Interview with Jason Ockert
Well before his first collection was published, Jason Ockert had already seen his work printed in some of the best literary magazines of our time: Oxford American, McSweeney’s, the Iowa Review, and other publications that have paved the way for so many of our literary greats. It was therefore no real surprise that Ockert’s Rabbit Punches, which was lauded by critics as “riotously funny,” “quirky, unsettling, and full of unexpected turns,” would soon see a worthy follow up in Neighbors of Nothing, a story collection that Junot Diaz described as “beautiful, searching and generous,” and which earned the author a Shirley Jackson Fiction Award nomination. Now with Wasp Box, a novel forthcoming with Panhandler Books in Spring 2015, we are treated to a high-octane version of the witty, heartbreaking, and slightly absurd themes that earned Ockert his early reputation as “a writer to be watched.”
Wasp Box takes place in wine country, upstate New York, during an unusually hot summer. Two half-brothers, Hudson and Speck, are visiting Nolan, the older brother’s birth father. Hudson is trying to negotiate a relationship with a father he barely knows. Speck, Hudson’s younger half-brother is along for the vacation – and remains a complication in an already difficult situation. Unbeknownst to the boys and father, exotic killer wasps are breeding out of control only just yards away, and presenting a growing, deadly threat to the entire community.
Wasp Box spins an interesting angle on the coming-of-age story, one filled with memorable characters and bizarre dangers that are just as surreal as life often can be. It’s the kind of narrative that skirts between high-powered tension and what Saunders rightly termed “vulnerable kindness” – signature traits of Ockert’s impressive agility as a writer. The setup of a biological menace festering in the background as father and son negotiate each other’s moods adds layers of emotional fragility to the narrative. Brock Clarke, author of Exeley, has rightly described Wasp Box as an “unbelievably smart, tense, breakneck first novel…a book that is absolutely impossible to put down,” in part because the threat of the wasps is so hypnotically terrifying. However, the scarier peril is whether the sore and tender desires and longings that keep the family teetering between bliss and bane will see resolution or drone on in endless, poisoned buzzing.
Wasp Box is a thrilling debut that will no doubt soon garner lots of positive attention from readers and critics alike. It is that rare novel that manages to be profound while also being profoundly entertaining. In an early review, The Rumpus described Wasp Box as “horrific, beautiful, bizarre, poignant and mesmerizing,” as it “portrays families at their best and worst, strongest and weakest, closest and most distant. Above all, it offers a portrait of the resilience and reliance necessary to survive.”
We are excited that Jason Ockert decided to talk to us about Wasp Box. In this interview, the author discusses his inspiration for the novel, his interest in family themes, his mentors, the memories and moments that served as crucial sparks for the novel and more.
Laura Valeri: First of all, let me congratulate you for yet another great work of fiction. Wasp Box, is an eminently nail-biting narrative, emotionally layered and deftly composed. Tell me how the story of the killer wasps found its way into this family drama? What inspired this idea?
Jason Ockert: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about the book, Laura. I sincerely appreciate it.
The origin of this story stems back to a memory when I was a boy visiting my father’s house; after the divorce my brother and I went to see him every-other-weekend. It was a huge two-hundred year old Victorian home, the kind of place where you could easily get lost. Once, when I was bored and alone in the living room I discovered a wasp caught on the inside of the window. It kept pinging off the glass and bouncing against the screen; in a hurry to not go anywhere. I should have just ignored it or cracked the bottom of the screen to set it free. Instead, I snatched an ornate porcelain box from a side table and, carefully, coaxed the wasp inside, sealing it with the carnation-emblazoned lid. I remember the thrill of hearing the insect buzz around in its tomb. And, for some reason, I imagined someone in the future opening the box and finding the dead wasp and wondering how it managed to get inside. That little mystery mattered to me, back then, and I liked the idea that I had orchestrated it all.
In hindsight, of course, I see how cruel the act was and how senseless. In some ways, I’m trying to make up for the gesture in story by allowing the insect to get its revenge. The wasps are those dark ideas that creep into our heads and stain our thoughts. Writing can be a spotlight.
