An Interview With Tom Robbins' Interviewer: Psychedelia, Cult Followings, and Talking Like a Cool Human
Antiestablishment jujitsu, larger-than-life women, and a penchant for flavored mayonnaise: These are the things that make up the legendary Tom Robbins. At 81, he's been a literary star for decades, while simultaneously being something of a thorn in the literary establishment's side; he's got no Paris Review interview, no particularly highbrow awards, and he strongly disagrees with the idea of an MFA in creative writing. But who cares? He's a part-time Buddha with an incorrigible imagination, and he's got a following that's as passionate and rag-tag as the wild characters who dance through Still Life with Woodpecker and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. All this, and he refuses to spend a lot of time online.
On May 27, Robbins' first full-length book in 10 years will come out with HarperCollins (Ecco), titled Tibetan Peach Pie. In anticipation of the book's publication, Robbins sat down with writer Mara Altman to discuss, well, everything — including alternate phrases for "memoir," which Robbins associates with "crybaby writing" (preferring Altman's term "personal nonfiction narrative"). The interview took place over the course of seven hours at Robbins' home in rural Washington — some of it on the sofa pictured above, and yes, those are Robbins' socks — and Tom Robbins: The Kindle Singles Interview came out on April 30.
When my editor and I heard that Robbins was back on the literary market, so to speak, we became fascinated with the idea of talking to Altman. After all, she'd just experienced every young writer's pipe dream: sitting down with one of her all-time favorite authors, ordering a beer together, gazing at his collection of Warhols, talking about his work. We had to know what it was like. So I sat down with the lucky woman who got to sit down with the famous man, and asked her how it all went down. Call it a meta-interview, or just think of this as a literary game of Six Degrees of Separation. (I'm happy to report that I'm now down to one.)
BUSTLE: I'm so curious about your career path up until now. What drew you to writing, and how does one reach the point where they're the first call for a Tom Robbins interview?
MARA ALTMAN: I started reading Tom Robbins when I was 17, and I didn't really like reading before I found his books. They excited me about writing; I realized that language can be fun. It can be fun to read, you can have fun putting sentences together, you can be excited to open a book. So Robbins kind of started me onto the writing path, just through reading his work. I spent the next 13-14 years on that path: going to journalism school, working for a newspaper in India, working for a newspaper in Thailand, writing for the Village Voice. Then Amazon stared doing these author interviews, and I'd been writing Kindle singles with them already, so when I saw that they were doing interviews, I thought, "If there's anyone I would want to interview who's alive, it would be Tom Robbins." I pitched the idea to them, and it turned out that he was coming out with his first full-length book in 10 years. It was very providential.
How did the interview take place?
At first he didn't really want to do an in-person interview, because he doesn't talk about writing, he just does it. He asked if I could send him some questions over email, and he'd take the time to answer them and then maybe we could do an in-person interview. So I spent all this time reading all his books again and anything I could get my hands on about him, and I sent him the questions. He was super delightful, and it was awesome to be in email communication with him. He signed one of his emails, “Be ridiculously fine.” There's such a playful way about him.
In February, I went out to La Conner, Washington, which is where he's lived for the past 40 years. He lives out there with his wife and his dog, Blini Tomato Titanium [pictured above]. The house is very eclectically furnished — he loves collecting old circus banners, which are just gigantic. They take up the whole wall: the Reptile Lady, The Fattest Woman in the World. And then he has a cowgirl-themed bathroom, and an alligator-themed bathroom, and Andy Warhol paintings — the Campbell soup cans — and a whole room dedicated to peach cans, under glass, with little Buddhas on top of them.
He was so lovely. He took me around for an hour, showing me everything. He's done a lot of his own art, abstract stuff around the house. His wife is a tarot reader, and she has a tarot room. He's very spry, for being almost 82. He looks great, wears his sunglasses, and is just really generous with his time.
Finally, Tom Robbins is coming out with his autobiography. Did you find that there was a difference in interviewing someone about their autobiography versus their fiction?
Absolutely, because it gave us a lot of fodder to talk about. Why did he decide to do nonfiction? How was it different than fiction? How does he feel about the people who are in the book? Is he nervous that they'll take it the wrong way? How does he feel about putting his life out there? He has a mysteriousness about him — we don't know where he comes from or who he is — so will people be let down or excited to read about his life?
He writes about how he's been married five times, or how he has three sons, but he really only raised one. Some of the stories don't necessarily put him in the best light, but that's cool.
Did he do anything particularly amusing or adorable during the in-person interview?
He's very chivalrous, a Southern gentleman. We went out to get salmon burgers and beer for lunch, and as we were walking down there, he insisted on being on a particular side of me. I asked, "Why do you have to be on that side of me?" and he said, “I don't know, I think I heard that in the old days when they had chamber pots they would throw the feces out of the window, and I'd rather it get on me than on you.”
He was humble and made fun of himself a lot. He has a harder time hearing and seeing, but he's just so incredibly sharp that I think he's just being extra tough on himself. He would say, “This is why I didn't want to meet in person,” while he was saying the most sharp and thoughtful and funny things. We talked a lot about mayonnaise — he really likes mayonnaise. Every summer his friends gather and have mayonnaise tastings. He doesn't have them anymore, though, because he lost a bunch of his mayonnaise contacts.
