Volume 10
An Online Literary Magazine
November 30, 2015


Art as Rebellion: An Interview with Tom Robbins


Nick O’Connell


Photo of Tom Robbins by Jeff Corwin.
IN HIS NOVELS, Tom Robbins takes a deliberately subversive attitude toward Western civilization. While the bright surface of his prose enchants and enraptures, the philosophical underpinnings of his books call all kinds of attitudes and institutions into question. But whether he's poking fun at Ralph Nader worshippers or satirizing dead-serious feminists, Robbins remains a critic in a clown costume, a modern-day court jester, a writer as much interested in entertaining and amusing his readers as in making a point. Robbins was born in North Carolina in 1932 and raised in Virginia. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, he moved to Seattle to do graduate work at the University of Washington. His internationally bestselling works include Another Roadside Attraction, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life With Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, Villa Incognito, Wild Ducks Flying Backward, B Is for Beer, and the recent memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie. The father of three sons, Robbins lives with his wife, Alexa D’Avalon, and their dog, Blini Tomato Titanium, in La Conner, Washington.


Robbins is a low-key fellow with a soft Southern accent and modishly styled graying brown hair. Contrary to his public persona as an outrageous character with a roguish grin, Robbins in private is a quiet, introspective man who seems quite serious about his life and his work.


There are several stories about how you got your first novel published. How did it actually happen?


Well, the true story involves the Order of the Golden Envelope, of which I'm a knight. You see, the post office is my favorite institution. With some people it's the church, with some it's the university, with me it's the post office. The mails have a lot of potential as an art form, correspondence artists can attest to that, plus there's a certain amount of wonderment in the whole postal process. Paper mail is doomed by computers, so let's enjoy it while we can. At any rate, ever since I was knee-high to a mail slot, I had believed that someday a letter would be delivered to my box that would change my life. Alter it forever. And in my fantasy, that letter had a light, a golden aura around it.


In 1966, while I was living over a machine shop in Ballard [neighborhood of Seattle), I went downstairs to the mailbox one day and pulled out a letter. I opened it and was nearly blinded by the golden light. It was from Luther Nichols, West Coast editor of Doubleday, saying that he was coming to Seattle and wanted to talk to me about writing a book. I thought, "This is it, the life-changing golden letter has arrived." I'd had books on my brain since I was a tot.


I met Luther in a coffee shop in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, which now has been replaced by the Westin. It turned out that he wanted me to write an art book, a book about West Coast art. He'd been reading my art reviews.


I was disappointed. I told him I was really interested in writing a novel. Then he was disappointed. But I covered my disappointment and he covered his, and we continued to converse. He said, "Well, what's this novel about?"


And I said, "It's about the discovery of the mummified body of Christ in the catacombs under the Vatican and its subsequent theft and reappearance in America in a roadside zoo."


His interest picked up. He said, "Tell me more." Well, I didn't know any more. That was an idea that had been kicking around in my head for a few years, but I'd never done anything with it. But when he said, "Tell me more," I started improvising on that idea, plotting on the spot.


He said, "When can I have a look at the manuscript?"


I said, "Well, it's in pretty rough shape." I hadn't written a word, but I didn't want him to know that, so I said, "I'll try to clean it up and send it to you." I went home that day and told the girl I was living with, "I've got to write a novel."


I tried for a year to get something done on it, but I was so enmeshed in the Seattle art world that I couldn't find time to write.


Eventually I cut my ties and moved down to South Bend, Washington, into a storefront that was rented for eight dollars a month, not eighty dollars, but eight. That's where I began Another Roadside Attraction. I actually wrote all of it in South Bend, though not all of it in the storefront; we moved to a more legitimate house later on.


I worked weekends at the P-I, drove up from South Bend. The girl I was living with was a waitress in Raymond, and she brought home left-over shrimp and scallops and oysters from diners' plates; that's how we survived. Slops de la mer.


That was for a year?


Two years.


Did you have anybody read it over as you were working on it?


I wrote thirty pages and sent it to Luther Nichols. He liked it and he sent it on to Doubleday in New York. They said, "This is unusual. Can we see some more?" So I wrote seventy more pages.


The younger editors liked it, but the senior editors weren't too sure. Even the younger editors said, "Well, this is really interesting, really different, but we can't tell where it's going."


