ALONG THE GROS VENTRE RIVER, Wyo.- It could have been a scene conceived from a Tim Sandlin novel. But it wasn’t. In this instance, fact loomed weirder than fiction.
Sandlin, who has a growing cult following as the master of “grunge writing,” was sitting in his Wyoming outhouse reading Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” when Drew Barrymore called on her cell phone from L.A.
“Hi, Tim,” the young actress said. “It’s Drew.”
“Hiya, Drew, it’s Tim,” Sandlin replied on his cell phone. “Where are you anyway?”
“I am driving down the Santa Monica Freeway,” Barrymore said. “Where are you?”
Sandlin was, in a manner of speaking, catching up on his summer reading. Ever the consummate connoisseur of fine literature, it is his habit to keep a think literary tome in the restroom for inspirational sessions when the juices stop flowing. Two summers ago it was “Madame Bovary” perched on the loo and the year before “Anna Karenina”.
Since the woodsy latrine has no door for privacy’s sake, a visitor is presented with the choice of flipping through great fiction or diverting ones attention to the banter of carousing heifers on the open range nearby, and the rush of the Gros Ventre River as it surges from the mountains beneath a wall of crimson cliffs towards Jackson Hole.
Judging from the volume of names on the outhouse guest log, it is apparent that more than a few travelers have ruminated from this spot upon the surrounding that inspired Sandlin to create the Western fictional town of GroVont. Even John Nichols, who wrote the “Milagro Beanfield War,” stopped by recently and declared afterward in an indignant but jealous tone: “Any writer who has such a beautiful place to construct words should be out up against a wall and shot.”
If it is any consolation to Nichols, Sandlin says he actually accomplishes a scant amount of novel writing during the summer while he finishes screenplays and works as a caretaker for a prominent ranch family, minding the pair of rustic cabins where he lives and shooing off trespassers, albeit with kind dissuasion.
The majority of his prose spills out during the dark, brooding months of a Northern Rockies winter. Residing in Jackson during the five-month ski season is no temptation since Sandlin doesn’t downhill. Instead, his mind wanders around GroVont.
One could suppose that GroVont represents to Sandlin what the mythical burg of Lake Wobegon is for satirist Garrison Keillor. Behind the humor, however, is the stark truth. And unlike the natural panorama enveloping Sandlin senses, his fictional town can be brutal to gaze at for very long.
Sandlin’s prose, which has gained in strength and voice with each subsequent work, could be described as a potent cocktail mixture of Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins and David Lynch topped off with a western twist.
But be forewarned: These are not books for the weak of heart nor as they tales that will ever make the Christian Coalition’s suggested reading list. Sandlin has set out with a conscious intent to make his readers squirm; he forces them to confront the underside of small communities that are often avoided; he injects raucous humor to dissolve the tension.
Nichols, whose editor at Henry Holt and Co. is the same person- Marianne Wood- who handles Sandlin’s manuscripts, says he recognized early a vibrancy that could not be ignored. And one that has one raves among the crowd for whom Raving is a custom.
“He’s so off the wall that people probably think he’s almost carnival vampire at times and yet he is very compassionate and caring underneath,” Nichols said. “Tim’s last book, ‘Social Blunders,’ had an extraordinary control and professionalism. It had to in order to pull off such a difficult subject matter in such a touching way. It’s not an easy thing to write about being the child of a mother who was brutalized.”
Nothing is sacred or off limits in Sandlin’s world: Sex, teen pregnancy, incest, alcoholism or any taboo is rendered threadbare like the exposed root of a wisdom tooth. Indeed, if all his books were made into movies, as is the current direction for half of them, they would carry an R rating for adult material.
I’m very taken with his work,” said professor Fred Chappell, a creative writing instructor at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro where Sandlin earned his maters of fine arts degree. “His fiction is bright– brash, in fact – and funny with a real edge of sadness to it. He’s one of the most interesting moralists I have read in quite some time.”
