JUST ABOUT THIS TIME of year 24 years ago, I drove my still nearly new VW Superbeetle up to La Conner for a chat with Tom Robbins about a book he’d just written: his second novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Last week I hit the road for La Conner again, to talk with Robbins (in the same room of the same house I visited in 1976) on the occasion of his seventh and latest, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, published this week. Tom and I both arrived in Seattle back in the mid-’60s; then I knew him as The Seattle Times‘ jazz-bo of a visual arts critic, as the host of KRAB-FM’s every-Sunday-evening s顮ce of underground rock, as an amiable magus prone to donning Fantasia-style wizard gear to preside over drug-sodden street celebrations of the alternative lifestyle. Somehow it fit that the guy I knew would have written a cult bestseller (Another Roadside Attraction) in his spare time, but another novel? Ol’ Tom a Novelist, a Fictioneer, a Molder of Significant Form? I couldn’t get used to the idea. A quarter-century and five more books later, I still can’t. Fortunately, Robbins hasn’t either. Fierce Invalids—episodes from the life of an accident-prone CIA op with a taste for mind-expanding drugs, Finnegan’s Wake, and legally untouchable girl-flesh—no more resembles a rule-made contemporary fiction than its six elder siblings did, but it’s vintage Robbins in the rich layering of its literary lasagna: plot, preachments, precepts, and prophecy all bubbling merrily together. We hereby celebrate Robbins’ Lucky Number Seven with some thoughts on life and art in the Great Northwest composed by the master on the occasion of receiving the Golden Bumbershoot award, plus some extemporaneous observations of life, love, lust, and literature that haven’t found their way into the canonical works—yet.
Privacy is essential to me. I’m on the cusp between Cancer and Leo, so I’m actually torn between retiring to the hermit’s cave and wanting the spotlight on center stage. But it’s very difficult to tap into the eternal sources if you’re cavorting in public. Whom the Gods would destroy they first make popular. Being in the spotlight inflates the ego, and I concur wholeheartedly with Joseph Campbell that Hell is a large, stiff ego.
For the first few years after my first two books appeared, I hadn’t given many interviews or allowed my picture to be circulated, a lot of people believe that I was a woman. I guess it was my well-developed anima. But mystique is a magnet, and every summer I used to get college students from all over the United States beating a path to my door. Once I started doing readings and book tours that stopped happening: You maintain your privacy by going public. It sort of directs the fire away from who you really are. Like the guy in the old cowboy movie: He would put his hat up on a stick and all the bad guys would shoot at the hat while he snuck around and came at ’em from behind.
My approach to writing is intuitive, not analytical, which is one of the things that makes it hard to talk about. Because I’m not a formula writer, every time I start a book it’s beginning all over again. I don’t know how to write a novel, I couldn’t tell you how to write a novel, it’s a new adventure every time I begin one, and I like it that way. I rarely have even the vaguest sense of plot when I begin a book, what I usually begin with is about three—things, three themes, concepts, ideas, that are completely unrelated. Well, everything is related, but I’m not aware of the relationships, the connections are not present in my mind. And then I hold auditions in the teatro cognito and a character or two will show up, frequently a woman, and I will put that character in a scene, and it’s like putting that character in a little boat and pushing it out into the water, and then I literally follow that character out of that scene and into the next, one scene begetting the next.
My books, for all their surface looseness, are actually very, very tight, and they’re full of cross-references, and the themes are complex, so to be able to write that way with any degree of artistry and to make these disparate elements come together so smoothly that they appear seamless, that the reader would believe they were there from the beginning, requires not only that I write very, very slowly but maintain an enormous degree of focus and concentration; you have to be able to hold many, many different things in your mind at once, because once you get beyond 50 pages, you can’t go back every day and read what you’ve already written. It takes intense concentration to do that, at the end of my writ-ing day, and my writing days have been get-ting shorter and shorter; you feel like you’ve been wrestling in radioactive quicksand with Xena the Warrior Princess and her five fat uncles.
