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Main Character: Richard Peabody has devoted his life to Washington's writers. At what cost?

By Lora Engdahl
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; W21

Richard Peabody has spent most of his adult life nurturing and promoting Washington's literary output. Gargoyle, a thick doorstop of a literary magazine that he has published since 1976, has amassed a list of distinguished contributors, including eight National Poetry Series winners, five National Book Award winners, three PEN/Faulkner winners, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and winners of more than a dozen other honors. And he can count at least 30 former university, Writer's Center and private creative writing students who have gone on to sell screenplays or publish books, including many with the most prestigious New York publishing houses. So it was with some displeasure that he stood at the back of the auditorium of the Montgomery College Theatre Arts Building in Rockville last fall listening to Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley inadvertently disparage his life's work.

"The fact of the matter is that the number of respected, certifiably serious novelists now at work within the District of Columbia is embarrassingly small," said Yardley, the keynote speaker at the 15th annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference. "By the District of Columbia, I of course include its suburbs."

"A further fact of the matter is that the 'Washington novel' ... has yet to make a notable contribution to American literature. In fact, it hasn't made any contribution at all."

According to Yardley, Washington's enduring status as a literary backwater derives from the lack of an "indigenous literary community." Many of the serious fiction writers living here came from elsewhere, while writers with roots deep enough to produce the kind of stellar place-based fiction that puts a literary community on the map have failed to explore the narrative riches to be found in the lives of ordinary Washingtonians.

"... I do have some hope, though, that this is in the process of changing," he continued, citing a handful of writers of real achievement and promise. They included people writing about life within the African American community (Marita Golden, Edward P. Jones and Danielle Evans), the intersection between white and black communities (Gary Krist, George Pelecanos and Dinaw Mengestu), life in suburbia (Susan Coll and Julia Slavin) and gay Washington (Andrew Holleran). Still, most of the best literary fiction of the day is being written outside of the United States, Yardley declared in the question-and-answer session after his speech.

Peabody, 59, who was slated to present the short story contest winners that afternoon, leaned against the wall with his arms folded across his chest, sharing rueful comments with Kim Roberts, a local poet and editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly who would spend much of her time on a panel later that day extolling the merits of literary Washington.

As he recalled later, he and Roberts "were just marveling at that disconnect between life as we see it in the trenches and lit life as Yardley sees it.

"When he was going on about Julia Slavin, this new writer, I just had to laugh," he says. "Julia was my student years ago."

Coll and Slavin are part of a vast orbit of Washington writers Peabody has taught or published in his 35-year career as a teacher, freelance book doctor, small press publisher and editor of Gargoyle. In the working literary community, the talents of these writers, as well as those of writers such as Jones and Mengestu, were known before they made a name for themselves, Peabody explains.

"I understand why he said what he said," Peabody says. "Those writers are new to him, and my focus is where his focus is not. I have spent most of my life going to bat for Washington, D.C., and I'm a native, and I care about the home team. I've tried to be one of the people who paid attention and kept it going."

***

Peabody's devotion to writing can in a sense be traced back to his earliest impulse for freedom. At the age of 3 or 4, he let all the birds out of the cages in his father Richard M. Peabody Sr.'s pet store on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda.

"My dad told my mom, 'You gotta do something to keep him out of the store,' and so she read to me," Peabody says.

As he was growing up, Peabody, his younger sister and brother, and mother spent summer vacations in Lexington, N.C., a tiny town with a main street, furniture factory and a bookstore owned by one of his mom's childhood friends.

"The shop was in walking distance of my grandmother's house," Peabody says. "I was always in, buying books, asking questions or reading."

By the time he was a teenager, Peabody was already exhibiting the tendency to defy categorization. He loved books and movies about World War II but also horror, sci-fi and espionage. He was a jock (lettering in wrestling in high school) who didn't hang out with the hippies but was into Jimi Hendrix. In a 2005 interview with the literary magazine MiPOesias, he said the seeds for his writerly ambitions were planted in high school when he was exposed to French cinema -- and spaghetti westerns.

Peabody graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda in 1969 and got his master's in literature from American University in 1975.

"I tried to get into some creative writing classes in grad school at A.U., and the woman who was in charge ... booted me," he recalls. She said, 'This is pedestrian stuff; this isn't any good.'"

