Tom Robbins on Personalizing the Editorial Process and Knowing When to End a Novel
Gary Lippman Talks to a Beloved American Author
As far as artistic mission statements go, it’s a gem: “What I do,” the long-celebrated author Tom Robbins has said, “is twine ideas and images into big subversive pretzels of life, death, and goofiness on the chance that they might keep the world lively and give it the flexibility to endure.”
Since the appearance of his first novel Another Roadside Attraction in 1971, Robbins has published seven more serio-comic epics (the most recent being 2003’s Villa Incognito) as well as, in this century, a collection of nonfiction (Wild Ducks Fly Backward), a sort-of memoir (Tibetan Peach Pie), and B Is For Beer, a purportedly children’s book about drinking Schlitz and Michelob and their ilk. That hops-sodden tale for tots is typical of Robbins, who is probably the closest thing we have to a Trickster figure in contemporary American storytelling.
Even at an advanced age, Robbins keeps on baking his literary pretzels and appearing to readers much like how Guilliame Apollinaire is described by Roger Shattuck in a line that Robbins uses as an epigraph for Tibetan Peach Pie: “His spiritual nature hides beyond countless oblique paths of eroticism, pursuit of the marvelous, and love of mystery.” (Lest that quotation sound too stuffy to some ears, the other epigraph for Robbins’s memoir comes from Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s: “It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun.”)
Born in 1932 and growing up mostly in Virginia with Baptist preacher grandfathers, Robbins forged a colorful resume for himself even before he added to it the “novelist” part. There was military school; basketball at college, where he studied journalism; three years spent with the Air Force as a meteorologist (one of those years in Korea, the other two in Nebraska); sportswriting, copy-editing and poetry readings in the Bohemian zones of 1950s Richmond followed by a move to Seattle, where Robbins pursued an M.A. at the Far East Institute in the University of Washington. While in Seattle he worked as a late-night radio disc jockey and wrote about visual art for The Seattle Times, Artforum, and Art In America.
By the time Robbins hunkered down to write his first novel, he was already in his thirties, with some marriages and children to his credit. Although he was somewhat older than the countercultural citizens who would take his work to heart, Robbins’s books proved that he could be as playful yet as earnest as any of his readers—and timelessly savvy about our politics, too. (Says one protagonist, “Both American government and American business—if there’s any difference any more—are rolled in Christian rhetoric like a chicken leg is rolled in flour.”)
“Personally,” Robbins has said, “I ask four things of a novel: that it makes me think, makes me laugh, makes me horny, and awakens my sense of wonder.” His own productions certainly walk that talk, with their absurdist slapstick humor, their creatively sexy behavior, and their deep-dive explorations of our existence—explorations partaking of ancient Greek mythology and Stoicism, Tibetan “crazy wisdom,” and psychedelia-inspired insights.
Robbins has identified his major themes as transformation, liberation, and celebration, with plenty of paradox and irreverence helping him to “bang the Language Wheel like a gong.” The most useful “gift” in the man’s toolbox, however, is his raw imagination. As he writes in his sort-of memoir, “I’m in my eighties now, and if there is one thing of which I am most proud, it’s that I have permitted no authority (neither civilian nor military, neither institutional nor societal) to relieve me—by means of force, coercion, or ridicule—of that gift. From the beginning, imagination has been my wild card, my skeleton key, my servant, my master, my bat cave, my home entertainment center, my flotation device, my syrup of wahoo, and I plan to stick with it to the end, whenever and however that end might come, and whether or not there is another act to follow.”A fascinating aspect of creative writing is that the rabbit so often threatens to seize control of the hat.
During the turbulent (with a capital T) events of the past year, I found plenty of comfort in Robbins’s work, and sent a letter to his home near Seattle in order to tell him so. Although I knew that the author had not given any interviews for more than half a decade, I was cheeky enough to end my missive by writing, “Should you ever choose to come out of Q & A retirement, I’m your man.”
Several weeks later, I received an envelope bearing the legend “Union of Mad Scientists” as well as the handwritten name “Robbins.” Inside the envelope was a letter in which the self-styled “Tommy Rotten” said, in effect, “Fire away.” And so, employing the Internet’s “electron gods,” as he calls them, I zipped my queries over to Robbins, who, needless to say, made a meal of them. Speaking of meals:
Gary Lippman: In your work, Tom, you’ve written various gustatory valentines to beets, mushrooms, mayonnaise, beer, red-eye gravy, thin-crust pizza, the elusive “Tibetan peace pie,” and the so-called “syrup of wahoo.” Are there some Robbins family recipes you’d care to share with us? And just what is that “syrup of wahoo,” anyway?
Tom Robbins: If there’s a signature (actually it’s more like an initial) “Robbins family recipe,” it’s probably this one: Simply spread Best Foods or Duke’s mayonnaise (those inclined to substitute “salad dressing” risk assignment to one of the sweatier corners of culinary Hell) edge-to-edge on one side each of two slices of fresh Wonder Bread / Arrange thickish slices of vine-ripened tomato over the entire surface of one of the coated sides / Salt and pepper to the brink of obscurity. Unless imminent osculation is anticipated, crown with a penthouse of Bermuda onion. Cover. Chomp. And romp.
As for “syrup of wahoo,” why that’s the almost physical rush one often feels throughout the body when one is about to embark on a dangerous but irresistible adventure.
GL: Do you ever reflect on some of the many characters you’ve created and then wonder what they’re doing right now—to the point, even, where you’ve considered penning a sequel to any of your novels?
