On Saturday morning, January 7, 2012,
I went to Seattle to meet John Barber. John is
editor of Richard Brautigan, Essays on the
Writings and Life (2007, McFarland and Co.)
as well as curator of the comprehensive
online site, Richard Brautigan Bibliography
and Archive at: www.brautigan.net.
Down in the boiler room of the Fairmont Hotel
is a narrow crowded café. We found a little table
and he allowed me to record this interview.
I was a little worried that later on I wouldn’t
be able to hear him over the espresso machines
steaming and clunking, cups and plates clattering,
all the forks falling on the checkerboard floor,
a weird pinball sound, conversations all around,
the big band soundtrack CD with a crazy
‘In the Mood’ track skipping in the background,
fading for a while then reappearing.
Setting a copy of An Unfortunate Woman
between us, I asked about page 70, where
Brautigan’s journal suddenly wonders what
happened to time, as it jumps from
San Francisco into a blur. Perhaps that
missing time could be filled in.
That was in the Spring of 1982. He had
actually been contracted to be a visiting
professor in the English department prior to
that and he started in April. During early
March, he was traveling and the English
department at Montana State University
was writing him letter after letter saying,
“Are you coming, we really need to know?”
and he signed the contract on the very
last day that he could and returned it.
He had a ranch in Paradise Valley, just
south of Livingston. He was also given
an apartment in the married student
housing dorm at Montana State University.
It was a high-rise sort of dorm. He also
stayed in a very inexpensive motel in
Bozeman that I showed him. $9.95 cents
a night. He would often phone me and
say, “Come and pick me up and let’s go
to Bozeman and I’ll buy your drinks.”
So I would drive fifty miles to his ranch
to pick him up and then fifty miles back
to Bozeman, and then he insisted on
closing down every bar, every possible
opportunity for drinking. Main Street
Bozeman had a number of them, but he
had two or three favorites. He really
liked the Eagles’ Nest, the VFW bar.
Was he known there?
He was known everywhere. He was,
however, very hard to be around because
he was always drinking and always had
a lot to drink. And people that are always
drinking can be very tiring. He would
frequently just get up and go sit down
at a table with strangers and start talking
to them and ask them really pointed,
embarrassing questions and then argue
with them about their answers to the
point where they broke down or got
So he was fairly obnoxious and people
knew that and some people didn’t like
it so much. Despite that, he would
come and hang out in Bozeman
searching for what he called
“the great American good time,”
and I would provide the transportation
back and forth. One time, I gave him
a ride in a yellow school bus and he
writes about that.
He thanks you in this book. And you
stopped at the grocery store for him too.
What did you get?
I think we got some wine and spaghetti.
I think he mentions he got lots of lettuce.
He wanted to make a salad.
That could be. I don’t remember exactly,
but I remember we got two or three plastic
bags full of groceries. And then we got
back on the bus and I drove him, dropped
him off in front of his house.
Why were you doing driving a school
My job was working for a tour bus
company based in Bozeman. That was
the way I was putting myself through
school. When working with a local or
smaller group, I would drive a school
bus as opposed to the big tour buses.
There was a girl scout camp up the
Yellowstone River from where
Richard Brautigan lived and I was
going to pick up a group camped there
and bring them back to Bozeman.
I had to drive right by his house to
get to this campground. The night
before my trip he was in town, so
I just said, “Look, I’m going this way
tomorrow and if you don’t have any
problem riding a school bus I can
give you a ride.”
Did he sit right up in the front with you?
Yes, he sat in the front seat of a school bus.
Could you talk about how you found
Richard Brautigan as a teacher?
It was a creative writing class. The very
first thing that he said was, “If you want
to learn to write, I can’t teach you.
That’s something you’re going to have
to do through your own process.”
And although he didn’t talk about it,
it was clear that he had been through
his own process to learn how to write,
which is pretty well documented.
He started with poetry, so he could
learn how to put words together to
make a sentence, and then having felt
success at writing a sentence, he felt
he could take on a novel. So he said,
“Instead of teaching you how to write
I can give you the benefit of my
experience in the publishing world.
I can talk to you about those sorts of
things and I can respond to your
writing and give you some feedback.”
