Bausch, Robert (Charles) 1945-
BAUSCH, Robert (Charles) 1945-
Born April 18, 1945, in Fort Benning, GA; son of Robert Carl (in business) and Helen (Simmons) Bausch; married Geri Marrese (an accounting analyst), March 21, 1970 (divorced 1982); married Denise Natt (a college professor), August 14, 1982; children: (first marriage) Sara Hadley, Julie Ann, Suzanne; (second marriage) David Joseph. Education: Attended University of Illinois, 1967-68, and Northern Virginia College, 1970-72; George Mason University, B.A., 1974, M.A., 1975; M.F.A., 2001. Politics: Liberal—"I mistrust most institutions." Religion: "Lapsed Roman Catholic—I believe in people." Hobbiesand other interests: "Denny, my children, books, tennis, pipes and pipe tobaccos, the Washington Redskins, music, art, Pac Man, horse racing, gambling, swimming, baseball, basketball, chess, cooking, organic gardening, movies, eating heart-attack food, Eddie Izzard, David Letterman."
Home—Stafford, VA. Office—Northern Virginia Community College, 15200 Neabsco Mills Rd., Woodbridge, VA 22191. Agent—Tim Seldes, Russell & Volkening, 50 East 19th St., New York, NY 10022.
Has worked in a laundromat, as a cabdriver, and as a salesman of vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, appliances, and cars; Fairfax County Public Library, Fairfax, VA, member of circulation department, 1973-74; Glebe Acres Prep School (private high school), Fairfax, teacher of English, French, and biology, 1974-76; Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale, instructor in creative writing, 1975—. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1965-69, instructor in survival tactics; stationed in Illinois; became sergeant.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for distinguished fiction, 1995, for The White Rooster, 2002, for The Gypsy Man; New York Times notable book award and Washington Post Book World favorite book of the year, both 2000, both for A Hole in the Earth.
On the Way Home, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1982.
The Lives of Riley Chance, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1984.
Almighty Me!, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
The White Rooster, and Other Stories, Gibbs Smith (Layton, UT), 1995.
A Hole in the Earth, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.
The Gypsy Man, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to magazines, including New Virginia Review, Glimmer Train, Southern Review, and Atlantic.
Robert Bausch is a fiction writer whose novels and stories frequently revolve around the theme of family and how unforeseen events can disrupt the delicate balance of family ties. Bausch's novels, which include On the Way Home, A Hole in the Earth, and The Gypsy Man, have all been well received by critics, some of whom consider his character-driven plots and moments of epiphany reminiscent of the fiction of Raymond Carver. Born in Georgia and raised near Washington, D.C., Bausch has long been a teacher of creative writing at North Virginia Community College. In practicing what he preaches, his novels have been lauded for their descriptive insights. In the Denver Post, Tom Walker wrote that Bausch "has that rare ability to see past the obvious in the human condition and has an even rarer ability to put that vision on the page in compelling fashion."
The novel On the Way Home examines the difficulties in adjustment the Sumner family experiences after being told that their son Michael has been killed in action in Vietnam, and then finding out that he was actually taken prisoner and has managed to escape. Between these two events, however, Dale Sumner retires from the Chicago police force and moves with his wife to Florida in an attempt to start a new life away from reminders of Michael. Just as the Sumners have begun to accept Michael's death, he returns.
The normally difficult period of readjustment to civilian life is compounded for the Sumners by the fact that Michael's new surroundings offer no positive link to his prewar existence. Withdrawn and uncommunicative, Michael angers his father, who is unable to understand why there is no hint of improvement in his son. Dale also suffers from a growing fear that his son might commit an insane act of violence, a fear that rises when one of Michael's female friends disappears.
Los Angeles Times contributor Art Seidenbaum observed that "the Bausch style is as clean and firm as a new butcher block. He does not decorate or overstate; even the mess in Michael's mind comes under the disciplined control of a storyteller who measured his sentences and trimmed his paragraphs for credibility." Ray Anello, reviewing On the Way Home in Newsweek, shared Seidenbaum's approval of the book, noting "it's not just the pain of a Vietnam vet that makes this story compelling. Robert Bausch uses Michael's homecoming to expose the discord and pain of family life as well." The story's larger, universal themes were also remarked upon by Phil DiFebo, reviewing in Best Sellers, who commended Bausch for having "written a novel that is suffused with that mournfulness attending the lives of those who see everywhere the reminders of some great loss. That his work speaks of Vietnam and one of its victims seems to this reader to be posterior to the book's greater themes of human love and folly."
In A Hole in the Earth Bausch presents the story of Henry Porter, a history teacher in the Washington, D.C., area who must cope with several overwhelming domestic crises at the same time, while failing to realize his own level of maturity has never progressed beyond late adolescence. Porter's eighteen-year-old daughter, who he has not seen in six years, shows up with her boyfriend and announces they will be spending the summer with him. Then Porter's girlfriend reveals that she is pregnant. While clumsily dealing with both situations, Porter is harassed by the belief that his father would disapprove of his lifestyle, which includes frequent visits to the racetrack and a general lack of concern for life's serious consequences. His attempts to reconcile with his daughter and settle issues with his girlfriend finally lead Porter to a painful understanding of his own failings.
Lawrence Rungren in Library Journal found the story to be "tender and caustic by turns, world-weary, and, ultimately, wise." A critic for Publishers Weekly noted that Bausch's "profound empathy for his characters, his wise understanding that the texture of life is composed of ambiguities, failures, guilt feelings—and a few successes—contributes to a flawlessly expressed novel." Other critics praised the book as well. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and in a review for the New York Times Book Review, Will Blythe called it "original in the best sense—establishing characters so fresh yet familiar that they might be helping themselves to what's in your refrigerator even as you read about them."
The White Rooster, and Other Stories gathers together ten of Bausch's "strong, beautiful, moving stories," according to a writer for Publishers Weekly. Among the stories are "Vigilance," in which a policeman and a mailman burglarize homes in order to rouse their neighbors to form a crime prevention squad, "Family Lore," about a young girl witnessing her father's humiliation at the hands of his cruel brothers, and "Cougar," telling of an insomniac who withdraws to the quiet of the north woods. Linda Rodgers, in her review for the New York Times, found that "Bausch writes about ordinary small-town Americans caught up in the loneliness of day-to-day living." The Publishers Weekly critic concluded that Bausch's stories "are testaments to the human capacity to feel and connect in an emotionally alienating world." Rodgers stated that, at his best, Bausch "achieves a taut and affecting kind of poetry."
The Gypsy Man is a novel of a tight-knit community in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1950s. The townspeople descend into suspicion and superstition after the accidental death of a young black girl and the disappearance of a young boy who just happened to be the first black student to integrate the town's school. Some see the disappearance as evidence of the racial strife rising up across the country, but others are convinced it is the work of the legendary gypsy man, a mysterious figure who kidnaps children for no apparent reason. Penny Bone, whose husband John is in prison for killing the young girl, serves as the novel's moral center. Forced to raise her daughter, Tory, alone while her husband serves his twenty-year prison sentence, Penny is at center stage during the crisis. Penny's libidinous aunt, with whom she runs the town's grocery store, is seduced by a psychopathic murderer who escapes from the prison where John Bone has just saved the life of a guard. John expects his good deed will lead to an early release, but the discovery of the body of the missing boy on the Bones's property derails that plan.
With multiple narrators, including the psychopathic murderer himself, The Gypsy Man defies the conventions of most suspense novels in a way that pleased the critics. The narrators "all come alive and add richness and depth with their differences in age, gender, race, and background," wrote Michele Leber in Library Journal, concluding that the novel's climax is "just and satisfying." A writer for Publishers Weekly concurred, calling The Gypsy Man a "complex but utterly absorbing tale" due to its "cleverly interwoven series of narrative voices." Sarah Ferguson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said the story "has all the makings of a good bluegrass song: men in trouble with the law, lonesome women, hard times, tattered dreams." Only Jabari Asim of the Washington Post Book World voiced reservations about the narrative technique. "Bausch apparently loved all these colorful personalities so much that he wanted to give each his moment in the spotlight, but he allows too many of them a chance at narration." Nevertheless, Asim concluded that Bausch tells his story with "consummate style."
Other critics praised the novel's realistic sense of fear. Carol Haggas in Booklist wrote that Bausch's writing has a "chilling intensity" and that his vivid portrayal of a community gripped by tragedy is "riveting right to the surprising end." Ferguson concluded that "it's the violent, unpredictable presence of Peach [the murderer] that transforms The Gypsy Man from an interesting book into a riveting one."
Though Bausch has heard tales of a supposed real-life gypsy man passed down through the oral tradition in the South, he admitted in an interview with Harcourt Books that he crafted his gypsy man purely from his imagination in an effort to tell a story about fear. "All fear is real," he said. "No matter what or who produces it." And even though the story is set in the 1950s, Bausch intended the fear it evokes to be as vivid to contemporary readers as it is to his fictional mid-century characters. "Circumstances change, the facts might be markedly different," he told the Harcourt interviewer, "but the inner life of human beings is pretty much the same and has been since we first stopped dragging our knuckles along the ground."
Bausch once told CA: "I didn't think I'd ever write a novel. Now that I have I don't think I'll ever write anything else. I began writing when I was in the eighth grade, wrote steadily (and loved it best—I've not since felt as excited about writing as I did then) until my high school English teachers (who meant well, I'm sure) convinced me (by correcting my writing instead of responding to it) that I had nothing of any importance to say.
"I started writing again in the service—when I went to funerals three to five times a month (and more frequently as the war in Vietnam unraveled)—and have continued to write ever since.
"I am more a teacher than a writer, since I derive as much satisfaction out of a good job there, and since I devote more of my time to teaching than writing. Writing is totally separate and by itself and doesn't seem to be influenced by things—crises, horrors, games, shows, or picnics—in my life. When the writing is going easily it is not related to anything that I can figure out. The same applies for when it's not going at all.
"I don't believe the saying 'writers are born, not made.' I also don't believe in any spirit or muse or any other Romantic notion about what drives a writer to write. I could stop writing tomorrow, increase my tennis time, and live quite contentedly for the rest of my life. I like it, however, that everybody thinks a writer is driven to his work by some demon inside him. I'm not sure why I like that, but I'm glad I like it. It may keep me writing."
Robert Bausch contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
LIFE THUS FAR
My parents grew up during the depression and spent their early youth watching the world blow up and fall apart. My father was wounded twice overseas. He got hit in Africa, was nursed back to health in a hospital in Tunisia, then got wounded again in Sicily, and was returned to the front lines in time for action in Anzio. My sister Barbara was two years old before he ever saw her. My brother Richard and I were born in 1945, at Fort Benning, Georgia, where my father was stationed after they were done with him in Italy.
