October 21st, 2013
In 2006 I was nearing the end of my graduate studies at Texas Tech University and Jacqueline Kolosov was the new creative writing professor on campus. Rumor had it she published in all genres. As a prose girl myself, I couldn’t imagine publishing any of my sad, cliché-filled poetry and I was fascinated by this woman who could seemingly do it all. I quickly learned that Kolosov’s writing ability was more than a rumor—she wrote it all. And she still does. Kolosov is on her third poetry publication, Memory of Blue, as well as an impressive list of novels, chapbooks, creative fiction and nonfiction in anthologies as well as literary journals Jacqueline Kolosov
What struck me most on my first reading of “Lessons from the Master” was Kolosov’s vivid use of detail (Camera Obscura, Issue 6). It is through these descriptions that she constructs her protagonist, Leslie Oliver, a woman who has the ability not only to create life, but to sustain it. Her colorful and specific gardening descriptions captured my attention from the start: “Before leaving home, I contemplated digging up at least one of the roses, not the temperamental Bourbon but the all-flowering, hardy Centifolia, or perhaps the lush, fragrant Damask, but ultimately decided that they, too, must remain part of my past life.” Kolosov’s well-crafted prose is as precise as it is gentle.
It certainly isn’t only the descriptions of gardens that Kolosov paints so well. “Lessons from the Master” includes details regarding many other forms of art such as food, painting, and the written works of Henry James. It is the ease with which these elements are woven together that really make this first person narrator come to life—Leslie’s love of art is how the reader “learns” her.
Kolosov took some time out from her busy schedule to answer some of my questions in the hopes of obtaining a better understanding of how her story was put together.
Doench: I’m fascinated by all the references to art in “Lessons from the Master”: written works, paintings, galleries, and even the art of gardening. There are so many blooms of color in every paragraph. Was it difficult to weave in so many different types of art into this story?
Kolosov: These references came very naturally. Santa Fe is a haven for artists and art lovers, and visual art is one of my abiding passions. Now that I live in the Southwest, I make several treks a year to Santa Fe and spend a good deal of time meandering through galleries and looking into windows. As for gardens, and that art form, they, too, are present in Santa Fe, though in a much subtler form given the desert climate and the necessity for water conservation. I happen to love cacti and Russian sage and the hollyhocks and other drought-resistant plants that thrive there. At the same time, gardening—creating a thriving beautiful space—seemed very natural to “Lessons from the Master” and to the main character’s challenges. So, I suppose I’m saying that gardening and visual art are both about process, patience, beauty, and attention, qualities I associate with Henry James—who stands behind the story—and qualities I associate with my main character.
Doench: It’s interesting that the protagonist, Leslie Oliver, takes on her late husband’s love of the author Henry James. There are so many references throughout “Lessons from the Master” to James and his style of writing. Did you do research into the life and works of James for this story?
During my 20s when I was finishing my masters degree in literature at the University of Chicago, and had the luxury of lots of time to read, I devoured Henry James, became obsessed with him, all thanks to Professor John Wallace, a marvelous scholar who told me to read Portrait of a Lady. I couldn’t put that novel down and proceeded to read practically every other novel by James and more than one biography over the course of the next five years. So my research was informal and already deeply integrated into my personality by the time I wrote “Lessons from the Master.” In some ways, the story is a tribute to James, though I now find him more difficult to read, perhaps because I don’t have that luxury of time now, not with a 6 year old, 3 dogs, a horse (yes!), and a full-time academic job. Like Leslie, I assume I’ll return to James later in life, to Portrait of a Lady and especially to his trilogy of late novels, among them The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. The subtle way that James does treachery is one of the qualities in his work that I most admire, and Jamesian treachery is at the heart of Leslie’s challenge in the story.
Doench: In many ways, by the end of this story Leslie and her husband are “even.” They have both had extramarital affairs and indiscretions. In the beginning of the story, Leslie seems to be keeping track of these indiscretions and comparing her level of commitment with her husband’s. After his sudden death, Leslie meets the Yusipov family and soon compares the relationship to “the beginning of a love affair.” Is this “love affair” another way for Leslie to even the score between her and her late husband? What does Leslie find in this family that she is desperately missing in her life?
Kolosov:This is a fascinating take on the story and one that I had never considered. What Leslie is allured by in the Yusipovs, at least initially, is their Old World breeding, charm, lifestyle. The art of conversation and good food, the appreciation of gardens, of art—all of these take time. They are, to some extent, luxuries in our fast-paced mass culture. Now, don’t I sound like a disciple of James! James actually anticipated some of these dangers of mass culture, most notably in his critique of the sensationalism already at work in the media during his time. So, no, I didn’t think of Leslie evening the score with her late husband by entering into the “love affair” with the family. Rather, they are—on the surface—rather like characters out of Henry James. They have “class”—at least on the surface—and they appreciate the domestic comforts and what Laurie Colwin (another fabulous writer) called domestic sensualism. Leslie is drawn to this, and of course she is drawn to the Yusipov’s daughter, Tanya, and it is the daughter who compels her the most. In James, children very often embody or bear the burden of their parents’ vices and treacheries, and the neglect in this child’s case is very much a Jamesian echo. Leslie is very clearly lonely, and the family seems to fill that vacancy. When the parents disappoint her, she turns to Tanya and tries, futilely, to hold onto her.
Doench: I was just as taken with the Yusipov family as Leslie. The level of detail used to describe Sasha, Michael, and Tanya pulled me in from the start. We soon learn, however, that it has all been smoke and mirrors and I felt just as betrayed by them as Leslie. That’s a hard turn in a short story to pull off! As the writer, were you surprised by Tanya and Michael’s behavior as well?
Kolosov: Fabulous question! I wrote this story 14 months ago, so it’s a little difficult to recall the process now. I knew that I wanted treachery and betrayal of the subtle Jamesian variety in this story, and that was, to an extent, the starting point, along with Leslie’s situation and her background—widow of a James scholar, artist. Thinking back, I always knew that Sasha would be a dangerous figure, but I think Michael’s treachery snuck up on me. THAT was unexpected. I’m glad it worked for you
Doench: I love the ending of this story; Leslie returns to her late husband, at least in spirit. She salvages the original plan to travel to Venice and plans to read her husband’s beloved James. How does this story speak to the endurance of love and the resilience of the human spirit?
Kolosov: Another strong question—Venice is a complex city in James, and I was striving for that echo in the novel’s close. The Wings of The Dove, like Portrait of a Lady, both incorporate Venice. It is an old European city, one of the oldest, and so its ways are difficult to comprehend, particularly for ‘naïve’ Americans. Leslie is, to a large extent, a naïve American at the start of the story. The Yusipovs have initiated her into the duplicities and treacheries that one finds in James. I suppose, in having Leslie return to Venice at the end, she is yes, returning to the city that she loved—years ago—but she is returning changed. She is more like Venice, that Dowager in Black Lace, Venice, that city of secrets and treacheries. Leslie has lost her innocence. So there’s an intentional dark note here. But the darkness is not all that abides. She does return to her husband by carrying with her the works of Henry James which she will revisit and dwell upon with a changed mind and heart.
Doench: What other writing projects are you currently working on? Is there anything you’d like to add?
Kolosov: Oh, so many! “Lessons from the Master” is part of a story collection entitled Love, The BitterSweet. Right now, I’m seeking a home for that mss, and I’m simultaneously revising a story—this one influenced by Joyce Carol Oates and set in Lubbock where I live and teach—that I will likely include in the collection. I am also working on a collection of essays focused on motherhood, art, the life cycle—and Virginia Woolf. The title is “Motherhood, and the Places Between.” The last essay in the collection explores my relationship with horses. I began the collection when I was trying to have another child (I miscarried), and in the midst of the writing one of my best friend’s died very suddenly, and I found myself in a very dark place. Horses pulled me out of that place—or they largely did. So much of my writing now is focused on them, largely in creative nonfiction though also in poetry. And yes, I’m writing poems. My third collection, Memory of Blue, is coming out in the fall, and I’m working on the fourth.
What I’d add—write what you’re passionate about and ignore “Write what you know.” Passion will be a great teacher here. And read, read, read, widely and with abandon. Don’t just read contemporary work. Go back to James, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets….
December 7th, 2011
Adam Peterson’s story “It Goes Without Saying” appears in the Summer 2011 issue and was the recipient of the Camera Obscura writing award for that issue. Associate prose editor Tim Horvath had the opportunity to ask him some questions, which are posted below.
TH: I’ve always had this fantasy of becoming a travel writer, and part of what I love about your story is how uninhibitedly it leaps into the head and body of Tom Trotter, a world-weary veteran travel journalist who lies, distorts, conflates, drinks like a Hemingway impersonator, and basically confirms the truth of what his first editor once told him, “There’s no truth in travel writing.” Have you traveled extensively? Have you tried your hand at the genre? How did you access Trotter’s voice and perspective so convincingly?
AP: Well, I’m glad to hear it’s convincing. I was never sure. I mean, I’ve travelled—including to Munich, the setting of the story—but I’ve never tried my hand at travel writing or really any non-fiction. I suppose that’s why Trotter’s version of travel writing is so loose on facts. Deep down, I probably don’t believe anyone wants to write the truth.
