Photo by Alexa Robbins
Tom Robbins spoke with us via phone in a Spam-induced haze after serving as judge at the White Trash Food Festival in Mount Vernon, Wash., the previous day. "A pit bull was chasing a rabid hyena around a roller rink on the left side of my brain, while on the right side, Charlie Sheen was trying to make a phone call on a TV remote in a Calcutta brothel," Robbins said of his mental state at the time. Despite the nitrate hangover, he still had a lot to say about the city he once called home. The celebrated author will speak at the Library of Virginia's annual Literary Luncheon on Oct. 20. That evening, Robbins will accept the Annual Literary Lifetime Achievement Award at the library's Literary Awards Celebration , which this year has been folded into the umbrella of the Virginia Literary Festival, which also includes the James River Writers Conference.
RM: What does Richmond mean to you?
TR: The word that comes most immediately to mind is charm. If charm were a bathtub, Richmond could have floated a hundred rubber duckies and still had room for half the royal navy. The antebellum architecture, the broad boulevards, the heroic statues, the blossoms, the birds, the belles. I think of the James River cutting through the city with a bourbon track. Probably more than anything else, I think of the Fan district.
RM: What is it about the Fan district?
TR: I like the fact that it was an island of eccentricity and rebellion. It was an island of non-conformity in a city that is generally pretty conservative and conformist. More than anything else, when I think of the Fan, I think primarily of its alleys. In January of 1961, there was a coffee house on Harrison Street sort of diagonally across from The Village called the Rhinosaurous. I still have a poster from a poetry reading I did there. It was titled "Lectures on Alley Culture," in which I went on at great length about the various images and moods associated with the Fan district alleys.
RM: Yeah, we've got beautiful hidden gardens in some of the alleyways in the Fan. That's very kind of you to say all of those nice things about Richmond.
TR: Those alleys, they're not like alleys in other cities, which are often threatening and forbidden. The Fan district alleys, although they had a little bit of that quality — just enough of it to give it an edge — but they also were beautiful. There's something romantic about them. I'm sure they were populated with skinny tomcats and garbage trucks and even a few dangerous characters, but they were also elegant and suffused with grace.
RM: It was almost half a century ago that you lived here. Do you think Richmond has gone through a character change since you were living here in the early '60s?
TR: I don't know if I'm qualified to make that judgment. It certainly has changed in many ways. When I lived there, the specter of racism hung pretty heavily over the city. I think, obviously, that has changed. It's more socially fluid now, less stodgy. It's more eclectic. In many ways, Richmond is more sophisticated now.
RM: Richmond plays a prominent role in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Skinny Legs and All, but if you were to write a novel set entirely in Richmond, what would it look like?
TR: It certainly would not involve a description of misery. I think a truly important writer will show us ways, no matter how subtle and oblique, to transcend misery and transform it. I think the novel would be set in the spring, because when I think of Richmond, I generally think of it in the spring. Even though it's a conservative city, there's a friskiness that tickles the city in the spring … Let's see, set in Richmond today …
RM: The novel doesn't have to be set in this time period.
TR: I don't know that I'm a historical novelist, more hysterical than historical. I probably would write about the Fan district in the '50s and early '60s. That's when my memories are most fond. I would not write about the Tobacco Festival or the Civil War Centennial, except as foils. I would set the ecstatic behavior in the Fan district at that time, a festival of lavish floats and dozens of marching bands and a horde of competing beauty queens to celebrate this very highly addictive substance responsible for millions of deaths all over the world. There are a lot of eccentric people in Seattle as well, but there's a difference. The bohemians in Richmond had a deeper sense of humor than the people out here. The characters I remember from the Fan district, they were eccentric in a way that transcends the everyday eccentricity that one finds in Seattle. Seattle has a lot of heart, but no soul. Richmond has a lot of soul, but not much heart.
RM: Where do you think that soul comes from?
TR: It comes from the large African-American community, and it also comes from the weather. Those sweltering, squalid summer nights and the intoxicating spring and fall. The American South has a long, impressive literary tradition. I think the lushness and the weather has a lot to do with it. Life in the South — and Richmond was for a long time the capital of the South — proceeds more leisurely than in the rest of the country, and that very languor may help keep imagination alive there. In a fast-paced, competitive environment, where there's little time for daydreams, reflections or language for language's sake, imagination just doesn't thrive.
RM: Although a humid, non-air-conditioned apartment in the Fan can sometimes be a distraction from writing.
TR: Well I used to sit naked on the floor. I didn't have a carpet, so I had to sit on the floor, naked with a cold beer listening to Billie Holiday on my record player. It was miserable in a certain sense, but I also felt that there was something enchanting about that. Something romantic.
RM: Where was that apartment exactly?
TR: It doesn't exist anymore, and interestingly enough, the library at VCU sits directly on the spot where my last apartment in Richmond was.
RM: They should put a plaque there that says: "Tom Robbins once sat here naked, drinking a beer and listening to Billie Holiday."
