I had the chance to interview Chris Bower, an author, playwright, and adjunct professor at Columbia College Chicago. I found his novella-in-flash, The Family Dogs, in Rose Metal Press’s collection, My Very End of the Universe, and his illustrated short story collection, Little Boy Needs Ride, on Amazon. It was the first time I’d ever read any kind of hybrid literature or flash fiction in general, and I was amazed by the styles. The stories are compelling and inspiring. I was able to meet up with Chris after he had a long day of teaching, and he was delighted to sit down for an interview and talk about his works and process. Little Boy Needs Ride can be found on Curbside Splendor, and My Very End of the Universe can be found on Rose Metal Press.
Clayton Crook: What was your first publication?
Chris Bower: Actually, both The Family Dogs and Little Boy Needs Ride were published simultaneously. Both were years in the making, but totally different processes. Rose Metal Press, run by Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel, is dedicated to a lot of hybrid forms, especially flash fiction. At the time, they were doing a novella-in-flash chapbook contest, and I submitted The Family Dogs manuscript, which I just happened to have. Originally, they were monologues, but I adapted the story for their contest and I came in second place.
They later decided to make an entire collection of novellas-in-flash, and asked me if I wanted to be a part of that project. Even though they didn’t publish my book when I submitted it, they thought of me when they decided that they wanted to put together that project, because they really liked my work. This definitely isn’t the ideal way to get things published. My Very End of the Universe, the collection my story was featured in, came out in 2014.
Little Boy Needs Ride was a project I’d been working on with illustrator Susie Kirkwood for an image and text project. We planned to put together one story with the images to see what it was like, shop it around, and pitch it to someone who would want to finance the rest of it. I didn’t try very hard shopping it around, but most people said the prospect of making a book like that would be very difficult to pay for. So we constructed the book with seven stories, all with illustrations. Then I shopped it to Curbside Splendor, and the first thing they demanded was that it be longer. We added about 25-30 pages, and after that the book was ready to be sold in bookstores.
Since both of these projects were accepted around the same time, both presses had to work with each other to decide when each one would be released, because having two books come out by the same author at the same time is bad for marketing. Everything that I wrote for Little Boy Needs Ride wasn’t new work; it was all writing that I’d already written. I used a lot of old works I had that fit the book’s themes. They mostly had to do with things like decapitation or isolation, things I thought would work with the images, and some of the ones I ended up choosing for the end were some of my favorite for that book. I’m happy that it exists, but I’m not really happy with how it was executed. But it was a good learning process.
CC: What can you tell me about your path to publication? Has it evolved over your career?
CB: My idea of what’s published is maybe a little bit different than some writers because I’ve been a playwright for most of my career. My work exists in theatrical form, and I didn’t necessarily think it needed to be anything but that. Both Little Boy Needs Ride and The Family Dogs were plays before they were written stories. It wasn’t my intention to write Little Boy Needs Ride as a short story, and I didn’t ever think it was anything that I would submit. For about ten years in my career I wasn’t really interested in submitting short stories to magazines and collections, or writing for print at all. When I found myself exhausted by theater, I wondered, “What do I do with all of this stuff?” and I tried to make my own venue for it. I didn’t want to have a traditional book of short stories. I wanted to have something else. I’ve always been bad at networking and bad at talking about myself, and it took me longer than it probably should have to get a book out.
I wouldn’t recommend the path that I took to aspiring writers; I think if you have work you’re proud of, you should be sending it out to places and getting feedback, learning outside of it. I was very lucky to have someone who wanted to publish my work. It was challenging and not ideal to have work and then decide what to do with it next; to go to different cities and read at bookstores was unusual for me. I could have done better marketing if I knew what was expected of me. If I had a second chance to do that, and hopefully I will, I’d want to connect more, stay in the cities a little bit longer and hopefully get to know some people. I did do an interview with WGN, but there was no press process for my public readings. But overall, the process was humbling.
CC: In The Family Dogs, I noticed what you do exceptionally well is that you tell the story as directly as you can, and in some cases as abstractly as you can, but you give the readers a sense that they know exactly what is going on. You give readers of the novella-in-flash genre the opportunity to fill the gaps in between the stories, and as you’ve said in the story’s introduction, they are expected to be ready and willing to find a “truth deeper than the truth.” There are a variety of themes; the desperation of family dysfunction, the confusing but also satisfying twists and turns of brotherhood, and the life that a pet brings into a home. In The Family Dogs, was there an intended “truth deeper than the truth,” or was it subjective?
