I first met Colin Winnette when he participated in a marathon Thomas Bernhard reading at a café in San Francisco. The reading lasted for hours; mojitos and cava flowed; Winnette, though nearly broke at the time, tried to pay the entire thousand-dollar-plus tab. This all-but-alarming generosity of spirit extends to his fiction, which is big-hearted yet disquieting, narratively exuberant yet formally rigorous, and, without fail, startlingly inventive. I can think of few writers whose books so wildly differ from one another, exhibiting a never-resting interest in experimenting with narrative traditions and possibilities.
Winnette’s newest book, his sixth, The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull Press) is one of the most frightening novels I’ve read in recent memory. Set in an eerie boys’ orphanage, the book had me checking locks, shutting windows, and turning on lights, afraid of I didn’t even know what. Like much of Winnette’s writing, it resists neat categorization: it’s unsettling, yes, but it’s also tender and sneakily comic, shot through with vital questions about mortality, evil, epistemology, and how to live in a bewildering world.
R.O. Kwon Did you consciously set out to write a very scary novel or was the terror you inspired in at least this reader a fantastic byproduct of other hopes, interests, or objectives?
Colin Winnette I wanted the threat to feel real. The glue of the novel is the narrator’s obsessive attempts to understand what’s going on around him, so I wanted to make sure his paranoid feelings and careful deductions weren’t unmotivated.
ROK The way your narrator’s mind swings between paranoia and forced rationality feels true to how my own mind often works when I’m afraid, but trying to reason my way through it all. Picking almost at random, here are a few representative lines from The Job of the Wasp, when he’s just discovered a woman’s corpse in the garden: “The other boy was right to observe that someone must have put her here, but it was a suspiciously unsuitable place for a corpse anyone truly wanted to store beyond the possibility of casual discovery. It occurred to me then that this might have been the very reason we had been rewarded with garden duty so early in the season. The goal hadn’t been to keep someone from finding the corpse, but to bury it so that it might be discovered without any trouble at all.” But, of course, all this reasoning comes right after he’s found a corpse. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying there are quite a few unexpected corpses, as well as other macabre surprises—how did you think about pacing, and about the distribution of scares?
CW I’m most scared by a horror movie during those open, crawling, hollow spaces typically encountered right before the jump scare. I hate jump scares, hate, hate, hate, but I love those moments when everything is electrified with the possibility of what’s about to happen. Like that scene in Silence of the Lambs when the killer is walking behind Clarice in the dark, touching her hair. Or the scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre when the family is trying to let Grandpa kill the heroine, but he can’t muster the strength to swing the hammer.
ROK You’ve written books that play with and subvert so-called genres such as horror, Westerns, crime thrillers, and fairy tales—Brian Evenson said that your previous novel, Haints Stay, “takes the traditional Western, turns it inside out, eviscerates it, skins it and then wears it as a duster”—and I wonder what, if anything, draws you to these traditions?
CWEvery genre, including realism, is an opportunity to engage with a different set of rules, tropes, and, most importantly, expectations. They create opportunities to think in wildly different and compellingly imaginative ways. While I do think genre distinctions have done a lot of harm, at the same time, different genres do speak to me in different ways. One has never felt more authentic to me than any other, or better suited to excavating truths about human experience, but, for example, horror comforted me when I was young by showing me I was right to be afraid, and that there was something on the other side of that fear. Whereas, because I grew up in small-town Texas, I had some masculinity issues to work out, and a lot of feelings about cowboys, so writing in and against the stark outlines of the Western helped me clarify those things.
ROK I love that, about the right to be afraid—I’ve never heard that as a reason to seek out horror, but it makes sense.
CW Fairy tales can be their own kind of horror stories. They also have this straightforward way of presenting the cruelty human beings are capable of, alongside the beautiful surprises the world has to offer. I’ve always loved them, and, in my fiction, I aspire to their ability to feel at once matter-of-fact and grand, whimsical and urgent. Crime thrillers, on the other hand, are ripe for exploring a kind of ambiguity that I live in and love. They’re so often concerned with the promise of resolution in the face of unspeakable wrongs, which is something I both desire and doubt. Another way of thinking about it is that, to me, the form of the project is as important as the overall effect of any sentence, and who wants to keep using the same type of sentence over and over again?
ROK The Job of the Wasp marks a significant departure in style from previous novels. Much of the book unspools in long sentences, commas piled upon more commas. Here, for example, is a single, delectably spun-out line from the novel: “If I’d accepted responsibility for the drawings, thereby partially relieving the pressure he planned to suggest might have forced me to strike out against Ms. Klein, he would respond by tightening his grip (under the auspices of protecting us, no less), heightening the tensions inherent in the lots we’d been cast, the sorrowful day-to-day lives we each led in our prison of sorts, our desert island of castaway boys, so that it no longer mattered if he succeeded in framing me, as, at the end of all this, one of us, one of the boys in his charge, was sure to snap, or fold, or bend, or break, in a way that would benefit him and maybe help divert any suspicions cast his way.” What led you to the very long sentence?