Chapell says it is important to note that Sandlin’s characters never surrender to the bleakness of their lives, which gives them a modern heroic quality that cannot be achieved through Prozac. “They suffer from depression and feelings of low self-esteem. They are people, like many of us, who have been damaged in our sense of worthiness,” he explains, “The reason I say depression and not despair is because despair implies a loss of hope in the future. Tim is an optimist, and his work is finely comic in that sense. After all the trails his characters confront, he leads them to beneficent ending.” With five novels to his credit and demand for his screenwriting abilities surging in Hollywood, Sandlin, 46, can hardly believe his good fortune of late. Still, in a community where financial esteem is expressed in Humvees and Range Rovers, he drives a Volkswagen Jetta.
Sandlin earnestly distrusts the whole idea of fame and shies from it like an agnostic being solicited by a door-to-door missionary. He knows how it feels when the bottom falls out. After all, it was not so many years ago that the author counted himself among Jackson Hole’s homeless.
Clinging to the image of a starving artist, he adds, isn’t half as romantic as it is purported to be. “I always carry my food stamp card with me in case I start feeling like hot stuff,” he said. “I turned 35 living in a tent over on Crystal Creek. And for a long time I had no car or phone. Those were the days when I worked as a gardener for the Rockefellers and washed dishes in restaurants at night.”
Sandlin’s struggle to get published mirrors the sagas of his own protagonist. Over the span of two decades in Jackson Hole he held 40 entry level jobs, from elk skinner to pizza parlor manager, and shirked the temptation to find permanent employment because he figured it would sidetrack him from getting his stories on paper.
Denver Post Article
September 15, 1996
By Todd Wilkinson
A product of Duncan, Okla., Sandlin talks with a slight Southern twang, although he’s lived in Jackson Hole for three decades. His father, a school teacher moonlighted for the National Park Service and in 1960 he brought his family to the Tetons, where Sandlin spent each of the past 36 summers.
Sandlin says he got his first taste of literary fame at age 9 when the children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a poem about trees. It took him more than a quarter of a century before his name would appear in on the cover of a book. During college at University of Oklahoma he majored in “professional writing” that wasn’t exactly geared towards high-brow fiction.
“On Mondays the teacher would appear before the class and hold up a copy of Boy’s Life, and by Friday we would have to turn in a story for Boy’s Life,” he says. “The following Monday, the teacher would hold up Redbook and so it went, so on and so forth.”
The moment after Sandlin graduated, he bee lined for Wyoming and staked out what he know considers a fairly ridged stance on how to become a novelist. His fast-track strategy: become a dishwasher.
“Dishwashing is a good job for daydreaming,” he pointed out. “It’s great work for a writer because you don’t have to pay attention. You can sit back there and have all these conversations going all night in your brain and then go home and type them up; good dishwashers are usually below the job or above it. You can either have an IQ of 80 so it’s a challenge or are fairly smart so that you don’t care where you are. It’s the people in the middle range of the intelligence scale who get bored to death.”
One by one of Sandlin’s colleagues and aspiring partners in the literature left the fraternal order of dishwashing for better prospects. They turned to stock brokering and raked in big bucks; they allowed themselves to get promoted into restaurant management; or they became ski bums and cared about nothing more than the depth of the powder. Sandlin stuck to his china.
“I just saw too many people who said, ‘I’m going to do this for 10 years then write a novel when I’ve got enough money,’ but none of them ever wrote the novel,” he said. “I was afraid I would stop writing if I wasn’t feeling desperate so I stayed desperate on purpose. I was either going to be 65 and a novelist or 65 and a dishwasher. I look back on it now and realize that I was pretty stupid. I could have easily been 65 and cleaning plates.”
