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Off the Page: Richard Bausch

With Richard Bausch
Award-Winning Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2003; 1:00 PM

Richard Bausch has written nine critically acclaimed novels, but his short stories may be his strongest work. In just a few pages, he can portray the sad adulthood of a 16-year-old boy forced to grow up early when his mother becomes ill, as in "The Last Day of Summer," or the desperation of a man, as in "Valor," who risks his life to save people in a bus accident--and then his wife still leaves him.

His close tracing of a modern male consciousness might feel like Hemingway if his male characters weren't so often at their lowest--there isn't much bluster left in them.

_____The Post on Bausch_____
The Brothers Bausch: Twins Share Writing Trade
Review: 'Hello to the Cannibals'
Review: 'In the Night Season'
Review 'Rare and Endangered Species'
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Bausch has put together a selection of his short stories from his career in The Stories of Richard Bausch. He was online Thursday, Nov. 20 to discuss his new collection and the art of the short story. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello book lovers! Today we have as our guest Richard Bausch, the award-winning writer, who will discuss his new collection of stories--and anything else that comes along as he walks around a parking lot at National Airport, looking for his car. Do you suppose this will make it into a short story?

Richard Bausch: No, nobody would want to read about an idiot like this.

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Washington, D.C.: Please: tell me three books, or three authors, who have profoundly affected you -- either as a person or an author or both.

Richard Bausch: The three writers are Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Chekhov. They're the best--there's nobody better. They're the ones for me that get my motor running. They write about human distress. "In a rapture of distress/ sing of human unsuccess./ In the prison of his days/ teach the free man how to praise." From Auden.

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Carole Burns: Kirkus Reviews is calling The Stories of Richard Bausch
"the book for which Bausch will be remembered." Do you agree?

Richard Bausch: I didn't know Kirkus said that. I don't read reviews. I don't know. I think Hello to the Cannibals is a candidate. I'm a good story writer, but that novel's got stuff in it nobody's even noticed yet.

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Washington, D.C.: How many of your novels are stories that just outgrew the boundaries you thought you'd established for them? Do you write stories and novels simultaneously? Do you know immediately which is which?

Richard Bausch: Three times it's happened, with Real Presence, Rebel Powers, which i thought was a 10-page radio story when i started, and which was the third one? How am I supposed to know--I don't know where my car is.

I always write stories, and I write poems, too. I just never sell them to anybody, but I write them. They're good, too. They never leave the house. They're too disclosing. I get to hide in the fiction.

Once I thought I had a novel and it turned out it was only a short story. I wrote about 800 pages, but it ended up being a short story. And if it ever happens to me again, I Will Go Insane. "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona." But it's not in the new book. I left it out. It's a story that makes me feel sick, because of what I had to go through. It's the first story I ever published too, in The Atlantic Monthly.

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Iowa City, Iowa: Hello from the heartland, and from the writers' workshop. I'm currently teaching two undergrad workshops here at Iowa, as well as putting the finishing touches on a novel and balancing the demands of being in the workshop. Since you've been through all of this, I was wondering if you would talk a bit about how teaching informs your work, or takes away from it, or if it's just a necessary evil of today's marketplace, or some amalgam of all three.

Richard Bausch: I love teaching. If I made a trillion dollars I would still teach. It's different every day. You get to meet intelligent people all the time--or at least most of the time.

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Carole Burns: Many of your stories are so searing--people making their last grasp at hope, and then, within the pages of their story you're telling, at least, letting go of it. Why do you suppose you choose this moment in a person's life to tell?

Richard Bausch: I don't really choose those moments, they choose me. That moment comes up, and then I know the story's done. It's almost as if I'm listening to a symphony, and you just know that it's coming to an end. That happens in the prose for me, where there's a cadence that takes over in the prose, it's hitting its notes here, it's coming to the end. And I don't always know what the story means, particularly.

In "Valor," (Carole's note: in which a man saves people from a bus accident, then his wife still leaves him) I had no idea that any of that was going to happen. I had no idea that when he was ready to lie about why he was in the bar, that he would find he has to tell the truth, because he's done this brave thing, and he would feel he'd dishonor it, if he lied. Though the story doesn't say that.

It took me a long time to learn that the most valorous thing he does in that story is touch his wife's shoulder, so she knows she doesn't have anything to fear from him.

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Washington, DC: Do you think the art of short story writing is dying? Is everything about the pop-culture novel now? Thanks!

Richard Bausch: No, I don't think it's dying. All the people that say that, the short story will be at their funeral. It's never going away. There are more people in this country writing fiction as good as it's going to be written, in terms of the short story, than ever in the world. Imagine at the same time, having Grace Paley, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell--that generation--all in the same place. George Garrett--these are all people who write short stories. Elizabeth Spencer. Moving down to my generation, Tim O'Brien, Richard Ford, Jill McCorkle, Rick Bass, Lee Smith, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Ann Beattie, Allan Gurganus, Barry Hannah, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Jayne Anne Phillips, Allen Wier, Fred Busch, Tobias Wolff, my brother Robert. And I'm leaving people out who are writing short stories as good as they've ever been written. Elizabeth Spencer's "The Light in the Piazza." That's just one. They're jewels. People are going to look back 70 years from now and marvel at the riches there are.