CB: I didn’t want there to be some kind of philosophical through line. I just wanted to portray single voices expressing disillusionment, detachment, and loneliness in some sort of the version of the world we’re living in now. The Family Dogs is intended to be as much about what is there on the page, as is what’s not on the page. There was so much about how family lore and family stories exist as sort of surreal anecdotes that define relationships, and that the real truth is buried somewhere in them. They get shaped over time by different family members and become some sort of universal family story that everyone has a version of, and that one version rises into the next generation that everyone remembers. The first part of the story is dominated by one voice, but the second part, which is only about a quarter of the whole thing, tells a different version of the events in a completely different voice. I could have easily done that for each of the family members, but I only wanted to show the perspectives of the siblings because of their unique relationship.
Everything about that story was completely organic. Nothing was constructed in any sort of intellectual, cerebral way. The structure of it was the way it appeared to me, and it seemed like the best way to tell it. Again, like Little Boy Needs Ride, it was originally a play, and what’s missing from The Family Dogs is the opening act that served as part 2 of the play, where the two brothers discussed a very different memory of their family dog and what it was like. They had a fundamental disagreement about what the dog ever could have been, or what it actually was, to show that two family members could have completely different interpretations of the same events, which I think is a lot of what family dysfunction is; it works in tandem with familiarity to the story, and the fact that we can feel and comprehend things so differently from each other.
CC: With The Family Dogs, I felt that you accomplished what you mentioned in your introduction about what Raymond Carver accomplished with “Popular Mechanics;” you delivered to your reader an unsettling and indirect ending but in a gratifying way. Were there a lot of stories that you wrote as these bridges and left out?
CB: If someone told me to make it into a 200-page book, I could have, but I had to pick and choose which ones were the best. I saw them as poems, and I thought they seemed re-readable. I left out some of the ones that were more traditional character portraits. When I had the opportunity to have it published, Rose Metal Press asked me to make it longer, because they felt it was about 3 or 4 stories short of what it needed to be, and mine is by far the shortest novella in that collection.
I didn’t want to go back and add ones I’d discarded, because I didn’t want to be cheap, so I wrote two new stories for a seven year old collection. It was a little difficult revisiting something I’d written in 2007 or 2008 and getting back into the voice. I’d written the mother’s character a little more, and I found this to be a gratifying opportunity. Usually with an editor I’d say you should stand up for your work and pick your battles, but I didn’t think it would be very hard to add a few more stories for the collection.
CC: How long did it take you to write these works?
CB: For the 15 years I’ve been working in Chicago, I’ve written an enormous amount of material for things like one-off shows that I don’t plan on doing again. Mostly I just write monologues as stories, and I work with a director to map out the technicalities of a play. If you do something carefully, you end up having a portfolio of work that you need to revise, but I didn’t do any of it with that plan in mind. It was all about tying my past work together. I don’t think I even intended The Family Dogs to be a play.
The process for putting together Little Boy Needs Ride did take about 3 years, though I was used to this from working in the theater world. Each story took about a month to two months of revision. The story “When You’re Dead” was originally a play. The last story of the book, “Notes to Molly,” was something I’d written before I went to college, and that was also originally a play. “How I Became a Writer – 1992” – was originally a short story, and was something I’d written in college. I don’t think I could write that way now, in that literary style. I was also not given a lot of editorial feedback, and I was given a lot of freedom with my works when they were published, and I’d tell a lot of writers to be careful about that. I wish I’d been given a lot more resistance to my impulses, because at its worst, “Little Boy Needs Ride” might be a little too self-indulgent.
CC: Absurdity was definitely a driving force in The Family Dogs and Little Boy Needs Ride. What made you want to add stories that were realistic: ‘When You’re Dead,” “How I Became a Writer – 1992,” and “Married?”
CB: I never really thought of them as “realistic” stories. Those stories were included because I thought they had the most evocative images and gave Susie something to really play with, and they fit with the theme of sadness and isolation. I think that “How I Became a Writer – 1992” is about the lack of imagination of a person, and also someone who’s completely losing himself inside these stories and these lies he’s telling to the point where he believes nothing means anything. I think that the idea of losing your mind fit into the theme of the rest of the collection. “When You’re Dead” depicts a violent death and involves family and destruction. The voice of “When You’re Dead” is one that’s uncertain and sad, but it ends with a moment of optimism.
CC: Another thing that I thought came through very strongly was the dark humor. Can you explain your process of writing humor under the umbrella of all of the darker themes?
