An interview with Tom Robbins
Originally appeared in High Frontiers Magazine
photo by Lawrence Gerald, LaConner,WA. 1985
--Huck in Tom Sawyer Abroad, Mark Twain
In the beginning..... high above the hills of Berkeley, the High Frontiers staff were summoned together . Present were editors R.U.Sirius, religious figure Hailie Unlikely, and our colorful botanist-astrologer Queen Mu, who incidentally is the only graduate of that pedantic bartenders school unknown to millions as the Vedantic-Culinary-Research-Made-To-Elixir (V.C.R.M.T.E.) who went on to do post-graduate field work on the curative powers of crossing tarantula venom with a twist of toadstool drops on the rocks.
This healing concoction has been successfully tested and endorsed by Shamanics Anonymous as the the drink of wonders preferred for it's hyperactive members. Now you can see, dear readers, why Queen Mu has been gainfully employed around the High Frontiers office. R.U.Vedic? I want my M.T.E!
So getting back on the juicy digestive tract, this assemblage of our staff came together with the proposed idea of how to meet up with the famed 'beet' writer most accused of writing "like the way Dolly Parton looks," whose novel literary style behaves like the Quantum-Inseparability-Principle of Heisenberg's Greatest Uncertainty. We are speaking of course about author Tom Robbins. High Frontiers, like Tom Robbins, is interested in raising eyebrows out of complacency.
What happens when the cult writer or magazine, becomes popular enough to reach the best seller lists? Or when the underground mushrooms up? Is there a fungus among us? Tom Robbins, whose remarkable imagination and story telling has Mark Twained our culture about the inner meaning of outlaws,redheads from Argon,hitchhikers named Sissy with protracted thumbs, exiled kings who end up Jitterbugging as Einstein's janitor a thousand years later, can now enjoy a vast readership that cuts across all levels of the Global Village without compromise of his unique style. He keeps to his own 'beet' and while exercising his funny bone at will.
High Frontiers' own "DR.MA" a.k.a. Lawrence Gerald, our travelling correspondent, was our taster's choice on being selected to interview Tom. DR. MA's credentials show that he's also a graduate from that same bartenders school-Vedantic-Culinary-Research-Made-To-Elixir(V.C.R.-M.T.E.) and get down! He has recently returned from the first annual Ecstatic Adams Family Celebration held in, all places, Calaveras County,where we understand, many outlaws convened. The event was in honor of the outlawing (July 1,1985) of the active molecular derivative of nutmeg and sassafras. DR.MA said that the loaded drinks were going down faster than you could whistle Dixie and Whoopjamboreehoo!
Anyway, we now present you with the Tom Robbins interview.--DR. MA
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Tom Robbins: Since I was five years old I knew that is what I wanted to do.
Your style is dazzling. It seems like you are composing with some kind of lucid orchestra or the way the Grateful Dead are known to jam.
Oh, thank you! My model of the universe is non-linear. In writing , like to be consistent with that model. At the same time, you do have to be lucid. If you can't be lucid , what's the point? Everyone uses language. Not everyone uses visual imagery. So people are willing to accept more from visual artists, because they are not messing around with their world as does a language artist.
What I've tried to do, having seen the limitations of a non-linear approach, is to work in a state of multi-layers. There are series in the plot which are climactic and anti-climactic and continue to build or ascend in a spiral of climax/anti-climax. There are certain feelings that I try to create to affect the reader and there are a series of effects at work in the reader's psyche already. that's pretty much where I begin. I try to make it up as I go along. It's a scary way to work. Not at all secure.
So you experiment without rehearsing.
TR : People ask me "How d'ya write a novel?" And I say, "I don't know." "Whaddya mean you don't know?" Then they say, "You've written four!" I really don't know how. When I begin my next one , I'll be starting all over again. I don't even have any prescribed notions of what a novel is suppose to be. The beginning of a book I feel is like an experience inside, like a spiraling sensation, a lot of little wings, real vague, definitely a presence. If I were to sit down and really think about it , it would probably take form, but I wouldn't want to write it then. So I try to squeeze it out like toothpaste and leave the rest marinating in my imagination. I think the ideal approach to writing is to sit down and write a sentence and see where it gets you. At times, you feel the rhythm taking charge. The hardest part, in the beginning, is to find what voice it is going to be told in; could be as simple as the first person.... is the narrator omnipotent or is it limited?
:Sometimes you play yourself as Tom Robbins. For instance, the
therapist to Sissy in "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues", or the narrator
discussing Tom Robbins, the therapist!
TR : I enjoyed that and I had some serious artistic reasons for doing it. But if you continue to do something like that is becomes a technique or a crutch. I want to stay clear from that and continue to explore for novelty.
