An Interview with Tim Sandlin
Call it a comeback tour: American author, humorist, screenwriter, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming’s most famous dishwasher, the warmly funny Tim Sandlin, has returned from his screenwriting exile with a one-two punch of brand new novels exploring the comedy and tragedy of the human condition.
His latest book is a barbed take on the Baby Boomer generation and a huge lesson in how not to grow old gracefully. Set in a northern California assisted living facility called Mission Pescadero, Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty catches up with a band of reluctantly joined hippies who are facing 2023 and their looming “prime of life” with what could most kindly be called a good healthy dose of immaturity. Our hero, Guy Fontaine, and his anarchic, misfit friends declare open warfare on the staff in a blaze of lunacy that makes Randle Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look like the picture of mental health. It’s both a return to form and a new bend for Sandlin, whose road to literary fame has been an adventure of its own.
Sandlin, who cooked in the Lame Duck Chinese Restaurant in Jackson Hole at night as he scribbled during the day, first to cultish fame in the 1980’s with a pair of strangely compelling and quirky novels. Sex and Sunsets and Western Swing are both set in the wilds of the American west and star a pair of neurotic cowboys with relationship issues that aren’t dissimilar to their creator.
Sex and Sunsets captured a week in the life of Kelly Palamino, a dishwasher in Jackson Hole who hears voices in running water and falls madly in love with a young bride named Colette Hart -- on her wedding day -- and pursues her with romantic abandon through thick and thin. Its follow-up, Western Swing, is more haphazardly funny but also perhaps Sandlin’s most heartwarming work. Its protagonist Loren Paul, a middle-aged writer, is going quietly mad on a mountaintop in western Wyoming, waiting for some answers from God about the loss of his son Buggie. Simultaneously, his new paramour Lana Sue has had it with Loren’s nonsense, leading to a stretch of hell-raising and bad choices -- including one memorably bawdy incident on horseback, no less.
The pinnacle of Sandlin’s work, though, remains his GroVont trilogy, comprised of Skipped Parts, Sorrow Floats and Social Blunders – so far. Skipped Parts, which was adapted as a film with Mischa Barton, Brad Renfro, and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2000, captures the decidedly unromantic liaison between Sam Callahan, a southern boy abruptly uprooted from his North Carolina home and deposited in GroVont, Wyoming, and Maurey Pierce, a steely-eyed 13-year-old who turns up pregnant -- not the most popular choice among the townsfolk of small-town America in 1963.
A decade later, Sorrow Floats, its title borrowed from John Irving, finds Maurey a woman with too many children, a lot of time on her hands, a hell of a lot of Jack Daniels and only the soothing voice of Paul Harvey for company. Her plight turns into a quest for salvation when two AA troublemakers take her in for a road trip bootlegging Coors across the country. Finally, Social Blunders finds Sam Callahan growing up in public as he copes with looming middle age, his wonderfully lunatic mother Lydia, and the burgeoning womanhood of Shannon, his daughter with long-sober Maurey Pierce.
As the new century began, Sandlin had critical success, a couple of movies underway, praise from such diverse voices as Drew Barrymore and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and his very own hideaway in the wilds of Wyoming. He also found time to help organize and participate in the famous Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference, a gathering of authors and hopeful writers that has attracted such luminaries as Annie Proulx, Christopher Moore, Bill Fitzhugh, John Nichols, and Tony Hillerman to talk about novels and other acts of creation.
Then something terrible happened. Tim Sandlin found success at last. He managed to sell a screenplay adaptation of Sorrow Floats (made for cable TV in 1998 by director John Badham), and contributed the screenplay to a mostly faithful adaptation of Skipped Parts in 2000 at the encouragement of friend and fan Drew Barrymore. The money was decent, the offers poured in, and Sandlin started writing scripts -- a dozen in all -- with subjects ranging from infamous wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner to Ron Popeil, the “Veg-O-Matic” guy and father of the infomercial. Some are flat-out funny and some have the potential to be left-field contenders but so far, they haven’t seen the light of day. And Sandlin came back to writing old-fashioned novels.
