Tom Robbins

[Interview by Brian Hendricks]

La Conner, November 11th, 2010. “There are stories, like maps that agree… too consistent among too many languages and histories to be only wishful thinking.… It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything” — Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

From the publication of Another Roadside Attraction in 1971, to B is for Beer in 2009, Tom Robbins has been providing great episodes of light for forty years. His nine novels have illuminated, inspired, enlightened and amused his millions of readers with a geography built on metaphor, wit, wisdom and a willingness and ability to see the world as the most fascinating and amusing design the imagination can construct. When we connected by email to conduct an interview, I returned to the hallowed pages of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All, and was quickly reminded of the times and places when and where I couldn’t distinguish between where these books ended and my imagined life began. When I reread his books, l remember everything.

In early November, after five weeks of correspondence and an agreement to conclude after nine questions, we planned a visit to his secret westcoast compound, Villa de Jungle Girl, for further discussion and a photo session. I’m going to have to write that story as a separate entity due to its enormity and need to be described properly. Suffice it to say, it was two days spent inside the world that had created those worlds that had so inspired my own. As a writer, a reader, a character; as someone who finds the world and my place in it more interesting because Tom Robbins sat down here every day and created metaphors.

Andy Warhol soup cans, peach can collections, circus banners, jungle comics, zen gardens, books, photos, toy collections. Sitting at his desk where he wrote his nine novels with a pen and legal pad and talking about the history of the world as we both understand it, dinner at his local Inn, an abundance of riches with a living myth, who at seventy-eight, is still the youngest and most dangerous writer in the free world. My and our immense gratitude to Tom and Alexa and Blini for allowing us into their jungle abode and inciting us to feel so welcome and so free and so… fine.

“Our individuality is all, all, that we have. There are those who barter it for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it in, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life’s bittersweet route” — Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Brian Hendricks. — I don’t remember if this comes from Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Lermontov, Turgenev, Gogol or any number of other Russian scribes, but the idea is that there are four unanswerable questions in life: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? I feel strongly that your body of work, (and other noted artist’s) goes a long way towards addressing these enigmas. As you look back and forward, is it possible for you to provide approximate and personal responses to the big four?
Tom Robbins. — That Russian, whatever his name, was right on the money and not a ruble less. Those four questions are central to the musings of any thinking person. However, I can truthfully say that I’ve never once sat down to write with any one of the four specifically in mind. I begin a novel with questions of a far less introspective nature. For example, at the start of Villa Incognito I was asking myself, “What if there were American POWs in Southeast Asia who refused to come home after the Vietnam War? What would have been their reasons, how would they be living their lives? And, could their lives possibly intersect in any way with Tanuki, the rascally, oddball Japanese folk figure in whom I was becoming increasingly interested; as well as with circus high-wire acts, with which I’d long had a fascination on levels both metaphoric and literal?” To the extent that I addressed the Russian’s Big Four, it was because they arose naturally, organically during the process of exploring the psychological and metaphysical implications of those other more narrative concerns. If pressed for a strictly personal response, I suppose I’d answer that I’m just another glad fool on the left-handed path, fired into the world from passion’s red cannon, remaining here to help keep language lively and sleepers awake, until the day when I’m eventually sucked back into the mammoth maw of Mystery.

— One of my favourite texts, and titles, and book covers, is The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. Feel you must be familiar with it and thinking of a question that ties in with all that amazing evolution that happened in the 60’s and where it has left us now. There again, I feel you have always had your fingers firmly on that pulse, and have maintained this vigourous optimism towards the joys of the artist’s “suffering” leading to further expansion and liberation. Is there one particular mantra that affords you this luxury, and are there visible signs that we are on the threshold of some new awakenings?
— My good friend singer/songwriter Danny O’Keefe used to be quite ga-ga over The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and he and I discussed it at length on numerous occasions. I suppose I should have felt ashamed about discussing authoritatively a book I’d never actually troubled to read – although, of course, when it comes to the Bible, people do it all the time. As my confession suggests, Jaynes could not have influenced me except in a very second-hand way, although he and I certainly share a belief that human consciousness fairly exploded into existence a few thousand years ago and remains malleable, learnable, and ever ripe for expansion. I would argue, however, that the relatively sudden cerebral flowering was a result not of thoughtful reactions to cataclysmic events, as Jaynes contends, but rather was directly due to the ingestion of psychedelic plants, especially magic mushrooms. The central dynamic of history has been a conflict not between good and evil but between ignorance and enlightenment. For a time in the 60’s – thanks in no small part to the aforementioned psychotropic sacraments – enlightenment appeared to be winning. Alas, the forces of fear, greed, and mediocrity eventually succeeded in drawing tight once more the meatball curtain, and for the masses, it has remained closed. Ah, but enlightenment has always been, even in so-called golden ages, an elitist proposition, and for brave individuals, if not for society as a whole, there exists wonderful opportunities to enlarge the soul, light up the brain, and liberate the spirit. To change the world, you need only change yourself. This is internal work and totally personal.

