The plan was to interview John Barth for the premiere issue of Gargoyle. That’s what I hoped. Didn’t happen. Our second issue had appeared before I decided to try. Not considering what day it was or what time of year I just hopped in the car and drove up to the Homewood Campus. Maybe my 5th or 6th trip to Baltimore, ever.
I had a cassette recorder, about the size of a lunchbox, shoved under one arm, a book, misc. papers, copies of our first two issues, which were on folded newsprint paper. I’d never done an interview in my life. I was scared out of my mind.
Barth’s office door wasn’t difficult to locate. I seem to remember two corridors coming together at this central location as though all roads led to Barth. I found his nameplate on the door and something to the effect that he was Department Chair. I knocked loudly and then my eyes drifted down to a gigantic hand drawn sign which read—
DO NOT KNOCK ON THIS DOOR.
Make an appointment with my secretary.
A huge arrow pointing to the right
I stopped knocking. Backed up. But the door opened and there stood John Barth. He was not smiling.
“Can you read,” he said.
“Then I suggest you do what it says.” And he swung the door closed.
All hope pretty much lost, I did what the sign said. His secretary was sweet, asked who I was, etc. I babbled, “I’m Richard Peabody, editor of Gargoyle Magazine in Washington D.C., and I’d like to interview John Barth.” I said all of that without dropping the tape deck on the floor or scattering the papers that I held crunched under my arm.
The secretary picked up the phone and excitedly said, “There’s a reporter here from the Washington Post who wants to interview you Professor Barth.”
I swallowed my tongue. I was gesticulating, trying to make eye contact, saying, “No, no, I’m not with the Post.” How had she screwed up what I’d said?
She looked puzzled and set down the phone. The office door opened and there was Barth again. He looked me up and down. “You’re a Washington Post reporter?”
“No, your secretary misunderstood, I’m from DC, but I edit a monthly literary magazine—”
Barth rolled his eyes. “Get in here,” he said, and motioned with one finger.
I was a kid going to the office in 3rd grade. I might as well bag Gargoyle. I was a total fuck-up who didn’t deserve to live. And here I was wasting this great writer’s time. He already thought I was an idiot and now he’d think my crude list of questions a joke.
Barth sat behind his desk, motioned me to a chair, and sized me up.
“What literary magazine?”
“Did you bring a copy?”
“Yes, you were going to be the interview in our October issue.”
“I never give interviews,” he said.
I handed him the first two issues. There were no ezines back then, no diy mags. If you can find copies of our very first issues you’ll see they’re energetic but terribly amateur and naïve. Lots of public domain art and student work. I held my breath while he flipped through the pages.
“What were you going to ask me?”
“Can I turn this on?” I pointed to the tape deck.
I sighed and set it on the floor. Resisted the urge to switch it on with my shoe.
“Well, I was going to ask you how you felt about the movie version of End of the Road?”
We’d read his second novel in my American University grad school classes. And the film starred James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Dorothy Tristan (who actually wrote a novel and several screenplays), and Harris Yulin.
“Have you seen it?” he said.
“No. It didn’t last more than a week.” Not to mention it was rated X, centered on a love triangle, and featured a butchered abortion.
Barth hated it. And then he mentioned the “man rapes chicken” scene that the director Aram Avakian added. (Though Terry Southern was one of the script writers. Who knows?)
Barth continued answering all of my questions, though most of his answers are lost in the detritus of what’s happened the past 37 years. What sticks with me now, was how when I asked him what his favorite book was, up to that point in his career, he said “Giles Goat Boy.”
We talked about Cambridge, MD. I’d spent a lot of time there because my father was part of a Hunt Club in nearby Church Creek. I wondered how Barth could have grown up on the banks of the Choptank River and been so different from the watermen and hunters I’d encountered. Before Barth, the most famous personages from Cambridge were Harriet Tubman, who was born there, and Annie Oakley, who’d retired there after years of traveling wild west shows.
I handed him a copy of a first edition of Chimera to sign for me. He wrote:
for Rick Peabody,
sorry to cut off our talk,
& good luck,
I was floating on a proverbial cloud when I left his office, which was knee-deep in grad students. He’d given me nearly an hour of his time and I was just realizing that today was the very first day of school. I had hogged conference time that should have gone to all of his students. He could have shuttled me right out of there after five minutes and he hadn’t. The more I’d talked about what we were trying to do with Gargoyle the more he listened. He recognized my passion. He actually gave me a chance and for that I’ll always be grateful.
Richard Peabody is the author of a novella, three short story collections, and seven poetry books. He is a native Washingtonian and teaches fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he received the Faculty Awards for Distinguished Professional Achievement and Teaching Excellence. He is also the Beyond the Margins Above and Beyond 2013 Award winner for his outstanding service to the Washington, D.C. literary community, and he is Eckleburg‘s Patron Saint of Indie. He is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor of twenty-one anthologies including Mondo Barbie. His collection of short stories, Blue Suburban Skies, is out from Main Street Rag Press. Read “Maraschino Cherries,” an excerpt from his collection, Speed Enforced by Aircraft (The Broadkill River Press, 2012).