Novels by Tom Robbins:
- Another Roadside Attraction (1971)
- Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976)
- Still-Life with Woodpecker (1980)
- Jitterbug Perfume (1984)
- Skinny Legs and All (1990)
- Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas (1994)
"I think too much is known about me already. I think biographical information can get in the way of the reading experience. The interchange between the reader and the work. For example, I know far too much about Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Because I know as much as I do about their personal lives, I can't read their work without this interjecting itself. So if I had it to do over, I'd probably go the way of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. And just stay out of it altogether and let all the focus be on the work itself and not on me."
Switters had long ago come to accept if not appreciate the fact that he himself was a study in contradictions, blaming the incongruities in his personality on his having been born on the cusp between Cancer and Leo, pulled in opposite directions by lunar and solar forces (that he maintained severe reservations about the reliability of astrology only reinforced the evidence). Now, he was starting to notice glaring inconsistencies in Bobby, as well. Maybe most people were fundamentally contradictory. The real people, at any rate. Maybe those among us ever steadfast and predictable, those whose yang did not intermittently slop over into their yin...
--From Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates
Though he writes as eloquently on the topic of paradox as he does everything else he's tackled, Tom Robbins is himself a study in contradictions. Perhaps even a studied study. A notoriously private man who guards his personal life jealously, he nonetheless accepts book tours and grants interviews at a place in his career when -- let's face it -- he really doesn't have to. And though he claims to love the coldish, wetish, clammyishness of the Pacific Northwestern United States where he and his wife Alexa make their home, throughout our interview in a dimly lit inside space with a clam aspic-type day happening outside, he never removed his sunglasses. Declining, even, when requested to do so for photos. (Though, in truth, this whole sunglass episode might have less to do with sun and more to do with other considerations. Robbins, after all, turns 64 this year. And while I can report that, with sunglasses in place, he evidences a youthful and healthy glow, I have no idea what story his eyes might tell.)
He arrived for our midmorning meeting in the restaurant in his hotel with the disheveled air (and hair) of someone who had been recently roused from bed and before very long began to wax poetic on the topic of -- you guessed it -- contradiction.
"Reality is contradictory. And it's paradoxical. If there's any one word -- if you had to pick one word to describe the nature of the universe -- I think that word would be paradox. That's true at the subatomic level, right through sociological, psychological, philosophical levels on up to cosmic levels." Not bad wordplay for someone who had been forced by interloping interviewers to miss breakfast.
If Robbins is full of cheerful -- and perhaps sometimes even intentional -- contradictions, he's also taken some pains to shroud at least portions of his life in mystery. "I think too much is known about me already. I think biographical information can get in the way of the reading experience."
Robbins says he writes very slowly and carefully, something that fans will recognize in his work. Robbins' writing goal is two pages a day. As a result, Robbins' output of novels has been surprisingly low. Surprising, that is, when you consider the impact his work has had and the passion that it continues to inspire in his readers.
Those readers will not be disappointed by the author's latest and longest work, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, a novel that Robbins spent 39 months writing and almost another year editing. The fierce invalid in question is Switters, an unlikely CIA agent with a penchant for flowery language and an obsession with innocence. We follow Switters from the "clam aspic" cool of Seattle, into the Peruvian jungle, the Syrian desert and the high council of the Catholic church. Without benefit of a conversation with Robbins it would be tempting to call the book "tightly plotted," because the intricate twists and turns certainly lend it that feel. But, of course, it isn't. Robbins admits he does almost no plotting in advance but, "that's the adventure of it, for me." The thing that keeps him coming back to writing every day.
Fierce Invalids holds some potential for controversy as well as entertainment and mental stimulation. Those uncomfortable with subversions and diversions that include fairly close looks at myriad recreational drugs and the sexuality of teenagers might want to give Fierce Invalids a miss. Then again, Robbins' fans understand the potential for "anything goes" in a book by this author. As Robbins himself says, "I wouldn't want to just raise people's mood -- to elevate their mood -- without first or simultaneously making them aware of the fact that there are a lot of terrible truths out there." In Fierce Invalids Robbins has come closer to this goal than ever before.
Linda Richards: Your fans are passionate about you.
Tom Robbins: They're crazy. I think it's the lunatic fringe. [Laughs]
But they're happy and affectionate lunatics, I think.
Oh yeah. They're wonderful. They're very smart and hip and they give me a tremendous amount of love, actually.
Your fans are enthusiastic, but somewhat confused sometimes, I think. I did a Web search on you before I came out today...
You'll never learn anything truthful about me on the 'Net.
I've noticed that. Everything available about you is contradictory.
That's true. But then, that's the way life is. And that's one of the things that Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates is about. The contradictory nature of reality. Reality is contradictory. And it's paradoxical. If there's any one word -- if you had to pick one word to describe that nature of the universe -- I think that word would be paradox. That's true at the subatomic level, right through sociological, psychological, philosophical levels on up to cosmic levels.
Switters didn't take it all that seriously, though.
Well you can't take it seriously. That's the biggest mistake of all. Once you start to take it seriously, you're lost.
How much of it do you take seriously?
Very little. To say that you can't take life seriously and that life shouldn't be taken seriously is not to say that life is trivial or frivolous. Quite the contrary. There's nothing the least bit frivolous about the playful nature of the universe. Playfulness at a fully conscious level is extremely profound. In fact there is nothing more profound. Wit and playfulness are dreadfully serious transcendence of evil.
Fierce Invalids is a wonderful book, Tom. And it's, well, not necessarily a happy book, but your writing is happy. If that makes any sense. You seem to approach those words from a happy place.
I like to think that it never, ever turns its head away from the terrible truths of existence and yet at the same time without avoiding the misery and the suffering and the corruption and the danger in the world, that it can make people feel better about being alive. I wouldn't want to just raise people's mood -- to elevate their mood -- without first or simultaneously making them aware of the fact that there are a lot of terrible truths out there. So you have to wed that awareness of the terrible truths to a sense of wonder and appreciation for the beauty and the passion and the love and even the danger itself.
One of the influences on my work is a popular song by Frank Sinatra. "I've Got You Under My Skin." Because he sings from the point of view of a man who is absolutely, obsessively in love. I mean, in love to a point where it's probably psychologically dangerous to him. Yet every now and then he will just start to play with the words as if they were baubles. And he'll be really playful and noodle around with the words for a while and then right back into extreme emotional passion. When I heard that song and really listened to that song I realized what Sinatra was doing in it. I had a realization that this is the way that I view the world. This is the way that I view my work.
And you do bring that to your work. That sort of joyous playfulness. Like, in Fierce Invalids when you describe a Seattle day as a cold clam aspic kind of day I got this shock of recognition. Because I live in Vancouver, which has a lot of the same sort of geographical things going on and "cold clam aspic" describes some of the weather we get.
Yeah. I love it. I live in this part of the world because of the climate.
Because you like clam aspic?
No. I like rain. I like bad weather. I'm a fan of bad weather. Hurricanes. Blizzards. I love to see mother nature do her stuff.
Does that make you a pessimist or a realist?
It makes me a fool.
And somewhat moist.
Well, rain is different. Particularly this rain: the rain that we have in the Pacific Northwest. It's not a torrential kind of rain, for the most part. It's very soft. It's a wonderful climate for a writer because it reduces temptation. It keeps you indoors. It turns you inward. It makes you introspective. And there's something very cozy and romantic about it, I find. People all around me in the middle of winter are threatening suicide because the rain falls day after day after day and I just get happier and happier.
Is "vivid" a theme for this book?
Well, not really. Switters is a man obsessed with innocence. As part of that obsession, he doesn't like things that teem. He finds them undignified and kind of creepy. So when he is speaking of things being too vivid, that's what he's talking about. Things being out of control in a mindless way. I mean, he's certainly not a control freak. Quite the opposite. He is the ultimate believer in freedom to the point where he believes that even believing anything is a threat to freedom. But he doesn't like all this mindless squirming and itching and breeding that you find in some aspects of nature.
I understand that at one time there were rumors floating around that you were a woman.
At the time when the first two books were published I did not grant interviews or make public appearances and my photograph was not widely disseminated so, because I wrote from a female perspective a lot of people did think that I was actually a woman. Which I took as a compliment. But as you can see, I'm not. And I have no scars. At least not those kind.
I haven't seen the level of misinformation that's out there about you paralleled in another writer. What is that about, do you think? For instance, in one place I read that you'd married Alexa in 1994. In another, that you'd been married for 14 years.
That's good. [Smiles]
I kind of thought you might like that. [Laughs]
There was an article about me in a Los Angeles newspaper which I didn't read because I don't read articles about me. Nor have I ever visited one of the Web sites about me. But I read the headline and it said, "Robbins: A Man of Mystery," and that warmed the cockles of my heart. I loved that.
