In his best-known novels, including "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," "Still Life with Woodpecker" and "Jitterbug Perfume," Tom Robbins has charmed several generations of readers with his signature mix of whimsy, earthiness, psychedelic surrealism, left-wing politics and sharp but good-natured humor.
A natural raconteur with a penchant for piling on layers of metaphor, Robbins always delivers a lip-smacking story that you read with a smile. His new memoir, "Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life," is no different.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
From his beginnings as a frisky and rather gluttonous little boy in the small Appalachian town of Blowing Rock, N.C., to his globe-trotting adventures and eventual ascension to the status of countercultural icon, the memoir reads like another of the author's rollicking road-trip books, only this time the tales aren't quite as tall.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Robbins, 81, for a phone interview from his home in the Seattle area just after he completed a book tour for "Tibetan Peach Pie." (The title, by the way, derives from an old shaggy dog story retold in "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.") Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How are you?
A: I'm somewhat below the summit of my potential today. (Laughs.) Still a bit tired from the book tour.
Q: Must have been grueling.
A: Well, I only had 10 events, but they were big events, each one lasting more than three hours. Very, very long lines. It was tiring, but good for me in a number of ways, not just in terms of book sales. I think hearing me read from my work gives people a new respect for what I do. I think people think of my voice on the page as a kind of jokey, smirky, smart-ass voice, but then when they hear me read, they realize that I take the craft of writing very, very seriously. Plus we sold some books.
Q: Good for you. I went to a book signing in Nashville once and found the author, a fairly famous person, sitting there at a table with absolutely no one in the audience.
A: What a nightmare! Maybe he needed to put a bit more country into his books.
Q: Speaking of your voice: You talk in "Tibetan Peach Pie" about how your speaking voice changed. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, you sounded one way, and then you moved to Virginia and later on to the West Coast, and your accent altered. You still sound like a Southerner, though.
A: I think actually I sound more like an Okie now than a Southerner. I don't know if you've ever heard recordings of Will Rogers, but I seem to speak a bit like he did. Of course, in my mind's ear, as I say in "Peach Pie," I think I sound like Jeremy Irons, or Sir Laurence Olivier. And then I hear a recording of my voice and realize what I actually sound like, and I'm quite dismayed.
Q: You start out "Tibetan Peach Pie" by trying to argue that it's not a true memoir. How is it not a memoir? It seems to me to be a fairly traditional example of the genre, but maybe you have a different idea of what it entails.
A: It was wishful thinking, I guess. I've always held the memoir in some measure of disregard, because so many people who write a memoir use it as a platform to air old grievances or as a wailing wall from which to broadcast their pain. A lot gets thrown into the genre that's just crybaby work. So my intention was to differentiate what I was doing from what I, perhaps in my ignorance, regarded as the sullied form of the memoir.
Q: I'm sure you know that there have been memoirs, written by authors who need not be named here, whose veracity ultimately came into question. In your case, you pledge that although you may not have all the words right, everything in the book, to the best of your memory, actually happened.
A: That's true, although there's an important difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography is a presentation of the historical events of one's life, whereas memoir is a compilation of the author's memories. So while everybody involved hopes that those memories are true and accurate, a memoirist is not obligated to do the kind of exhaustive research that an autobiographer is. Upon a thorough review, there were 172 stories in this book, but only four whose details I was fuzzy enough about to stipulate and extrapolate a little bit. That's a pretty good record. I don't think Abe Lincoln and Pope Francis combined could come up with a better record than that.
Q: Of course, most people who read your memoir will be looking for insight about your novels and your writing process, and there's a fair amount of that to be found. For example, we learn that your earliest writing was done by dictation; before you knew how to write, you were speaking your tales to your mother.
A: Which I can't do anymore, sadly. I tried dictating fiction again about 20 years ago when I started having trouble with eye strain, and I found it absolutely impossible. I have to stare at the page, and I find it difficult to leave a sentence until it's as good as I can make it. To try to do that vocally is out of the question.