I thought, "I can understand that perfectly. I don't know where it's going either. If I knew where it was going, I probably wouldn't be writing it."


By this time, though, I was determined to finish it. It had become central to my life. I was going to finish that sucker, whether they bought it or not.


I was hoping to get an advance. After neither of the initial readings would they give me a dime, but by then I was committed to the book. I finished it in my own way and at my own pace, eating left-over shellfish, and I thought I'd try Doubleday one more time and if they weren't interested, the hell with them, I'd send it to somebody else.


This time, as I understand, there was a real battle over it between the senior editors and the younger editors. Doubleday began as a Roman Catholic publishing house, I wasn't aware of that, and some of the senior editors were of that persuasion. They battled about it and finally the younger editors won out. I got a $2,500 advance and went out immediately and bought a ticket to Japan. Converted it to yen and sin. The rest, as they say, is geology.


Was the book autobiographical at all?


Any work of art is to a certain extent a self-portrait. It wasn't what you would call an autobiographical novel per se, too much of it came strictly out of my imagination. Some of it came out of psychedelic drug experiences. A lot of it came out of what was going on in America in the late '60s.


Were you attempting to make sense of the '6os?


I was trying to recreate and evoke the true mood of the '60s. I didn't want to write a traditional novel. I didn't want to report. I didn't want to write about the '6os, I wanted to make the '6os happen on the page. I could see all around me people writing about the '6os, and even those who didn't miss the point completely, as many of them did, were never quite able to explain the '60s to someone who didn't participate in them, particularly someone who hadn't had what we called "The Experience"—the ingestion of lysergic acid diethyl-amide 25.


So I based the book on a psychedelic model to recreate through style, as much as content, the mood of the '60s. Rolling Stone called Another Roadside Attraction the quintessential novel of the '60s. I think that's because it looked at the '60s from the inside out; instead of trying to describe the era, it evoked it, in style as much as content.


The narrator in that book is funny. He's always trying to sum up what's going on, just as an objective reporter would, but...


Yeah, it keeps blowing up in his face, which was the whole point. He wanted to relate to it in traditional ways. If you're operating from a base camp of logic and rationality and good old-fashioned literary values, you just end up with the '50s in '60s drag. When in Oz, you have to use Oz-mosis.


When you were working on the book, did you try to write it straight first?


No. I was trying to get over being straight. Actually, the straight and narrow path has never interested me very much. In fact, I've become convinced that if you find yourself on the straight and narrow path, you know that you're headed in the wrong direction.


Is it harder to find another path?


Certainly. That's why the traditional paths are so crowded. The wild and crooked paths, the left-handed paths, so-called, are not for the lazy and the faint of heart. You have to be willing to jettison a lot of intellectual and emotional baggage that has been piled on your luggage rack by people and institutions that, their claims to the contrary, do not have your best interests in mind. You have to have the nerve to cut free of ninety percent of what you've been taught by your family, your schools, your news media and, especially, your government and your religion. The paths of ignorance and superstition seem smooth and easy. The path of truth and liberty looks impossibly difficult. But it can be very exhilarating. So much so that the path itself becomes the destination. You can't be overly concerned with where it's leading. Who knows where it's leading?


How did you find that path?


Deep desire. Then hit and miss. Once you're on it for a while, even if it's but for a few steps, your toes start to tingle in such a delightful way that you're willing to take all sorts of risks to get back on. And even now I stray off the path frequently. No one stays on the path all the time unless they're enlightened, and even then I think there are times they wander off into the brambles. I'm in the brambles right now or I wouldn't be talking like this.


Are there certain books and traditions that help you stay on the path?


Oh, yeah. It's a crazy old road, but there are plenty of signposts, if you know how to interpret them. They are usually in a language you can't understand. An early signpost for me was a book called Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie, which I read when I was eighteen. It was the first thing I'd ever encountered that really questioned all of the values I had been taught to hold dear. It went over those values, not with a magnifying glass or a comb, but with a chainsaw. It was a milestone in my life.


When you were younger, were you at all rebellious?


From birth. And I became more rebellious when the hot hormones of adolescence began to spin off of my artery walls. I have always been in a rebellious state. My goal is to be eternally subversive. But I think I'm falling short.


Is writing an acceptable adult way to be rebellious?


