Although it’s a bright and mild afternoon in mid-March, Richard Peabody is walking through the moldy basement of his Arlington home, still stewing in what he calls the “pissed-off/denial stage.” An archivist by nature, the 53-year-old had stored here: stockpiles of books from his own Paycock Press; loads of back issues of his literary magazine, Gargoyle; countless personal letters and original manuscripts; and an estimated 1,000 vintage vinyl recordings.
A few days ago, the basement flooded.
“The insurance company’s still dicking around about what everything’s worth,” grumbles Peabody, his voice competing with the army of dehumidifiers that have been running for days. He had cardboard boxes of books and manuscripts stacked five high; once the bottom ones buckled due to saturation, the rest came tumbling down into the water, including those stuffed with rare LPs that Peabody says are selling online for up to $100 apiece.
The scene is a middle-aged hipster’s nightmare, but for Peabody it’s also emblematic. As a staunchly independent publisher interested only in what he considers “serious literature,” Peabody has been operating at a loss for decades. Nearly all of the novels, short stories, and poetry collections issued by Paycock have been predestined money-losers. After almost 30 years, Gargoyle hasn’t yet broken even. In 1999, Peabody had to bail out of his U Street NW store, Atticus Used Books & Music—just before his partner was forced out of the space by a rent hike. “The hardest thing for people to realize,” says Peabody, “is that there is no money in this field.”
Nonetheless, Peabody has always leaned toward publishing undiscovered talents and forgotten stars. His latest enthusiasm, D.C./Iowa author Joyce Renwick, qualifies as a bit of both. Now something of a legend among the writing communities at George Mason University and the University of Iowa, the 52-year-old Renwick died in a car crash in 1995, having already found her way into an edition of The Best American Short Stories but without putting out a book of her own. For a new posthumous collection of Renwick’s short stories, In Praise of What Persists, Peabody made the difficult decision to cull pieces from his friend’s two disparate bodies of work—one of them known as Renwick’s “nurse stories”—and cobble them into a single volume. “She would’ve gone crazy,” says Peabody. “It’s not the manuscripts as she saw them, but everyone who’s got a copy has been blown away.”
In a niche industry whose young romantics typically burn out by age 30, it’s a wonder that Peabody still manages to bring such projects to life. “The fact that he’s been able to go for so long puts him into a special class of independent publishers,” says Bruce McPherson, who runs McPherson & Co., an independent literary imprint in Kingston, N.Y. “It’s an enormous amount of work. There is a lot of idealism—which is almost invariably dashed by the outcome.”
Peabody, however, still finds inventive ways to make books happen. To publish the Renwick collection, he essentially passed a hat among the author’s friends, requesting that they purchase advance copies, and covered the remaining printing costs himself. Whatever scant profits the book makes will go to Renwick’s daughters, to whom Peabody dedicated the collection.
“In the lit life,” he says, “the pie is very small. Everyone’s fighting over these little tiny slices. But a lot of times you can band together and do some great things.”
As an unknown writer who happens to publish many other unknown writers, Peabody spends a lot of time thinking about literary success—and its opposite. It’s usually hard to say exactly why a talented author spent her entire life working in relative obscurity, but Peabody believes he’s pinpointed Renwick’s devastatingly bad break: the early death of her mentor, famed novelist John Gardner.
“If he hadn’t died, Joyce would be famous,” Peabody insists. “He would’ve handed [her work] to an agent. But without that literary connection, it couldn’t happen.” Although Renwick continued to publish in Gargoyle, the Southern Review, and other magazines after Gardner’s fatal 1982 motorcycle accident, she could never interest a publisher. “I think what she needed to do was what I did—take a few books and merge them. But she wouldn’t have done it,” says Peabody, who launched In Praise of What Persists for an audience of about 50 people at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda on March 20. Some cried when they heard an audio tape of Renwick reading.
Though he’s not one to speak in sentimental terms, Peabody talks about the Renwick book as a “labor of love.” In fact, he claims that all of the books he publishes are labors of love. It’s easy to believe him once you take a look at his financial record.
Of the dozen books Peabody has published through Paycock, only three have made it to a second printing after the initial 500-copy run. He can’t even follow the losses. “I honestly couldn’t tell you—I really don’t keep track,” he says. “I know I should be a businessman and think about it, but I’m just not a businessman. I’m not thinking about it that way.”