CB: I try to write like I’m on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, ugly and beautiful, silly and scary. I hoped that it came across as funny. If I didn’t find it funny, I’d think, “Man, this is really unpleasant and gross.” The story that I think fits this most is “Maria Loves Albert.” One of the characters is isolated and self-destructing, and the other one is self-destructing at the expense of other people, which I think is one of my most troubling ideas. “How I Became a Writer – 1992” is about that too: the manipulation of other people and how we lie to alter our own realities. One thing I was happy about was how the story “Big Head” turned out. I wrote it a long time ago, and it sort of sums up how I saw the world when I was writing it; there’s a lot of optimism in there somewhere. Sometimes the characters in the collection are awful, but other times they see the beauty in things, and sometimes, at their own destruction, they find odd ways to be pleased.
CC: Do you think you would have been able to accomplish your works without using absurdity?
CB: I don’t think I’d be able to make it through to today without my imagination, especially in these times. I don’t think there’s much in this world today that’s not absurd, but I don’t really think I’ve ever seen myself as an absurdist, at least in the theatrical “absurdist” definition; it’s almost too cerebral, and I don’t think I’ve ever been that deliberate. Absurdist theater involves very carefully constructed movements and often gets political. I think that a lot of the absurdity that I utilize is just representative of us at our most delightful and at our most destructive. I think there’s an absurdity in our ability to digest information and to pervert a narrative to our own purposes, and also an absurdity to the way we think and behave that I think is absolutely delightful; like how some people have such strange gestures to their feelings and actions.
CC: Besides as a novella-in-flash, would you categorize The Family Dogs as a family drama, experimental literature, or romantic literature?
CB: Actually, I don’t see is at being very experimental. I guess the form is as a novella-in-flash, but I don’t see it as very abstract. Definitely a family drama. Almost everything that I write comes down to family dynamics.
CC: Do you think Little Boy Needs Ride is experimental?
CB: Probably more so. Again, the form was definitely experimental. I told Susie about the video game “Limbo,” where the game is made up of silhouettes, and I wanted to have that same kind of style for the images of the book. I liked the idea of the reader being able to project their own image of what the boys looked like. People didn’t know how to review the book – they would talk mainly about the text rather than the images. You couldn’t really call it a graphic novel; you couldn’t really call it a short story collection. There’s nothing in the book that’s meant to be just for the sake of shock value or weird just to be weird.
Having a strategy about what you’re presenting about your work is very important, but I wouldn’t even categorize it. Amazon categorized it as a “visual artbook,” but it’s more narrative-driven by the text than anything else. I would say the fastest way to categorize it is as an “illustrated short story collection.” You’ll see a lot of short stories with an image with the title of the story, but the difference is that the images are embedded with the text throughout the story, and are integral to the whole atmosphere and presentation of the book. I think it’s also important to be aware that when you make something that has mixed media that people are going to misunderstand it by nature, and that’s part of the danger of going outside of the mainstream.
CC: Were there any works that inspired you to write this? Any writers?
CB: The writer that I think about more than any other writer is Donald Barthelme. He was an experimental short story writer. He was a part of the New York literati, definitely no avant-garde underground writer. I don’t write like him; I think that I’m not as cerebral as he is, but I feel like my characters are more alive than his characters, but that’s because his are much more intellectual in relation to the story, and are taken on a different path because of the absurdity of his stories. In “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” Colby went too far. That’s all we know. And they decide they want to kill him, but they never explain what he did. Throughout the whole story, they just dispute about how they’re going to kill him. I see him as a constant inspiration, and I see him as an extension of Samuel Beckett. I love the way you can get lost in prose and that it can be really inspiring. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is so ridiculously otherworldly but unflinchingly real. It really depicted that we’re capable of creating such grotesque and beautiful things and depicted the reality of the best of us and the worst of us. I’m a big Melville fan too. I really like Moby Dick.
CC: Do you think there’s a future for hybrid literature? Especially the novella-in-flash?
CB: I think there is. I think there’s really something productive and useful about the flash form. I think that the novella is useful because you can read with the pacing of modern life: you can read it on an airplane. I think that a lot of adults read “distraction books” because they like to finish things and be entertained. I think that if people don’t want to read a 700-page novel, they’ll turn to shorter literature, and I think that the form is natural. I certainly think it’s not easier to write. I think that one of the reasons that Rose Metal Press published My Very End of the Universe as a book that contained process essays alongside of the novellas was because they knew it would be useful for students and teachers trying to utilize and read more of this form.
Clayton Crook is a student pursuing a BA in fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago. They have been published in the “Politics – Fall 2016” issue of The Lab Review. They are from Belleville, Illinois, and now live in the South Loop of Chicago.