Travel writing seems especially fraught to me, wallowing as it does in that distinction between the “real” trip and the “ideal” trip, to prepare the reader for their own journey or to take them on one they will never make. Those are two very different goals, with two very different relationships to the truth, and I can’t imagine having to balance that dynamic while maintaining some kind of ethos.
Which is why when I read, say, travel writing in the New York Times, I’m always fascinated by what the author culls from what must have been far more complex human experiences. Even the bad stuff—a cold meal, getting lost—seems selected to present some kind of connection with the reader based less on the truth and more on some true feeling. Like, all of it on some level reads like the author saying, You too have been far from home.
TH: I’d like to zoom in on the opening in particular, because the story really drew me in. It starts, “He was nothing if not the consummate local. If a people were boorish he was boorish, if courteous then courteous. In Beijing he was anonymous, in Tokyo he was serious, and in Doolin he was a baritone. And, heavy and drunk at a picnic table in Munich, he was in a state of permanent appetite. A fly sentried the golden, salty chicken from which he tore a leg as the Germans around him licked the grease from their fingers and dried them on their shorts. So he too let the juices run down his chin then chased them with cetacean gulps of beer until his face shone…”
In its rhythms, this possesses the authority of a 19th century novel rather than a contemporary short story–the opening of A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. I also love how words like “sentried” and “cetacean” reveal a writerly mind, one who will favor the striking turn of phrase over proportion and proper usage every time. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how the opening came about, how it served you in propelling the story forward, and whether there are other authors whose openings you would put on the walls of a Literary Museum, seek to emulate, etc. Also, is there a Literary Museum? If not, why not? We have to go to every dead author’s house individually–why?
AP: I enjoyed writing that opening for a lot of the reasons you mention. It was as close as I got to being a travel writer myself, maybe, and I tried to think back to being in a beer garden and was surprised how clear my memory was on a physical level yet sort of muddled on a personal level. What was I thinking about? What did I want? Was I happy? Granted, the beer probably didn’t help those perceptions, but It gave me some perspective on who Trotter was and what he would write about, why he might be able to so easily manipulate the story of a trip in that sort of blur. There’s this illusion of constant motion in memories of a journey but really it’s the same 24-hour day, same you.
And, yeah, I definitely then set out to sort of mimic that style you see in older novels set outside the author’s home country. Maybe not as far back as all that either: Henry James, E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, Malcolm Lowry, etc.
Ford and Lowry can have wings in my literary museum.
And the answer to why we don’t have literary museums is probably all wrapped up in our sort of gossipy relationship with writers. We want to see who they were, where they did it. Their houses or offices might carry some residual genius—as if just existing was their greatest work—whereas a museum carrying Faulkner’s coffee mug only offers a coffee mug smelling of whiskey.
This personal relationship with an author was the genesis of the story, by the way. I was fascinated by how much mileage non-fiction writers could get out of dropping a personal detail here or there in otherwise unrelated stories. It was actually Bill Simmons, the sports columnist, who made me start thinking about that. Is that embarrassing? I’m not sure. In any case, I didn’t want to write about a sportswriter (thank you, Richard Ford), nor did I want to imply Bill Simmons made up his wife. Though I remain unconvinced.
TH: I first learned of your work through the Cupboard, which publishes excellent chapbooks–I haven’t been disappointed yet. But while this story has its heels pretty firmly dug into mimetic realism, I feel as though the Cupboard books tend to steer pretty far afield of that. One of my favorites, A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic by Michael Stewart, could pass itself off as a reference book, including entries on eccentric apocryphal magicians one wishes had lived, along with tricks you can do at home involving metaphysical impossibilities and murder. Obviously, your aesthetic taste is fairly wide-ranging. Do you even think in these terms when you approach your work and your editorial selection process? How fluidly do you move back and forth between mimetic work and that in which the artifice gets right up in your face?
AP: I used to be really concerned with this, and I’m happy to say that I was able to let it go a long time back. For a long time I had two short story manuscripts in progress, one realistic and the other about vampires or whatever. I eventually just had to grow up a little bit and ask myself what it was I honestly liked about the authors I was reading. It wasn’t just the oddity of someone like Kelly Link nor was it the emotional realism of someone like Madox Ford, it was something that went beyond those easy classifications. Or maybe I just didn’t want to choose. But at some point I gave up, and once I got beyond that paranoia of type, I think I naturally found my own relationship with the world. Most of my work now settles somewhere in between straight realism and, well, the “artifice” as you say. Or maybe individual pieces skew further one way or the other, but the things that interest me—fissures, obsessions, the hysterical—create a feeling that renders the other discussion irrelevant. That’s what I hope, anyway.
All of which is to say that like all of us, I probably just realized it was more important to figure out what I wanted to say whether than if it should be said with farmers or ghosts.
Even “It Goes Without Saying” feels that for me despite its mimetic qualities. There’s nothing supernatural about it, of course, but it still feels a little schizophrenic to me in a way, or at least it doesn’t solve all of its mysteries or end with a Carver-esque epiphany or whatever.
And now that I’ve said all that it seems clear to me that I still favor the odd or surreal, especially editorially. It just feels like a more appropriate representation of the world to me, most days.
TH: What’s something non-literary that impacts your work in surprising ways?
AP: I’m embarrassed by how hard of a time I’m having answering this question. My instinct is to say that I probably divide my life pretty strictly between literary endeavors and, well, life. I mean, read a lot of news, am interested in politics, teach, follow some sports teams, make Thanksgiving plans, and do all that other stuff people do. I never write about it though. Not really. Although “It Goes Without Saying” did break my rule about never writing about writers, I doubt I’ll ever be Stephen King in that regard or anyone else who really mines their life. Stealing a setting is about as far as I’ll go. Writing is pretty much me and my imagination, I think. And I say that knowing I sound like an asshole. I sort of want to answer “Illness” but that seems pretty literary to me.
TH: What are you working on currently? What can we look forward to?
AP: Looking forward to any of this seems like a terrible idea but:
I have a novel manuscript that’s been through a few drafts now and seems pretty close to me. And by “close” I mean, “close to me moving on.” It’s got one more shot to become the thing it’s going to be before I start another. I mean, I like it and maybe something will happen to it, but it’s not keeping me up nights anymore, if that makes sense.
I also have a short story collection more or less ready and a short short collection of about 75 pieces that I hope to get to 100.
As for completed projects, I have a series of prose poems coming out from SpringGun Press this February called The Flasher and another series of prose pieces coming out from Dzanc called [SPOILER ALERT] co-written with the lovely Laura Eve Engel. So…look forward to all that? Sure, why not.
*As a side note regarding Tim’s question about a literary museum, in the past year, I have received a lot of information on something called The American Writers Museum. Though I do not think it exists just yet. http://www.americanwritersmuseum.org/
August 23rd, 2011
Shane Oshetski had the good fortune to ask Vincent Czyz some questions about his story “The Nameless Saint” which appeared in Camera Obscura’s third issue. This short story is also a chapter in a novel called THE UNLUCKY LOVES OF MILANA NODRAVNA, which is told in the form of 10 short stories/chapters and many have been or will be published (“The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi” was published by AGNI ,”The Gypsy Charm” was published in March of this year by Louisiana Literature, and “Moon of Drunken Mists” will be published by Wasafiri (London-based) in March, 2012).
Czyz was born in Orange, New Jersey, “home to two world-class boxers I know of: Two-Ton Tony Galento, known as the Orange Nightstick (back in the ’40s he knocked down Joe Louis in his bid for the heavyweight title), and my older brother, Bobby, a two-time world champion.” In 1993, Czyz began visiting Turkey and since has spent a total of nine years in Istanbul. These two elements seemed to have had a role in the creation of “The Nameless Saint”, the story of a fighter’s search for his father through a country populated by Turkish tribes and Gypsies. I asked him about this along with questions about the writing life. What follows are his answers in their entirety.
Camera Obscura: One of the reasons I love this story so much is that it so successfully transports me into this place and time.
Vincent Czyz: That’s good to hear because I throw in with those authors who believe their primary task is to create a world. If that’s not a cliché by now, it should be.
CO: I was surprised to learn afterward that the country and the tribes here are fictional given the richness of detail and the mixture of real peoples like Gypsies and Slavs with fictional ones like the Taztas. Why did you choose this blending of the fictional and the real instead of writing about a real Turkic tribe in a real place or fictionalizing everything?
Czyz: The problem with writing about a real Turkic tribe is that there isn’t one to my knowledge that is still shamanic—and that is a key theme running through these stories. (There may be a few in Siberia, but that was not a setting that interested me.) The Slavs in this story are fairly fictional as well—they are not Polish per se, or Russian or Serbian, etc. It’s a generic label. This is because there is no single country that fit the geography and history that I needed as a framework for these stories. Instead, just as most characters in fiction are an amalgam of several actual people, my fictional country is amalgam of Eastern European and Balkan nations. Again, the idea is to create a world—not to write a history book. For me, this means making the world as believable as possible and adding accurately portrayed “real” elements is one means toward that end. There are of course several others.
CO: I’m assuming it took a great deal of work to imagine and build the countries and cultures these characters inhabit. Can you tell us about the process you went through in the creation of their world?
Czyz: Fortunately for me, I lived on and off in Turkey for a total of about nine years. This meant frequent trips to other Balkan countries as well as to Eastern Europe. Before I ever began writing these stories, I was immersed in Balkan culture and, during my travels, saw some of the effects of the clash between Turkic and Slavic cultures as well as between Islam and Christianity.
