Mystery, Community, and Obsessions: An Interview with Amy Glasenapp

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.

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An Interview with René Georg Vasicek

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.

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Camera Obscura Volume I Is Here

April 1st, 2010

 

And she is a beaut. The printer did a fantastic job. Pushed us to the limit on timing, but it was well worth it. For everyone who pre-ordered a copy (we thank you immensely), these will ship by mid-April at the latest. I am working on distribution right now.

Forthcoming on Aperture, interviews with some of the writers and photographers we published in this first issue.

Also, I hope any writers attending AWP will stop by our table and say hello. I would love to meet you.

M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal

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