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Lyme, Conn.: Out of curiosity, how does an 800-page novel become a short story? Did you realize that the story could be told just as well in condensed form? What extra existed between the short story and what was contained in the rest of the pages?

Richard Bausch: Just like a kidney stone is passed.

I thought I was writing a novel and it ended up being 800 pages of crap around one thing that was real and alive, and unfortunately all of the crap was necessary to arrive at that. Nothing is ever wasted. If you do this, every single time you do it, you learn stuff. That's why there's only one question to ask yourself every day: Did you write today? If the answer's yes, it's the only question you have to ask.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bausch, Thank you for doing this today. My question for you is how do you create your characters' personalities? Observation? Personal experience? Complete imagination? They seem so true to life. Thank you.

Richard Bausch: It's all imagination. It's all made up. I never use any models. There's an explanation of that, that it's a little complicated to say, but it has to do with Flannery O'Connor's comment that a good story is literal in the same sense that a child's drawing is literal. And if I'm making it up completely, it's a child's drawing. If you're making up a room for a story, whatever your subconscious presents you with to say about this room probably has to do with the concerns of the story precisely because it occurs to you to say it. If you're writing about a room you've been in, you have the problem of selection. There was a spitoon there, should I mention that? So that's how I mean it. It's just made up. You just make it up, and trust it.

But then, having dreamed it up, you have to go through it, and through it, and through it, and through it over and over again, getting to know about it a little bit more each time. Getting smarter every time. Until it's done. And even then, you don't know everything that's there. You just trust that it is.

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Carole Burns: A few weeks ago, one of our readers asked Joyce Carol Oates if she thought the idea of macho writers, such as Hemingway and Mailer, was dead. She said yes. What do you think? How does your writing fit into or cast off that idea?

Richard Bausch: I have always considered myself lucky to be able to write about men and women with, I've been told anyway, equal acuity and insight. Because I trust the subconscious, entirely. And having published last year a novel whose central characters are two women separated by 100 years, I'm basically a weenie. How macho is that?

I hate all those designations. I want to do an anthology made up of stories about one-eyed homosexuals. Mailer published some great novels. Hemingway was a great writer. I hate all the designations. And I've been called macho, and someone wanted me to be interviewed for a series called The Rough South. I turned them down. I don't like the designation.

How macho is Willa Cather? Yet she can make your blood jump. The murder scene in O Pioneers. Jesus. No male writer ever wrote a murder any better than that. So I bridle against the designations.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think writing can be taught?

Richard Bausch: No. I don't teach writing. I teach patience. Toughness. Stubbornness. The willingness to fail. I teach the life. The odd thing is most of the things that stop an inexperienced writer are so far from the truth as to be nearly beside the point. When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent. People who have no talent don't have any doubt. And it's figuring that out and learning how to put all that stuff behind you and just do the work. Just go in and shake the black cue ball and see what surfaces.

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Leesburg, Va.: Mr. Bausch, Do you imagine your characters fully, before sitting down to write about them,and if so, when do you actaully sit down to write about them? Richard Bausch: I start writing with an image or a voice, but I don't know anything when I start. The only thing I know is that I'm starting. And learn it as I go. That's why it's so hard, you have to learn all over again, because each one is different. I've written 16 books, and I had to learn how to write each one of them. The real artistry comes with rewriting. And that's where the real work is. But at no time is it a rational thing that I'm doing. It's at the level of an animal smelling blood. It's that kind of knowledge. And if it does not surprise me, I don't trust it.

When you're dreaming it up the first time, you are using the side of you that looks out your eyes when you wake up from a nightmare and for an instant don't remember what species you are. That's the part of you you're dreaming it out of. Then when you've dreamed it up, you go through it again and again and again, using more and more the side of you that figures out how to open up the gate when you've got two bags of groceries in your arm and you don't want to put them down. And that's really all there is to it. It's simple in the same way that virtue is simple, which means, it's damn near impossible to do.

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Carole Burns: What an entertaining exchange! Thanks so much, Richard, for answering our questions--with the loudspeakers from the airport occasionally blaring in your ear. And good luck finding your car.

And thanks for everyone submitting questions. "Off the Page" is skipping Thanksgiving week, and will return Dec. 4 with Tobias Wolff, a PEN/Faulkner winner and the author of This Boy's Life, who will talk about his new novel, Old School.

And remember, today we have two other book discussions on Live Online today. Join Post critic Michael Dirda right now for his weekly discussion. And at 3, join The Post's Book Club for a discussion about Murray Kempton's book, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties.

Finally, get news every week from "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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