Published in February 2015, Wasp Box by Jason Ockert is the first book published by Panhandler Books. During the book launch and author reading at University of West Florida, Jason sat down with Panhandler Magazine and Panhandler Books managing editors Cleo Battle and Joe Angeletti to discuss the book and his writing process.
Cleo Battle: Your short story collections, Rabbit Punches and Neighbors of Nothing, often revolve around family and aging. I read in another interview that the genesis of your novel, Wasp Box, is based on a childhood experience. Could you talk about it?
Jason Ockert: When I was about ten years old, I was bored one day and trapped a wasp in an old antique box that belonged to my step-mother. I don’t know why I did this. Not knowing why is part of the reason I write. That memory has stayed with me for a long time—the little boy that I was, listening to the frantic buzzing of the wasp inside what would become its tomb—so I pursued it in story. Speck, the boy, ends up, as an adult, writing about what he believes happened that summer when the wasps besieged a community. He does this, in part, to make sense out of the make believe. He also does it as a means of coping with an unsettling summer vacation.
Everything seemed temporary to me when I was a child. The wasp in the box was something tangible; a personal mystery inserted into the humdrum days. At the same time, I’m cognizant of the fact that my thoughts about my youth are tainted now. The adult rendition of childhood is cluttered by experience and circumstance. The story—and the truth—lives somewhere in the shadows of memory and invention.
Joe Angeletti: I’m fascinated with the impact those memories and your personal experiences have on the way in which the story expresses itself. Earlier, during your reading, you mentioned how you were trying hard to be authentic to a veteran’s perspective without being a veteran yourself. How did you manage to get the soldier’s voice right?
JO: My grandfather was a pilot in World War II and kept a diary about his experiences. Several years ago he shared his diary with me and I was taken with the profound effect his wartime experiences had on him, even so many years later. With the diary, I tried to capture a certain mood and psychology and incorporate it into the novel.
I’m interested in the ways in which people attempt to make sense of a senseless world. Often, it’s easier to just do what you’re told and not ask questions. Orders, patterns, and regimented routines repel chaos. Teamwork is a natural concept. Many animals survive by sticking with the pack. Bugs have no interest in individuality. Social wasps, for instance, have a clearly delineated caste system that simply does not deviate based on the whim of a single worker. The insects work in unison in order for the species to thrive.
We aren’t wasps, of course. We are not solely defined by our job. That’s how I was able to tap into William Gent—as a character struggling to figure out his own personal identity outside of his role as soldier.
CB: I’m retired Air Force and am drawn to stories about combat and special ops and the articulation of those experiences. I felt that you got the overall feel of the soldier. It rang true. What I liked is the way that the soldier recedes as the wasps became more prominent on the vineyard. Was this deliberate?
JO: The soldier is the carrier of the invasive wasp species. He delivers the danger. The majority of the novel is about two brothers spending a summer in the Finger Lakes and dealing with domestic drama. I tried to balance the unusual brain-eating wasp stuff with real life issues like alcoholism, suicide, and physical abuse.
JA: I’ve thought of one scene though, and I’m borrowing it from the introduction, which gets a lot of attention. In most stories that don’t have some kind of fantastical element, you would say somebody’s “words leave them like stinging wasps,” but you really do have the phrase “The wasps are like wicked words—the soldier’s confession—made manifest.” Can you speak to the nature of what drove you to invert the simile and compare the language to the wasps?
JO: Good writing is generated by finding the right words every single time. Sentences must do more than serve the events of the narrative. Discourse isn’t a dutiful dog leashed by plot. A sudden turn of phrase or surprising image can make a scene pulse and anchor the reader onto the page. I’m always re-working sentences, searching for the best ones.
I don’t like to be coy with language; I’d rather tell you upfront these wasps are like words, “the soldier’s confession made manifest,” rather than string you along. At the same time, I am also trying to pique your interest in what the soldier’s confession is. I’m hoping the confession will draw the reader into the narrative. In that way, the opening is a hook. And, I hope that it sets the tone of the novel. From the onset I want the reader to see this menacing threat as dangerously beautiful. The wasps are both a physical and psychological threat to the characters.
