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Originally published September 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 22, 2008 at 4:27 PM

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Dropping in on the "Cowgirls" dude, Tom Robbins

Author Tom Robbins sits down for an interview on the eve of the opening of an adaptation of his novel "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" at Seattle's Book-It Theatre.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview

"Even Cowgirls Get the Blues"

Previews Tuesday-Thursday, opens Friday and runs Tuesdays-Saturdays through Oct. 12 at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$35 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

LA CONNER — Walk into the home of writer Tom Robbins, in the picturesque waterfront town of La Conner, and there's no contest what catches your eye first.

It is the two jumbo-size circus posters, on heavy-duty canvas, displayed on the living-room walls. One depicts a curvaceous bikini-clad lion tamer. Another portrays a similarly endowed snake charmer.

Should we be surprised that the best-selling hipster author adorns his abode with such Amazonian visions?

No indeed. The creator of the freewheeling, female-dominated saga "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is just being himself — which, coincidentally, fulfills reader expectations.

On the occasion of a new Book-It Repertory Theatre adaptation of "Cowgirls," Robbins graciously submitted to a rare interview in the neat, folk-art-festooned home he shares with his third wife, Alexa (a professional psychic, whom he fondly calls his "wolf-eyed love dumpling").

Robbins, garbed in sunglasses, beige suit and black T-shirt, did not at all come off as a flamboyant hippie-holdout thrill-seeker — but he does have an extremely colorful lifetime's worth of experiences to recount, and idiosyncratic views to air.

Ask why he's acquired those entertainingly lurid carny posters, and he'll tell you about his boyhood in conservative Blowing Rock, N.C., when he was captivated by two-bit, traveling circuses.

"Trucks would roll in and I'd be transported by the lights, the colors, the excitement and energy," explained Robbins, with the soft, wry voice of a courtly Southern raconteur. "Overnight, the town could change from ordinary and dull into something magical and extraordinary."

A lifetime of extraordinary

Seeking out the extraordinary is a recurring motif for Robbins, who is, sorry baby boomers, now 72, and the father of two adult sons (though he looks at least a decade younger). His extraordinary ranges from holding mayonnaise tastings to collecting strange socks to delighting in rainy weather. ("I'm the pope of precipitation," he declares.)

Then there is his bio, which reads like a mid-20th-century countercultural timeline.

"Most Americans pay lip service to the idea of freedom," Robbins declared, "but can't handle real freedom." Freedom from social and literary norms has been a kind of grail for this writer. In the 1950s, he dropped out of college, hitchhiked around the U.S., did an Air Force stint in the Far East, then hit the 1960s running.

Ah, the '60s. Robbins was, shall we say, in the eye of the storm. He hung out in Greenwich Village. He took LSD with pal Tim Leary. He came west to Seattle to work as a DJ and a journalist (he was briefly the assistant arts editor of this newspaper), and to discover his trippy writing style reviewing a Doors concert. And in 1970 he "dropped out" (sort of) by moving to rural La Conner.

In that quaint burg, Robbins keeps a low profile ("a writer needs a life of introspection") but stays busy. He now has eight novels to his credit, and a readership that extends around the globe.

A "Blues" breakthrough

Robbins' fiction career did not rev up until his mid-30s, when his first novel, "Another Roadside Attraction," was published in 1971. It was the followup several years later, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," that won him cult-celebrity status.

The fantastical quest of beautiful, intrepid Sissy Hankshaw, and her huge thumbs, still beguiles readers — if not always critics. While in the '70s the Chicago Tribune decreed it, "The best fiction, so far, to come out of the American counterculture," more recently Entertainment Weekly bashed it as "a rambling exercise in counterculture chic, held together only by the scattershot charm of Robbins' socio-mystical digressions."

Robbins, unruffled, likes to think of Sissy as a hero.

"Here's a person considered deformed, but rather than submitting to that, she exploits it," Robbins said.

"She revels in it, pushes it to a higher level. She takes something that could have wrecked her life and rides it all the way to glory."

A master hitchhiker, Sissy has a batch of crazed, racy adventures on a nomadic quest for self-realization that takes her from fashion model to dude-ranch denizen to devotee of a pagan guru whose philosophical tangents thread through the 384-page tome.

