This interview originally ran in the June 2003 issue of HIGH TIMES.
by Gregory Daurer
In 1976, we proudly excerpted Robbins’ wildly popular, countercultural novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and published his article about amanita muscaria (“The Toadstool That Conquered the Universe”). In addition to Cowgirls (made into a 1993 film starring Uma Thurman), Robbins’ books include Another Roadside Attraction, Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and the just-released Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Robbins’ whimsical and mystical novels are like psychedelics: You never know where they’re going to take your head, but you’re always in store for an outrageous voyage.
Looking back at your early life, what spurred your gift for storytelling?
I’m descended from a long line of preachers and policemen. Now, it’s common knowledge that cops are congenital liars, and evangelists spend their lives telling fantastic tales in such a way as to convince otherwise rational people that they’re factual. So, I guess I come by my narrative inclinations naturally. Moreover, I grew up in the rural South, where, although television has been steadily destroying it, there has always existed a love of colorful verbiage. My father was a hillbilly raconteur. My mother dabbled in prose and was an avid reader. By the age of five, I was so smitten with the magic of words that I’d already made up my mind to be a writer. A good little boy gone bad.
Your novels bubble with humorous one-liners — twists of the language that double as punch lines. Do you think of those wisecracks as you research a subject and then include them later at appropriate spots in your story? Or are they thought of spur-of-the-moment as you sit with a chapter in progress and try to finish it?
Usually, my witticisms are composed on the spot. They’re simply intrinsic; an inseparable, integral, organic part of my writing process — doubtlessly because humor is an inseparable, integral part of my philosophical worldview. The comic sensibility is vastly, almost tragically, underrated by Western intellectuals. Humor can be a doorway into the deepest reality, and wit and playfulness are a desperately serious transcendence of evil. My comic sense, although deliberately Americanized, is, in its intent, much closer related to the crazy wisdom of Zen monks and the goofy genius of Taoist masters than it is to, say, the satirical gibes on Saturday Night Live. It has both a literary and a metaphysical function.
All of your previous books have featured female protagonists, such as the hitchhiking Sissy Hankshaw in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and the stock-trading Gwendolyn Mati in Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. To what do attribute your empathy for female characters?
In general, I’ve found female protagonists more intriguing to work with than males. I cherish women and have always preferred their company, reveling in their perfumes, their contours, their finer-grained sensibilities, lunar intuitions, nurturing instincts and relatively unfettered emotions — although I’m certainly not unaware that there are plenty of neurotic, uptight, stupid women in the world.
The female characters in my books tend to be independent, frisky, spunky, witty, emotionally strong, erotically daring, spiritually oriented and intellectually generous; in short, the kind of women I admire in real life. Even Gwendolyn Mati has many of those qualities, although she also happens to be greedy, dishonest and a bit of a manipulative bitch. I enjoyed Gwen’s company despite her faults. It takes me 36 to 42 months to complete a novel. If you’re going to be shut up in a room with someone every day for more than three years, it might as well be someone whose company you enjoy.
Equally important is the fact that employing women as my primary protagonists has allowed me to step outside of myself, to distance myself from my own personality, far more easily than were I to look at events from a masculine perspective. And I’ve almost always sought to avoid the stain of autobiography. Although the narrator of Another Roadside Attraction was a male, he was looking through the eyes of the young woman, Amanda. My new book, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, is the first in which the narrative voice is thoroughly masculine — and let me tell you, writing from a male perspective really changed the energy of the enterprise. And a few of my personal traits did, indeed, rub off on the main character.
I probably ought to cop the Fifth Amendment on that. Do I have time to call my lawyer? Never mind, she’s probably in bed with a judge. Here’s one example: I gave my protagonist the same birthday as my own, July 22, the cusp between Cancer and Leo, which means that he’s pulled in opposite directions by the sun and the moon, resulting in a personality that is torn between the hermit’s cave and center stage, one minute wanting to cavort in the limelight and the next, wanting to crawl under the bed with a box of donuts.
What subjects do you tackle in Fierce Invalids?
