WE ARE NOT OURSELVES

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We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.

 

Folks,
In my recent interview with Chris Bower, he mentioned a David Mamet quote but couldn’t remember it precisely. He was kind enough to hunt down the quote in question and I’ve included it here.

INTERVIEWER

Do you try to put in five or six hours a day writing?

MAMET

I try to do as little writing as possible, as I look back on it. I like to talk on the telephone and, you know, read magazines.

INTERVIEWER

And sit in your office and forestall writing?

MAMET

Yes, and sometimes I like to do the opposite.

INTERVIEWER

Whatever happens, you get a lot out for somebody who doesn’t write a lot, or doesn’t like to write.

MAMET

I never saw the point in not.

INTERVIEWER

But you just said you spend a lot of time trying not to write.

MAMET

That’s true. But the actual point of being a writer, and doing something every once in a while mechanically, I just don’t see the point in it, and it wouldn’t be good for me. I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.

***

And here is the link to the interview in whole, which appeared in The Paris Review

CHRIS BOWER INTERVIEW

This horse was drawn by Susie Kirkwood, an artistic collaborator of Bower’s, and I stole it from his website.

Below is the much-anticipated link to my recent interview with Chris Bower, one of the five authors featured in the new novella-in-flash collection, My Very End of the Universe.

Listening back to this interview, I learned that I giggle and say “yeah” too much and my voice is kind of annoying. So I apologize ahead of time on those fronts. Fortunately, Bower does most of the talking and manages to compose himself better than I. Warning: this starts abruptly …

 

The first minute or so of this recording involves the hot button topic of transcription. Despite what I say at the interview’s start, I decided a full transcription of our chat was not in the cards, but I’ve included some choice excerpts below.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

“It wasn’t until I was in college … that I had to catch up to my own idea in my mind of who I was. It wasn’t until I went to West Virginia … when I experienced absolute loneliness for the first time … I found myself completely culturally isolated … my Midwestern-ness revealed itself in a major way … I was left with this idea that maybe I should write for real.”

“When you really get serious about writing … it’s really an act that can only take place in isolation.”

“Writing the first draft, that’s the fun part.”

“I’ve never been a Ray Bradbury type.”

Do you think writing can be taught?

“You can be technically better, 100% for sure.”

“You have to have utter confidence in what you’re doing.”

“In my (Creative Writing MFA) program … you got to see different versions of what you could become … A major part of it is the amount of time you get to spend on yourself.”

About My Other End of the Universe

“I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of these stories have to do with adolescence and families. I think there’s something in the form that lends itself to this … This may be a little more of an authentic way of telling a story.”

“Our memories are so flawed that a lot of our most important ones aren’t even ours.”

“(A computer malfunction) made me care about a line.”

“When I’m writing a poem I feel like I’ve just gotten away with something.”

“The only reason this is a poem is because my computer’s broken.”

“Once you start filling things in, you have to fill more in … It wouldn’t be the voice of Al, the narrator … He wouldn’t have told a proper story of the family … As a writer I would have never been able to stop … This isn’t just a story told in fragments, this is how this guy thinks … He was trying to recreate his life with a lack of photographic evidence.”

Other Endeavors

“There’s a very vibrant literary storytelling scene in Chicago.” (For those interested, check out: Write Club and The Paper Machete)

Bower and co-author Margaret Chapman will be reading at one of my favorite independent bookstores, The Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, on Wednesday, Nov 19 at 7pm. Pick up a glass of wine, do some Christmas shopping and hear them read!

Bower and co-author Meg Pokrass will be reading in San Francisco in January – details to follow!

MY VERY END OF THE UNIVERSE

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My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

by Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass & Aaron Teel

There’s no getting around it. I tend to be pretty mainstream when it comes to a lot of my literary selections. Now that’s not to say I’m plucking books off the New York Times’ Mass Market list on a regular basis, but often I’m plucking them off the NYT Book Review’s front cover. And while this habit isn’t nearly as shameful as, say, some of my television choices, I do recognize that I frequently let a few select sources influence a great deal of what I read. This fall in particular, with so many new releases by some of my favorite tried and true authors, I’ve been riding the literary fiction wave pretty close to the shoreline.

But I think my recent reaction to David Mitchell’s latest offering is a good reminder of the pitfalls inherent to staying too close to the mainstream too often. As Mitchell’s book illustrates, one of the concerns I’m having with the publishing world these days is that it seems as though there is less and less editing of the big publishing houses’ “marquee” authors. Once they’ve demonstrated an ability to sell books, the actual writing isn’t scrutinized as carefully as it might have been earlier in their career.

And so it was with great delight that I learned that my friend Chris Bower would be publishing his novella-in-flash with Rose Metal Press this month. Rose Metal is a small, indie press that specializes in hybrid genres, meaning works that fall outside the traditional fiction, poetry or essay form. Novella-in-flash is one such hybrid genre: a novella comprised of multiple “flash” (under 1,000 words) stories.

My Very End of the Universe is a collection of five novellas-in-flash, all of which concern adolescence and families, but each one contains its own unique setting, cast of characters and narrative voice. The more I think about it, the more perfect the book’s title seems, because what you have here is tiny flash stories within small novellas within a larger collection – stars, galaxies and a universe. What makes each story compelling is the author’s adherence to their respective end of the universe.

In addition to his or her novella, each author has written an accompanying essay discussing the appeal of the novella-in-flash form. In stark contrast to some of the “bigger” (some might say bloated) books floating around right now, a common theme throughout these essays is an emphasis on discipline. Each of the book’s five authors mentions the benefits of writing in such a stripped-down fashion, a style that keeps them focused on the specific key details of their stories without relying on the dreaded adjectives, adverbs and expository writing often likened to the three horsemen of bad writing. As Bower puts it in his essay, “To be successful, every aspect of the story has to be on fire.”

Clearly this man is a genius and I know you want to learn more about him and this book. You’re in luck. Coming up very soon: an interview with Chicago’s very own Chris Bower!