— Marcel Proust wrote, “Blessed are they who have no story to tell.” The idea that creativity and imagination and intense feeling can make life less manageable. As a writer who has spent most of his life vigorously mining for magic and metaphors in ‘the bottom below the bottom,’ have you had to endure many times where you might wish you had taken an easier path, and maybe even lamented that you have SO many stories to tell?
— In a word (very un-Proust-like), “No.” I began dictating stories to my mother – she wrote them down in a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs scrapbook that still exists – at age five. Prior to that even, I’d find myself privately entertaining all manner of fantasies, which usually played out in imagined scenes if not whole stories. When one is fated to spend one’s life as host to an eruptive, playful imagination, one can only be thankful to have sustainable narrative outlets. The bats in my belfry have been good to me.

— Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Joseph Campbell, Leonard Cohen, Terence McKenna, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Altman, just a few of the artistic luminaries you have been associated with and have associated with. Could you name a singular essence that they have provided your human spirit and the richness of your life as a writer and artist? What did you find in their poetry and mythology and music and film and literature that resonated most strongly in you?
— Collectively, fundamentally, I’ve looked at them as genius generals or daring commandos in what is perhaps the only war worth fully supporting: the battle against the tyranny of the dull mind. These men – some friends, some acquaintances, a couple (Pynchon and Cohen) only admired from afar – have demonstrated through their ideas, images, and acts of intellectual courage how it’s possible to avoid the bourgeois compromise and to think, create, and even reside outside the realm of ‘normal’ expectations. The three themes or qualities with which in retrospect I appear to have been most concerned in my novels – transformation, liberation, and celebration – are dominant in the luminaries you’ve named. These guys continue to wink at me like neon beer signs in the intellectual desert and spiritual sulphur flats of corporate America, promising refreshment, stimulation, a soupçon of mischief, and a particular kind of nourishment.

— The eternal feminine, the white goddess, the muse, the anima… I have talked to lots of female students and known many women, especially writers and artists, who have found significant parts of themselves and felt liberated and inspired by your strong and spontaneous and articulate female characters. Is it possible to equate how much of your mythos and journey has been informed by your desire to explore the depths of the feminine realm where the deeper mysteries and freedoms lie? Is there a remembered time in your youth when this path was awakened in you? And has age diminished or enhanced this deep appreciation of women and the goddess?
— When I was growing up, my father moved us a lot, from one small town to another in the American South, and we always seemed to end up next door to a family with daughters. Those little girls not only taught me a lot, they probably saved my hide. For a boy in the South at that time to display signs of a vivid inner life, an interest in books, and, most especially, any vestige of sensitivity was an open invitation to an ass-kicking. Even adult males would mock and bully you. I kept the rednecks off my case by participating in sports and acting the class clown, but in the company of the neighbor girls, bless them, I could show my more tender side and be myself to the fullest extent of myself. Among other things, those darlings taught me to play «doctor,» a naughty little game that introduced me firsthand to the wonders of the female anatomy, a subject that, in my seventies, has not ceased to enthrall me. Having thus developed an early appreciation of the feminine – with a special fondness for women who are spunky, feisty, warm-hearted, independent, and (at least potentially) wise – it was probably only natural that later on I would find myself investigating the triple aspects of the Goddess in universal art forms, as well as stressing the importance to personal growth and planetary survival of that lunar sensibility with which women counterbalance the solar sensibility of men.