This book was inspired by an entry from Bruce Chatwin’s journal, by a CIA agent I met in Southeast Asia, by the mystery surrounding the lost prophecy of the Virgin of Fatima, by the increasing evidence that the interplay of opposites is the engine that runs the universe and by old Terry and the Pirates comic books. It’s about outwitting the corporate state, about having your cake and eating it, too; about the taboo against the natural sexuality of adolescent girls, about the contradictory nature of reality, and the possibility of finding both meaning and fun in a corrupt, sometimes dangerous world. My editors claim that Fierce Invalids is smart, funny and inspiring, but also rather gnarly. I wouldn’t know. I’m still too close to it to talk about it with even a rat poot of reliability.
There may be some readers who aren’t familiar with Bruce Chatwin.
Before his early death from a mysterious illness about ten years ago, Bruce Chatwin was a brilliant, eccentric, larger-than-life Englishman who carried the craft of travel writing to whole new level, due to his restless and reckless spirit and his provocative anthropological theorizing. Check him out.
The belief in the Goddess — or a universal, feminine principle — is a recurring theme in your novels. Why?
I’m afraid I can’t be counted among those who’ve latched onto the Goddess as a politically correct alternative to God the Father. The Transcendent Principle — the Divine, if you will — is no more wholly female than it is wholly male. To be sure, the Divine has feminine aspects and masculine aspects, but its cumulative aspects transcend gender and, indeed, are so far beyond definition or description that they can’t even be rationally discussed. It’s the Mystery, baby, and the Mystery is ultimately unknowable. We can interface with it, we can marvel at it, we can connect to it and be elevated by it, but we can never comprehend it.
What really interests me about the Goddess is the fact that while she was beloved and honored by our ancestors, was the central spiritual archetype and prevailing deity all over the globe for thousands of years, she has been so successfully eradicated by revisionist patriarchal spin doctors that most modern Christians, Moslems and Jews are totally ignorant of her massive and dominant historical presence. If someone or something of that enormous scope can be so thoroughly concealed from the masses, it can’t help but call into question everything we’ve been taught by our various institutions. The subversion and repression of the Goddess is the Big Lie of the past two millennia — and as the dumbing down of America gains momentum, the duplicity is strengthening its grip. The good news is that a significant minority has recently become informed about the Goddess, and that has both revealed the essential spiritual foundation of feminism and inspired a growing distrust of traditional dogma and the meatballs who’ve propagated it.
What do you recall about HIGH TIMES during its earliest era?
A lot of jelly has run through the donut since 1976, but here’s how I seem to remember it: I’d written an article for Rolling Stone in which I speculated (this was years before Terence McKenna) that psychoactive fungi might have been the root source of all religious feeling in the human animal. The editors at Rolling Stone turned chicken and refused to run the piece. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from HIGH TIMES, which had just excerpted Cowgirls, soliciting a submission. HIGH TIMES, of course, has never lacked for courage and it was pleased to publish “The Toadstool That Conquered the Universe.”
I regret to report that my HIGH TIMES essay was marred by a bit of misinformation. I wrote that because the amanita muscaria mushroom produces a state of grandiose drunkenness, because it swells the ego rather than dissolving it, it couldn’t be considered a true psychedelic. Well, when consumed raw, that’s entirely correct. What I was later to discover, however, is that if the muscaria is cooked (toasted, preferably), those rowdy alkaloids that once made Vikings go berserk are destroyed, while the more contemplative ones that remain after heating do provide a legitimate psychedelic experience. Muscaria’s a tricky sacrament, though (mistakes can occur in identification, organic dosages are difficult to gauge), and it should be harvested and ingested only with extreme caution.
You were recently at a conference in Hawaii (the AllChemical Arts Conference) dedicated to the influence psychedelic drugs play on creativity. What were your remarks on the subject?
One of the points I made in my lengthy lecture in Hawaii was that, as near as I can tell, the tiny gurus who reside in certain botanical compounds are not in the business of manufacturing human creativity. They don’t sell imagination by the pound, or even the microgram. What they are capable of doing, however, is reinforcing, encouraging and expanding that innate imagination that still manages to survive in a consumer society whose institutions, academic and otherwise, seem determined to suffocate it with polyester pillow from Wal-Mart.
I emphasized that the impact of psychedelics upon my own sensibility was to dissolve a lot of culturally conditioned rigidity. Old barriers, often rooted in ignorance and superstition, just melted away. I learned that one might move about freely from one level of existence to another. The borderlines between reality and fantasy, dream and wakefulness, animate and inanimate, even life and death, were no longer quite as fixed. The ancient Asian concept of interpenetration of realities was made physically manifest — and this served to massage the stiffness out of my literary aesthetic.
