Tom Robbins: Swinging from vines

Tom Robbins, beloved for his novels, makes the leap to memoir.
By Julie Krug | Published: June 12, 2014


creditAlexaRobbinsIf Tom Robbins had to produce a five-second curriculum vitae, it might go something like this: Award-winning author. Hillbilly mystic. Chaser of storms. Art critic. Roadside philosopher. Lover of women.

Between the spaces of those titles are the stories that make up the life of an award-winning author. In the same rhythmic, lyrical voice found in his novels, Robbins recounts his journeys in his latest book Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life.

Robbins grew up in North Carolina’s Appalachia Mountains during the Great Depression. To the dismay of his mother, he became both curious and mischievous early on. At 2, he pulled down a pot of boiling hot chocolate from the stove and nearly died from the burns. He wrote his first work of fiction at 5. Later in his youth, he dreamed of running away with the circus. Eventually he left his hometown of Blowing Rock to travel the world, playing many roles, in a Kerouac-like odyssey.

In Tibetan Peach Pie, the author of the best-selling cult classics Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume and Another Roadside Attraction takes the reader on a trek through the mountains of his life, swinging from the vines of one dynamic experience after another. He refers to his stories as a series of “intimate verbal snapshots” that are in loose chronological order and a variety of settings: Appalachia during the Great Depression, the West Coast during the ’60s psychedelic revolution, the studios and bedrooms of bohemian America before technology voted privacy out of office, Timbuktu before Islamic fanatics crashed the party, international roving before “homeland security” threw a wet blanket over travel, and New York publishing before electrons intervened on behalf of the trees.

Robbins admits he doesn’t much care for the genre of memoir. More storyteller than autobiographer, he refers to his own as a hybrid he calls “Dumbo.”

He credits the women in his life – his wife Alexa, one of his sisters, his assistant, his yoga teacher – for persuading him to gather his colorful life stories and craft them into a new book. The stories include a Mark Twain-like childhood in North Carolina, a stint as a weatherman in Korea, two years living on an Indian reservation in Washington state, hanging out with some of the notable bohemian minds of the ’60s and writing nine award-winning novels.

Robbins is also known for weaving the ordinary into the sacred, the comical into the divine. Consider these examples.

From Jitterbug Perfume: “The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.”

From Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: “What looks to be a wisp of cloud is actually the moon, narrow and pale like a paring snipped from a snowman’s toenail.”

From Still Life with Woodpecker: “Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not. Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning and an end. Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of bed, and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. There is only one serious question. And that is: Who knows how to make love stay? Answer me that and I will tell you whether or not to kill yourself.”

In Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins moves with the same rhythm, speaks with the same lyrical prose as with his novels. He’s also the same obsessive perfectionist who checks, double checks and then rechecks his work – tweaking and toiling, grafting and molding every sentence, no one more or less important than another. He never leaves anything to chance.

Veteran editor Alan Rinzler worked with Robbins on Jitterbug Perfume and witnessed those high standards firsthand. “He says he rewrites passages 40 times, and I believe him,” says Rinzler.

Irony and metaphor are two of Robbins’ greatest writing tools, Rinzler adds. “You read Tom Robbins for his incredibly funny, surprising and inspiring language, especially his metaphors, which go beyond communication to illumination, to a vision of truth that transcends realism.”

“He’s brilliant and exhausting,” says David L. Robbins, author of historical fiction and co-founder of James River Writers in Richmond, Va. The two Robbinses are not related, but met in Virginia. David Robbins says he’s never met anyone who works with language the way Tom Robbins does: “He does not let language rest, ever.”

As a highly private artist who gives few interviews and even fewer personal details, Robbins is surprisingly open in Tibetan Peach Pie. In the chapter “Crime, Art and Death,” he shares the loss of a sibling during a routine operation: “It was a lovely May day two months before my seventh birthday when Rena, age four, was taken to Blowing Rock’s new clinic to have her tonsils removed. “She’ll be home in a day or so,” my mother assured me. Rena never came home – except in a pretty little coffin decorated with cherubs, lined in white satin. She’d been administered an overdose of ether.

To this day, when anyone I love leaves home for longer than a few hours, I’m filled with dread that they will not return.”

Despite loves and losses, or perhaps because of them, one of his many funny, poetic commentaries is, “Life is too serious to take seriously.” Whether he’s talking about politics or vegetables, pie or heaven (and he’ll tell you they’re related), Robbins has spent a lifetime inviting readers into the vast landscape of his mind, where he shows them just how deeply he cares about language.

Why did Fernanda Pivano call you “The most dangerous writer in the world”?  

