by Ericka Taylor
Reading Alex Behr’s debut story collection, Planet Grim, is a little like going on a funhouse ride. Within its pages are pieces that shock, thrill, and surprise, all while leaving the reader ready for more. Behr’s collection is technically labeled as stories, but its 28 pieces include everything from “traditional” and flash fiction to excerpts from diary entries, found letters, quotes from friends, and free-writing. The cumulative result is a wholly original collection that, despite being written over the course of decades, maintains a through-line of characters filled with longing and loneliness, all seeking, ultimately, to love and be loved.
Behr’s characters are often outside of the mainstream, and they know it. Whether they’re observing that “(w)hen you live on a bus, you lose that urban propriety” or, as in “The Garden,” “sticking Safeway carrots in the ground” to fool the protagonist’s mother-in-law, they have a level of self-reflection that often compounds the tragedy of their circumstances. Fortunately, Behr imbues even the grittiest of her stories with such humor that it’s difficult to determine, as author Tom Bissell put it, “if her stories are comedies intercut with horror or horror stories leavened by comedy.” He goes on to note, “but when they’re this entertaining, who cares?”
The stories may be drawn from the underground punk scene that Behr herself was once part of, or take place outside planet Earth, but the characters have an authenticity that makes them relatable. In “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” a man addresses his attraction to his adoptive son’s birth mother. “In Fallen Nest,” a mother meets the daughter she’d put up for adoption, with her younger daughter in tow. The opening story, “White Pants,” has the great opening lines: “I’m envious of anyone who can wear white pants. I’m much too broad and slovenly.” One story includes a character who uses a BB gun to shoot his mother’s cuckoo clock and another features efforts to hide a body. As Tom Bissell pointed out, they are consistently entertaining.
Alex Behr currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is a freelance writer and editor, as well as a Writers in the Schools instructor. She was generous enough to answer some questions for Bloom.
Ericka Taylor: You’ve described Planet Grim as a hybrid book that contains “stories, ephemera, and flash fiction.” How did you come to the decision that you wanted to pursue a hybrid model for the collection?
Alex Behr: I started putting the book together with Leland Cheuk, publisher of 7.13 Books, when I was going through a divorce after 26 years of marriage/dating/living together with my (now) ex. My ex had moved to China in November 2017, and I felt abandoned and fearful raising our son alone. Because my life felt fragmented, it felt right to create a hybrid book. Even the title, Planet Grim, came from an email to a good friend of mine, describing the state of living with my ex before he moved to China. (He slept a lot.)
I took a flash fiction class about the same time I was ordering the pieces, so some of the newer pieces in the book come from that class, almost as I wrote them. Also, I’d imagined writing a hybrid book years ago because of books like Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Billy the Kid, which have a documentary / poetry / fiction motion throughout.
I drew out my adolescence as long as I could in the Bay Area by playing in underground bands such as Job’s Daughters, Caroliner (very briefly), Heavenly Ten Stems, and the Double U (with my ex). I contributed to fanzines including Bananafish and Rollerderby. Bananafish, especially, affected how I wanted to put together the book, because it treated all text as valid as any other; for instance, it had a letters sections including, as described in Red Bull Academy: “found (and probably fabricated) fragments from the likes of unidentified spurned lovers or recruiters for cosmic church cults.” I collected paper trash in San Francisco for years and had some of it in a short-lived website that no one saw (I have an affinity for failure). I feel like my voice is distinct, and to have strangers’ voices or quotes from my son (“Sex Bomb”) or fragments of stories “Observations of Punk Behavior,” or even my old diary excerpts give the collection more depth or flavor. Maybe a sour flavor, but a flavor …
I put the book together with Leland as my sole audience. Often I thought: will it make him laugh? Then that was fine for me. Maybe it’s my only book: or it’s my only book like that. Hybrid appeals to my aesthetic. I like random errors. I like chance vibrations in people’s minds.
ET: Some of the pieces seem to draw from your experience as a musician and band member and others appear to reference the dissolution of your marriage and being an adoptive mother. Do you find stories that are autobiographical to be more difficult to write, easier, or merely different?