Sure. All art is in a sense an act of rebellion, a protest, at any rate. The Venus de Milo is a protest against every flat-chested woman in the world. And the Belvedere Apollo is a protest against every pot-bellied man. Art creates the world as it ought to be, and therefore is a protest against the world as it is, although I find plenty in the world as it is to celebrate.


What were you like as a young man?


When, last year?


No, more like a teenager.


I was sensitive and shy, but covered it up by becoming the class clown. I was such a mischief-maker that nobody noticed I was a bit of a loner. I was a closet bookworm, a regular little intellectual, but I kept that side of me well hidden. I'd even fail tests on purpose, writing bizarre, surreal answers to questions that I could easily have answered. I gave myself a completely secret education. In the redneck, rural South, this deception was necessary.


At fifteen, I went out for basketball and played well. Wore a varsity letter, chased cheerleaders, had dates and rowdy friends. But I also maintained a secret life. I still do. Except the secrets have changed.


Did you like growing up in the South?


I liked it just fine. I didn't think much about it one way or another; it was like a bird being born in a particular forest. It wasn't until I was about eighteen and began to experience directly the non-Southern world that various aspects of the South began to oppress and offend me.


To the extent that you wanted to move?


First, I wanted to change the South. I tried that for a few years, involved in civil rights and all, and then bloody but unbowed, I decided I could make better use of my time simply to transport myself to a more liberated part of the world. St. Augustine said, "Repair it by flight."


I don't want to be in a position of denying my Southern heritage, though, because it has had a great deal to do with who I am, particularly as a writer. Many writers have come out of the South, and I think there are some good reasons for that. So it's probably quite fortunate for me that I was born there, although I've often felt that I was a bit like a Tibetan Jew born into an Anglo-Saxon Southern Baptist family.


Why is the South such a fertile ground for writers?


For one thing, the art of conversation is not dead there; people still converse with dignity and imagination. Cantankerous old men sit around in rocking chairs on front porches and gabble for hours. With style and grace and eccentricity. The eccentric is vital to art. There remains in the South a trace of the only true aristocracy America ever knew, even among people who never were actually aristocratic. It left a splendid residue, so that even in the midst of all that redneckery and racism and insecurity about manhood and all the other things that make the South so frustrating, there is a regard for language and for stories and for eccentricity and for honor. I think there's a lot of honor-seeking in writing. A lot of writing is concerned with avenging injustices, or is a conscious effort to perform some large, honorable act.


There's a sense of honor in the South, despite the Ku Klux Klan and that whole underbelly, that doesn't exist anywhere else in North America. And there's also an elitist attitude there, and I think all great art, great thinking, comes out of an elitist situation. There's no such thing as great egalitarian art; democracy does not produce great literature. Barbara Rose said that when elitism began to become a dirty word in America, it sounded the death knell for any possibility of the development of a high culture here. She may be right. Of course, we may not need a high culture. Our low culture is pretty wonderful.


Did the South retain a certain elitism?


Yeah, and a lot of it is ugly and stupid but, nevertheless, good for fostering literature. The regard for the eccentric that is retained is even more important, however.


Did you feel it was an honorable thing to be a writer?


Well, I decided to become a writer at such an early age that the word "honorable" probably wasn't in my vocabulary. I was five years old when I made that choice. I didn't care if it was honorable or dis honorable. I did know that there was a certain magical quality about books. I liked the way books looked, I liked the way they felt, I liked the way they smelled, I liked their weight in my hands, and the quality of the paper. So in a sense I was in love with the book as an object.


And for better or for worse, the fairy that tapped me with a wand in my cradle gave me a strong, active imagination. Around the age of five or six, I began to see where the book-as-object could be a vehicle or vessel fueled by that imagination. There was some kind of intermingling of the book-as-object and my active imagination. Somewhere in that molecular bonding between the book and the imagination, I was programmed to be a writer.


Did it take you a while to develop the writing style first seen in Another Roadside Attraction?


I think I wrote that book when I was in my early thirties. I was just over thirty. One reason I never really tried to write fiction before was because I knew that I hadn't evolved my own voice, and I didn't want to sound like anyone else. I didn't feel particularly pressured about it. I wasn't in any hurry. I looked at the field of literature and realized that there are no child prodigies, with the possible exception of Rimbaud. Most writers develop late.