After hitchhiking around the country in the spring of 1976, he returned to launch a literary magazine with two other frustrated writers.

When Gargoyle appeared in 1976, it was part of a wave of new literary magazines fueled by the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock and enabled by the widespread availability of cheap offset printing. Peabody and his cohorts saw themselves as young Turks banging at the gate of the "Big Chill" generation, which seemed to hold outsize decision-making power as publishers of the literary magazines born of the counter-cultural revolution in the '60s.

"We were primarily focused on the young -- young people want to read young people -- and the forgotten," Peabody explained. When he interviewed Allen Ginsberg about Jack Kerouac in the late 1970s, he says, few of Kerouac's books were then in print. "As hard as that may be to believe right now."

The first four issues of Gargoyle were newsprint rags like the early Rolling Stone, with record and film reviews, fiction and poetry, and, in at least one instance, a giant back page ad for Maggie's Farm, a head shop in Takoma Park. Subsequent issues were hardbound, higher-grade paper publications.

In the early days of Gargoyle, a literary scene started to coalesce around The Writer's Center, which opened at Glen Echo Park in the late '70s (later moving to Bethesda). Founded by Allan Lefcowitz, Merrill Leffler, Mary MacArthur and Richard King, The Writer's Center came along when coffeehouses were dying out and there were few places to have readings, Peabody says. The center had a printing press on the premises and held classes to fund operations.

"It was a pretty exciting time," he recalls. "We were all sort of meeting each other for the very first time. ... There was a lot of writing activity ... [and] The Writer's Center provided a focus, a place for that energy to collect and gather."

By decade's end, Peabody's co-publishers had left and been replaced by his new girlfriend, Gretchen Johnsen, a poet from Tacoma, Wash., who worked as a chef for then Washington power couple Averell and Pamela Harriman. Peabody and Johnsen operated Gargoyle and Paycock Press (the small press established to publish Gargoyle) from a manuscript-filled basement apartment in Georgetown.

Financing the work with credit cards and odd jobs, they traversed the country in Johnsen's old Volvo to get their product on bookstore shelves. Their literary romance was so colorful and productive (16 issues, including three well-reviewed fiction-only editions) that its breakup was chronicled in The Washington Post.

While it lasted, the duo -- tagged Scott and Zelda by their friends -- had made a name "as serious editors, dedicated to the proposition that there is literary life in Washington," wrote Post reporter Mary Battiata.

"Whether the end of the relationship means the end of Gargoyle, only Richard Peabody can say, and he isn't sure," the article said.

What the article didn't say was that Johnsen had dumped Peabody for one of his workshop students at Northern Virginia Community College in Manassas. The article appeared on the front page of the Style section in The Post in May 1987 on the same day the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference opened in Washington. Peabody -- then living in a cramped apartment behind a bakery in Bethesda -- had put up for the night his friend Ed Hogan, a small publisher from Boston.

"Of course, Ed is trying to cheer me up as we're getting ready to go and sell books and meet people downtown," Peabody remembers. "And he says, 'You know, no one's going to read that.' ... Well, we get on the Metro, and there's a bunch of high school girls reading the paper, and they point at me. 'Right, Ed; thanks, Ed; you're wrong. I'm just going to go kill myself now.'"

At that point, Peabody was already conflicted about the trajectory of his life.

"I think I'm getting too old to work in a bookstore," The Post quoted Peabody as saying. "I mean, I'd like to get married, have a family and write, too."

But after the article came out, he promptly got his fourth job at a bookstore (Second Story Books in Bethesda) and started to teach sessions at The Writer's Center, now in Bethesda. He quit publishing Gargoyle in 1990 for about seven years but filled his time with other revenue-neutral literary projects, namely, co-editing a series of anthologies for St. Martin's Press.

Julia Slavin, who took classes from Peabody at The Writer's Center in 1993, remembers the impression Peabody made when he walked into the classroom for the first time.

"He had this very pained expression on his face, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, it's a real artist!'" she says, laughing. "He sat down and said he was completely miserable about life. He said, 'I'm 41 years old, and I haven't worked in five months, and if you think this is going to be easy, you are sorely mistaken.' ... Nobody got up to leave. His skin was pale, his hair was dark and all over the place, and he was wearing Doc Martens. He was just the embodiment of cool."

