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Book City: Tom Robbins’ daring, poetic, quirky, erotic taste in books

Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca will world premiere "Antigona" this weekend at Meany Hall

Famously reclusive author Tom Robbins will be at Town Hall on Thursday, June 26 to talk about his new book “Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of An Imaginative Life.” Author of nine novels, Robbins says his new book is not an autobiography, but stories about his life that have been waiting to be told. Born in North Carolina, reared in Virginia, Robbins has lived in and around Seattle since 1962. He took time for this Book City interview despite “being oppressed by pre-publication flapdoodle.”

What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

“Finnegans Wakehas been at my bedside for nightly reading for more than twenty years — and I'm only on Page 166. It's the most realistic novel ever written (from the perspective of how we humans actually think), and therefore virtually unreadable. As a generator of interesting dreams, however, it's as effective as pot.

Do you read mostly fiction or non-fiction?

I do read some non-fiction, specifically books that dumb down theoretical physics (black holes really suck me in) for lay consumption. Mostly though, I read novels, preferring the truth of myth to the lessor truth of facts. (By those standards, I suppose I ought to be reading the Bible.) My taste in fiction is highly eclectic, although I'm not particularly interested in reading yet another coming-of-age novel or grim saga of a dysfunctional family. The one thing I demand of an author is that he or she cares — really cares — about language.

In general, I prefer the daring to the cautious, the poetic to the prosaic, the imaginative to the literal, the upbeat to the dreary, the quirky to the predictable, the comic to the sober, and the erotic to the chaste. 

Have you read a truly great book lately?

I recently read Thomas Pynchon's latest, “Bleeding Edge”, and can't decide if it's a towering masterpiece (a kind of finneganswake.com) or a complete disaster. Maybe it's both at the same time. All the characters speak in wisecracks, which starts to become annoying — except that the wisecracks are really, really good.

Do you buy books, download them, use the public library?

I suppose I should point out that after undergoing five optical surgeries in 2006, I now read almost exclusively by ear. Audio books (which I purchase and later donate to the local library) rank among our greatest inventions since room service and French kissing, though I do miss the pleasure of holding an actual book in my hands.

Why a memoir? Why now?

Would you believe relentless pestering by the women in my life?  Would you believe temporary insanity?  Why, at 81, would I suddenly choose to write a memoir?  At any rate, in “Tibetan Peach Pie I, as in my novels, continued to follow the advice of Juan Ramon Jimenez: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Does your reading inform your writing?

When working on a novel, I tend to avoid fiction that might unduly influence me. (I don't worry about “Finnegans Wake” in that regard: There's no way I could write stream-of-consciousness prose, although stream of whoopee cushion is a possibility.)  

When it comes to work that sets my literary thyroid to pumping, my own ink to flowing (I write with pen on paper), I turn for inspiration most often to the great Spanish poets: Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Jimenez, et al. When I peruse a Neruda poem, for example, or, say, the opening pages of “Seduction of the Minotaur,” by Anaïs Nin, I can't wait to seize my ballpoint and see if I can't compose a passage or two that might approximate such incandescence. Envy should never be underestimated as an effective motivator.

A book that had a major impact on my writing career was “Steppenwolf “by Hermann Hesse. In the aftermath of my life-changing psychedelic experiences, it reinforced my suspicion that modern narrative fiction indeed could transcend bourgeois preoccupations, be simultaneously enlightening and entertaining, playful and deadly serious; could bind spirit to matter, and insinuate for readers the hidden worlds within our world.

Can you recall a book or author that inspired you to become an author yourself?

Because I've been writing  —  literally  —  since age five, it's difficult to pinpoint any one book that might have inspired me to become an author, although “Alice In Wonderland,” is a likely candidate. Later, Joseph Campbell's “Hero with a Thousand Faceswas to become a beacon by whose light I often steer my literary dinghy.

How did you come to live in La Conner?

Having spent my early years in a quaint little tourist town surrounded by natural beauty, I now find La Conner a comfortable place in which to live and write. It's private and peaceful, and when I feel the urge to really misbehave, I can be in Seattle in seventy minutes.

Favorite books by Northwest authors?

Drizzle drip for drizzle drip, salmon whisker for salmon whisker, nobody has written more eloquently about the Pacific Northwest, exteriorly and interiorly, than Ken Kesey in “Sometimes a Great Notion.” The Northwest is still home to a number of fine writers: Jim Lynch, Sherman Alexie, Ryan Boudinot and Robin Oliveira, to name a few. A couple of superior sportswriters as well: Art Thiel and the recently retired Steve Kelly.

What do you plan to read next?

A magazine article (Vanity Fair, perhaps) in which Dick Cheney gives a detailed, first person account of the night he sold his soul to the Devil.

What Val’s Reading This Week: Coincidentally, I’m reading a memoir by another 80-year-old novelist. But I suspect Penelope Lively’s “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” is a very different book than Robbins’. Lively ruminates on how reading has sustained her, and how that passion sparked her successful writing life. My favorite chapter is her meditative take on the importance and working of memory from the vantage point of her ninth decade.

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