AB: I find the autobiographical pieces easier to write because I have an entry through emotion. I write through emotion, then character, then voice, then plot. But a lot of the fictional stories are based on real life, too. The scene in the adoption agency was only slightly exaggerated from this agency my then-husband and I went to in Contra Costa County, before we moved to Portland.
real life (I had blocked Fallopian tubes):
There’s a shame in our marriage, and her whole family knows it. It sparked nice and bright at our first adoption meeting. Jenny and I sat with a group of strangers in a fluorescent-cursed room and chewed pepperoni sandwiches with extra mustard. Everyone grilled each other about who spent more on medical treatments, with the fat lady up front exhorting us on what fools we were. “If I had a business where I’d take twelve thousand bucks from desperate couples with only a twenty-five percent guarantee they’d get what they want, why, sign me up!” And everyone talked about who did the pricking with the inch-long needles and who had the endometrioses and who had the chemical pregnancies and who had the mangled tubes and who produced eggs one by one, like a chicken. None of the guys with the folded arms copped to dead sperm, though. –from “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”
ET: You’ve said that the book’s stories were written over decades, with the older ones tending to be longer and more traditional in structure and the newer ones being shorter, more experimental, and more likely to be drawn from found materials. What was different about your writing and revision process when you approached the more recent work?
AB: The writing of the most recent work was not part of any workshop process and was barely revised. I got feedback from Leland, and used his line edits. Some of the pieces are based on workshop prompts from a flash fiction class, but I didn’t take people’s advice per se. I think the newest piece I worked on most closely was “Angel Dust,” because it is a flash “novel” in various points of view and verb tenses (one section is entirely dialogue), and I wanted to make sure it made some kind of sense to readers.
ET: No matter how grim the circumstances, humor permeates virtually every story in the book. Was this an intentional strategy to keep the collection from coming across as grave, or is it just that you’re a funny person whose writing reflects that?
AB: I’m funny.
ET: Planet Grim isn’t a linked collection in the traditional sense, although the stories really cohere thematically. There are a few recurring characters and references, though. The Joe of “The Passenger” seems like he could easily be the Joe of “Some Weird Sin” and Marcus in “Teenage Riot” is very clearly the same Marcus in “Fairyland.” Then you also have a couple of different nudist colony references in “White Pants” and “This Is Not a Love Story.” How conscious were you of making these links and how much effort, if any, did you make during the revision process to strengthen connections between different stories?
AB: The same main character is in “Fairyland” and “Fallen Nest,” too (as a teen then as a woman wanting to connect with her daughter placed for adoption years before). Yes, you’re right that Joe of “The Passenger” is the same character as Joe in “Some Weird Sin.” (Same musician whose song titles I stole, too: Iggy Pop.) I was in a novel writing class and wrote both of those chapters (and others) in that class. I dropped out of another novel writing class taught by the same person because a guy in the class hated my writing. He felt it was suffocating and he couldn’t wait to walk away from it. It was like my husband was sitting across from me! That guy was writing a fantasy story about zombies eating homeless people under the Burnside Bridge, but he felt mine was too bleak. I’ve never encountered so much loathing, and I’ve been in a lot of workshops.
Marcus is from my diaries—same name—and, yes, I did include him in “Fairyland.” Jimmy, an older boyfriend, who I dated when I was in high school, lived in a household that was quite dangerous. Guns. Drugs. Criminals. Violent men. Crow in a cage. Duck in the bathroom. But I was all la la la in love (how much of my allowance and babysitting money could I spend on my boyfriend? A lot!). I wrote about the danger in a flat, reportorial style in my diary, only a couple of years removed from being a good Christian girl spying on a “druggie” across the street and buying the double KISS album to impress him (he wasn’t).
I’m not sure if the nudist colony references have a connection, except that they frighten me. I went to a hot spring mecca in Lake County, California, and I was so uptight about being nude that I stayed on the stairs, which turned out to be crotch level for the men going up and down (ha). However, I met up with a friend by chance from UC Berkeley, who I hadn’t seen in years. He once drew on his arms and face with a black Sharpie for Halloween, after shaving off his body hair, and wondered why kids were scared of him. I found out the acid he’d taken was really strong. So, yeah, nudism is in the book twice. It’s true that I knew a guy who used to go to nudist colonies with his mom. Many facts in the book! Facts are useful.
ET: You’ve got some great imagery throughout the book. Lines like: “The odor stung like a line of speed” (139); “In the crime scene photos, the blood is like a punch” (105); “kicking up their legs like a herky-jerky roulette wheel,” and “the ringing in our ears like the sting of a venereal disease” (64) are so evocative. Do these similes come easily to you, or do you find yourself having to work at them and trying multiple ones on for fit?
AB: All of those come out of my weird brain with no thought. The harder things are plot, dialogue, plot, endings. You know: that’s why I’m writing poetry now!
ET: How did you go about ordering the 28 different pieces in the book? Was that a difficult process?
AB: Leland wanted to start with “White Pants,” which he felt was the strongest piece. It takes place in Portland and San Francisco and part of it is based on part in an interview I did with a friend who lived on a bus and the Mission District art scene in the 1990s. I have a sentimental interest in “Fallen Nest” (the last main story), because of the adoption theme. Charlie D’Ambrosio said autobiographical elements in fiction are pollution, but I love the dirty world.