Sometimes when I'm too much in awe of good writing, I need to read less and assimilate more before going on. I have heard from other readers of yours similar difficulties.
Well, a lot of people have trouble reading it since they are expecting plot development in a linear way. The way I structure is like one of those old fashioned lighthouses before there was electricity. A lamp would come on in a little cubicle of the lighthouse and another would turn on somewhere else until eventually the whole thing is illuminated. Someone seeing it from a distance wouldn't necessarily notice that it's being filled in by all these little lights.
In "Jitterbug Perfume", is the character Dr. Wiggs based on Timothy Leary?
Actually , Tim, who is a friend of mine, was 10% to 15% that character. The rest was made up from the pioneer biologist Rupert Sheldrake, noted for his theories on resonating morphogenetic fields, and Leonard Orr, founder of Rebirthing... and part of it's myself too.
How did "Still Life with Woodpecker" come about?
There were important distinctions that I wanted to convey, such as outlaw types and criminals. I like outlaws.
What I was originally interested in was the idea of objects. Before I began that book, I wanted to write about objects in a way that has never been written before . Not just on a symbolic level, but something that had a real life function of it's own. I thought , wouldn't it be great to write a novel about what takes place in an empty room? It would have one character, three objects and no one leaving the room. That was the main idea. So that character being Leigh- Cherry, the redheaded anti-nuker princess, is driven to hold a vigil up in her attic and to meditate on a Camel Pack's imagery of palm trees, pyramids, and the word "CHOICE." Yes, I had to reduce the original three objects to one that contained a few images . At the same time I the work, I was getting over a relationship with a redheaded Aries woman and needed to write about that, too. Then I began to dovetail all this into "How to Make Love Stay" as part of the narration and realized that it wasn't going to work having just one person in a love story. The Camel pack came to mind because it is a common object that everyone sees and it has so much lore.
You reveal some unusual yet historical research that leads to greater curiosity.(At this point Tom is pointing out,on the Camel pack I have handy, that hidden inside the camel image is the outline of a woman and a lion)
Robert Anton Wilson has mentioned to me that he thinks the Illuminati were behind the scenes in "Still Life with Woodpecker." He thinks that the Illuminati has historically been engaged in maintaining and circulating the pyramid symbol through both the dollar bill and the Camel pack design. Thomas Jefferson and a nameless lithographer were two redheads selected in carrying out the tasks.
Getting back to revolutionary outlaw types, have you ever heard of Julian Beck and the Living Theater?
Yes. When I was a teenager, I hitchhiked one weekend from Virginia up to the Theater on 6th Ave. and 14th St. I remember meeting this beautiful girl during intermission who was playing a courtesan. Her last name was Robbins too.
Did you know that Julian died recently? (September 15,1985)
No. I didn't know that.
Julian was not only a revolutionary artist in the theater but also a prolific painter. One piece he did in 1957 is called 'Romeo & Juliet. It depicts a Buddha-faced image next to a mayonnaise jar. Kind of pre-Warhol.
Oh wonderful! I love mayonnaise! I eat so much they're gonna send me to the Mayo Clinic. I think it's definitely a watershed food. People who don't go for it are destined for a Miracle Whip. They don't know what they're missing. Actually, people ought to be aware that Miracle Whip, which isn't real mayonnaise at all, is a crutch for people who aren't strong enough to handle the real thing. Mayonnaise is the one product that's better than homemade. This is an unsolicited testimonial. I always thought Cinco de Mayo was for mayonnaise. I celebrate it every year.
So we can add on to the list , perhaps , that mayonnaise is one of the mysteries that can make love stay. You could be spreading a new tradition.
One of your recipes in "Woodpecker" is to tell love you are going out to Junior's Deli on Flatbush Ave.in Brooklyn, to pick up a cheesecake. You write that if love stays, it can have the cheesecake when you get back. Love will stay. Then,in "Jitterbug Perfume", you have glorified the beet while in search of the perfect taco. Perhaps your Cinco de Mayo celebration will lead you to the opening of your own specialty food store.
Mmmmm. Marinates my imagination.
You could franchise a chain of 'em. Maybe naming it "Basking Robbins" (Laughter)
It's a deal!
You have been doing a lot of traveling lately. How did you end up in Selous, Africa?
When I finished "Jitterbug Perfume", I looked at myself in the mirror and there were three big circles under my eyes. I was pale, my neck was stiff, my rear end sore after sitting down for three and a half years, and I said to myself,"Tom, what you need is a trip up the Amazon." So I asked the universe to provide. Three days later I received in the mail a letter from the director of Inter-Bar Expeditions. It said that I could could have any trip in the book free, if I would write about it. My first choice was the Amazon, but with the schedule I would have had to wait much longer. I chose Africa because it's symbolic of a rustic experience. The place gets in your blood. It's so immediate. Primal. It's where human life began..