***

Peabody is again working in a basement, this time in the cellar of the family compound, a small brick home in Arlington, which he shares with his wife, Margaret Grosh, an economist at the World Bank; and his two daughters, Twyla, 10; and Laurel, 8. The home office accommodates his other job as his family's chauffeur and short-order cook. Among the various indignities associated with this less-than-august setting is the sign Twyla wrote in block letters on the chalkboard at the bottom of the stairs: "You have the basement."

Past the washer and dryer, past the card table with the hamster cage on top, is a small room with wall-to-ceiling shelves filled with books, many of which are personally inscribed. A path flanked by chest-high stacks of storage boxes and knee-high stacks of manuscripts forks left to a tiny desk without an inch of available surface space and right to another room with more boxes, books and files.

Among the stacks of manuscripts are two short story collections and two books of poems he wrote that have been circulated to publishers for a few years, so far to no avail. He says he also has a memoir of stay-at-home fatherhood he was unable to sell, a topic since covered by a slew of books by younger dads.

Although the years since his marriage in 1999 have not been fruitful for his own writing, they have been his most rewarding years as an editor. In the past decade, Peabody's Paycock Press has published 10 books, including multi-author collections of fiction and poetry. On board for publishing later in 2011 is "Daisy Buchanan's Daughter," a 600-plus-page "Gatsby" spinoff by Tom Carson, movie critic for GQ and author of "Gilligan's Wake" (Picador, 2003); and the next issue of Gargoyle.

In naming Peabody "Best Literary Personage of 2008," the Washington City Paper wrote that Gargoyle (which Peabody and co-editor Lucinda Ebersole brought back in 1997) has published "many of contemporary lit's better-known authors, from former poet laureate Rita Dove, locals-done-good Richard McCann and Mary Kay Zuravleff, and current lit luminaries like Julia Alvarez, John McNally, and Jennifer Egan."

But these days Peabody is most fired up about something else mentioned in the review: his series of anthologies of short fiction by Washington area women.

He started the series with "Grace and Gravity" in 2004 to showcase all of the women writers whose originality and vision excited him but who were frustrated because they couldn't get riskier work published. But the concept quickly evolved to publish original works by new writers alongside better-known authors, whose very success may have locked them into the styles their publishers felt comfortable marketing. As a result, the anthologies reflect Gargoyle's anything-goes aesthetic, mixing experimental and realist fiction, pop culture and literariness in a way that mainstream publishing usually does not.

"I tell them they can write anything they want, and they just go nuts with that freedom," he says.

All but the first anthology -- four to date with a fifth on the way later this year -- have been launched at Politics and Prose to standing-room-only crowds.

While the books haven't gotten much attention outside of mentions on WETA, in the City Paper and on events calendars, Peabody measures their impact in terms of the friendships forged among writers who connected at the launch events and went on to form relationships that have outlived the publication itself.

Still, all of this -- the publishing, the teaching, the contest judging -- was supposed to be a means to an end: tenured professorship bracketed by summers devoted to his own writing. Since that never happened, he sometimes wonders why he bothers.

"I've been in debt most of my life, and that is hard," he says. "Some in the local literary community who get that I am not successful at making money, they go, 'I can't believe you've done this this long.'

"... I have to believe that the universe, God, the Muses of Art -- they have a reason for it all."

***

While politics and government will always be the main story in Washington, fiction writers here say there is an upside to their second-class status. They describe a literary community that is more collegial and less insular than New York City's -- a good place to grow as a writer.

Peabody "is the great connector," says Mary Kay Zuravleff, author of two novels, "The Bowl Is Already Broken" and "The Frequency of Souls," both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "Frequency" won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award and the American Academy of Arts & Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and both books were reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and other U.S. and British publications. Zuravleff, who met Peabody after he nominated for a Pushcart Prize a story of hers published in Gargoyle in 1988, says he put her in touch with the writing groups that have been instrumental in her development.

"You know those theories about networking where you only need one person with a certain number of connections and then you can connect everybody? He is in the beehive," she explains. "And he's a publisher, and he's a very good editor."

