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A Post-Divorce Depressed Menopausal Optimist: An Interview with Alex Behr, author of Planet Grim

Alex Behr’s debut short fiction collection, Planet Grim, invites the reader on a beguiling journey through the gritty fringes of San Francisco and Portland, capturing the essence of her characters’ complicated lives in twenty-eight captivating stories. While her work is often comic, Behr avoids the easy laugh, grounding her fiction in honest and sometimes heartbreaking portraits of people navigating the unsettled landscape of their lives. It’s a book deserving a wide audience. Purchase your copy here.

Behr shared her thoughts with Cease, Cows.

Chuck Augello: Planet Grim is an evocative title. How does it reflect the recurring themes featured in the collection?

Alex Behr: Originally I wanted to name it after the ’70s hit “Bad Company,” but it was too close to Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill (and my publisher wasn’t into it). Planet Grim comes from a phrase I used in an email to a good friend to describe my family life during a long breakup and divorce. Maybe I have a default outlook when I write fiction to avoid the sentimental or explore characters who are stymied or left in limbo (I always feared Purgatory when I was a wannabe Catholic). I’m strangely optimistic (a post-divorce depressed menopausal optimist?) and take an abnormal amount of photos of my cat. I sew quilts and let no emoji defeat me. I know that I am a better and happier person after going through this divorce process. I would urge anyone trapped in a loveless marriage to go to Peters May and try for free their legal services. Don’t waste your life with someone who you are clearly no longer compatible with.

I discarded a few longer stories in favor of shorter pieces that were written when my life was fragmenting (half my life with one man: ended). The shorter pieces reflect grimness, cynicism and nihilism, as do the found letters (which I’d found in San Francisco years before, when I was happily married).

CA: If you came across someone browsing a copy of Planet Grim at a local bookstore, what might you say to entice this imagined potential reader to bring the book home and start reading?

AB: I will give you homemade peach jam if you buy the damn thing! Actually, it’s a micro release, so most people would have to buy it online. It’s similar to my writing: idiosyncratic (I hate the word “quirky” for synesthesia-type reasons). People lob quirky at certain women writers whose writing makes people uncomfortable, yet doesn’t involve serial killers. Online: I would ask them to listen to the audio version of “A Reasonable Person,” which will be up soon! My friend Danielle Vermette, an actor, recorded it at KBOO in September. When I heard it spoken by someone so talented, I could believe in the character, recall the murder trial it stemmed from, and step away from the minutiae I’ve had to focus on (proofreading it, sending out copies to reviewers, worrying, etc.).

CA: “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” is a first-person narrative from a male point of view. Did you find it challenging to write? The narrator is attracted to his adopted child’s birth mother as well as, briefly, his mother-in-law. Yet the sexual sparks between he and his wife seem to have died. It’s a complicated story. How did you come to write it?

AB: It’s easy to write from a white dude’s POV. I was raised by a Caucasian father, have a Caucasian brother, and married a Caucasian. Until my brother and I became parents (he married a South Indian and I adopted from China), all of the grandkids and second cousins were Caucasian. This past year is the first year in which I haven’t lived with a male Caucasian, whether nuclear family, roommates, boyfriends, husband. Plus, it’s the dominant culture: most books, TV shows, and movies have this person as the default. I wish I could write at length in first-person from a person of color POV.* It’s almost at a political level: I don’t have the authority. If I can’t be in that person, I don’t deserve to be. In fact, one of the characters in the book can’t see beyond: “that is a black person,” and suffers as a result (implicit bias). We all have implicit bias. (*I wrote a flash fiction piece from an adopted woman’s POV, but that draws loosely from my son’s perspective.)

I wrote the story after going to an adoption meeting with my then-husband in Contra Costa County. My mom plays tennis, so maybe I fetishize tennis (ha ha), but other elements are from my imagination.

CA: In the book’s credits you mention that both “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and another story, “Fallen Nest,” were “performed” in Los Angeles last year. The word “performed” suggests that it was more than just reading the story to an audience. Tell us about the experience.

AB: It was a staged reading at a restaurant/bar by two experienced actors. They read from the stories, but altered them so that, for instance, the gestures were shown not stated, and one scene in “Fallen Nest” was cut for time. They imbued the readings with emotion and voice inflection and inhabited the characters. It was voice magic. A good friend of mine from my MFA program flew down from Oakland to hang out and see it with me. So she eased any worries I had. My experience: I hadn’t realized that both stories are funny and both narrators are sympathetic (well, Eddie does have love for his son).