Sandlin made his own slight return in 2004 with Honey Don’t (title cribbed from an old Carl Perkins song), an ensemble satire that aimed to blow the top of Washington with an unrefined tale of mob goons, oversexed cheerleaders, a gay football star and the addlebrained occupants of The White House. Following the release of Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty, readers can anticipate the release of Rowdy In Paris, following the misadventures of an American cowboy lost in the wilds of Paris, France.
Tim emerged briefly from snowy Jackson Hole to answer a few questions about aging Baby Boomers, the denizens of fictional GroVont, Wyoming and the delicate art of crafting comic novels.
Let’s start with your new book, Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty. Would you give us a thumbnail sketch of what to expect?
Sex, drugs, revolution, rock and roll, grief, misery, life affirmation -- all the usual -- as experienced by aging flower children. They’re pushing it in Hollywood as Cuckoo’s Nest meets The Alamo acted out by “Grumpy Old Stoners.”
What inspired you to write about a revolt in a California nursing home, of all things?
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the '60s but it’s fairly hard to do without being trite or goofy, since those were trite and goofy times. Some guy would say something original like “Far out,” and inside a week the whole country was saying “Far out,” and inside two weeks anyone with an ounce of originality was making fun of people who said it. Setting the book in 2022 looked like a good way into the '60s and how the people who lived through that period look back on it.
I also think after fifty years of paying insurance premiums and worrying about 401(k)s, the kids of the '60s will revert. Eighty will become the new eighteen. I had a lot to say in this book and a bunch of interesting people to say it.
You’ve always taken a fairly affectionate tone towards the aged (Billy and Oly in Skipped Parts, for example) but Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty seems to run a little darker than usual -- Nick Hornby calls it the “gruesome comedy that happens to us” during aging. What’s it like to write about characters that are going down fighting, so to speak?
Besides the '60s, I was interested in how Americans treat the elderly. The belief in this country is the old should be invisible. "We respect you but please disappear." No one would ever ignore a black or gay person if the odds were good of turning into the gay black guy someday. So, why do we treat the elderly like untouchables when the goal of most of us is to become one?
There’s a nice One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tone of conspiracy, almost a shorthand among the “inmates” of Mission Pescadero. Did you have to do much research to find out about the mechanics of assisted living?
Mid-way through writing the book, my dad was diagnosed with dementia. The last 100 pages were mostly written in a nursing home, here in Jackson Hole. That’s when the book became real. I watched visitors charge in and out, seeing as little as possible, but I was there several hours a day for quite a while. It was an amazing place. The workers, the residents, even the cafeteria workers, everyone had a story. And because I’m a writer, I could ask the most embarrassing questions you can think of, stuff that would normally get you whacked with a crutch.
You were born right in the middle of the Baby Boom. How do you see your generation in light of its approach towards its Golden Age?
The boomers are not going quietly into the night. We’ve been the center of attention since we were born and we’ll damned well die that way.
I talked with Christopher Moore recently about death and comedy and it seems to me that aging is another facet of life that’s just as personal yet universal. How do you approach a subject like this one and dig up the humor in it?
Flannery O’Connor said for humor to be any good, it has to be about life and death. The stakes must be just as high in comedy as tragedy. My amazing parents raised me to see the farcical side of every problem, from divorce to death to dementia. The alternative to comedy is despair, and despair is for weenies. So, beneath the wheelchair pratfalls and catheter cut-ups, my book says something that needs to be said. This story matters to me.
You’ve lived much of your life in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and it informs a great deal of your work, not least the GroVont Trilogy. What persuaded you to set Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty in California?
The mountains west of the interstate corridor there south of San Francisco are a hotbed of aging freaks. It’s where the original Merry Pranksters settled, where the Haight Ashbury kids who made it big in the middle years went to retire. It only made sense to set a continuing care facility full of former free spirits in Half Moon Bay. It’s also a beautiful place to take a tax write-off research trip.
Like everything else you’ve published, your new book marries colorful characters to very communal themes. How do you strike a balance between letting the wildmen (and women) of Mission Pescadero run wild in your head, and trying to talk about the ideas that inspired them?