— “A sense of humor…is superior to any religion so far devised” (Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume).

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously” (Oscar Wilde). 

Comedic revelation as the most serious business of all. When we laugh we are acquiring a truth. I would like to address the heart and soul of your literary success and popularity, we often laugh out loud when we read your books. Do you work every word and sentence until it makes you smile or laugh? Does joy need to be informed by melancholy or sadness in order to regenerate? Outside of writing, where do you find the most fun and play in your day to day activities? Who are the prime humourists, writers, people, who have inspired you to sustain your bliss even as you follow it? How do you know, or do you ever know, when you have written words that will create the surprise and revelation necessary to elicit laughter and amusement from the unseen reader?
— Taking Oscar a step farther, we might say that most depression and despair is a result of taking one’s self too seriously, a practice that more than trivializes one, it makes one miserable or pompous or both. I can testify that whenever I find myself in a snit, it sooner or later occurs to me that I’ve temporarily lost sight of the comforting fact that the entire universe is cosmic theater and my life some kind of joke. It’s easy to agree with the Existentialists that life is short, nature is cruel, and man is ridiculous. Unlike Sartre and Camus, however, we shouldn’t allow that knowledge to rain on our fiesta. Humor is both a form of wisdom and a means of survival. A comic sensibility can rend holes in the meatball curtain, thereby providing exhilarating views of life that are hidden form the sober and prudent. In Zen they ask, “What do you do when you meet your master coming through the woods?” The accepted answer is, “Hit him over the head with a stick.” Ha ha. Can you picture a devout Catholic bopping the Pope instead of kissing his ring? It is this seemingly irreverent attitude that puts a serene smile on the lips and a twinkle in the eye of Zen and Taoist adepts, whereas most Western saints look like they’re dying from radioactive hemorrhoids. The humor in my novels is not really calculated. I spend an inordinately long time crafting my sentences, but the humor, when there is humor, just seems to ooze out naturally because it is and always has been part and parcel of my personality, my worldview. Anyway, one needn’t read a Tom Robbins novel to see that society is indisputably goofy. Just open tomorrow morning’s newspaper. Shake your head. And grin.

— I make my living as a film lecturer and sometimes enjoy matching my favourite authors with my favourite directors/auteurs. Say RW Emerson and Tarkovsky, Orson Welles and Shakespeare, Kubrick and Kafka. When I think of your cinematic counterpart, my mind goes instantly to Federico Fellini. A common love of women and sexuality, the circus, the road, resistance to religion and authority, magic realism/surrealism, dreams, fantasy, desire, pointed and poetic social and philosophical inquiry/criticism, freedom, love joy ecstasy, seriousness… the evidence of common ground really does go on in a convincing way. Is this a fair and acceptable/plausible comparison? Is film an adversary or ally as a literary artist and a defender of words, (perhaps over photographed images?) Has the cinema penetrated your voice as an author in a significant way? Can you imagine your books as films? Which of your books would be best suited for cinematic adaptation? “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography” (Federico Fellini).
— In the small towns where I grew up, the movie house was the trough where I fed the hog of my imagination. Years later, when I discovered European and Japanese films, the cinema became my temple as well. I had a boundless affinity with Fellini, for all the reasons you listed, and his soundtrack scorer, Nino Rota, remains my favorite composer: a maestro whose music was both a three-ring circus and a riotous bordello for the ear. Yet, oddly enough, the films that most deeply affected and influenced me were those of François Truffaut, especially Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player. I’m still knocked out by the sheer aesthetic grace with which Truffaut mixed the tragic with the comic, the fanciful with the realistic, the romantic with the gritty, the bitter with the sweet. He would kiss the viewer in one scene, spit on him in the next – but always in the vernacular of a visual poet. An acquaintance once referred to my first novel as “poignantly cuckoo.” I took it as a great compliment, for “poignantly cuckoo” is how one might best describe Truffaut. The two films I mentioned had a jaunty quality, which, come to think of it, would not have been out of place in Fellini. I guess I’m attracted to the jaunty. Because my novels are language-driven, they’re a bit problematic for cinematic adaptors: the best movies traditionally being based on strictly plot-driven books. My books have plots, of course, and a lot of time is devoted to developing those plots, orchestrating their rhythms and tying up every loose thread; but in the end they don’t totally depend on storyline for their rewards. Having said that, I believe in the hands of the right talent, a successful movie could be made from anyone of my novels – or the essays of Normal Vincent Peale, for that matter. Incidentally, two of my books are currently under option in Hollywood, and the film version of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues has become a cult favorite on cable tv.