My father made up his mind that if he survived the war he would have a good life. The war taught him things. He knew what mattered. In spite of the fact that his generation painted pinup girls on bombers and believed that a woman's place was in the home, he was and still is a kind and loving man. Privately he was very religious, although he wasn't ever very evangelical about it. We were Catholic, and every Wednesday night we would all sit together and my father would lead us in the rosary. I can still hear his deep, reverent voice reciting the Hail Mary.
The heroes of my father's time were silent, stoic fellows who never said how they felt. People like Gary Cooper, John Garfield, John Wayne, William Holden. Only women (and very weak men, or strong men in weak moments) expressed emotions, and when they did it was because they couldn't control them. Controlling your emotions meant not expressing them. So my father didn't use the word love a lot. But he knew it mattered, and all our lives we were taught the responsibility of love, what Richard sometimes calls "love's province." Not a feeling, but a way of behaving.
My childhood was full of the usual books of childhood—even now, I can hear my mother's voice saying the words of books I now read my own children. I remember my father's voice, too, although I am not sure they both read to me every night. Stories were important to my family. So were songs, and jokes, and laughter. My father was the best storyteller I've ever seen, and I've seen lots of them. He could be so many different people when he told a story. He'd include every gesture and nuance of a person's character. It didn't matter how many times we'd heard him tell a particular story, we always wanted to hear it again. After a while each story had a name. We would say, "Tell the one about Stabile," or "the one about Shucker," or "the one about Louie Marr and Toley Miller on KP."
When I was six years old we got our first television. It was a box bigger than I was, with a round screen not much larger than my face. We were living in a small three-bedroom house on Kenross Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland. I remember tall trees and the yard cluttered with leaves. A screen door that shook as though it might come apart when you slammed it. The wind in the fall hissing through the trees, and leaves flying high around the dark eaves of our house.
We were not the first people in our neighborhood to get a television, but still I had never seen one until that day my father brought it home. I think it might have been something he saved a long time to get. He may have been proud of it.
Some of the early television shows became family gatherings. I remember nights when all six of us children sat across the living-room couch, every light out, my father and mother sitting together in a huge chair next to us, popcorn bags rattling, and The Wizard of Oz unfolding in front of us like a small, black-and-white dream. (I was a young man before I knew the movie turns to color in Oz. I must have been as shocked as the first movie audience to see the film.) My children can watch that movie anytime they want now, but we couldn't see it any more than once a year. So it was an event and a ritual. It marked the beginning of spring, since that was when the networks saw fit to run it on TV. Sometimes now, when I put my five-year-old son to bed and smell his fragrant washed hair, I remember all of my brothers and sisters, freshly washed and ready for bed, hair wet and combed, teeth brushed, soft and moist white feet lined up on the coffee table, waiting for the first sign of the big tornado that we knew would sweep Dorothy into Oz.
Television was so new back then, people didn't trust it or rely on it as much as they do now. We were never allowed to just occupy ourselves by watching it. In fact my memory of it includes long hours when it was off each day, a blank circle of glass that looked back at me.
We watched I Love Lucy. My mother reminded us all of Lucy. She looked like her, sang better and more beautifully, and was sometimes just as wildly funny. We never missed Father Knows Best or the old Steve Allen show. When I was ten years old, my heroes were people who could make my father laugh: Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Gary Moore, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, Martha Raye, Burns and Allen. My father's laugh, even after all these years, still pleases me. I hear it in all laughter, and remember those lazy summer nights, back in the mid-fifties, lying next to my brother on the floor, watching Bilko outsmart the colonel and feeling really good because my father was laughing.
My mother's singing moved me in the same way. She could have been a nightclub singer. Her voice soothed me. I know she sang to me when I was a baby, and something of that memory haunted me when she'd stand in front of the sink every night and sing a Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey song while she rinsed the dishes. All of us children had to help in the kitchen. My father wanted us to "honor" our mother. I thought "honor" was his word.
I think I understand now why I Remember Mama was another one of our favorite TV programs. That was about a family of six, struggling week to week, getting along, working at caring for one another in the inevitable confusion and competition of big families. I don't know that we learned anything from watching that show. I doubt it, knowing the quality of TV. Still we developed a sense of our own kinship. Ours was a large family and this show seemed to be about people like us. I don't think it was a situation comedy. It was drama. I remember how safe it made me feel to see a family like that, like ours, offered up to the whole world by TV, facing its troubles and overcoming them. Or, in the better episodes, learning to live with them.
There were eight of us including my parents. Six children always seemed to be the number, although I remember very clearly when my two younger brothers were born. My sister Barbara was the oldest, my parent's first child, born while my father was fighting in Italy. Then came Richard and me, and two years after that my sister Elizabeth. It did not strike me until much later, when I had only two children under five years old clattering around in my peaceful, small house, that my mother managed in a one-room apartment with four of us—Barbara at five, Richard and I running everywhere and getting into everything at three, and my little sister, Betty, one year old, learning to walk in what little space was left.
I don't know if I could identify my earliest memory—or if I'd want to. But there are two images that I have never forgotten which might have happened in the same year, even the same season. One is of me crossing a street I was not allowed to cross so I could play in a tempting forest, and the other is of a little girl, not much older than me, lying under a gray blanket in that street. People standing over her don't seem to move normally. I don't know if she was killed, but I think she must have been. In my memory, the blanket is draped over her up to her chin. Her hair is brown and her eyes are closed. She lies close to the street, as though she is a part of it.
I was four years old. My twin brother was with me. We watched through a screen from the second floor of a two-room town house my parents rented on Geranium Street in Washington, D.C. An ambulance came down the street. The image I have of it includes silence—as though it approached out of a spiritual place. It may have been loud with sirens—the old kind that sounded like human wailing—but I don't remember that.
I crossed that street sometime that year. My father told me not to go into the street at all. He was on his way to church, and I was playing with my brother in the front yard. I watched him walk up the sidewalk, wearing a gray fedora, a brown suit. I don't know why my mother was not going with him that day. Perhaps Betty was sick. Or maybe she went when my father came back, because there was no one to stay with us children.
My father had to walk to church because we did not yet own a car. I remember the sound of his shoes crunching the small stones on the sidewalk. As soon as he was out of sight, I walked across the street. Richard said, "You're going to be in trouble."
I don't know how long I stood there on the other side. My memory tricks me and I am handed this image of my father coming back almost instantly. Perhaps I was so excited and amused I forgot the time, but I don't think so. My brother thinks some neighbor named Ruth saw me as she drove to church and that she stopped and told my father and he came back. At any rate, that may have been the first time my father spanked me.
Both of these events come back to me when I try to identify the first things I remember. They don't haunt me, but perhaps something in the danger of crossing that forbidden street and the tragedy of that little girl under the gray blanket colors my vision of things when I am unconscious of my motivations and just writing.
In fact, I rarely write about things that haunt me. If I have guilt over some failure, or terrible fear of losing one of my children, those are things I learn to repress by writing about something else. I purposely think of other trouble and address that. Still, I know we are often moved by things of which we are not even remotely aware. Like most people, I am conscious of almost nothing before the age of three, but the most important influence in my life may have been the reaction of virtually everyone to the fact that I am a twin. From infancy I have been treated as though I were special. People ooh and ahh over twins. Pleased and joyous faces spend a lot of time in front of twins, looking first at one, then the other. In crowds of children, twins are singled out.
I think all those eyes looking with wonder and affection upon me, even during all the days and weeks lost to infant memory, gave me a strong sense of my own value. I am not talking about ego, mind you. I believe I am as flawed as anyone, better than some and no worse than most. I do not think I have any special talent beyond the average salesman's ability to tell a good joke, keep conversation lively, and entertain with a few funny stories. I can draw fairly well, but have no sense of color whatsoever. Words do not come easily to me, but I love them anyway. I think I have a better-than average memory, but I clutter it with things no one cares about.
When I say I developed a strong sense of my own value, I am talking more about confidence, and a willingness to offer what talent I have to the world without fear. It isn't brazenness as much as it is belief. People will pay attention to me because they have always paid attention to me.
When I was fourteen I wrote my first novel. I filled 414 legal-pad pages before I gave up and started to rewrite. I got 60 pages into the rewrite and quit. I was in the eighth grade. By that time we lived in Wheaton, Maryland, and I was attending Belt Junior High School—which, by the way, no longer exists. My English teacher showed no interest in my work, and when I turned it in for a term paper that year—to save myself from certain failure—she gave me a D because it did not have footnotes. I am sure she did not read it. My history teacher—a kind, inspiring man named Mr. Hickman—did read it. He gave me an A and encouraged me to try and publish it. My book was a Civil War story, and this was the beginning of the Civil War centennial.
I have never been as excited about writing, or enjoyed it more, than I did that year. My grades went deeper and deeper into the alphabet, but my parents didn't seem to mind. (My schoolwork never did recover.) The whole family paid attention to what I was doing. I'd come home from school and my mother would clear the dining-room table and I'd sit down and write until dinner. She'd bring me a glass of chocolate milk or ice water and ask me how it was going. I would work nonstop until dinner—usually 5:30 or 6:00. Sometimes I'd work after dinner. My father would come home late and sit down to eat across from me. My sister Barbara was taking typing that year and volunteered to type what I had written. As my handwritten pages piled up, she'd peck on her portable typewriter, trying to catch up to me.
I remember that small house now, the quiet afternoons of work, and I don't see how it was possible. When I was fourteen, all the children had been born. There were six of us. Steve was seven years old. Tim was four. Betty was twelve. Dick was my age, and Barbara was sixteen years old. The house was a small, three-bedroom Cape Cod, with a combination dining area and living room, and a very narrow kitchen. There was no basement. A washing machine was parked by the back door next to the hot-water heater. There was one bathroom. You could not sneeze anywhere in that house without being blessed from some other room. And yet I remember the house pausing for me. Letting me work on my book.
I would occupy all my time in school dreaming of what I would write each day in the silence of those long afternoons. I think I became a writer that year, but I didn't let it stick with me. That summer I got back into baseball and forgot my novel. Perhaps, but for the changes we go through at that time in our lives, I might have finished it and begun another. By the time I was fifteen, the boy who wrote the novel was some other kid way back in junior high. In any case, the experience of high school was so bad I did very well just to keep my interest in reading.
Let me tell you something about public education. As I write this, people are debating whether or not to increase the school year an extra month. Some are advocating going the year round. The objection is, of course, that this will cost lots of money. That would not be my objection. My problem with the idea is that increasing the school year would only provide more of a bad thing. Education would not be improved by having more days where teachers are underpaid and classrooms are too full. If anybody really wanted to improve education they'd cut class sizes in half and keep a nine-month school year and watch what happens. Watch how much ground is covered by a teacher working with fifteen students instead of thirty.