That delightfully flattering, if overly generous accolade, appeared in a review published in Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s leading national newspaper. When, some months later, I had occasion to meet Signora Pivano at a reception in Milan, I asked her why she believed me so globally dangerous. In heavily accented English, she replied, “Because you are saying that love is the only thing that matters, and everything else is a big joke.” Frankly, I’m unsure that is what I’ve been saying, and I would have preferred she’d have answered, “Because you are such a threat to the status quo, to the tyranny of the dull mind.”  But I cherish the title nonetheless. It makes me feel like James Bond. Or one of Bond’s villains.

In many of your books, the story opens with a gentle introduction to something simple (beets or an amoeba) and ends up sounding sacred. How do you create this quiet invitation, where the reader is taken by the hand and lulled into the kingdom of the story? Once created, how do you sustain this intimacy?

There’s a sense in which every blank page is a locked room. Language is the tool with which I jimmy the latch. Imagination is the lantern by whose glow I search for the secrets inside. Intrigued though a little wary, the reader may tiptoe in after me. The task now is to avoid my awkward eviction or the reader’s hasty retreat. Usually that’s a matter of control:  a slow yet cheery deliberation, as in walking down an icy street on one’s way to a party. Other times it can demand a pitch next to madness.

In the first instance, the reader takes your hand because she’s begun to trust you (you with your beets and amoebas), and you know the terrain while she does not. In the second, she follows along because she’s now become complicit in your odd behavior and is a little afraid of what you might do if she lets you out of her sight.

We often ask authors: “Who or what has informed your writing?” How has writing informed your life?  

I wrote my first story at age 5, and I’ve been at it off and on ever since. So, even though I’ve studiously avoided the autobiographical in my fiction (not wishing to use up my life in literature), the line between writing and living can sometimes get a bit wobbly and thin. The ink fairy who lives in my cerebellum rarely sleeps. Even if I’m locked in carnal embrace, she (jealous perhaps?) may suddenly shout out an adjective or verb, the very one that I’ve been desperately seeking, the one that will heat up a particular paragraph and allow every kernel to pop. (I suppose it could be worse. Like a lot of guys, I could be distracted by golf.)

Having said that, the very act of composition, actively involving as it does imagination and intuition, the rational as well as the subliminal, also serves to keep me connected to my unconscious self, an engagement that can enrich both the psychological and spiritual elements of one’s being. Overall, it’s a strange sort of practice:  simultaneously Zen and anti-Zen.

Your voice is distinct. Did your parents shape this or you as a writer?

Although neither had attended college, both of my parents were avid readers. I recall my father reading Huckleberry Finn aloud to me when I was seven or eight, and my mother had once dreamed of becoming a writer. She actually won a scholarship to Columbia University, but a small-town girl in South Carolina, she was scared to move to New York.

They did instill in me a love of books, as well as a strong work ethic, but to the extent that they might have helped shape my voice, it would probably have been because both Mother and Daddy possessed an active sense of humor and, in their conservative way, were rather mischievous. A serio-comic sensibility (“crazy wisdom”), compounded by “sacred mischief,” is not uncharacteristic of my literary style.

Other than that, I felt like some sort of Tibetan Jew born inexplicably into a family of Southern Baptists, a cuckoo hatched in a robin’s nest. I guess the Fates have a mischievous sense of humor, as well.

After nine novels, you have taken a turn at memoir. At least that’s the category your publisher is using. 

My reservations about autobiographical writing notwithstanding, I have to confess that my publisher is probably correct in calling Tibetan Peach Pie a memoir. Personally, I’ve been calling it a “Dumbo,” saying that it is to the typical memoir what Dumbo is to the typical elephant. In truth, that’s largely a conceit. Rather than a series of sketches that goes flying crazily around at the top of the tent, the book has a grounded forward thrust and a chronological trajectory, much as one would find in a novel. If it’s an unordinary memoir, it’s mainly because I’ve led a most unordinary life – and it’s written in that “distinct” voice to which you referred.

What was the process like?

I can’t tell you with any degree of clarity, being still rather stunned by the whole experience. Asking me to talk about memoir is like asking a recently deflowered virgin to talk about sex, especially if she’d been drunk at the time of her seduction. My post-memoir mental state is a mixture of euphoria, disbelief, accomplishment, confusion, titillation, exhaustion and shame.

Where does the title Tibetan Peach Pie come from?

Except for an extravagant riff on jelly doughnuts, the book is as devoid of pastries as a diabetic’s lunch box. Rather, “Tibetan peach pie” is the object of desire, the Holy Grail as it were, in an old shaggy dog story that I like to believe Zen cowpokes used to tell around the chuck wagon. To my mind, it’s a kind of parable about the wisdom of always aiming for the stars, and the greater wisdom of cheerfully accepting failure if you only reach the moon.

You’ve expressed disdain for the genre of memoir, claiming that too many writers end up airing old grievances or dumping their pain on readers. How did you avoid doing this in Tibetan Peach Pie?