There happens to be a fairly thin line between the silly and the profound, between the clear light and the joke, and it seems to me that on that frontier is the single most risky and momentous place an artist or philosopher can station him or herself. I’m led to suspect that my psychedelic background may have prepared me to straddle that boundary more comfortably than those writers for whom the genie has never lifted the veil — although some might be tempted to charge that I’m just a borderline case.
I’ve read that your first LSD trip in 1963 changed your whole worldview. You realized that even inanimate objects seem to possess individuality, consciousness. And that, in turn, is why, in your fiction, you’ve playfully made characters out of, for instance, a spoon, a dirty sock, and a can of pork and beans in Skinny Legs and All. Can you explain a little more about the revelatory trip you took that day?
I don’t want to give the impression that I hold daily conversations with my household appliances, although my toaster is as old as Drew Barrymore and almost as talented. However, guided by the acid genie, my consciousness did, back in ’63, enter — literally enter — into a daisy, and that little adventure permanently altered my reality orientations, particularly when it comes to the usual lines of distinction between animate and inanimate. The crown of the daisy is a perfect logarithmic helix. My eyes followed that spiral, around and around, until — pop! — I actually went into the flower. What was it like in there? It was a subterranean cathedral made out of mathematics and honey, and occupied — this is the amazing part — by an almost palpable intelligence.
You can’t talk about something like that without sounding like a lunatic, but let me confess that when I learned that every daisy in every field possesses an identity just as strong as my own, it radically changed my life. Now, a man-made bean can is hardly a living plant, but what I’ve come to appreciate about inanimate objects, aside from their utilitarian beauty, is the whisper of the Infinite in each and every one of them. I’d better shut up now before the woo-woo alarms go off.
You participated in one of the nation’s first marijuana protests — organized by Allen Ginsberg and the marijuana-law-reform group LEMAR in New York City. What do you recall about the event?
It was a blizzardy day in the winter of ’64-’65, in front of the Women’s House of Detention on West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, and our little ragtag group was protesting that the prison was crowded with females of all ages whose sole criminal act was to animate their inner sky with tiny clouds of cannabis. I glanced around with increasing nervousness as the cameras of a half-dozen law-enforcement agencies flashed amidst the snowflakes like orbs of mad polar bears. I wasn’t long out of college and had never before been documented by the FBI. Ginsberg, that magnificent pothead of the godhead, laid a gentle hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it.” He recognized my callow face from the LEMAR meetings at the Peace Eye Bookstore, but didn’t know my name. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “In the long run, these fuzzy shots in some cop’s folder will do you more honor than the cover of Newsweek.”
Years ago you staged a “happening,” dubbed “Stronger Than Dirt,” in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. What was that like?
In the late ’60s, I created and participated in several Happenings in the Seattle area. A Happening, of course, is what nowadays is called “performance art.” It’s a supremely easy art form, which is why so many supremely untalented artists are attracted to it. As best as I can recall, “Stronger Than Dirt” involved filling a large room with a lot of soapsuds, and burning and eating a certain amount of money in front of an audience that included a number of Seattle’s wealthiest patrons.
Why, in your opinion, is fiction still an important art form?
Much more than an entertaining set of exaggerated facts, fiction is a metaphoric method of describing, dramatizing and condensing historical events, personal actions, psychological states and the symbolic knowledge encoded within the collective unconscious; things, events and conditions that are otherwise too diffuse and/or complex to be completely digested or appreciated by the prevailing culture. The human race has always defined itself through narration. That isn’t going to change just because we’ve gone electronic. What is changing is that now we’re allowing corporations to tell our stories for us. And as I write in my new novel, the message of the corporate story is always the same: “To be special, you must conform; to be valid, you must consume.” Real fiction will prevail, however, because at its best it’s an enchantment that refreshes the wasteland of the mind.
How does it feel to be named one of “The 100 Best Writers of the 20th Century” (for combining “lust, religion, politics and out-of-the-ordinary characters for an entertaining read”) by Writer’s Digest magazine?
Well, if you can’t be selected as People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” I suppose you would find that being named one of “The 100 Best Writers of the 20th Century” an agreeable alternative. And I do. I’m sincerely flattered, but I know that if you allow yourself to puff up over your accolades, you pay with your soul.
How do your spend your time when you’re not writing?