School nearly killed my imagination. I had teachers facing too many kids, insisting on the one thing that is counter to both creativity and learning: order. Learning and creativity are chaotic and frustrating and full of passion and wonder. I am not speaking from the position of the writer who naturally tends to simplify things for a balanced rhetorical statement. I have been a teacher since my first year in the air force—more than twenty-five years—and I have observed very carefully how learning takes place. Unless you are teaching math, or some other precise science, not very much learning is achieved by insisting on neatness, correct- ness, and the proper order of things. I know there are pea-brained people who think learning is lockstepped and orderly—who insist that material should be presented when the teacher is ready to present it, rather than when the student is ready to have it presented—but it just isn't true. I don't know if my writing career might have been rekindled my first year in high school. But I had a teacher who could not possibly respond adequately to thirty compositions from my class, as well as the one hundred and twenty she was bound to collect from her other classes. No human being could respond to each and every one of 150 essays. All she could do was attack its grammar, insist that it be neat, and give it back. Since she could. not respond to anything I said, since she could only penalize or reward me according to how correct and neat my work was, and since that seemed to indicate that it didn't matter what I said, but only how I said it, I was convinced very early in my high-school career that I had nothing of any importance to say.
I didn't start writing again until I was in the military.
I spent most of my time in high school playing football and shooting pool, and I still don't know what providence caused me to graduate. I didn't have anything to do with it. I can't remember a single thing I learned in high school. I remember my teachers, who worked very hard I'm sure. I understand what they were up against now. Back then, I thought they were crazy. They didn't seem like people who ever had fun and they always smelled like chalk dust. I called them the "chalk people."
Although I spent no time studying I did read a lot. I loved books about the Civil War. I read them all—Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, Henry Steele Commager, Virgil Carrington Jones, Douglas Southall Freeman, Burke Davis. My favorite was Freeman. His four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee captured me for a whole year. I loved every page of it. I loved the way those books smelled and felt in my hands, the texture of the pages and the print. I read every footnote, and when I was finished with the whole thing, I read all the source notes in the back of the last volume. I read that book three times before I was in eleventh grade. I also read all of Bruce Catton's books. In fact, I still have books on my shelf that belong to the Wheaton High School library.
Like my father, I didn't read a lot of fiction. I believed reading fiction was a waste of time because you couldn't be learning anything about history or the world from somebody's imagination. I believed this even though I had spent the entire eighth grade writing a novel.
What fiction I did read I enjoyed. I'd think of it as a sort of break from nonfiction. My mother read almost exclusively novels, and a lot of good ones adorned the shelves in our house. I found books by Hemingway, Steinbeck, John O'Hara, and Edwin O'Connor. I read them all, but at the time my favorite was O'Connor. I loved his Frank Skeffington. When I was a senior in high school I read The Last Hurrah twice. Then I read O'Connor's other books at the time: The Oracle, The Edge of Sadness, I Was Dancing.
My brother Richard and I used to read late into the night, then drag ourselves to school in the morning. My parents did not want us to stay up so late—my two younger brothers slept in the same room with us, and we were all supposed to be in bed early on school nights—so we'd place a towel at the foot of the door and if my parents walked by they'd only see a dark slot under the door and think the light was out. I don't know if this truly fooled them, but they almost never came to check on us. If they did, we'd hear them coming, snap off the light, and pretend to be asleep. When they opened the door they'd inadvertently push the towel into the corner behind the door, so they never saw it. Once they were gone, we'd put the towel back and turn the light back on.
It occurs to me now that I've talked about them as though it was always both of them who came in to check on us. I remember it was both of them, and now that I am a parent I understand that they weren't checking on us at all. They were just coming in to look at us asleep. It is that looking, late at night, while my children sleep in a bed I've provided for them, that I discover my sense of self and fatherhood and balance and even a sort of permanence. At times like that I understand my parents and love them more and wish I had loved them better.
I graduated from Wheaton High School in 1963 (ranked 534th in a class of 536). I had no plans. We moved to Vienna, Virginia, within the month after I graduated. My father had taken a job managing a Ford dealership in Fairfax, and after years of driving to Virginia six days a week, and working until ten every night, we were going to be within three miles of where he worked. Most of my high-school years the only time I saw him was on Saturday nights and Sundays. The whole family was happy about the move, but I didn't want to go to Virginia. All I knew about it was that it was the South. They got out of school for snow more often than we did, which didn't seem logical to me. And one of the counties there, I think it was Staunton, had closed their school system entirely rather than admit black students.
The civil rights movement was well under way by that summer. I remember Martin Luther King's speech in Washington as though it were yesterday. I saw it on television. John F. Kennedy was president and you had this feeling that things were going to change. It wasn't a bad feeling. Things needed to change. I can remember people using the word "nigger" on radio and television. Fire hoses and dogs and bombs seemed to be the white South's response to integration.
Once I was in Virginia, though, I came to like it. Vienna was a smaller town than Wheaton and our house was a little better, a little more remote. There were trees again—a forest right next to us.
I was eighteen years old, hustling pool for money and not motivated to do much of anything. I didn't want to go to college—that was only more school—and I didn't really need to work. I made sixty to seventy dollars a night shooting pool.
I don't remember much of that first summer in Virginia. But in late fall, just before Thanksgiving. President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. I remember, as most who lived through it do, exactly what I was doing that day. I was with my mother. Richard had a job at AFL-CIO in Washington, and the other kids were in school. (My sister Barbara was already married.) I was sitting in the living room in front of the picture window reading, and the telephone rang. It was early afternoon. I heard my mother pick up the phone. I didn't hear anything she said. She came calmly into the room and sat down next to me. "Turn the television on, honey," she said. "They've shot the president."
If Kennedy's death was the end of a brief period of idealism and new promise, it also shattered a kind of stillness and lethargy. Everything appeared to speed up and get more complex—as if Kennedy's death set in motion an electronic fantasy. it was as though we were all suddenly swallowed by a television, and the world came at us through a fish-eye lens with loud music and distorted images. It was easy to see the era before Kennedy's death as a kind of happy, simpler time. But it really wasn't. The fuse for Watts and other fires had already been lit. Viet Nam was a serious problem by then.
In any case, Kennedy's death did something to my sense of the future. I made up my mind that I wanted to get into politics and work toward what I believed Kennedy worked for. I remembered the "world of diversity" speech he made at American University and I came to see myself as a convert to the idea. I was eighteen when Kennedy was assassinated, and by the time I was nineteen I had a full-time job. I was enrolled in a correspondence school to study law, and I was making plans to attend Santa Monica City College in the fall of 1965. I started writing again, but this time it was for the courses in the law. I wrote legal opinions and prepared briefs and legal arguments. These were evaluated and praised very highly by my so-called law professors. (I will not name the school, but I paid $585 for the course and I got the registration form off a matchbook cover. This will give you some idea of the quality of both the school and my naivete.) I completed the course and was awarded an "L.L.B. Degree" in the spring of 1965. I was very proud of myself. I completed a three-year course in only eighteen months. I thought I would be a lawyer without having to go to college. My aunt, who was dating a lawyer at the time, got him to have a talk with me. That conversation convinced me of two things: that I could not be a lawyer, and that I should, as Kennedy always said, cut the cards.
In August of 1965, before I could enroll in college, Richard and I were drafted into the army. My father told us to "stay out of the infantry." He'd been there, and we took his word for it. So we enlisted in the air force on the buddy system.
We were told we would be able to stay together during basic training, but most likely after that we would get orders for different parts of the world. We went through basic training together, then we were sent to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois. We ended up spending our entire tour of duty at the same place and doing pretty much the same thing—teaching survival techniques and equipment.
In the service I felt cheated. We were being instructed by men who could barely speak the language. Mediocrity seemed forced on all of us. I mean true mediocrity. I am not a person with ultra-high standards, and I rarely think about competence unless I am confronted with true stupidity. I worked for a man who spent every day in an alcoholic stupor, but he always got high ratings because he was near retirement and no one wanted to deprive him of that. His superiors pretended not to notice that he couldn't stand up. The only time he got close to being sober was when he slept a little too long. He never knew what was going on, or even where he was. As far as I know, he did not work a single day in three and a half years. He was the NCO in charge of training.
When air training command announced they were going to inspect the school, we were told to have the students paint it. As long as it was clean, we passed inspection. It didn't matter at all what we were teaching.
Once we had an ice storm. A hard rain, swept by a brutal wind, crossed the pavement, cuffed the small trees, and froze solid. We marched our troops across a flight line where the wind whipped so bad the entire squadron of men seemed to slide back a few inches for each forward step. When we got them to the school, they were all soaking wet and shivering. The heat in the building didn't work. We had nothing to keep warm. Our commander called somebody to tell them of our predicament and ask permission to send the troops back to their warm barracks. A general—I won't name him—ordered the air police to send two blue air force buses to our school to transport the men back to their barracks so they could get warm showers and dry clothing. Then he ordered us to march them back to the school. It was still raining ice, but that didn't matter. The general made his decision and nobody would ask him if it wouldn't make more sense to have the buses wait around and transport them back to the school. His order read that we were to march them back to school and that is what we had to do.
Perhaps now you have some idea why I say the air force felt like enforced mediocrity. Bad orders were given all the time and then we were forced to follow them or face the consequences. Frequently my brother and I faced the consequences.
For some reason I don't remember, early in my term I was told that I had been designated our squadron's volunteer for the base honors team. That too was a consequence, although I can't remember what I did to deserve it. The honors team was really only a funeral squad. We were professional mourners who traveled on blue air force buses to every military funeral within a thousand-mile radius of Chicago. By that time in my air force career, I had begun reading fiction almost exclusively. I read J. D. Salinger, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, some more Hemingway, George Garrett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, James Jones, and Norman Mailer. I also loved the great Russian writers: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pasternak, Tolstoy. My brother was so influenced by what he was reading that he had begun to write poetry and songs, but I wasn't doing much writing then. I kept a journal only sporadically. I wrote long letters to my mother.
The funerals began to pile up on me. In the beginning, the honors team was only attending one or two funerals a month, but by 1967, after the Tet offensive, the war sent more and more bodies home and we were going to two and three funerals a week. I've only written one story about that experience, but it is still one of the most disturbing times of my life. The grieving family almost always believed we had come there to honor one of our fallen comrades. If I am haunted by anything from that period it would be all those sorrowful afternoons pretending I was a friend to the man we were burying.
I remember standing outside a church in Chicago. The weather was freezing and the cold air made my eyes water. I felt the tears on my face turning to ice. A man came up to me, steam escaping his mouth in great gasps, and said, "That's my boy in there. That's my boy."
His face was so contorted in sorrow it was difficult to look at him. I must have given the impression that I would talk to him because he kept himself in front of me, waiting. "That's my boy," he said. He took a deep breath that turned into a cry—a lament he was not prepared for. "Oh, my boy." Then he put his hands on my shoulders. I was so embarrassed for him, and sad that I didn't know his son and could not share in his grief.
