Fiction writer Jason Ockert’s debut novel unfolds on an upstate New York vineyard in the Finger Lakes region, where two half-brothers are sent to stay with the older boy’s alcoholic father for a summer. This is literary fiction with a horror twist Stephen King himself would envy for its visceral punch: the arrival of parasitic wasps. These brain-eating wasps infect a soldier, who stumbles off a train in New York at the novel’s opening. This kicks off the action. But unlike King, Ockert does not rely on the wasps to fuel his plot. Instead the wasps buzz around the novel’s margins, biding their time. This makes their presence all the more ominous. What will come of their dangerous hunger, we wonder?
Ockert is a master of musicality and image, and he opens the novel with this one: “The wasps are like wicked words—the soldier’s confession—made manifest. They rise away and whisper to the moon.” I read the novel in a single weekend, turning the pages breathlessly to see where they—and we—would land.
With Southern literature scholar Daniel Cross Turner, I asked Ockert about the strange animals and ecologies that crop up in his fiction, the role of the surreal, and how his relationship to the South influences his storytelling. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, ranged from the undead to the influence of Flannery O’Connor, whose sensibility is a good governing spirit, even as Ockert’s voice remains, in the words of George Saunders, “quirky, funny, and totally original.”
CARA BLUE ADAMS: Your debut novel, Wasp Box, is in many respects a coming-of-age story about two brothers: Hudson and Speck. But it opens with a soldier infected with brain-eating wasps, the buzzing specter of which hang over the story—not exactly an ordinary premise. What was the idea’s genesis?
JASON OCKERT: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about all this. Most of the time questions about my writing only come from competing voices in my head.
My grandfather kept a journal about his time in WWII and reading that got me thinking about my own tenuous existence and how it is predicated on his survival. Given some of the things he experienced as a bombardier, it’s a miracle that I’m here at all. Everyone can say this, of course. Look closely at your own lineage and you’ll discover a million reasons why you shouldn’t be here.
I wrote William Gent’s story first and in trying to flush out some of the darker facets of his internal turmoil I discovered the wasps. They were waiting for me as I crept deeper into the cave. Once I’d been infected by the idea of these brain-eating insects—as physical and menacing representations of fear, doubt, remorse, guilt, anxiety—I tried to drag them back to the familiar world.
ADAMS: Interesting that you wrote the soldier’s story first! He is our way into the story, but Hudson’s relationship with his alcoholic father, with whom he and his half-brother Speck are spending the summer, seems like the real heart of the novel.
OCKERT: Since that emotional estrangement is familiar to me it demanded real estate upon the page. I’ll often feel my way through blind spots in the narrative. Writing instinctively can provide me with direction during revision. The son puzzles through abandonment issues. The father tries to salvage an evaporating relationship. Neither one really gets what they want, which is validation and love. Instead, they settle on an artificial reconciliation. They talk from time to time on the phone and send cards on holidays. Both men grow comfortable in the performance and while it might not be the most uplifting relationship it’s one that feels authentic to me and it is the cornerstone of the novel.
ADAMS: What was it like to move from the short form, with which you’ve had great success—your story “Still Life” from One Story, which features an art class and a dead deer that begins to speak to one of the students, is a personal favorite—to the long form? How long did the novel take to write, and what was the process like?
OCKERT: The transition was difficult for me. Before writing Wasp Box I wrote another novel. That one I’ve buried in the swamp. What I love most about writing stories is the revision process. In stories, I quickly write a first draft and go back and see if there’s anything salvageable. Like panning for gold. I’ve found that I have to do the same thing when writing a novel, and this was a daunting lesson to learn. Letting go of twenty pages of a short story is far easier, psychologically, than abandoning three hundred pages of a novel. But I know it’s necessary, so I do it.
What I love about stories are the ways in which words can rise off the page and seize the heart. Short stories move at the sentence level. They’re meant to be savored. One of the last things I do before sending a short story around—after I think it’s done—is re-key it. Just print out a copy and retype it. Run it through the mill one last time. After about five years I was finally ready to do the same thing with the novel.
DANIEL CROSS TURNER: I’m glad Cara brings up “Still Life.” Wasps, deer, animals in general: Why, and why so many?
OCKERT: My characters tend to be misfits. They’re outcasts. I never intend for them to be this way. I would love to invent a character who has his/her shit together. Each time I try—say, write a scene in which two capable accountants are sipping coffee in a park—I choke. There’s no magic for me in normal situations populated by normal folks. I’m drawn to the downtrodden. I root for the loser who does not acknowledge that he/she is losing.
The characters are outcast from other individuals, but not from the world. Animals provide me with an opportunity to deepen a character’s insight. That dead deer that Cara mentioned, for instance, is the protagonist’s best friend. That might seem pathetic at first glance, but the logic of it makes sense to Everett and so it begins to make sense to the reader. To put it another way, animals become a vessel for the human to project his thoughts/dreams/fears onto. Animals are like a mirror ball reflecting back distortions of the character and ideally this allows the reader to reconsider the freakishness of the inhabitants.