I think too much is known about me already. I think biographical information can get in the way of the reading experience. The interchange between the reader and the work. For example, I know far too much about Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Because I know as much as I do about their personal lives, I can't read their work without this interjecting itself. So if I had it to do over, I'd probably go the way of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. And just stay out of it altogether and let all the focus be on the work itself and not on me.
And yet you're here. They make you?
[Laughs] There's a man across the street with a highpowered rifle pointed at my head.
So the mystery is not something you try to perpetuate?
Yeah. I don't really try to corrupt it, but that's my participation in it: whatever they say, let 'em say it because sooner or later someone else will say the opposite. You're probably too young to remember the old cowboy movies -- Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and those Saturday afternoon westerns where the cowboy caught in a gunfight would put his hat up on a stick and so all the bad guys would fire at the hat and he would then crawl around the rocks and either come up behind them and blow them away or he would escape, while they're shooting his hat full of holes. So I see all these various interpretations and conjectures about who I am as just being a hat on a stick. It draws the fire away from who I really am and then I can escape. Trying to do the things I need to do.
It would be interesting to read all that stuff about you. You could almost form anther personality alone on that and sort of feed it back to the media.
Yeah. I'm not an animal, I'm a zoo.
But I don't read reviews or features or interviews. It just makes me too self-conscious. It embarrasses me. My wife reads them and she enjoys them. Or else gets upset. I don't wanna play that emotional game. I just want to write and follow my own spiritual path and enjoy life and not have to be some kind of media figure or icon or minor celebrity.
But there you go and do what you do really well. And you sell bazillions of books and I guess people do want to feel somehow close to you. What you've written has moved people.
I'm moved by the fact that it has moved other people. I don't take a lot of credit for it. And I don't know where it comes from. I work hard, that's for sure. I work a lot harder than people would ever imagine. But I don't take any credit for this gift that I have. Because it was a gift. I mean, I didn't manufacture it.
And your writing feels very natural. Very smooth. I understand you were quite young when you started writing.
Yeah. I started writing when I was five years old. And I worked very hard on trying to make it flow smoothly. But I probably spend as much time on one sentence as John Grisham spends on five chapters. [Laughs] Which is not to cut John Grisham, because his intentions are very different from mine. The ends he's seeking -- which is to entertain people and make a lot of money -- are not my ends. And he does what he does very well.
What are your ends?
[Sighs and looks resigned.]
You walked right into that one, didn't you?
Yeah. And I'm looking for a way to walk right out of it. [Laughs.]
Cornered, I'm afraid.
What I try to do, among other things, is to mix fantasy and spirituality, sexuality, humor and poetry in combinations that have never quite been seen before in literature. And I guess when a reader finishes one of my books -- provided the reader does finish the book -- I would like for him or her to be in the state that they would be in after a Fellini film or a Grateful Dead concert. Which is to say that they've encountered the lifeforce in a large, irrepressible and unpredictable way and as a result their sense of wonder has been awakened and all of their possibilities have been expanded.
At the same time, I don't think that a novel is supposed to be a guide book to happiness any more than it's supposed to be a journal of one's personal pain and frustration, which most novels are today, unfortunately. I think the novels that are most important are those that are more on the order of those coyotes that howl on the hills outside of town. Something mysterious and wild and hypnotic.
Give me an example. Have you read anything recently that made you feel that way?
Well, yeah, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
Do you think sometimes people [readers] can put too much emphasis on novels. To the point of obsession. Base too much of their lives on them?
It's wonderful that literature can have that kind of effect on people. On the other hand, it's a little sad. I think the healthy thing is -- when you encounter a book that has something to offer and that can change the way you perceive the world -- if you can take those things out of it and incorporate them into your own life to help propel you down your own path, rather than becoming obsessed with that book. It's like becoming obsessed with a spiritual teacher, like a guru. The really great gurus won't allow that. They say: I'm just the vehicle through which this knowledge is being imparted, don't get hung up on me. Because then you're mistaking the messenger for the message.
Your first book, Another Roadside Attraction was published in 1971?
I've read that when Elvis was found dead, he had a copy of Another Roadside Attraction next to him. Have you heard that?
