Some writers make use of ambiguity as a device in their work. In the case of Colin Winnette, it’s more like a weapon. In his recent novel Haints Stay, he one-upped the concept of the acid Western by presenting two killers whose relationship to one another shifts in unpredictable and revelatory ways. His latest novel, The Job of the Wasp, begins with a young man arriving at an isolated school for orphans, where he soon discovers conspiracies, unsettling histories, and ghosts both literal and figurative. I talked with Winnette about the genesis of this book, narrative opacity, and internal unrest.
With both this novel and Haints Stay, you seem to be both working within the confines of a certain kind of story while simultaneously subverting many of its conventions. How does that factor into your process: do you have a sense going in of which aspects of a style you want to keep and how many you’d like to critique?
I tend to start writing from an emotional place. And if those emotions feel well-suited to a certain formal mode for whatever reason, I try to just go with it. I try to react to whatever that mode puts in my way, and have fun with it. The point is to keep yourself interested, I think, engaged and surprised. It’s important for me to stay close to the spark that got things moving in the first place, however I can. It’s rarely something I can make sense of, or plan out beforehand, without causing a problem in the draft. That’s adding too many logs to a fire. Things have be able to breathe first. After the thing is drafted, then I start thinking about what’s there and why.
The Job of the Wasp abounds with memorable images–including the insect that gives the book its title. At what point, as you were writing it, did they enter into the narrative?
When I was mapping out the layout of the facility, I wanted a setting that might feel hard to imagine as a whole, but was based on something very concrete. Something I could see in its entirety, even if the reader couldn’t. But I wanted it to feel like there was something whole there. So I used my memories of my elementary and middle school campus as a guide. I drew out the grounds in a notebook, to make sure things added up. But there were wasps all over that campus. I started seeing them the moment I imagined what the place looked like. And when I saw them, my narrator did too, so he had to make some kind of sense of them.
Do you consider The Job of the Wasp a ghost story?
It’d be hard to answer this question without removing some of the pleasure, and the meaning, from a reader’s potential experience of the book. So let me just say, annoyingly: I do have an answer to that question, I needed one to write the book, but it’s not necessarily the answer.
Is there a particular kind of ghost story–or, for that matter, a vein of Gothic storytelling — that you most enjoy?
I love all kinds of ghost stories, and I love a claustrophobic Gothic. I love the look of something elegant or rational or articulate draped over a chaotic pit. But when I was young, I got as much from The Frighteners as I did from The Shining, or from Shirley Jackson and Poe. A moment from The Shining that’s always stayed with me is when Scatman Crothers is on the plane, flying back to Denver after Danny’s revealed something terrible is happening. He’s in a suit! He put on a suit to fly to Denver. Which makes a certain kind of sense—it feels right for the time/character, and maybe he has a sense of what’s about to happen. But imagining those scenes between when he receives the emergency shine from Danny and when we see him on the plane—when he must have been laying out the suit in his home, putting it on piece-by-piece, with all that going on. Just trying to picture that and all it says. That’s the kind of thing I love.
Something that struck me about both of your most recent novels is the ambiguity with which their central characters interact with one another. In Haints Stay, the nature of the relationship between the two killers constantly shifts, while in your new novel, the narrator’s connection to his fellow students is even more amorphous. What draws you to these kinds of relationships, both as a reader and as a writer?
It’s hard for me to think of relationships in any other way. Between you and me, I’m constantly, (and assuredly to her annoyance), checking in with my wife to see if we’re actually still the same people we’re claiming we are, and if our feelings for each other are still more or less the same. It’s a needy impulse, sure, but I’m also genuinely interested in tracking the changes in my relationships, noticing them as they happen. It’s a reminder that we’re living things, full of possibilities. Also, my dad thought “The Pina Colada Song” was deeply profound when I was growing up, and maybe that did some damage.
But I was born in a small town, and I’ve had friends there since, literally, the day I was born. That’s meant watching these people change in just about every possible way, over and over again, for 33 years. So I’m drawn to what stays the same between two people while everything else about them and around them changes. On a craft level, though, Wasp is about alienation—trying to understand, and feeling on the outside of, something everyone else seems to be in on. I wanted to exacerbate that feeling by making the other characters just out of reach for the narrator.
Prior to those two novels came Coyote, which was nominally more realistic in its setting, but also incorporated its own ambiguities. What are some of the challenges of writing narratives with those kinds of dissonances and absences?
The biggest challenge, for me, is communicating just how meaningful I think ambiguity can be. Because it can feel like, and often is, a cheat. It can be frustrating too. Ambiguity can be used to avoid making decisions, so it’s hard to write a meaningful ambiguity that feels like the result of making as many decisions as possible. The kind that I associate with human life itself, which we know intimately and understand so little about. At the end of all this, I think the goal is to get at some kind of description of the way that life moves. Part of that involves feeling concrete attachments to things that are not concrete. That’s hard to write about, and even harder to get someone else to feel. How do you ask someone to love something, or think about something deeply, while reminding them at the same time that it isn’t there? Novels seem so well-suited to the task, but I still find it to be one of the most challenging parts of writing them.
There’s a lot that the narrator of The Job of the Wasp doesn’t know about his surroundings, from the history of the other students to the existence of ghosts. How do you determine what to reveal and what not to reveal over the course of a novel?
Something I think a lot about, especially with a first person narrator, is the question of what would this narrator actually know? How might they be wrong in what they know, and how would they change what they know based on what they want? And we don’t just lie to other people to get what we want, we lie to ourselves. I’m obsessed with self-delusion. I look for it everywhere, and I find it in myself over and over again, hiding away. On top of that, we’re all working with shoddy tools and limited information, so how do those things change what a story looks like?
Are there any other genres you’d like to deconstruct in future narratives?
It’s hard to say what will come next, because, for me, it’s one of the only things that feels like it could really hurt future work—making a claim as to what it will be. Saying what I’m going to do, or what I hope to do, always feels like the best way of determining what I won’t be able to do. That said, maybe I’ll do a race story. Like Death Match 2000. I like the idea of making something that doesn’t brake until the end.
Photo: Jennifer Yin