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Spiritual Traveler

An Interview with Tom Robbins

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Style: What made you decide to become involved with the James River Writers Festival?

Robbins: Well, my formative years were spent in Richmond. I was physically born in North Carolina but my intellectual birth was in Richmond.

Did you come of age in Richmond?

I guess I came of age in the small towns around Richmond. Warsaw primarily, but also Urbanna and Kilmarnock. The biggest impact on me in Richmond was when I came back from the Korean War. As a young GI I met artists for the first time in my life. I spent that whole month hanging out in artists’ studios with [local artists] Bill Jones and Bill Kendrick. It changed my life. They gave me my first crash course in art history, and after that I became immersed in it for newspapers and magazines. It just opened up a whole intellectual panorama for me. Not just painting and sculpture, but from there I was finally motivated to read people like James Joyce and all these books that I thought were going to be way over my head. Things just began to flower and blossom after that. So I owe that debt to Richmond.

Your work has made you a kind of icon to many people. What do you think about that?

Well, America tends to do that to people. I try not to think about it all, to tell you the truth. If you start taking your celebrity too seriously you pay with your soul. I think that the root cause of most unhappiness and certainly most depression is narcissistic ego. In fact it’s the root cause of most of the trouble in the world because nationalism and jingoism and anthropocentrism … all of those things usually lead us into wars and atrocities. All of them are just a magnified extension of the bloated ego. So what I have tried to do, and what any good spiritual traveler tries to do, is to shrink the ego. Not to dissolve it but to make it flexible and permeable. So if you start paying attention to your celebrity that has an adverse effect on you.

If you let it get to you do you think there’s a danger that it might influence your writing as well?

Oh yeah. I haven’t read a review of one of my books since 1977, and I’ve pretty much quit reading interviews as well because they make me feel so self-conscious. There’re Web sites about me on the Internet, I’ve been told, but I’ve never accessed any of them and I never will because it just makes me so self-conscious about my work. When you get self-conscious it gets difficult to write from a position of honesty and passion. But on the other hand, I do read letters that I get from readers. I get letters from people who say, “Your books have gotten me through some bleak periods in my life,” or “Your books have helped me break free of the conformity that I’ve been taught by my parents and teachers all my life,” and I’m very moved by that. And I try not to take that too seriously either, but it does give me some justification to how I spend my lonely days writing. — Francis W. Decker

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