"Were you with Terry before he—" he sobbed.
"No. I wasn't." That was the first time I had heard the dead boy's name. I knew he was young and he'd not been killed by the war. He'd driven his motorcycle into a bridge abutment.
"Did you know him well?" The man said.
I lied to him. I told him I'd never known a better man than his son. He nodded, wiping away frozen tears.
He thought I was crying. I hated myself for being privy to his most helpless moment, and for pretending I wasn't a stranger who was ordered to be there.
At night the body counts on the news seemed completely unbalanced. When the newsman said, "Only one hundred and ten U.S. troops died yesterday," I felt as though I would have to bury each and every one of them. One hundred and ten funerals whirled in my mind. In places like Dubuque, Iowa, Appleton, Wisconsin, Gary, Indiana, Danville, Illinois, Niles, Michigan, burials were taking place every day. I'd been to every kind of ceremony: Polish, Jewish, Catholic, Russian, Greek Orthodox.
I couldn't stand the trips on the bus. I'd sit in the back and read while the others played pinochle or gin rummy. They joked and laughed until we arrived at the sight. Then they'd get off the bus and behave with proper decorum. I wished I could accept what we had to do with the same blithe attitude, but I couldn't. I suppose most of those men were as bothered about what we were doing as I was, but their diversion was to engage in noise and banter and dirty jokes until the last minute. I did not want to laugh. It seemed disrespectful, and when we got to the funeral, if I had been laughing with the others I would have felt like even more of a fake.
Military service wasn't all bad. In spite of how much I loathed each day, I met my closest male friend—a thoroughly contrary, droll, and highly trustworthy rogue named Dennis Metter. We have been friends now for over twenty-five years and can still laugh over some of the more bizarre episodes of mediocrity that we witnessed together. We were both on the funeral squad, too, although they knew better than to send us both out to the same funeral. I think that only happened once or twice in the three years we were on the squad together.
When I got out of the service I stayed in Champaign, Illinois. I thought I wanted to continue at the University of Illinois, where I had begun classes during my last two years of service. But I ended up selling new and used cars for Shelby Motors on Neil Street.
I did not think of myself as a writer then. I was marking time, saving money. That's what I told myself. But I had a good job—I only had to be at work one day during the week and all day Saturdays. The other days, I was supposed to be out looking for possible customers. You could do that anywhere: in poolrooms, on the golf course, in bars and restaurants, and even in the library. I spent many days, especially in winter, shooting pool half the day and reading in the library the other half. On the days when I worked—days where the sales floor was mine and anyone who walked into the dealership was a potential sale for me—I got enough leads and sold enough cars to support myself.
I liked selling cars. People almost never do that in a bad mood. It's exciting to help somebody pick out a new car and even better to deliver one. Although I still believed I would eventually go back to school, get a real law degree, and then enter politics, my year selling cars was pleasurable enough that I was not in any special hurry. I might have continued in the job, to tell the truth, but sales got worse and worse as Christmas of 1969 approached, so I decided to return home.
My brother went to Boston in the hope of beginning a career in music with the family of his best friend. Dick had begun singing with Dave Marmorstein while we were in the service. They were very good. Dick wrote beautiful and lyrical verse, and Dave set it to music. Dave also created extraordinary harmonies. But while Dick was in Boston that first year, Dave got killed in an automobile accident. Dick came back to Vienna about the same time I did.
We both attended Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia. By that time we were both married and beginning to take school seriously. I did not have the same attitude about school by that time. Now I really did want to be educated. I still believed I wanted to be in politics, and my declared major was political science. Later I switched to international relations. Then economics. The whole time I was taking courses in English. I wanted to get credit for much of the reading I was doing, and those were courses I always did pretty well in.
My brother already considered himself a writer by that first year at Northern Virginia. He took creative-writing courses from a writer there named Joe Maiolo, who encouraged and inspired him. I was in an English composition class with an extraordinary woman named Jill Brantley, who told me I should pursue a writing career. I was flattered, but I told her I was going into politics, that my brother was the writer in the family. And, indeed, Richard's reputation, even then, preceded him. People who came in contact with his work liked it enough to talk about it to others.
I didn't see myself as a fiction writer, but I wanted to prove I could do it if I wanted. So I wrote a story called "The Gift." I don't remember much about it now, but I know it was from personal experience, and I wanted Jill Brantley to read it. I had a line in it that went like this: "I tried to open the package without ripping the paper."
When I showed the story to Richard, he pointed to that line and said, "See, that's the fiction writer in you."
"What fiction writer?"
"The one who wrote a novel in the eighth grade."
I laughed then, but now it seems like it was a sort of turning point. I began to examine how I looked at the world. I saw everything in terms of the arch of events—a movement in time toward some palpable denouement. The more I thought about things the more I realized that I viewed my life as a kind of developing story. What happened to me was plot. However adolescent that may sound, it afforded me the luxury of trusting myself to go ahead and begin writing again. It seemed like the sort of development that would best serve the "plot" of my life.
I wrote another story almost immediately. This one was the only truly autobiographical story I've ever written. It was the story I spoke of earlier about my experiences on the military honors team. I called it "Funerals" and in it I told the story of two funerals, one in summer and the other in winter. The summer funeral is for a young man killed in Viet Nam, and the winter one is for an old man, a World War I veteran. In the story, a young man on a military honors team is remembering an earlier winter funeral, waiting for the summer one to begin. The winter funeral was a disaster: ill attended, the honors team ill prepared, nothing went right; the firing squad misunderstood the commands of the new squad leader and some of them fired their guns at the wrong time. The effect of this part of the story is supposed to be hilarious, and I suppose it is. The summer funeral is intended to be tragic. The young man is forced to present the flag to the dead man's widow, who is young and beautiful and whose tears hurt the young man so much all he wants to do is tell her that her husband is not dead. When he presents her the flag and tries to console her with the sound of his voice expressing his nation's cliches about service to country and comrades and loved ones, she throws the flag back at him.
I don't know why I structured the story the way I did. Or why it became about two funerals. I'd been to thousands of them, and these two seemed representative of certain types in my experience. But the story won creative-writing contests at both Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, where I later transferred, so I think it may have been what finally convinced me I should write. Ironically, now when I look at that story my principle response is embarrassment. It is so obviously the work of a fledgling writer and there are so many obvious conscious choices in it that I am fairly amazed, even now, that anybody saw anything in it to admire. Still, I consider "Funerals" my first story. It was my first published story, too. I published it in the college literary magazine at both of the colleges I attended and I still have a copy of the original manuscript.
You might say that since I wrote that story, I have been trying to get back the sense of joy, expectation, and wonder writing gave me when I was fourteen years old and dreaming in all my classrooms about what I would write each afternoon when I got home. Now it is my work and I cannot find anything magical about it. Or romantic. The notion of a muse seems a wry joke on those of us who ought to know better.
While I was in college I worked various odd jobs to keep food on the table. I drove a taxi one year, worked as a waiter for two days, sold appliances in a discount store. I worked in the public library my senior year of college. I was lucky to write one story a year during this time, and I really don't remember any of the pieces I worked on back then. I was not trying to publish, nor did I do much with those stories but enter them in the yearly literary contest in the English department. I had a beautiful daughter, Sara, by the time I got my bachelor's degree at George Mason University. I went right into graduate school at the same college and majored in the literature of the 1920s and 1930s.
In the fall of that year, 1974, my sister Barbara was killed with her husband in an automobile accident. They were celebrating their twelfth wedding anniversary. They left four children, between the ages of eleven and three years old. If life is divided according to tragic events, 1974 marked the end of that big, charmed family I grew up with. Now the earth was far more threatening, indifferent, dangerous, and merciless. My mother and father took the children in and they became a new family.
My mother never did get over Barbara's death. Our family had been safe from harm, had been so lucky for so long, this was a sort of death for all of us. In some ways I still don't believe it happened, and even now I wish I could talk to Barbara. It thrilled me to make her laugh. Almost everything I wrote was for her approval. I hate it that I never told her how important she was to me. But what still breaks my heart to remember is that after Barbara's death, my sister Betty and I found a collection of manuscripts she had written. In our lives I had been the writer in the family, then Dick was, and then both of us were, and Barbara listened to us, read our stories, praised our work, and she never told us that she was writing; that she was sending her manuscripts out and getting them rejected.
I wish I had asked her, just once, if she ever tried to write anything. She never went to college. I'm sure she was afraid of what we would say about her work. She was the full-time mother of four children when she was killed. I never saw her. She was grown, a housewife, a happy woman. I could talk to her about anything. But I never really saw her. My mother and father raised her children, gave them family legends and traditions and provided all that was humanly possible of love and sane response to needless tragedy. The children are grown now, and in spite of their broken childhood, I think they are happy.
I tried for years to get Barbara's work published. I still have it somewhere. Maybe someday I'll take it out and try again. It is her voice, sure and honest and full of compassion.
Barbara's courage in sending her work to publishers inspired me to do the same, and from that day I discovered her manuscripts I have been actively trying to publish. The life of a writer is rejection, and I was learning that very quickly.
By degrees I came to realize that I wanted to be a teacher. While I was in graduate school, working toward that end, I thought I was lucky to have completed one story. I got into the habit of composing one or two stories a year, and when I began my teaching career I continued to do that. I believed that was all I was capable of. It took me a long time to write a story because I composed each sentence exactly as I wanted it before I'd go to the next sentence. It could take a month to complete one page. When I finished a story I had to do very little rewriting. Also, I see now, I was not writing the way I did when I was in the eighth grade.
To support my family while I was in graduate school I took a job teaching in a small private high school in Fairfax called Glebe Acres Prep School. The pay was not very good, but the experience was invaluable. Those kids were not allowed into the public schools. Every one of them had been expelled for one reason or another, and since I remembered my own high school experience in public schools, I didn't have any trouble understanding my students. I became a teacher in the year and a half I worked at that school. I came to love most of my students, and maybe some of them will even remember me.
In 1975 I went right from graduate school to my present position at Northern Virginia Community College. It seems a preposterous irony now that I could have hated school so perfectly when I was in high school and yet I have spent all but one of the twentyseven years since then in a classroom, on one side of the lectern or the other.
I wrote nothing but short stories for the first few years after college. I was teaching five classes at Northern Virginia, and two classes at George Mason University. By that time my second daughter, Julie, had been born and I didn't have a lot of time to write. I was no closer to publication, although I was getting a lot of kind letters from editors at major magazines encouraging me to send them more of my work. I did not think I would ever write a novel.
It seems odd now to remember that former self who looked upon the novel as this opaque and impossible thing. I had written one. The memory did not serve me. It seemed a childhood game, like pretending to be a fireman. I had pretended to be a writer. Now that I knew what that was, there was no way I could actually sit down and devote so much of my life to a sustained effort of several hundred pages. Especially when I had two gorgeous children to play with.
