Stafford author and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee releases newest tome.
The life of a writer can seem unassuming, on the surface. On the day of my interview with author Robert Bausch, I drive to his house in Stafford, a two-level colonial with a curved, tree-lined drive that hides it from view on the main road. Unassuming things seem to happen here. Today, a junk company is coming by to clear a mound of unwanted possessions from the garage. A team of delivery men drop off a new grill for the back deck. His wife leaves the house for the day, and Bausch calls goodbye, his affectionate sendoff meeting her at the front door. “Goodbye, lady!” he cries out, cheerfully, from the living room.
Delve behind the everyday minutiae, though, and stories emerge, vignettes from the life of a prolific but little-known Northern Virginia writer. The removal service comes by semi-regularly, part of a gradual effort, Bausch says, to get rid of a lot of junk. He wants to pare down the things in the house in case he and his wife, Denny, ever decide to move to California, a relocation that would reunite them with Bausch’s son—a musician who just moved there from the house in Stafford—and twin brother Richard, another award-winning author who teaches at Chapman University.
The new grill is there after an unfortunate incident with its predecessor—earlier that summer, Bausch placed a rack of lamb on his old grill, only to find the meat in flames when he went to check on it a few minutes later. A new model was obviously required, something hardier that could withstand the wear and tear of enthusiastic cooking.
Even his goodbye to Denny, that simple domestic scene, masks a deeper story. Bausch first met his wife in 1982 at Northern Virginia Community College in Woodbridge, where both worked as professors, and both went home at night to other families. As the two fell in love slowly, then all at once, they were forced to decide whether it was better to hide their feelings and protect their families, or to break apart two marriages for a love that ran more deeply than they ever intended.
“At first we decided it would be better to hurt two people than to hurt five,” Bausch says, looking at me intently from his armchair. “But later we knew it would be wrong of us not to pursue it.”
Bausch is an excellent storyteller with an interesting life, facts that obviously translate to his extensive writing career. He’s published eight novels and a book of short stories and been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out the first time to Alice Walker for “The Color Purple.”
That first book, “On the Way Home,” was inspired by a student he taught in his English class at Northern Virginia Community College, who had served in Vietnam and been captured by the Viet Cong. Maureen Ryan, an English professor and Vietnam scholar at The University of Southern Mississippi, wrote that it was “perhaps the first to present the ruinous effects on his family of the veteran’s maladjustment,” a fancy way of saying, Bausch says, that he was “writing about PTSD before they even named it.”
After cutting his teeth on historical fiction with his first book, Bausch is reclaiming the genre with his latest work, a novel called “Far As The Eye Can See.” Due on shelves this month, the story follows Bobby Hale, a Union veteran working to navigate the Western frontier after the Civil War. Along the way, violence on the frontier blocks his dreams of success, and he’s forced to navigate the conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans while trying to make it back to his home base in Montana and his one love, a woman named Evaline.
The novel covers a lot of ground, and when he first began writing, Bausch was having trouble with forming it into a cohesive story. “The book was picaresque, and episodic—it just wasn’t doing anything,” he says. It wasn’t until he began emailing a young writer with advice for her budding novel that he realized he needed to follow his own lessons, and “write his way to the end.”
“To finish a book, you have to be willing to write badly,” Bausch says. “With my book, I realized that I had to think of the ending, and I realized that the story was more of a quest. Bobby was like Odysseus—he was just trying to get back to Evaline.”
With that in mind, the novel came together, and what was once a series of vignettes set in the Western wilderness became a mid-18th century odyssey—the story of one man trying to fight his way to the woman he loves.
To Bausch, the story is fiction, inspired by the movies and television and books that surrounded him around the time he decided to begin the novel. But from an outsider’s eye, the book unexpectedly parallels stories from his own life, imbuing the work with a personalism that transcends simple historical fiction.
Robert Bausch writes himself into his books, and the stories radiate with the energy that his presence lends them. This is what makes Bausch a good writer. But to understand those influences, you have to do some digging, breaking the surface of everyday details to find the stories buried underneath. – Kate Masters