I’d like to welcome to Grab the Lapels the author Alex Behr. She writes and publishes interviews, essays, book reviews, and fiction. To read more from Behr, check out her website. I read through some of her work, and many of her published essays are about the process of adopting her son. You can also find Behr on Twitter.
GTL: What was the hardest part of writing your book, Planet Grim, which will be released October 12 by 7.13 Books?
AB: Since it’s a story collection, I wanted the stories to have reverberations with each other, although they were written, in some cases, decades apart. I come from a particular late 1980s–’90s music scene from San Francisco/East Bay that could be sardonic and nihilistic, but we also did covers of, say, song-poems sincerely (and tongue-in-cheek). You can have both. You don’t have to be didactic and humorless. Honoring the noble fail. (Is it a fail?).
With my stories, the hardest part was judging whether they were “working” or not. A lot of workshops pile on the same requirements: did the characters “serve” the story; was the ending “earned”? Is it full of “received” language? You can see the layer of puritanical, corporate slatherings on flattened letters on a page. Over and over with thousands of stories throughout workshops in the U.S. this is happening. When I teach as a visiting writer, the main teacher uses state-derived standards to apply the same rules. Kids are taught formulas, and many who can so brilliantly tell oral stories never enjoy putting them in writing.
I added stories that were from free-writing, diary entries, found letters, and quotes from friends to blow through the pressure of what a story or book experience should be. If I had the money or means I would do even more (art, scratch-and-sniff, videos, music, etc.). I’m going to record a story soon with an actor/writing friend, and I’m going to perform a reading at Adobe Books in San Francisco with a friend’s sound effects in October.
I’m used to being in bands where, as a bass player or keyboard player, I could be in the background, and this process of putting a book out, including sending copies of advanced readers to a few friends and reviewers, has caused a lot of anxiety, even at the level of I don’t want my mom and dad to read the drug or sex scenes. Ick.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
AB: I shouldn’t feel ashamed as a feminist, but my earliest memory from kindergarten is wanting to be a teacher and a mom; hey, it was 1970. I then wanted to be a rock star. I had fantasies of living with Jeff Beck in his castle. It took a long time to realize that no matter how much I felt I was Jim Morrison’s spiritual partner he was, in fact, a spirit. Not even visiting his grave in Paris dispelled that fantasy. I now am a mom; my former husband and I adopted our son from China in 2005. My son’s about to go into 8th grade. My band, the Double U, broke up. My marriage broke up. And I’ve written a lot about those events. Most recently here and here. Some of my fiction stories in the collection are mutations from my life: “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (I was at an adoption meeting as the one in that story); “A Reasonable Person” (I was a jury member in a “domestic” murder trial — a perversion of the word domestic).
I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in Portland public high schools occasionally through Writers in the Schools, but most of my income these days is through copyediting (I used to write educational material until the recession). It’s not the glamorous life I’d hoped for, but one of my favorite lessons when I teach is called “Soundtrack of My Life.” So it all flows together. I still play classical piano and we talk about bringing stories to pieces. Then I bring those musical ideas to writing.
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
AB: Yeah, I would say some people might not like my sense of humor, which can be crass. Others might find the experimental pieces troubling (does the word experimental remind you of a nine-hour movie of fingernails glued on a rock?) or won’t take the time to slow down. But “Angel Dust,” for instance, was freeing and fun to write (I took a flash fiction class last winter at The Attic). I took a hybrid workshop recently with Shayla Lawson, and realized I have written a hybrid book! We read aloud and discussed hybrid examples from Dao Strom, Samiya Bashir, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson through these lenses: classification, insertion, annotations, and speed. I would welcome any reader who finds something I wrote challenging to look at it from just one of those lenses. John Waters once said (I lazily paraphrase) that even in a movie he hates, he can always find something to like: the wallpaper; a fringed lamp.
GTL: I see you have taught creative writing in high schools. In what ways do being a creative writing teach affect your own writing process?
AB: I feel humble. Lots of kids have so many more struggles than I ever had or will have. They can express them so directly. And they surprise me. One student from Mexico chose a Nina Simone song, “Blackbird,” as her inspiration while writing about escaping her dad, who had beaten her mom, and how she withdrew emotionally from everyone. I can’t quote directly from it, due to her privacy, but her story and many others stay with me. Some kids hate writing and treat the classes as a joke. But I try to find at least one thing that they like. I don’t know if it’s affected my writing process, but I’ve learned from other teachers, too, especially how they approach lesson plans and welcome all students into writing at whatever level. Some kids enter high school classes knowing little English or have psychological struggles that make classrooms painful to be in. But sometimes, simply having students complete sentences such as “In this place I never feel ……” can be powerful.
I left Cleveland HS on Election Day feeling completely optimistic. I sobbed when Trump won. The next time I went back to teach I saw posters throughout that said all people were welcome, all handmade, in many languages. That was the first time I felt somewhat better. I feel teaching is a social justice action I can take to show kids that their stories do matter. If I felt helpless, I would not write.
GTL: In what ways did academia shape your own writing when you were a student?
AB: I didn’t study writing as an undergrad. I had the feeling that I needed an entire story or novel in my brain before I started (Maybe that’s the case for some!). I took my first UC-Berkeley Extension class in my early 30s, and went to grad school at 42. I was naïve about what an MFA could do for my career (basically nothing). Academia shaped my writing in two contradictory ways: 1) reading even more all the time, all different styles, worldviews, writing, thinking about writing, research, heavy brain use, new friends, loving their writing, loving them, but also debt until death; 2) classes in which fellow students and sometimes teachers could be cruel. Even while writing my book, long past grad school, I took one section to a novel writing class, and a student said he felt suffocated, couldn’t wait to walk away, etc. He hated my writing (and he was writing a zombie story set among homeless people with whimsical names). I almost took the story out of my collection because I didn’t want to suffocate anyone! But then I calmed down and quit the class instead.
It’s hard to take in praise; it’s easier to take on criticism. What I learned from academia: find people who make you feel good. Try to make others feel good. Sew them presents. Make them jam. Be generous. Be grateful that someone wants to put out your book in a world full of books. Be generous to yourself (as a single mom for the past year — my son’s dad has been in China — I’ve taken more classes just to force myself to have fun writing). In fact, I’m taking a poetry class this fall with a chapbook focus. 1) Poetry scares the fuck out of me; 2) What else is there in life besides seeing what scares you?