TURNER: At times, there seem to be distant echoes of literary naturalism in your stories, especially in the dark undercurrents of threat from nonhuman animals toward the human. Yet your animals seem uncannily out of sync and/or out of place, tied to their environments only loosely, haphazardly. And they often evoke irruptions of the unreasonable, of things that can’t happen, or of the hateful, of things that shouldn’t happen. A form of literary unnaturalism, perhaps?
ADAMS: Yes! Great question. I admire the virtuosic way you blend realism with the surreal or fantastical, both in your novel and two story collections. How do you approach this task?
OCKERT: I adhere to truth when it comes to feelings and emotions and the rest is fair game. So long as I’m being honest with the interior headspace of my characters I’m free to traipse through unusual gardens. In fact, I’m compelled to crawl out upon the thinnest branch. The view is best when you aren’t sure how long it’ll last.
I think it comes down to what’s known and what’s not known, what’s plausible and what’s implausible. I like to invent within that intersection. For instance, there are no known species of wasps that are parasitic to humans. Yet the majority of wasps—and there are over 30,000 species—are parasitic. Most people don’t know this. A wasp is simply a vague threat buzzing around your soda can. Recently, though, nearly two hundred new species of parasitic wasps were discovered in Costa Rica. Entomologists and parasitologists are constantly uncovering alien insects and as species wink into and out of existence the parameters of “natural” fluctuate. I find that fluidity to be liberating. It gives me the confidence to make things up as I see fit—or unfit.
I’m fascinated by nature and living things. I spent my youth bumbling through the woods, I worked at an animal hospital in my teens, and my first job out of college, a position for which I was severely underqualified, was working as a researcher at National Geographic Society. What I don’t like about science are all the facts. I distrust people who are confident about what is and is not real. Fiction writers are always taking truths and distorting them in order to scratch at different truths. The challenge I faced was creating a believable species of wasp that satisfactorily made readers uncomfortable. In the end, though, it’s not the wasp that’s frightening—it’s not the animal that is unnatural—it’s us. We’re the ones who dream up the story.
TURNER: Yes, your work features an array of strange ecologies, of seemingly “unnatural” processes going on in the natural world, such as invasive strains. The natural environment in Ockertian prose seems a strange place, a place of estrangement, especially your quasi-home territory of south Florida.
OCKERT: Our skulls house the strangest ecologies.
You mention South Florida, which is teeming with a host of invasive species—the snakehead fish, giant toads, crocodiles, Burmese pythons, and the highest number of exotic plant species in the world. When you’re down there you realize that you don’t belong. Or, more honestly, you come to terms with the fact that nothing really belongs. Oddly, that realization fills me with hope. It means that it’s all right to stay and all right to leave.
TURNER: You’ve been described as an absurdist writer. Do you identify with this description? If not, what do you believe in? Love? Art? Is love a sort of art? Is art a kind of love?
OCKERT: I’m flattered when anyone describes me as anything other than a hack. And if I’m labeled a hack, I won’t disagree, it’s just that I don’t need any help with my self-loathing.
I don’t know about being an absurdist, but I find many things absurd. I try to live my life with humility and kindness and every single day I fail at this endeavor. That’s pretty absurd, right? Trying, knowing you’ll fail. I write because I’m angry at the inadequacies of words. That’s also absurd. I hate that I’ll never get it right and I’ll never get it right because I love the idea too much. It makes little sense and yet I believe it wholeheartedly.
ADAMS: What about the question of writerly lineage? Who do you look to as influences?
OCKERT: I side with those who believe that literature is for the young, when you can still be properly devastated by books. The writers that gut-punched me between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one were Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Nicolai Gogol, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, and Shirley Jackson.
TURNER: You were born and spent most of your early life in Indiana, before moving to Florida at age eleven. Your writing has a lot to do not only with the physical geography of the South, but with issues commonly attributed to Southern literature, such as working-class concerns, jackleg religious practices, like snake-handling, family bonds and breaks, the aforementioned attention to the land and animals. Do you see yourself as a Southern writer?
OCKERT: Part of the reason I write fiction is to get away from myself. I do not lean heavily upon autobiography. I do rely on memory, however, for genuine feelings. By that, I mean emotions that find you rather than manufactured sentiments. For instance, you’re supposed to fondly remember your birthdays. There are pictures with you smiling as proof. Those are universal bits of low-level pleasure nicely sealed with a bow. All our happy holiday sandwiched in photo albums.
