Sharpened sticks featured prominently. After a while, it felt like I was writing a story within the manual. I typed and typed and, though it wasn’t a novel, it felt like creation. It felt like actual writing.

One of my friends, my roommate for a short time, was Eric Hailey, and when I told him about the novel I was writing within the policy-and-procedures manual, he thought about it for perhaps thirty seconds and then wrote this line on a piece of paper: “The edge is a shanty-town filled with gold seekers. We are the new fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” He presented it to me and simply said, “Put that in the manual.” A few days later, I did, in the section called “Getting Into Print.” From time to time, I would enter the web address for that particular page, find the line, hidden well into the document, and feel like some sort of magic trick had been performed.

For years afterward, I found myself trying, and failing, to place this line in a story. I wanted so badly to say that someone was “skinny with hunger” for someone else. I wanted gold-seekers to feature prominently. I wanted shantytowns. And nothing worked. Finally, while working on a novel where a boy’s father is a semi-famous, reclusive author, I had the first lines of the father’s novel begin with that line from Eric. When the novel failed, I felt worst about the fact that I still had not found a place for the gold-seekers.

When I was working on The Family Fang, I knew Buster would be a writer, and I knew that Eric’s line would factor into the narrative. Even if I knew nothing else about the book, I knew that would happen. And there it is. Page 127.

Almost twelve years after I first typed it.

The website for the policy-and-procedures manual has been overhauled and updated by someone who apparently understood HTML very well. There is no longer any trace of my work. I haven’t talked to Eric in a while, but I hope he reads the book and sees that line and gets over the fact that I stole it from him and appreciates the fact that, once again, I hid something beautiful inside another text. It feels, now that I think of it, just like something the Fangs would do.