A Conversation with Lauren Acampora about The Paper Wasp

How did this book come to you? What was the spark?

There were two sparks for this idea, originally. One was the “fairy tale” story of the wholesome girl from the Midwest transformed into a glamorous movie star. More than the success story itself, though, I was interested in those a girl like this would leave behind. What would it feel like to be a childhood friend watching such a fairy tale play out from a distance?

The other spark came from my own high school reunions, which are always attended by our own celebrity classmate. It really is uncanny to encounter a face in person that's both familiar and famous at once. There's always an added degree of excitement at our reunions because this, along with an unspoken, disorienting awareness of fame in our midst. Fame throws people off balance. And how strange it must be for a celebrity, too, to sense this sharpened awareness, this invisible aura around herself—a magnetic field both positive and negative. It must be challenging to re-encounter old friends and acquaintances through that distorting haze of fame.

Can you tell us about the paper wasp and how it behaves in nature? How does this relate to your characters?

For the most part, the paper wasp queen builds a nest by herself and dominates over the subsequent colony until she dies. The queen devotes much of her time to social interaction, whereas the workers (who remain unmated) devote most of their time to foraging and brood care. What's interesting, and what surprised me to learn about paper wasps, is that sometimes when a queen fails to establish a nest of her own she will integrate herself into another queen's colony and become a subordinate worker. Sometimes this joiner (usually a sister of the queen) will achieve dominance over the founding queen and take control of the nest. This is called usurpation, when the tables are turned and the newcomer becomes the queen and the queen is demoted to worker. There's a story right there.

 If you've ever seen one, you know that a paper wasp nest is a sophisticated, beautiful construction: a honeycomb-shaped shelter made from hundreds of tiny cells. Amazingly, a single wasp creates this architectural feat entirely from fibrous pulp made from chewed bits of weathered wood. The idea of constructing a habitat out of nothing but one's own saliva strikes me as an apt metaphor for the art-making process.

 Throughout the book you interweave film, art, and lots of dream imagery.  Did you set out wanting to incorporate these elements or did they come up in your writing process?

Initially no, but as I expanded the original short story into a novel and Abby’s character deepened and came into focus, I understood that Abby was an artist, and that the conflict that drives animates the story—the conflict at the heart of this friendship—springs fundamentally from this fact. Artists are driven by two things: the desire to create, and the desire to disseminate. I realized I wasn't writing story about friendship so much as an allegory about art.

To me, the creative process is intertwined with dreams. Both art and dreams spring from a mysterious well of the unconscious. Much of my own writing has been sparked by dream images and scenarios.

Many of the best books, films, and art pieces are like dreams in that they affect us on a deeply emotional level beyond language. The act of creating a piece of art—a book, a painting, a film—is itself tantamount to creating a dream for someone else to experience. Film in particular has such an immersive nature; it's truly the creation of another world—visual, audible, temporal. Film also offers a wonderful means of artistic dissemination. That's why, more than any other medium, Abby considers film to the be the ultimate vehicle for her ideas. Her goal is to get her images and stories out of the poster tubes in her closet and onto screens in front of audiences.

 As for Abby's character, I'm reminded of Jenny Offill’s wonderful novel, Department of Speculation, in which she coins the term “art monster.” You could argue that Abby is mentally ill, or you could argue that she’s an art monster. She's driven to do what she needs to do to make her art and get it in front of an audience. This kind of creatively-consumed character is my favorite kind of character. I often find myself writing about people like this, who are blinded by their own vision and ambition, and indifferent to or ignorant of the effect their actions have on others.

What books, films, and artists have influenced you as a writer?

 The influences wax and wane depending on the type of story or book I'm writing. In terms of The Paper Wasp, the most important figure has to be David Lynch. His dreamlike films and art are sui generis, emerging from the deepest well of consciousness, or unconsciousness, as the case may be. Like all true artists, he seems to be utterly unconcerned with contemporary trends. His work scares the hell out of me and is often hard to take, but it's also shot through with breathtaking beauty and purity and puts the viewer in a kind of altered state.

 As for books, I'm passionate about Donna Tartt's novels. The Secret History, in particular, has made a deep impression on me. The novel's atmosphere and imagery are gorgeously palpable, suffused with glittering snow and darkness, and its characters feel mythical. The story has an aura of inevitability, of legend.

 As for visual artists, I've been most influenced by my father, Ray Acampora, who taught me to draw and paint when I was young. He explained the concept of chiaro e scuro, saying, "Make your darks dark and your lights light," and showed me how to approach a canvas by "painting all over the place" and not getting stuck in a cozy corner of a composition. These lessons have carried over to my writing. Another prominent artist in my life is my husband, Thomas Doyle, whose work either influences mine or grows out of our shared garden of space and time—it's hard to tell which.

 The work of Henry Darger, commonly considered an "outsider artist," has also seeped into my consciousness, especially with respect to this book. The work is fantastical, at turns savage and rhapsodic, and I can't help but associate his obsessive murals with Abby's strange and visionary artwork.

 You also examine motherhood in a way that is unexpected and darker than what we usually see. Did you want to subvert the stereotype of women as perfect mothers or twist that in some way? 

 In this book—and in life—children, especially infants, symbolize pure creative potential. When I was a new mother, I remember my reluctance to expose my newborn to the coarse world; I wanted to preserve her pure state of being as long as possible. She seemed to still be part of another realm, swimming in the unconscious so to speak, and it seemed sad that everything she saw and heard and touched from the moment of birth onward would violate that purity and shrink her notion of herself. I think of it as a change from being everything to being one thing. From all to I.

 You could argue that Abby is more suited to motherhood than the other women in the book because she understands this. She recognizes and cherishes children as powerful creative conduits and is concerned about protecting them. The book is full of child endangerment, whether it be through the opioid epidemic in the Midwest, alcoholism in Malibu, violence in Central America, or the mistreatment of migrants at the U.S. border.

 THE PAPER WASP looks at Hollywood glamour and tabloid fame, but also touches on some very serious, topical issues like the migrant crisis and opioid epidemic.  Was it important to you to address these issues?

Yes. The source of Abby’s anxiety and depression is the cruelty of the world. Art is her sole defense against the darkness and death she sees everywhere. She’s more sensitive than most, perhaps, or else she lacks the conventional ability to tune out the constant stream of calamity in order to live day to day. It was important to illustrate the real tragedies happening now in order to underline why her character behaves the way she does.

There's a quote from a Theodore Roethke poem: "What's madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?" Abby's actions are in fact the only "noble" ways she can cope with the darkness around her.

 A question at the heart of the novel is: what are we to do in the face of darkness and disaster?