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Truth and Trouble
A conversation with Richard Bausch

August 20, 1998

Early on in his career, Richard Bausch -- the author of the short story ("Par") in the August Atlantic -- decided that writing twenty books seemed a reasonable goal. With eight novels and four short-story collections to date, and with two works slated to be published in the next two years, he is well on his way.

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Richard Bausch

Bausch's characters tend to feel unsafe in the world. (That is certainly the case of John Dallworth, the protagonist of "Par.") Unable to communicate their fears to loved ones, they frequently have trouble sleeping; during the night they dwell on the forces that threaten their lives. Bausch describes his haunted view of life as a form of "spiritual arthritis," and has written, "In every circumstance, all my life, my mind shows me the possible bad outcome: someone walks down steps, and before I can do anything to head the image off, I see a fall, a catastrophe."

"Par" is Bausch's seventh story in The Atlantic (his first, "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona" was published in April, 1983), and his stories have also appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, Playboy, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. Bausch has received many accolades, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1982, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Best Writers' Award in 1992, the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Award in Literature in 1993, and a membership to the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 1997. He has been twice nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award, for Take Me Back (1982) and for Spirits and Other Stories (1988). His most recent novel is In the Night Season (1998).

Currently the Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University, Bausch lives in Virginia with his wife, Karen, and their five children. His twin brother, Robert, is also a writer and a novelist; the two may well be the only identical-twin novelists in literary history.

Bausch recently was interviewed by The Atlantic Monthly's Leslie Cauldwell.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Facts & Fiction:

Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)

Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)

Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)

Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)

Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)

E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)

Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)

Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)

Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)

Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)

More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Character Sketch
Rural Virginia.

MFA, University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.


First Publication
"The Wife's Tale," in Ploughshares, 1978.

Last Book Read
Elizabeth Appleton, by John O'Hara.

Writing Habits
"I have written with babies sleeping on my chest. I write at all hours, in all places -- I've often been most comfortable sitting at the kitchen table scribbling late at night, when everyone is asleep. Lately, though, I sit in my little book-lined room and write and type. It's just simpler that way. I have little patience with writers who claim they need special circumstances in which to work -- Shostakovich wrote the great Leningrad Symphony during the siege of that city."

Advice to Writers
"Read, read, read. And write every day. Never compare yourself to anyone but yourself. The question you ask of yourself each evening is: Did I write, did I spend the time? Show up for work every day, like any good citizen."

You've written eight novels and four short-story collections so far. You've said that your first love is the short story, and that you began writing novels because you "couldn't sell" your stories. Why do you prefer stories to novels, and what's your approach to writing each? Have your ideas of the novel and short story changed over the years?

I wish I'd never said that about my first love. I love all of it. I write novels because I love them -- love reading them, love being in the middle of writing them. I said that about the short story when I was in the middle of trying to write a novel called Mr. Field's Daughter, which was killing me and feeling like nothing but the most intractable work. I was fighting a battle to keep the novel from becoming a mere exercise in skill. My heart wasn't engaged. When I finally did find my way to the heart of that novel I felt as good as I've ever felt about anything in this arduous and troubling and beautiful occupation. So I have, for most of this decade, been having to retract that glib and rather stupid statement I made about short stories and novels. I love working on both. And I try to give everything to it, each time I sit down to work.

Two of your short stories have won National Magazine Awards for fiction, and many have been included in prestigious anthologies. I've read, though, that you think "The Brace" is one of your best works, even though it wasn't picked up by any of the magazines, and that you put down your first attempt of the National Magazine Award-winning "Belle Star" because it wasn't "my kind of story at all." Are you surprised by what work of yours becomes popular?

Everything about this surprises me.

A critic has described your concerns -- the most important of which you have listed as "family, fear, love, and anything that is irrecoverable and missed" -- as moral concerns. Do you agree?

The word "moral" gets used so loosely these days. I try to write about things that matter. To be concerned with what Shelby Foote once called "matters that are worth a grown up's time." The rest I let take care of itself. That quote was from an interview I did when I was very young and full of certainty. It is faintly embarrassing now.

In the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series you describe how as a child you made "the acquaintance of my imagination, which I have since learned to trust, recognizing the corrosive, self-digestive thing it can be if one is not turning it on the world outside." Would your imagination digest you if you weren't turning it on the world through your writing?

Quite. It is as certain as sunrise.

I've read that you've had to put aside a few works that weren't going well. At what point do you know when a piece of writing is going to work out or not? Do you have many partly finished projects that you intend to return to?

There are always ten or eleven things in various stages of composition lying around. I work on anything that seems ready to yield up surprises. Some things lie around for years, others for a few days. I never know why or question any of it. I just try to go with what comes to hand and seems amenable to my fooling with it.

In at least three of your books you've used alternating narrators. It seems like you can narrate from any point of view. Are there any kinds of narrators you have trouble with, or that you stay away from?

I trust imagination and empathy. So, no, there is no character I would shy away from using or writing about.

You've said that people have reacted negatively to the violent aspect of some of your stories. They've asked how you can write about "murder and pain and families that are far from happy" when you yourself have such a happy marriage and come from a wonderful family. Your cryptic response has been that these people "don't understand it's because I have a long marriage ... because the obdurate forces of love have been active throughout my life." Can you explain what you're getting at here? What's the connection between violence and love in your writing?

There is no connection between violence and love in my writing. We live in a violent world, and love is mostly all we have as a hedge against it. Love is what we need to survive violence; there is that, I guess. But mostly the question of my subject matter as opposed to my life seems to come from the fairly recent idea that fiction writers are always trying to exorcise inner ghosts by writing. I write because I'm a pretty good storyteller. I like telling stories. I make up stories. And stories, always and inevitably, involve trouble. Trouble, in this very frightful culture, most often comes to us in the form of violence. I like to ask people to imagine a novel or story that isn't a war of one kind or another (interior or exterior, psychological or physical). We could call it How Happy We All Are and How Easy Everything Has Been and What We All Ate. Nothing could be more dull, and nothing could be farther from the truth. And, of course, I am a writer interested in the truth. Not any particular philosophical truth, but the truth of experience: felt life. When I find that quality in any fiction, mine or anyone else's, my allegiance to it begins, and there it remains.

You've been teaching English and Creative Writing, at George Mason University and several others, since 1980. You've said your performance in the classroom has been enhanced by your experience as a stand-up comedian, that doing schtick in class makes for good teaching. How is this so? What else makes for good teaching?

You know, I don't recall saying that. I guess I must've. But I only mean that any time you have an audience, and you want them to hear you, you had better be interesting. What makes for good teaching? Patience, understanding, encouragement. Prodding, cajoling, demanding, listening. Knowing when to be sympathetic, and when to be tough. Paying attention, assuming nothing. All those things. I don't teach writing -- I teach living this life, contending with the possibilities and limitations in words, appreciating this blessed occupation. I teach being willing to accept failure as a part of your destiny, and learning to concentrate on each day's work. Just showing up for work in the days.

  • More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

  • Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

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