Archive | 15:27

How to Write…Novels (Feat. Tom Robbins)

22 Feb

I’ve never completed one his books, but I’m confident saying that Tom Robbins is one of my favorite writers.  I confess that I stopped half-way through Skinny Legs and All, but not because I didn’t enjoy it.  There was just  a phase I went through I never completed a book (a phase I call college.)

Now, logically, I’ve picked up with a completely different Robbins book,  Jitterbug Perfume, and am about half way done. Despite my commitment issues, I can tell you why my opinion isn’t gonna change. There’s too much about his language to love: he’s playful but tragic, polystylistic but coherent, and his stories are dense but they frickin’ move move move.

So you can’t understand how I was aghast to find out that he writes his novels one word a word at a time.

This begs a question: How in the flaming heck does he do that?  In this interview I found at, he explains exactly  how he writes. If I’m honest, I still don’t understand how he pulls it off, but I like what he has to say.  I’ve excerpted the best sections here and put a link to the entire interview at the bottom of the page if you’d like to read the whole thing.


About three and a half years is the average [time to finish book.] This book [Fierce Invalids] took 39 months. Just in the writing of it. Then there’s the editing and all that which probably adds almost another year onto it.

I set myself a goal of two pages a day. Some days I get it, some days I don’t. If I’m writing dialog I can usually get more than that because I can write dialog fairly quickly. But the descriptive passages, the philosophical passages where I’m paying even more attention to imagery and to metaphors and similes and figures of speech, that comes very slow. I write very, very slowly and I try never to leave a sentence until I think that it’s as perfect as I can make it. So I’ll just go sentence to sentence, almost word to word. Plug along.


When I begin a book I have only the vaguest sense of how the plot is going to shape itself and no sense at all how it’s going to end. You wouldn’t know that from reading this book, because the end ties in with the beginning, I think, absolutely seamlessly and smoothly.

But I have no idea. When I introduced those themes at the beginning of the book I had no idea where it was going to take me. And that’s the adventure of it, for me. That’s the fun of it. That’s what keeps me doing it every day. But in order to do that and to make it appear as if I knew everything in the beginning it demands a tremendous amount of concentration and energy. At the end of every writing day I feel like I’ve been wrestling in radioactive quicksand with Xena the Warrior Princess and her five fat uncles.


What I try to do, among other things, is to mix fantasy and spirituality, sexuality, humor and poetry in combinations that have never quite been seen before in literature. And I guess when a reader finishes one of my books — provided the reader does finish the book — I would like for him or her to be in the state that they would be in after a Fellini film or a Grateful Dead concert. Which is to say that they’ve encountered the lifeforce in a large, irrepressible and unpredictable way and as a result their sense of wonder has been awakened and all of their possibilities have been expanded.

At the same time, I don’t think that a novel is supposed to be a guide book to happiness any more than it’s supposed to be a journal of one’s personal pain and frustration, which most novels are today, unfortunately. I think the novels that are most important are those that are more on the order of those coyotes that howl on the hills outside of town. Something mysterious and wild and hypnotic.

The whole interview can be found at: