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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