I haven’t voluntarily read a review of one of my books since 1977, though I’ve had a couple stuck in my face. But in a New York Times review of the one before last, the writer said something like, “Robbins needs to make up his mind between whether he wants to be funny or serious.” And I remember thinking, ‘I’ll make my mind up when God makes up his.’ How can you read the newspapers every day or watch TV news and not see that the world is simultaneously most tragically serious and ridiculously funny? If I have learned anything in my life, it is that there is no wisdom without playfulness. All that the truly wise teachers I have met have in common is a kind of childlike playfulness that seems to go hand in hand with enlightenment.
I want to edify as I entertain—Cancer is the teacher sign—but I don’t want to be pedantic or heavy-handed about it. I write fiction rather than essays because it’s just ever so much more fun. You’re in the same business that God is in, plus you can get away with linguistic gymnastics a lot easier in fiction. But there is a particular breed of fiction reviewer I call plot junkies, people who only review plots, and these are the ones who are likely to describe my work as “zany,” a word which, along with “whimsical,” I have increasingly come to despise.
The trouble is, that average reviewer in America is totally unfamiliar with both the main sources for my writing, which are, first, my interest in Asian systems of liberation, and second, Greek mythology. I don’t mean retelling Greek myths like Updike and others, but going back and drawing from the same well of the collective unconscious. Reviewers also describe my work as “cartoonish,” which I take as a compliment, because I love cartooning, and cartooning is very Greek. The creators of the Greek myths worked like cartoonists, painting in big bold strokes without a lot of physical or psychological detail. There’s frequent and often kinky sex. Supernatural and fantastic events are presented as if they were ordinary everyday experience. Animals and inanimate objects are often as important as the human figures, and used in symbolic ways. So I’m much more interested in mythospace than cyberspace. As I think I say somewhere in this book, “Man has always defined himself through narration.” Trouble is, now corporations tell our stories for us. And the message of the corporate story is always the same: To be special you must conform, to be valid you must consume.
Our sensual energy is the most powerful energy we possess, which is why it’s so baffling that every religious system in modern history has suppressed the sensual. Only in Hindu tantra did they have the wisdom and courage to employ sensuality and harness it for spiritual purposes. Sex and drugs, that’s where it’s always been. Rocket fuel to blast off into enlightenment.
I only really understood that I’m different from a lot of other men when I started paying a little attention to golf. I got interested because so many men I knew were playing it: artists, not corporate types. I couldn’t understand the attraction. For me, golf is basketball for men who can’t jump and chess for men who can’t think. But I think I’ve got to the bottom of it. Most men secretly hate women and love golf. I, on the other hand. . . .
Until 13 years ago I was a serial monogamist. I had this history of three-year relationships and two-year flings. I don’t consider them failures; I may have pissed some people off, but as a matter of fact I am still friends with most of my former girlfriends. But getting to know a strange woman intimately is such a thrill that I’ve wanted to experience it over and over again. I love the idea of the mail-order bride, though I’ve never got that far. To bring a strange woman into your home and become totally intimate with her. . . .
About 14 years ago I had been unattached for some time and was quite happy that way. But one day I performed a wedding ceremony for someone from Microsoft, and weddings always make me lusty, so after the service I started looking around for talent, and I saw a cute little blonde who seemed to be unattached, and there was no food at the reception, only cake, so I went up to the little blonde and asked her to dinner. So some while later she called me at home and said, “I’m coming through La Conner on my way to the San Juans, and since you bought me dinner, I’d like to return the favor.” So she came, and she brought Alexa, who is tall and dark, with her.
So we all went out to dinner, and I found myself sitting between light and dark, which is where we all are, isn’t it, and I kept feeling more attracted to the dark. So when they were saying goodbye after dinner, which I ended up paying for, by the way, the blonde gave me a little kiss and went out the door to the car. So as Alexa was about to go out the door herself, she leaned over and gave me a little kiss too, and there was this shudder of electricity. We sort of looked at each other a moment and then she kissed me again. And then she left too.