He would stand in front of the classroom,
or lean against the table in front of the
classroom because he had a broken leg
that his doctor had decided not to put
in a cast. He was walking around with
a broken leg using a cane. He was
dressed entirely in blue denim,
blue denim jeans and a blue denim
farm jacket, worn brown cowboy boots
and a black wool felt Elmer Fudd hat,
with flaps that were up and tied
across the top. And of course,
his signature glasses, long
blonde hair and the signature long
droopy moustache. He looked very
much like his photograph on the
front of one of his early novels.
The class met once a week and each
meeting was a workshop where we
shared our writings with each other.
Brautigan responded with encouragement.
At the end of each class he would
provide a writing prompt and we
would go off for a week and work on
this prompt. One of the prompts that
I remember was to go someplace on
the campus that you haven’t been
before and write about what you see
and what you experience there. We
would write about it and then come
back and go around the room, each
of us reading what we had written and
then everyone in the class would
respond. Brautigan’s response was
always, “I like that. That’s very
interesting. Keep writing.” He would
never say something like, “Well
maybe you should shift paragraph
two and three or it seems like
something’s missing where you try
to make a transition between these
two ideas—” He would never say that.
His written comments were always
very short, “this is good, keep writing,”
and then that was the end of it.
There was one assignment where we
could write something longer and I
wrote about the time that I had spent
on steamboat hotels going up and
down the Mississippi River and he
called me to say, “I’m sitting here
with [girlfriend at the time] and we’re
reading your paper and just rolling
on the floor in laughter. I wanted you
to know that this is really great.
When I finish this, if you like, I’m
going to share it with my agent and
see—” and I thought Ohhh!—and
nothing ever came of it. Still, it was
pretty exciting that he called me to
say that he liked what I was doing.
At the end of the very first class
meeting, after everyone had left,
I walked up to him and I said,
“I would like to be friends with
you outside of class.” He looked
at me, he had this long hook-like
nose, and he looked at me down
his nose and I thought he was
thinking, “Well, I’ve been
approached by a lot of groupies
but never by a male”…Just this
kind of long pause…and then he
said, “Let’s go to the Eagles’ Nest
and have a drink and talk about it,
but I think I would like that.” So I
gave him a ride to the Eagles’ Nest
and we had lots of drinks and that
was it. That was the start of the
Didn’t he have a white car?
He had a car that had been given to
him by Greg Keeler. It was in his
barn. He also had an abandoned car,
this rusting thing that he would sit on.
It was fabulous. You would sit
on it, leaning up against the
windshield and look at the
Absaroka Mountains. They were
snow covered year round so you
were lying out there in the sun
and looking at these huge soaring
mountains that are, in my experience,
the most magnificent mountains in
the country. The other car was in his
writing barn, just sitting there.
He never drove, he never learned
to drive, I don’t think he ever drove
He really didn't talk about anything
that had to do with him personallyand I made a point of not pushing
this information. He never talked
about his childhood, he never said
anything about his family, he never
said anything about San Francisco
Would he talk about what he was writing?
He was working on An Unfortunate
Woman while the class was going on.
He told me several times during the
class period that he was working on
the book and that he had written
x-number of chapters and it was very
sad, about a friend who was dying.
He never said anything to me about
it, he just frequently mentioned that
his friend was dying. He never gave
his friend a name, but that was very
typical. Throughout all of his books
there’s a nameless narrator. He never
uses names for anybody. My friend,
or a friend, and I think this is part
of what we can point to, to say that
much of the content in Brautigan’s
books is fictionalized autobiography.
One afternoon he called and
said, “My friend just died,
bring a bottle of whiskey and
come over.” And so I did. I spent
the evening with him and it was
an amazing experience.
The next day I said,
“I wrote about our experience in
my journal,” and he got very upset
I had written about a private
experience that we had shared
together. On one hand, I can
understand that. On the other
hand he was a writer and he kept
a journal and he wrote about things
that happened to him during the day,
so I thought okay, it’s a private thing,
but at the same time he’s hypocritical
being upset with me for doing
something that he would have
done as a writer. He concluded
by saying, “If you ever show that
to anybody before I’m dead,
I will haunt you for the rest of
my life.” And I did and he does.
So I guess that’s fair.
He never showed me anything that
he was working on. The only times
that he talked about his own work,
was the first time I went to his house,
he had just received a box of copies
of So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
from his publisher. He gave me a copy
and, he was kind enough to sign it.
So he said something about his book
there. I had other copies of his books
which later I brought to him and he
was gracious enough to sign, but
he never talked about them.
