A couple of the men sulked during the launch party for the anthology Grace and Gravity, held at the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill in October. The event hosted some of the finest writers in the city, who read short passages from the stories they had contributed to the volume of fiction by Washington women.
During a Q&A session, one of those men raised a question with a rather self-evident answer: What about the guys?
“It was somebody asking, ‘Why women’s stories as opposed to men’s stories?’ and something about writing from different points of view,” says Ledroit Park writer Lucinda Ebersole, one of the 32 women in the anthology. (Ebersole gives her age as 73: “Women shouldn’t lie about their age, but if they do, they should lie up instead of down.”) “I said I really didn’t care about men’s points of view—I write from a woman’s point of view. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky, but that’s what we write.”
The anthology is populated by Washington-area women from start to finish. The cover art was provided by local artist Jody Mussoff, the laudatory blurbs on the book’s back by women writers who once lived in the District.
The stories find Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana wondering why a lover fails to see the parallels of “dirtiness and honesty” that bind the acts of sex and a cow taking a shit by the side of the road; Leslie Pietrzyk exposing the subliminal pathos of baby and wedding showers; and Ebersole dissecting the homosexual subtext of The Andy Griffith Show, positioning Aunt Bee as a sex symbol who doles out pleasure and pain with a plate of piping-hot chocolate-chip cookies.
But behind this collection of women’s voices is a man: Richard Peabody, 54, editor of the long-running Washington literary magazine Gargoyle.
Peabody sent out calls for submissions via e-mail in January 2004, had the bulk of the book in hand by March, and published it through his own Paycock Press in October. And he’s already working on a follow-up, Enhanced Gravity, featuring an entirely new group of local women.
Peabody, who has also edited such group literary projects as Mondo Barbie (which contained an early story by The Safety of Objects’ A.M. Homes), a collection of work by women beatniks, and a compilation of abortion stories, says he’s getting a reputation as the man who edits women’s anthologies. But the women he works with say he’s more than up to the task.
“He let us be as free and as crazy as we wanted to be,” says Fairfax-based author Barbara Esstman, 58, whose story “Uses for the Word ‘Fuck,’” appears in Grace and Gravity. “Women unleashed usually scare editors.”
“Richard doesn’t have the usual hang-ups about gender,” says Ebersole, who has split editing duties with Peabody for several anthologies and continues to work with him on Gargoyle. “He’s our favorite boy lesbian.”
Editing Grace, Peabody kept a low profile and let the women—and their work—speak without interference. But he’s beginning to think his plan might have worked too well.
“I’ve been left out,” he says. “I heard there was a cookie night, and a bunch of the writers got together. I was crushed I wasn’t invited. But I shouldn’t be. Part of the purpose was to make them aware of each other.”
Exclusive baked-goods gatherings are a nice byproduct of the anthology, but the key goal of the project is to give exposure to its contributing writers.
“If we all got buck-naked and jumped off of the Washington Monument, nobody would read us,” says Ebersole. “It’s hard to get anybody to read your work. What something like this does, seriously, is say, ‘Here are these women. They write; they’re from your area; here are some short pieces they’ve done. Read these—flip through, read one or two. Perhaps something will spark your interest, and you’ll go out and read something else they’ve written.’
“Because the next time you’re in the Safeway and some woman drops a jar of mayo on the floor,” she says, “she could be a brilliant writer and you’re just too dumb to know it. We don’t want that to happen.”—Sarah Godfrey