When I was thirty-three, Richard had already started what would become his first novel, Real Presence. We talked about how hard it was to break into the market with our short stories. He had gone to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop while I was in graduate school. While he was there he wrote a collection of short stories for his thesis. Both of us had never truly completed a novel. I came to believe that the only way I could sell my stories was if I published a novel. It didn't seem like publishing one would be very difficult. After all, there are over forty thousand new books published in America every year. All I had to do was write one.
A colleague and friend, Dr. Robert Kilmer, often challenged me to begin a novel. We were both avid organic gardeners, and we both owned small pickup trucks. Frequently we would go together to get a truckload or two of horse manure for our gardens. I figured I needed some impetus and a time limit to complete a novel. On New Year's Day of 1979, Robert and I agreed that if I didn't finish my novel in one year, I would give him one truckload of manure for each day I needed past the deadline to finish it.
I had written a short story called "War Story." It was about this man whose memory of what happened to him in Viet Nam is so terrible it terrorizes him. I sent the story to an editor at Harper's who told me I had not "confronted" the conflict in my narrator's life. I decided to make this story the first chapter of my novel—that way I wouldn't have to face the horrible task of writing a first chapter at all. I put a piece of paper into my typewriter and at the top of the page I typed "Michael." In doing so, I both named my character and began chapter two of my novel.
I called the book Coming Home, but shortly after I started on it that movie hit the theaters. So I changed the title to On the Way There. I worked pretty steadily on it for most of that year. By December, I had ninety pages. I was not happy with what I had, and I had not written a single story that year, so I felt as though my efforts were wasted. But still, I had my deadline. January first was one month away, and I had this novel to finish.
I was done with school by December fifteenth. I was free for the ten days until Christmas and for ten days after that. In a period of fourteen days over that holiday I wrote the last two hundred and forty pages of that novel. I worked from ten or eleven in the morning until five or six in the evening. Each day I did not stop until I had at least twenty pages. If I got twenty pages and it was only four o'clock, I'd keep working another hour and get a few more. I did not take time to think about how things were going as I worked. I still corrected as I went, still revised each sentence until it was the way I wanted, but I would not let myself stop working. I kept at it, even when it seemed as though the English language consisted of only three words and I knew only two of them.
I finished the first draft of the book on December 30, 1979. By that time my brother had already sold his first novel, so I was fairly confident that once I'd rewritten mine, I'd sell it too. It only took me one month to rewrite the book and clean it up. By February of 1980, I was ready to mail it to an agent.
Three different agents saw it. None of them wanted it. I was almost ready to start representing it myself when my brother suggested Nat Sobel Associates, an agency that had tried to recruit him earlier that same year. I sent it to them, and Judith Weber, who loved the book, decided to represent it for me.
Something happened to me while I was writing that first book. For most of that year I kept telling myself that I was writing a NOVEL. I had this huge, generalized vision of the NOVEL hanging over my head governing everything I did. I was unwittingly trying to write all the novels I'd ever read. While I worked I couldn't shake the sense of this fake voice; I felt almost like the eighth-grader who had pretended to be a writer all those years ago, and the memory would paralyze me. I'd let days go by before I'd get the nerve to sit down and try working on it again. Then, over that Christmas holiday when the book literally erupted, I realized I was not writing a NOVEL. I was writing this novel. My novel.
I remember the first sentence I wrote after that realization. It was on page 110 of the typed manuscript, and it began the first chapter of part two of the novel. It goes like this:
I have to get rid of the beads of water on the window.
After that, writing that book was like playing in one of those padded, air inflated rooms where you can throw yourself down or up or over in any direction, fall unhurt, and bounce back up. I was free. Free to write that particular book and let it become whatever it would.
I did not sell it right away though. Thirteen different publishers turned it down, and I was pretty discouraged about ever selling it. A year after I'd finished it, St. Martin's Press purchased it for a very modest advance. By the time my novel, which was now called On the Way Home, hit the bookstores, Richard's first book had been released and had gotten rave reviews. Time magazine compared him to Flannery O'Connor. He had already sold his second novel, Take Me Back, to Dial Press.
Still, I was stunned at the attention my first novel got. Although the New York Times ignored it, everybody else paid lots of attention to it. A few weeks after the publication date, reviews started coming in the mail every day. Newspapers large and small, obscure and very famous, raved about the book. Newsweek called and sent a photographer to my house to take a picture of me. They featured my book in a favorable review the following week.
Through it all I tried to work on my second novel.
It was a book I'd started almost immediately after finishing On the Way Home. In the year it took to get the first book into print, I'd gotten about seventy pages of manuscript that I was calling The Lives and Times of Riley Chance. Again, I started with something I'd already written, a short piece called "Hard Luck Story," about a man who has lived three lives. I don't know where the story came from, except I was bored one Christmas visiting my first wife's family; I'd had a few whiskeys and I decided to sit by myself all day and write. I would not have to face anyone, and I figured I might get something I could use. The story never worked, but I thought it was creative, and I liked the idea of a man living three lives and getting kind of worn down by his third time around. It occurred to me then, as it still does now, that all lives end tragically if you take death as the end of something wonderful and the beginning of nothing. The character in the story says at one point, "Having three lives may sound good to you, but remember you also have to have three deaths. Think about that. That's what I do all the time." That one line led me to The Lives of Riley Chance.
Composing that book was completely different though because I did not use the story as chapter one and then extend things from an open end. I jumped into the story and pushed out on all sides. It was the frame for the whole novel, so I felt constrained by it, trapped in it. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done up to that time. I worked on it most of the first year after On the Way Home was released, but there were several paralyzed months in there. I was sort of swallowed up by my first novel. In spite of its great reviews and a paperback sale to Avon Bard, which kept the book in print right up until 1989, my first novel did not make up its advance, and I never made a royalty payment on it. Somebody at Avon told me it sold thirty-five thousand copies there, but I've never seen a royalty out of them either.
Still, it had gotten so many good reviews. It was very difficult not to expect the same sort of success for my second book. I finished it while I was in the process of divorcing my first wife and marrying Denny Natt, who was and still is the best friend I've ever had. That whole two-year period seems lost to me completely. I truly don't remember writing huge sections of that book or where I composed most of it. I know I worked at a typewriter, that I started another book called Out of Season and wrote a hundred pages or so of that before I stalled and came back to Riley Chance. But in the spring of 1983 I finished it and sent it to St. Martin's. It was released in 1984, got rave reviews in about twenty or so newspapers including the New York Times, and then disappeared.
The Lives of Riley Chance is probably the best book I will ever write. I came to it as myself, with hope and belief. I wrote it without fear. There is not one conscious choice in it. Even now, I can read parts of that book and be surprised that I wrote it. But it got such scant treatment, and sank so fast out of sight, it nearly destroyed my will to write.
I know I was probably spoiled by the reaction to my first book. It was crazy, improbable good fortune to get such wide attention for a first novel, but I convinced myself that my work was worthy of its acclaim. Richard's novel had been reviewed in Time, mine in Newsweek. We were the fabulous Bausch brothers, embarking on our gorgeous careers.
I came to expect that sort of treatment for anything I wrote. And since The Lives of Riley Chance was the best that I could ever do, I couldn't wait to see the reaction to it. The silence was early and perfect. Nothing after the first month. No reviews in the mail. No phone calls from national magazines. Nothing.
It took me six years to write my next novel, Almighty Me! I started work on it in 1985 after a year of writing short stories. I wanted to get away from the novel after Riley Chance. I hated the idea of another book. I was still teaching two classes at George Mason University, and five classes at Northern Virginia Community College. I couldn't take the sheer exhaustion anymore. I'd work until two or three in the morning and when I went to bed I'd be trembling so much I couldn't sleep or even get warm. Perhaps it was a function of my age, but I just didn't have the energy for a novel.
In March of 1985, my son David was born. I saw him come into the world and when I held him in my arms for the first time, I remembered and loved all my children. I was fortunate that year to get a letter from a lost child, a young woman born in 1969 who I knew existed but had never met. I will not go into the details except to say that Suzi is my daughter; I always expected she would one day come into my life, but I never dreamed she would be so much like me, or that it would provide me with such joy to know and love her. For the first time in my life, I felt that my own family was complete.
In August 1985, my mother died. None of us were prepared for that. I remember the first time I looked into my father's eyes after I knew my mother was gone, the ache in my heart of seeing in his eyes what had drained out of his life. They had been lovers and friends for fifty years. My father still has the piece of notepaper my mother wrote on when he was a senior in high school getting ready to graduate with honors, and she was in the eleventh grade asking him to remember her.
I couldn't write for a long time after my mother's death. She was an extraordinary woman. When my brother and I were in the service, she wrote a letter to each of us every week. Richard and I would sometimes compare letters trying to see if she ever got lazy and just copied one letter over again. It didn't seem possible that she could write a separate letter each week to her twin boys who were stationed in the same place. Her letters were always different. Always. She'd write the same news, the same queries and discussions of future hopes. But not once, in four years, did she ever copy Richard's letter over to send to me, or vice versa. Not once did she send one letter addressed to both of us. Dick used to look at me and say, "Could you do that?"
My mother and father created our family and it has been terrible watching time defile it, as time always does. My father was still alive and healthy, but he was incomplete without my mother.
I worked sporadically until 1987, when I made a momentous decision concerning my life's work as a teacher. I quit my job at George Mason University, took a leave of absence from Northern Virginia Community College, and began a year teaching creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C.
For the first time in my life I was working for an institution that valued my work. I had the time to write and I was encouraged to do so. The experience at American University gradually brought me back to the idea of a novel.
I got the idea for my next book from one line in The Lives of Riley Chance. At one point in the book, Riley says, "What could make heaven so good that you'd forget someone you loved deeply?" I wanted to illustrate that idea. Create it somehow. Even as a child I could never accept the idea that being away from the people I loved would be OK if I was in heaven.
While I was thinking about this idea, I had a conversation about Christ with the poet Gregory Natt, who also happens to be my brother-in-law. We were talking about Christ the man, and I wondered if he didn't take advantage of his godliness just a little bit. It seemed to me that if he was human, and God, he might make some innocent use of his godliness just because of his humanness. Even the best human being would want to avoid, say, tartar on his teeth, gum disease, or a major toothache. It probably got pretty hot in the desert, and even though no one knew about it then, certainly God would know about what was coming a little less than two thousand years hence. Wouldn't Christ have made use of an air conditioner when there was no one around to notice? Just to relieve the discomfort of that awful heat? He was human after all. Therefore, he was not perfect. If he was perfect, he'd be God, but he wouldn't be human. I wondered if he ever trimmed his beard. Every representation we have of him shows him with a perfectly trimmed beard. Who would it harm if he could just wave his hand and have his beard coiffed?