CB: I’m fascinated with the idea of ephemera. I like the way you set up Speck finding the diary. It’s a found object, and it adds a surreal quality to the action occurring in the present. What did you want these sequences to represent to Speck? What emotions did you want to invoke?
JO: The diary is a mechanism for transportation. It explains the strange events. Other than you, the reader, Speck is the only one who reads it. In general, adults don’t listen to children. Kids make all kinds of shit up. It’s part of what makes youth beautiful. It’s nice to be unencumbered by rules. That’s kind of why we read fiction, right? To step away from the mundane for a while. To see the world through the eyes of someone else.
Objects can carry emotional weight. You can’t just come right out and tell a stranger that you love him or her. It won’t really mean anything, and you’ll probably seem creepy. However, if you were to walk up to a stranger in a downpour and offer him or her your umbrella, the gesture would mean something. The stranger isn’t getting wet anymore and likely he or she is grateful. Then, let’s say that the stranger uses the umbrella to break up a knife fight. The fighters end up putting their differences aside and become sous chefs. What a fine umbrella. Also, it’s made of gold. The stranger will sell it for a million dollars and donate the money to needy children. We’re not at love yet, but we’re getting closer.
JA: I know that in the reading, and in your elaboration earlier, you mentioned a personal experience of literally dropping a wasp in a box. Where does the title of this novel come from?
JO: Part of the significance in the title came from my thinking about containment. The box in the title is a box, but it is also a skull. It is also a coffin. There’s a German torture box. Crowley seals the glass animals into the walls. There’s a bomb shelter. A glove compartment. A butterfly box.
Like Pandora, I’m enticed by a closed box. I’m curious what’s inside. When Pandora opened her box all the evils of the world spilled out. When she tried to close it, everything escaped except for a glimmer of hope, there at the bottom. While I did not overtly write to this idea I like the myriad of possibilities that the title can elicit.
JA: You mentioned how Gus was a bombardier and how they flew the B-26 bombers in a V-formation. That formation is also called a combat box.
JO: Yeah. True. Another link. Hopefully the novel generates multiple connections. I never want the ideas to be contained.
CB: One thing that interests me (because I’ve written a short story about night terrors) is Speck’s incident with the bicyclist. On the surface it’s a terrible thing that he witnessed a bicyclist getting killed. What makes it so relevant is how it later ties in to to the bad decisions made by the adults, especially his mother. Why did Speck’s mother just allow this child of no relation to Nolan to go with a man that she knows to be an alcoholic? It’s such a bad decision. So, the bad decisions represented to me the night terrors that kids have because of the positions that adults put them in.
JO: Erin, the mother, is reluctant to let Speck go away for the summer. Her husband, Speck’s father, convinces her. Like a lot of fathers, he thinks that spending time outdoors is good for a boy. It helps toughen him up. Erin doesn’t feel this way, but knowing that Hudson is there to keep an eye on Speck is enough to convince her. It’s a risk, for sure, nudging your child out of the nest.
While Nolan is an alcoholic, he’s not only an alcoholic. Once upon a time he was a man that Erin loved. Part of her believes that he can still be trusted. And if he does turn out to be incompetent, which she suspects he’ll prove to be, that’s a lesson in itself. If she would have known about the impending horror she obviously would have kept the boys at home. We only realize our decisions are bad after the fact.
The night terrors are simply part of Speck’s unsettled subconscious haunting him. He is not old enough to know how to work through the accident he witnesses. Later in the novel, when he is attacked by Crowley, the only way that he can grapple with the violence is by believing that it is not real. He confuses reality with a dream. Throughout the novel, I intentionally blur the line between what’s real and what’s imagined.
JA: As we get to the end of the time allotted to us, I wanted to ask you what you are reading now, and what excites you about the current climate of fiction?
JO: When I’m writing novels I read collections of stories, and vice versa. Right now I’m finishing a second novel. Some collections I’ve recently enjoyed include Redeployment, by Phil Klay, Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link, Turtleface, by Arthur Bradford, Gutshot by Amelia Gray, and Voices in the Night, by Steven Millhauser.
What most excites me about contemporary fiction are the new ways that writers are breaking rules.
CB: One last question. Why does Gus want to burn the fields?
JO: He wants to fortify the soil so that new plants grow back stronger. There’s hope that the wine will be made better with a taste of sacrifice.