— “It is more important to be free than to be happy” (Tom Robbins).

The lords of the global village and their non-adaptive cultural imperialism increasingly threaten our personal freedoms with manufactured facades of happiness and individuality. As someone who is a celebrant of both liberty and ecstasy, and who has successfully built his own village, one carefully chosen word and metaphor at a time, how would you define freedom? Do you sense a rearguard action rising up against the mainstream media? What counsel would you provide to the aspiring novelists, filmmakers, poets and artists who are brave enough to sacrifice happiness for said freedom? And are we nearing the end, or is everything still to happen?
— When and if one reaches that place in one’s life where one can blithely let go of all attachments, one at last can be genuinely free. I don’t reside in that place, sad to say, but I visit occasionally and find the climate most invigorating. We humans have always defined ourselves through narration. The problem today is that we’re allowing multi-national corporations and self-serving politicians to tell our stories for us. The theme of corporate stories (and tens of millions drink them in everyday) seldom varies: to be happy you must consume, to be special you must conform. Hello? Absurd, obviously, yet due to the fragility of our identities, we seem all too content to let merchandisers provide us with their version of who we are, to let them recreate us in their image: a cookie-cutter image based on shallow sociology and noisy lies. The political stories are even more insidious, designed to manipulate and control us through fear. For years, it was the Communists who were hiding under America’s beds, then it was drug addicts; and now it’s terrorists, illegal immigrants, and advocates of universal healthcare. Me, when I retire at night I pretend Penelope Cruz is under my bed, with a six-pack of strong ale and a box of doughnuts. According to Joseph Campbell, in the Buddhist version of the Adam and Eve myth, the two angels with flaming swords who are stationed at the gates of Eden to prevent the banished couple from ever re-entering their paradise are actually named. (They’re anonymous in the Genesis story.) Their names are Fear and Desire. It’s our desire, our greed – encouraged by seductive corporate fairy tales – and our fears – stoked by the provocative pulp fiction of political frightmongers – that keep far too many of us locked up in the shopping mall and locked out of Eden. Hacksaws, anyone? Dynamite? Rope ladders? Penelope Cruz? Writers and artists of all ages might benefit from treating their every creative act as if it were some kind of psychic jailbreak.

— From Another Roadside Attraction in 1971 to B is for Beer in 2009, you have enjoyed the kind of success that most writers/artists can only dream of. My research shows that used booksellers can’t keep your novels on the shelves and there must be dozens of readers for every book sold. Teenagers are just discovering your early books now and finding them as relevant and revolutionary as listening to Blonde on Blonde by Dylan, or Exile on Main Street by the Stones or watching Breathless by Godard. You belong to an increasingly smaller band of poetic brothers who emerged from the 60’s and never seem to go out of style. Would you be as motivated to write without such a loyal and timeless audience? Can you imagine ever not writing? Do you feel the love that your readers have received and returned? Have the dreams of your youth been fulfilled? If the goal in life is to discover that you’ve always been where you were supposed to be, are you there?
— Luckily for me, for literature, and just maybe for humanity in general, there exists a fair number of readers who simply don’t relate to pedestrian novels about unhappy marriages, dysfunctional families, cancer, addiction, nervous breakdowns, money, or the exploits of trial lawyers and serial killers (assuming there’s much of a difference). My readers – on the whole a bright and sassy lot, endowed with open minds, strong libidos, a distrust of authority, a social conscience, a love of language, and a fine sense of humor – fall, happily into that category. As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Tarzan. When that didn’t quite work out, writing books seemed the next best thing, and I have to say there are days in my writing room when I feel as if I’m swinging on every vine in the jungle. On those days, I’m exceedingly grateful to the gods and to my readers – not necessarily in that order. I’m even grateful on the days when I fall.