Richard and Robert Bausch arrive in the same car for lunch at Katerina’s Greek American Cuisine in Manassas, dressed in roomy jeans, short sleeves, and ball caps—Catalina Island for Richard, the California resident; a red Nats number for Robert, who stayed close to their childhood home.
I’ve been anxious about how I’d keep the identical-twin novelists apart in my mind and my notes. The caps help. Time does, too: Richard’s features tend toward the center of his face; Robert’s are larger and less symmetrical. Other differences crop up. “What are we doing here?” Richard demands as he spots the restaurant. “I don’t like Greek food!”
“They have the best lamb chops you’ll ever eat,” answers Robert.
At the table, Robert touts the red wine and orders a glass; Richard shakes him off and asks for sparkling water. One wants salad, the other not, then the decisions are reversed.
After a few minutes, it becomes clear this is an ancient routine, a ritual sowing of confusion that allows the two to take charge of lunch. They reel off a list of authors they love but skirt a question of literary influences. They recall a famous author’s drunken groping before swearing me to silence. They talk constantly but let almost nothing leave their embrace. When I call them on their easy bickering, asking them for one word to describe their relationship, one answers, “Pals.”
“Confidants,” says the other.
Born in 1945 at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Bausches were toddlers when they moved to Washington with their parents and four siblings. After “a very brief time” on Geranium Street, near the old Walter Reed hospital, they moved to Silver Spring and Wheaton. Their father, a car salesman, and mother were liberal Democrats. “Today they would be ashamed of the Democratic Party,” says Robert, “and shocked that now ‘liberal’ is a bad word.”
Drafted, they instead enlisted in the Air Force and attended basic training together in Texas. After serving stateside, each got an MFA degree, Robert at George Mason, Richard at Iowa. Both had already been writing before adolescence. “When my mother or father wanted to punish us, the command was ‘Go to your room!’ ” recalls Robert. “But that wasn’t a punishment. We had books, drawing pads, paint sets. It was exactly what we wanted.”
“I was the good kid who wanted to save the hero and the world,” says Richard.
“I was more gangster,” chuckles Robert.
Those roles play out in the fiction they’ve produced. Richard—whose Before, During, After, published in August, concerns an Episcopal priest and his new, younger wife dealing with the events of 9/11—tends to be more contemplative. In recent years, he’s piled up awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Rea Award for the Short Story. When Robert praises Richard’s choice of Natasha for the wife’s name, Richard says, “I got that from Leo”—as in Tolstoy.
Robert’s best known work is his irreverent 1991 novel, Almighty Me, which became the movie Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey as a man with God-like powers. His latest, Far as the Eye Can See, out this month, is a Western tale about a Union bounty jumper.
But if Robert is the maverick, he’s also visited with crises of confidence. After 2005, something “just dried up,” he says. “I’ve had five different publishers. That reveals something—I haven’t always had success I could repeat.” Then again: “George Garrett [the late novelist and director of the University of Virginia’s MFA program] once said to me: ‘Having five different publishers is a sign of a literary troublemaker. You should be honored for that.’ ”
Richard turns protective of his brother. “I’ve always told you that if you didn’t teach so much, you’d have produced more,” he chides. He pronounces himself bullish on Robert’s new novel: “I loved it. Loved it.”
It may be telling that they’re not equally optimistic about literature’s future. Robert believes reading is now so bound up with visual activity that “real contemplation seems doomed to wither away.” Richard points out that printed fiction has survived movies and TV. “Books will be around,” he says.
The lamb chops, however, have vanished. “See?” Robert says. “What’d I tell you?”
This article appears in our November 2014 issue of Washingtonian.