August 8th, 2013
I’ve read a lot of stories about love. Actually, I’ve read a lot of stories about love gone bad. It’s what I expect from a tale about relationships. And the thing is, I like to read about love gone bad. These stories speak to the catastrophic thinker in me, the one who sees some people in love as “neurochemically brainwashed suckers.”
So it’s surprising how much I really connected with Sarah Scoles’ short story, “When the World is Covered,” ultimately a tale of love gone good. This first person narrative is so rich with neurosis and internal conflict that I couldn’t put it down.
The narrator of “When the World is Covered” approaches love as if it’s a hair-trigger minefield. Her past hurts so fresh it’s palpable. She thinks that even in the “unlikely event” you end up with the person you fall in love with, “…they will betray you in one way or another. And it will come as not only an emotional but a philosophical shock. I don’t think anyone ever recovers from that.” And yet… she does. Somehow she finds the courage to navigate this minefield of love despite her past and all her fears.
Scoles is an associate editor at Astronomy Magazine and her work has appeared in many literary journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Whiskey Island, and DIAGRAM. She took some time out from her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Meredith Doench: What strikes me most about “When the World is Covered” is the voice of the first-person narrator. It’s an understatement to call her a Nervous Nellie! How did this character come about?
Sarah Scoles: I think we all, to some extent, have a neurotic person who lives inside our brains. And whether we’re conscious of all the neuronal back-and-forth that happens before we make a social move, I think some part of all of us is running at race-pace, considering all possible outcomes and consequences. Many people are able to dismiss this shadow neurotic person, but others (most writers, for instance) feel that person’s presence most of the time. The narrator gets at that two-toned nature of personhood at the end of the story, when she drinks some whiskey and feels “like another, warmer person is growing outward from a tiny seed in [her] stomach into a fully fledged person who is exactly [her] shape and lives under [her] skin. This person is less worried than [she is]…”
Maybe it’s just me projecting my own neuroticism onto everyone else, but I think we all have a part of us that’s a worrier, an overanalyzer, a person who is sure the worst will happen.
Generally, in real life, people appear calm and collected and “normal” on the outside, but there’s often much more, much less calm stuff going on beneath the surface. I’m interested in the differences between what happens in our heads and the small part of that internal monologue, dialogue, and debate that actually manifests itself in the outside world. In most of our casual day-to-day interactions, we have no idea what’s going on in others’ lives and brains. I think about it a lot at airports. People get on planes for all kinds of reasons. There are the vacations, of course, the business trips. But then there are the funerals. Chances are, someone on your flight is headed to a funeral, but generally you wouldn’t be able to pick out who they are.
Doench: The protagonist’s anxiety leads to so much catastrophic thinking about what might happen to Laura, the woman she’s falling in love with. It’s ironic that both the protagonist and Laura are faced with true catastrophes: a blizzard that sharply turns into a flood. How do both her real and imagined catastrophes highlight her feelings regarding falling in love?
Scoles: Her real and imagined catastrophes have one big thing in common—they’re both based on the narrator’s fear that she will lose Laura. Like she says in the beginning, “Nothing, except knowing someone who dies, makes you think about dying more than falling in love. The way you want them around so much makes you so afraid that they are going to die that you become fairly sure that they are constantly about to die.” But the fear of someone else’s death is mostly the fear of not having them in your life anymore. The narrator is afraid that Laura will meet someone more charming at a book club, and then Laura will be gone. The narrator is afraid that someone has bashed Laura’s head in with a can of tamales, and then Laura will be gone. These are, fundamentally, the same fear.
When you fall in love with someone, you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Another person’s will and feelings, for instance. As the narrator says, “You give your whole self to that person and trust them with it.” Physical catastrophes—like floods and mobs of people wielding canned goods—are similarly outside the sphere of influence.
Doench: I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition between the protagonist’s imagined catastrophes and the reality of what faces her and Laura. For instance, in the beginning of the story, she imagines what might happen to Laura when she goes to the store and tells her not to die. Then we find out Laura almost did die the night before. There’s such a dance between these two elements—real and imagined. As the writer, was it difficult to “ground” this protagonist? How does Laura work to ground her?
Scoles: The reader comes to know the narrator primarily by her internal monologue. Long stretches of the story are entirely imagined. But “the world” is taking place around the narrator while she is imagining these scenarios and going on philosophical flights. The world hasn’t stopped moving, and the scene hasn’t stopped just because the narrator is lost in a reverie. It was important to me that the reader go on these neurotic journeys with the narrator, but also that the reader then be snapped back into “reality” the same way the narrator is. The narrator’s interactions with Laura function that way. For instance, during the flood, the narrator is thinking about islands and sunburns and volcanic eruptions, but then she abruptly leaves the world of her mind and goes back into the real world, because she realizes she needs to get them both out of the inundated house. She speaks to Laura, commands her to put on ski pants (logically).
The only time the narrator is not wrapped up in her own head is when she’s interacting with Laura. Laura draws her back into the speaking, touching, physical world, which is slower and calmer than her thoughts, even when she’s standing in the middle of a flood zone.
Doench:I love what this story has to say about the endurance of love, how every obstacle is overcome. The protagonist recognizes it as a boundary that she crosses toward the end of the story: “…it seemed impossible that just by stepping a few feet up a slope, we could be standing completely above what would later be declared a disaster area.” Yet she chooses to take that step over the boundary. How does this story speak to the power of love and fear in the human condition?
Scoles: Toward the beginning of the story, the narrator and Laura have a conversation about how “first love” is different from any other love you fall into, because, on average, your heart gets horribly broken and your idea that you will grow old with your senior prom date (or that person from your Psych 201 class, if you’re a late bloomer) turns out to be misinformed. When humans fall into their first mutual love, they often strip away more layers (both of clothing and of emotional walls) than they ever have before. And, as the narrator says of the beloved, “The fact that they could hurt you so much is the same reason you believe that they couldn’t possibly.”
But, usually, they do. Or maybe you’re the one who hurts them (how could you?).
Either way, the next time you fall in love, you know that you could confess all your secrets about how you peed in your pants in sixth grade and really just want to quit grad school and be a rodeo cowboy, and then the person you confessed to could leave and take those secrets with them. But we continue to fall in love anyway. So I guess what this story says about “the power of love and fear in the human condition” is that humans are or should be afraid of love, but not quite afraid enough to stop falling into it. Which I think is a good thing, a very good thing.
There are thousands of quote from famous people saying what I’m trying to say. Machiavelli (everyone’s role model): “Never was anything great achieved without danger.” Tennyson: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost // than never to have loved at all.” William Burroughs: “There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.” I side, and my narrator sides, with the famous people.
Doench:What other writing projects are you working on?
Scoles: Right now, I’m working on polishing a collection of short stories, all of which have narrators who are neurotic to one degree or another (though usually to a lesser degree than this narrator), a novel about an astronomer who studies “cosmic aloneness,” and a new, barely started set of short stories based on narratives and concepts stolen (borrowed?) from Radiolab, with which I am obsessed. I also have a blog with a biologist friend, Brooke Napier, called Smaller Questions (smallerquestions.org), where we write about cool science—for non-scientists—that’s not receiving press coverage.
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 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.