It was easy as pie. I’ve always been turned off by crybaby writing, in fiction as well as in memoir. Yes, bad, sad things happen to people; bad, sad things have happened to me; but I learned long ago that misery is perpetuated and enlightenment obstructed by people taking themselves far too seriously. A book, be it memoir or novel, is no place to throw oneself a pity party; and I, for one, have never wanted my books to contribute to the weariness in the world.

A bold imagination and a free-spirited sense of humor have the capacity to illuminate not merely one’s writing but one’s existence. Of course, no book outside of the suspect self-help genre need ever pretend to be a blueprint for happiness, and there probably are memoirs that are inspirational, detailing as they do the ways in which the author overcame pain and misfortune. What they all too often fail to overcome, however, is bad writing.

In any case, Tibetan Peach Pie itself contains a sprinkling of social observations and brief philosophical insights – some eye-opening, several maybe even eye-popping – and it may be warmhearted and reader-friendly enough to suit the tender sensibility, but anyone expecting an account of how I may have been, say, abandoned by a devil-worshipping tattoo artist mother and regularly pistol-whipped by a blind bank robber dad, only to be made whole and taught to love again by the wise old family dog, well, I fear they’re in for a surprise.

How does one write good memoir when our memories are flawed?

Are you asking if I hit some potholes in my drive down Memory Lane? Yes, certainly, there were a few. Mostly, though, I managed to pave them over smoothly enough so that those parties who actually witnessed or shared the experiences won’t break an axle or blow a gasket. When reconstructing true accounts of old events, it’s good to ask questions. And to Google one’s own hippocampus. All of our memories – all of them – are in there somewhere, just waiting to be accessed if we can break the code. On the other hand, since observation is subjective in the first place, it’s in observance rather than in memory where many if not most discrepancies arise.

James Frey was criticized for his embellishments in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. Some critics say this is what’s ruining the genre. But isn’t some embellishment part of memoir writing?

Yeah, within limits. The memoirist has license, I think, to mess a bit with the lighting, the stage set, the costumes and the incidental music that’s being performed in the orchestra pit – but not, however, with the script, with the play itself. And because of that very need for fidelity, I found writing true stories far harder than just making things up.

George Bernard Shaw thought the autobiographical was a genre of intentional lies. Is there some truth to that?

Never mind that Shaw was Irish, and thus surrounded his whole life by fairy folk, Guinness deliriums and picturesque prefabricators; and never mind, too, that Tibetan Peach Pie is decidedly not an autobiography (may the gods break off my typing finger should I ever become that self-absorbed); Shaw was correct about the dilemma a memoirist faces when he finds himself writing in an intimate way about people he’s known.

Inexplicably, I’ve met and interacted with a surprising number of celebrities  – actors, musicians, painters, scholars, writers – but for the most part, on those occasions when I felt the need to involve them in this book, I’ve taken pains to treat them with the same respect that I’ve afforded the still-living “ordinary” players in my life’s little road show. As for the deceased, yes, I may have stirred some ashes with a pointed stick, but I have a feeling the dead don’t much give a damn.

What’s the best part about writing a memoir? 

While it’s highly rewarding to practice the Zen ideal of living in the moment, it’s also wise to keep an eye on the past. Now that I’m an octogenarian (which doesn’t mean that I eat only marine animals with eight or more legs), I found it entertaining, moving and occasionally shocking to at last dust off and slowly contemplate the multifarious beads that make up the pagan rosary of my personal history. It was rewarding to finally stop and smell the violets – and it was revealing that the malformed, mangled and battered ones seemed to smell the sweetest of all.

What is your favorite story in Tibetan Peach Pie?

That’s tough. I’m kind of pleased by the way I managed to depict my first LSD experience, but if forced to choose a favorite story, I guess it would have to be the one that describes the time I donned a grotesque plastic duck mask just as I was about to be examined by a proctologist.

Julie Krug is a writer living in Washington and teaches creative writing at a local community college.

Robbins’ redux: 9 quotable quotes

“We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.”

“A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.”

“There is no such thing as a weird human being. It’s just that some people require more understanding than others.”

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

“The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being.”

“There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

“As a child, I was an imaginary playmate.”

“Funny how we think of romance as always involving two, when the romance of solitude can be ever so much more delicious and intense.”

“Anyone who maintains absolute standards of good and evil is dangerous. As dangerous as a maniac with a loaded revolver.”

