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The Best From High Country Magazine TOM ROBBINS: An Imaginative Life

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By Melanie Bullard (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, August 2014)

Tom Robbins _ Please Credit Jeff Corwin

There is a saying oft applied to the High Country; ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change.’ The same can be said of the resident population, especially in the summer. When the temperature swelters off the mountain caravans arrive carrying heat-weary flatlanders in need of a respite from the fevered and hectic worlds they endure. That influx transforms drowsy Blowing Rock, NC, with an official population of just under 1,200, into a lively, bustling village that can swell to more than 8,000 in any given summer weekend. It’s been this way since the 19th century.

While many have witnessed the transformation over the past 140 years, few have been as inspired by the experience as Blowing Rock native, turned international best-selling author Tom Robbins who describes the annual summer scene in depression-era Blowing Rock in his new release Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life.

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“Blowing Rock was a summer resort, and a rather posh one. Lured by the area’s beauty and cool mountain air, wealthy families from throughout the Southeast maintained summer residences there…Beginning in early June, our sidewalks sported pedestrians in tennis whites and gold jewelry, our streets opened their asphalt arms to European sports cars and luxury sedans… It was an annual occurrence. Come June, the merry masquerade began; come September, Appalachian reality settled upon the community with a mournful sigh.”

Robbins witnessed this conversion as a child, and says it is no wonder that transformation became a fairly prominent theme in many of his novels, which include Another Roadside Attraction, Jitterbug Perfume, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life with Woodpecker. But just as prominent in Robbins’ psyche and storytelling élan are the mountain men and women whom he admired as a boy.

“Allowed to roam freely in both the streets and the woods, I observed and interacted not only with the wonders of nature but with an assortment of squirrel hunters, rabbit trappers, berry pickers, banjo pickers, moonshiners, tramps, real Gypsies, snake handlers, mule-back preachers (like my grandpa), eccentric characters with names such as Pink Baldwin and Junebug Tate, and perhaps most influential, bib-overalled raconteurs, many of whom spun stories as effortlessly and expertly as they spit tobacco juice.” – Tibetan Peach Pie

Tom with parents George Thomas Robbins and Katherine Robinson Robbins and twin sisters Marian and Mary Katherine. Tom is eight
LEFT: Tom and Granny Robbins RIGHT: Tom, the self-proclaimed ambulatory, articulate, jabbering baby
LEFT: Could this be one of Tom’s “Talking Sticks?” RIGHT: Tom Robbins with little sister Rena. Rena died at age 4. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery

In September 2014, for the first time in more than 70 years, Tom Robbins will return home to Blowing Rock and the mountain community that so magically shaped his childhood.

The homecoming, which includes a plethora of events is the brainchild of Appalachian State University graduate, and University Library Advisory Board Chair Craig Popelars.

“During my senior year (1989) my English Department advisor, Dr. Melissa Barth, assigned me Tom Robbins’ first novel and cult classic, Another Roadside Attraction. It was no doubt the most mind-expanding work of literature I had ever read,” professes Popelars. “Here was a writer who drew outside the lines, challenged the norm, played with perspective, took great risks, and blended the sublime with the subversive, the cosmic with the comic.”

In other words, it was transformational. Popelars is one of millions who have been captivated and somehow changed by Tom Robbins’ exceptional talent and mastery. As North Carolina poet laureate Joseph Bathanti observes, even if you’ve never read Robbins, you probably have been influenced by him.

“Tom Robbins is one of those fantastic storytellers who comes along during a key time in the culture, opens doors previously invisible, and gives permission to other writers to try new things while evangelizing not only an entire generation of readers, but bringing his influence to bear even on those who don’t know his work.”

Julie Townsend, a huge Robbins fan and English instructor at Appalachian was one of the first people in the nation to write her Master’s Thesis on Robbins’ work.  As she puts it, his novels are so striking, once you read one, you never forget.

“His characters are the caricatures in and of our lives:  we know them and sometimes we are them.  His characterizations, plots, and the dialogues morph into what we’ve always wanted to say but never had the guts to and probably never will.”

Robbins’ eclectic perspective and challenge of convention was so cutting-edge fifty years ago, he and his novels were not always ingratiating to those of a religious persuasion. This may have included his maternal and paternal grandfathers, both of whom were North Carolina Baptist preachers. When asked if his unconventional and adventurous life and its work led to handwringing and praying, Robbins responded.

“Undoubtedly, but most of it occurred in private when I wasn’t physically present. And though they would have denied it, there may be a certain element of concealed admiration.”

craig with 20 years books flip
Appalachian State alumnus and University Library Advisory Board chair Craig Popelars convinced Tom Robbins that he can go home again. Popelars befriended Robbins after reading his work while a student. He also wound up as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Algonquin Books.