He's also a sugar freak. He had this bag of Kit Kats that were special order Kit Kats from Japan, with flavors like persimmon, and green tea, and red bean. The bag was completely empty. He'd eaten all of them. It was all just wrappers, right next to the exercise bike.
I'm curious about Tom Robbins' voice in real life versus in his fiction. He has such a fast-paced, kooky style in his fiction — but I've read that he's an extraordinarily careful writer, laboring over sentences in a way a reader might not expect based on how effortless and rollicking his prose sounds. So I guess my question is, does Tom Robbins speak like a Tom Robbins' book?
I think that's what he was nervous about — he doesn't talk like Switters, or one of his other characters. He talks like a regular person, but still, the way he talks is super colorful and intimate, and when you read the interview it feels like he's speaking right to you. At the end of the published interview we included the 12 questions he'd answered by email beforehand. They're beautifully written in his prose style, and it's so cool to see both styles side by side.
He also has a little accent. He grew up in Blowing Rock, N.C. and then moved to Virginia for a while. In his book that he refuses to call a memoir, he wrote that "it sounds like [his] voice was strained through Davy Crockett's underwear."
He's just chill. He's not like the characters in his books. He's focused and listening and ready to answer and thoughtful. I wonder if he feels like he has to perform sometimes, because of people's expectations.
What are some of the weird aspects of talking about writing with an author?
Robbins was saying that it's so hard to talk about writing rather than just do it, because he just does it and doesn't think about it. But he was incredibly good at talking about his writing experience and his habits and his process. I didn't find it hard to talk about writing. It's something that I think about a lot in my daily life — how does an idea come out, how does it percolate, how does it become something real and recorded, so having gone through all the experiences of writing myself, I was able to ask questions to help him talk about his own writing experiences.
You're an author yourself. Did that come up during your interview at all?
Only when I felt that divulging something about myself would make us feel closer, and then I took a lot of that out for the final interview. They don't want to know about me, they wanted it about him! He was very sweet to me and treated me like a real human being, though.
He's sort of a cultish author, I'd say. For example, there's a tumblr called F*ck Yeah, Tom Robbins, and it's all these cool girls with Tom Robbins cigarette lighters and tattoos and falling apart old copies of his books and other ephemera. Why do you think he's got this cultural cache that other writers, who are just as famous, if not more so, haven't achieved?
They're just as famous, but they're not as unique as him. He's the irreverent guy — he almost has a philosophy along with his writing. He doesn't just write, he has a way of living. I think a lot of people who end up reading him are in their early 20s, and they've been reading all these boring, high school books and they're like, "Oh — books can make you see the world in a different way, and interact with people differently, and explore your sensuality, and it doesn't have to be so serious." I think that's one of his big messages: it all doesn't have to be so serious. He's looking at looking at the fun and light in life, and we don't hear that message very often. He's kind of like a Buddha. His business card has a cow on the front with a devil on its belly, and it says, Tom Robbins, part-time Buddha, menace to society, and admirer of clouds.
Robbins is obviously this huge countercultural figure, '60s psychedelia, etc. But a risk of having that sort of reputation is that it can harden into a caricature or a relic. Do you feel like his work is at risk of that?
I would say that he already is experiencing that. I wouldn't say that he's at risk, I'd say that he's there. The hope would be that people look at his more recent work and Tibetan Peach Pie and think, Okay, he's not just some guy from the '60s who has nothing to say about our current time. He has a lot to say, and he's written amazing books that have nothing to do with '60s counterculture.
I think he knows he's seen that way as well, and he doesn't like it.
Not to get too pretentious here, but I couldn't help thinking of Walter Benjamin's idea of the “aura,” i.e., the original Mona Lisa has an aura that reproductions can't replicate, and so on. I imagine that, when talking to someone who has created so much great art — and let's be honest, someone who's just plain famous — there would be a similar experience of experiencing his aura, so to speak. Did you find that to be true?
For sure. I was super excited to meet someone who I respect and admire a lot, but the cool thing is that once you're with him, you're like, Oh yeah, you're a person like me! There's something really amazing about that. It does take a little of the magic away, but in a way it can be freeing. While he answered questions in ways that the majority of the human race wouldn't be able to answer, it was liberating to see that this hero of mine is a human. A very cool human, but yes, a human.
His business card has a cow on the front with a devil on its belly, and it says, Tom Robbins, part-time Buddha, menace to society, and admirer of clouds.
How do you think Tom Robbins will influence future generations?
I fear that people are no longer reading. People aren't reading actual books and it makes me nervous. I'm really hoping that people will read this interview, people who've never read his work, and will go back and look at his fiction. I really hope so. He has such a cool perspective on life: he talks about psychedelics and why he thinks we'd be better if we all took them; why he hates creative writing programs; the process of writing ideas. He never goes back and rewrites. He revises as he goes, but he never ends the book and goes back to revise. Really interesting stuff.
Was there one thing he said that really amazed or inspired you personally?
He says that he doesn't read his reviews. It's less that he's worried about people hating his work rather than just being disappointed with the caliber of reviews he gets. He wants people to engage with ideas rather than just plot, and he feels like he puts these ideas into the world and no one engages with him. He doesn't Google himself or do Twitter or anything like that, because he doesn't want second-hand ideas. I think that's something so important for this generation, because we're so connected. And if you know one thing about Tom Robbins, it's that he's different. He has his own perspective, and the way he sustains that is through a lot of thought, a lot of alone time, and not buying into what everyone else is thinking.
Image curtsey of Mara Altman