CA: In the story “Teenage Riot” the narrator states, “Looked in the mirror. Saw that I’m ugly. God just as easily could’ve made me comely.” It’s a devastating line. What were you hoping it conveys to the reader about that particular character?

AB: It’s from my teen diary. I included diary excerpts because I wanted an arc of a girl over a few pages from naïve to “experienced.” I’m going to be interviewed at length about my diaries for a Canadian journal called Uppercase.

CA: Many of the stories in Planet Grim are short. Do you specifically set out to write flash fiction, or do the stories tend to find their own lengths and shapes?

AB: I had some longer stories from my MFA program that I decided not to include, so I wrote some flash fiction pieces or pieces from stream of consciousness journal writing to fill out the book. I was in a fragmented psychological quandary for months when the book was being finalized (who was I if not a wife; who was I without my first supporter of writing—for years my first reader?), and a flash fiction class I took helped a lot.

Going back to your first question, I was responding consciously or unconsciously to the theme of grim: how to escape it? Humor? I’m not sure. I didn’t want a traditional book, so I added shorter passages that are like incidental music in a movie.

CA: The narrator in the story “White Pants” appears lost in her own life. At one point she lives in a bus; in another passage she follows another woman wearing white pants “for sport.” Her father is a collector and dealer in, among other things, soft-core pornography. Tell us about this character and the times in which she lives. What were you hoping to show about her life?

AB: I see her as someone upon whom males project fantasies or hopes, and she doesn’t have a lot of agency to make changes. It is more of a voice-driven story than a plot-driven story. The strength of the voice (her voice) echoes her confidence as she ages, so when her stories are appropriated by her ex-husband, the artist, she can accept it. I wanted to show a San Francisco that doesn’t exist anymore. In 2012 I interviewed my friend, the artist and musician Christine Shields, about that era in Propeller (she made a painting of the Red Man, who’s mentioned in the story). The father who is a softcore collector is based on a store owner (or, more, his wares) in Portland who lost his lease due to gentrification.

CA: The San Francisco Bay Area is a frequent setting for the stories in Planet Grim. Is the setting a key element? Do you feel the stories, and these characters, might change considerably if they were set somewhere else?

AB: Yeah. But San Francisco is also a time: I wouldn’t know how to write about it now. I would like to write about an even earlier time: the early 1980s when I moved there for college. People who didn’t wear panties under their dresses; women who channeled fairies.

CA: Who are some of the writers that have inspired you over the years? Is there a specific story that made you think, “Wow—I wish I’d written that!”

AB: One example (of many): Michael Ondaatje: Coming Through Slaughter. It’s a hybrid novel that is poetic and jarringly violent. It’s the fictional story of Buddy Bolden, an African-American jazz cornet player in New Orleans,who goes missing. “This last night we tear into each other, as if to wound, as if to find the key to everything before morning.”

Toni Morrison: Beloved. I read it in grad school and it knocked me sideways: the content, the language, and the vibrations of what it might have felt like for my son’s mother to relinquish my son, at about 14 days old, to an orphanage. One quote: “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon: “So he left the path for a short cut across a field. And the moon went with him.”

Ezra Jack Keats, A Snowy Day: “He told his mother all about his adventures while she took off his wet socks. And he thought and thought and thought about them.”

Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon: “Goodnight nobody.”

CA: Are there new stories in the work? A novel? What are you working on currently?

AB: I am taking a poetry class with Matthew Dickman where we’ll make chapbooks. I might go back to my novel (two excerpts are in the book). I have written an entire memoir, but I’m not sure what to do with it now that the trajectory has changed (divorce). Parts of the memoir have appeared in various places: Mutha, Manifest-Station, Oregon Humanities, and Nailed. There’s no hawk, hike, or heroin in my life. Is there redemption? Is that even necessary?

CA: Finally, there’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?

AB: I didn’t write fiction until I was in my thirties, because I felt I needed an entire story in my head before I could start writing it. I write compulsively, all the time, and when I’m lucky it turns into fiction because some unlucky lady or dude becomes one of my characters. In the words of Iggy Pop: “I often try to examine the reasons why I am doing what I do—working with electric guitars and drums and singing—or what I’m trying to do with it. But I feel so umbilically connected to the thing itself, the process is far more important than the result. It is the proximity of the electric hum in the background and just the tremendous feeling of buoyancy and power.” (Actually, this quote makes me sad I’m no longer in a band! But the feeling in another quote of his, of “being in the presence of this power, you become its witness,” resonates whether writing or playing bass.)

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.