By Leslie Lindsay
A stunning foray into the brilliant unconscious of one very creative, yet disturbed woman, THE PAPER WASP is about friendship, but equally about art and dreams.
In 2015, I tore through Lauren Acampora’s debut, THE WONDER GARDEN, a collection of linked short stories which dazzled and intrigued–and yes, unsettled me. I was thrilled to come across her newest book, THE PAPER WASP (June 11, Grove Atlantic), which is her first novel.
Abby Graven is twenty-eight. She lives at home with her mother and father (and maybe older sister, who seems to have some concerns with the law). Once a bright student on the cusp of a promising art career, she now languishes at her job at a discount store in Michigan. Each day she is taunted by her best friend from school, who made it big as a Hollywood actress. Elise is gorgeous and talented, having escaped the pedantic life of Michigan, she’s the awe of all in her hometown. Abby painstakingly purchases every magazine Elise is featured and constructs collages of her. And then Elise returns for a high school reunion.
This brief encounter stirs up old feelings in Abby and she decides its time to make a hange. She is stunned and warmed Elise still remembers her and so Abby offhandedly makes her way to L.A., where she insinuates herself into Elise’s life.
But there, in L.A., Abby is disillusioned. Elise is floundering professionally. And yet she stays on as Elise’s personal assistant, becoming truly enmeshed in her life. There are dark secrets of ambition, a desire for greatness, and dynamic shifts of creativity.
Mining the subconscious, Acampora pulls from Abby’s dreamworld a series of vivid descriptions bordering on the surreal. This is what I love. There’s a poetry to this unexpected imagination, an unexpected characterization brimming with subliminal darkness, a thick layer of ominous. Acampora makes me think, makes me question reality, and gives me new facts–through this fictional world–to consider.
There is so much to love in THE PAPER WASP, so much vision and ambition, I can’t help but be in total awe.
Please join me in welcoming Lauren Acampora back to the author interview series.
Lauren, welcome! I am haunted by THE PAPER WASP. When I read, often at night, after a long day, I sometimes <gasp!> fall asleep. And then I have the most vivid dreams. I can’t help but feel a bit like Abby. When I wake, I often have an image, a word, an idea for a story that wasn’t there before. It’s a bit like your Rhizome experience in the book. Can you talk about what was haunting you when you set out to write THE PAPER WASP? And can you tell us about the Rhizome?
Thank you so much for this interview, Leslie! To answer your question, I’ve long been fascinated by dreams and their psychological ramifications, both what our dreams reveal about our psyches and how they can affect our waking lives. I’ve had vivid dreams that have been so loaded with meaning and emotion that I could almost believe they were real—at least as real as waking life. Some of these dreams have had eerie correlations with real-world events: births, deaths, appearances of old friends. It wasn’t a big leap for me to create a character who believed in the truth of her dreams above the truth of her conscious life. And it wasn’t a stretch to invent the Rhizome, either: a creative institute founded on the power of dreams and imagination. There are already organizations that help people corral their potential via meditation and such, so an institute devoted to the creative power of dreams seemed a natural extension. It was a kick to imagine how such an institute might work, and who would be at the helm.
“An unsettling and surreal excavation of the boundless depths of the human psyche…a piercing, disquieting novel.”
As for what was haunting me when I wrote the book, the short answer is: a lot. There’s so much darkness and destruction in the world; terrible things are happening every moment of every day. It’s a miracle that, in the midst of such misery, we’re not all catatonic and unable to function. Living a reasonably sane life necessitates a continual leap of faith in the existence of goodness and light. It also requires plenty of willful ignorance and denial. Some of us have an easier time with this than others, and Abby is a character who can barely cope. She’s able to carry on by retreating into her dreams and her art. In writing this novel, I poured all of my anxiety and despair into her character. There was plenty going on in the world to be anxious and despairing about during that time, and writing the book helped me get through it.
I understand THE PAPER WASP was inspired first by a short story that you expanded. THE WONDER GARDEN (Grove Atlantic, 2015) was exactly that—a series of linked short stories. Is this your typical process—a short story first? How can one build on that scaffold and make a smaller story a full-fledged novel?
That’s a great question. What’s funny is that I actually didn’t plan to write either of these books! They both sort of happened by accident. THE WONDER GARDEN actually began life as a conventional novel. It was called THE UMBRELLA BIRD and was about two characters, David and Madeleine, whose lives are transformed after they move from New York City to a suburban Connecticut town. I finished the novel but wasn’t thrilled with it. The only way I could rescue the good parts was by condensing them into a short story. All the other stories grew around that one: interlinked stories about neighbors and friends living in the same town. So, in a way, it was the opposite process: novel first, story later.
It’s true that THE PAPER WASP, on the other hand, began life as a short story, which I wrote a long time ago and basically forgot about. A friend who’d read the story mentioned it to me years later, saying she’d always thought it would make an entertaining novel. Once she put that idea into my head, I couldn’t get rid of it. I had just begun work on another novel at the time, and it was giving me a headache. So I indulged myself by putting that book aside in order to play with the characters who become Abby and Elise in THE PAPER WASP. It started out as a fun, breezy experiment but quickly took on a darker, more complex life of its own.
In fact, almost everything about the original story changed. Only the original scenario—Abby watching Elise’s career skyrocket through the supermarket tabloids—remains. I transplanted that seed and developed it into a novel from scratch, with a different setting and very different characters.
Art is such a big piece of THE PAPER WASP. Being a visual artist is mined from the subconscious, being a performing artist might be, too—individuals must ‘try on’ different personas, characters, and of course, movies are highly visual. Can you talk about the role of art in this story? And oh my gosh—your husband’s art—totally immersive and unsettling. Do you work in tandem? Does he influence you and vice versa?