TR: Should I summon up another novel (and I’m starting to feel the creative itch), its characters are not likely to include those from my previous books. There are simply too many new candidates biding time in the circus tent-cum-laboratory of my imagination. Which is not to say that certain Robbins characters lack the nerve to insert themselves into narratives from which they’ve so far been excluded. A fascinating aspect of creative writing is that the rabbit so often threatens to seize control of the hat. That insurrection can be rewarding, even exciting—or it can lead to artistic disaster.
GL: In striving to make your prose sound just right, do you find it helpful to read it out loud to yourself? To someone else? Do you share your manuscripts with friendly readers and consider their feedback before sending it to your publisher?
TR: I do read early passages to my wolf-eyed love dumpling, just making certain I haven’t been channeling Tolstoy. Seriously, people read with their ears as well as with their eyes, and it’s important that even prose sentences be rhythmically as well as dramatically correct. The fact is, I’ll test-drive each and every phrase in my cerebral echo chamber before I’ll sign off on it. But no, I seldom read unfinished prose to others, no matter how much I respect their opinions. My by-lines read “Tom Robbins,” not “Tom Robbins and Friends.”
GL: Which leads to the question of your experience with book editors. Once you’ve turned a manuscript over to a publisher, has the editorial process there mostly helped or hindered the final product?
TR: My first editor at a major publishing house told me the story of how star running-back Jim Brown, resisting coaching, would simply say to would-be mentors, “Let Jim run.” And that’s pretty much the way she and other editors have approached my manuscripts. “Let Tom run.” Which is not to say I haven’t received a few valuable suggestions from editors, but I’ve worked extremely hard on my prose, and most editors respect the results.
GL: You have noted that your review of a Doors concert in Seattle in 1967 was your first literary work with which you felt truly satisfied. Did you follow the Doors’ career with relish after that concert? And do you listen to their music while you write?
TR: I do remain a Doors fan. Eventually I became friendly with their drummer John Densmore, and quite recently I taped for an audiobook a tribute I’d written to Jim Morrison and the band. However, I very rarely listen to the Doors or any other music when I’m actually writing. I’m simply too occupied with the literary rhythms that, for better or worse, are swaying in my head.
GL: Still on the music theme, your novel Villa Incognito features the lyrics to a song you wrote (“Meet Me In Cognito”). Did penning those words stir up any desire to pen more songs?
TR: It would be pretentious of me to try to palm myself off as a composer. Most of us have secret songs inside, only “releasing” them when we’re trying to calm or distract small children. Since I don’t have such offspring at present, it’s best for everyone that I restrict my “composing” to page-bound fiction.
GL: Since you mention offspring, let’s give a nod to your novella-for-kids B is for Beer. How did you handle the obvious restrictions in writing for younguns? Also, please describe your experience of turning that book into a musical with the composer Ben Lee. Had you ever collaborated so closely with another artist?
TR: It was my first and only collaboration, and a necessary one since I don’t compose music (except for the weird songs I sing in the shower). Giving up total control was a trifle unnerving, but Ben has been a jewel to work with. In any case, B is for Beer, while structured like a children’s book, is intended primarily for adult consumption. There is talk, mostly in Australia, of it soon being adapted for the screen.
GL: “The sky was the color of Edgar Allan Poe’s pajamas.” Readers of yours have long savored the metaphors that you deploy in your prose. Do these occur to you spontaneously as you work, or are they crafted in advance?
TR: For the most part, my figures of speech are devised on the spot—when one is needed to add color and flavor to a particular passage. It isn’t enough that they be entertaining, they must also deepen the reader’s understanding of that which is being described. Otherwise, they’d just be cosmetic. (Literary push-up bras.)
GL: Do you have sentimental favorites among your own novels? Artistic favorites? And have these favorites changed over time?
It can be both a disappointment and a celebration to sense that a truly engaging novel is about to end.
TR: Among my own novels, both my sentimental and artistic favorite remains… well, whatever one I’ve most recently re-read. Today that’s Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.
GL: Did your time spent as an art critic influence your fiction? And do you agree with the Ad Reinhardt quip that “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting”?
TR: Maybe Ad should have been named “Subtract.” He’s correct, though, that one’s imagination can occupy a painting, even an abstract painting, in ways that are not offered by the three-dimensional sculpture. (Unless you’re a monkey, of course.) Focusing on and writing about art helped me to see the whole world more clearly.
GL: Has your longtime ethos of “joy in spite of everything” hit some shaky patches during the past five years’ onslaught of upsetting national occurrences? How does one keep responding to life with cosmic belly-laughs when there’s so much suffering all around us?
TR: Is there actually more suffering in today’s world, or simply more people (and more—and speedier—media reporting any and all unfortunate news)? Do bear in mind that just as a big front has a big back, the opposite is true. Sometimes, we simply need to change position in order to see the gold that might be sparkling at the end of the blackest rainbow. (And anyway, the belly laugh can be upstaged by a sly, understanding smile.)
GL: Do you agree with the quip that the best endings to stories tend to be “surprising yet inevitable”? At what point in your writing process do you typically conceive of your novel-in-progress’s climax and denouement? Have any of your novels’ endings been difficult to achieve?
TR: For the writer as well as for the reader, it can be both a disappointment and a celebration to sense that a truly engaging novel is about to end. However, there will always come a time when, like Elvis in Vegas, one’s manuscript must “leave the building,” and lacking a police escort, its fate is in the hands of strangers. If, however, your closure is satisfying (even riveting), someone in the audience will toss a bouquet (or pair of damp panties), and for a few months, at least, you can only hope that the end of your life might prove even half as satisfying.
GL: Last but absolutely not least: If you could send a telegram to your teenaged self, what advice about writing fiction would you provide?
TR: “Trust your imagination, Tommy. Always trust your imagination.”
Dedicated to the memory of Ethel Pearl Fern, with special thanks to Andres Virkus and Szombathelyi Verka for their kind assistance.