Today, those who aspire to a Robbinsesque life of transformation, liberation and celebration, are considered hipsters. When Robbins embraced the trend, he was considered a counter-culture figure and writer. It is a label Robbins recently told NPR he does not necessarily embrace.

“Establishment critics, to this day, write me off as a counter-culture writer, even though of my nine novels, the last six have had nothing to do with counter-culture things. And I wouldn’t have missed the ‘60s for a billion dollars — but neither I nor my life’s work can be defined by counter-culture sensibilities. They’re inserting this image of me as a counter-culture figure in between their eyes and the page. Though, to be fair, I stopped reading reviews of my books in 1977.”

Fans have not stopped reading Robbins books or clamoring for a moment in his presence. Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list upon its release earlier this summer, and his tour was a sellout in five cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and his current home, Seattle. Robbins says Tibetan Peach Pie “waddles and quacks enough like a memoir to be mistaken for one if the light isn’t right,” but he prefers to call the book more precisely “a sustained narrative composed of the absolutely true stories I’ve been telling the women in my life, and which at their insistence I’ve finally written down.”

It is all the more reason Popelars, who became friends with Robbins and embarked on a career in publishing, has convinced the prodigal son, who celebrated his 82nd birthday in July to return home.

“It is time to embrace this Watauga County, home-grown literary hero, Popelars proclaims. “Tom is one of the most important and influential American writers of the last fifty years. He’s given readers a litany of entertaining and wildly imaginative literary gifts. I think that a celebratory homecoming of an iconic and important writer born and raised in the High Country is long overdue.”

As Robbins turned 82 on July 22, 2014 Appalachian State University Libraries celebrated with a “novel” idea for the cake. “… Language is not the frosting, it’s the cake”- Tom Robbins. Photo by Jon Morris

Robbins is finally ready to make the 3,000 mile journey from Washington State.

“In general, life in the South proceeds more leisurely than in the rest of the land, and that very languor may help keep imagination alive there. In a fast-paced, competitive environment where there is little time for daydreams, reflection, or language for language’s sake, human imagination cannot thrive. In Blowing Rock, I look forward to the “purple mountains’ majesty” – and the enchantment of cascading personal nostalgia.”

Part of Robbins’ walk down memory lane will no doubt include rediscovering his family home, on what was First Street. In Tibetan Peach Pie, he writes of the beginnings of his storytelling calling, and how he would wander for hours about the yard with a stick, making up and beating out the rhythmic tales on the ground as he went. As he grew, he left the sticks, and North Carolina behind for Virginia and eventually the west coast. While all of Robbins residences have been fodder for his literary genius, it is perhaps Blowing Rock most of all, and one place in particular that ignited his free spirit and self-proclaimed childhood appetite for enchantment.

“On our way to the Rock or one or another of our various woodland hideouts, my buddies and I frequently passed The Bark, and we tended to pause there for long minutes and stare at the place, as if it were an evil castle where a great treasure was stored. Once in a while we’d see gentlemen emerge (after, we knew, a bout of drinking and dancing inside); we’d see some tattooed fellow with a cigar in his teeth, and with what the Sunday school crowd called a ‘floozy’ on his arm; watch the couple straddle a big Harley-Davidson and go roaring out of the red clay parking lot, enveloped in an oxygen of freedom about whose perils and rewards we could scarcely guess. At those moments, all I wanted was to quickly become old enough to drink beer, dance, get tattooed, smoke cigars, ride motorcycles, and have a floozy of my own on my arm.

Eventually I was to accomplish all of those things – and they proved in no way a disappointment. Who said The Bark was worse than its bite?” – Tibetan Peach Pie

As another Blowing Rock summer melts into autumn the man who was a malleable little boy the last time he walked the village streets will once again stand and marvel at the transformation to his hometown.

Let the Celebration Begin

As part of his homecoming, Robbins will deliver a rare southern reading at Appalachian State University. The event, scheduled for September 11, 2014, at 7:00 p.m. will be held in the Rosen Concert Hall, an intimate venue. Tickets are free, but must be reserved. They will be available beginning August 20, 2014 at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts box office, or by calling 828-262-4046.

A Welcome Home Cocktail Reception at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum (BRAHM) is set for Wednesday, September 10, 2014 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets for the event are $75 and can be purchased online. These will include an autographed copy of Tibetan Peach Pie and preferred seating at the September 11 event. Proceeds will benefit the University Libraries student employee scholarships.

Belk Library and Information Commons on Appalachian State University’s campus will show the film adaptation of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues on Tuesday, September 9, 2014 at 10:00 p.m. There will be free popcorn and the first three people through the door will get a copy of Tibetan Peach Pie.

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