THE NEWS that Bantam Books is about to venture into hardcover publishing with Tom Robbins' new novel, Still Life With Woodpecker, gave me a pang compounded almost equally of pleasure and pain. Pleasure because Robbins, author of the wildly popular cult novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, deserves all the care, money and attention usually lavished on lesser writers -- pain because the news reminded me of one of life's darker moments, an occurrence not untypical in the book biz.
In 1971 I was senior editor at Ballantine Books, a small, poverty-stricken but feisty mass market house that had not yet been scooped up by Random House and RCA. Every night, we editors dragged home something to read for possible reprint. One night I selected a Doubleday novel in a hideous jacket, the thinnest book on the shelf -- Another Roadside Attraction. Expecting nothing, I curled up on the sofa and began to read. Ten minutes later I was howling with joy at the zany little novel. A lot of magic-mushroom, tripped-out, rainbow-filled novels were glutting the market just then, but this was the first one I'd read that had any literary merit.
The following day, I called Doubleday and put in my bid -- $3,500. It was puny, but it was the only bid Doubleday had received. They had paid Robbins $2,500 as an advance, and their share of the paperback money would recoup their expense. As for the author, he was in such straits that his little share looked like real money. We had a deal.
Ballantine designed a great looking cover for Attraction and sent it out to cover the earth. The first printing was small, but the returns poured in. Robbins, however, was stubborn about not letting Attraction die. He kept insisting that in the northwest, where he lives and was even then a recognizable figure, there was a demand. Sure enough, there were back orders in Washington, Oregon and San Francisco, totaling about 15,000 copies.
After I pled with Ballantine's sales manager, Larry Kirschbaum, 15,000 more copies were printed to cover the orders -- then a few more, and another tiny printing, all to keep up with orders. Finally, one day, Kirschbaum stuck his head into my office and said, "We're home. The Harvard Coop has just ordered 600 copies of Another Roadside Attraction." And from then on there was no looking back.
A couple of years later, I was doing the same job at another house, Warner Books. Robbins' literary agent, aware of my fierce and protective feelings for Robbins, whose name was beginning to be known, brought me the manuscript of Tom's new book, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, swearing me to secrecy. Unhappy with Doubleday, she would be seeking a deal elsewhere. When the time came to bid, I could make an offer for Warner. I called this agent every other week. "Now?" "Not yet, you'll be the first to know.
One day my phone rang. It was Robbins' agent telling me that Bantam had paid $50,000 for Cowgirls, and that Ted Solataroff was the perfect editor for Tom. Broken-hearted, I set down the telephone. Warner had prepared an opening bid of $75,000, and I'd never been given the chance to make it.
Houghton Mifflin bought the hard cover rights from Bantam and published Cowgirls in cloth and trade paper simultaneously, and together with Bantam's mass market edition, the novel is well on its way to its second million copies. It has established Robbins' place in contemporary literature. Now, Bantam plans to do the entire job itself with Still Life with Woodpecker, to be published in September as its first hardcover book ever. They will bring out a simultaneous trade paperback edition, and a mass market edition about a year later.
When I talked to Tom, I asked him to describe Still Life with Woodpecker. He says that although it's a more accessible and more traditionally structured novel, it's as impossible to describe as the first two. One of the main characters is a pack of Camels, and a focus of the novel is the conflict between social activism and individual romanticism, and the problem of love right now in the last quarter of the 20th century.
How has life changed for Robbins since the old days when his share of $3,000 meant food on the table?
He lives only 13 miles from where he used to, in an old farmhouse with a couple of acres in the rainiest part of the U.S. He's still driving the convertible that has 186,000 miles on it, and he calls it "a miracle on wheels."
"And now, when I take a trip, I don't hitchhike; I fly. Money in the bank gives me a kind of Buddhistic calm," he admits, "but I was born secure. I had a wonderful time before I ever made any money, and I'm still having a wonderful time. Ironically I write about making magic in your life, and leading a life of enchantment, but when I'm writing, I don't have time for either one. Now I'm doing both. I'm practicing Chi Kung, the most ancient of all Chinese martial arts and spending a lot of time with my son, and I'm turning every little moment -- from soaking in the bathtub to eating breakfast -- into magic."