Sometime in my early thirties, I recognized that in my nonfiction writing I was acquiring a voice that was decidedly my own. It happened to have been influenced by, and to coincide with, the psychedelic revolution in the '60s. So the time was ripe to inflict it on the world.


Did working for the newspapers help to refine your writing?


Yes and no. It's possible to hone your skills while writing for a newspaper, but only if, one, you're willing to stand up to editors, and two, if you're disciplined enough to push yourself toward excellence. I saw a lot of fine talent wither and shrink in Seattle's newsrooms. Newspapers are fairly timid and they don't much cotton to adventurous writing, writing that's likely to offend their advertisers or stretch the minds of their subscribers. Also, newspaper editors don't demand very much of you in terms of high intellectual or stylistic standards. Accuracy, clarity and good old meat-and-potatoes mediocrity are enough for them. I only grew as a writer because I wasn't afraid to rock the boat, and because I was too committed to personal growth to allow myself to snuggle into a nice, safe, comfortable journalistic niche.


You know, when I was at the Times and P-I, there wasn't an editor on either paper who'd so much as thumbed through McLuhan's Understanding Media. I found that appalling. Perhaps today the brass is a bit more in touch. But generally speaking, newspapermen and women are the salt of the earth: they don't come any better. Seattle is really lucky to have two pretty good dailies. Our sportswriters, in particular, are outstanding.


When you decided to leave the South, why did you choose to move to Seattle?


Intuition, probably. I operate a lot on intuition and don't know why I do half the things I do. Seattle has changed so much since I landed here, in some ways for the better, in a lot of ways for the worse. I'm thinking of gentrification, French flu, tour buses in the Public Market, that sort of stuff. It was a good choice, though. I was right out of art school and bursting with ideas. I was able to manifest many of them in Seattle. It would have been impossible in Richmond. In my early years here, I staged happenings and things that I never could have gotten away with in Virginia.


What kind of happenings did you stage?


They were art events, although they usually took place on a stage. Today they would be called performance art. I staged one in Kirkland that was called Low-calorie Human Sacrifice to the Goddess Minnie Mouse. It created somewhat of a scandal. I was arrested at the end of it, although not booked. That was fun.


I also did one down in Pioneer Square [Seattle] in an art gallery. That was called Stronger Than Dirt. It had a scandalous effect, too. Lloyd Cooney [television station president] did an outraged editorial about it on KIRO.


After living in Virginia, did you find it hard to get used to the Seattle climate?


The rain appealed to me, and still does. It's one of the reasons why I live here.


Why do you find the rain appealing?


It allows for prolonged periods of intimacy. It's cozy and reduces temptation. It keeps you inside where you can turn inward, rather than scattering yourself about the beach and the boulevards. And it makes the little mushrooms grow.


I think that there was a lot of rain in my heart before I moved here, so in a sense it was simply finding an external environment that ran parallel to my internal weather. And when I say it was raining in my heart, I don't mean that I was depressed, because I don't find rain the least bit depressing. It's romantic, basically, and I am essentially a romantic being.


Why did you move to the Skagit Valley?


It's unusual to find a small town—particularly a small rural community, a farming, fishing community—where you can be yourself to the fullest extent of yourself; normally you'd have to go to a large city to do that. But there was a kind of sophistication in La Conner, and a tolerance of eccentric dress and behavior that made this place especially appealing, in conjunction with its natural beauty, the peace and privacy it offered. And that was largely the work of Morris Graves. When he moved here in 1937, he was treated very badly, because he was different, because he was an artist, because he walked around with a rope holding his pants up, and had a beard. But Morris is a very powerful person, and a singularly charming man, and he was able to break the ice, to clear a path for everyone else. He got through to the people and made it easier on the rest of us.



Why did you set Another Roadside Attraction in the Skagit Valley?


It was an area that appealed to me, visually and psychologically. It was an area that had not been written about very much and it had an enormous amount of natural charm and was unique—certainly unusual in certain respects. It was a rich poetic vein to mine. And I knew it fairly well. I didn't write the book in the Skagit Valley, though. I wrote it down in South Bend, so I was far enough removed from it to write about it with a slightly different perspective than I would have had, had I been here in the middle of it. It actually allowed me to write about it in a fresher way.


When you started writing about it, did the landscape impose its form on the writing?