Once I started writing, I stacked up a dozen or more research books, including a history of the Russo-Caucasian Wars, first-hand accounts of Gypsy life (I could write a few of my own about Turkish Gypsies), and a history or two of Central Asia. I did thousands of pages of reading and while some readers have said, “Oh, this isn’t like that …” or “That isn’t like this …” that’s primarily because there are times when I took poetic license. It is not, as I said, a history book.
CO: What do you feel all this research gave you in the creation of this world?
Czyz: It gave me invaluable insight into the mentalities of the peoples I was trying to portray, numerous events and incidents to use as plot devices, and the details necessary to create a believable world.
CO: Is there something in particular that draws you to the clash of Turkic and Slavic cultures and/or the clash of Christianity and Islam?
Czyz: An abiding melancholy in both cultures, I think, is what piqued an artistic interest in their conflict. Curiosity about one’s ancestry is typical enough, and this is what first motivated me to explore Slavic culture (I’m part Polish). Both at the family level and on a national level, Poland’s history is in many ways, one of loss and lament. With Germany on its western border and Russia on its eastern, Poland was for centuries caught between the proverbial hammer and the anvil. And to make matters worse, the Mongols and the Turks swept westward, adding a new list of invasions. The hordes were at first brutally successful. But as the machinery of war changed, they suffered devastating defeats, and in the 19th century, the Russians were no less brutal in their conquest of Central Asia. This is the point in history where “The Nameless Saint” takes place; the Turkic nations are mostly under the Russian yoke. And so their songs take on deeper tones of melancholy as they grieve for their broken empire and wax nostalgic over the centuries when their armies were all but invincible.
The clash between Islam and Christianity in the vicinity of Eastern Europe is best embodied by the history of the Russo-Caucasian Wars—still going on really in Chechnya. The stories and actual events that come out of these wars, including the kidnapping of two Georgian princesses and the untimely death of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov, put to shame the plot of the typical pot-boiler. I think it’s fair to say I was spellbound by the heroism on both sides though appalled at the loss of human life and the suffering inflicted.
CO: Along with the larger world, I also loved the smaller world of bars and bar fighting in this story. Your brother is a two-time world champion boxer, so did you draw upon experience to create the fighting culture in the story or did you have to invent that as well?
Czyz: Very little invention there. I was an amateur boxer for about five years, and, as kids, my brothers and I grew up in a rough section of East Orange, NJ—in fact, all of East Orange is pretty rough. The fighting sequences are based mostly on my experiences in the ring, at ringside, and to a much lesser degree, on some of the street fights in which I’d been involved.
CO: Action is difficult to do well in fiction and the fights in this story are exquisitely rendered. I assume you know a thing or two about fighting in general, but can talk about your process of writing Brosnik Yelenich’s fights?
Czyz: Very glad you enjoyed the fight sequences. There is no question in my mind that without having actually boxed, I would not have been able to do the fight scenes quite so believably. With the exception of the first brawl, Brosnik’s fights are matches with rules. For the most part, therefore, I gave him opponents with distinct styles and of course he has his own style as well. From there it was a matter of imagining two fighters with these styles—and some were certainly drawn from memory. The Old Mongoose that Brosnik faces was based on a boxer named Jose Cruz. Everyone in the gym called him Mantequilla (Butter) because he was that smooth—very hard to hit. He had a way of rolling away from punches that I never forgot. Nikusi is a classic tall, rangy, boxer-puncher—the kind that always gave me the most trouble. As a fighter, however, Brosnik is not modeled on me at all; he’s actually a version of my younger brother, who was also an amateur fighter.
CO: There has been a lot of debate if the often given advice that writers should ‘write what they know’ is good advice at all. As a writer who draws from experience but also from research and imagination, do you feel you ‘write what you know’?
Czyz: “Write what you know” is advice for writing 101, that’s about it. Once you find your voice and figure out how you want to tell your stories, it doesn’t matter if you know the topic or not. Of course if you’re not familiar with your subject matter, you will need to do research. But if you can’t write what you don’t know, you’re a craftsman, not an artist—someone fit to write instruction booklets, not novels or short stories.
CO: Were there any authors or specific works that inspired this story?
Czyz: No particular authors, no, but the misery of the lower classes is certainly inspired to some extent by Dostoyevski’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, a book that I found valuable as a document of the Russian psyche but which I did not enjoy reading. I like to say writing it was the crime, and reading it is the punishment. I’m joking of course—it’s a great work of literature.
CO: How about your writing in general? Who do you count among your influences?
Czyz: Samuel R. Delany, William Gass, William Gaddis, Paul West, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Guy Davenport, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are the main ones.
CO: On your website (http://www.vincentczyz.com) you say you gave up your job and tried to live off your fiction and, “Boy did I learn”. For those of us fool enough to think this might one day be a possibility, can you tell us what it is you learned?
Czyz: I would be happy to because I cannot stress this enough: you will NOT make a living from writing literary fiction any more than you will one day walk into a deli and pick up the winning Powerball ticket. Theoretically it’s possible, but it’s sheer irresponsibility to base any decision in your life on making a living writing serious literature. My first novel, Ghost Dancer, received a rejection from Michael Pietsch (he acquired and edited David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) that offered so much praise, my agent and I were sure it was a matter of time before Ghost Dancer was picked up for publication. Quite a few more rejections came in, many so good they could’ve been used as backcover blurbs, and yet several agents and quite a few years later, it is still waiting.
Another example: In 1989—yes 22 years ago—I submitted a story called “Straightsville” to Esquire Magazine. An editor wrote a very long rejection in which he informed me that it had made it to the final editorial meeting but in the end had been voted down because it was not deemed “New York enough” (this is ironic because at the time, and for years up to it, Esquire had insisted “Literary excellence is our only criterion.” Or maybe it was “merit” …?) The editor who wrote the dissenting opinion was angry or I would never have known what had happened. “Well,” I thought, blithely enough (a pun on the name of the editor at the time, Will Blythe), “if I missed by a hair with Esquire, someone else is sure to go for it.” Nope. After 22 years it is still making the rounds—and while it often gets commented on, I think it’s racked up around 40 or 50 rejections.
The moral of the story? Don’t quit your day job!
CO: So if a job is a good idea to sustain yourself as a writer, then what do you feel is necessary to sustain your fiction?
Czyz: My former publisher, Gil Roth, answered this question so well, I’ll quote him: “If you can quit writing fiction, you should.” In other words, if you are not obsessed with writing, you may as well move on to something else. If you can’t quit fiction … then it’s an addiction you can’t get along without, and you don’t need to contrive schemes to “sustain” it. I have never understood writers who have to force themselves to write. If you have to force yourself, you should be doing something else.
* We are providing the first half of Vincent Czyz’s The Nameless Saint, which includes a section missing from the print version (due to an oversight during production) with apologies to the author. Please enjoy this excerpt and considering picking up a copy of Volume 3.
January 14th, 2011
Shane Oshetski had the pleasure of a conversation with Scott Nadelson, the author of “Backfill” which appears in Camera Obscura Journal’s second issue. The story follows a man working on a construction crew, so I thought I’d ask Nadelson about work within this piece as well as the often hard labor of writing stories.
Shane Oshetski: Part of what stuck me about “Backfill” was that it put the characters job in the forefront of story, something fiction doesn’t seem to do often. What lead you to write about work?
Scott Nadelson: It’s true, a character’s job is often background in stories, something to provide context for conflict, but in this case the job is the conflict; Robert’s identity is tied so closely to his work that his struggle over who he is has to foreground the job. The job and the character have become inextricably linked.
Most of my stories begin with some nugget of autobiography, but this one was different. Much of the credit for “Backfill” goes to my brother-in-law, who used to work in underground construction. When my wife and I first got together, he would come home from work and tell stories about the job, and I was fascinated first and foremost by the specific language he used, a kind of code that seemed so particular to this kind of work: “backfill,” “mainline,” “pipe-layer.” It was all vaguely sexual, even homo-erotic, but even more, it gave these guys a way of distinguishing themselves, almost like an insider handshake. I was also intrigued by the images he described, and the constant presence of danger that was a buzzing undertone to the daily grind. As soon as he described the former rock quarry filled with all kinds of refuse—some of which had the potential to cause real harm—I knew I had to write a story about this world. The image was just too rich with metaphoric as well as physical possibility for me not to find a way to use it, even if I didn’t know how.
SO: Robert is a college graduate who chose to work construction and to me, the story doesn’t just use work as a lens though which we get to know the characters, but it seems concerned also with the meaning of different kinds of labor. What interested you about this?
SN: This is really the key to the story, I think. My first few attempts at writing it didn’t get me anywhere, in part because I couldn’t quite access this blue-collar world. I’ve done very little manual labor, skilled or otherwise, and couldn’t quite imagine the life of someone who knows he wants to work in a construction job from early on. But as soon as I discovered that Robert is really a white-collar kid who longs for the perceived “realness” of a working-class life, I had his number, especially when part of his motivation is to impress a girl from a similar background. This longing is an emotional state I not only can access but can inhabit quite easily. And once I understood that Robert is simultaneously outsider and insider in his working world, then the story became about how the character defines himself, how he constructs his identity on somewhat false premises, and then finds that he has become someone he no longer wants to be.