I saw Borat the other day. It’s a movie about racism, anti-semitism, hate mongering, and loneliness, but it’s also about fat men sitting on each other’s faces. The true humorist world-saver sneaks the real meaning of the story in under the disgusting entertainment. And don’t make any mistake, any comic who won’t admit he or she is out to make the world a better place is lying to him or herself.
You’ve tapped into your own life for your early work (Sex and Sunsets, Western Swing). Are there any autobiographical elements to Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty?
All my books are autobiographical fantasies. If I was like that, here’s how I would be. I firmly -- without sarcasm or irony -- feel Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty will be a true story someday, so, yeah, it’s based on my life. A part of my life that hasn’t happened yet.
What do you want readers to take away from their experience reading Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty?
Be nice to old people. They are real. They have a lot of creative juice and humor to offer, and even the demented ones are human beings. Just because your grandmother behaves like a plant, don’t treat her like one.
To touch on your last book, Honey Don’t, it feels like a broader form of comic novel in the manner of Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Buckley. What did you get out of writing a political satire of that scope?
Fun -- that’s what I got out of it. I cooked in a Chinese restaurant for six years, and creating the world and all the people in it is more rewarding. I wrote about politics because I could. Politicians are silly people. They should be treated with the respect, nurturing, and dignity you would give your three-year-old nieces and nephews.
We missed you while you were away writing movies. What inspired your sojourn into screenwriting?
Money. I was tired of pissing in an outhouse. That, and screenwriting can be a hoot, in a strange way. It’s a craft. The longer you do it, the better you are, as opposed to fiction, where so many people figure out how to write about the time they run out of anything to say. After I finished the third GroVont book, I had run out of personal problems to solve through fiction. If you are afraid of something -- say parking lots, or death -- try writing 100,000 words on the subject and the problem evaporates into the agony of composing sentences. I did that for five novels, ran out of much to say, and needed a break, so I went off and made money for a while. Now, I have a new set of problems so I’m back.
What did you learn from your tenure working for Hollywood?
There’s a deli in Beverly Hills where whenever a toddler comes in with its parents, they cut a bagel in half, sidewise (which is a word) and slip a string through the hole in the middle and tie the other end to the high chair, so when the kid throws the bagel it doesn’t hit the floor. After seven years of writing eleven scripts for hire, the one skill that does the me the most good in day-to-day life back here in Wyoming is the ability to create a bagel-on-a-rope. Everything else you learn out there is useless east of San Bernadino.
While you don’t formally teach writing too often, you’ve long been involved with the heralded Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference. What’s your favorite part of that event each year?
“Heralded”; I like that. I enjoy our conference a lot. Writers in the west generally don’t hang out with other writers. In Jackson Hole, there are only two or three people who are interested in the things I am interested in. So, once a year, I gather a bunch of people who care about what I care about. It’s the same reason people go to Star Trek conventions, I guess, to feel less like a moron.
I love people who express their pain and humanity through writing. I wouldn’t want to hang with those people every day, or even once a month, like East and West Coast writers do, so far as I can tell, but it’s great once a year.
What is it about the conference that draws both young and experienced authors to Jackson Hole each year?
Idealism. You don’t hear much about that anymore. People start writing for a good reason, and they continue writing for reasons that aren’t so pure. We keep it pure. And we have a remarkably high percentage of attendees who go on to publish books. I would put our batting average up against any conference or MFA program in the country.
You’ve had access to some of the most talented people in the English language during the course of the writer’s conference. What writer has most influenced your writing over the course of your career?
Tough question. I learned pacing and sentences from Larry McMurtry, dialogue from John Irving, how to think from Walker Percy. How to avoid despair from Steinbeck. So, all added together, I’d have to say John Nichols influenced me the most.
You once proclaimed a desire to write Westerns. What do you love most about the American West?
Two couples are driving into town to a dance and their truck slides into a snow bank. Who gets out and pushes? In Wyoming, it’s the three strongest. There’s none of this gender issue B.S., from either side of the agenda. The three best pushers push and the best driver steers because anything more ego-based could be death for the entire double date. I like that about the West.