No. I suppose any poetic image, if it's good, will have been imposed upon to a certain extent by the object or place that's being described, but it wasn't the kind of book it was because of the Skagit Valley, it was the kind of book it was because of the landscape of my mind, which for several years had been tended by small green gardeners in Day-Glo robes.


Did taking LSD change your way of looking at things?


Definitely. It reinforced some things and threw others overboard. It gave me a lot more ease in moving between different levels of reality. It was a liberating experience.


Is it something you can remember and draw from?


I don't draw from a specific experience. The psychedelic experience was much like being handed a new kind of telescope or microscope through which I could look at the world for a few hours in a totally different way, seeing it for the first time without the filtered glasses on, the blinders of education and social conditioning. Maybe seeing it accurately for the first time, in all of its manifestations. And then somebody takes the instrument away. But even though you can't duplicate through your own eye what you saw through that micro telescope, you can remember that there are other ways of seeing, other levels to see. If you're looking at a daisy in a field, having observed a daisy through the magic acid lens, even though you're not seeing it now as you saw it then, you're still aware that the daisy possesses other dimensions and an identity as strong as your own. In a sense, it's the Zen concept of is-ness, daisy-ness, as well as an "erotica" of perception, to borrow a Susan Sontag phrase. There's the sensation that there are hidden energy forms beyond time and space which shape our time-space world. I can't talk about it without sounding demented or sophomoric or both. That's why I say it can't be reported, it can only be evoked, and even then inadequately.


So taking LSD made a big difference to you and your writing?


It was a watershed experience. I think psychedelic drugs, particularly natural plant drugs like mushrooms, are the most efficient way of expediting the evolution of consciousness. There's no other way that even comes close. And I think it's an enormous human tragedy that scientists and philosophers and artists haven't been allowed to make real use of those drugs, that the government finds them such a threat. The government has finally, twenty years after the '60s, succeeded in creating a climate of absolute anti-drug hysteria, which is sheer idiocy.


It's so stupid, so hypocritical, so wrong, so shameful. A million people a year, according to estimates from the United Nations, die around the world as a result of tobacco. Less than three hundred die from cocaine, yet the country's in an absolute hysterical frenzy over cocaine. Cocaine's not even a drop in the bucket. In my opinion, it's a bad drug not because it's dangerous physically, but because it makes people stupid, whereas psychedelics actually can enhance intelligence.


There's some real lunacy there, some real hypocrisy and muddled thinking. You'd have to be an idiot to get worked up about the evils of cocaine when there's so much death resulting from alcohol and tobacco. But on the other hand, it really isn't idiocy, because the totalitarians recognize unconsciously that drugs are agents of change, agents of decontrol, and the government doesn't want us to change, and it certainly doesn't want us to be decontrolled. It is in their interest to control us. Nice safe, Christian, family values are a wonderful way to sedate the population. Keep us docile, easy to manipulate.


The evolution of consciousness is not something the government favors, because ultimately it would transform the politico-economic system and cut into the profits of the people who are really behind the government, who really run this country and the other countries of the world.


So there is a solid, legitimate reason for this drug hysteria that probably really isn't known consciously to most of the people who are creating it. I think it's the most frightening thing to happen on this planet in a long, long time. It scares me more than the bomb. It isn't even the drugs per se. I could go on at great length about the value that there is in psychedelic drugs, although not for everybody. As Hermann Hesse said in Steppenwolf, "The magic theater is not for everyone."


But say it's not drugs, say it's blue cheese; the fact that the government can get people so easily worked up over blue cheese, the fact that people will buy this propaganda, swallow it hook, line and sinker, and get in a panic over something they know nothing about, is extremely frightening. It's the Hitler technique.


Do you try to respond to issues like this in your writing?


A lot of my life has been spent fighting the tyranny of the dull mind. Obviously, I try to do it in my work. I'm not going to go out and lead a pro-drug crusade. What I can do is to try to set an example. And to offer people the tools they might use to liberate themselves from totalitarian, anti-life control.


You wouldn't want to go joining a political movement?


Absolutely not. Political movements are trivial in my estimation, except in a very secondary way. If we want to change things, then we have to change. To change the world, you change yourself. It's as simple as that, and as difficult as that. Politics is not going to make anything any better. There are no practical solutions. Sooner or later, we have to have the guts to do the impractical things that are required to save the planet.