I’m glad you asked, because I do have an exciting new hobby. I’ve begun to practice the art of folding cold cuts. That’s right. I take slices of ham, bologna, German salami and olive loaf, and fold them into little animals. Little Black Forest animals. This morning, I fashioned all the characters from Bambi out of a roll of headcheese. Unfortunately, I ate them at lunch. It made me feel like a forest fire.
You’ve identified three themes in all of your work: liberation, transformation and celebration. How have these themes played out in your own life?
Personally, I’ve undergone so many changes—some for the better, some for the worse—since being born into a strict Southern Baptist family in Appalachia that the faculty of MIT couldn’t list them all on a supercomputer. Both liberation and transformation are ongoing tasks, they ebb and flow within the wobbly matrix of a never-ending process. Art is a part of the process, and psychedelics have a big role, as do reading, contemplation, meditation, yoga, imagination and, perhaps most importantly, humor. And they’re all cross-pollinators. Acts of liberation can be transformative, acts of transformation can be liberating. So much of it boils down to a matter of attitude.
As for celebration, if the need should come upon me spontaneously, I’m apt to bound off the sofa and dance around the room with greater abandon and at a greater length than might be deemed either cool or prudent. If it’s a planned celebration, it usually involves a quantity of champagne. It should be stressed, however, that “celebration” is not necessarily a synonym for “partying.” For me, to celebrate means to pay tribute to someone or something, ideally in language that’s as eloquent, innovative and exuberant as my inadequate self can manage.
What would you advise young people to do to improve their lives and the life of the planet?
The goal of this generation’s pioneers should be to restrict procreation and limit consumption. They should also take every opportunity to make themselves happy, realizing that the key to self-generated happiness (the only reliable kind) is the refusal to take oneself too seriously. I’ve got huge faith in them. The kids are all right.
Still Life with Tom Robbins
Tom Robbins agreed to be interviewed — in his own fashion. Insisting that he’s more articulate on paper than he is in person, Robbins proposed writing out — rather than verbalizing — his answers to our questions. Still, he welcomed a visit from HIGH TIMES to his “sodden clam-chawed outpost” north of Seattle in order to flesh out his persona.
My first view of Robbins is literally downcast: He’s lying on his back on his living-room floor with his hands on his chest as he converses in his folksy and mellifluous voice with his assistant, Barbara, and wife, Alexa. Had he been enjoying a meditative, guided relaxation? Or, is he returning from a mind-blowing ayahuasca adventure? Actually, he’d injured his back in a freak accident and had been applying cold compresses. “So far, I’ve been unable to convince anyone that my tripping over a vacuum-cleaner cord was simply a practice session for a low-wire act,” he quips.
The interior of Robbins’ home is a visual feast. A trio of Andy Warhol soup cans hang in his living room; other walls are dedicated to accomplished painters from the region he’s lived in for 30 years, Washington’s Skagit River Valley. His writing desk sits in the same room as his collection of antique toy motorcycles; one almost imagines him going “Vroom! Vroom!” as he pens his latest novel by hand..
It’s also the same room in which the FBI interviewed him a few years back. It seems Robbins was on the Unabomber suspect list because of similarities between Theodore Kaczyinski’s then-anonymous manifesto and Robbins’ 1980 book Still Life With Woodpecker. Although Still Life’s plot involves a romantic, anarchistic bomber named Bernard Mickey Wrangle (a.k.a. the “Woodpecker”), Robbins decries violence and insists he’s not technophobic. “It wasn’t really all that pleasant to think that someone could think that you’re blowing up other human beings,” he says. Robbins gives the FBI extra credit, though, for their smarts in the choice of agents they sent: two attractive, young women (they’d obviously gauged how to crack his nut from reading his books).
Though Robbins covets his privacy, he occasionally puts himself in the spotlight for a good cause, such as when he recently joined other celebrities (Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Pryor) protesting the federal government’s policies on medical marijuana These days, Robbins explains, “I have a very high-pitched nervous system and a real low threshold for drugs. Three aspirin will knock me out. Anyone wants to date-rape me, all it takes is three aspirin: I’m yours.”
Prior to his photo being taken, Robbins proves a stickler for detail: as a stylistic matter, he insists on donning sunglasses, just as he appears on his latest book cover. Afterwards, he promptly takes them off again — in waggish, Tom Robbins fashion, of course. – GD