Yeah. It didn't actually mention Another Roadside Attraction. In one of the books that was written by one of his entourage -- one of the members of the Memphis mafia -- this fellow -- and I don't know what his function was in Elvis' life -- said that Elvis was in bed with this woman. Not Priscilla. Got up in the middle of the night and said: I'm gonna go take a read. And went to the bathroom. And when he was found, the book beside him on the bathroom floor was a book about the discovery of the mummified body of Christ in the Vatican. Well, I don't know of any other novels about the discovery of the mummified body of Christ in the Vatican, so it stood to reason that it was Another Roadside Attraction. However, just recently someone pointed out to me that in what is now regarded as the definitive biography of Elvis, by a real investigator and a real writer, the book Elvis was reading was a book about the sexual positions that correspond to various astrological signs. The various signs of the zodiac. So that was a great relief to me, if it's true. Because now I no longer have to feel guilty about perhaps killing Elvis.
That's true. [Laughs] I hadn't thought about the potential guilt involved. Just prominent readers.
Timothy Leary told me that when he was in Folsom Prison -- he had never heard of me, at the time -- Sonny Barger, who was the president of the California Hell's Angels came up to him and handed him Another Roadside Attraction and said: [he speaks in a gruff tone befitting an Angels president] Read this. It's the Angels' favorite book.
For a long time I thought: Well, if I've got Elvis and the Hell's Angels on my side, who cares about The New York Review of Books. [Laughs]
You're a Southerner.
That much is true.
Where were you born?
North Carolina. When I was about 10 or 11, I moved to Virginia. I was born in the mountains of North Carolina. Appalachia. I was a hillbilly. Then we moved to eastern Virginia, which was semi-aristocratic and even though both accents were Southern, they were very, very different and the kids in Virginia made fun of the way I talked. So I tried to change and talk like them and it only succeeded in just flattening the whole thing out and become an Okie drawl. Sounds like it was strained through Daniel Boone's underwear. Somebody said last night: Oh, you don't sound so bad. Your voice is really like a combination of Bill Clinton and Jack Nicholson. [Laughs]
Do you see yourself as a Southerner?
No. I don't identify myself, really, with any region. I like to think of myself as global.
And you've traveled quite a bit.
I do travel. You have to keep moving otherwise you're a target.
Cheerfully cynical. My view of the world is not that different from Kafka's, really. The difference is that Kafka let it make him miserable and I refuse. Life is too short. My personal motto has always been: Joy in spite of everything. Not just [mindless] joy, but joy in spite of everything. Recognizing the inequities and the suffering and the corruption and all that but refusing to let it rain on my parade. And I advocate this to other people.
It seems to me that Maestra [the main character's grandmother in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates] shares this world view. And she's a very important character.
Well, Switters has obviously been very influenced by his grandmother. His whole manner of speech was shaped by the way she spoke to him as he was growing up. His kind of overly flowery, formal speech but always done tongue-in-cheek.
And fond of hearing their own rusty pipes, I think was how you put it in the book.
"The wheeze of their own verbal bagpipes."
That's it. Yeah. It amazes me that you'd remember that verbatim. I talk to a lot of writers and quite often by the time they're doing the interviews on a book, they're working on something else and have a hard time even remembering plot details, let alone lines verbatim.
Well, I don't remember a lot of it either, because I don't read my books once they're written. I read the first book. Supposedly they send me the first book off the press. It's probably actually like number 703, but it feels like the first book. And because it's such a different experience than reading manuscript pages or even galley proofs and because of the weight and color and the texture, I sit down and read it, cover to cover. And then I never read them again.
I did a book tour in Italy about three or four years ago and unbeknownst to me the book that had just been published in Italy and which everyone was talking about was Another Roadside Attraction which I hadn't read in 25 years. So I did 39 interviews in six days and had to answer questions about this book that I hadn't read in a quarter of a century.
Did you start reading it in your hotel room?
Well I couldn't, because it was in Italian. And I hadn't brought an English copy with me. But a lot came back to me.
Are you working on anything right now.
From what I understand, writing a book is not a quick process for you.
About three and a half years is the average. This book took 39 months. Just in the writing of it. Then there's the editing and all that which probably adds almost another year onto it.
I set myself a goal of two pages a day. Some days I get it, some days I don't. If I'm writing dialog I can usually get more than that because I can write dialog fairly quickly. But the descriptive passages, the philosophical passages where I'm paying even more attention to imagery and to metaphors and similes and figures of speech, that comes very slow. I write very, very slowly and I try never to leave a sentence until I think that it's as perfect as I can make it. So I'll just go sentence to sentence, almost word to word. Plug along.
Do you plot a lot in advance?
No. Almost none. When I begin a book I have only the vaguest sense of how the plot is going to shape itself and no sense at all how it's going to end. You wouldn't know that from reading this book, because the end ties in with the beginning, I think, absolutely seamlessly and smoothly.