Greg wrote a poem titled "Christ Trimming His Beard," and I spent the entire year at American University finishing the first draft of a novel I called Spanking the World.
I believed I was done with the book, but I wasn't. It was not a very good book and I would have been embarrassed if St. Martin's had published it. My editor advised me to "set it aside." So did my agent. I might have taken their advice—which was good advice—but I'd put almost five years into that book and I couldn't face having to give it up. So I did something I've never done before. I sat down and rewrote the entire book from the first chapter. I spent the summer of 1988 revising and reworking and cutting.
Most of what I cut out of that book was bile. I came to see that I had forgotten my character and lapsed into a bitter attempt to point out all the injustices at the center of things. I had gone after television commercials, politicians, college administrators, salesmen, women, teachers, football players, all celebrities—the list was a long one. Also, my narrator never saw beyond himself. Everything that happened in the book seemed self-absorbed and fake. I wanted to write another Swiftian tale full of irony and wit, and instead I had a narrator so selfish and narrow the irony was completely invisible.
I remember the day I figured out what my story was. I came downstairs and walked into the kitchen, hugged my wife and announced that I had saved the book. I changed the title to For God's Sake and sent the book to Tim Seldes at Russell and Volkening, Inc. I had decided that I didn't want to push the book at Judith Weber a second time. I believed in Judith, and loved working with her, but I knew she didn't like the premise of the book and I had not changed that. I felt a change might be best for the book, if maybe not for me.
Sending my book to Tim Seldes was the best thing I ever did. He liked it and said he would be "honored to represent it." Everybody told me I had the best agent in the Milky Way, and at first I thought that was an exaggeration. Tim sent the novel to Janet Silver at Houghton Muffin in Boston, and after a few conversations between Janet and myself, Houghton Mifflin made an offer.
With the considerable help and influence of Janet Silver, and with her guidance through a lot more editing and revising, the novel became much better than I could have ever made it by myself. It is now called Almighty Me! and so much has happened to it already I'm afraid to think about my next book. Before Almighty Me! hit the stands, Hollywood Films, a division of Disney Studios, bought the film rights. It would take me fifteen years in my present position to match the income they offered. Once again I have a book that appears as though it will get a lot of attention. I don't know that I am ready for that, but I am hopeful.
While this third novel has begun to enjoy such tremendous success, Richard recently signed on with Seymour Lawrence and will be with Houghton Mifflin now, too. For the first time in our careers we will be with the same publisher and we will both be riding high at the same time.
George Garrett calls Richard and me "the Bausch boys." It's an appellation that stuck and I like it, first because George says it with affection and I value his considerable friendship, and second because it suggests that Richard and I are in this thing together, almost as if we were a team.
Someone once asked me what it was like being a twin. I almost dismissed the question. Twins get used to the foolish line, "Am I seeing double?" And all discussions of being a twin tend to echo that line. But to tell the truth, I wouldn't want to go through life any other way. It's like having yourself and someone else with you at the same time. A person who looks, thinks, acts, and feels like you do, but who is not you. A best friend, a comrade, a competitor, a confidant. We have both pursued the same kind of life, though my writing tends toward the didactic and his is almost purely art. We joke that together we've produced nine books in the last ten years, but really Richard's work has been the most assured, the most truly beautiful, and almost certainly the most enduring. He probably feels the same way about my work, but I know better.
Still, I can't think of anything I'd rather be than one of the Bausch boys.
LIFE SINCE 1991:
A lot has happened since the publication of Almighty Me! I have continued my career as a teacher, working at Northern Virginia Community College. In 1994 I went back to the American University, in Washington, D.C., and while I was there, put together a collection of short stories. I got the idea for a collection after I had converted two stories that came from a novel I was working on called A Hole in The Earth. I had cut two chapters that I didn't think worked in the book, but that seemed to stand pretty fairly on their own, so I decided to convert them to short stories. I published one, a piece I called "Wakefulness," in Southern Review; and the other, a longer story called "Family Lore," in Glimmer Train.
I've never been much of a short story writer—not that I don't think I can do it. It's just that I've rarely wanted to do it. Publication of short stories is so very difficult to do, and the market for them is so limited, it always seems a thing I can't take the time for. I have very little time to write—given my schedule. I teach eighteen semester hours each semester during the regular school year, and twelve in the summer. I find myself working late into the night, or all day on Saturday and Sunday. When I do find the time to write, I don't want to work on something I know will be very difficult to publish, and will probably never see the light of day. I get to working on a novel, and that is what I spend my time on, day after day, until I am finished. But while I was at American University, I again had more time to write, so I tinkered with those two chapters, made short stories that I thought worked fairly well, and managed to publish them. I realized I had eleven stories in my filing cabinet, most of which had been published in one form or another—or had been submitted to contests, etc., and that if I put them all together, I'd have a collection. So I put them together and sent the collection to my agent. But we had little success trying to place the collection. In fact, most of the big New York houses never saw it because we decided it would be better to wait until I was finished with A Hole in The Earth.
Then, late that year, Gail Yngvy (pronounced Engvie), an editor at Gibbs-Smith (Peregrine Press), wrote to me and asked me if I had anything I might be willing to publish with her. Gail said she wanted to get into the "literary publishing" market and someone had mentioned me to her. I have a feeling it was Alan Cheuse, who had been publishing with Peregrine for quite some time, but I never did find out who gave her my name. I sent her the collection and told her I might be interested. In the mean time, I called my agent and asked him what he thought.
Tim's thinking was that we'd have a better shot at a major New York house if we had a novel to go with it, but I told him the novel was a long way off. I knew I had a lot more work to do on it, and that I was not near being finished with it. I realized it might be years before I was done with it, and I didn't want the collection to gather dust all that time. I am a writer, a practicing writer, and I want my work to be "out there." I asked Tim if he thought publishing the collection with Peregrine Press would hurt my chances of placing the novel when I was finished with it. He said, "Who would know you published the collection? That's such a small press, nobody will know if you go with them."
I thought it over for some time. Gail called and said she loved the stories and wanted to do the collection. She said she would have an offer in a few days, but that it wouldn't be much—"We can't compete with the major houses," she said. I knew I'd be giving the collection away. Of the eleven stories in it, she wanted ten. She had already organized them in a particular order—an order that never changed. She was very good at seeing thematic patterns in the collection that I couldn't see. Or rather, that I didn't notice—not that I looked for any. I put them in chronological order when I sent them to her, and she rearranged them into a more "logical" order. I have to say, I liked what she had done with them, and hoped we could work together on it. The offer, however, was way too small—two thousand dollars. I'd been paid six times that amount for Almighty Me! and I really couldn't see my way clear to let the collection go for such a small sum. Part of the problem was that a very small advance means the publisher doesn't have much to invest in your work, and if that is so, the publisher will spend very little money trying to sell your work. I wanted some evidence of a commitment to try and sell the book once it was published, so I said no. But Gail doubled the offer the next day, and so I agreed to having the collection done by Gibbs-Smith. I don't regret the decision, either. Gail was a good and sensitive editor with a real understanding of the connections of ideas and themes in a work of that nature. I've already said I liked the order she chose, and I liked everything else about her work as well. The cover of the book was a terrific painting of a man and woman on a blue background. The collection was called The White Rooster, and Other Stories.
It did not get the attention I'd hoped it would get, but Publishers Weekly gave it very high praise, saying that the stories "in this collection provide unalloyed pleasure." There was not a single negative line in the review—a first, for me. The New York Times said the stories were written with skill but that the collection overall was depressing (whatever that means). Dictionary of Literary Biography gave it the award for distinguished volume of short stories published in 1995. No one else reviewed the book, or paid any attention to it, and it disappeared pretty quickly off whatever shelves it might have graced—I never did see it in a bookstore. The distribution of that book was so poorly handled, people who had me in for readings couldn't get copies of it. I still don't know what the problem was, but now I have a basement full of White Rooster s—more than a thousand copies of it, as a matter of fact. When Gibbs-Smith decided to remainder the book, I bought back ten boxes just because I thought I might be able to distribute them myself. I haven't, but maybe some day I will.
In the meantime, I continued writing A Hole in the Earth. I struggled mightily with that book, writing the first twenty to thirty chapters many times. I'd bog down around page 150 or so, around chapter twenty, go on for a few chapters listlessly, without hope or belief. Then I'd put the whole thing in a drawer and start over. I'd write my way up to chapter twenty-five or so, around page 200 or 220, then get stuck again. I'd go on halfheartedly for a few chapters, then quit. Put the whole thing in the drawer and start over. The next time through I'd get to page 180 and bog down, worry over what to do next, go on a bit into the next few chapters, then quit again. In the interim between false starts I'd have long periods of such heavy work—grading, and reading and preparing for classes—that I wouldn't work at all. I don't know how many times I stutter-started that book. I'm sure it was at least ten or fifteen times. For a while there, I had a file cabinet in my basement full of copies of the first part of A Hole in The Earth. I kept waiting for the inspiration that would help me finish it. I kept waiting to see what would happen to my character and his daughter, his girlfriend, and his father. I worried that no one would care about a thirty-nine-year-old case of arrested development, and his relationship with his family. And the character became so uninteresting to me—I'd told the beginning of his story so many times—I worried that he would be interminably uninteresting to readers. I was beginning to think whatever talent I possessed as a novelist had been used up.
Then, in the summer of 1995, my father died.
His death was totally unexpected. He was a happy man in the last year of his life. One morning in late June, he was just getting ready to take a shower, and after he turned the water on, he lay down on the towel just out of the tub and died. The doctors said there was no grimace on his face, no sign of anguish or pain. He died peacefully, waiting for the water to get hot.
The year before he died, something wonderful happened to him, and by extension, to all of us. He fell in love again.
On my desk is a picture of my father, aged seventy-two or so, in his pale blue pajamas, wearing a round-topped, one-inch-brimmed white hat, and dancing with his great grandson, Brandon. My father is really dancing, a wide grin on his face, his hand outstretched, holding onto the little boy's hand. Brandon is my niece's son, probably six or seven years old when this picture was taken. He's doing the best he can for a little guy, but mostly he's just standing there, watching my father. At least it doesn't appear that the boy is dancing. My father is in bare feet, one foot high in the air, as he kicks to the music. I know, without having been there, what song he is dancing to. It is "Two o'clock Jump," by Benny Goodman. The fact that I know that, that I can look at the picture and hear the music, and that everyone in the picture is smiling or laughing, is a measure of what I remember about my father.