The “Afterword,” with actual negative feedback, is my favorite section.
ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first novels after they’ve turned 40. You started taking writing classes in your early 30s and went to grad school at 42. What inspired you to make those two moves?
AB: I have written in journals compulsively my whole life, but lacked confidence to write fiction. I had the false idea that you had to have everything complete in your mind before you start, and though I’d written children’s fiction for work (educational publishing), I wasn’t sure that I could create fiction that adults would want to read. My self-doubt flourishes. I applied to grad school at the University of San Francisco in creative nonfiction, was rejected, and, pissed off, signed up for an intro to fiction class at UC Berkeley Extension. I was terrified, but terror is good. I took private workshops with the professor, Paul Cohen, for a few years until moving to Portland (2003).
I went to grad school at 42, because I was drinking with friends and one asked me what I would regret not doing before I died. I said, “Get an MFA.” I was so naïve, though. I thought it would be easy to get funding (no). I didn’t anticipate the recession, which slashed my educational publishing income by a fourth. I took on a lot of debt, which I will now have until I’m in my 70s … and for what? Who knows if it was “worth it”? I don’t think so. Debt is bad. My son was three at the time, my then-husband was unemployed, and I had limited school options. Low-res was not an option due to my son’s age … It was Portland State or Portland State. I was trying to do it all, really. Work, take classes full-time, and be a mom to an adoptive child with a lot of emotional needs.
ET: What advice would you give to others who begin writing fiction later in life?
AB: Here’s advice I don’t take: try to write even if you don’t want to. Go on hormone replacement meds (ha). Don’t pay attention to people’s comments in workshops unless they’re useful. Don’t hold onto them for years thinking you’ll read them sometime. I used to feel I had to “honor” people’s time but usually it comes down to their imagination may not like yours (that mantra comes from my friend Danielle). And … they may have read it five minutes before workshop or class.
I’ve learned you never know what will happen once you write fiction. I’ve gotten a book published, have had stories published in various places, have had two stories performed by professional actors in LA, have gotten to read in San Francisco and New York (and at a full house in downtown Powell’s, a dream of mine). I’ve been interviewed on the radio, recorded a story, and got to do a lot of cool writing things to promote it, like this interview.
ET: Last year, in a couple of interviews you mentioned looking forward to taking a poetry class with Matthew Dickman, which would culminate in the production of a chapbook. How did you take to writing in that form? Do you see more poetry in your future? What are you working on now?
AB: I created a chapbook of “spectacles,” which came out of SHARE, a project run by writers Kathleen Lane and Margaret Malone for writers, artists, musicians, etc. Each session has a prompt for which you have about two hours to create something. I wrote four automatic writing “spectacles,” then chose tarot cards I happened to bring to signify (or not) the events. (I did this somewhat ironically, but some of the tarot cards interact with the spectacles in spooky ways.)
For Matthew’s class I wrote more spectacles and hand-sewed the chapbooks at Portland’s IPRC (Independent Publishing Resource Center). I’ve taken four poetry classes, but I’m no poet. This year, one was about somatic awareness: how we can use our body or dreamlife to write, or experience memories within memories to generate poetry. The second was about radical revision: that the draft wrestles with chaos in the brain and revision is often “fixing” it, but can be another expansion or exploration. We did simple things like cutups, which were very satisfying. I’m hoping to get the poems from those classes published. I write from journal entries, overheard dialogue, and out of emotional chaos and upheaval. I’ve had a lot of it in 2018.
This is a spectacle:
Spectacle of the girl on fire. She’s at camp. She has the burned skin down one leg: pink, puckered. She tells her spectacle story: she and friends were in a pit. Someone squirted lighter fluid and dropped a match.
Card chosen: Three of Cups
Meaning: “Maidens in a garden with cups uplifted, as if pledging one another. Perfection and merriment, healing.”
And I did write a chapbook called Spectacles.
cover of Spectacles vol. 1. Art by Christine Shields
I write due to fear or deadlines: I’ve written a fiction/poetry hybrid for the “Songbook” reading series here. That piece is coming out in Cosmonauts Avenue. I wrote it in honor of a Flipper song: it’s set in San Francisco in the 1980s, then jumps to the present. Most of the fiction section is one long sentence. Part of the poem: “If you’re under the hotel sheets with someone you just met, / you will miss the news from Athens, Georgia, about the girl whose collarbone got burned by a radiator, /or crushed by a boulder, or maybe she fell off the truck or maybe she was pushed.” That comes directly from poetry exercise in which we had to include five words (Athens, collarbone, and radiator were three of them).
I like people telling me what to do, until I don’t anymore.
From a fan in New York City:
Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.