My Very End of the Universe: Dark Humor and Family Dogs
November 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
Concluding our series of interviews between authors featured in the new anthology, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form from Rose Metal Press, Margaret Patton Chapman interviews Chris Bower about his flash novella “The Family Dogs” and using fiction to approximate memoir
MC: You write in your essay about composing initially with line breaks. Is this helpful in discovering the humor in these pieces?
CB: Careful attention to line helps with rhythm and timing as well as humor. I have always enjoyed writing in short lines because I am able to find a lot of room to breathe without having to use commas and the freedom that comes with the restriction makes me have to use my imagination a lot more, to accomplish something in every line, in every transition, seeing them as moments. So when you take those lines out, you sometimes lose a little bit but you can try to salvage the experience using traditional prose. I wonder if comedians would benefit from writing with line breaks and stanzas and to be honest, I have no idea how people write funny things. Comedy writing has always been something I have been afraid of because I always hate the idea of trying to write things that are funny. If anything I write is funny, is not because I sat down and said to myself, “Now here is a funny story.” The material—family—lends itself to dark humor, and the nature of the voice—a boy in charge of his life stories for the first time—includes delusion and exaggeration, some of our best qualities and one of the reasons why we are all so sad, amazing, and absolutely ridiculous.
MC: You write that you started with anecdotes about a family similar to the one you grew up in, where each member is known by the “tiny and fast” stories that the other members can retell. Did this form free you to fictionalize and mythologize?
CB: My family will recognize some of the stories in this book but they will not recognize themselves because they aren’t really in there. Wait, let me take that back. My mother will believe that I tried to write about her but that I have just done a terrible job, and she will say about the filthy mouth of the mother in my novella, “I never swore around you.” Even when I have written plays in which a mother dies, she will remind me after that she is still alive. What is alive from my family in these flash stories are the imaginations of me and my brothers growing up, as well as the influence of both of my parents storytelling. My father, who would never drink beer at the beach, did tell us where he found us, in dumpsters and clutching buoys in the lake and the stories were always changing. And not being raised to believe in God was really the best thing that happened to my imagination, because I thought that unreal things could be real in a way that could be all about me and be applied to my life. While most of me knew the stories weren’t true, I knew that I could at least dream that they were and I think my head has a higher tolerance for fiction than most because I knew from a young age that the “truth” was not usually the most important quality of a story.
MC: How is fictionalizing different or more freeing than writing a memoir-in-flash?
CB: This project for me, which was one of my first whole collections of interconnected material, is probably the closest that I will ever get to writing a memoir and if I did try to write a memoir about my actual childhood, it would probably end up being less honest than this. Writing in a fictional voice, and using this novella-in-flash form, I think I was able to get closer to the essence of being a smart and sad kid finding his imagination as both a blessing and a curse. Writing a memoir would have to end with me turning out just fine but with Al, who is in a lot of ways not me, but me in pieces, I think I am able to tell something very true about where I have been and maybe it will be more relatable as fiction, without me being able to defend myself. While I think there are plenty of other ways to do this, I think the form of novella-in-flash is a challenging but effective way to approach trying to slowly build both individual characters and the idea of a whole family made up of them.
Chris Bower is a writer and teacher based in Chicago. He is the curator and host of the Ray’s Tap Reading Series and a founding member of Found Objects Theatre Group. Little Boy Needs Ride, his book of short stories with illustrations by Susie Kirkwood, is forthcoming in 2015 from Curbside Splendor Publishing. You can find him at holdmyhorses.com.