Colin Winnette, at thirty-three, has written six books, and his latest is the gothic horror novel, The Job of the Wasp.
Winnette’s catalog up to now is wildly varied. There’s a Western, a thriller, short stories that play with form and push the boundaries of what can be called a plot. This leads in perfectly to The Job of the Wasp. It’s a weird, vivid, twisted book with a narrator that’s equal parts unreliable and relatable.
The narrator, who is unnamed and has no history that we know of, arrives at his new home, a harsh and utilitarian school for boys. Almost immediately, the deaths start happening. As the body count mounts, we see him struggle to connect with the other boys at the school, especially Nick, the only one who shows him any kindness or gives him any quarter. Underneath the action and suspense is a story of a kid trying to fit in, unsure who to trust or what to believe.
Recently, Winnette and I talked about the nature of horror, his approach to writing it, and the fear at the heart of the book.
The Rumpus: Is this your first foray into horror?
Colin Winnette: It’s definitely the first. I mean, I’ve written horror stories and there are definitely horror elements in stuff that I’ve written, and gothic elements, but this is the first one that I was consciously like, Now I’m writing a piece of horror fiction. I’m going to go full horror with this.
Rumpus: What inspired the change?
Winnette: Two reasons. Originally it was going to be a novel about a young boy adventure story. Like Treasure Island, I guess. I had started writing it, and I had written the first chapter and it was going to be that he found these doors and he could go through them and enter different kinds of adventures. It was a really bad idea and I wasn’t enjoying writing it. I was like, this doesn’t make any sense and I’m not having any fun with this. So I set it down and wrote this other manuscript that was just complete dog shit. It was a terrible novel about this boy who would go into anyone else’s body and sort of live this adventure in their body. It was just trash; it was terrible. I got to the end of that and was just like god, I’ve just wasted a year or eight months writing this book that I hate, so I started looking back through old files and I saw the first chapter of this and realized it isn’t an adventure story, but a horror story. I wrote it really quickly, at that moment.
But also, I have been thinking a lot about form. I love genre fiction, and I love the sort of restrictions of each one, and how every time you move from one genre to another you start engaging with different tropes and expectations. I’ve written a Western, I’ve written a crime thriller, and these other books that were largely about writing in as many different forms as possible, from chapter to chapter or from story to story. So, moving into this new novel I was like, What is the form? What box does this hard-to-describe situation fall into?
Rumpus: I love horror because you never have to wonder why anyone is doing anything—the reason is right behind them. But narrator spends so much time wondering what this person is doing and are they being nice-nice, or are they being fake-nice, and questioning the motivations of everyone. I love that you took that uncertainty about motivation and put it back in horror.
Winnette: Horror does this great job of quickly answering those questions because you’re running from something—that monster is right there. Why they’re there, what they’re doing—it’s so clear.
Part of this process was going about it the other way. I was specifically thinking about Henry James’s The Sacred Fount, where the narrator arrives at this party and starts making these elaborate assumptions about the partygoers, and he just spends pages and pages and you’re focused on what he thinks is being communicated. It’s so funny and I love it, but it’s a book not a lot of people have read or really care about. I relate to that obsessive and almost paranoid attempt to interpret what’s going on around me, almost to the point where it distracts you from living. So I was like, What if this was the case? What if there was someone so obsessed with “what’s going on” and “why it’s going on,” but we can’t dismiss it because they’re actually in danger. So it’s important that he understand really what’s going on, so he can figure out if it actually is a monster behind him—in which case he’ll handle that—or if he’s just misinterpreting the situation.
Rumpus: Horror also allows you to think about what the underlying fears that we’re using these stories to talk about or examine. What are your fears?
Winnette: This novel, for me, is largely about the fear of being alone, of being left out, of not being a part of anything… he’s looking at these relationships that he relates to, but he feels it’s impossible to become a part of. He can’t figure out how he fits into it, rather than just being outside of that.
Rumpus: Is that why you chose a boys school as a setting? Because there is some sexuality in the book—the kids do have their latent teenaged sexualities—but it isn’t a plot element or anything overarching. That made me wonder what the motivation was for the boys school.
Winnette: Part of it was trying to keep it streamlined, but also trying to make it so he’s put in a position that says, “Here are people like you that you will fit in with. Here are a bunch of boys, you’re a boy, you’re going to sit down with these boys and be boys.” But that never happens; he’s just this square peg that can’t integrate with these other boys. Even though the presentation is that This is where boys go and you should just be a boy and fall in place with all the boys, there’s never even the illusion that that could happen. The closest he gets is potentially forming this relationship with Nick, and it’s only because Nick is terrified the ghosts have come, and he lies to him and says he has a way to ensure his safety.
Rumpus: So it helped throw into starker relief how little the narrator could fit in?
