Tom Robbins had no intention of writing a memoir. “I was conned into it by the women in my life,” he says with a laugh during a call to his home in the small town of La Conner, Washington.
“They had been pestering me to write down the stories that I’d been telling them—bidden and unbidden—over the years. I wrote 20 pages and showed it to them, thinking that would shut them up. But it had the opposite effect.”
Bless the women in Tom Robbins’ life! They forced him into committing to paper Tibetan Peach Pie, a book that in conversation Robbins calls “an account of my personal pursuit of the marvelous” and in print carries the subtitle “A True Account of an Imaginative Life.” The book is both of these—and more.
Robbins calls his colorful new memoir “an account of my personal pursuit of the marvelous.”
Robbins, as fans of novels like Another Roadside Attraction (1971), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), Jitterbug Perfume (1980) or Villa Incognito (2003) know, has a Trickster spirit. He performs a sort of verbal-spiritual-comedic magic on the page. He characterizes his philosophical outlook, formed in part from his interest in Japan and Zen Buddhism, as “crazy wisdom and sacred mischief.”
“When I was in Japan,” he explains, “I got to have an audience with a famous Ninja, quite an old man. His house was full of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. This is true of the wisest people I have encountered in my life. They have all had this sense of playfulness. I think I was more or less born with it. It’s maintaining a fixed eye on the ultimate seriousness of life, but refusing to take events and, particularly, yourself too seriously.”
This energy and perspective also infuses Robbins’ memoir. Beginning as a child growing up in North Carolina and Virginia in the 1930s, Robbins writes that he was possessed by a seemingly inborn bohemianism and a “congenitally comic sensibility” that led his mother to lovingly refer to him as Tommy Rotten. He had a wandering, freedom-seeking spirit. He spent time in a military boarding school (where in a quixotic effort he foolishly re-entered a burning dormitory), time at Washington and Lee University (where Tom Wolfe, a founder of new journalism, was a big man on campus), and time in the U.S. Air Force in Korea (where he taught techniques of weather observation). He had four short marriages early in adulthood and, since 1987, a long one. He was an early, enthusiastic adopter of LSD and describes the first time he tried it as “the most rewarding day of my life, the one day I would not trade for any other.” He writes about, among many other events, encounters with Timothy Leary and Charles Manson and trips to far-flung regions of the world.
But Robbins also had an early love of words and stories. He won prizes—even in Air Force story-writing contests—for his fiction. He became a journalist. He was an art critic and music critic for underground newspapers in Seattle. And then he went to a concert by The Doors.
“It was so unlike any rock concert that Seattle had seen to that point. It just blew everybody away. I was in almost a traumatized state, an ecstatic trauma, when I went back to my house and up into the attic and sat down to write the review. It wasn’t that I was influenced by particular lyrics or by Jim Morrison’s style. It was such a cathartic experience that it loosened up something in my creative process. Almost instinctively I wrote the review. And then I thought, this is the way I want to sound from now on.”
Robbins’ first published novel, Another Roadside Attraction, became a kind of anthem of ’60s (or early ’70s) youth culture. “In that novel,” Robbins says, “I attempted not to write about the ’60s but to recreate the ’60s. In order to do that, I had to reinvent the novel, because the traditional novel moves from minor climax to minor climax to major climax, up an incline plane. But that didn’t lend itself to capturing that period with any depth or truth.”
“Sometimes the muse shows up and sometimes she doesn’t. But at least she knows where you’ll be at 10 o’clock in the morning. She doesn’t have to look for you in the bars or along the beaches.”
That novel captured the zeitgeist so successfully that to this day people assume that Robbins writes while stoned and that his sensibilities are trapped in the ’60s. These assumptions make Robbins laugh. He writes in the memoir that he is a slow and deliberate writer who avoids even mild stimulants while working and that the concerns of his novels have moved further forward into issues of contemporary life than the outdated views of his critics. Robbins’ beautifully profligate prose is labored over one sentence at a time. “If you’re a professional, you show up every day,” he says. “Sometimes the muse shows up and sometimes she doesn’t. But at least she knows where you’ll be at 10 o’clock in the morning. She doesn’t have to look for you in the bars or along the beaches.”
However, for the genre of fiction and the genre of memoir, Robbins waits on slightly different muses. About writing fiction, Robbins says, “I am one of the rare breed of writers who believes that the best part of writing is creating situations in which language can happen. I have to surround the act of writing with an aura of surprise and terror. So I take my research and imagination and my sense of humor and my vague feelings of where I want my day to go and pack them into my little canoe and push out onto the vast and savage ocean and see where the current takes me.”
Of this memoir he says, “I’m not inventing situations, I’m dealing with facts. The challenge for me was to keep the language lively and unpredictable, while remaining faithful to the facts.”
In July, Robbins will turn 82. That hardly seems possible given the antic energy of Tibetan Peach Pie. Wikipedia and the Library of Congress can’t believe it either—they assert that Robbins is 4 years younger. “Wikipedia,” Robbins wryly notes, “is the fountain of youth. They obviously know more about me than my mother.”
These days Robbins goes to yoga and pilates classes, travels with his wife Alexa, and still shows up on time for his muse. In other words he stays connected with the women we must thank for his new memoir.
“I’ve had a messy life,” Robbins admits. “But in the tangle, I think the silver thread of spirituality, the red thread of passion and, of course, the elastic and multicolored thread of imagination have constantly run through it. And all of that is bound together with the inky thread of writing.”
That’s a self-assessment that sounds just about right.
Author photo credit Jeff Corwin.