But I have no idea. When I introduced those themes at the beginning of the book I had no idea where it was going to take me. And that's the adventure of it, for me. That's the fun of it. That's what keeps me doing it every day. But in order to do that and to make it appear as if I knew everything in the beginning it demands a tremendous amount of concentration and energy. At the end of every writing day I feel like I've been wrestling in radioactive quicksand with Xena the Warrior Princess and her five fat uncles.
How long is the writing day?
It compresses -- diminishes -- as the book gets longer. I'll start out trying to write five or six hours, but toward the end of the book it gets down to maybe two. And the last 50 pages probably an hour a day. For one thing, there's so much to figure out.
My method of writing is, well: I don't recommend it to anyone. It works for me but I think it's probably a really crazy way to write.
Do you write in longhand, or on a computer, or...?
I write everything in longhand. I like to watch the ink soak into the woodpulp. For one thing, I write so slowly that writing on a computer would not be an advantage.
It makes it easier to go back and put a gun in scene one, though. Or is that what you want to avoid?
I don't do that. When you write as slowly as I do, you don't go back and change scenes. I'll go back and change individual words. Maybe even a phrase here and there.
No, that's caressing. See, I just don't think backlit glyphs on a glass screen have any substance. I can't believe in them. They're not real to me. They seem too transitory and cold and removed from my body. I think ink is the blood of language and paper is the flesh of language. There's something very organic to me about having these thoughts and ideas and concepts and images come out of my brain and down my arm and out the end. The ink that then very slowly soaks into the paper. I feel real connected to that in a way that I never feel on a keyboard.
I tried writing Still Life With Woodpecker on an electric typewriter and ended up destroying the typewriter. Which I then incorporated into the book.
Destroying it how?
First of all I didn't like the color. So I painted it. I painted it red, because it was some kind of awful shade of gray. This office gray. And the paint got into the works, so it wasn't working as well. But even worse than that I think was that it made a humming noise. Unlike a computer, which is relatively silent, those electric typewriters hummed. So it was like it was egging you on trying to make you keep writing. As I said, I write very slowly and there's this thing just [making engine noises]. So one day I just ended up taking a two-by-four and smashing it to pieces. But then I wrote that into the book and I finished it in longhand. I mean literally: the printed page of the book is in my handwriting.
And that came out of taking a two-by-four to a typewriter. Cathartic or something. That's fun. Who gets your handwritten pages?
I give them to Wendy the typist, who has done five of my seven books and is one of the few people alive who can actually decipher my handwriting and do it well. Anything ever happens to her I'll have to get a new career. Not that I have a career in the first place. I like to think of it as a careen.
Well, "career" sounds so businesslike.
Careen sounds like you're in motion.
Yeah. Kind of bouncing one sentence after another.
Do you read the manuscript after you see the typed pages?
Oh yeah. Many, many times. There's not a word in any of my books that I haven't gone over 30 or 40 times. Each individual word. One reason I don't go back and read them is that, even after all that, I keep coming across words that I would like to change. And it's frustrating, because I obviously can't do it.
But it shows. I don't want to say they have a "crafted" feel, because that's not exactly what I mean...
But they are crafted. They're very carefully crafted. But I try to do that in a way that the craft doesn't show itself.
Who do you read?
My tastes are pretty eclectic. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Everything he writes. Everything Jim Harrison writes. Everything Thomas Pynchon writes. Nancy Lemann. Andrei Codrescu. The non-living: Nabokov and Henry Miller and James Joyce. My all-time favorite novel was The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. A nice Irish gentleman.
Not Finnegan's Wake?
Well yeah, I read Finnegan's Wake. I've been reading Finnegan's Wake for almost 15 years. It's on my bedside table and I try almost every night to read a little before I go to sleep. And I'm now on page 39.
It's fairly unreadable.
There are a few people who would disagree that it's unreadable. But I find it, well: readable and unreadable.
It makes you sleepy? Since it's been on your bedside table...
It inspires one's dreams. It colors one's dreams very nicely. If one dreams with a certain amount of language in your dreams, as I often do. Because the language in it is incredible. There's so many layers of puns and references to mythology and history. But it's the most realistic novel ever written. Which is exactly why it's so unreadable. He wrote that book the way that the human mind works. An intelligent, inquiring mind. And that's just the way consciousness is. It's not linear. It's just one thing piled on another. And all kinds of cross references. And he just takes that to an extreme. There's never been a book like it and I don't think there ever will be another book like it. And it's absolutely a monumental human achievement. But it's very hard to read. | June 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.