And yes, there are different kinds of work at play in the story, and Robert is good at some and not so good at others. He works hard at his job but not at his marriage; when presented with the hard work of relating to and empathizing with other people he often fails, or doesn’t try. He wants the simplicity of numbers and straight lines and can’t deal with the messiness of emotions. I wasn’t aware of it while I was writing, but now I can certainly see that I was influenced by Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is,” which is one of my favorites.
SO: Speaking of the hard work of emotions, there is the scene between Robert and Lisa at dinner where he tries to present himself as someone she might take back into her life. Their dialogue contains an amazing range of emotions and intimacy. What did it take for you to be able to inhabit both of them deeply enough to write this?
SN: Compared to the rest of the story, this scene came out fairly easily, though not in one shot. In early drafts, Lisa was entirely closed off to Robert’s attempts to win her back all the way through the scene, and it ended up being pretty flat. In subsequent drafts I spent a lot of time imagining what might bring her closer to seeing him the way she’d seen him in the past, what might shake her resolve, and in understanding her more deeply I saw that it was his physicality more than anything else that connected her to him. Above all, he was a body to her, a smell, a source of laughter, but now she wants something richer, more complex. She’s still drawn to his physicality, enough to waver in the scene, and that makes it all the more painful, I think, when she gathers herself at the end of it and remembers what she wants. The drunk high school girl was in the scene from the very first draft, but I didn’t really know what she was doing there; in the end, she becomes the trigger for Lisa remembering that she has grown up in recent years, that she wants a more mature life than the one she can have with Robert.
SO: The scenes on the jobsite with this crew are wonderfully detailed. What kind of research did you have to do in order to write them or is this drawn from your own experience?
SN: Again, I mostly credit my brother-in-law. He’s a good storyteller, and when he’s interested in something, he can talk about it in incredible detail (you should hear him talk about Burning Man, which he attends every year). I hardly had to ask any questions. I thought about shadowing him on a jobsite, but once I had an idea for the story in mind, I decided instead to let my imagination fill in the gaps. By then I knew I wanted to set the story in New Jersey, where I grew up, rather than in Oregon, where we live. So I thought a lot about the people I knew growing up who would have worked on construction crews, imagining how they would speak, and also picturing the kind of neighborhood they would have been digging. When I was a kid, there was a lot of construction in my area of New Jersey; the suburbs kept expanding westward, and I spent a lot of time walking around newly cleared areas that were soon filled with enormous homes. Once I was able to picture the place clearly, and had a few voices in my head, along with my brother-in-law’s details, I was able to start piecing the world together. It took a lot of drafts, though; maybe fifteen or twenty to really fill it out.
SO: That is a lot of drafts. Do you often write so many?
SN: Not always that many, but usually anywhere from five to thirty. It often takes me dozens of false starts before I find my way to the end of a draft, so by the time I’m finished with a story I may have re-written the opening fifty times or more. I have come to really love the revision process, which for me is a process of filling out a skeleton with muscles and skin, etc. On each subsequent draft I know the story better, so my timing gets sharper, my details more precise; I know where to linger, where to hold back. It’s what I imagine it must be like for a musician or an actor reworking the same piece on stage night after night; you start to internalize it, become part of it, so that it comes out more naturally with each new rendition.
SO: Something I really enjoyed about this was how much we get to know about the individual lives of this crew even though their roles in the story are relatively small. What compelled you to give us their lives in detail?
SN: I’m glad it comes across that way. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time focused on over the past few years: to make my minor characters feel as real and fleshed out as possible even if we can’t access their thoughts and even if they don’t spend a lot of time on center stage. Especially in stories with a central character who is stuck in his own internal conflict the way Robert is, minor characters can be incredibly effective at creating drama. But they can’t just be tools of the writer, props that serve a purpose. If they’re really alive, and have their own agendas separate from the central character’s, then they can be dynamic forces in the story. I knew early on that Walsh was going to needle Robert and bring out an ugly side of him, but the big surprise for me as I wrote was the role Teo ended up occupying; his loss and his anger parallel Robert’s, and in the end it’s really Teo who nudges Robert into a new understanding of himself, his marriage, his identity.
SO: You are a creative writing teacher at Willamette University, how has your job influenced your writing?
SN: Teaching writing has made me a more astute reader, which in turn makes me a better writer. Because I have to stand up in a room in front of eighteen eager undergrads who will ask thoughtful and unexpected questions multiple times a week, I constantly have to rethink my assumptions about fiction and take each piece I read on its own terms. After having done this for a number of years now, I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to figure out the basic structures of a story on a first or second read, and even with stories that are far from realization, I can see their multiple possibilities fairly quickly. This has been incredibly useful in my own drafting process; my early drafts have gotten messier, because I now trust that I’ll be able to figure out what to do with them in the revision process, as long as I pay close enough attention to what possibilities the draft has put into play.
My students’ energy and enthusiasm also just feeds me on a daily basis, and when the writing isn’t going well, they help remind me how much I love engaging with literature, both as reader and writer.
SO: You are already the author of two collections of stories, are you working on another or is there a different project in the works?
SN: I have a new collection, Aftermath, coming out in September. All the characters in this collection—which includes “Backfill”—are living in the wake of momentous events—the rupture of relationships, the dissolution of dreams—and the stories focus on their attempts to move on with their lives and adjust themselves to their new circumstances. I’ve also been finishing a collection of autobiographical essays that explore longing, failure, and the construction of identity.
SO: Short story writers often hear (or are told) not to expect to publish collections these days and if they want to be read, to write novels. Since you are now on your third collection, how did you manage to stick with the form?
SN: It’s true, there’s a lot of pressure to write novels, which I find frustrating, particularly as it’s a pressure that comes from a market-driven idea of art-making. If the same principles applied in visual art, artists would only paint large, decorative, abstract paintings, because those are what sell most. At times I’ve forced myself to work on novels, in order to satisfy these outside pressures, but in recent years I’ve come to accept that my material and my temperament are best suited to the long story and the novella, so that’s just what I have to do, even though those aren’t what most agents and publishers (and I suppose readers) want. And these are forms I really love. My favorite stories are those that have the expansiveness of novels—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Peter Taylor’s “The Old Forest,” Eudora Welty’s “June Recital,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—and my favorite novels are those that have a story’s compression. Mostly, I have been very fortunate that the publisher of all three collections—the wonderful Hawthorne Books—has generously put up with my devotion to the short form, despite its harm to their bottom line.
November 24th, 2010
Meredith Doench recently had the opportunity to ask Rosebud Ben-Oni some questions about her work. Her answers are included in their entirety below. Rosebud Ben-Oni’s story “A Way Out of the Colonia” has been awarded the Camera Obscura Journal writer honorarium for the second issue due out in mid-December.
My first reading of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “A Way Out of the Colonia,” a selection from her novel entitled The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya, left me nearly breathless with the sheer panache of the language and images. Here’s a teaser from a section where Oni, a young child, observes her family:
“Since her mother had fallen ill, she noticed changes in her grandmother: how she stayed out most afternoon and evenings visiting friends as the sick woman tried to sleep, wheezing and moaning softly, forgetting that she could be heard in the desperate, despairing quiet that had fallen over their house. A viscous silence that trembled and stiffened with every cry and moan, and chased everyone away from each other in that household and the old woman could no longer bear it. It was a silence that even her grandfather, the guts and guardrail of the family, could not penetrate, wiggle past its congealing borders with his knowing fingers, which, that morning, could catch only a fatal ray of light from the gloom and shine it, dully, into Oni’s eyes.”
Doench: Why did you choose to set “A Way Out of the Colonia” in Matamoros, a border town ?
Ben-Oni: The identity of a Mexican bordertown is problematic; the transience, violence and instability of its character are sometimes romanticized and often demonized. But it is also a place to live in the lyrical, as well as find inspiration and affirmation of the human will.
Before the rise of the drug cartels, to those living in the states from California to Texas, the bordertowns of Mexico took on two faces: daytime trips to eat at restaurants and shop the markets for families and to go clubbing and bar-hopping at night for teenagers and college kids. Often, bordertown s aren’t thought of as the “real” Mexico, as these are places one is otherwise passing through. One rarely thinks about those who live in the bordertown s, perhaps those from the interior of Mexico or other Latin American countries, who hoped to cross into the United States, looking for a better life. Instead, certain U.S. companies decide to bring the work to them by constructing maquiladoras– those industrial factories which employ mostly women whom these companies believe are more likely to show up to work on time and less likely to complain or form unions.
When the maquilas came, so did the colonias, these rickety, makeshift neighborhoods that are not recognized by the Mexican government. Rarely if ever do they have access to running water. Electricity, when and if acquired mostly through illegal means, often starts fires. If instability, chaos and desolation thrive in bordertown s, then their nucleus is the colonia. Here the periphery of the periphery is the heart. And yet when writing of the colonia I also wanted to show how imagination and the need for the sacred also thrive. By the sacred I really mean a profound belief in the lyrical. To not only have a voice, but for that voice to have a wide octave range, to experiment with language, to play with words and context itself. To appropriate the mundane and re-envision its place in an ever-changing, ever-challenged/-ing environment. Each colonia could be gone tomorrow, either by a hurricane, an electrical fire or sudden action by the government to tear it down (as it happened to Oni’s mother and her family).