And it’s beautiful. I have two cabins way up the Gros Ventre River where I used to live before I got so successful I had to move to town. I still go up there whenever I can. It’s easy to believe in the nobility of man when you don’t see any of them. I have books. There’s no one upstream to mess up my creek. You can’t get that anywhere except the top of a watershed.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Sam Callahan, Maurey Pierce, their daughter Shannon, and Sam’s indomitable mother, Lydia Callahan. I’ve heard you read little bits of a fourth book in the GroVont story over the years. What’s happening in GroVont these days?
They go on living and loving whether I’m there or not. Lydia is in prison, after poisoning President Reagan’s dog. Sam and Gilia have a home for unwed mothers at my place on the river. Maurey married Pud and raises horses and helps lost people. Same old same old. As soon as Lydia gets out of jail, I’m going back.
Skipped Parts, its critical praise notwithstanding, was controversial even back in 1991 when it was published. Could it survive being published today?
I don’t see why not. A doctor once told me there’s a rumor in the middle school that girls who have never had a period can’t get pregnant. That didn’t come up when I was in junior high where our dominant sexual fantasy was to see a girl’s bra. But now it’s causing misery and I’m hoping the kids read my book and realize the consequences of playing the wrong games.
The book that would never get published today is Sex and Sunsets. It used to be romantic to pursue the woman you love. Now, it’s stalking. What do you think would happen if The Graduate came out today? There would be fundamentalist hit squads.
I’d like to ask about a couple of your other characters, if you don’t mind. If we would sneak a look at Loren Paul and Lana Sue Goodwin from Western Swing, where would they be today?
They live outside Santa Barbara where he’s trying to rekindle his writing spirit after several successful years in movies. They appear in the GroVont IV book. It’s a sequel to Western Swing using GroVont people.
How about the visionary dishwasher Kelly Palamino and his stolen bride Colette Hart from Sex and Sunsets?
Loren Paul actually wrote that book, which means Kelly and Colette are fictional. I know that can be confusing, but me and my people get a bit clinical sometimes. One Christmas back when I was writing Western Swing, there were presents to and from seven different people under my tree, but they were all me.
What’s the secret to writing a believable teenager? Or even the affectionately flawed adults that populate your novels?
Go into a restaurant and look at the menu and know with no doubt what every character you’ve ever created would order but don’t have the slightest idea what you want. My people are real. I’m not. Take that any way you want.
I’m pleased to report that your next book is about a cowboy in Paris. Tell me a little about Rowdy in Paris, coming out in 2008.
I just turned it in this week, so I can tell you a bit, the plot anyway. Rowdy Talbot -- Pud and Dothan Talbot’s cowboy cousin -- wins a bull riding competition and to celebrate, he sleeps with a pair of French girls (autobiographical fantasy as its worst). He wakes up to discover they have stolen his championship belt buckle. He goes to Paris to get it back. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. It’s an anti-food, anti-smoking, pro-coffee novel.
We first started trading postcards after your confession in Social Blunders that most of your mail comes from convicts. These days, you have a Yahoo Group. Have you developed more of a relationship with your readers in this electronic age?
Back when it was letters, guys who had just had their hearts broken would get drunk and write me 22 pages in the middle of the night. Women would write to say, “I feel like I’m one of your characters,” and then proceed to tell me the most god-awful stories of husbands on heroin and sisters in prison. Very young women felt a compulsion to tell me how their boyfriends are in bed. “I don’t like Bubs one bit but...” and they’d go on to describe acts I would never describe in a novel.
I don’t get that kind of stuff on Yahoo or MySpace or the web page. I suppose it’s for the best, but I miss being treated like someone they trust.
You get the last word. What’s the last thing you want to say (today) to readers new and old?
Readers are more important than writers. Never take any shit off a writer. We exist because of you, not the other way around. Don’t pick up hitchhikers wearing camouflage or eat Mexican food on a strong psychedelic. Don’t buy macaroni and cheese cheaper than Kraft. Other than that, you guys are on your own.
Bookslut columnist and freelance writer Clayton Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more pearls of wisdom from Tim Sandlin, visit his website at www.timsandlin.com.