The only thing missing from the picture is my mother. She had been dead for at least five years when this picture was taken, and my father was still, as we came to see later, grieving her loss. That is what we never understood about him. As he aged, he seemed less interested in life, less willing to go outside the house, to visit folks and just tell stories as he always used to. He settled into a kind of life that we all felt must have been terribly lonely. Still, he found the time to dance with Brandon, or tell stories around the table after a football game. But he wasn't himself. He seemed helpless almost, as if the earth had wounded him and left him without the strength to stand up to it anymore. As the years passed, and Brandon grew into early adolescence, and he and his mother moved into a new house and started a new family, we forgot about the changes in my father. We just got used to him as this old man who lived pretty much alone and who was very often terribly lonely. None of us truly noticed how much he wasn't himself, until my sister Betty brought her mother in law, Dee to visit one Saturday when Dad called to tell Betty he was feeling lonesome.
The house was empty, Laura and Brandon were gone and my younger brothers, Steve and Tim had just moved out, so he was truly alone. Betty piled her family in the car and went up to see him. He'd never called for help that way, never confessed to being lonely, so she was in a hurry to get to him. She brought Dee because she knew that Dad and Dee had always been good friends over the years. During that visit, Dee kissed my father. She was alone in life, too, and they were friends. But the kiss turned into something more than just friendliness, and what grew out of that encounter was the beautiful realization that Dee had been in love with my father for years, and that he, too was falling in love with her. He was seventy-seven years old. And the change in him was nothing short of extraordinary. He was in love, and young again. I mean you have to see it to believe it. I came to fully understand what people mean when they talk about "young" love. They're not talking about the age of the lovers, but the age of the love. When it is new, and young, it is as wonderful a thing as we have on earth. My father was alive again. He combed his hair, and smiled and greeted the world a strong, virile man. He wasn't helpless anymore, as he had seemed to us. And he was newly himself—my old man again. The one who laughed readily, told stories better than anyone I had ever seen, and could light up a room with just the glitter in his eyes.
As I said earlier, I grew up in a terrific, big, loud, happy family. We fought, bickered, laughed, teased, betrayed, cried, and screamed at each other; we also begged forgiveness and hugged each other, for all the days of my childhood. I lived in that family, then watched as my sister's four children, after her death, became a part of a new family with my mother and father—a different family. They, too, had their traditions, their joys and woes, wild crazy fun, and loud, furious fights. They, too, loved each other and still get together as much as they can as grown-ups. I was their uncle in the beginning, but now feel more like an older brother, one who left home too soon and missed out on their formidable years. I watched Laura and Brandon become yet a third family with its own traditions and remembered stories of tension and stress, laughter and joy.
But I know what it was mostly like.
I know because our family always had traditions; immutable laws of behavior based on one basic and unalterable truth: Family came first. Always. It was simply your duty to honor the people you were supposed to love.
The process of learning that was sometimes painful. My mother would say "no" when I wanted to go with my friends to a movie, or over to play pool at the local pool hall, or just to stay home and be by myself for a while, to read books and pretend I had no siblings in whose needs I had to take an interest. It all seemed so completely unfair to me. I never wanted to spend a whole day at home, squirming with my brothers and sisters, because my Aunt Florence was coming over; or because it was Barbara's birthday. Or just because, "Your father wants you here. He never sees you anymore."
Once, I was in my room, reading a book, and my father opened the door and said, "Hey, you want to go shoot some baskets?"
I was shocked that he asked me. He worked so hard, he hardly had time for things like that. And I had been running with my friends mostly. I never had time for him, and more important, never wanted time with him. I said, "No, I really don't." It was late fall, and chilly outside. I didn't want to be out in that air. I didn't want to be around anyone who had such authority over me as my father had. Mostly I tried to avoid him. That day, all I wanted was to stay home and read.
He seemed disappointed. He closed the door and went away, and I felt a pang of regret for having rejected him, but it wasn't enough to get me out of that bed. My mother did that. When my father was outside, by himself, shooting hoops, she came in and scolded me.
"What are you thinking of?" she said. "Get out there and play ball with your dad." It turned out to be one of the best times with him—one of those times you remember for the sheer fun of it, not for what it meant to you. We just had fun together. My brother Dick joined us and we played a whole afternoon under a gray sky. I never felt cold, although I remember I could see my breath.
Still, I fought with my mother at every turn whenever she said, "It's your family. What's more important?" I harbored secret enmity in my heart for my father whenever he said, "She's your mother. Honor her. Get in there and help with the dishes."
It was so unfair to me. I'd have to clean up a huge mess I didn't even make. Or I'd get thrown in with somebody who was doing that. With six of us, my mother always had plenty of help with the dishes. There was just too much noise in that small house for me. Too many people to take into account. I wanted to be out of there, running with my friends, doing things I wanted to do, without consideration of anyone else. Or that's what I believed. Mostly, I now see, I wanted to please my friends, but I would have denied it vehemently at the time. I didn't think I wanted to see to the needs of anyone but myself.
"Your sister has the flu," my mother would say.
"You're going to have to help take care of her."
"She's very sick."
I felt nothing. I knew I didn't have it. I'd never had it. Our doctor said, "Some folks are immune, I guess." As long as I couldn't get the flu, I was happy. My mother got it all the time. If one of the children came down with it, she was almost guaranteed to be bedridden for several days if she got anywhere near the stricken party. So she decided the one who didn't get it would take care of the ones who did. (I was in my thirties the first time I knew what it felt like to get the flu. And once I knew, I understood completely why my mother wanted to avoid getting it.)
"Take your sister some soup," my mother would say, and she'd hand me a bowl of steaming chicken noodle soup. Like the soup, the noodles were homemade. She'd spend a whole morning flattening a flour, egg, and water mixture, rolling it up and very carefully cutting it into thin slices, then unrolling each one until she had these wonderful egg noodles with creases in them where they had been folded. She'd put them in the soup at the last minute, stir it until the noodles were just cooked, then she'd pour the whole thing over a pile of mashed potatoes. She called it Chicken Mash. "This will make your sister feel better." When I tell people this story, they picture an old woman leaning over a stove. But she was young then. Young and beautiful. People used to say she was a dead ringer for Maureen O'Hara.
I was always nominated to feed the sick, because as I said, I never knew what the flu felt like until I was full grown. But I hated that house when everyone had the flu. I had to stay home, watch the suffering through what seemed like a gray wall of air; I'd carry food to the stricken, add water to the cool mist humidifiers, and put cool towels on hot foreheads. This was not trauma, but it felt like it because I had such a powerful longing to escape.
The thing I remember most about my family, though, is what it was like on Christmas mornings. I think the picture of my father dancing was taken around Christmas. I'd be willing to bet on it, although I know it's possible it was in the dead of summer. He danced with Brandon a lot when he was a little boy. (Brandon is in college now, at East Carolina University.)
What I remember about Christmas mornings is a small square of space most people would call a hallway that opened into our dining room. It was right outside the bedroom doors in that small house on Valleywood Drive in Wheaton, Maryland. My two sisters, Barbara and Betty, stayed in the first room on the right as you entered the hall from the dining room. Right next to their room, on the same wall, was our room. The boys. Tim, Steve, Richard, and me. We had bunk beds. Richard and I slept on the top bunks, Steve and Tim on the bottom. Directly next to our room, the wall turned, facing the dining room entrance and forming the third side of the square. On that wall was a small linen closet, then the entrance to my parents' bedroom. On the fourth side of the square was the bathroom door, and then another long space of wall before it ended at the dining room entrance. My father would get out of bed early, walk unsteadily to that small, square space, and listen for the measured breathing of his children. I know this because I was never asleep. I don't believe any of us were.
When he was sure we couldn't hear him, he would sneak into the living room, lift the lid on top of the hi-fi set, and turn it on. He would have already placed a record on the turntable of Benny Goodman's "Two o'clock Jump." Or sometimes, he'd play Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-Five Thousand." Or "In the Mood." Whatever the selection, he would have already had it set to the highest volume. The blast of music would be intended to wake all of us up. He'd come back to the little square in front of our bedroom doors and wait for us. My mother would get out of bed and put on her robe and be standing there too, her arms folded in front of her as if to hold her robe closed, her red hair flowing down her back, her bright green eyes smiling. We all had to stay back away from the dining room entrance when we came out. We could not look through, into the living room yet. Dad would make us line up against the wall in front of Barbara and Betty's room. Steve and Tim would be so excited, whispering was impossible, but we all tried. As though we didn't want to wake up the rest of the world. It was impossible for those two boys to stand still, but we all had to line up against the wall in front of Barbara and Betty's room. From the smallest to the tallest. I was always in back with my brother Richard. Then Barbara was in front of us, Betty in front of her, Steve in front of Betty, and little Timmy first in line. We ranged in height from a little over two feet (Timmy, for a while there; he is now the tallest member of our family at six feet two) right up to five feet eleven inches.
For a few years, in the beginning, Barbara was the last in line, but Dick and I eventually outgrew her. What I remember, more than the order, was the ritual. We all had to line up first, while the music played. Then my mother and father would put their arms around each other and follow us as we walked slowly into the living room.
I have pictures too, I'm sure, of the chaos and mess we made those mornings. The piles of wrapping paper and boxes, and plastic bubble wrap. I remember those days, those Christmas days, now with so much joy and with the ache of remembered love. I don't recall a thing I got on any of those Christmases. Some years were more lean than others. It's possible that on some holiday mornings I didn't manage to get a thing I had wished for. I really don't remember. Because every one of those mornings, and all the other days and hours growing up in that family, I was given the greatest gift of all: the one that destroys meanness in you; the one that provides a sense of the beauty in people and the essence of loving and caring for others; the one that makes you aware of loveliness and the ephemeral yet lasting nature of joy; the one you take for granted all through the many years of being too busy to say what it meant to you. Only now—now when it's too late—I wish I could say to my mother and father how much I appreciate them and how fortunate I am because I was lucky enough to be in that family.
I have a family of my own now. And they're mostly grown. I'm hoping for a grandchild soon. I've tried to teach what I learned all those years in my mother and father's house, all those things I didn't realize I was learning, and that I never knew I'd be so grateful for. When you have love, and it's proffered every day in a kind of tender, yet stern, insistence and even reckless laughter; when it is given to you and you accept it in life as a thing as natural as rain or snow, or the litter of leaves in fall, you can't help but take it for granted. For a bewildered while you incorrectly understand that the world has given you this because it's there in equal measure, everywhere. You never know, until it's too late to do anything about it, how sweet the effort is: how lasting the human will to love can be in the breast of people who want to make it for you; who want to give it to you, without calculating what's in it for them; without thinking at all of what it will mean when you grow to full adulthood, see the world as it is, and forget to mention what you have been given.
Every day of my grown up life, I have wanted to do what my parents did. I have wanted to widen the province of love and weaken hate and bitterness in the hearts of my children. And I've done these things because of what I got from my family, all those lovely years when I was growing up, being loved and cherished, and unbeknownst to me, and in the best way, honored, for myself.