Another time, I told him that I
would really like to get copies of
his earliest books—
Waitress: Did you guys order three
JB: No, we didn’t, I’m sorry.
Three, no less.
She’s only holding two…He told me
in response, “Well they’re out of
print. They’re very hard to get, and
they’re very expensive.” I didn’t
know it at the time, but he was
being absolutely truthful with me.
His earliest books ARE out of
print and they ARE hard to get
and they ARE very expensive.
He had a few of his books in
translation that were on the
bookshelf in his living room,
but other than that his house
was very sparsely furnished,
just minimal furniture. Nicely
done though, he had taken this
Montana ranch house, brought
carpenters and redwood lumber
from Bolinas and redone the
inside of his house. It was really
fine, detailed finished carpentry.
And a guesthouse which was an
old smokehouse next to the main
house had been completely redone
with this redwood lumber.
The backyard of his house was
overgrown, the front was mowed.
I don’t know who mowed it, but
the back part of the place was
grown up, the weeds were waist high
and there were deer. Away from the
house was a grove of cottonwood
trees. When they bloomed they
dropped white fluffy seeds that
floated around and collected on
the porch, turning into a giant ball.
The chicken coop was there but
there were no chickens. It didn’t
look like chickens had been there
in quite a while.
Was writing your story about him
really how it ended between you?
That was part of it. We had a
disagreement and he told me to go
away, to never see him again. I saw him
once more after that, on the sidewalk,
in Bozeman. I walked up to him and
he was very surprised. It was as if
he had seen a ghost. I said, “Look,
I don’t want our friendship to end
this way. I’m very sorry. I’m sorry
for my part in the disagreement
and I apologize and I hope that
we can still be friends.” He replied,
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think
about it. I’ll let you know.”
And then I wrote once after that
and again apologized, “I was
thinking of you and I wanted to
apologize again.” I sent the letter
to his Livingston address. It was
forwarded to him in Japan. I got
a letter in reply from Japan.
It was very short. He said,
“Forget the past. It ain’t worth it.
Let’s try to get together when
I’m back in Montana. I would
like that.” And that was the
last thing that I ever heard
from him. He never contacted
me, never got in touch.
I actually had a premonition,
a thought that sometime
I would open the paper and
learn that Richard Brautigan
was dead. Sure enough, I did,
and he was.
Generally speaking when an
author dies, his or her literary
career continues going in the
same direction that it was going
at the time of their death. If it’s
down, that’s the way it goes.
If it’s up, then death just helps
it because now there’s a reason
to republish everything.
Richard Brautigan’s literary
career has been totally the
opposite of this. Despite the
fact that his literary career
was trashed at the time of his
death, he continues to attract
an incredible following of readers.
Everyday somebody discovers
Richard Brautigan for the first
time and claims him as his or
her favorite writer.
As an author, he was extremely
courageous because every book
that he wrote was not a sell-out,
not a cop-out—he did what he
wanted to do. It took him
twenty-something publishers to
get Trout Fishing in America
published, but he did and it
sold over a million copies.
Each of his other books is a
particular vision. I don’t think
that credit is given for that in
a world where we expect
Richard Brautigan very much
enjoyed a public persona and
he created one for himself.
He would look in the windows
of stores and criticize rock stars
posing on the covers of their
albums, yet he would do exactly
the same thing for his own books.
He controlled everything about
his early books, even the
photographer that would take
the picture for the cover and
the typeface and the page
formatting. It was totally unusual
in America at that time for an
author to have complete control
over their books. And he did.
That’s why the first omnibus,
the three volumes have three
different type settings reproduced,
as he says, in the likeness of the
original. That was all part of
what he was controlling.
So he’s criticizing people for
being on the covers of their
record albums, yet he’s posing
like a rock star on the covers
of his books, and always with
a different woman. He was
purposely mysterious about
his background and he was
using that mystery as a way
to market himself, promote
interest in himself, as this
kind of Emily Dickinson-like
character from a parallel
universe that’s speaking in
telegrams, using language
that William Carlos Williams
would approve of. He cultivated
this mystery about himself,
but at the same time he walks
around being a public person
promoting himself and his
books. There is a story that
he saw someone in a bookstore
looking at one of his books
and he said, “Steal that book.
Take it home. That’s my book.
for sharing his memories
of a great & inspiring writer.
Photo of lettuce by Rustle.