Winnette: It was like, “here are all these reflections of you that aren’t reflections of you at all.” There’s a way it amplifies a certain kind of loneliness. Kind of “Why can’t you fit in? You’re a young boy, why can’t you just play tag with the other boys?” I think he would love to do that. I think this is a narrator who maybe would never admit it, but is extremely lonely and at odds with a world that he feels has rejected him. From the moment he sits down, at least to him, the other boys are like, Fuck off.
Rumpus: Throughout the book, there’s this theme of the violence of young men that’s brought up as just a fact. There’s this sort of mundane violence that young men participate in that we’re all supposed to know about, and I didn’t, as I grew up almost only around girls. To you, what does that mean?
Winnette: I think there is a way in which the narrator plays off the reader’s trust. He’s constantly making claims as if they were simply the case. I think his claims about how murderous everyone is are ways of justifying his own feelings. Like, “Who wants to be friends with a bunch of murderers? They’re all a bunch of barbarians anyway.” It’s a way of dismissing them. So that’s one part. But I do feel like there is an aspect to young boys that—and I don’t have any scientific background to know whether this is innate in humans or part of the culture and society that I grew up in—but there is a way that boys are very violent when they play. They push, they spit, they hit, they pretend guns.
I’m not a fighter of a boy, I’ve never been in a fight my whole life, and yet when I was little, I played as if I loved to fight. And all the other boys I knew played the same and behaved the same way. It’s a very strange thing where it’s definitely reinforced and encouraged.
Rumpus: When you’re writing violence, it’s very tricky. You can’t make it so bloodless that you remove the impact of what’s happening. If someone is dying you need to feel that death, but you don’t want to gross the reader out so much that it’s just torture porn and feels cheap. How do you find that line?
Winnette: Obviously, it depends on the book and depends on the project. For this one, I wanted the violence to be a moment of clarity in a hazy world. If something is happening to you that is horrific or violent or acutely threatening, there is this clarity that arrives. The book is so hazy sometimes, it’s like a dream or a nightmare in a sense where everything is shifting and you’re trying to get your footing, but sometimes these details arrive with perfect clarity, I hope. The moments of violence, I wanted those to be those moments, where reality was asserting itself with clear force.
Like when the first body is discovered. There’s no “Wait, could I really see it, is it really there?” It’s just a chilling moment that sets the narrator on a different path than he was on. Part of it is asking, “What is the desired effect of this moment?” And I don’t even know if I pulled it off! I hate violence. I love horror, but I hate watching anything that feels like it’s there because I want to see it. I never WANT to see blood or people in pain or people get ripped apart. But if you’re telling a deeply compelling story and it involves an actual threat, I also don’t want the punches pulled to the point where you feel that there is no threat.
Rumpus: How did the all-boys setting affect the sexuality in the book?
Winnette: I think there’s definitely sexuality throughout the book. In a way, I think of them as sort of young and not yet having this crystallize into actual romantic relationships, like there are definitely not any scenes where boys are getting it on, but there is sexuality between the boys I think. I think the narrator’s relationship with Nick contains that somewhat.
Rumpus: How old were these kids in your head? There’s no real indication if they were eleven or seventeen. They’re big enough to move bodies around, but that doesn’t really tell you that much.
Winnette: That’s one that I prefer to leave unanswered.
Rumpus: It was intentionally vague. I kept going back and forth. By the end, I was leaning toward the older side, thinking, “This level of self awareness and awareness of what’s happening seems older,” but the way the language is, the dialogue especially, and not just the narrator’s internal dialogue, but the way they speak to each other—no kid ever spoke like that ever! So it made it impossible to know.
Winnette: I have a friend who is Italian, and he’s read the book, and I was out there last spring for his wedding, and we were out drinking and he pulled me aside and said, “I’ve been thinking about this story a lot. Here’s my theory: I think the boy talks like he does because he’s a ghost and he’s been alive for thousands and thousands of years.” So that’s why he has this strange relationship to language and he has these childlike elements but he also has a greater self-awareness because he’s been around for so long. And I was just like,“Cool.”
I wanted people to read this book and have theories like that. He wanted me to confirm if that was the case or not, but I was just glad he had that experience. You’ve encountered this thing and tried to make sense of it and this is the sense you’ve made of it. Someone else is going to read this book and make a different sense of it, and that’s part of what this book is about. The book is meant, in some ways, to cause in the reader the very thing that it’s talking about.
Rumpus: Feeling kind of separate, you mean? Like, if you had everyone who’s read the book in a room together, we wouldn’t agree with each other about what happened or why this person did that, so it’s, again, that sense of not fitting into a very specific community that you really ought to.
Winnette: And the way that the sense we make of the world as individuals puts a distance between us and other people because they’re making sense of the world in a slightly different way. There’s something about the process of making sense of the world that isolates you, because the sense is always your own.
Author photograph © Jennifer Yin.