And your job as a writer is to make an individual reader aware of the implications of some of these things?


And entertain them at the same time. My job is to awaken in the reader his or her own sense of wonder. An entertaining wakeup call from the front desk.


And this wake-up call should be funny?


There's no wisdom without humor, I'll say that flatly. Wisdom does not exist without humor. Humor is both a form of wisdom and a means of survival. A lot of evolution, which seems to be the primary force in the organic universe, is a matter of game-playing. A lot of things are done in evolution just for the hell of it. If evolution were only concerned with survival of the fittest, we wouldn't even be around. The world would be exclusively populated with cockroaches and ants; they're much better at survival than we are.


Evolution is constantly playing games, experimenting, inventing, innovating, trying new things, seeing if they work—"Let's put horns on this jackrabbit, see what happens. Well, it didn't work but it made a cute postcard." So to be playful is not to be frivolous; it is, ultimately, to be realistic, to be in tune with the universe, to be an agent of evolution. One of the problems with playfulness for a writer is that there's a thin line between playfulness and cuteness. But that's a risk I have to take. Any artist who isn't taking risks is a mediocre artist. The best artists are willing to risk something, and that is part of my risk; I risk being cute. But I think I stay on the playful side of the line enough, so that it's a risk worth taking.


And to be playful at a highly conscious level is a very desirable thing. I'm not particularly interested in the tradition of Western literature. I'm interested in the tradition of word as celebration, metaphor as magic, language as an agent of liberation, and narrative as cosmic connection. That tradition is much older than Western literature. That's the old storyteller-as-enchanter, as spellbinder and counselor, around the campfire.


Is that one of the reasons you chose to tell a fractured fairy tale in Still Life with Woodpecker?


Fairytales are the most profound literature that we have ever developed. Many of them are thousands of years old, and they were honed and refined over tens of thousands of tellings until they speak directly to the psyche. They resonate there, if they're told in their pure form. The Walt Disney version or the nice safe liberal versions where nobody really gets hurt totally pervert them; you lose everything, you lose all that's valuable in them. But a true fairy tale is a remarkable piece of verbal science.


By using a fairy tale in the Woodpecker book you seemed to be getting at what people want out of romantic relationships: a kind of love which is like a fairy tale.


No. A fairy tale is not a pretty, idealistic deception. In the original fairy tales you got a strong dose of reality. On a psychological level, at any rate. There was Prince Charming, there was also the witch, and both of these were aspects of your own personality. When they said there was a witch, they didn't mean that there was some evil old woman who lived in a cabin in the woods; that witch was part of you, or part of your mother, or sister.


So the original versions of the fairy tales were quite instructive?


The earliest Dr. Ruth; the fairy tales were absolutely teeming with sexual instruction. They were told to prepare children for life, to teach children about growing up, about their sexuality, romance and marriage, and all the things that children in a peasant environment would have needed to know about their own psychological life. Psychologically, they're incredibly complex and deep.


So you found them useful?


I found that one useful ["The Frog Prince"], considering what I wanted to deal with in that book: romantic love and objecthood. I wanted to write about inanimate objects in a way they had never been written about before. There have been some good books in which inanimate objects played a large role, but invariably as a symbol. They were dealt with symbolically, like the pistol in James Jones' great little novella [The Pistol], or the overcoat in Gogol.


But I wanted to write about an object in a non-symbolic way, where the secret life of the object itself, the energy of the inanimate object itself, was as real as a character in the book, as a human being.


In a fairy tale, are all the objects charged with a certain supernatural energy?.


They have meaning, largely symbolic. I chose a fairy tale where an object was a symbol, but I also chose another object, a Camel pack. The golden ball remained a symbol. It symbolizes unity.


When we were children, people would say, "Look at that kid. He's a ball of energy." And while they might think that they were using a mere figure of speech, when we're young our energy is very contained, we are like balls. The older we get, the more dispersed it becomes; we lose that union with the universe.


That's what the golden ball represented. When the little girl lost her golden ball, that was her loss of innocence, her loss of universal unity. Of course, she wanted it back, but it was very difficult to get back.


I dealt with it on that level, but the Camel pack I chose to deal with non-symbolically, as a real object standing only for itself. Even though it was rich in association and meaning, and engendered games and riddles and puns, it nevertheless had a life of its own.