LV: Without giving away too much, the end of the narrative slips into a bit of metafiction, when Speck, as an adult, unsure weather or not what happened with the wasps was real or imagined, decides to investigate on his own, and finally writes the opening lines of the novel. As a reader, I’m invariably drawn to want to believe the story of the wasps is real, at least to some degree, but as a fiction writer I also like the idea that memory is a fictional narrative which we adapt as adults to fit our perceptions and values. What do you think of the relationship between fiction and memory?
JO: Well, that’s a fantastic question, and I’m happy to hear that the lines I blur enhance the story rather than inhibit it.
There’s a symbiotic link between memory and narrative. I think, as Speck eventually realizes, that sometimes a person can begin to better understand his or her life by inventing fictitious events around real personal trauma. The best stories have an uncanny way of making you feel as if you are not alone in your pain and individual struggles. Important writing doesn’t teach us new things about ourselves it reminds us of the simple truths we may have temporarily forgotten.
LV: Let’s talk about themes that are recurrent in your writing. Father/son, mother/daughter relationships feature dominantly in your work, but your portrayal of family drama flirts deliciously between traditional gender roles and the morphing of these roles that comes with more contemporary notions of the family nucleus which include ex-spouses, step-children, and adoptions. I’m thinking of many of the story in Rabbit Punches, like “Some Storm,” where the eldest brother invests himself with the responsibility of finding a suitable husband for his sister, while in the follow up story, “Mother May I,” we learn that the sister contrived to get herself pregnant without intercourse. We see parent/child themes quite dominantly in Wasp Box, and the roles of caretaker are reversed: the children know much more than the parents and adults about the dangers of life and the choices one must make to survive. Can you discuss your interest in these themes?
JO: While I don’t do this consciously when I’m writing, I tend to take disparate characters—people that don’t ordinarily make sense together—and insert them into a scene. For instance, the World War II veteran Gus is in the twilight of his life and cannot shake away the despondency from the recent loss of his wife. He’s in a major tailspin, struggling to come up with reasons to get up in the morning. Then there’s Speck, a young, curious, lonely kid with a vivid imagination. On one hand, you have an old man who wants to share his experiences with someone—to give them voice is to give them meaning and import—and on the other hand you have an inquisitive boy who is listening but not necessarily interpreting what he’s being told the way Gus intends. I’m drawn to these oppositions because they can create energy and, if I’m vigilant enough, evocative nuance in character.
Children are more susceptible to mystery than most adults. A distant light wavering in the darkened forest could be a UFO. A noise in the night is a monster. You were destined to find a discarded journal by the railroad tracks; the writing is meant solely for you. Rules are malleable when you’re a child and the world can be vivid and surprising. Those—vivid and surprising—are the kinds of stories I like to read and try to tell, too.
LV: Yes, and in many of your stories in Neighbors of Nothing and in Rabbit Punches, as well as in Wasp Box, the children seem to have far larger ambitions than their parents or adult counterparts. While I would definitely describe your fiction as playful and uplifting, I also detect an interest or at least a concern for the sense of unrealized potential that many of your adult characters succumb to. For instance, Nolan, in Wasp Box, was once a successful businessman and family man, and while he does lurch towards a dream, he fails at it terribly. Alcoholism and dysfunction seem more of a side-effect than a cause. Am I mistaken? Do you have a bleak view of adulthood?
JO: Ha! Maybe. Probably. I’ve often wished that I could be a misanthrope. I just don’t have the tenacity for it. I’m too damned curious about people to hate them.
I like that phrase, “lurch towards a dream.” Many of my favorite characters in literature are hopeless dream-lurchers who fail terribly. I’m thinking of Ignatious J. Reilly, Hazel Motes, Fuckhead (from Jesus’ Son) or the unnamed narrator in Notes from Underground. I root for folks who don’t give up because of some ethical or moral imperative; they’re just too damned stubborn to stop trying.