CW I’ve always loved long sentences, but it wasn’t until I met the narrator and situation of this book that I saw how I could exploit an overabundance of long sentences in a way that was directly in service of the book’s subject. Its center, its obsessions, its heart. Long sentences were a part of the narrator’s voice from the beginning, and they allowed him to carefully examine the world, but in a way that also distanced him from it. As the novel grew, the voice shaped it, brought it into focus. I began to see why he spoke the way he did, how I could work with it, and what it meant.
ROK Perhaps especially as someone who spent ten years on a first novel, I’m fascinated by how fast you write. This book took a year of work. You write fast but with such care. How do you do it? What’s your secret?
CW No secret. There are people who write faster than me, and people who write slower. I think one mistake people make (and I’m not saying you’re making it here) is to equate care with slowness, and speed with recklessness or the state of being carefree. It’s different for everyone, but I write fastest when I care most. In general, the slower I work, the less focused I am, whereas the exact opposite is true for other writers. Some writers think in order to write. I write in order to think. Either way, it isn’t the rate at which something is produced that makes it any good. The truth is, I started Wasp four years ago but quickly got to a place where I’d lost track of why I’d started it. I kept wanting the main character to walk through a door, into an entirely different story, but it didn’t feel right for the world of the book. This happens to me all the time; it suddenly becomes hard to stay grounded in something I’m writing. So I put Wasp down and wrote a whole other novel manuscript about a boy and his estranged father who could go through a door and enter other people’s bodies, and live as them.
ROK I’d pick up that book.
CW It was awful! In a moment of desperation, while I was trying to edit it, I started opening old files in my “in-progress” folder, looking for anything with life in it. I came across the opening pages of Wasp, which suddenly looked so doable to me, so exciting. I can’t explain why, exactly. I just saw it. I’d exorcised my wild hair (of which I get many!) and could finally see Wasp for what it was. So I sat down and chased after that.
ROK In this book, as in your other writing, you tend to use details sparingly. For instance, I have a limited to nonexistent sense of where the boys’ school is, or how various people look. How do you think about levels of detail in your fiction?
CW I try only to use details that are absolutely necessary—so, it’s different with each project. With this book, I wanted reality to feel just out of the reach, as it is for the narrator. And for the moments when reality asserts itself to rise out of the haze fiercely, like the details in a dream. Or, in this case, a nightmare.
ROK What inspired you to zoom in on the wasp—the job of the wasp, at that—as a central motif?
CW I was thinking of my middle school, which was just outside of town. A cluster of old buildings on a hill, all of which were decorated with wasp nests. I can’t picture the school without seeing them. I’m tempted to say there’s nothing more to it than the fact that the narrator is in need of a visual metaphor, something in the world around him that will help him understand what he’s feeling and thinking, and the wasps are there when he needs them. There’s something for me in the idea that he could really have used anything to make his point. But I also have to admit that I have a severe fear of stinging insects, wasps in particular, due to some accidents as a child. They’ve always felt evil to me, even if I know better. They even look kind of evil, with those pitch-black eyes and all their sharp, alien angles, and some survive by doing things that appear so calculated and manipulative.
ROK Such as?
CW They’ll infect a beetle’s brain so they can drive it around like a car, force it to dig its own grave, and lay eggs in it, which then hatch baby wasps that eat said buried-alive beetle from its back end to its front so that it stays alive as long as possible! It’s very easy for me to associate them with the concept of evil as I understand it to exist among human beings. But, of course, they aren’t evil. And neither are humans, despite all the horrible things they do. Evil, as far as I can understand it, is an extrapolation of human behavior, created by us to evaluate our behavior in relation to the behavior of others (real or imagined). And this book is largely about that process of evaluation. As well as an attempt to delegitimize my blatant wasp prejudices.
ROK You really don’t think any humans are evil? I think humans can be so very evil, especially some of the fascists in power in the U.S. these days; that, or they’re causing such mayhem and sorrow that I’m not sure I see a vast distinction between the two.
CW While there are people who I would describe as evil, as well as people I would describe as having done evil things, I try to remember, and put at the foreground of my thinking, the inherent distance between the way things are and how I might find it useful, or necessary, to describe them. I grew up in a fairly religious town, which made me very skeptical of people campaigning for themselves on the grounds of their impeccable morality. Evil is a concept that sets up a combative dynamic, evil vs. non-evil, and while I do believe in fighting for what one believes is right, the distinction we’re discussing is one that, I think, has the potential to change the quality of those fights.