What I’m interested in are moments when you’re just minding your business and, wham, you’re hit in the heart with a feeling of unexplained sadness. This happened to me the other day when I was walking on the beach. I watched an older couple picking through a wash of mostly-pulverized shells hunting for an untarnished lettered olive. Most days, I’d scoot by without a second glance. For some reason, the other day, a crushing hollow ache descended upon my chest. Ordinary people are trained to ignore these moments. To explain the notion away as indigestion from a questionable fish taco. Me, I’m curious. I want to know what just happened and why. The geography of the self is littered with mystery.
What I resist is nostalgia. Put me in the Southern literature camp that does not harken back to the good ole days.
TURNER: Many of your works are set in the U.S. South, yet not quite of the South, or at least not what, traditionally, we talk about when we talk about the South. Like, say, the old-time-Louisiana-meet-nouveau-south-Florida mishmash portrayed in “Deviated Septum,” where the older South seems to be dying off, as plantations are repurposed as retirement villages. Or the nomadic North-South crossings through the snowbird-thick developments of the North Carolina Outer Banks in “Everyday Murders.” Or the rural mountainous space of western Pennsylvania, virtually indistinguishable from West Virginia, whose coal mines lurk just beyond the state line in “Still Life.” How do you think your works construe or play with Southernness? Do you think your writing reflects the South, not as static, but as changing, open to influences and flows from other regions, near and far? A sort of pseudo-South or unSouth?
ADAMS: Yes, well said. I sometimes think of you as a northern Gothic writer.
OCKERT: I find each story in different ways I can’t rightly explain. Sometimes, I begin a piece by infusing myself into the setting. From the landscape the characters rise up. That happened with the novel. My aunt and uncle own farmland in Kankakee, Illinois. They grow vegetables and own a construction company. When I was a boy, we’d visit. That place was like heaven. I’d bend through the cornfields, get lost in the forest along the edge of the property, and scour the vehicle graveyard where truck husks and equipment went to rot. That place and those experiences are permanently branded in my brain. It was a Place of my Youth. Then, when I was much older and living in the Finger Lakes region of New York I used to commute to work an hour and a half each way. I spent a lot of time in the car driving past those vineyards and rolling hills. Ideas can find you when you’re in motion. What I did, because I needed to have alcohol in the story, is transport that farm to the Finger Lakes vineyard. Then I tried to do justice to the characters.
With respect to the South, Hazel Motes, from O’Connor’s masterful Wise Blood, invented the Church without Christ, “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Hazel created this “religion” because he couldn’t stand all the banner-waving phonies preaching this and that and whatever. He believed his love was pure and he took great pains to prove this point.
If anything I belong to the South without the South since I’m a transplant and vagabond. If rootedness is a defining characteristic, I’m out. I’m fascinated by transience and the ways that we move into and out of a place. What of you is left behind? What of the place do you take away? There’s friction in these transitions. Sometimes there’s a clack and a spark when strangers encounter strange lands with their fleeting desires. If I’m careful enough I can coax the flame and blow fire onto the page.
TURNER: To invert that famous quip from O’Connor, sometimes in your stories, what’s dead doesn’t stay that way, like the reanimated deer in “Still Life.” And this seems no big deal, just something that happens time to time. Your version of undeadness is very deadpan.
OCKERT: Zombies are all the rage. I’m hoping that Wasp People become the next craze.
Undeadness isn’t a difficult concept for folks to grasp. Resurrection is familiar. We have a tendency to hold on to things that we love even after they are gone. We cannot bring the deceased back, but we can temporarily give them life through recollection and story. This exists on a large scale when a national tragedy strikes and it happens on a personal scale when an individual loses someone. What’s hard to understand is dead and then nothing. Many of the characters in the stories from my recent collection, Neighbors of Nothing, grapple with grief. They don’t want to let go. As I tried to get those stories right I found it necessary to blur the line between life and death.
ADAMS: You and O’Connor also share a dry wit. You are a master of dark humor. What’s the secret to being funny on the page?
OCKERT: Well, thank you for saying so. If I’m going to ask a reader to wade through some of the heavy topics I want explore I better provide a few moments of comic relief.
It’s tricky to answer your question because I’m under the impression that if you think you’re funny you’re probably not. Same with cool. Since we can all agree that I’m not cool, I’ll answer it this way: I don’t really take myself too seriously. I’m always the butt of my own joke. I learned a long time ago that you can disarm a stranger if you get him/her to laugh. It’s an avenue toward trust. One of the primary reasons I write is to induce an emotional response from the reader. If I can get someone to find humor where it doesn’t necessarily belong then, with work, I can tap into some of those higher-shelf sentiments like heartbreak and soul-crushing loneliness.
ADAMS: Now that you’ve published two story collections and a novel, which form is most compelling to you? What’s up next?
OCKERT: I can see the finish line with this next novel, In Back with the Loudmouths, which features a former magician, an alcoholic’s bar that doesn’t serve alcohol, and a shark repellant salesman. After that, I’m diving back into short stories, which I love and miss very much.