Q: Henry James dictated his later novels, did you know?
A: I didn't, although I've heard that some writers do work that way. There are also some writers who are extremely good conversationalists, which I am not.
Q: You're doing fine here so far.
A: I have the ... feeling, you know, that I can't express myself unless I have a pen in my hand and the page in front of me.
Q: You did use, as a young person, something you called a talking stick, with which you scratched out your stories on the ground —
A: I was beating the ground. Beating it half to death!
Q: It's not totally clear to me how that physical action was helping you write, though.
A: Well, it was establishing a rhythm, which is something I pay a lot of attention to in my prose. Back then, I didn't have the skill to just sit down and write the stories; there had to be some physical action. And even now, there's a cadence in my stories. It's not taught much in creative writing classes, but I think of it as extremely important. There's just a rhythm I hear in my head, being transmitted through the pen to the page. Once in a great while I'll slap my thigh, when I think I've crafted a particularly vibrant phrase.
Q: And you do still write in longhand, which very few people do anymore.
A: Yes, and we may reach a point in the very near future when nobody does.
Q: There's a moment in the book where you have a sort of epiphany while watching François Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player," in which the tragic and the comic are being mixed together. That became a sort of touchstone for you and your writing, in which comedy and tragedy are intermingled, along with the sacred and the profane, the serious and the goofy, etc.
A: True. I think the ability to move from the sacred to the profane, or from the tragic to the comic, with grace, is a hallmark not just of good writing but of a philosophical understanding of how reality is composed.
Q: Speaking of the cinema, you say that many of your best flashes of insight have come in connection with the movies. Why is it that movies have been so important to you and your formation as an artist?
A: I think it's true for most American writers of my age and background. I grew up in a small town whose library's collection was not extensive, and certainly the schools were not intellectually stimulating. There were no art galleries or museums. So for aesthetic stimulation, even though we didn't recognize it as such at the time, the movies were the place to go. The local movie theater was my temple. My family made me go to church on Sunday and sometimes during the week as well, but the movie theater was my true cathedral.
Q: Is that still true? You go to movies much?
A: I don't want to sound cantankerous, but I'm not attracted to most films today. I'm not interested in movies that offer only special effects. In the 1960s and '70s, there were many films that dealt with human behavior, human emotions. Not so much today.
Q: Aside from its title, your memoir has a lot of references to food. When you were 5 years old, for example, you traded your clothing for a nickel to buy an ice cream cone. You also stole a cabbage once and got in trouble for it, rather like Peter Rabbit. But you also talk about your love of tomato sandwiches, and kimchee, and so on.
A: Well, I'm a Cancerian, astrologically, and therefore a total victim of belly lust. And I suppose I look at literature in terms of consumption, too. Unfortunately, much of today's literature seems to vacillate between the brutal and the bland. When I sit down for a literary meal, I'd like a glass of champagne once in a while instead of a Styrofoam cup of water. I'd like oysters Rockefeller, or even a nice juicy cheeseburger, instead of another bloody hunk of the author's aching heart.
Q: You've just demonstrated your love of not just metaphors, but multiple metaphors and similes. Once you get on a roll of likening one thing to another, it's hard for you to stop. It's like Lay's potato chips, you can never have just one.
A: Yeah, that's the way my brain is wired. I should probably go into rehab.
Q: Maybe it also has to do with that rhythm you were talking about earlier. In a pop song, the best thing to do with a good lick is to repeat it. Or maybe it's a Southern thing.
A: Sure. Until recently, you know, life was much more leisurely down South. In a fast-paced, competitive society, people don't have the time or inclination to daydream or rhapsodize or tell stories and enjoy language for its own sake. When I was growing up, there were a lot of old guys around who were very good, and almost unstoppable, at telling stories.
Q: Sounds like someone I know.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
"Tibetan Peach Pie"
By Tom Robbins, Ecco, 362 pages, $27.99