Why did you choose the pack of Camel cigarettes?


I wanted to use something human-made. I didn't want a seashell or a pine cone, something from nature. I wanted it to be something that had been shaped by a human hand, I wanted it to be something that was in common usage, that you'd be likely to see anywhere, in anyone's home or car. So I thought, "Something from the supermarket would be just right."


I'm really attracted to package design, cans and labels. It occurred to me that the Camel pack had the most potential because of all the lore that accompanies it, all the games and riddles and things that had been invented by sailors and convicts, men who are alone with objects. The design, of course, is quite appealing; maybe the most successful package design of all time, plus it had all these other psychological and aesthetic associations. The Camel pack was a very rich subject. I collected a lot of stories about it and only used a few of them, one-tenth of what was available.


Did you try to see the whole universe in that one object?


Yeah, Blake's idea of seeing the universe in a grain of sand, the macrocosm in the microcosm. I actually shut myself up in a room for three days with nothing but a pack of Camels.


Just like Princess Leigh-Cheri in the book?


Yes, although I only did it for three days. But I got the essence of it. I just meditated on it for three days.


That must have been a strange experience.


Strange experiences can be the best experiences.


A pack of cigarettes is normally something we take for granted. Were you trying to reanimate the object?


Quite the contrary. I wanted to explore and to celebrate the inanimate. My goal was the opposite of anthropomorphism. There may be a million stories in the Naked City, but there are a trillion dramas unfolding every fraction of a second on the subatomic level. Even on the molecular level, there are amazing bonding romances going on. Who knows what secrets an object really holds? I guess I was trying to say that we should not take them for granted. In the socialist countries that I've visited, there was a severe shortage of interesting objects, and I keenly felt their absence. Bare shelves signify more than one kind of deprivation. They must emaciate the imagination.


There's a method of looking at the world, maybe we could call it "poetic awareness." That sounds pretentious, but it's just a way of training yourself to be constantly aware of the vitality and connectedness of the things around you. You automatically begin to register the vectors or association between unlikely objects and images and events. You spot a can of Red Devil lye in the supermarket, for example, and you're instantly reminded of thirteenth-century Christianity. Then and there, you could compose an essay on the relationship. Cross-reference to the max. It's an interesting exercise in mental aliveness. The world becomes one big poem. Or one big parlor game.


You seem to do that a lot in your writing.


Well, it's my way of defining reality. Or not defining reality.


How about cartooning? Do your books owe something to cartooning?


Hardly a thing. That's a fake notion that's been perpetuated by the press. Cartoons, more specifically comic strips, are an integral part of American popular culture. Now popular culture possesses a tremendous energy, vitality and humor that can be tapped by the serious artist and put to higher purposes. I certainly do that, and I'm amazed that so few serious writers have harnessed the power of pop culture to illuminate their fiction. Maybe they're afraid of being considered lightweight or frivolous by the academic dullards. In any case, pop culture, comic strips included, has great potential as literary fuel. You have to keep in mind, though, that it's only the fuel, not the vehicle, itself. I learned a lot about structure from George Herriman, creator of "Krazy Kat," as did Philip Guston, the late painter. But Herriman was a structural genius and most cartoonists are not.


In fiction, the bottom line is language, and my language owes no more to cartoons than does the language of Henry James. True enough, I don't paint deep, detailed psychological portraits. But that doesn't mean my characters are cartoons. What it means is that I find that sort of writing boring, boring to do and, increasingly for me, boring to read, although there are writers who've done it exceedingly well. I employ a different dynamic, one that in the interest of freshness and swing—"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"—requires the reader to fill in some of the blanks, some of the notes. It is more accurate to compare it with jazz than cartooning.


The surface of your prose is like a package design—bright shiny and alive—but there always seems to be something going on underneath.


Well, I hope that's true. That's part of my approach. I've described my books in the past as being cakes with files baked in them. That's kind of an obsolete image, but years ago in movies and in comic strips, prisoners would receive a cake from a friend and there would be a file hidden in the middle and they would file their way out of jail. I try to create something that's beautiful to look at and delicious to the taste, and yet in the middle there's this hard, sharp instrument that you can use to saw through the bars and liberate yourself, if you so desire. It's not imperative. You can just eat the cake and throw the file away if you want, but the file is there; it is always there in anything I write.


