Photo credit — Jennifer Yin
Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) and The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull Press). He lives in San Francisco.
Reid Kurkerewicz: You mentioned once after a reading that you appreciated your particular MFA program because you were able to work alongside artists in many different mediums. Can you expand on what that experience did for your writing.
Colin Winnette: I was in writing workshops during undergrad and went on to study at an interdisciplinary graduate program. In general, that meant I went from studying with a small group of people all working in the same medium (which was extremely helpful and inspiring in certain ways, especially when starting out), to an enormous group of people trying to do a lot of different things all at once (which opened a lot of mental blocks and re-framed my thinking as a developing writer). I learned a lot about craft in the workshops and about writing itself, but studying fiction in an art context helped me better understand the ways in which writing fiction was an act of making art, and could be thought about as such. Every element in the production and presentation of a piece of writing can be looked at as an artistic decision, to be engaged with in ways that alter the meaning of the work itself. That helped me better understand that there aren’t rules for fiction, but there are things that people have done for a reason, or to achieve a desired effect (conscious or unconscious). That might be obvious to some, but for me it was an important distinction that was reinforced in graduate school. It helped me because it created a sense of freedom that was based in decision making.
RK: The Job of the Wasp seems to take place outside of identifiable time, and objects that would date the historic period are conspicuously absent. In particular, I get the sense that you avoid communication technologies, even as you grapple with issues surrounding the gathering and processing of information. In Haints Stay, especially, but also in The Job of the Wasp, information seems to float around unmitigated by technology, yet confusion abounds. Why do you leave out the machines we usually blame for our problems?
CW: Contemporary communication technologies aren’t used or described in those novels, but I wouldn’t say they’re absent from them. Haints Stay and The Job of the Wasp are very different books, though. The Job of the Wasp required an isolated narrator and a setting that was difficult if not impossible to place in time. Haints Stay is set in a different world altogether—one that refracts our own, sitting somewhere between reality and dream. It uses that setting to engage with ideas about masculinity, identity, and violence, and problems I think pre-date modern communication technologies, but remain pressing issues. My favorite novels do this: explore something urgent by looking at it aslant, or even looking away from it or obscuring it (see Moby Dick writing about America, religion, and humanity by taking to sea on an isolated ship, or Marie Ndiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, in which you never learn the specific reasons for the narrator’s persecution, only that she, and people like her, are viewed with contempt by the members of her community). But I don’t make a point of avoiding modern communication technologies. You’ll see them in other things I’ve written. I think with an iPhone, as with any other element in a story, the question is how to write about it or write around it in an artful way. It’s in there (or out) if that decision adds to the meaning and experience of the work itself. That’s all that matters to me.
RK: The danger in the idea that truth is partially personal is that it can obscure the obviously harmful actions of those who intentionally operate in that moral grey area, like a Henry Kissinger or the bullies in The Job of the Wasp. The narrator himself begins to take actions knowing that others will have their own unique understanding of the current situation. If we accept that truth won’t stay in one place, how does one go about setting up a system of morals? Is a moral compass even possible in the world of The Job of the Wasp?
CW: Every system is limited in scope, so when it comes to the question of how to treat other people, I try to listen and respond to the person and the situation itself rather than apply a system. I don’t always succeed, and this isn’t always a sensible approach, so sometimes I hate myself. But a lot of the problems in The Job of the Wasp come from the rigid application of a system of thought onto a situation in which not everything is known (or the manipulation of well-intentioned systems by potentially corrupt individuals). I’m as skeptical of that rigid application as I am of anyone who says there is no truth, so who cares what we do. Growing up in Texas, I was steeped in morality, surrounded by very moral people, and they were some of the most close-minded and hateful people you could ever meet. In some cases. Others were spectacularly generous and beautiful. I love them to this day, will always love them, and consider them role models. A system of morals is only as good as the person using it to get by.
RK: There seems to be distance between the reader and the characters in your novels. Even as we come to know them, important aspects of their identities are withheld. The most obvious example, to me, is the narrator’s unknown name in The Job of the Wasp but extends to more complicated facets of identity like religious belief or the entirety of your character’s pasts. Do you know the answers to some, or all, of these questions, or are they hidden from you too? What’s an example of something you don’t know about the narrator in The Job of the Wasp?
CW: I know the answers to certain questions, and there are others I still wonder about. But, for example, I tried to fully understand the physical setting, although it’s obscured in the book itself. As for the narrator, if there’s anything I can’t say for certain, it’s what happens to him next.
RK: Another reason it is difficult to get to know your characters is because you continually traumatize them, and we often catch them in the middle of readjustment to a harsh world. How do you go about evoking these readjustments without having experienced them yourself? (I assume you haven’t dug up too many corpses.)
CW: A book is its own world, complicated and clashing, and that world is (significantly) a work of the imagination (h/t: Patty Yumi Cottrell for this phrase). When writing, I try to let whatever happens happen, just to see what’s there, what’s possible. When revising, I try to look at the terms the novel is setting up for itself, the decisions I’ve made (consciously or unconsciously that are working together in a way that feels meaningful). I do my best to engage with those decisions when describing what a character is going through, thinking, feeling, saying. One of the ways a book comes to feel unique and true, and therefore alive, is by thoroughly and consistently engaging with its own terms. But this book isn’t inviting you to step into the skin of a boy who has uncovered a corpse, and live what that must be like, because I don’t think that is a singular experience. The world of this book is absurd, surreal, scary, and sincere. Everything that happens is shaped by those characteristics.
This question touches something at the heart of this book, though. The Job of the Wasp is very skeptical of our ability to perceive or communicate what is happening with another person, or what they’re going through, thinking, or feeling, and why. If anything, it’s about the terror of detecting the distance between the life that surrounds us and our limited ability to perceive and respond to it. I have these limited tools and this narrow psychology, and yet I am impacted daily by external forces that exceed those things and demand some kind of response. It’s a beautiful part of living, the cause to remain open and changing and growing, but it can also be terrifying and difficult. Enter this horror novel, in which the narrator urgently and obsessively tries to understand what is happening to him, and why, so that he might come up with some kind of proper response to it. To me, that can be what it feels like to be alive.
I would be skeptical of any book that claimed to be a 100% accurate depiction of a specific experience—which isn’t to say one’s experience doesn’t matter. Every individual brings something unique and important to their work, and as such, experience gives one an incredibly valuable set of resources from which to draw on. The more books written and published and celebrated by writers with different backgrounds, the more we’re able to see, and the more ways we have of seeing. This is one of the many reasons diversity in publishing is essential.
RK: Your work seems to be in direct conversation with worlds we usually think of as cinematic, like horror movies and westerns. Conversely, what non-narrative artworks inspire you?
CW: The paintings of Agnes Martin.