Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life
By Tom Robbins
Ecco Press, 2014
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King
One of the more memorable best man speeches I’ve witnessed included a remark that had the groom describe the beautiful, brilliant, belly-dancing writer he was marrying that day to the best man back in high school. The best man would have responded, “You’re reading too many Tom Robbins novels.” But, look, he managed to manifest her in the real world and now here they are.
There was more to the speech (of course), but that moment reminded me of the power of the literary “brand” as it were. That authors’ names become shorthand for how we discuss their styles. That interaction sent me back to Tom Robbins; he and I had parted company following his novel “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.” But I love his early work, so when “Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life,” Robbins’ “un-memoir,” crossed my path, I tried to resurrect our relationship.
When we meet someone in their 30s or 50s, it can be hard to remember they have been through (hopefully) many iterations of themselves on the road to becoming the person we now know. Artists, perhaps, mine those experiences with more precision than other people turning life on its head—to be the creative work that resonates with other people (sometimes as a celebration, sometimes as a cautionary tale). So with Robbins’ memoir, it is surprising to realize the tantric, celebratory, multi-dimensional, irreverent, iconoclastic, creative shaman—who has captured the imaginations of readers since the release of his first novel, “Another Roadside Attraction,” published in 1971—started life as a poor hillbilly in western North Carolina.
It is a fascinating book for many reasons. To begin with, Robbins’ experiences of Blowing Rock during the Depression are a startling record of an area that has transformed far from the past association—at least within the town proper. But its current life as a small town that plays host as a tourist resort is something he saw the infancy of. Perhaps one the most telling recollections he shares is the realization that in May the remote, impoverished Appalachian village he lived in turned into a playground for the wealthy. They now have an import of foods the locals had never heard of, nor could afford (avocados, for example), fancy cars, a first run movie theatre and money flowing in at an unbelievable rate. Then, abruptly after Labor Day, all of it would evaporate almost overnight, and the locals would be left to their hard-scrabble lives, just getting through the harsh mountain winters. Is it any wonder transformation is a major theme in his work, he asked?
Of course, in the land of modern-writer memoirs, few are as well known as Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” It is no surprise when studying King’s lifetime output (he and Joyce Carol Oates just cause me endless feelings of inadequacy over the amount of work they produce) that writing is his through-line. Both he and Robbins recount early stories they wrote and early fascinations with storytelling in myriad forms. But where King talks almost constantly about writing—the experiences that directly impact his writing and references the sources of inspiration for certain characters or locations—Robbins brings his readers along on his crazy journey and all of his hijinks.
It is really the last third of the book that he gets serious talking about writing, and his books. Unlike King, who sold “Carrie” (1973) when he was 26—and launched him to international stardom and a very comfortable life financially allowing him to focus on writing and his family—Robbins was in his 40s before he found success as a novelist. He worked as a newspaper and magazine writer for many years, honing his craft and even more importantly experiencing life. If you never go out and do anything, you don’t have anything to write about. There can only be so many coming-of-age novels about suffering heart break for the first time.
If anything Robbins’ books are filled with an unlimited sense of adventure, not just in the physical world we recognize, but with Gods and monsters frolicking in the world we all are on a quest for love and ecstatic joy. It is no surprise Robbins spends considerably more time describing things—like his obsession with visual art, his various marriages, lovers, children, cross-country moves, and the moment he was introduced to LSD. The moment that resonated with me most was his discussion of realizing he was in his early 30s, working as an art, theatre and film critic—meaning he spent a lot of time writing about the creative work other people did—but really enjoying the cosmic excitement that comes from the great moment of creation himself. (A little close to home.)
If anything, Robbins’ book will show readers how to translate a life filled with adventure and curiosity into a story that others can relate to and find their own inspiration within. King’s work, however, will show consistent hard work is the most important ingredient in any endeavor. They couldn’t be more different in their approach to life: Robbins is multiply married; King is still married to his college sweetheart, Tabitha. But they do share a great affection for the power of the written word to create the life each of them has loved. They both worship and adore that power, and have learned to bend and shape it to create worlds that will outlive them both.
Write the story you have to write when you wake up in the morning—that’s the one you need. Perhaps the greatest story we write is the creation of our own lives. Or as Stephen King puts it, “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”