Author Interviews
7:02 am
Sun May 25, 2014

Talking Stick In Hand, Tom Robbins Tells His Own Story

Originally published on Sun May 25, 2014 10:51 am

Acclaimed writer Tom Robbins has a new book out, and it's as fantastical and philosophical as anything he's ever written — but this time he's made himself the main character. It's called Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life, and Robbins tells NPR's Rachel Martin that writing a memoir is like driving down a once-familiar road, "but there are potholes in it now, and some fast-food franchises sprung up along the way, and there's occasionally a blind curve that you might not remember. But it's still familiar," he says. "Whereas when you're writing a novel, you're not only traveling down a road that's completely unknown, you're constructing the road as you drive."


Interview Highlights

On why he wrote the memoir

The driving force was the women in my life ... I've been telling them stories over many many years, and they were pestering me to start writing some of them down. And here I am.

On his "talking stick"

I've only recently begun to admit to that, but about age eight or nine, onward until really I left for college, I would tell stories aloud, to myself, but always out in the yard with a stick in my hand. And I would beat the ground as I told the story. And we moved fairly frequently — we would leave houses behind where one section of the yard was completely bare from where I'd destroyed the grass. But I realized much later in life that what I was doing was drumming, I was building a rhythm. Even today as a writer, I pay a lot of attention to rhythm in my work.

On practicing passive resistance while in the Air Force

We had an inspection once while I was stationed in Nebraska, and the inspecting sergeant had dictated that all lockers had to be ... facing the aisle. But he he spelled it wrong, he spelled it I-S-L-E. So this barracks was near the Platte River, and there were islands in the Platte River. So I turned my locker to face the island in the river, and then when he wrote me up for it and I was about to be punished, I pointed out to him that I was following the directions explicitly.

On the downside to his literary success

Establishment critics, to this day, write me off as a counter-culture writer, even though of my nine novels, the last six have had nothing to do with counter-culture things. And I wouldn't have missed the '60s for a billion dollars — but neither I nor my life's work can be defined by counter-culture sensibilities.

They're inserting this image of me as a counter-culture figure in between their eyes and the page. Though, to be fair, I stopped reading reviews of my books in 1977.

On art and mystery, and why he's learned more from painters than writers

They're not hidebound by language, so they often talk about their work in a more interesting way than writers talk about their work ... as you can determine so far in this interview, I'm not very good at talking about my work! All great art has as its core a mystery. If the Mona Lisa didn't have that mysterious smile, she'd just be another Italian broad.

On reading his own early books

I have not read any of them. I've told myself that I am saving them for my my golden years — but my golden years are here, they're practically past, and I still haven't picked them up.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Acclaimed writer Tom Robbins has a new book out, and it is as fantastical and philosophical as any novel he's ever written. But this time, he's made himself the main character. It's called "Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life."

Mr. Robbins joined me from the studios of KSVR in Mount Vernon, Wash., and I asked him about the experience of writing a memoir based on himself, Tom Robbins. He told me that writing a book like this is like driving down a once-familiar road.

TOM ROBBINS: Well, there are potholes in it now and there's some fast food franchises that sprung up along the way. And there's occasionally a blind curve that you might not remember. But it's still familiar.

MARTIN: What was the driving force of your memoir?

ROBBINS: The driving force was the women in my life, my wife, my sisters, my agent. Well, I've been telling them stories over many, many years, and they were pestering me to start writing some of them down. And here I am.

MARTIN: And here you are. And you write in the book about a particular habit you had when you were young. Can you tell us about your talking stick?

ROBBINS: Well, I've only recently begun to admit to that. But at about age eight or nine onward until, really, I left for college, I would tell stories aloud to myself. But I was out in the yard with a stick in my hand. And I would beat the ground as I told the story. And we moved fairly frequently. We would leave houses behind where one section of the yard was completely bare from where I destroyed the grass. But I realized much later in life that what I was doing was drumming. I was building a rhythm. Even today, as a writer, I pay a lot of attention to rhythm in my work.

MARTIN: You joined the Air Force out of high school, which I found to be kind of surprising because anyone who's read your books or knows anything about you as a kind of a countercultural figure would think that this maybe was an odd fit for you. What were your expectations going into the service? What did you want out of it?

ROBBINS: I wanted escape. Truth is, Rachel, I had no viable alternative. And I was about to be drafted because this was the time of the Korean War.

MARTIN: How did you deal with the military culture itself?

ROBBINS: Not very well. I practiced passive resistance.

MARTIN: Passive resistance. How does that work in the military?

ROBBINS: We had an inspection once when I was stationed in Nebraska. And the inspecting sergeant had dictated that all lockers had to be facing something - oh, facing the aisle, but he spelled it wrong. He spelled it I-S-L-E.

MARTIN: Oh.

ROBBINS: So this barracks was near the Platte River, and there were islands in the Platte River. So I turned my locker to face the island in the river. And then when he wrote me up for it and I was about to be punished, I pointed out to them that I was following the directions explicitly.

MARTIN: You're lucky you didn't end up in the stockades.

ROBBINS: I can't help it if I'm lucky, as Bob Dylan said.

MARTIN: So several years pass, adventures ensue. There are a couple of failed relationships in your path. And your first novel, "Another Roadside Attraction," was published in 1971. You've written in this memoir that that particular book, your first novel, has been a blessing and a curse in some ways, that it put you in this kind of cultural box that you believe to have been limiting. Can you explain how?

ROBBINS: Well, establishment critics to this day write me off as a counterculture writer, even though my nine novels, the last six have had nothing to do with counterculture themes. And I wouldn't have missed, say, the '60s, for a billion dollars, but neither I nor my life's work can be defined by counterculture sensibilities.

MARTIN: Why does it feel like being written off to be labeled as a counterculturalist?

ROBBINS: They're inserting this image of me as a counterculture figure in between their eyes and the page. Although, I - to be fair, I stopped reading reviews of my books in 1977.

MARTIN: You wrote in this memoir that you've learned more from painters than other writers. What have you learned?

ROBBINS: To trust imagination.

MARTIN: And you think painters do a better job of that than other writers?

ROBBINS: Well, in a way they do because they're not hide-bound by language. So they often talk about their work in a more interesting way than writers talk about their work.

MARTIN: You would think would be the opposite.

ROBBINS: You would think so, yes. But I mean, as you can determine so far in this interview, I'm not very good at talking about my work.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ROBBINS: And all great art has at its core a mystery. Like if the Mona Lisa didn't have that mysterious smile, she'd just be another Italian broad.

MARTIN: I wonder if you ever reread any of your early books.

ROBBINS: I have not read any of them.

MARTIN: Really?

ROBBINS: I've told myself that I'm saving them for my golden years. I've had this vision that someday I would be pushed around in a wheelchair by a 20-year-old, red-haired nurse in a starched white uniform who would mix me tequila sours and read me my complete works. And at that point I would decide whether or not I think I had been any good or not. But I was down in Mexico at a three-day event a few years ago, all organized around my novel, "Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates." I knew I was going to be interviewed on stage. So I did sit down and actually read. And I'll be honest with you, Rachel, I was impressed.

MARTIN: (Laughter) He thought, damn, that is some good writing.

ROBBINS: That was pretty much my very words.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Tom Robbins. His new book is called "Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life." He spoke to us from KSVR in Mount Vernon, Wash. Thank you so much, Tom, for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.

ROBBINS: It was an absolute delight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.