Step Right Up

CoverFrom Tibetan Peach Pie:  A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins

No, I didn’t run away with it, but it might be fair to say that the circus ran away with me. As a teenager in Virginia, I performed sideshow and menagerie chores for Hunt Brothers, a show with more animals and larger cast, though, sadly, no Bobbi. (Except from afar or in my fantasies I would never see the likes of her again, although as an adult I made the mistake many times of projecting — unfairly —  her image, her archetype, onto young women who, though lively and eccentric enough, were fundamentally unsuited for the role.) I also worked brief stints as a ticket seller and concessionaire on the midways of a number of carnivals and fairs. The moment the first vehicles in a garish caravan began to roll into one of the small Southern towns where we lived, I would be bicycling to the setup lot, looking for a chance, as the showfolk would say, to be “with it,” wishing I might leave town in their company.

The attraction for me wasn’t so much the fierce individualism and freedom from convention afford by the transient life — though the older I got the greater the appeal of the open road — but rather the sheer exuberant gilding-the-lily poetics of the baroque spectacles themselves, the invitation to bask in the rain bowed prisms of a moveable Oz from behind whose spangled curtains genuine wizards seldom failed to emerge.

The circus provided a separate reality, with an emphasis, if truth be told, on reality. In the lyrics of a popular song, the term “Barnum & Bailey world” was coined as a synonym for all that is phony and false. Certainly, there was deception, bombast, and ballyhoo aplenty, and even outright grifting in some of the smaller shows, but ultimately the old-fashioned circus was real to a degree rarely approached by most modern entertainments, including “reality TV.” Those snarling tigers swiping at a trainer in the center ring were flesh and fang and claw, not some Pixar animation; those aerialists working without a net literally risked their lives at every breathtaking performance. Beauty, novelty, mirth, and danger misled in real time, real space a few yards from one’s place in the stands; posing the question “Which is the true phony, Barnum & Bailey or the Hollywood blockbuster; the Great Wallendas (whose seven-person high-wire pyramid I witnessed shortly before their fatal fall in Detroit), or the preposterous heroics generated on some studio geek’s computer?”

Excerpt of Tibetan Peach Pie reprinted with permission from Tom Robbins © 2014 by Ecco Press.

Tips From a Ring Master

  • Challenge every single sentence; challenge it for lucidity, accuracy, originality and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.
  • Remember that language is not the frosting; it’s the cake. Rhythmical language and vivid imagery possess a power of effect that is independent from content.
  • Don’t talk about it; you’ll talk it away. Let the ideas flow from your mind to the page without exposing them to air. Especially hot air.
  • If you don’t actually like to write, love to write, feel driven and compelled to write, then you’re probably better off abandoning your ambition in favor of a more legitimate career.
  • Never be afraid to make a fool of yourself. The furthest out you can go is the best place to be. (But pushing the envelope has to come naturally; you can’t force it.)
  • Always compare yourself to the best. Even if you never measure up, it can’t help but make you better.
  • Write every day without fail, even if it’s only for half an hour, even if you’re savagely hung over and your grandmother has just fallen out of a third-story window.
  • Above all, have a good time. If you aren’t enjoying writing it, you can hardly expect someone else to enjoy reading it.
  • Stop worrying about getting published and worry about getting better. If you make the work good enough, it will get published.

The Tom Robbins File

Many Lives in One

Birthday gaffe:  Robbins is 81, not 77, as referenced almost everywhere. He was born in 1932, not 1937, as the Library of Congress, Wikipedia and many interviews have stated. Robbins has tried contacting Wikipedia and his foreign publishers to correct the error, but they will not change it unless the Library of Congress does so first.

Awards: Received the 2012 Literary
Lifetime Achievement award from the Library of Virginia.

Took LSD with famed ’60s psychologist
and writer Timothy Leary.

Served as a judge in Seattle’s
annual mayonnaise tasting and spam-carving contests.

Trekked through the Andes Mountains with famed mythologist Joseph Campbell.

While in the Air Force in the ’50s, he was a meteorologist for a year in Korea.

About memoir

“All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies: I mean deliberate lies.”
– George Bernard Shaw

“I will say, with memoir, you must be honest. You must be truthful.”
– Elie Wiesel

“I say I’m a diarist with an explanation I’ll get back to you on. Someday I may try and write in memoir form.”
– Carrie Fisher

“I had a very high-grade publisher tell me I was incapable of writing a memoir.”
– Mitch Albom

“There is a lot of skepticism today as to whether memoir is real. But when fiction is done at a certain level there is skepticism as to whether it is really fiction.”
– Junot Diaz

“The difference between memoir and autobiography, as far as I see it, is that a memoir is there primarily to tell one particular story, whereas an autobiography tries to be a full account of a life.”
– Salman Rushdie

“When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad ones you did do well, that’s memoirs.”
– Will Rogers

“I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ‘message,’ even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form.”
– Isabel Allende

“Memoirs are a well-known form of fiction.”
– Frank Harris

“Perhaps the questions the writer most fears from her potential readers is: Why have you done this? With the implication: Why have you done this to me?”
– Mary Gordon

“I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap.…we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.”
– Susan Cheever