I didn’t pursue it. Ten or 12 days later, getting toward Christmas, I got a little package in the mail: from Alexa, just a note, thanks for dinner, and a key chain with one of those glitter-filled magic wands attached, and a key painted with purple nail polish. And a Seattle phone number.
Well, what’s a guy to do? I called her. She was in the tub. Great, warm telephone voice. “Thanks for the note. What’s the key?” “The key to your heart,” she said. Oh. Well, want to get together some time? Sure, how about Saturday? We agreed she’d come up to visit me because I was still feeling much too independent and cocky to go down there. But there must have been something going on with me because when I called the Black Swan to book a table I asked the proprietor to order in a bottle of Roederer Cristal, so I can’t claim to have been entirely oblivious.
Next morning over a truck-stop breakfast of biscuits and gravy and long-neck Buds she mentioned that she’d been psychic since adolescence and that she made her living reading the Tarot. So I said, “You should read the cards for me sometime,” and she looked at me with these green wolf eyes and said, “I already did.” And I said, Oh reaaally, what did they say? And she said, “Well, essentially, they said you were going to lose your heart.” And I, still cocky, said, “To whom?” And she just looked at me and shook her head, like “You Kartoffelkopf, you just don’t get it, do you?” And I didn’t. But I soon did. January 17. We’ll have been together 13 years and three months on Monday.
On his readers
I love my readers, they seem to me to be nimble-minded and fun. This always hasn’t been true, it certainly wasn’t in the ’80s, but my audience these days is probably 80 percent kids in their teens and 20s: the generation we’ve been told were not going to read, the hackers and the slackers. And I think they’re great, I love hanging out with them; the kids are all right.
Ten books everybody should read because they’re not remotely enlightened until they do
Understanding Media by Marshall MacLuhan
The Archaic Revival by Terence McKenna
The Tao of Physics by Frijdof Capra
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts
The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell
On Glory Roads by Eleanor Munro
The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck
The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets compiled by Barbara G. Walker
News of the Universe by Robert Bly
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
Six things I’m glad I wrote
I never go back and read my books; I’m saving that for my golden years. But I retain a strong affection for:
*the passage in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues building up to the first description of Sissy Hankshaw’s enormous thumbs
*the opening gambit in Jitterbug Perfume: “The beet is the most intense of vegetables. . . .”
*the bed mite passage from Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas
In the new book I’m fond of:
*the riff on Jahweh and Lucifer settling out of court
*the place on page 272 about making a morning social call without showering: “He’d awakened too late to bathe properly, and Cupid’s briny chlorines clung to him like clamskin britches.”
*page 314’s metaphors in celebration of the hymen
Five men of wisdom and power who set an example for us all
*Alan Watts, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century in his own right, not merely as an interpreter of Eastern systems of liberation. Like very few philosophers, he actually lived his philosophy.
*Oscar Wilde, for his example and his writing both. He had an intense social conscience, he was generous to everyone, accurately observant of his time, enlightened in many areas as well as wonderfully witty. He was a great man who happened to fall in love with a jerk.
*Allan Ginsburg. Somebody was talking about visiting a Third World village and seeing the children suffering from undernourishment and disease, and he said, I just wanted to go up to those children and hug them. And the person he was talking to said, If you’d been Ginsburg you would have.
Seven albums I’d want with me if I was marooned on a desert island
*Dylan: Blonde on Blonde, probably, or Blood on the Tracks
*The opera choruses of Verdi, ‘specially the lament of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco
*Laurie Anderson’s Big Science
*The Threepenny Opera (1959 original cast with Lotte Lenya)
*Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man
*The Beatles’ Greatest Hits, if there is such an album; I would choose the one with “All My Loving” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” because I am convinced that time will prove they are right up there with the best of Schubert.
*Perez Prado’s Havana 3 AM, so if I were stuck on the island alone I could dance by myself
Read Tom Robbin’s Here in Geoduck Junction.