Frederick Busch, whose outpouring of precise, poetic novels and stories delved into the seemingly unspectacular but ultimately profound experiences of people and families grappling with existential crises, died Thursday at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. He was 64.
His son Benjamin said the cause was a heart attack he suffered in a hotel room where he and his wife, Judith, were staying during a visit to New York. Their home is in Sherburne, N.Y.
Mr. Busch wrote 27 books, with another scheduled for publication this October. He was known as a writer's writer who seemed to impress critics more than the mass audience with his nuanced tales of ordinary-seeming people told in a manner some likened to John Cheever's or Chekhov's.
His books sold solidly, but did not make best-seller lists. Movie producers bought options on his novels, but the films have not been made.
Still, Donald J. Greiner, in "The Dictionary of Literary Biography," called Mr. Busch "an artist who counts, a writer who matters to the cultural health of the nation."
Critics said that part of what distinguished him from other modern stylists like Richard Ford, Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver, who addressed the dark side of domestic life, was his striving for a larger historical context. Before making Dickens a character in one of his novels, he walked the streets of London. Before putting Melville in another, he prowled Lower Manhattan.
He did extensive historical research to depict Civil War and Vietnam veterans, and he extensively interviewed psychiatrists before creating a character who is a psychiatrist. But the emotions he conjured ó most exquisitely in his short stories ó transcended place and time.
In reviewing his 2000 story collection, "Don't Tell Anyone" (Norton, 2000), Publishers Weekly noted his inviting opening sentences. One read, "Did I tell you she was raped?"
Booklist commented on the same collection: "Busch writes about the North American family with such depth of feeling and understanding that most of his stories are sad. If stories could be too poignant, these would be guilty."
Mr. Busch, who taught writing at Colgate University for many years, also wrote about writers, particularly in his book "A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life" (St. Martin's, 1998). The book consisted of 16 essays that examined writers of quality fiction like Hemingway.
His observation about making a living writing: "Money is a letter from the world to an author about his work."
Among his many prizes were the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award in 1986, and the PEN/Malamud Award in 1991.
Frederick Matthew Busch was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 1, 1941. In an interview with identitytheory.com in 2005, he said that his interest in writing began when he was 9, in the fourth grade at P.S. 152 in Brooklyn. His inspiration was Miss White, his teacher.
"She wanted me to die," Mr. Busch said. "She made it very clear that she hoped I would die before school began tomorrow."
Then one day he wrote a two-line poem, and Miss White adored it and put it up on the bulletin board.
"I realized that if I could keep writing, I could get people to not want me to die," Mr. Busch said.
Mr. Busch graduated from Muhlenberg College and earned a master's degree from Colgate. His first writing room was in the bathroom of a tiny apartment he and his wife rented in Greenwich Village. His desk was the toilet lid.
It was there he wrote his first novel, "I Wanted a Year Without Fall," which chronicled the misadventures of two young men fleeing troubled pasts. He sent the manuscript to a friend in Wales who gave it to a publisher, Calder & Boyars, who published it in 1971.
The book received mixed reviews, but his next one, "Manual Labor" (New Directions, 1974), which examines the effect of miscarriages on a marriage, was greeted warmly. Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review, complimented "the deliberately underplayed technique."
Among his many books, three that the author particularly liked, said his wife, Judith, were "The Night Inspector" (Harmony, 1999), "A Memory of War" (Norton, 2003) and "Girls: A Novel" (Harmony, 1997).
From 1976 to 2003, Mr. Busch taught writing and literature at Colgate, the last six as Fairchild Professor of Literature. In 1978-79, he was the acting director of the University of Iowa's program in creative writing.
Mr. Busch is survived by his wife, the former Judith Burroughs, his sons Benjamin, of College Park, Md., and Nicholas, of Syracuse, N.Y., and one granddaughter.
In an interview supplied by Norton, his current publisher, Mr. Busch said, "I don't feel that I've earned the right to walk on the ground I walk upon, unless I've made good language: words that are useful to someone other than me."