So in that physical is temporary and precious, and only by remembering, reinterpreting and understanding the colonia’s instability in such an unstable place like a bordertown can we then understand these people who are themselves affirmations of life. Because while in the U.S. most have grown used to adapting their environment to suit them, Oni, her family and the others in the colonia still must adapt to the colonia. And in writing the story, this family, in doing so, actually becomes more lyrical because adaptation calls for imagination and invention.
Doench: As I read the story, I was completely taken by Oni; the child’s perspective and voice allowed me to see Matamoros through her eyes rather than a political lens. What struck me is that Oni is surrounded by conflict and loss. Why did you decide to tell the story from Oni’s perspective?
Ben-Oni: Bordertown s like Matamoros– especially the poorest sections like the colonias– might seem like no places for the lyrical or children, but where else does imagination thrive most than children? Oni, because she’s the daughter of a gitana (Spanish Gypsy) and an unknown father, is an outsider among the already marginalized. Pale, knobby-kneed, with legs and arms too long for her body, she physically stands out. And then on top of that her family feels that they are above living in the bordertown ; for instance, her mother won’t wash her clothes with the other women in the canal, and Oni isn’t allowed to swim there with the other children, either. The residents are somewhat suspicious of the family because their Spanish is different, they dress differently, and like most gitanos, they want to remain a raza (race) apart. On top of that, Oni looks different from them (they are tall, dark and robus), which makes her stand out even more. While Oni’s whole world is her family, she knows that she does not belong completely to them, or to the community, or to the land beneath her feet. Her entire identity is wrapped up in being on the defense, and this creates a state of heightened awareness, sensitivity and understanding. Circumstances force Oni not to grow up too quickly, but to become a sort of introspective, outlaw poet who uses her voice to navigate the perilous ways in the colonia, and hopefully, one day, out of the colonia.
Like most children, though, as the youngest member, she is the family’s hope and future. Her family, particularly her mother and grandfather, want to impart hope for a better life. In the rest of the novel, her mother envisions her daughter by going to the U.S.in search of opportunity, and yet as one finds out in this particular story, the reason why the family is in the situation that they are in is in part due to what the U.S. has done to the border. In a day, Oni learns this very quickly, among other realities possibly awaiting her, and it was very interesting to write from her perspective, especially in the changing relationship she has with her grandfather whom she thought of indestructible. That, of course, changes too.
In spiritual Jewish literature, there is this word luz. I first learned it in Spanish as “light,” but according to Rabbinical legend, it is an indestructible bone somewhere located in the body. I like the duality of this word crossing languages as the stalwart qualities that Oni believed both her mother and grandfather to have becomes undone in a matter of a day and yet in the light of this realization of who they are– outside the identities of mother and grandfather—shines a new light on what Oni must see (and therefore do), herself, outside of her family, as young as she is, in the action of bathing her mother.
Doench: The scene where Oni bathes her sick mother brought tears to my eyes. How does the role reversal of mother and child speak to the theme of the story?
Ben-Oni: Oni’s mother is the kind of woman who’d send her own death before a firing squad. She’s not the type to cling to life, which in itself is an act of courage. She’s comes to know continuous struggle itself as a way of life. But rather than becoming dispirited or giving up, she will fight to the very end with everything she’s got—and she’d rather do it alone. Her father— Oni’s grandfather— mistakes this kind of tragic dynamism for stubbornness, and a matter of pride. But at the heart is a woman who has come to believe in the eternal struggle and rising against it—as both the means and the end. These are the cards that she has been dealt, although she doesn’t want that same hand for her daughter.
But Oni is a strange, melancholic child. She’s greatly affected by her environment. She’s very sensitive to her environment. I recently read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, in which he describes the melancholy of the city in the terms of huzun. It’s a Turkish word, with an Arabic root, which Pamuk has taken from Sufism as undergoing a profound spiritual loss while simultaneously maintaining a sense of optimism. I myself render it as a similar theme: the assertion of the will, of life itself, while acknowledging that through this assertion, something equally precious will be lost.
This reminded me the Cale ideas of duende and pena negra. It is deeply-rooted in Cale culture—and I use “deeply-rooted” somewhat tongue-in-cheek— this idea of land and pain. After the Cale were more or less forced to settle in Spain, broken from their traveling ways, they found they were forced onto a land which really did not belong to them. So, in response, they created cante jondo, the Deep Song, in which one laments the loss of land and love as well. Often, it comprises a singer simply singing ‘ay’ or a like-sound in a harsh, grating voice that is the opposite of anything melodious. Most people find true cante jondo—which is not performed before a paying audience like flamenco, but usually among family and friends, and on the spot, spontaneously— hard to listen to, and harder to watch, as the face is contorted in ways that you simply have to see for yourself. While Oni is not in Spain but Mexico, I believe that she’s in the same predicament concerning a land that does not really belong to her. Unable to locate a sense of home and identity, as young as she is. So home becomes the family. It must be. Even as it is crumbling all around her. In the impending loss of her mother, who wants her to be strong and take charge, she engages in the ultimate act of both love and betrayal, as her mother, again, doesn’t want help. The idea of the colonia itself, in transient a place as a bordertown nonetheless, is huzun, as even in the most hopeless places, life springs forward, most unconscious that it is doing so. But this is what Oni’s mother wants her to be conscious of, to see, and in wanting her to see, it is both the passing of her knowledge of life—perhaps too soon, but she doesn’t have time— as well as an assertion of a tremendous will. Oni, for her part, because of her innate melancholy, understands her mother’s message only when she imposes her own will on her mother in an act both terrible yet intimate, tender yet forceful. For a child to see a scar where her mother’s breasts have been, and bathing her, takes away both the power and the pain of a woman near the end. Their roles are reversed; Oni is better for it, but there’s also a sense of tragedy that she finally sees what her mother both wanted and feared for her to see.
Doench: Another issue I found intriguing about this story is that the setting works as its own character. There are so many references to the approaching storm and the way Matamoros appears to Oni. How does the setting propel the story forward and open it to a wider framework than just this family?
Ben-Oni: If you’ve ever experienced a hurricane or a coastal storm, it seems as though it is a living organism. The ocean itself, which I write about in some detail in the novel, also becomes a character. The storm is both metaphorical and very real as it approaches and then simply hangs over the bordertown, sprawling its grey clouds without releasing a drop of rain. It’s been coming for some time and yet it never arrives. It’s a time of inaction, restlessness and yet urgency, as well. Oni’s mother knows her own end is approaching fast; she does not want to it to come, and yet it cannot come fast enough. When she tells the family “the sky has left us nothing but its bones,” she means that there’s not much left of her own life and body. It’s time for her to show Oni a way out of the colonia, and how she does it is not by showing her the actual way, but how she and her family first came in, where they lived which is no longer a place. Storms, like people, can erase whole passages of history; if one is not around to say “I was here”, then that moment in which she or he lived there will not be remembered. In fact, it might as well have not even happened. Oni’s mother is fighting the impending storm much in the way she’s fighting her own limited time.
Doench: How does this piece fit into the framework of your larger writing project?
Ben-Oni: “A Way out of the Colonia” is an excerpt from a novel I’m working on called The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya in which after her mother dies, Oni disappears. According to Oni’s childhood best friend (and more or less her only friend), Xiomara Villegas, her mother’s final wish was to be burned and have her ashes scattered off the coast of Oaxaca. It was there, Xiomara claims, that the child died in the sea, trying to save her mother from leaving her forever. When the grandfather returned to Matamoros, he came back alone, inciting even more rumors from a town already suspicious of his family and motives.
Over the years, the bordertown, particularly Oni’s colonia, has clung to the story of Oni’s disappearance. In the novel the colonia is named Valor y Ánimo, which means “Courage and Spirit.” Like many colonias in Mexico, it arrived at its name out of both irony and optimism. And it can be traced to so many, to maquila workers and their unemployed husbands who let their children play on a playground close to the colonia until it was discovered it had been built over toxic waste (and this really does exist in Matamoros.)
Xiomara, who’s since become a local singer, becomes a sort of guardian of his story. Though notoriously unstable and usually drunk-by-five-de-la-tarde, Xiomara ,who finds herself falling prematurely into rag-face years due to the hard life she lived in the colonia and the choices she made, performs in local bars and sings these stories about the child who became immortal. She also constructs a shrine within the colonia so that Oni Montoya becomes a kind of unofficial saint. A cult. In fact, the people in the colonia rarely refer to her as Oni Montoya but La Gitana Tilica de La Frontera, the unofficial patron saint of those from untraceable origins, for those who live in a place largely without hope. She is a saint for those whom no other saint, for those whose own stories can only struggle, float through the ephemeral melodies, whose family roots are wrought, twisted, and pulled apart. For those who lives the next rush of the maquila’s shift-changing bell, to come home to their fleeting homes of cardboard and tin, until they are taken by coming hurricanes and returned to the open-air landfill from which them came, and they have to rebuild over again. For stories that reflect Valor y Ánimo itself, made up of many things that never made a complete thing. Fragments of lives that do not fit into a cohesive landscape.
And just as Xiomara’s health begins failing her, two things happen: it is discovered that Oni Montoya is, in fact, very much alive and living on the other side of the border, which angers the residents of the colonia, and on that same day, members of a drug cartel approach Xiomara, wanting to take over her shrine and make her their own patron saint. When she refuses, the insult is too much for them to let her get away with it. Suddenly Xiomara has everyone looking for her– and already at the end of her rope, she decides she will try to cross the border and find the woman who was once Oni Montoya– a way out of the colonia, perhaps, for good.