One of the challenges in writing is learning how to love your antagonists as much as you do your protagonists. In this way, ideally, you create three-dimensional people who don’t fit into any discernable category. Nolan means well. He’s just frightened and meek. To me, those feelings are relatable, bleak or otherwise.
LV: The biological threat of the wasps in Wasp Box had at times a very serious tone, but at others I couldn’t help but feel that you were teasing your readers with a subtle degree of tongue-in-cheek reference to vintage 1970’s horror movies. I can’t help but consider that you studied fiction with George Saunders and Padget Powell, whose work employs both dark humor and absurd premises. In what ways did these writers influence your take on fiction? Are you a realist or an absurdist?
JO: Powell’s writing is a celebration. His sentences seize the reader in a chokehold and thrash with a mad precision. Saunders’ writing is sneaky. The self-deprecating insularity of his characters diverts a reader’s attention and you do not notice that the story has slipped inside your chest and squeezed your heart until it’s too late.
I’m lucky to have studied with them. Unfortunately, I was too dumb to really appreciate their advice and mentorship. I have the memory of a fruit fly. If I absorbed any of their greatness it is by chance alone.
In the land of Realist/Absurdist I’d pitch a tent with the weirdoes, if they’ll have me. The only way that I can broach big issues like alcoholism, suicide, and sexual abuse is by counter-balancing the weight of the topics with some playfulness. In my warped mind, the parasitic brain-eating wasp conceit was great fun to write and, I hope, engaging to read.
LV: Very engaging. And it toys with the reader’s expectations in ways worthy of your former mentors. How long did it take you to write Wasp Box? What were some of the more interesting dilemmas that arose as you were working through these characters’ relationships with each other?
JO: I wrote a draft of the novel in a year and then the agent pitched it to the Big Houses who, rightfully, turned it down. So, I let it sit for another year, convinced that it was a failure. Then, oddly enough, my short story “Max,” which was originally published in The Iowa Review and now collected in Neighbors of Nothing, was selected for the Shirley Jackson Award in short fiction. Ordinarily, I don’t think anyone reads anything I write so when it dawned on me that folks in the speculative fiction camp thought that my story had enough merit to read, I woke up and re-imagined Wasp Box. I think I loosened up a bit, to be honest, and allowed myself to get lost in the narrative rather than being so uptight with the prose. I dismantled the whole thing and then resurrected it. That took another year or so.
I remember, at some point in the writing process, learning that Speck held more clues than I realized. In earlier drafts, Hudson, the older brother, was at the epicenter. He is the one with something to prove (to himself and his father). Speck, though, kept sneaking onto the page without my consent, demanding my attention. When my characters get ornery I’m obliged to listen. The kid became the vessel for the wasps and allowed me to blur the line between what is and is not real. Echoing the question above, what’s real—the human drama that unfolds that summer—is wrapped up in the experiences and memory of the child.
LV: Hudson is a voracious reader in the book, and Speck tries to keep up. There are also a lot of truly fascinating scientific facts about the wasps. What kind of reading did you your writing? What kind of reading did you do when you were writing Wasp Box?
JO: My grandfather wrote a memoir about his time in WWII which gave me some insight into his experiences as a bombardier.
I read Wasp Farm, by Howard Ensign Evans, which is a book on the classification and behavior of wasps. A sort of Walden with wasps. I also brushed up on entomology and parasitology. While there aren’t any species of wasps that are parasitic to humans, there are many parasitic wasps. What insects really do is far more terrifying than what I’ve depicted in the novel.
I admire the way that Daphne du Maurier builds and sustains the omnipresent horror in “The Birds,” and I tried to borrow this technique in my own novel. Lastly, I read The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, which was truly disturbing in its depiction of a lost, psychopathic child.
LV: What’s next for you in terms of your writing?
JO: I’m completing a second novel which features a former magician, an entrepreneur hocking shark repellant to tourists on the beach, and an alcoholic’s bar which doesn’t serve alcohol.
LV: We look forward to reading that work. Thank you for letting us talk to you.
(Note: to read an excerpt from Wasp Box, click here.)