He wrote "Cowgirls," he says, while broke and "yo-yoing" between Seattle and La Conner. "I stole vegetables from the fields to eat, and worked irregular shifts as a copy editor on the Seattle P-I."

But the book's bold originality brought Robbins wealth, comparisons to such scribes as Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut and a multigenerational fan base. ("The only one that skipped it came of age in the early 1980s, in the Reagan era.")

This one's for the cowgirls

Thanks to his semi-reclusive attitude toward fame, Robbins was at first mistaken by some "Cowgirl" readers for a woman with a male nom de plume.

"I didn't set out to write a feminist novel," he said. "But I grew up with two sisters and two female cousins. And I did want to strike a blow for the cowgirl sensibility.

"When I told adults I wanted to be a cowboy or a detective or fireman, they'd say great. But they never said it to little girls back then, which was a sad thing. So I wanted to portray a group of young women living out their fantasies."

Robbins considers psychoanalysis and self-analysis bad for writers. He detests the labeling of "Cowgirl" as a hippie-dippy "period piece." And he swears he never rereads his books after they're published. ("When I'm done with them, I'm done.")

But he doesn't mind summing up his work: "Transformation, liberation and celebration are the themes of all my novels. And that is absolutely true of 'Cowgirls.' "

Adaptations? "Go for it!"

There was not much celebrating when Portland director Gus Van Sant's 1994 movie of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" came out.

Robbins voiced the film's narration. But he did not write the movie, and recalls its failure compassionately but with a characteristic note of perverse delight.

"After the film premiered in Cannes, one of the producers called me and said 'Tom, there are 200 reviews, and every one of them is bad.' My heart just soared like an eagle. ... All 200 bad? There was something so clean about it, so pure."

Robbins wasn't surprised. "I told Gus, your script's too faithful to the language in my book, which is mannered, stylized, literary. It works on the page but won't work as spoken by actors. It's going to sound stilted, unrealistic, bothersome."

Robbins offered to rewrite the dialogue, "free of charge. But Gus, bless his heart, loved the language and didn't want to change it. That was really the downfall of the film."

Despite that disappointment, Robbins said, "I'd never develop one of my novels for a film or a play, but if someone else wants to do it, my attitude is, 'Go for it!' "

He points fondly to an avant-garde staging of "Cowgirls" in Paris. "It was done by these two little French gals who I got to know, and just adore. They played all the parts, including the men. They had dance, music, little toy cars for the hitchhiking scenes. The whole thing was charming."

When Book-It Rep artistic heads Jane Jones and Myra Platt asked Robbins for the rights to do a new version, the writer found them charming, too.

"I said great, do it. But I pointed out that in the movie, Rain Phoenix played [Sissy's lover] Jellybean as a passive character, and Uma Thurman as Sissy was passive too. You can't make it exciting if you have two passive people, with no spark between them."

Tweaking the tale

Well aware of such concerns is Jennifer Sue Johnson, writer of the Book-It treatment. Johnson's husband, Russ Banham, directs the show, which features Seattle actress Kate Czajkowski as Sissy.

"I didn't watch the film of 'Cowgirls,' on purpose," said Johnson by phone. "But I first read the book in college, and I love it. The characters are so rich and funny. I've just tried to stick to Sissy's journey of self-realization in my adaptation."

That meant reorganizing the novel's time-scattered narrative "into chronological order. I wanted the story to unfold naturally, so the audience could dig into it, invest in it."

Moving on, and staying put

Robbins will attend the play's world premiere in Seattle this week. But while he's still closely identified in the public imagination with "Cowgirls," he's long since moved on.

His newest book, "B is for Beer," comes out later this year. The publisher, HarperCollins/Ecco, calls it an "hallucinogenic hymn to beer, children and the cosmic mysteries that sustain us all."

And Robbins is still sequestered, most weekdays, at his desk in La Conner, trying to turn out two fully polished pages of whatever his next project is.

"I could do what I do anyplace in the world," Robbins said as the lengthy interview ended, "but I still choose to live here. La Conner has changed a lot; it's more gentrified, more of a tourist trap.

"But it's retained some charm. I like the people. And there's still a lot of tolerance here for eccentric dress and behavior. That's important."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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