What's this?" asks the Virginia-cured voice on the phone. Not "Hi, Mark, it's Dick"; Richard Bausch starts with a joke. "Clop, clop, clop, cloppity-clop," he says. "Clop, clop, cloppity-clop, bang! Clop, clop, cloppity-clop."
"I don't know," I said, because I didn't.
"An Amish drive-by shooting."
I roar. Hadn't heard that one. Dick roars, too. He's a great, throaty laugher.
I tell him one. He's polite and lets me go, but he's heard it. Still, he laughs. Richard Bausch is a lot of things:
A long-ago wannabe priest ("I met Karen," he says of his wife of nearly 30 years, over whom he is still clearly gaga, "and that was the end of that")
A former singer/songwriter (his band once opened for Janis Joplin at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago)
A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop (where his classmates included Alan Gurganus and Jane Smiley)
The better-known half of America's preeminent writing twins (brother Robert is the author of five books, including ALMIGHTY ME)
A consummate family man (father of five, two boys and three girls)
A consummate writer's writer (author of seven novels, including most recently the charming Good Morning Mr. and Mrs. America, and All the Ships at Sea, new in paperback, and four collections of short stories, including The Selected Stories of Richard Bausch -- a Modern Library edition, which is an extraordinary honor for a writer in his early 50s)
A frequent honoree in Best American Short Stories, including the just-released 1997 edtition, which features his hilarious story "Nobody in Hollywood"
A guy who used to be my teacher (in grad school, at George Mason University in Virginia, where Bausch himself was an undergraduate and where he has taught for more than 20 years)
Holder of the Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason, a position the president of the university created especially for Bausch, who declined the perks that went with it, insisting the school instead give $10,000 a year in student fellowships
But, to any of his friends, and any of his readers, too, the first thing you think of when you think of Richard Bausch is this: storyteller. More so than anybody I know, the man is addicted to stories: telling 'em, writing 'em, seeing 'em, hearing 'em, talking about 'em, you name it. Even being on the phone with him drenches the caller in narrative. A few jokes to get rolling (he is a walking, talking joke encyclopedia). Anecdotes about sour, book-hating lit-crit colleagues. A long, passionate discussion of movies, recent and otherwise, complete with Bausch's note-perfect mimicry of favorite scenes from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, A Fish Called Wanda, and The Full Monty.
Then it's on to shoptalk. Bausch has seen an awful lot of aspects of the writing life. He's been a struggling novelist and become a writer whose current editor, Robert Jones, put his job on the line to pressure his bosses at HarperCollins to authorize enough money to sign Bausch to the house. He's flirted with Hollywood, though so far only his novel The Last Good Time was made into a movie (a pretty good one, actually). Although he's a homebody with good work habits, he gets out enough to have met and befriended nearly all the best American writers; in this conversation, pals who show up in one story or another include Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie, George Garrett, Charles Baxter, and Tim O'Brien -- all without Bausch's ever remotely seeming to name-drop.
Although he gets a book out every couple of years now, Bausch was once much slower; his big breakthrough, both artistically and in terms of productivity, came after he got stuck on a novel that would have been his fourth, after he worked on it for years and finally realized it was crap and went out in the backyard and burned it, page by page, savoring the wave of relief that washed over him.
Right after that, he started writing short stories again (he'd only occasionally written them since grad school, with modest success), and the stories got snapped up by the likes of The Atlantic and The New Yorker. The books that came in the productive wake of the backyard crap-burning -- Spirits and Other Stories, his first collection, and Mr. Field's Daughter -- garnered for Bausch the usual fine reviews, though perhaps somewhat more so, plus healthier sales and better commitment from his publisher.
Still, Bausch's warm, accessible books, rich with knowing insights into the vagaries of familial love, have never, even collectively, reached the audience that flocks to a single Oprah-knighted success. His books have sold respectably. "I don't know and I don't ask" which book has sold the most, he says; his guess is either Good Morning Mr. and Mrs. America or Violence.
"You can't think too much about the audience you deserve," he says. "It'll make you old and bitter," citing the miserable case of William Faulkner, who, when his due finally came, was too embittered to enjoy it. "If you're allowed to publish books, you have to count yourself lucky. You can't think about the rest of it."
He tells a story: a few months after the publication of his second novel, Take Me Back, Bausch was riding in a car with George Garrett, complaining about the book's reception, or lack thereof. Garrett -- a courtly, genial man, and a sort of mentor to Bausch -- listened to as much of this as he could take. Finally, he turned to Bausch. "What do you want?" Garrett snapped. "Do you want to be a celebrity or do you want to be a writer? They're going to publish your next book, aren't they?"
"Well, then," Garrett said. "What do you want?"
At the end of this story, Bausch doesn't laugh. "I always remember that," he says softly.
We let this wisdom sink in a while.
"Okay," Bausch says, brightening. "This priest cancels Mass, to go hunting. He's out in the woods, and suddenly a bear starts chasing him...."