Creating art is Abby’s life raft. Inking her detailed visions onto paper is what gives her life meaning, and endeavoring to share these visions with others is what gives her life purpose. She attempts to fashion an alternative reality for herself through her art. The same is true for me, and I’d venture to say most any artist and writer you can find. And just as art provides a necessary outlet for her, Abby believes it provides a crucial escape for others: a respite from the world’s unrelenting brutality. The character of Paul, on the other hand, considers art to be an important catalyst for human empathy and understanding—a challenge rather than an escape. He and Abby are at cross purposes here, but they are both right.
Thomas and I don’t work in tandem, although we often both work at home at the same time; he’s upstairs and I’m downstairs. I don’t think we intentionally influence each other, but our work has certainly converged thematically. This is likely because we draw from the same well of experience and inspiration. Or perhaps it’s because we’ve always shared a similar vision of the world, and this is what brought us together in the first place. Most likely it’s both.
When I first met Thomas, he was creating miniature dioramas featuring a solo man undertaking perilous physical challenges, blocked off from scenes of domestic calm. After we started dating, he began creating scenes of couples isolated from the world. After we moved into our house in the suburbs, he began creating scenes of houses torn apart by tornadoes and falling into sinkholes. More recently he’s been making scenes of military warfare in suburban neighborhoods. I don’t think there’s any question that Thomas also pours his anxieties into his art. Maybe that’s why we “get” each other and live very peacefully.
(P.S. You can see his work at www.thomasdoyle.net.)
Just recently, I was reminded about the obscurity of reading. We sit and look at slices of trees with symbols while hallucinating wildly. So, this begs my next question: is Abby mentally ill?
I played around with this question quite a bit as I wrote the book, approaching it differently in different drafts. Ultimately I chose to let Abby’s mental health remain undefined, ambiguous. Rather than giving a definitive answer, I wanted to prompt the reader to consider the nature of sanity for him or herself. Mental and emotional health is such a complex realm, with fuzzy definitions and delineations of pathology. It can be difficult to objectively judge mental health. Mental illness does not always lend itself to a black-and-white diagnosis but can be more like a spectrum. There’s also a philosophical argument to be made for the sanity of insanity, given the mad nature of the world and of the human condition. As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote:
“What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”
Motherhood is examined in a unique manner. It’s darker, more unexpected. There’s this concept about children sort of being ‘blank slates’ when it comes to creativity and art, with perhaps the idea that as they grow, they lose their ability to create. Can you talk more about that?
The book is deeply concerned with child endangerment, which is something that haunts Abby. Children are being victimized in so many ways at the moment: through violence in Central America, mistreatment at the U.S. border, and neglect due to the opioid epidemic in this country. Abby is acutely aware of these nightmares—and also of the subtler ways in which children are steadily ground down and diminished by the expectations of our society. As a nonconformist who’s nearly been defeated by adulthood, she considers herself a kind of champion of children and their creative spirit.
When I became a parent, I was so taken by my daughter’s absolute newness, her openness to the possibilities of the world. With each passing day, as she learned the functions and names of things, those possibilities narrowed. It seemed a small tragedy that her wide universe of pure potential had to shrink down to the confines of quotidian life. Of course, this has to happen; children have to learn how the world works—that rocks aren’t food and people can’t fly—in order to survive. An infant is born with a surfeit of neural connections, which must be trimmed to a manageable number. The connections that prove useful are solidified and strengthened, and the others are disbanded. This is why learning foreign languages is so much harder as we get older, and why it becomes so difficult to change habits and routines as we age. In short, young people are by nature more cognitively flexible—and wildly creative. As adults, our neural pathways have largely become atrophied into ruts, and childhood is a long-lost paradise of creativity. Abby sees childhood as a rich but fragile gift. She has a strong maternal instinct in that she wants to protect this gift as well as she can.
Can you tell us a bit about you—maybe some facts people might not know?
I always wanted to be a writer when I was a child, but I started out writing poetry and didn’t turn to fiction until I was in my late twenties. It took years to find the confidence to write fiction—years to even finish a short story. After much practice, stories are a real pleasure to write now, but the novel form doesn’t come easily for me. I do think that my background in poetry—its careful word choices and rhythms—has proven a good foundation for my writing. There is a music to it, a cadence, that I still hear in my sentences.
Speaking of creativity in childhood, I think my daughter may possess this ear for rhythmic language. She’ll make up songs on the spot with made-up words and complex time signatures. Of course, she has the benefit of all those flexible neural connections! It’s hard to keep my own brain limber, but I try. If I didn’t write, it would become a solid lump of clay. I’m a big believer in the importance of having a creative pursuit, whether it’s a profession or a hobby—and whether it’s art, writing, gardening, woodworking, or underwater basket weaving. I think creativity is what keeps us young, or at least afloat.
Lauren, this has been a delight. Thank you, thank you! Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I think we’ve covered a lot of ground! One thing you may be interested to know is that the first spark for the book came to me while standing in line to buy groceries in the supermarket. I was staring at the tabloid magazine covers—all those glamorous movie stars photographed on the rise (gorgeously) and on the decline (scandalously)—and began imagining characters who became Abby and Elise. It just goes to show that ideas can come at any time, from any place.
Thank you for your insightful reading and excellent questions! It’s been a real pleasure.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE PAPER WASP, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lauren Acampora is the author of the new novel The Paper Wasp,named a Best Summer Read by The New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly; and The Wonder Garden, which was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers and Indie Next selection, and named a best book of the year by Amazon and NPR.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Grove Atlantic and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this. Image of house under glass titled, ‘Tremble’ retrieved from T. Doyle’s website on 5.29.19].