The publishing professional is a connoisseur of literary forms most readers couldn’t care less about, such as the book proposal, the acknowledgments section, or the author’s note. Whereas the lay reader may skip the preface and head right for chapter one, it is far more likely that the publishing professional will read the preface and, feeling they’ve got the gist, skip the rest of the book.

Fans of publishing paratext as a genre will be excited to learn that the galley for bestseller Kevin Wilson’s newest novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, contains one doozy of an author’s note. Titled “On Writing Now Is Not the Time to Panic,” the brief note tells a deeply personal story about the novel’s origins—a story that is also, in a way, the story of Kevin Wilson’s career as a writer. But more about that later.

“I’m 43,” Wilson says, speaking via video call from his office at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, where he teaches writing. Wilson smiles easily, getting nonplussed when his office’s motion-controlled lights occasionally flick off. “I’m at that point now where I spend a lot of time looking back into my past, trying to pinpoint: how did I get from point A to point B? There’s no real answer to that. You can’t really figure out all the things that make you who you are. But there is something about looking into the past, and recreating that moment in your mind, that becomes really seductive.”

Wilson’s literary career feels like a holdover from an earlier era in publishing. He is an idiosyncratic literary novelist who writes books that people actually read. The Family Fang, his debut novel (following the well-lauded 2009 short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth), about a family of performance artists with two kids known as Child A and Child B, became a bestseller and was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, and Christopher Walken. His publisher, Ecco, stuck with him through an unwieldy slump that followed, and his third novel, Nothing to See Here, marked his return to the bestseller list. Wilson writes that rare kind of fiction: weird, bighearted, sui generis literature that is eagerly awaited by critics and readers alike.

However, it took Wilson years, and plenty of misfires, before he found his voice. He got his first agent too early, as the result of some stories that were published during college. “I was 20 years old, and I had an agent,” he says, “and I was like, well, this is so easy. And then, of course, there was nothing—because I had nothing else written.”

So Wilson got a series of secretarial jobs that allowed him to write, including one at Harvard’s gender studies program. “It gave me health insurance, and nobody really knows what you’re doing. They think it takes six hours to make copies. So I would just write on my computer and submit stories.” Then, in graduate school, he wrote his first novel—“It was a magical realist baseball novel set in 1996”—and, realizing it was a niche subject, shelved it.

Finally, as his stories began to find success, he was approached by the agent Julie Barer. They shopped a short story collection, plus some pages from a novel Wilson had been working on, to Ecco.

“The novel I was working on was about a half human, half bear baby in the woods of Tennessee, a Cormac McCarthy fairy tale,” Wilson says. “The editor at Ecco said, ‘I’m not sure about this. It’s weird.’ ” Barer convinced them to take a chance on the partial novel nonetheless. “Then I wrote it, and Ecco said, ‘This sucks. This is working in the exact opposite direction of what you’re good at.’ ”

“I was really sad,” Wilson said. “But I also knew I needed to write a book so I wouldn’t have to give the advance back. So I just started writing—super-fast because I needed to.” The Family Fang was published in 2011 and became a critical and commercial success that put Wilson on the map as one of today’s notable young literary writers.

Unsure whether he would ever have the chance to publish again, Wilson hid a short, gnomic message that meant a great deal to him in the text of that debut. The message was a kind of secret talisman he’d carried with him for decades, dating back to a summer—and to a friendship—that had changed his life.

Wilson tells the story in that doozy of an author’s note: one college summer, Wilson had a best friend named Eric, an aspiring actor who encouraged Wilson to write. Eric’s devotion to his own art made Wilson feel that pursuing a career as a writer was possible. One day, as a prank, Eric suggested that Wilson sneak a poetic, semi-nonsense message into a dry technical manual that Wilson had a job digitizing. The message was as follows: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are the new fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.”

It was as though Eric had shown him just how much strangeness could be contained in language alone. The message was a revelation for Wilson, and it embedded itself in his head for the next 25 years. He hid it in The Family Fang, but he knew that eventually he would put it at the very center of a novel—both as a mild exorcism, a benevolent desire to get the message outside of his own head, but also as a kind of homage, or repayment of a creative debt, to his friendship with Eric.

That book became Now Is Not the Time to Panic, which Ecco will publish in November. It tells the story of two kids, Frankie and Zeke, and of one fateful summer during which both realize they can create art, with beautiful but disastrous consequences. The art they make centers on the obscure, perhaps meaningless sentences Eric made up. Now Is Not the Time to Panic is about how intimate and irreducible the moment of the creation of any kind of art is, but it is also about friendship and its power to ignite a person’s creative life.

“I’d always imagined that the book would bring Eric and me firmly back into each other’s orbit,” Wilson writes in the author’s note—“that he had told me that line as a secret code, and if I used it correctly, we’d be friends like we were that summer.”

However, Eric died when Wilson was midway into writing the book. Wilson was devastated, and nearly gave up on the novel entirely. His closest readers—Barer and his wife, Leigh Anne Couch—gently reminded him that his work was fiction, and that though it had its origins in reality, it didn’t have to be limited by it. Only then was Wilson able to finish.

Wilson tells this story movingly, but his publisher, Ecco, says that this author’s note will not be in the final, published version of the book. On the one hand, that’s a shame, because the story of Kevin and Eric deserves to be told by a writer as nimble and intimate as Kevin himself. On the other, maybe it’s for the best. The lay reader will instead be treated exclusively to the different, but equally powerful, story of Frankie and Zeke—two kids whose desire to create something beautiful is still as raw as Kevin Wilson’s was that fateful summer.

“This is not the story of me and Eric in any way, shape, or form,” Wilson told me. “It’s a story about an artist, about a person figuring out their life. Eric made something that, to my mind, was just kind of perfect. When the book goes out into the world, one of the things that makes me happiest is that Eric made this small, weird thing that was ours.”

Andy Kifer cowrote Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up (Random House) with Sara Horowitz and is working on a book of narrative nonfiction about America’s secret cities.