Nobody's Fools

A husband and wife live their publishing dream from an Eastern Shore barn.

One drizzly day in the winter of 2006, while on lunch break, Robbi Behr and her husband Matthew Swanson took stock of their lives. On the surface, they had everything: on-the-move careers at a strategic marketing firm, a car, a dog, and a house in Hampden. Yet, all of this seeming success was keeping them from their greater goal: to make books together. "At the time, Robbi was a designer, and I was an account manager and writer," explains Swanson. "Both of us were weary of not having time to make art once we became adults. We kept saying we wanted to make books together when we grew up, but we were tired of waiting to grow up."

On that day, Behr suggested they quit their jobs and move to her parents' barn in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore to pursue their passion. "I had always said, 'If anything goes wrong or I hate my job, I can always move to the barn,'" says Behr, 34, "but quitting your job and all that security is not an easy thing to do." Swanson did not take the decision lightly either. "As exciting as I found the idea," he says, "it was very tough to stomach, not just for myself, but to tell my parents what I was doing. I think they were incredulous."

Still, they decided to take the leap. After giving notice at work, the couple worked for six months on renovating the hayloft of the old gray, clapboard barn where Behr's mother has owned a storefront pottery studio for the past 30 years. "You can't imagine how bad the upstairs was," recalls Swanson. "From floor to ceiling, the second floor had broken pottery, packing peanuts, scrap metal, old tires, and old shutters cased in flaking lead paint." Even after they moved in, the duo lived for two years without running water. (They used the water in the pottery studio's sink.) "This building symbolizes so much more than just physical space," says Swanson. "It symbolizes the very hard decision to make a change, to risk it all, and reinvent ourselves."

Today, Swanson and Behr (along with daughter Alden, 2, son Kato, six months, Weimaraner Iggy, and cats Lily and Oscar) couldn't feel more fulfilled as they spend their days in their charming barn apartment (now with running water!) creating self-published books under the imprint Idiots' Books. Their quirky books were recently anointed "brilliant and lowbrow" by New York magazine.

Written by Swanson and illustrated by Behr, each innovative short story (ranging in length from six to 4,420 words with illustrations on almost every page) offers a wry, stream-of-consciousness commentary on topics ranging from traffic theory to funnel cake. In their first book, Facial Features of French Explorers, for instance, it is noted, "Jean Nicolet, French explorer, sought a land route to Asia by way of Canada. He was unsuccessful, but he did have wide-set eyes and a pronounced cleft chin."

Another book, The Baby is Disappointing, was inspired by the birth of Alden. (Sample lines: "The baby is disappointing. It lies about and yowls. There are passing moments of minor satisfaction, but frankly, we had expected more.") "Most baby announcements talk about how my baby is perfect," says Behr explaining the inspiration, "but, in reality, they are kind of weird and ugly." Concurs Swanson, "There's a language of baby adulation that makes us recoil. Yes, they are full of promise and hope, but they cry and they poop, and they are completely flawed. We did this instead of a baby announcement."

Swanson acknowledges that his writing style is unconventional. "He is terrible at narrative, character development, plot, all the things that writing is supposed to have," says Behr with a laugh. "I might add, I am not interested in those things," responds Swanson affectionately. "I like voice, I like surprise, I like humor and parody. Ideas are what I am most interested in." Behr, who works predominantly with a pen and India ink, has her own unique approach. "What interests me is to completely transform what he is saying," she says. "To interpret the words, not just draw what he has written as many artists are asked to do." 

Though Hampden's Atomic Books recently starting carrying several Idiots' Books titles, the books are predominantly distributed on a subscription basis (6 books for $60). Fans include National Book Award winner (and fellow Eastern Shore resident) John Barth, a French Lord ("All we write on the envelope is his name and the name of his castle," says Swanson), and 200 other such subscribers in 30 states and eight countries.

To help pay for their living expenses, Swanson works part-time as director of special projects for The North Charles Street Design Organization (where they used to work) and, along with Behr, teaches at nearby Washington College. But the duo has no regrets about changing their path to pursue art. "We have to be very careful in talking to others about our lives because they are so good that it's obnoxious," says Swanson. "We knock on wood a lot. We have gotten so much more than our fair share of good fortune, and if all goes well, we won't have to go back to real life any time too soon."

Issue date: July, 2010
12 issues for $18!