Fellowship and the Family Man

Blending fiction and memoir, Peter Behrens pursues the truth about his family’s history
Peter Behrens with his wife, Basha Burwell, and their son, Henry Behrens. Photo by Jason GrowPeter Behrens with his wife, Basha Burwell, and their son, Henry Behrens. Photo by Jason Grow
By Pat Harrison

In his three novels and two collections of short stories, Peter Behrens RI ’16—who holds the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Fellowship at Radcliffe—plumbs his family’s history in Canada, England, Germany, and Ireland. His latest novel, the mostly imagined Carry Me (Pantheon, 2016), was partly inspired by his father’s life. What drives Behrens, however, is not what he knows about his family but what he doesn’t know: “The only way I know to learn what I don’t know is through fiction,” he said during an interview in his Radcliffe office.

Billy Lange, the narrator of Carry Me, tells the story of his love affair with Karin, daughter of the German-Jewish Baron von Weinbrenner. The story follows Karin and Billy from the Isle of Wight in 1914 to Frankfurt in the Nazi era. As children, they share a fascination with the Wild West novels of Karl May—Einstein’s favorite author, and Hitler’s, too. Karin and Billy flee Germany for the United States and a version of May’s mythic landscape, looking for “caustic sunlight and dry desert heat to burn the drag of history from our wings,” as Billy says. 

Like Behrens’s earlier novels, Carry Me is rich with historical detail. Behrens, who lives in Brooklin, Maine, much of the year, said the research he did during a fortuitous six-month fellowship from the Dutch Foundation for Literature allowed him to visit Germany several times during his stay in Amsterdam. He and his wife, Basha Burwell, and their son, Henry, traveled together. “Knowing that the three of us would be in Europe allowed me to begin conceptualizing the book,” Behrens said. “I began writing before we left, but a large part of it was outlined and shaped while we were in Europe. I couldn’t have written the book without knowing what the air is like in Frankfurt, what the light looks like in Frankfurt, what the river sounds like in Frankfurt.”

Once there, Behrens combined imagination, history, and reality, but not for the first time.

He set his first novel, The Law of Dreams (Random House, 2007), for which he won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award, during the famine in Ireland. “My family’s story in North America started with someone crawling ashore off a coffin ship,” he said. His second novel, The O’Briens, is based on his mother’s family, of the same name. “There’s a complex relationship between the very fictional family in that novel and my real family,” Behrens said.

Historical issues were the stuff of family conversations when Behrens was growing up in Montreal, with his Irish/English/German grandmother and father fiercely debating whose fault it was that Hitler came to power. It’s not surprising that Behrens studied history when he went to Concordia University, in Montreal, in 1971, or that he studied international relations as a postgraduate at McGill University.

During his 20s, eager to escape the comfortable but confining middle-class existence of his family in Montreal, Behrens traveled west to Alberta, Canada, where he worked as a ranch hand, and south to Texas, where he and a group of friends ran river trips down the Rio Grande in Big Bend. Behrens fell in love with Texas then and years later held a Lannan Residency Fellowship in Marfa and bought a house there, where he and his family now spend part of the year.

Some of the short stories from his 20s—published in Night Driving (Macmillan of Canada, 1987) and reprinted with additional stories in Traveling Light (House of Anansi, 2013)—are about young men working on ranches and driving through vast landscapes.

Behrens took his first course in writing as an undergraduate at Concordia, when the writer Clark Blaise invited him to join an MFA class he was teaching. Years later, when he was in his early 30s, Behrens received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where fellows participate in the weekly MFA workshop but are not students. Wallace Stegner, who founded Stanford’s writing program and whom Behrens met while he was there, was an important influence. “His great book about growing up in this entirely neglected landscape in the Canadian West, Wolf Willow [subtitled A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier; Viking, 1962], which is set in southwestern Saskatchewan, allowed me to begin seeing my own country and my own West in a way that probably wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” Behrens said.

Peter and Henry Behrens. Photo by Jason GrowPeter and Henry Behrens. Photo by Jason GrowBeginning in his 30s, Behrens worked as a screenwriter, writing scripts for two feature films, Cadillac Girls (1993) and Kayla (1997), and two television movies, Promise the Moon (1997) and In God’s Country (2002). He has also taught screenwriting, which is easier than teaching fiction, he said. “With screenwriting, there’s a lot of useful information you can give students right away about the form and these fairly rigorous rules about how feature screenplays work,” he said. “But there aren’t any rules in writing fiction. You’re trying to encourage students’ developing style and voice.” He has taught fiction at Colorado College since 2012.

Working in his Radcliffe office, between those of the journalist Michael Pollan RI ’16, the Suzanne Young Murray Fellow, and the neurosurgeon Ann-Christine Duhaime RI ’16, Behrens feels as though he’s getting smarter just being at the Institute. “Maybe it’s like a cold,” he said. “The smart virus. I hope I catch it.”

His current project is a novel tentatively titled “Bad Girl.” Behrens describes it as a novel “about transgender coming of age during the era known in Quebec as the Quiet Revolution, from 1959 to 1970.” One theme of the novel (and the excerpt from it that appears below) is the temerity of authors who dare to use their families as source material. “I had to turn a critical eye on myself as someone who naively thought he could use someone else’s interior life,” Behrens said. “This monstrous notion of using your voiceless family in this way.” But, he said, “isn’t that what writers usually do?”

That’s what Behrens is doing at Radcliffe. He intends to hire student researchers, through the Research Partners program, to help him explore gay and transgender issues as he develops a character in “Bad Girl” based on his late sister.