What greater gift is there?
So my father's death was very hard on all of us. We could not accept it at first. He had been so happy that last year, and we had been so lucky to see him a young man again. Dee was the best thing that could have happened to him, and so she is still this family's great gift. We are all grateful to her.
I didn't realize it, but my father's death had another, less-emotional effect on me. I was asked to write his eulogy. I didn't know how I could do that—I didn't see how I could even come close to putting into words what it meant to lose such a powerful force in all of our lives. But I managed to write something, and in the process, I saw the end of my novel. In fact, I included much of my eulogy in the book—as a kind of homage to my father. I said in the dedication that he inspired it.
He really did. I always knew what I was writing about—what Robert Hayden called "love's austere and lonely offices." In fact, I almost called the novel Lonely Offices. But I saw in my father's life—in the way he lived it; in how true he was always to himself and what he believed—the inspiration for my story. Writing the eulogy helped me to see what I was really up to in A Hole in The Earth. I was, essentially, writing everything I could remember and know about what my father believed about the world. I was including my own reaction to it—my own inability to accept it, even—but I wanted to honor what he believed as much as I could. I wanted to put it into words, for him, because he was so true to it, and because he was such a great man. He was as fallible as anyone, and he could throw anger around with the best of them, but I've never really known a more honest man in my life. He truly was just himself. That's what he offered everyone. No pretense, no dissimulation. You always knew where you stood with him. And he was a war hero. He'd won three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, and several unit citations. He'd done things I could scarcely guess and none of us knew about them until he died. He told us vague stories about the war, and some of the funnier things he remembered, but other than that, he never talked about it. We found his medals after he died. I knew I could never live up to him. I wish he were alive to read A Hole in the Earth, because it really is written with as much as I could remember of him, and it is offered lovingly.
I finished the book in the fall of 1998, three years after my father's death. In that same year, Walter Bode at Harcourt made an offer for it. With his considerable help in the editing—especially in the arranging of chapters and episodes in my narrator's life—the book was very much improved. For one thing, Walt asked me to move a chapter about the narrator's boyhood to a place very near the beginning of the novel. It had been somewhere after the middle of the book, but I was willing to try it in the earlier stages of the story. I tried to put it somewhere after the first hundred pages, but Walt said, "No, it's got to come even earlier." I did not see what he was after, but I finally moved the chapter in the book about the narrator's boyhood trips to a place called Sylvan Dell, to around the fourth chapter or so. It was a stroke of genius to put it there. Henry, my narrator, is a fairly dysfunctional guy, and if I had left that chapter for later in the book, many of my readers would have lost interest before they got to it. Walt saw that if I included that childhood event, where Henry is seen very sympathetically as a small boy trying to please his father, that the reader would become much more attached to my narrator and therefore tolerant of his foibles and faults as the story unfolds. Many of the reviewers talked of my ability to make a character as flawed as Henry somebody the reader "cares deeply about." It's in that change, and that was Walt's idea. So you tend to want to stick with an editor like that.
I had no idea how great a success A Hole in the Earth would be. It was finally published in the year 2000. I didn't sell it to Hollywood, as I did with Almighty Me! but it was given a starred review by Publishers Weekly, which characterized it as a "flawlessly expressed novel." It was named a New York Times notable book of the year, a Washington Post favorite book of the year, and as I write this, it's still in print, in hardcover and paperback.
I was very glad to see the book do so well—it could not do justice to the man who inspired it, but at least I honored him in ways that I never dreamed I would. I told him the year before he died that I valued him and our big family over all other things; that what I learned in his house had served me all the days of my life. But still, I wish I could have put that book in his hands and told him once again what growing up in that family meant to me.
The same year that A Hole in the Earth came out, Duke University offered to buy all my papers. I started going through all my old letters, early drafts of manuscripts, and all my old false starts, and I found a book I had begun working on in 1977 or so, called The Gypsy Man. I'd stopped work on it for some reason and totally forgotten about it. I had about a hundred pages, so I sat down and started reading. I didn't much like what I had—which is probably why I stopped work on it—but I saw things I could do with it. The manuscript was in voices—each chapter was a different voice, telling the story. I started with an epigram that said, "Welcome to Crawford Virginia. When you finish talking to all the residents here, maybe you will know the truth about The Gypsy Man." My original plan was to construct each chapter as if it were a person speaking to the reader—maybe even answering questions. I saw, as I reread it, the problem with that concept. If the story was told by different characters in it, I found it necessary to provide exposition in each chapter about who the character was, what role they played in the story, and so on. So the story developed in a sort of start and stop way, and I quickly lost interest in it.
But looking over it, I saw that if I dropped the idea of each character "talking" to an imaginary investigator (the reader) I might be able to tell it anyway. And I liked the idea of telling a story with different narrators. So I started rewriting what I had, and let the story develop as I did without paying too much attention to who was speaking. I let different characters who'd already provided exposition about themselves, back into it—and gradually I came to see whose story it was, and how to tell it. The book ended up with thirteen different narrators, but there are 66 chapters, and many of the narrators have multiple chapters. The main characters, Penny Bone and her husband John, dominate and take center stage in the book. Minor characters like Morgan Tiller, Henry Gault and his wife Myra also tell much of the story. The whole concept of multiple narrators and different voices intrigued me and held me enthralled in that book. I worked on it longer hours and harder than any other piece of work I've ever done. I was teaching six classes again, grading papers part of the day, or reading for a creative writing workshop, or an American Literature class, and taking every spare moment to work on The Gypsy Man. I never knew what character I would be on any particular day, and as the story unfolded I got more and more involved in it.
So did Walt Bode. After I had about four hundred pages, I started sending what I had to him. It was his inspiration and gentle prodding and suggestions that helped me see the final shape of the book, and where it was heading. He also saw that I had an outsider, observing all these characters and frequently taking center stage. A fellow named Turnbull, who I originally conceived as a kind of "greek chorus" or investigator who would observe and comment in the King's English on all these characters and their doings. Walt believed Turnbull had to go. I agonized on it a bit, then realized what Walt was saying to me. If Turnbull were allowed to step outside the story and comment on it, as he so often did, each time he did that, he would take the reader out of the story as well. It would destroy a kind of intimacy that the multiple narrative voices created, and ruin the most powerful effect of the book.
Once I cut all of Turnbull's chapters out, I only needed to create a new "resident" of the town who could be there for the things Turnbull was there for. That gave me Ambrose, who has only one chapter, but who turns out to be an important voice in the book. Losing Turnbull was another stroke of genius on Walt Bode's part so I am doubly grateful to be working with such an editor. (He is no longer with Harcourt but we are continuing to work together on my newest novel. Harcourt agreed to let him continue to edit my work, and I am very grateful for that.)
The Gypsy Man was published in 2002, and as I write this it is still in print. The paperback is due out in November of 2003. While the reviews were very good for this novel, and it got a lot of attention—Kathleen Medwick of O magazine said, "being inside the minds of these characters is an experience so intimate that this becomes one of those rare books that not only sees you through unbearable losses, it almost blinds you with love," and a critic for the New York Times Book Review said it had "the makings of a good blue grass song"—it didn't do as well as I thought it would.
I believed The Gypsy Man had more commercial potential than any other book I'd written, both because of its subject matter and because of the nature of the story. It was a kind of mystery, horror tale, love story, and gothic suspense thriller all rolled into one. In fact, Harcourt had trouble putting a label on it, and toyed with all of those possible categories, before putting the book in its "mystery and suspense" section of the catalogue. In spite of the slow sales on the book, it won the award in fiction for the year 2002 of The Dictionary of Literary Biography, a very high honor, and perhaps that will help it a bit when it is released in paperback.
Now, I am almost finished with another novel. It is called Out of Season. I have a town, and more characters I care about and hope I can make a reader care about. I have been elected to the board of the Penn Faulkner Foundation, and have had the honor of working with a lot of very talented and accomplished writers over the last two years or so, and I look forward to continuing that work for at least one or two more years. I was granted a Presidential Sabbatical in the fall of 2003 to work on my novel. For the first time in my professional life at Northern Virginia Community College, I am being paid to stay at home and write. I am enjoying the time to work, and hope to finish this new novel before Christmas. I'm thinking again, of short stories.
Also, as Christmas approaches, I am thinking a lot of my mother and father. It has been almost two decades since I heard my mother laugh, and now my father has been gone almost a decade himself. Usually this time of year, I am engaged in doing things for and with my own family. Whenever I'm in my office working, and I look at this picture on my desk of my father dancing with Brandon, I remember all those years I was my father's son; I remember my mother's laugh, and the way she made me think of somebody other than myself; I think of my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and all of their children; I remember my own children and all the years of loving and cherishing them; and I realize that in spite of change and sadness and loss, in spite of the withering passage of time, my father is still dancing.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 218: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 11-19.
Best Sellers, May, 1982, Phil DiFebo, review of On the Way Home.
Book, November-December, 2002, Sarah Duxbury, "Brother on Brother: Double Your Reading Pleasure, Double Your Reading Fun," p. 12.
Booklist, October 1, 2002, Carol Haggas, review of The Gypsy Man, p. 300.
Denver Post, December 15, 2002, Tom Walker, "Convict's Plight a Treatise on Racism."
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of The Gypsy Man, p. 1156.
Library Journal, March 1, 2000, Lawrence Rungren, review of A Hole in the Earth, p. 123; October 2, 2002, Michele Leber, review of The Gypsy Man, p. 126.
Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1982, Art Seidenbaum, review of On the Way Home; April 5, 1984, Don Strachan, review of The Lives of Riley Chance, p. 34.
Newsweek, March 22, 1982, Ray Anello, review of On the Way Home.
New York Times, May 13, 1984, Carol Verderese, review of The Lives of Riley Chance, p. 22.
New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1991, David Lehman, review of Almighty Me!, p. 17; December 24, 1995, Linda Rodgers, a review of The White Rooster, and Other Stories, p. 10; August 27, 2000, Will Blythe, "Stumbling out of the Gate," p. 13; October 27, 2002, Sarah Ferguson, "The Gypsy Man: Mountain of Trouble," p. 24.
O, November, 2002, Kathleen Medick, review of The Gypsy Man, p. 176.
Publishers Weekly, August 14, 1995, review of The White Rooster, and Other Stories, p. 71; June 5, 2000, review of A Hole in the Earth, p. 70; September 2, 2002, review of The Gypsy Man, p. 53; September 16, 2002, Bridget Kinsella, "A Tale of Twin Novelists: Richard and Robert Bausch," p. 20.
Washington Post Book World, March 26, 1982; October 22, 2002, Jabari Asim, "Sociobiology as Fiction," p. C04.
Harcourt Books Web site,http://www.harcourtbooks.com/ (December 5, 2003), "Interview with Robert Bausch."