JACKSON — As his latest novel, “Lydia,” was being shipped to bookstores this spring, Tim Sandlin sent a mysterious crate to the sales staff at Sourcebooks in Illinois.
“It contained liquor bottles — many bottles — of Koltiska,” a spirit made in Sheridan, said Todd Stocke, Sandlin’s editor and vice president of Sourcebooks. “Tim wrote in a note: One of my writer friends said that if you want the sales department to get worked up about a book, you have to bribe them with liquor.”
The antic won’t surprise fans of Sandlin’s novels, which are steeped in humor, occupied by eccentric characters, and follow absurd plots twists. The Jackson Hole writer, who has penned nine novels, 11 screenplays, and a book of humorous essays capitalizes on comedy, even as he probes somber topics like alcoholism, suicide, and aging. He’s been compared to Tom Robbins (“Still Life with Woodpecker,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”) and Carl Hiaasen (“Tourist Season,” “Strip Tease”).
Sandlin’s plots tend toward the outlandish. In “Honey Don’t” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003), which might be his zaniest work, a wannabe gangster accidentally kills the president, after catching him with his girlfriend, and hides the body in the freezer of a gay Washington Redskins football player. In “Rowdy in Paris” (Riverhead Books, 2007), a Wyoming bull-riding champion chases two French women to Paris after they steal his championship belt buckle following a one-night tryst.
“When you think American master of absurdist humor with acute observations about contemporary society, characters to fall in love with, and lines you’ll be quoting to your friend, the first name to spring to mind should be ‘Tim’ (Sandlin), not ‘Tom’ (Robbins),” said Sarah Bird, Austin, Texas, novelist and a friend of Sandlin’s.
Some critics fault Sandlin for traipsing too far into the absurd.
“Sandlin doesn’t specialize in subtlety,” Mike Peed wrote in an April New York Times book review of Lydia, which is about a woman, recently released from jail for mailing the President’s dog a poison chew-toy. “In large part, he relates his story via megaphone, with loud plot turns and louder wisecracks.”
But, Peed added: “Although the novel masquerades as jeremiad, it’s ultimately uplifting, adroitly chronicling the ways we seek to transcend our fears.”
‘A little clinical’
In person, Sandlin, 60, is almost as colorful and droll as his characters.
I meet him at Pearl Street Bagels, the small downtown coffee shop popular with locals in Jackson. Sandlin has written parts of his novels here and acknowledges the staff in “Honey Don’t.” (“I thank the owners, Les and Maggie Gibson, for their tolerance, and to the employees who think they are the model for ‘Honey,’ I lied.”)
Sandlin is easy to spot. His distinctive white curly hair falls to his shoulders. He wears large-lens glasses, and dresses Jackson Hole casual — jeans, hiking shoes, a Simms sports top. At rest, his face bears a slight scowl, as if skepticism is its natural expression.
Some coffee drinkers glance sideways at him as we sit down at a small table to talk, probably recognizing the local celebrity. His books are on display in the window of Valley Bookstore, an independent Jackson bookseller. He has lived and worked in Jackson for more than three decades.
It’s hard not to laugh while talking with Sandlin. He peppers the conversation with quips and funny confessions.
When describing how he immerses himself in his “fictional world” — he placed gifts for characters in a novel he was working on under his Christmas tree one solitary holiday — he said: “I spent a lot of time alone, in my 20s, 30s, with just my characters, and it got a little clinical at times. They were a lot more real than what was real.”
“You go to a restaurant, you figure out what your characters would order before you know what you want. Maurey [a character in four Sandlin novels] kept a journal for a long time before ‘Sorrow Floats.’ I never could keep a journal myself, but my characters could.”
Sandlin knew at an early age he wanted to write. At age 9, he published a poem about a tree in a children’s magazine.
Sandlin jokes that while he wrote almost every day after that, it took him 28 years to publish again. “Sex and Sunsets” (Henry Holt & Co.) — about a dishwasher in Jackson who falls madly in love with a young bride on her wedding day (to someone else) — was published in 1987 when Sandlin was 37.
Sandlin grew up in the flatlands of southern Oklahoma in Duncan, and still retains a southern twang.