A typical Radcliffe day for Behrens is filled with family and work. When his wife, an art director, is away from Cambridge on assignment, Behrens makes breakfast for their son before accompanying him to school—both of them riding their bicycles—and then hurries to his Institute office to start writing. “My process is—write. I usually don’t know what I know until I write. Then, of course, I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”

“The whole world conspires to keep you from writing,” Behrens said, “so being at the Radcliffe Institute is wonderful and rare. It’s hugely broadening for all of us. Even the distractions. When things get really rowdy on my floor at Byerly Hall, it usually means people are out in the hallway discussing the nature of the universe, the wiring of our brains, or what makes an algorithm an algorithm.”


Dark As the Grave Wherein She Is Laid


In our family we all were—are—storytellers. Consider the illusions we were weaned on. Frankie’s paragon of a father. Billy’s gracious ancien regime upbringing. Consider yourself, bro, sitting there at Harvard with a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship and writing a bloody fiction. A novel about us.

Hell’s bells. B’en oui, I fabricated lurid stories about Lily. Because I didn’t want anyone to like her. And for a lot of years I was acting out various tableaux of sororicide. I basically wanted to shove poor old Lil right back up into Frankie’s womb. Let her be unborn forever: that was how I felt about the sisterhood for a long time. And yes, I probably suggested to Debbie some discrepancies in your teenage presentation of self. I don’t remember telling her about you pilfering ladies’ clothes off clotheslines, or the cross-dressing-on-the-bus moment, but okay, I admit, those are scenes I could have imagined. That was stuff I totally wanted to do but I never quite had the nerve.

I was once at the point of stealing a Harris tweed sportcoat from the menswear dept. at Ogilvy’s. Deb encouraged me. She’d lifted her best sweater from Bullock’s in Los Angeles. She certainly had a passion for goods, and I was in awe of her outlaw tendencies; she was Billy the Kid come to Montreal as a blonde Californian. The sportcoat was to be a present to her dad on his fortieth birthday. Coming out of Southern California he didn’t own a Harris tweed jacket and Deb had observed they were just about de rigueur in our quadrant of Montreal.

That was what we told ourselves but what I imagined was me in that jacket, soft and structured, suavely masculine, handsome. Me in a three-button Harris tweed, Debbie lissome on my arm.

She was supposed to hang back, keeping an eye out for anyone looking like a store detective, not that we had a clue what a store detective looked like. She said she was perfectly willing to do the dirty work—only if she got caught she’d be deported. Her parents too. Her father would lose his job at the Royal Bank. Whereas if I got caught, they might yell at me for a bit, but then Billy would make them let me go.

We went straight from school. Me in tunic, blouse and blazer. She changed into jeans so that we wouldn’t look like a team. I got the jacket off the rack and sauntered for the escalator with it hung over my arm. Super casual. It was before electronic tagging, bar-coding, computerized everything. The idea was we’d get away with it by doing everything in plain sight. If they stopped me, I was an innocent Convent lassie—“Oh dear I thought I was supposed to pay downstairs.”

I rode the escalators to the main floor without anyone yelling “Stop! Thief!” but I couldn’t bring myself to go out through the revolving doors. I mean, I kept trying. I’d do a circuit of the floor then head for the St Catherine Street exit only to turn back at the last moment like a pony shying a jump. Debbie shadowed me an aisle or two away, looking daggers whenever we made eye contact. I toured again past the handbags, the Italian shoes, and the Chanel No. 5. But I couldn’t make myself enter those revolving doors.

I finally took the up escalator and left the sportcoat in a stall in the second floor ladies’ room. Debbie was furious. I told her that it just wasn’t feeling right, my sixth-sense Irishry was picking up danger signals and maybe it meant we were being watched. She got all freaked out.

It wasn’t true I had any sixth sense; I was just scared. I was a Convent girl, I’m sure guilt was written all over my face. So I probably would have been busted. And maybe that would have been a good thing. Forced a crisis. Put cards on the table. But we—you, me, Lil—were always protecting the parents from unsightly truths, weren’t we? Maybe I should have been willing to put Billy and Frankie through some stuff. But I wasn’t.

Deb had a meltdown on the bus going up Cote des Neiges and said she thought her father was dying of cancer. Which he wasn’t. His disease was blackjack and high-stakes poker. He was losing big in Vegas. Which no one knew at the time.

Your piece suggests something I hadn’t twigged on. There were traits Deb and our sister Lil had in common. Debbie was from away, and Lily wasn’t; Lily was my sister, and Debbie wasn’t; Debbie was smart as a whip, academically, and Lily struggled in school. But that was mostly because she was so unhappy there, and that was mostly because of me. Those two willowy blonde lassies had no time for each other but they each had possession of themselves, something which eluded me the entire time I was at the Convent and for years afterwards. And their mutual disregard was mostly a product of my jealousy and sharp bits of untruth I sprinkled between them like crumbs of safety-glass sparkling on the pavement after a wreck.

As we got older I tried to make amends but I don’t believe you noticed. Lily did, though. And I practised more malfeasance on her than you. Lil had it in her to forgive. You’re still angry. Over Debbie Meigs, and what else?

And now you’ve worked up a repressed gay and/or untransitioned transsexual narrative and embedded your fucked-up girl-boy character in a family conditioned by a thousand years of Irish Catholicism and the nastiness of twentieth century history to NOT MENTION CERTAIN THINGS. And I’m supposed to be him/her. You’re still trying to define me, and it’s frustrating you that you can’t.

And I’m not alone. You’ve exhumed the family and made us into a book. Well, fie on you, good sir.

Behrens will discuss his work in his fellow's presentation, "Families, Histories, Novels," on Wednesday, January 27, 2016, at 4 p.m. in the Sheerr Room at Fay House in Radcliffe Yard.


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