In the late 1970’s, Sandlin’s personal trials commenced in earnest. He began corresponding with novelist Larry McMurtry who, while a rising star on the American literary scene still had not broken through with a best seller. Sandlin sent McMurtry a draft of what would become his first book, “Sex and Sunsets,” and McMurtry wrote back with words of encouragement, including a moral boosting recommendation to contact his own editor. “Sandlin’s a real find,” he wrote later. “He’s got his own somewhat wry voice, a good eye, and his prose has a freshness that I like.”
By then, Sandlin had already dispatched query letters to 6 dozen publishers and agents. All wrote back to say they wouldn’t read his work. When the response from McMurtry editor arrived in the mail, he was hopeful until he opened the envelope and read the reply. “McMurtry’s editor told me my book was unpublishable,” Sandlin said. “I felt bad, but it didn’t stop me from writing.”
When asked how he coped with the barrage of rejection, Sandlin replied simply: “I drank a lot back then.”
For the next five years, he continued to wash dishes, wait tables and work a variety of minimum wage jobs. He whiled away the long winters behind a typewriter and amassed enough material for four novels. Then, in 1993, a brief glimmer broke through the clouds.
That spring the movie “Terms of Endearment” based upon McMurtry’s novel won an Academy Award for best picture. Sandlin saw an opportunity to capitalize upon McMurtry’s name recognition. He stayed up late the night of the Academy Awards and fashioned a query letter that mentioned McMurtry’s endorsement of “Sex and Sunsets.” The next morning he massed mailed it to 30 publishing houses.
This time around, most editors agreed to read the work, but they sent it back with the advice that Sandlin look elsewhere. Meanwhile, Sandlin had also gone shopping for a literary agent. He found one in Ann Buchwald, the wife of newspaper columnist Art Buchwald, but on the same day they finalized their arrangement, Mrs. Buchwald had a severe heart attack and was forced to retire.
Sandlin was back at square one. Just when he resigned himself to a fate of dishwashing until he was 65, he was contacted by Art Buchwald, who steered him to the offices of venerable New York publisher Sterling Lord Literistic. Agent Phillipa Brophy agreed to represent him and she sent the draft of “Sex and Sunsets” to another 30 publishers who summarily rejected it again.
Finally, the book was sold to Henry Holt and Co. and the rest, as they say, is history. Sandlin hasn’t endured another rejection letter since, but he gets mail, some days lots of it, from adoring fans, including 70-year-old women who send pictures of their cats and surprisingly perhaps, heartbroken young men.
“I get a lot of letters from people who look at my work as if it was a self-help book,” he said. “These guys will split up with their girlfriends and write me 10-page letters at 4 in the morning. I’m sure it has something to do with alcohol, but they usually say “She left me, I’m miserable, what do I do?” They say their friends won’t listen and they have no one else to talk to so they write to me.”
Somewhere along Sandlin’s strange path, he awoke one morning and discovered that he had become a spokesman for the grunge generation – readers in their late teens, 20s and early 30s who were raised in broken homes, as latchkey kids and among America’s social underclass. Obviously intrigued by the phenomenon, Sandlin smiles and says shyly, “I was grunge before grunge happened.”
The first hint he received of his cult following with Generation X slackers was the arrival of fan letters from Seattle-based rock musicians. One group in particular, Sonic Youth, incorporated portions of Sandlin’s prose into the lyrics of its songs. Eventually, copies of his books were passed along to members of the band Hole, and Hole’s guitarist Eric Erlandson handed a copy to his actress girlfriend, Drew Barrymore.
Born into the most famous acting family in Hollywood, Barrymore confessed to Sandlin that she felt an odd connection with the dysfunctional character Maurey in “Sorrow Floats.” In the book, Maurey struggles against alcoholism and expresses the gaping tear in her soul by writing postcards to her deceased father in San Francisco. (Her father died when his horse reared and fell on top of him during a cattle drive).
