As he tells it, novelist Tom Robbins knew he wanted to be a writer as soon as he knew what books were — but before he could read or write himself. At age 5, he pressed his mother into service as his secretary, and she dutifully took dictation while her son told tales. She also occasionally edited them.
"However," Robbins writes in his new memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, "I always remembered each and every sentence I'd spoken, and would throw a tantrum until she restored my wording verbatim. When in 1975 I recounted this to Ted Solotaroff, my editor on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, he exclaimed, 'My God, Robbins, you haven't changed in forty years!' "
It's been almost another 40 years since then, and Robbins is still spinning tales (and, most likely, sparring with editors). Now 81, Robbins is one of the best-loved novelists of his generation. He has published eight novels, a novella and a collection of short fiction and nonfiction, all still in print, including his first novel from 1971, Another Roadside Attraction.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, his second book, was an iconic novel of the 1970s and, Robbins boasts, for a time the only novel by a man that many feminist bookstores would sell. Director Gus Van Sant made it into a film, starring Uma Thurman as the giant-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw, in 1993. Robbins' other novels include Still Life With Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume and Skinny Legs and All, all written with Robbins' distinctively fantastical style and indelible voice.
That voice, humorous and sensual and sly and inventive and given to wild rambles that turn out, after all, to have a point, is what many of Robbins' fans love most, and it's the main ingredient in Tibetan Peach Pie. Although the book is roughly chronological, Robbins denies that it's an autobiography and only grudgingly admits it might be considered a memoir. He describes it as simply his latest effort to delight the women in his life — it seems he's always telling them stories about himself and they keep urging him to write them down.
Robbins was born during the Great Depression in Blowing Rock, N.C., and it's clear the roots of his storytelling are there. Grandson of Baptist preachers, he had a free-range childhood in North Carolina and Virginia, surrounded by "bib-overalled raconteurs, many of whom spun stories as effortlessly and expertly as they spit tobacco juice."
He might have decided to be an author when he was 5, but he took a circuitous route to becoming one. He did stints in military school and several universities, and he worked as a journalist for many years, covering everything from sports to visual arts. He served in the Air Force in the 1950s, and his postings in Japan and Korea had an enormous impact on his world view, creating his longtime interest in Asian culture and religions, not to mention his devotion to kimchi.
But the military life was not his metier. Although Robbins chafes at his close identification with '60s hippiedom, arguing that his subject matter is much wider, he's happy to be identified with the bohemian life in all its guises. He plunged into it in Richmond, Va., then in New York, San Francisco and finally Seattle — he has lived there and in La Conner, Wash., for decades.
Robbins drops some juicy names in Tibetan Peach Pie, describing encounters with everyone from Charles Manson and Timothy Leary to Tom Wolfe and Al Pacino. Although the book is loosely structured, certain threads tie its stories together. There are many tales about Robbins' love of art, of food and especially of women, from his first mad love, a little girl named Bobbi who was a circus performer (he still associates pink tights with magical powers), to the "love of his life," his fourth (approximately) wife, Alexa D'Avalon, whom he has been with since 1987. Before he met her his romantic career was quite a thrill ride, although he recounts it with gentlemanly restraint.
The strongest thread, though, is Robbins' career, or "careen," as he prefers to call it, as a writer. All the influences that made him one are embodied in stories, beginning with those childhood escapades. Another important event was his first experience — in 1963, way ahead of the cultural curve — with LSD, "three hundred micrograms of pure Sandoz lysergic acid, right off the plane from the manufacturer in Switzerland," provided to him by a medical researcher. "It would prove to be the most rewarding day of my life," Robbins writes, "the one I would not trade for any other." (He emphasizes, though, that he never writes high — or even while drinking coffee.) Still, it would be years before he began to write Another Roadside Attraction — only after, he says, he discovered his voice while reviewing a Doors concert for a Seattle newspaper in 1967.
He's never lost that voice, and it's the star of this memoir. If you're a fan, you might have dreamed of getting to meet him, not just for a moment at a book signing but at some laid-back, intimate dinner party where you and he and a gaggle of supporting cast would eat perfect tomato sandwiches and sip Champagne under a starry sky while Robbins told story after crazy story, until the sun came up. You'll have to get your own perfect tomatoes and bubbly, but Tibetan Peach Pie dishes up the main course.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.