Peabody has passed along his literary magazine editing knowledge to the younger generation. Former Johns Hopkins student Julie Wakeman-Linn, who teaches at Montgomery College, tapped Peabody's expertise when she became editor of the Potomac Review in 2005. Since 2007, the Potomac Review has been sponsoring a literary conference with the Baltimore Review and Barrelhouse, a literary magazine launched in 2005 that now counts three former Peabody students on its staff. According to Barrelhouse co-founder David Housley, Barrelhouse owes its focus on literary takes on popular culture in part to the boundary-stretching lessons of Peabody's experimental fiction class at Hopkins. In fact, the first story in the first issue of Barrelhouse had been written for Peabody's class.

"The most important thing I got from Richard was permission to write whatever, to write the way that I write," says Julia Slavin, author of "The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories." The short-story collection, which was published by Henry Holt in 1999, was named a New York Times Notable Book that year, along with such works as "Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan and "Waiting" by Ha Jin. Slavin followed up with "Carnivore Diet" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), which The Post's Yardley named one of the best three books of literary fiction of 2005.

"Richard Peabody [is] one of the few keepers of literature's flame in this Beltway Zone of political buzz writing," asserts an e-mail message from James Grady, a Washington fiction author and journalist for politicsdaily.com best known for his novel that became Robert Redford's "Three Days of the Condor."

Still, Peabody can be brusque, resulting in occasional bruised egos, says Carolyn Parkhurst, an early Writer's Center student who went on to get a master's in fine arts at American University and hit the New York Times Best Sellers list with her first book, "The Dogs of Babel."

"He scared me originally," admits Juan Gaddis, a student of Peabody's at Hopkins in the mid-2000s who will be pursuing a doctorate in English at Howard University.

But as the semester wore on, intimidation by Peabody's characteristic admonitions to heed one's own instincts and self-edit rather than relying on others to pinpoint flaws gave way to respect, Gaddis says.

"Richard is one of the few people that I know who treasures others' writing as if it were his own, with great care," he said. "And, in that respect, I think that is what makes him different from a lot of people."

***

In December, the New York Times published Janet Maslin's review of "Lord of Misrule," the "exotic and uncategorizable" book that had recently won the National Book Award for fiction. The article said that author Jaimy Gordon's first novel, "Shamp of the City-Solo," "had fallen into relative obscurity by the middle 1980s, when Ms. Gordon discussed it in a long interview with Gargoyle Magazine."

"Gargoyle is the sort of publication that has ardently scrutinized Ms. Gordon's work over the years. More mainstream ones, like The New York Times, have managed barely to notice her at all," Maslin went on.

Gordon recalls Peabody treating her "like a celebrity" and says that the 1983 interview in Gargoyle "made me feel more important than I was, and that was essential to continuing to be a writer."

Recognition in the Times "was a fabulous thing to happen," Peabody says. "But what it has gleaned in hard fact: Two subscriptions, one sale of a sample issue, and I've been sent 50 novel manuscripts. I think people read the article and assumed I had published the book."

Gordon's National Book Award is a different twist to a familiar refrain: Peabody standing on the sidelines, watching the successes of others. Although a fair amount of his own writing has been published (a novella, three slender books of short stories and five books of poems), they were published by small presses and not widely sold.

"I am happy for the people whose work I admire ... for them to do well and succeed, but there is always that part of you that goes, 'Aw, man!'" Peabody says. "There is a writer [a former student] who, when she sold her first book, she goes, 'Oh, my God, what did you do when you got a check that looked like this?' And she looked at me. And I looked at her. I never got a contract like that. And it was a really poignant moment, because there was a realization on her part -- 'Oh,' she just moved past me, and it hurt, because it's the end of that relationship. It alters it."

"It will always be happy/sad," he added. "You are happy for your friends, and then go home and kinda grind your teeth. 'Why not me?'"

Peabody has the beginnings of a new novel in old copier paper boxes in his office. It's about myths and mentor relationships, told from a woman's point of view. He hopes to take advantage of a lightening workload this spring and get back to it.

"I like to think -- and it may not be a complete delusion -- that there are some people out there waiting to see what I am going to come up with. After all these years. And I hope that's true, and I hope I don't disappoint them."

Lora Engdahl is a Washington area writer and co-editor with former Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros of "From Despair to Hope: HOPE VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America's Cities." She can be reachedat wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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