But of course, as we can see in the story excerpted here, the colonia is not easy to escape…
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a writer for New Perspectives Theater, which is producing her play *Quimera on the Pedernales,* and has been the recipient of a Horace Goldsmith Grant, given so she could complete her first novel, which deals with her experiences as a Jew of mixed race. She has had recent work in *Slice Magazine, J Journal, Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers, Arts & Letters, Identity Envy— Wanting to be Who We Are Not* and *The Texas Poetry Review*. Recently produced plays include Owless of Santa Clara (Snorks and Pins, Roy Arias Studios, July 2010), Nikita (Shotgun Theater Festival, the Gene Frankel Theatre, Jan 2009 and Thespian Productions, Producer’s Club, May 2009); Nary a Bodega (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009);
The Amaranthine Thread (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009 and Where Eagles Dare, February 2010). She is currently finishing her first
novel which is entitled *The Imitation of Crying.*
May 13th, 2010
The winner of Camera Obscura’s first story award goes to Kane X. Faucher and his story “Sanscript,” an intricate construction worthy of examination. I thought it might be interesting to have both Tim Horvath and Meredith Doench throw some questions at him, creating a sort of virtual round table. And, as his responses demonstrate, Kane is as prolific a thinker as he is a writer, who acknowledges that not enough credit is given to the asking of fantastic questions. If only this interview had been conducted in a café in Paris’ St-Germain. (web advisory: not a quick read)
MD: “Sanscript” reads almost as a caution tale to students about acquiring too much knowledge—knowledge that you can’t give back. What inspired you to write about this subject?
KXF: I’ve always been enamoured with book- and language-related enigmas, writing against the more blasé interpretation that there is nothing potentially dangerous in the act of reading or knowledge acquisition. There are always these troublesome, uncanny moments that emerge the more one delves into study. In this particular story, my attempt was to give an alternative perspective to what theologians call “anagogical reading”; namely, that state of mind one enters into while reading that immediately transports the reader to a mystical understanding of the text. This transport is usually quite violent, like a nervous breakdown. In the annals of mystical reading, we find the ecstatic experiences of those like St Francis of Assisi and Hildegaard von Bingen who both report having been removed from the usual flow of space and time and brought directly into a state of the divine. In this story, the mystical architecture of the narrative is quite blatant, yet intentionally misleading. We have the tenebrous cabal, the initiation rite, and the usual sacred mumbo-jumbo that every secret society reveres. However, instead of following the mystical explanation for Heinrich’s newfound literacy skills, I opted for a more terrestrial explanation; namely, that Heinrich learned how to read the purloined imaginary, or learned to perceive the subconscious writing that always occurs while we are writing consciously. A text is always double, in this sense, articulated according to the perspective we perceive, and one that we don’t. There are subconscious intentions in all writing that we may not be aware of, such as how we write journals and diaries in such a way that, although we insist that they are private and to be read by no one, textual analysis reveals that we are always writing to someone, even if that someone is nebulous and abstract. Another point of departure in this story was furnished to me by a relatively recent study of “thumbprinting” books to determine authenticity of who authored the text. In this study, it was found that every author has a kind of “signature” in their writing which can be discovered by their use of a working vocabulary, reliance on particular types of metaphor, and the like. So, when I was writing this – I believe I was seaside in Florida at the time – I thought to myself, well, why not attribute this “signature” to something even deeper, more personal, like the subconscious?
TH: “Sanscript” is a story about reading. Do you have any unusual memories about learning to read?
KXF: My love of reading began early. When I was in grade 2, the Ministry of Education ritually liked to herd us into the cafeteria to write tests as a report card on education and curriculum. When I was of legal age, I was able to see my school record and noticed to my shock that at grade 2 I had the reading comprehension and vocabulary level of grade 12.3. I certainly seemed to have an aptitude for language which I indulged by reading all I could get my hands on, including dictionaries and encyclopedias. It was a thrill for me at the time to be given special permission by the school librarian to browse the books in the senior elementary section, and I was voracious if not indiscriminate in my reading. Beyond my fascination with paleontology, numismatics, and the usual nerdy things, I also loved etymology. My memory of word origins lends much more richness to what I read, and is what I draw upon to construct neologisms. If I had a hero in that regard, it would be H.L. Mencken who was also an etymologophile. As a child, all my reading was eclectic, and I generally assigned myself bizarre research projects that came from I know not where.
MD: The character Tariq introduces to the narrator ideas about language and writing such as the issue of writing double and unwriting one’s own life. Tariq states “I inherit a world that is already a historical fiction, and I continue along to make ever more fictions that future generations will also inherit.” How does time play a role in Tariq’s views?
KXF: I freely admit that I’m cribbing here from a few sources. Most evidently, I am drawing from Foucault’s idea that what we call history is just an ever-changing discourse based on what we assigned as the truth at the time. To truly know history as truth would entail having access to all written (and unwritten!) documents during that period. There are also a few other subtle interventions, especially drawn from Bergson and Deleuze, but I wouldn’t want to give all my tricks away! Interestingly, though, the only method by which Tariq feels he can unwrite his life is through more writing. The entire story veers dangerously close to a view of textual idealism, something deconstruction has been charged with. In that view, which I confess a sentimentality for, all is text and there is nothing outside the text, no matter what.
TH: The relationship between the narrator and Tariq in the piece, at least at the outset, reminds me of certain intellectual friendships I’ve had. In reading it I’m reminded of one in particular with a math student while I was in grad school–endless conversations about literature while walking along the shoulders of roads, engrossed to the point of almost getting hit by traffic. Do you get to talk about these issues on a daily basis? Can the internet serve as the agora or is there something compelling about these face-to-face conversations (and do we need frenzied-exchange-of-idea lanes the way we have bike lanes)?
KXF: I, too, share those memories of the long discussions where the world seemed to be the backdrop to a marathon discussion on ontology or history, conjecture and literature, etc. Not to be too sentimental, but those were audacious days where I felt at liberty to spout forth from the basis of still having not completed the general figure or contour of the history of knowledge. When I think back, I am sometimes embarrassed by the sloppy reasoning I employed or the beliefs I espoused, but I do admire the brazen nature of those times, the feeling of courageous curiosity that compelled me in that kind of whirlwind of the new to conduct those conversations. Things have changed, and the idea-sharing in this new Agora has diminished in some ways, or at least changed registers. Now, in a faculty setting, my concerns are eaten up by research and teaching, and when I speak with colleagues it can be a bit exasperating to discuss our research and indulge in the free-flow of ideas. Instead, we talk about the rigors of teaching, we talk about taxes and benefits, we speak on the bureaucratic obligations of our positions. This came as a stark realization once I obtained my PhD that – crap! – I can’t get away with saying and doing the things I was anymore since I was expected to know better, that I was now suddenly burdened with the responsibility of what my degree meant. I’d say the conversations I have now are mostly in emails with colleagues in the writing and academe setting, but these are more careful, meticulous, and less inclined to make unsubstantiated claims. I do occasionally get wrapped up in the marathon discourse, but that now takes place on email.
MD: By the end of “Sanscript,” the narrator, Heinrich, is in complete despair and the reader is left with a horrific feeling regarding his emotional state. Is Heinrich’s final understanding of what Tariq has done to him a metaphor for the relationship between students and scholars? How so?
KXF: It could be read that way. It is a Lovecraftian twist: that the knowledge gained is so horrific that it can barely be expressed in language. Of course, that was Lovecraft’s trademark method for avoiding description he didn’t feel up to writing. But perhaps there is always the danger in the transmission of knowledge, especially between teacher and student. I don’t mean the obvious power relations, but more on the order of the gift, and the entire philosophical problems associated with the paradox of gift giving. For Heinrich, there is an obvious “end of innocence” climax, that innocence set up earlier in the story in his somewhat youthful listlessness, his sinecure lifestyle, his ambling courting of abstract ideas. It turns out that despite his literary predilections and voracious hunger for reading, he was enclosed in a limited literacy that Tariq redresses. Heinrich is left knowing what he does not want to know, and has been “ruined” for the rest of his reading life, condemned to seeing two different texts in the place of the one that most people are limited to seeing. The metaphor here may in fact be on the order of knowledge being something that, once acquired, we are condemned to, just as we are condemned to creating or finding meaning. One cannot unlearn how to read save by damage or disease to our linguistic portions of our brains. In the end, it is a kind of parable on our inability at selective forgetting.
MD: What writers have influenced your work?
KXF: Borges is most definitely the literary precedent for this story and a host of others I’ve written in this style, but I would also include Umberto Eco, Will Self, Primo Levi, H.P. Lovecraft, and Italo Calvino in the mix. This style of writing is perhaps more staid of the different styles or modes I write, which vary depending on what the subject demands. I will say that this particular short story is part of a larger collection that I’ve been secretly tooling with for a while, and the remainder of the stories have much of this bookish noir bent. But, yes, I consider this story – and the others that are similar to that in my collection – largely an homage to Borges.
TH: Borges is evidently a central influence on you. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that influence, in particular as it relates to this story.