Is the trip something you recommend?
Well, the trip was hard work, paddling rafts. It's extremely hot. Some people were miserable . Like Hermann Hesse said in "Steppenwolf," The magic theater is not for everyone."
And you were recently rafting in Indonesia.
That's right. Indonesia has extreme , thick vast jungles and wildlife. You have the sensation of a lot of eyes looking at you but you can't see them. We did see orangutans in the wild. Quite extraordinary. One day we went to an orangutan rehab center. It's a status symbol in Indonesia to have an orangutan as a pet, but it's against the law now. They take them back to this center to cure them of their human habits. We say," Get the monkey off our back." For the orangutans it's " Get the human off their back." They are very affectionate and develop strong bonds with humans.
Because of this, their own survival as a species is in jeopardy. They are listed as an endangered species.In Sumatra, I found these mushrooms that actually glow in the dark. they were 16 inches tall and grew from elephant dung.
Sounds tasty. Were they psychoactive?
No. but from just five of these mushrooms that I had collected , they were emitting enough light in my room to read by at night.
Amazing! I know a botanist who would love to research those dingers!
While I was in Singapore, I went to the Raffles Hotel and stayed for a few days. It's where Joseph Conrad used to live, and Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham stayed there. When I checked in, they found out I was a writer and gave me a 20% discount. I was amazed. Normally when a hotel clerk finds out you're a writer, they look at you as if....."How you gonna pay the bill?"It was the first time that I ever received good treatment for being a writer. To top it off, they switched me into the best room in the hotel. It turned out to be the Hermann Hesse suite. Hesse stayed there in 1912. There's a bronze plaque on the door with photographs of him.
Ah, the Hermann Hesse suite is not for everyone. Are you going to write about any of your experiences in Indonesia?
There is an episode which I will be writing about. It is going to be called "King of the Cannibals." In one village, we got invited to an excavation ceremony. It is rare for white people to be part of such an auspicious occasion.There were seven skulls that were laid out in view. We were honored guests and the only outsiders to visit. Musicians played ancient flutes. It turned out that I was selected to get dressed in one of their costumes, probably because I was wearing a skull cap and had a skull ring on my finger.
Sounds like the part in "Jitterbug Perfume" when Alobar meets the shaman and partakes of a specially prepared tea.
Yes. So, I was given betel nut to chew on, and I got stoned and danced all day around these skulls and bones with the natives. At one point they took a long piece of cloth to cover the skulls so that just the eye sockets were visible.
Hunter Thompson said that he wanted to be the first journalist in space. He also wanted to take Vanessa Williams and wine and dine her in JohannesbergS.Africa. (laughter) What at this point, for Tom Robbins, is the ultimate goal?
Well, I'd like to take Vanessa Williams into outer space! (Laughter) Actually, what I'm interested in right now is the idea of having some kind of moratorium on the belief in an afterlife. Much of the world believing in an afterlife leads to much of the world's primary ills. An ending to this belief would increase the quality and sanctity in the life we already know we have. Nobody has proven that any of the ideas of an afterlife are true. No one knows for sure. Therefore, as long as you believe in an afterlife, you'll be willing to accept suppression, repression in this life. It would be much quicker to press the red button. I think that's one of the problems....all these old men running our country who think it doesn't matter if we use up all our natural resources since disaster is imminent and the end of the world is coming.
We can trace the Phoenician alphabet to being directly related to the maintaining of history which has resulted in that tower of babel called the atom bomb.
There was no history, as we know it, until this alphabet developed. There was a pre-historic time that, on some level, can still exist today. The notion of historical transcendence of time parallels the arrival of the Phoenician alphabet, too. The beginning of history and the experience of time has been like an imaginary arrow shot into an imaginary future.
This reminds me of Chink, the keeper of cosmic time, and the nature of the clock people, that you write about in "Cowgirls." It's transformational, the quality of those dialogues. Come to think of it, you have the cultural and individual assumptions of time being challenged by your characters in just about every novel.
Well it's important to realize how our mythos, especially the Judeo-Christian idea, devalues and distracts us from true liberation. I believe that we are never going to get rid of war as long as we have this continued belief in an afterlife. Surest way to stop war will be in suspending this myth. That, and people starting to treat children in a healthy way, instead of subjecting them to violence, which is an acquired behavior later in life. These are my ultimate ideal goals for now.
See Tom's Introduction to The Archaic Revival