Peter Wild (PW): I understand that you’ve recently had eye surgery. How are you feeling at the moment?
Tom Robbins (TR): In late June a surgeon cut two pieces out of my right eye, and although I’ve been lighting candles every day for St. Windex, patron saint of peeping Toms, my binocular vision is still somewhat impaired. Right now I’m squinting at the computer screen as if I were trying to peer through the keyhole in Naomi Watts’s dressing room.
PW: ‘Without a Canyon of the Vaginas in which to peck our American tantra, in which to connect our hormones to the stars, we may be becoming psychological paraplegics…’ You wrote this in 1988 in a travel piece about your journey to North Canyon in Nevada, the Canyon of the Vaginas. I was wondering – do you think we’re living in an age of psychological paraplegia now? Or does this age of bare navels, solicitous bum cracks and jelly-on-a-plate busoms bring out the puritan in you?
TR: : Those winking navels and peekaboo butt cracks just make me wish I was young enough to engage them in a more — shall we say? — hands-on way. All that erotic display is delicious — as far as it goes. The problem is, we have no means in contemporary culture to connect the sexual to the spiritual. That is what is missing. When, for example, we consistently fail to place the vagina within any kind of sacred context, our non-clinical, non-priggish references to it run the risk of being only shallow, crass, brutish, and cheap.
PW: Reading your books is just about the most fun a person can have in book form. I can’t think of a single other author whose books I know will guarantee linguistic fireworks, philosophy, humour, drama, thrills, spills, silliness – all of the things that make up what you say the Tibetans refer to as ‘crazy wisdom’ in your latest book, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards. The question is, though: are there any authors who give YOU (Mr Tom Robbins) the ‘Tom Robbins feeling’ (as it will from now on be labelled)?!?
TR: I sincerely appreciate your generous assessment. For better or for worse — and I’m willing to concede that it could be the latter — I seem to be one of a kind. Talent abounds throughout the literary world, but nobody is doing what I do in the way that I do it, and I find that singularity both exhilarating and troubling.
While there certainly are recent novels that I much admire (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu, Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang, Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse), I find myself increasingly revisiting those revolutionary old geniuses who excited me long ago: François Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Henry Miller, and Blaise Cendrars.
PW: You mention Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh’s idea of ‘Zorba the Buddha’ – ‘the ideal modern man: a contemplative man who maintains a strict devotional bond with cosmic energies, yet is completely at home in the physical realm.’ One of the things that Wild Ducks… seems to indicate is that – whether you’re canoeing along the Okavango River, dancing with supposed cannibals in the ‘tiger-haunted’ Sumatran hills, standing ‘dazed and fomented’ at a Doors’ gig or lamenting the revisionist histories of the 60s that care to omit any and all psychedelics … you would seem to fit the bill of Zorba the Buddha. Would you even half way begrudgingly agree?!?
TR: Zorba the Buddhahood is a state to which I aspire, but I cannot claim that I have attained it. Maybe for an hour or two every other Friday.
PW: When I try to describe what reading Tom Robbins is like (a heady broth rich with Vonnegut, Brautigan and Whittimore digested in the belly of a camel obsessed with magic realism) to others who have yet to get their hair wet, I always feel like I come up a continent or so short … What would you say to those people who have yet to give one of your books a go (other than ‘what is wrong with you?!?’)? How would you describe the ‘Tom Robbins experience’?
TR: There’s certainly no reason why anyone should feel compelled to read me. As Hermann Hesse pointed out, “The magic theatre is not for everyone.” When a reader does complete one of my novels, I suppose I’d like them to feel much as they might as if they’d just attended a Fellini film or a Grateful Dead concert; which is to say, that they’d encountered the life force in a large, irrepressible and unpredictable manner, and that as a result, their sense of wonder has been awakened and their personal vision expanded.
If unrestrained, I might describe my books as hallucinogens, aphrodisiacs, mood elevators, intellectual garage door openers, and metaphysical trash compactors. They’ll do everything except rotate your tires.
As a novelist, my goal has been to twine images and ideas into big subversive pretzels of life, death, and goofiness with the hope that they might help keep the world lively and give it the flexibility to endure. Now, having said all that, I should confess that I probably have no idea what I’m talking about. I rarely indulge in self-analysis and I’m as surprised as anyone else by what seeps out of the end of my pen.
PW: You mention Hunter S Thompson’s recent passing and include a note which reads: ‘… with his sad demise, still more color has faded out of the American scene. Where are the men today whose lives are not beige; where are the writers whose style is not grey?’ For a writer as gloriously ‘glass is half FULL’ as yourself, this was a curiously ‘glass is half empty’ comment. When you take a look around at the US literary scene, does it get you down?
TR: In general, the scene is quite morose. Even those writers who care about craft, about style, about language, tend ultimately to leave the reader weary rather than illuminated. Too many American authors feel pressured to repress any impulse to dance and end up instead marching to a dirge. If a protagonist isn’t raped, divorced, dismembered, humiliated, or diagnosed with cancer, a chemical dependency, or autism within its first five pages, then that particular novel is not likely to gain much favor from the professors and the press.
Well, fiction shouldn’t hide from life’s grim realities, but neither should it totally ignore life’s wonders, mysteries, beauties, and delights. As long as we continue to focus on “victim fiction,” we’ll continue to behave like victims. Life imitates art.
PW: Whilst we’re talking about the state of the nation, you mention how ‘the military-industrial complex …seized and then cemented total control of the US government, a coup d’etat that would have failed without the active assistance of a rapidly growing population of fearful, non-thinking dupes; ‘true believers’ dumbed down and almost comically manipulated by their media, their church and their state. So be it.’ Since you wrote that, things have steadily worsened, if that’s possible. What is it like for free thinking individuals such as yourself in the US at present?
TR: Living in the shadow of so much arrogance, greed, fear, ignorance, childishness, corruption, aggression, and blind incompetence can be frustrating and occasionally maddening. From a purely cosmic perspective, however, it’s also rather entertaining. Like Elvis Costello, I try to be amused.
PW: Enough serious questions. You return again and again throughout Wild Ducks… to your love of language – and when you don’t mention it, you’re busy putting it through its paces seeing just what it can do if you bend and stretch and make it dress up in all manner of ludicrous outfits. Given that this is the case I wonder if you have a favourite word …
TR: I tend to be delighted by clusters of words (pairings, phrases, sentences) rather than individual words. Once, however, I did make a list of some of my favorite words and then incorporated them all in a poem that I wrote for my niece upon her entry into puberty. The poem, entitled “Catch 28,” is included in “Wild Ducks,” and the beloved words are: phantom, coconut, neon, speedboat, malaria, hotel, toy, tropical, tadpole, radio and moon.
PW: Obviously you’re recuperating at the moment (and I’ve no doubt taken up far more of your time than I by rights should), but: have the creative juices started percolating afresh in your old noggin? Have you got the distant thunder of a new novel rumbling like hunger in your belly? Anything you can tell us endlessly demanding types who rush out the day your books are published and snap em up???
TR: I’m considering outsourcing. You know, hire a couple of guys in Bangalore to write my next book for me.Seriously, there are several novelistic ideas rattling around in my brainpan and whispering in my ear, but I have another eye surgery scheduled a few months hence, so it’s uncertain when I’ll be able to return to the page. I need to watch the ink soak into the wood pulp in order to work.
John Milton I’m not.
Wild Ducks Flying Backwards (and pretty much everything else by Tom Robbins) is published by No Exit. Make sure you buy everything!