Friday, January 13, 2012

Speaking of Richard Brautigan

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:

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.

John Barber:

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

really uncomfortable.

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 personally

and 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

or Japan.

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

cheese croissants?

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

certain packages.

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.
It’s a good one.”Thanks to John Barber
for sharing his memories
of a great & inspiring writer.

Photo of lettuce by Rustle.


  1. This was a very nice read on Brautigan. It answered a lot of questions that I myself had. Thank you for posting it here.

  2. I also have been looking for another way to contact you, but so far commenting on this blog is the only way that I know of.

    I just wanted to chat a little Brautigan fan to Brautigan fan and young writer to older writer. Also, I realized that you live in Bellingham. I do too, well did until recently.

    My email is if you have the chance.

    Thanks again for the great posts!