By way of an introduction, writer Tom Robbins gives visitors tours of his house. Built by a Norwegian carpenter and said by Robbins to be the oldest in La Conner, Skagit County, it’s now called the Villa de Jungle Girl (aka The House of Thrills).
Over the years it’s expanded, room by room, and filled up with art. There are painted carnival banners emblazoned with freaks, geeks and alligators. There’s a parlor where his wife, Alexa d’Avalon, gives psychic readings. There’s a shrine to the Jungle Girl herself — a lamentably short-lived comics character from the 1940s. A copy of “Finnegan’s Wake” (Robbins says he’s been reading it for 20 years, and is one-third the way through) sits on his nightstand.
This visitor, a reader of Robbins’ hyperimaginative, wickedly funny and philosophical novels, wouldn’t have expected less. More surprising was his study, a subdued sanctum with an old wooden desk and a sofa stacked with inscribed yellow legal pads — Robbins, who turns 82 next month, writes out his books longhand before turning them over to an assistant. It’s here that the author of “Another Roadside Attraction,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Still Life with Woodpecker” settled down to discuss his new memoir, “Tibetan Peach Pie” (Ecco, $27.99).
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Q. You have been quoted as saying that you would never write a memoir. And yet, here we are, discussing your memoir. What happened?
A. I have a prejudice against memoirs, because too often the memoirist uses them as a platform to air old grievances, and or as a wailing wall to broadcast pain and distress to anyone who will listen …
The women in my life, my wife, my assistant, my agent, my yoga teacher, my Pilates instructor, my sisters, were pestering me to write down some of the stories to which I have subjected them over the years … I sent them to my editor in New York, thinking that he would say, well, Tom, this is kind of charming, but there’s no market for this sort of thing. He fired back immediately and offered me a contract.
Q. Did you enjoy writing it?
A. I did … As a journalist, you are in a sturdy, well-maintained motor launch, with a compass and charts to steer by and a lifeboat and a support team in your home port. As a novelist, you’re in a dinghy, a little kind of sloop … forced to navigate only by the stars that sparkle in your imagination … Emotionally, it (writing a memoir) was more rewarding.
Q. Had you written about your childhood before? The chapters that talk about North Carolina and your family really spoke to me. It seems like so long ago.
A. It was long ago! I will turn 82 in July.
Q. And yet, you’re a bridge from that time until now.
A. It was a marvelous place to grow up. I would leave home in the morning after breakfast and not show up until dinnertime …
Its effect on me as a writer came from the South itself. There’s more languor there than in northern climes. When you live in a fast-paced, competitive environment, you’re less inclined to daydream, or to engage in long conversations, in which language is used for its own sake. As a kid I was exposed to snake handlers, gypsies, moonshiners, and eccentric old men who were great storytellers.
Q. You have a lot of preachers in your family.
A.Both my grandfathers were preachers….(one grandfather) was a cabinet maker during the week, and on Sundays he would literally ride a mule into those hollers, as they called the valleys, and preach to people who were too far removed from civilization to have a church.
Q. So, you listened to a lot of sermons growing up?
A. Not by choice.
Q. You worked in the newspaper business before you became a novelist. (Robbins worked both as an art critic for The Seattle Times and on the copy desk of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
A. I liked it. I particularly liked working on the copy desk. … It was like playing Scrabble, a word game.
Q. I’m guessing it was a better job to have as you worked on your novel.
A. It didn’t drain off the narrative energy that writing actual articles did. I tell people who are studying to write — don’t get a job that involves language. Or writing … Because you will usurp all your literary energy, even if you’re writing about an ax murder.
Q. You were a late bloomer as a novelist (Robbins published his first novel at age 39).
A. I had been determined to be a writer of fiction from the age of 5, but there were periods in my late teens and 20s when I had just given up on the dream … My best friend in Virginia was encouraging me to be another Faulkner. As much as I admire Faulkner, I did not want to be another Faulkner. I wanted to be me.
Q. You write about transformation as a theme in your books, starting with the way your hometown, Blowing Rock, N.C., changed each year from a backwater small town to a summertime destination for wealthy tourists.
A. There are certain epiphanies and experiences, if one continues to grow in one’s life, the epiphany can be so dramatic and so deep that it can actually transform the way you think. I experienced a kind of transformation in the town I lived in. The first of June, it would transform from this little downtrodden hillbilly town into something rather exquisite. ….
I learned early on that things can change rather dramatically in a short period of time, almost in the blink of an eye. Which I find the best argument I can raise against suicide.
Q. You write about how you have been given this gift of imagination, which has helped you become a very successful author. Where do you think imagination comes from?
A. I used to think that all children were born with imagination, until I began raising my son (Robbins has three children from different marriages). … I’ve met kids 4, 5 years old who have no imagination whatsoever.
So … I think it comes from fairies … certain children are visited by a fairy in their cradle, and are tapped on their forehead with a small but luminous wand. After that, even all the forces in our culture, and there are many, are unable to totally subdue it.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.