Indeed, Peabody spent much of his adult life watching interest pile on top of $20,000 in credit-card debt. The smartest thing he’s ever done, he admits, was to marry Margaret Grosh, an economist at the World Bank and a sugar mama at home, who accepted his persistent proposals in late 1997 on the condition that he leave Atticus for good.
“I have a hard time separating my lit life from my family life,” he says. “I know of marriages that fall apart because a guy works a regular 9-to-5 job and he comes home and he writes all weekend. My wife would never let me. And why should she?”
On the surface, Peabody is now a suburban family man, teaching creative writing part-time at Johns Hopkins University’s D.C. campus. But in spirit, he’s still the ascetic scenester who conceived of Gargoyle while on the road in 1976, when he was 25 and had just dumped a soul-sucking Washington legal job.
“I came back and wanted to start a magazine,” Peabody recalls. His two partners dropped out by the third issue.
“It was my life,” says Peabody. “We did those [first] three issues without a dime. I couldn’t understand why anyone would stop doing this.”
Eventually, he understood: By 1990, Peabody was so prominent in local literary circles that writers would turn and address him directly at crowded readings. He had published pieces by rising stars such as T.C. Boyle and Maxine Clair, but the energy had disappeared. So Peabody held a celebratory wake for Gargoyle, keeping the magazine on hiatus until seven years later, when writer and friend Lucinda Ebersole convinced him to relaunch and came on as co-editor.
Peabody estimates that an average issue of Gargoyle, now put out annually and with a circulation of 2,000, loses about $5,000. But it remains his most beloved project, as well as the source of some of his favorite tales of literary life.
For one early issue, Peabody recalls, he imitated the format of the Paris Review, replacing the publication’s trademark drawing of the Left Bank with one featuring the Potomac. “It wasn’t really parody,” he suggests. “It was just to say, ‘You can do that design; I can do that design.’” He sent a copy off to George Plimpton and received a brief note in return: “Ha ha.”
“A lot of people see a magazine like Gargoyle as minor-league,” Peabody says. “I believe in the people I’m putting out, and I’m trying to promote them. Obviously, we think we’re putting out one of best magazines in the world. We’ve tried to put D.C. on the literary map.”
Standing up for D.C. is a strange goal for Peabody, given that he airs his contempt for Washington life whenever he gets the chance. He talks a lot about lighting out for New Mexico, too—so much, in fact, that his more casual friends actually think he once lived there. “He’s been talking about going to New Mexico for a hundred years,” says Ebersole. “One time, he wanted to know if I’d drive a fridge full of LPs out there. I said, ‘Sure. When you get ready to go, load ’em up.’”
Peabody is convinced that his fascination derives from his Dutch heritage—“sand and blue skies,” he says—but more likely it comes from trying to push real literature on a Washington audience that sometimes seems far more interested in the next political bio. “I always thought if you had as many poets [at readings] as people in the audience, that was a good thing,” says Ebersole. “But he wants people who show up with passion.”
One of his favorite projects, Peabody says, was putting out D.C. Magazines: A Retrospective Look, in 1981. The only place it sold well was in Washington—the state. “They said they liked the paper,” he says. “They’re very big on printing out there.”
He also aped Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Literary San Francisco with his own Literary D.C., in which he examines the Washington stints of writers by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, and Sinclair Lewis—many of whom, like Peabody, pretty much hated it here. Though he’s been compiling the book since 1980, he hasn’t yet been able to interest any publishers—or even to afford the rights to the historical photographs he needs to print the book himself. Now he plans on putting it online.
“We’re publishing a lot of young writers from all over the world, and Gargoyle has a visibility on the world scene that it doesn’t even have here,” Peabody says. “It’s like we’re invisible in our own town, and I think that’s the nature of Washington….Here, if you’re not in politics, you’re an insect.”
Even so, Peabody won’t be packing up for New Mexico any time soon: His next Paycock book will be an anthology of fiction and poetry by Washington-area women writers, due out in the fall. He’ll follow that with Gargoyle’s 50th-anniversary issue, for which he’s already enlisted heavy hitter Rick Moody. By that time, he plans on publishing all of his projects through a print-on-demand system to minimize the hemorrhaging.
If that scheme happens to fall through, though, Peabody says he’ll gladly send his press into another $5,000 hole.
“‘Literature,’” he says, quoting a favorite line, “‘is like a floating conversation through time.’ If I find somebody who reads a lot and writes a lot, we sit down and it’s like we’re old friends.” CP