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A conversation with William Lychack
The Wasp Eater is your first novel. How did the idea for the book
originate, and how long were you at work on it?
I never knew my father — I met him twice before he died — so I imagine a
part of me wanted to somehow spend some time with him. The novel grew into a
kind of search for him, but it started out as an attempt to understand all
of my mother's unresolved feelings for my father, as well as to tell and
honor her story. I eventually came to understand that I had my own
deprivations that were compelling me to write.
Surely it must be true, as someone has said, that the longer you work on
something, the less likely you are to finish it. Off and on, The Wasp Eater
took about twelve years to complete. I should add that this isn't something
I'm terribly proud to tell people, nor is it something I'd ever wish on
anyone, but I did seem to care an awful lot about the people in the book. I
suppose I still do.
The fictional family has a rather unusual surname, Cussler. How did you
For as long as I can remember, Clive Cussler has been my mother's favorite
writer. His hero Dirk Pitt is still a kind of gold standard for her, a male
ideal that exists somehow beyond the pages. In fact, the night before my
wife and I got married, my mother delivered the most memorable line of the
weekend. "Every woman," she said, "needs a Dirk Pitt in her life." As a kind
of wink to her, when it came time to name our family in my novel, I gave
them the last name Cussler, as if giving her the Dirk Pitt she deserved.
Now, this is what I tried to explain to Clive Cussler when he called one day
and asked where I'd gotten the name — his name — for the family in my book.
It was a completely unguarded five or ten minutes on the phone to Arizona.
We talked a little about shipwrecks and seasickness and perhaps meeting for
coffee one day as we said goodbye.
I called my wife, my editor, my agent, my editor again. And then, of course,
I called my mother. "Hey, Mom," I said, "you'll never guess who called this
afternoon — he wanted to know where I got the name Cussler from."
"My, oh my!" she said, her voice tilting high.
I don't believe my mother ever once said something like that in her life,
but there it was, her voice so unhinged in a wonderful and strange way: "My,
About an hour later, the phone rang again. "And what did he sound like?"
"Like a gentleman," I told her, "his voice kind of soft and patient, a
little like Burl Ives."
Have any authors or literary works in particular influenced your writing?
William Maxwell was a great model for me as I wrote this book, especially
two of his novels: So Long, See You Tomorrow and They Came Like Swallows.
The first was a touchstone for language and tone, the second for emotion. I
always kept Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Marilynne
Robinson's Housekeeping and pieces of Larry Woiwode's Beyond the
Bedroom Wall and James Agee's A Death in the Family close at
hand, just as I always had a handful of short pieces around me: "Barn
Burning" by Faulkner, "First Love" by Nabokov, and "Ghost and
Flesh, Water and Dirt" by William Goyen. But to be honest, the only real
rival to Maxwell was a film, My Life As a Dog, which captures the
same tone and feeling perfectly.
I was obviously affected by stories that were prefigured by early death and
loss. It was unconscious, but I suppose I found models whose tone spoke to
me and helped me find my own voice. I could never say my own work is
comparable to any of these, but on my better days I'm hopeful. They're the
stars I've hitched my wagon to, so to speak.
The questions that
follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of
THE WASP EATER by William Lychack.
1. What is the meaning of the title of the novel? What emotions do
the wasp scene in the book conjure for you? How does the author use this
image to suggest what Daniel is feeling about his home life?
2. After his parents separate, Daniel grapples with a range of shifting
loyalties and emotions. At one point, Lychack writes, "he missed his
father and wished he could just come home. It was like a thread through
everything, this feeling, and yet, in an odd way, he missed his mother
even more, as if she were the one who needed to come back home" (p. 57).
What does this say about Daniel's understanding of the separation? What
are some of the other internal, often contradictory, emotions with which
Daniel must cope?
3. What are Bob's strengths and weaknesses as a man and as a father? Do
you find him more or less sympathetic than Anna? What is your sense of
Anna as a mother? How do Daniel's relationships with his mother and his
father differ, and how do they evolve over the course of the book?
4. Lychack writes that Daniel "felt he barely existed anymore, felt
himself insubstantial as a ghost" (p. 117). To what do you attribute his
waning sense of self? Is there evidence that either of his parents has
5. Thinking back to her acceptance of Bob's proposal, Anna remembers
that "she didn't want to think — that was the problem — she wanted to
feel for once" (p. 26). Does Lychack offer many clues about what the
Cusslers' early marriage must have been like? Do you believe that they
were happy once, or that they were ill matched from the beginning? Were
their personalities incompatible, or did their actions alone lead to
6. How does Joelyn's presence complicate the Cusslers' relationship?
Anna recalls that when the girl first came to stay with them, "Joelyn
was somehow the thin end of a wedge between herself and Bob" (p. 43).
How does Anna respond when the girl returns to help out?
7. On their road trip, Bob mentions to Daniel that it is "always easier
to get forgiveness than permission anyway, right?" (p. 130). How is this
ironic? Why is forgiveness so hard for Anna and so easy for Bob? What do
you think of Bob's attempts at reconciliation?
8. What does the ring represent to Anna, Bob, Daniel, and Joelyn? How
does this contribute to our understanding of the characters and their
values and motivations?
9. What instances of betrayal do you find in The Wasp Eater, and how do
they differ in degree and intention? Are some betrayals more forgivable
10. What is the emotional effect of ending the novel with an epilogue
set more than a decade later? Based on the events of the epilogue, do
you believe Bob ultimately does receive forgiveness from Anna or from
Daniel? Has the conflict between the parents been resolved? What seems
to be the lasting impact on Daniel?
About the Author
William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, and a
forthcoming collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers, both
published by Houghton Mifflin. His work has appeared in The Best
American Short Stories, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Witness, and on
National Public Radio's This American Life. A graduate of the
writing program at the University of Michigan, he currently teaches at
Connecticut College and in Lesley University's low-residency MFA