KXF: I was introduced to Borges late, and by late I mean age 21 when I first attended university and was opened up to a whole world of recommendations from like-minded people. My tendency is if I like an author, I read absolutely everything they produce, and Borges was no exception. I had just finished a Henry Miller phase and was looking for a new obsession. I think in Borges there is always the uncanny element that plays throughout it, and he seems very well at home in writing a metafiction that blurs essay and short story, drawing from his own unmatched reading. Eventually, as we know, Borges succumbed to congenital blindness – perhaps the cruelest punishment for someone who was obsessed with reading. I suppose the link to Borges here is on the order of blindness, that we are all blind to text even though we can read and comprehend its surfaces.
TH: In addition to “Sanscript,” I read a piece of yours, “From /+!/ in the & Now Anthology which had a very different feel to it. If I had to summarize the difference, I’d say that “Sanscript” seems to usher us into an almost 19th century sensibility, to move at a pace that one finds rarely in contemporary fiction (I use “usher” advisedly, as it’s Poe I think of here). The story opens with “guttering fire” and phrases such as “undeniable truism” and “perform my own exegesis.” Split the screen and contrast with the & Now piece, which reads in clipped phrases, reveling in post-millennial computer “web(b)-flow.” It seems to embrace programming language and sensibilities. You seem equally comfortable in both past and future. Is that the case? Are these as disparate as they seem at first glance?
KXF: On a good, clear day, I like to think that I can do as Bergson suggests, which is to grasp the duration of time where the distinctions of time are erased. But, in more technically sincere terms, my writing practice is rather disparate, perhaps maverick in so far as I do feel comfortable in a variety of registers and linguistic periods (sometimes in just one piece). I feel right at home in just about any temporal or regional dialect, from the Elizabethan to 17th century nautical slang, from the politesse of the Baroque to blue-collar romanticism of the 1960s right up to today. This ability to extract the essence of dialects and styles has recently been put to the test in a collaborative novel written with Tom Bradley (due out perhaps this year) where I manage to write in the characteristic styles of Celine, Artaud, Pound, Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, and Bukowski. More particularly, my Celine and Thompson has been praised by a surprising number of others for its eerie resemblance. At the moment, I’m brushing up on my 1860s American slang on a piece that involves P.T. Barnum. The [+!] book (available through Calliope Nerve) was heavily inspired by code poets like Mezangelle and Alan Sondheim (with some conceptualist back-reach to Bok, Dutton et al), but is more a means of showing how codes decay, and giving me the ability to perform one of the tasks I enjoy most: generating a huge supply of neologisms (of which the title Sanscript can be counted among them). So, yes, they are disparate forms of writing, but I like to think of the act of writing as a multiplicity.
TH: You and I share some obsessions, among them reading, shadows, and obscure realms of study. In pieces of yours I noted references to silography and steganography. Do you enjoy learning about things that most would consider odd and highly specialized? Is there a particular field of study, real or invented, that you secretly fantasize about going into?
KXF: Ah, yes, I do adore the obscure and esoteric. Isn’t there a sense of secret satisfaction in acquiring knowledge from an unlikely or long neglected source? As for enjoying studying the obscure, I suppose it could not be any more obscure than what I trained in, which is continental philosophy. I’m a bit of a metaphysician at heart, or at least stumbling my way in that milieu. I have too many interests, almost all of them specialized and obscure. Two books I’d love to crack in terms of their code would be the Albigensian-reputed text, the Voynich Manuscript, and the more recent (and very trippy) Codex Seraphineanus by Luigi Serafini. I like how you pose this question of study real or invented since it does open up to a fantastical realm. I secretly adore speculative histories, and I would love one day to be able to pursue that as a ground for study.
MD: From your biography, I see you are a professor at the University of Western Ontario. How does your teaching influence your writing?
KXF: I am not entirely sure. There is a blurring of activity where I draw from experience and knowledge to bring both to bear on writing and teaching. I see teaching as a performative, theatrical event, and perhaps I view writing in a similar way. There is some course material that I lecture on that sparks a kind of fulguration in my brain. I teach an eclectic array of courses from propaganda, social media, to freak-shows and museum culture, and this also reflects my rather eclectic reading from continental philosophy, French literature, quantum theory, cryptography, etcetera. I recently gave a talk on what it means to be a “scholartist”, which is my portmanteau for how we can merge sometimes disparate practices – such as teaching and literary writing – and how to make their tension resonate for productive purposes.
TH: On your website you cite quite a few postmodern philosophers and theorists as central influences. Perhaps an unwieldy question for a brief interview, but how do you view the relationship between Theory and literature? Is this relationship in flux–is it evolving in any particular direction? Do they vie for dominance in your own sensibility/day, or do you manage to make them mesh?
KXF: That is a big question. I defer here to Derrida who says that all philosophy is essentially a form of literature since it uses literary devices like metaphor, analogy and so forth to disseminate its ideas. By the same token, all literature is philosophy since it is entrusted to be a carrier of ideas (if done well). In the day to day, scholarship is expected to conform to a style of academic writing that is not ornamental or can luxuriate in the same way literature can. I understand the limitations of both, and frequently find myself constrained by them. And by that I mean the limitations imposed by our expectation or commonly inherited prejudice that these genres should be kept divided. Borges freely mixed them together in his work, and that is something I like to do as well when I can get away with it. I think the tensions between theory and literature proper actually generate interesting hybridization, new ways of thinking and expressing.
TH: You seem to identify strongly with innovative writers–is there a “scene” that is distinctly Canadian of those with your bent?
KXF: Unfortunately. Canada’s literary scene is small and fragmentary compared to the US. The problem in being small is that the scene becomes dominated by the established few who seem only to open the door to fawning protégés. There seems to be a surreptitious project to nationalize our literature, not understanding that perhaps our literary identity is in not insisting on one. Canada was called by Wyndham Lewis a most parochial nationette, and there seems to be a consolidating trend towards conservative literature, which is hostile or indifferent to experimentation and innovation. Smaller presses that put out great authors are always on the risk of capsizing, and our media conglomerates do very little to promote the underground and alternative. It is for that reason that many of us – who are a little cold to the CanLit canon anyhow – publish in other countries. What happens is if we do receive acclaim elsewhere, then the country wants to embrace you. We are all ex-pats even if we live here. If I had to name off a few good presses and good Canadian authors, I would say presses like ECW, Coach House in its heyday, Enigmatic Ink, Gaspereau, Anvil, and BookThug. As for authors and naming names, Anthony Metivier, Rob Read, Clint Burnham, Asher Ghaffar, Jay MillAr, Martin Heavisides, and a smattering of others.
TH: What is something about you that someone might not expect if they only knew your work?
KXF: That I’m not as pretentious as I sound in some of my writing, nor am I some middle class kid parachuted into academia. To look at me, most people would assume that I’m some sort of labourer given my height and size, my miltiaresque attire. I’m one of those bizarre ironies for someone with my interests: someone more than capable of performing hard manual labour, yet with his head frequently lost in the clouds of metaphysical or literary contemplation. I embrace the contradiction as a conjunction rather than a disjunction, taking delight in the confusion of others who cannot reconcile this irony.
April 19th, 2010
Camera Obscura associate editor Shane Oshetski got together with author Amy Glasenapp to discuss “The Object” from our first issue. She offers her views on mysterious things like community and MFA’s as well as how writing can unearth the truth and keep it from driving you crazy.
Shane Oshetski: In your bio you say you are one of those people that writes to stay sane. Can you tell us how you feel writing does this for you?
Amy Glasenapp: When certain, older members of my family read stories I’ve written, they shake their heads and think, she’s losing it, any day now. I guess what comes out when I write is a bit of the crazy that could otherwise spread into the more mundane aspects of life. I feel that’s not a unique problem. But of course the need to write strikes at inconvenient times, like when I’m out buying dog food or hanging out with my kid, and then it becomes genuinely oppressive. I dislike being on the computer for hours and hours every day, but I keep getting drawn back to my laptop, a moth to the flame, so to speak.
Shane Oshetski: Is “The Object” the kind of story that would cause the elder people in your family this kind of worry?
Amy Glasenapp:”The Object” did disturb said family members. It surprised them that any magazine wanted to publish it. “Shows how much we know,” were my grandmother’s exact words. In jest, sort of.
Shane Oshetski: Were you always interested in perusing writing?
Amy Glasenapp: Writing has been something I’ve done regularly, with varying degrees of personal and academic success, since I was eight or so. When I was in fifth grade, my horror story ‘The House of Connor” won a prize in a school-wide writing contest. I think it involved a number of decapitations, people being cut to pieces, that sort of thing. It was gross for the sake of gross, but there was a plot there, and it was scary. That may have been when my family started to worry (although most were encouraging, maybe because of the prize). I wanted to be Stephen King. I still do. I think he probably has it pretty good.
Shane Oshetski: Was there any reason you wanted to get an MFA?
Amy Glasenapp: The MFA was something I decided I wanted to do when I got bored with waitressing (actually, I’d been fired from two restaurant jobs in a row for not being a “team player”), and besides, I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. From the beginning. Maybe right after I learned to read.
Shane Oshetski: Could you talk about how you started “The Object” and why you chose to write about the obsession of an entire community instead of just an individual?
Amy Glasenapp: “The Object” started with the idea of a time capsule. What happens to the people in this town-turned-suburb when they start to unearth it? What is the time capsule, really? I wanted the story to operate as a sort of community mythos from the beginning, so it began in the plural perspective. It was only later that I realized a singular narrator would help me go deeper into the town–sort of like the digging. I think Lionel comes in on page 3 or 4? He was an afterthought.