“There is no one that cannot dig, relate, or get lost in his eloquent writing.” Barrymore wrote in a blurb for “Social Blunders” while she and Erlandson were in Prague. “Out of all the authors I have read, or will read, Tim Sandlin will be burned in my soul like a rainbow of emotions. Most importantly the exploration of love and hysterical laughter. I recommend him to the world. And lucky for us there is a trilogy of madness. So as the flow continues, we ride the rollercoaster of invaluable characters.”
Currently, the screenplay rights to “Sorrow Floats” are held by Paige Simpson, one of the producers of “Leaving Las Vegas,” and actor Tom Arnold is reported to be interested in bringing it to the big screen. Meanwhile, award-winning director Tamra Davis, a friend of Sandlin’s and who is also married to one of the Beastie Boys band members, owns the option on “Skipped Parts.”
Sandlin has resorted to a familiar vehicle in literature, that of the trilogy, to flush out a divergent array of social themes and interwoven protagonists. The raucous action, which swirls around the town of GroVont, Wyo., begins with “Skipped Parts,” set in the year 1963, progresses to 1973 in “Sorrow Floats” and culminates in 1983 with “Social Blunders.” A sequel is likely, he says, and would be set in 1993.
“I know what happened to the characters since the last book was written,” he said, referring to them like family members. “Lydia is getting out of jail….Maurey is...Sam is…Callahan is…” Sandlin compares the birth of a new novel to tape-recorded music. “If it comes out too fast you don’t understand it, and if it comes out too slow you can’t make sense of it either,” he said. “For me writing is a certain speed that comes out at the pace it chooses.”
Sandlin has a daily writing ritual. He sleeps in until 9, makes his rounds at the post office and coffee shop, fills his body with caffeine, then returns home and positions himself behind a legal pad. From 10 to noon, 2 to 4, and 6 to 8, he moves through advancing stages of polishing draft copy. Finally between 10 and midnight, he reluctantly turns on his computer and enters the equivalent of two pages.
“Vonnegut says you have to be depressed in the present tense to write a novel, but what’s more important for me is knowing how it feels to be depressed and then as a consequence relate to the suffering,” Sandlin said. “You don’t have to kill someone in order to write a murder mystery. You just have to know how it would feel to kill. I know writers who subject themselves to pain in order to have something to write about.”
When Sandlin is watching a movie in Jackson Hole, he often imagines what somebody three or four places ahead of him in line is thinking. He observes the facial expressions, the composure, posture and pretends to get inside the person’s head. “Suffering doesn’t have that much to do with outside elements for most people,” he added. “Depression is basically a chemical process that can’t be repaired with money. I know some of the richest screenwriters in the world are just miserable, unhappy people. What does that have to do with money and fame?”
There is a section in “Sorrow Floats” where Sandlin cuts to the core of his own marrow. “Desperate people often mark time in days and nights. If I can make it through one more day/night I’ll be OK. Which is a lie, of course. Desperate people are never OK.”
How much of his fiction is autobiographical? “I guess if you read all of my books you would think you know me,” he said. “My books are pretty personal. They are what I think about, they are the problems I deal with. Each book I deal with a different problem, and I’m sort of out of problems at the moment. To be honest it makes me a little nervous.”
Until he gets his next jolt of angst, readers will walk away knowing that Sandlin knows what he’s talking about. He’s battled the bottle, endured a couple of failed relationships and bottomed out. He’s been there, done that, and has no plans for returning to the dole, or cleaning other people’s plates.
“You know, fame is just weird,” he said. “To me it’s not about bragging or ego, but it can get really bizarre, and sometimes it'’ actually fun and enjoyable."”
For him as a writer, there is poignancy but no comic relief when he contemplates the fate of a fellow novelist, the late Richard Brautigan, a man whose work Sandlin greatly admired but who never quite handled the demands of success heaped upon him. Despite tens of thousands of loyal readers, Brautigan, alone in his world, crossed the edge into despair, not depression, and never came back.
“He killed himself at home and he wasn’t found for three months,” Sandlin said. “If you’re not careful, that’s where fame will get you”