I’m in a packed bookstore, standing room only—and it’s the second time in a month I can say that. Both times, at two very differently sized stores, were for the same volume: Defying Gravity: Fiction by D.C. Area Women, edited by Washington-area man of letters Richard Peabody and published by his own Paycock Press.
Tonight’s event takes place at Arlington’s One More Page Books, at three years old this month the newest independent bookstore in Northern Virginia. Events coordinator Terry Nebeker welcomes the crowd and notes that many attendees already know how “lovingly and fiercely” Peabody shepherds both new and established writers in all of his endeavors, which include his 1976 founding of Gargoyle Magazine. His biography lists numerous positions and awards that demonstrate what a leading light Richard Peabody is both in and outside of Washington, DC.
However, the anthologies of short writing (mostly fiction, but occasionally memoir) by Washington women that Peabody began publishing in 2004 may be one of his most lasting legacies. “Nobody had done it before,” says Peabody. “The idea came to me in a dream one New Year’s Eve. I imagined a trilogy. Never dawned on me that I’d gather six volumes of work. I think the complete run speaks for itself—2,500 pages of fiction by 250 women.”
Why women? “Why not? As Grace Paley said, ‘Publishing women is a political act.’ Given the impact of the VIDA count [ed. note: VIDA is the organization of Women in the Literary Arts that annually tallies the number of women writers who have been reviewed in the media], it seems I’m in the right place at the right time.”
(Full disclosure: I am one of the writers who contributed to Defying Gravity, and I read from my work at the Politics & Prose launch event on January 11. None of us were compensated for our work, and none of us share in the profits from the book’s sales.)
Given the number of people—women and men—who have turned out for tonight’s panel about Defying Gravity, it would seem Peabody is right. Moderator Donna Moss, who was a contributor to volume five in the series, Amazing Graces, says the remarkable thing about joining the ranks of Paycock Press writers is that “it’s not a process with an end, when your story comes out. It’s about meeting other writers and taking the whole thing to the next level—networking, maybe joining a critique group, learning more about what makes a book like this as varied as its contributors.”
Three of those contributors (43 in all for Defying Gravity) read from their pieces: Shelby Settles Harper, an attorney and mother of three young children who recently earned her MA in writing from the Johns Hopkins University DC Extension, read from “Pow-Wow Girls,” a vivid imagining of young American Indian women in the 1960s. Julie Shields's “The Ice Storm Cometh, Stayeth, and Doesn't Leaveth” is a wry tale of suburban disaster, inspired by Shields's Northern Virginia family life. Finally, native New Yorker and now Virginian Kate Lu shares a passage from “Ink,” which takes place in a tattoo parlor and has a gut-punching last line.
Moss then led a spirited discussion, including audience members, about short fiction, the writing process, and how publication affects writers’ views of their work. Perhaps the best Q&A pairing was “Why write short stories?” and the response “Because you can finish them!”
As for finishing anthologies, Peabody plans at least one more after this. “Somehow it all comes together. I love the mix. I like to say, give me the story you love that everybody else hates, or the one that scares you the most.” This leads to interesting blends, about which he says, “Each volume has a secret life. The new one is a bit more magical than the previous five volumes. There has been an undercurrent to each one, but they have always been a mix of established writers with books in print alongside newbies who are just starting to publish in lit mags. I like the contrast of energy and experience.”
What's the one thing that hasn't happened yet with these creative anthologies? “I dream of somebody sitting down with all six volumes and actually writing an all-encompassing review of what’s gathered there. That would be something,” says Peabody. Book bloggers, there's a challenge for you!
Copies of Defying Gravity: Fiction by D.C. Area Women are available for purchase at Politics & Prose Bookstore in DC and One More Page Bookstore in Arlington, VA. This book and its predecessors may also be purchased online. For more information about Richard Peabody or to contact him, visit his page.