Shane Oshetski: I like thinking of this as a story where you were digging into the town along with them. What did you find by digging into this community?
Amy Glasenapp: I was interested in the idea of digging, because that’s what most writing is. We dig, unearth, examine. It’s archaeological. But this type of digging takes place in our minds, so I wanted to find some way to visualize a town physically digging for something that would end up becoming inexplicably important. Something completely foreign that this town can’t go another day without getting to the bottom of. It’s contradictory, of course, because the townspeople in the story treat their own neighbors, the ones they they call “the foreigners,” with suspicion and resentment.
Shane Oshetski: Was there a real life mystery that informed this story?
Amy Glasenapp: The name “the object,” within the story is very vague. It is a mystery in itself, which is enough to warrant obsession. Mystery. We are all mysterious until someone knows us, but how well does anyone know us, really? They’re fascinating, other people. The characters in the story don’t really know each other at all, and yet they all crave the same thing. That is what brings them together. The object (of desire) is represented as this giant, impenetrable steel thing in the ground. Layers and layers of steel, possibly. That is what they’ll have to get through just to know what it is they want.
Shane Oshetski: Did you intended for this to be resonant with our time in some way? Or, as a larger question, do you intend for your work to comment on larger themes?
Amy Glasenapp: Yes, it is a kind of social commentary, and yes, I intended it to be. By the end, when I was going back into the story and figuring out what to emphasize, I wanted to emphasize the lack of human involvement in a community. A community that is a negative print of a community. An American neighborhood in 2010. Where people maybe know each other’s names, jobs, number of kids. Where that’s all we want to know. And if something brought us together, maybe we’d still get it wrong. We could lose ourselves seeking something outside our own lives, towns, experiences, something we’ll never understand. Seeking this concept of “happiness,” maybe, that is so simple and elusive. In the story there are people all around, all having the same experience, and there is no connection. Digging for the Object is, I think, not unlike the erection of the Tower of Babel, because it results in a loss of language and identity.
The dissolution part is, I believe, in the attempt to grasp the unattainable. It leads, inevitably, to this town’s undoing.
Shane Oshetski: A writer friend of mine classifies his influences into the writers who have informed his work and the writers he felt gave him permission to write they way he wanted to. Who has informed your work and who gave you permission?
Amy Glasenapp: I would quote Yiyun Li, the interview I did with her in the last issue of Fourteen Hills, but I don’t have the magazine in front of me. Anyway, what she said was something like this: When I write, I write to have a conversation with my masters. She is not seeking their approval or trying out their style, but looking for a dialogue. A way to incorporate their voices into her writing life. Her masters were Tolstoy and William Trevor, among others. Mine would be Nabokov, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Alice Munro, James Baldwin. More recently, James Welch. And then all over the map. The novelist Mark Leyner has significantly influenced my short stories, allowed me to do whateverthefuck. He’s very weird.
Shane Oshetski: You are a student, an editor at Fourteen Hills, and a parent (among other things I’m sure). Being a person who has to wear many hats, do you have any advice as to how to find the space and time for writing?
Amy Glasenapp: All I can say is, not everybody can do it. I can’t do it sometimes. You have to prioritize. My daughter, Teagan, comes first. Life is allowed to get in the way of writing. Writing will happen; there is always time if it is something you have to do, need to do. Kids grow up fast. You have to be there if you don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to have regrets. I gave up working. I’m going into debt. My partner works full time, but not everyone has a partner. I’m very lucky.
Shane Oshetski: As a person now obsessed as much as the town, can I ask if you know what is in that capsule?
Amy Glasenapp: I can’t tell you what’s inside the object. It’s a secret.
April 12th, 2010
When I first read René Georg Vasicek’s short story, “Borsig’s Machine Factory,” I was immediately drawn to the stark beauty of his words that left me with a haunted feeling of how powerful art can be in an artist’s life. Throughout this letter of sorts, Vasicek’s narrator reveals some hard truths about the romanticism of art and writing. Nuggets of wisdom are scattered throughout the text, turning up when least expected: “A writer without a novel is like a hitman who has yet to kill” and “At forty it is absurd: I can’t believe I am still lost! And yet for a writer, that is precisely where he wants to be.” I found myself dwelling on those blips of advice, much the same way I did the first time I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Somewhere in here, I reasoned, there must be a code, some sort of blueprint for how to become a respected artist.
Nope. No code. No blueprint—just plain honesty that simply fascinated me.
I recently had the chance to ask Vasicek a few questions about the “Borsig’s Machine Factory.” I’ve included his answers in their entirety.
Meredith Doench: As a writer myself, I am completely drawn to the writerly “advice” and hard truths given in “Borsig’s Machine Factory.” In some ways I am reminded of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and even parts of Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Is this story meant to be a letter of sorts to younger writers or a roadmap of how artistry takes hold of a person or even how artistry can let go of a person?
Rene Georg Vasicek: Yes, “Borsig’s Machine Factory” is a warning to younger writers: “Stop before it’s too late!” It’s a roadmap to nowhere. Of course, I’m kidding (and I’m not kidding) because the story was rejected thirty-two times before Camera Obscura surprised me. Sometimes I feel like a minor character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. His stories and novels are teeming with casualties of the “literary life,” obscure poets and writers who are forgotten or simply “disappear.” So why write? I believe most writers have no choice. A writer is an artist in awe of everyday life.
Doench: A thread that I noticed that really intrigued me was that of fathers and immigration. In the beginning, “I” is the son listening to his immigrant father celebrate hard, manual labor, and then later, “I” is the immigrant father who is doing hard, manual labor. In terms of “Borsig’s Machine Factory,” how does immigration influence an artist? How does Chloe and “I”s son influence the way “I” sees his own immigration?
Vasicek: The “I” of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” suffers from a feeling that his life is not as “real” as his father’s. This is a fairly common phenomenon between generations, but I think it gets exaggerated in “children of immigrants,” especially in America. Here the immigrant experience is mythologized, yet the immigrant family is strangely absent from most popular culture. There are stereotypes, of course. But rarely does television and film go beyond the surface. Perhaps only literature can reflect the psychological impact on the children of immigrants who sometimes feel like “immigrants” in their own family.
Doench: Another element of the story that I really connected with is the random events and people that surface in a writer’s life. I love the analogy “Like the clerk in a convenience store, you will have absolutely no control over what kind of people walk into your life.” Immediately I began thinking of some of my random, bizarre encounters. Did any bizarre, random encounters lead you to write this story?
Vasicek: I’ve lived in New York City for fifteen years now and I sometimes believe that the absurd seeks me out. I can’t buy a cup of coffee without feeling the uncertainty of the moment. My wife calls me a “Czech Woody Allen.”
I started writing “Borsig’s Machine Factory” three years ago, not long after my son was born. Those first few sleepless months as a new father were beautiful and weird. Three days a week, I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get to work on time. Outside it was pitch-black and freezing. Stray cats stalked me as I walked to the subway station. At that strange hour, I often felt physically ill. I kept running into the same homeless man, a hunchback who wandered the underworld of Pennsylvania Station. Early drafts of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” were handwritten in a notebook on the Long Island Rail Road. Suddenly I had realized I was now more than twice the age of my college writing students, which made me reflect on my own experience as an English major. I was not yet twenty when I “decided” to become a writer. I tried to imagine what the 40-year-old “me” would say to the 20-year-old “me.”
“Borsig’s Machine Factory” didn’t really become a story until I imagined it as a sort of letter. Suddenly I had a “voice” and “structure” that gave me the freedom to go almost anywhere. But I didn’t want to be limited by the formal expectations of a letter. My solution was to craft the story as a “fictional essay” in the tradition of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This allowed me to spin ideas and stories off each other. And although I began writing the story with a few autobiographical “elements,” the narrator of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” definitely had a life of his own.
Doench: There is a link with art drawn in the story between writing, painting, sculpture, and other forms of artwork through the various characters. How does “I” view the connection between these different mediums of art?
Vasicek: The “I” of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” is a writer who fantasizes about being a different sort of artist…a painter, a musician, a sculptor. But he only gets one life, and time is running out! He already feels there is a growing chasm between his expectations as a young man and what he has accomplished so far. I do believe other artists inspire him and that he sees other art forms as possible languages.
The references to artists in “Borsig’s Machine Factory” and the different ways in which they work add to the age-old dichotomy of the artist. That blistering war inside that battles over whether to write, sculpt, paint, photograph, or not. In the end, though, Vasicek’s narrator concludes it is not an option for the artist, and as the narrator tells it: “You recently asked me: Should I become a writer? My answer is: If you have to ask, then no.”
Vasicek’s “Borsig’s Machine Factory” is featured in Camera Obscura’s Premeire edition and was a strong contender for Camera Obscura’s first $1000 honorarium.
René Georg Vasicek is a 2009 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Delinquent (UK), High Times, Mid-American Review, Minnetonka Review, Post Road, The Prague Revue, The Wanderlust Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Hofstra University and Lehman College of the City University of New York. He is a co-founding editor of The Hell Gate Review, an online literary journal that publishes urban and immigrant stories from the Bronx, Queens, and beyond. René lives in Astoria, Queens with his wife and son.