‘If you want to describe my books," Tom Robbins says, "say each one is a hallucinogen, an aphrodisiac, a mood elevator, an intellectual garage door opener and a metaphysical trash compactor.
"It'll do everything but rotate your tires."
Robbins' fans, and they are legion, will recognize his inimitable style in that summary, a convergence of wry humor, vivid description and surreal twists that's a little like having a fireworks show go off in your head.
The author of such iconic books of the 1970s counterculture as Another Roadside Attraction, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life With Woodpecker, Robbins will be in St. Petersburg on Saturday to teach a sold-out writing workshop for Wordsmitten Media at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. He'll also do a book signing afterward that is open to the public.
Talking by phone from his home in the Seattle area, he says his focus for the workshop can be found in its title: The Art of the Sentence. "A lot of aspiring writers are all ready to write a novel, but they don't know how to write sentences.
"Like that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Crap," he says, referring to E.L. James of Fifty Shades of Grey notoriety. "She has no more aptitude for writing good sentences than a cat has for swimming, but she's purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank."
Robbins, 76, says he "very, very rarely" teaches workshops. This opportunity appealed because of "the lure of Florida, especially the Gulf Coast. My wife and I had a place for 12 years on Anna Maria."
When he writes his own novels, Robbins says, "I never work from an outline. John Irving once told me he doesn't start a novel until he knows the last sentence. I said, 'My God, Irving, isn't that like working in a factory?'
"I have to create an atmosphere of surprise and adventure and even terror just to be able to sit down and write."
After nine bestselling novels — his most recent was a sort-of children's book, B Is for Beer, in 2009 — Robbins has shifted gears on his current project. "My publisher is calling it a memoir, because they don't know what else to call it," he says. "Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can't get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents."
The book, with the working title Tibetan Peach Pie, is scheduled for publication in 2014. Robbins says it isn't the story of his life — "usually autobiography is such an indulgence of the ego" — but a series of "true stories from my life."
He began writing them at "the insistence of all the women in my life: my wife, my assistant, my personal trainer. They all said I had to write the stories I told them all the time."
So, he says, he wrote 20 pages. "In unison, they said, 'If you don't write more we're going to cry.' " With 40 pages written, he sent it to his editor, expecting the brushoff but getting a contract instead.
"It's a lot more difficult for me than writing fiction," Robbins says. "In fiction, when you paint yourself into a corner, you can write a pair of suction cups onto the bottoms of your shoes and walk up the wall and out the skylight and see the sun breaking through the clouds. In nonfiction you don't have that luxury."
He says the new book isn't likely to be a how-to about writing, although "since I've been writing since I was 5 years old, it would be hard not to write about writing" after his career — "what I prefer to call my careen" — of four decades and counting.
He did have some reservations about writing a memoir, Robbins says. "I told my editor, there's a certain mystique around me, you know. I don't want to destroy it.
"He said, 'Don't worry, Robbins, nobody's going to believe this s--- anyway.' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.