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: 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!


H Halloween

Z Halloween

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

(Note: This book has nothing to do with Halloween, but accompanying pictures were too cute to ignore)

The surface story of Everything I Never Told You is a mystery. It is the spring of 1977 and sixteen-year old Lydia Lee has been found at the bottom of a lake in her small Ohio town. These tropes may sound familiar but I promise, this book is the farthest thing from formulaic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before.

At its core, this is a story about disappointment; the searing, haunting disappointment of having one’s dreams fade away unfulfilled. As a first-generation son of Chinese immigrants, Lydia’s father has never fit in among his white peers, even after marrying a Caucasian woman. Before they met, Lydia’s mother was a science whiz and planned to become a doctor. Neither of their lives has worked out in the ways they wanted, but even more tragic is the alienation they’ve experienced as a result, an alienation from themselves and each other. As the title implies, this is also a story about the tragedy of failing to communicate.

“Geez, T,” you might be thinking, “that sounds like a real buzz kill. I don’t like to read anything depressing.” So yes, this is a sad book; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. But it’s good sad. In fact, the small cast of characters is so well wrought and their emotions feel so genuine and true that I found myself whipping through the book, compelled by the tension of their emotional lives. Through gradual reveals that flash back to the characters’ individual histories, their inner tensions are woven into the story’s surface mystery.

Beyond doing a really fine job of telling a story about a family and its failings, Celeste Ng manages to tell a more universal story about the ramifications of institutionalized discrimination. What do people do with their frustrations? If they can’t talk about them, how do they deal? Do they end up expecting more from other people because they’re not satisfied with themselves? For some, they project their quashed hopes onto their children. They begin to conflate their sense of self with their child’s identity. But this desire to want for one’s children what you couldn’t have for yourself can be a dangerous, destructive force. Ng’s powerful depiction reminds us that systems of oppression don’t disappear in one or two generations’ time.

On that happy note …

Next Up: The much-anticipated new release of My Very End of the Universe by hometown hero and old friend, Mr. Chris Bower (and others). Look for an upcoming interview (a first for this blog) with Bower and some other new features in honor of his publication!


CTT Cover

Another beautifully designed book that’s so much more exciting in person.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

A lot of Murakami fans love the more surreal aspects of his writing. Me? I tend to like my allegories rooted in a concrete world. So I was very happy with his most recent novel, the story of Tsukuru (his name translates as “to make”) Tazaki, a 36-year-old man seeking to understand why, many years earlier, his once tight-knit group of teenage friends banished him without explanation. This group of three boys and two girls had been especially close, forming a cocoon of intimacy, comfort and support. Until one day when Tsukuru’s friends cut him off without reason.

For Tsukuru, “Alienation and loneliness became a cable that stretched hundreds of miles long, pulled to the breaking point by a gigantic winch.” The lure of suicide becomes that breaking point and although that lure eventually loosens its grip, this dark period from his past continues to haunt him 16 years later. So like any self-respecting (or self-deprecating) hero, Tsukuru sets out on a journey to unravel the events that led up to his exile.

At the beginning of his journey, Tsukuru has us believing that he is “colorless” and uninteresting. Even in his heyday among his former friends, Tsukuru was the only member of the group whose name didn’t correspond with a color. He interprets the coincidence as a mark of his character. It takes some time and some travels for our hero to start to see himself through others’ eyes and realize that the traits he has considered boring for all these years are signs of his creativity, focus and resilience.

I should make a habit of going back and reading the beginning of a book after I’ve finished it, which is exactly what I did in this case. I loved reading the story and following Tsukuru’s path but when I came to the end, I felt like I hadn’t fully grasped everything Murakami was trying to do. As I re-read the opening pages, it dawned on me that the story is an allegory for the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Once I considered the story through this lens, I appreciated it even more.

Do you ever re-read the beginning of a book once you’ve finished it? Have you found it helpful?

CCT Page



My Struggle, Book One
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Any attempt to describe the surface story of My Struggle, Book One is bound to sound boring. On its most basic level, the memoir is 430 pages that primarily involve our hero hiding some beer for a teenage New Year’s party and cleaning his grandparents’ house. But 45-year-old Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard delves far below the surface in this first volume of his six-part memoir. (Correction to earlier post: all six books have been written, not all have been translated into English yet.)

In this book, Knausgaard takes seemingly mundane moments from his life and magnifies them with raw emotional detail, context and backstory so that his internal drama–his struggle–comes to the forefront and, believe it or not, keeps us turning the pages. Because these moments have so much meaning to Karl Ove, they mean something to us. And they remind us of all those seemingly mundane but emotionally remarkable moments in our own lives and why we still remember them 20, 30 or 50 years later.

I’ve mentioned before that this book has received a lot of acclaim – I think the hoopla stems from the fact that Knausgaard is creating a new level of intimacy with his readers that’s hard to compare to other memoirs (or “autobiographical novels,” as this series is being labeled). Such intimacy allows the author to pull off a few conventions that are typically considered writing taboos. One example of this is his dialogue, which often includes a lot of “hi, hi, how are you, I’m fine how are you,” etc etc. Typically, this kind of banter is discouraged because even though it’s true to how we speak to one another in real life, it doesn’t translate and lands flat on the page. Yet somehow in this context, that measure of realism seems to work, or at least feel tolerable. It’s almost like we’d feel cheated – like he’d skipped something – if he left out the “hi’s” and “how are you’s” in light of everything else he’s allowing us to experience with him.

In the midst of reading this book, I happened to see Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, a movie that, in a very different way, is also forging a new level of intimacy with its audience. Boyhood was shot intermittently over 12 years, picking up once a year in the lives of its characters, all of who are played by the same actors throughout the 12 years. This is not a documentary, it’s a scripted story, but the aging process is entirely real. Never before has a film portrayed the aging of its characters by following the actual aging process of its actors. The effect is quite powerful: like a concentrated version of observing our family and long-time friends grow older over many years. How can you not feel more invested in someone’s inner life after being so intimately engaged in their outer development?

Where My Struggle pushes its medium by using words to explore the feelings, memories and psychology of its story as deeply as possible, Boyhood breaks new ground by stretching the visual opportunities of film. In both cases the “plot” really occurs within the characters rather than via external events, but the impact is quite gripping.

So here’s a question to ponder: why are adults obsessed with adolescence? Whether it’s the entire YA genre, Catcher in the Rye or these two latest additions to the canon of adolescent journeys, why do we feel compelled to re-visit adolescence again and again? I have my own theories but I’m curious as to your thoughts. Leave a comment below, tweet me or, for those of you who prefer to remain anonymous, send an email to – I’ll post your thoughts without an attribute.