Is it important for you to have an audience, or would you write the books anyway?


I certainly wouldn't write as much.


When you're writing are you aware, like a circus performer, that an audience is there?


No, and I don't think Karl Wallenda would have thought about the audience very much when he was up on the wire. You're too busy trying to stay on the wire. I think about the wire and how I'm going to get from this side of Niagara Falls to the other without falling off. You don't think of the people down below until you're safe and sound on the other side.


Nowadays, I write under contract. I thought that might be a problem, knowing that I had a deadline and all that, but I don't think about that, either. When I go in to write, I forget everything else. I don't feel any pressure from the publishers, not that they put any on me. And I feel no pressure of trying to please an audience. It's just between me and the page. I'm lucky that way.


Do you feel that your reputation is always on the line when you do a book?


I don't give a rat hair about my reputation.


But you were talking about writing being a high wire act?


I was probably just being fanciful. I'm a long-time admirer of aerial acts, and I'm capable of fancy. No, the problem with reputation is that it's bound up with egoism. And the ego is the source of most of humanity's unhappiness. Hell is a solidified ego, heaven is a dissolved ego. Simple as that. The reason so many writers are depressed and dismal is that they tend to have large, stiff egos. Look at Saul Bellow. Now, he has a great reputation. He's rich and famous, he's won a Nobel prize, critics everywhere wash his feet with their slobber. But Saul Bellow is one miserable old hound dog. And he's merely one example. If you think a grand reputation will bring you joy, think again.


To return to the original analogy, the real joys and thrills and fulfillment in writing don't come from audience or critical response, they come from working high up on the wire, alone, without a net. But I really should apologize to Karl Wallenda's ghost for that presumptuous analogy.


Does it scare you to work up on that wire?


Always. That's good, because if it isn't scaring you, you have to figure that you're becoming a formula writer. If you're not scared, then you're too comfortable, too smug. There's something missing when you're not scared. Terror is very inspiring.


Scared of what?


Of falling off the wire, writing a stilted paragraph or a stupid book, or at least one that doesn't work for me. The ones that work for me, other people might consider stupid, so that's neither here nor there. You can write bad books and still have a good reputation. If I do something that I'm not proud of, then that's what I have to deal with, that's the fall that'll break my bones. I'm making it sound more dramatic than it really is.


Do you try to write back to the people who write to you about your books?


I get an awful lot of truly wonderful fan mail, and I don't think it's because my audience is so huge, it's because we have a special relationship, my readers and I. Thus, they write. Someone who likes my books is more apt to write me a letter than, say, someone who likes John Updike is apt to write him. I answer as many as I can, but too often people expect me to be their pen pal.


Do you like the solitude of being a writer?


A writer has got to like solitude. It's a solitary and lonely business. A lot of talented people have failed as writers because they couldn't stand being alone.


Do you work every day?


Five days a week.


Early morning?


It's not healthy to get up too early. [Laughs] I work from ten to three, approximately. That's the time I'm at my desk with implement in hand. Actually, I'm working almost all the time. When I'm in bed at night waiting to go to sleep, I'm working. When I'm walking the fields I'm working, when I'm playing volleyball or honky-tonking, I'm working; it's always on my mind.


So every part of your being goes into a book?


Dream and imagination, wit and sexuality, insight and intuition, weltschmerz and wang-dang-doodle. You stir in every spice on your shelf, although, ideally, in amounts and combinations that won't spoil the stew. But you've got to hold some stuff back for yourself and your loved ones. I for one refuse to use up my life in literature.


Is it fun to sit down at the writing desk? Do you feel you're discovering things?


Well, it's definitely a journey, an odyssey. It's fun and it's edifying and it's laboriously hard work and it's terrifying and it's very, very mysterious.


The truth is, I don't know how to talk about writing. Authors such as William Gass and Stanley Elkin speak so beautifully about the act of writing in all of its various ramifications. But you ask me to describe the writing process, all I can think to say is that it's like a cross between flying to the moon and taking a shower in a motel.


Are there a lot more books you want to do?


To paraphrase every football coach in the country, I just take 'em one book at a time.


From At the Field's End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers by Nicholas O'Connell, published by University of Washington Press.


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