TR: And thinking, "Someday, I'm going to write novels." Since I was 5 years old, I've been pointed in that direction, but I never dreamed, sitting there thinking about my literary possibilities, that on that very spot someday that there'd be a major library that had a large collection of my own papers and books. [Robbins donated his manuscript collection to VCU, handwritten drafts that include his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, and his second, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.]
RM: Speaking of libraries, the Library of Virginia is on the former site of the bus station where you and your friends used to dress up like clowns and try to persuade people to run off with the circus. Do you see any relation to the fact that you'll be accepting a lifetime-achievement award there this year for your writing?
TR: Well, you've just given me an idea for my acceptance speech. Maybe I'll show up in white face with a red rubber nose and I'll lead everybody down to Sarasota [Fla.], to join up with the Ringling Brothers.
RM: What about your work at the Times-Dispatch has carried into the work you did later?
TR: My literary style is of course, nothing at all like the journalistic style practiced at the Times-Dispatch, but I learned a great deal about grammar there. I still use that today. When I'm writing, I'm very conscious of certain grammatical rules and opinions that I learned on the copy desk at the Times-Dispatch. So it was a good education. The Times-Dispatch was an excellent newspaper in those terms. Even though the dictionary sat on a pedestal in the center of the newsroom, a big dictionary that everyone used, reporters and the copy editors, [it] was so old it defined uranium as a worthless mineral. The Times-Dispatch, like all newspapers, like all journalists, is involved with accurately reporting reality, but that is not the business that novelists are in. In a newspaper, to the degree that you can trust them, they are trying to report accurately on the truth of various situations. The truth in a novel is whatever the author can persuade his or her readers to accept. A novelist is not trying to convey the truth, his or her object is to improve upon the truth, and when a novelist is asked not to enhance reality, but to copy it, then he or she is robbed of the greater part of his or her resources. Reality too often produces novels that are drab and dull. I don't think any book is true if it doesn't have poetry in it, poetic language.
RM: You say you found your voice in 1967 while writing a review of a Doors concert in Seattle. How did you know what it was once you found it?
TR: A friend of mine in Richmond used to say, "Tommy, one day you're going to go off and become another Faulkner." While I admire Faulkner greatly, I never aspired to be another Faulkner. I didn't want to be another anybody. I had to wait until I found my own voice before I began a novel. I'd been writing literature since I was 5 years old, but it was all carrot and no chocolate. I hadn't found my voice. I didn't want to write like Faulkner or anybody else. It wasn't until late that night, sitting in an attic, writing a review of the Doors concert, that I found myself expressing myself in a way that was unlike any other writer I had ever read. It was liberating. I realized then that I now knew the current that I could plug into in order to produce novels that would accurately reflect my own philosophical and psychological points of view.
RM: And it just kind of happened?
TR: It didn't just kind of happen. I had been building up to it since I was 5 years old. It was an accumulation of things. And the psychedelic '60s had a lot to do with it.
RM: Can you speak about what you're working on now?
TR: I tried to be retired, but it turns out I don't have the talent for it. So I am writing again now. I'm writing a series of true stories from my own life. I've always tried to avoid the taint of autobiography in my work. I've generally said that I believe people write autobiographical novels because they lack the imagination to innovate an event, and a great many of the writers of memoirs are simply looking for a larger audience before which to whine about their various misfortunes.
In my work, I've always tried to avoid the excessively personal, but now I've made a 180, and I'm actually writing true stories. It's a lot more difficult than writing fiction. When you're writing fiction, you can paint yourself into a corner, no problem. You invent some suction cups, put them on the bottom of your shoes, walk up the wall and cross the street, but when you're dedicated to telling the truth, you lack that needed escape.
RM: What are some highlights so far?
TR: I have about 200 pages now, and I'm only up to age 29.
RM: Does that include any scenes in Richmond?
TR: Oh, yeah. It's proceeding more or less in a chronological order, because that's the only way I could accurately remember things, but I try not to think of it as a memoir. It's more of an anti-memoir. It has the stink of memoir about it because it does proceed more or less chronologically. I'm at the point in my life where I left Richmond and moved to Seattle, looking for a way to get to Japan. That was one of the motivations for leaving Richmond. I went to study at The Far East Institute at the University of Washington to study Japanese and Japanese culture and Buddhism. Seattle's just a lot closer to Japan than Richmond. It's been a good move, because I love the bad weather here. It's ideal for a writer. Rainy, foggy days are cozy and romantic. They have a tendency to turn you inward, very introspective. In literature as in life and love, I've always preferred the wet to the dry. Rainy, foggy days are, I think, responsible for … I think, a feminine, mystical, unappreciated climate would provide a perfect setting for my novels, but also provide inspiration and companionship.
RM: Do you think Richmond has the makings of a writers' town?
TM: I think any place does. I think the Seattle area has been beneficial for me as a writer, but I think a true writer will write anywhere. People who keep moving and looking for the ideal place to write are just avoiding sitting down and facing the terror of the blank page.
RM: You and James River Writers co-founder David Robbins (no relation) each played college basketball for a year. Who would win in a game of one-on-one?
TR: I think he'd win because he cheats. And he has big strong elbows. He would elbow me out of the way. But from the three-point line, you can put your money on me in Vegas.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.