He began spending summers as a teenager with his family in Jackson Hole when his father Hoyt, a school teacher, took a summer job as a surveyor for Grand Teton National Park.
“We lived in a trailer in the Park,” he recalls. “Every Thursday, we drove to the library in Jackson. We could check out four books. I read four books each week.”
Sandlin got his B.A. from the University of Oklahoma, where he studied “professional writing.”
“There were no creative writing classes. One day the professor had us write a mock article for Boy’s Life, next week for Redbook, et cetera.”
Elk skinner, dishwasher
He promptly moved to Jackson in the early 1970s to write novels. Making ends meet, however, was tough in the tourist town. Sandlin became a master of entry-level jobs. He rattles off an astounding array of the many jobs he held before publishing: elk skinner, dishwasher, gardener for the Rockefeller family, pizza restaurant manager, Chinese restaurant cook, ice cream truck driver, trail surveyor.
“When one of the jobs started looking like a career, I would quit,” he said. “I would write most of the day, work a job, and then go to the Cowboy Bar and dance. Do it again.”
All the while, he sent out query letters to publishers.
“I would send out 100 query letters, get 60 or 70 rejections and the rest wouldn’t even answer. And I’d write another book.”
He never faltered. “If you’re a writer, you just write. I was drinking a lot, so I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think, ‘Am I wasting my time? What am I doing?’ I just did it.”
Times were tight enough that Sandlin lived for years during the summer months in a tent and later a homemade teepee on national forest land. He relied on food stamps. He keeps his food stamps card in a nightstand drawer to remind himself of leaner times.
“I always figured I’d either be a writer or a dishwasher,” said Sandlin. Today, he lives in a house in Jackson and keeps two cabins in the Gros Ventre Wilderness for getaways.
In the mid 1980s — “tired of the whole dishwashing thing, living outdoors, bad relationships” — Sandlin mixed things up by going to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to get a masters of fine arts in writing.
“I was leaving a relationship,” he said. “I thought it would be a good idea. I was kind of isolated up here.”
He doesn’t think he picked up much on the writing craft in Greensboro, though he names a poetry class by Fred Chappell as an exception. Yet he said that being treated as a writer and having undisturbed time to write were critical.
He wrote three novels there, including “Sex and Sunsets” and “Western Swing” (Henry Holt, 1988). “Western Swing” revolves around a middle-aged writer who is slowly going mad, waiting to hear from God about the loss of his young son. The third book was never published.
Sandlin returned to Wyoming, and success followed. “Sex and Sunsets” was picked up by Flip Brophy, a literary agent with Sterling Lord, and sold to Henry Holt.
“I love every book,” said Brophy, who remains Sandlin’s agent today.
A city girl, Brophy recounts a memorable stay in Sandlin’s cabin in the Gros Ventre Wilderness. The rustic cabin has no running water.
“Camping for me is a Holiday Inn,” she said. “I expected to go out to the outhouse, see a black bear, and then no one would see me ever again.”
Brophy said she believes in Sandlin’s work because of the “quirky characters, sense of humor, and great story telling.”
Fictional ‘GroVont, Wyo.’
Sandlin is best known for his “GroVont trilogy” — although with “Lydia,” the linked novels now number four. Sandlin calls them his “four-book trilogy.”
The novels are set in fictional GroVont, Wyo., a small town outside Jackson in the shadow of the Tetons. Besides “Lydia,” the novels include “Skipped Parts” (Henry Holt, 1991) “Sorrow Floats” (H.H., 1992), and “Social Blunders” (H.H., 1995), each set in 10-year intervals, starting in 1963.
They feature the Callahan family: Sam, who is 13 in “Skipped Parts,” and his dysfunctional mother, Lydia (who says she conceives Sam after a gang rape), as well as a cast of supporting characters, including Maurey, also 13 in the first book. Maurey becomes the narrator and central character, struggling with depression and alcoholism, in “Sorrow Floats.”
The books are at times hilarious, like when Sandlin nails the personality tic of a character, “who looks like Khrushchev in overalls.”
The man spit, ‘Don’t talk down to me, son. My granddad homesteaded this valley, and if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be living here so free and easy.’
Yet, without being maudlin, Sandlin hits deep notes. When Sam Callahan touches his newborn daughter for the first time, he describes:
She was as soft as a bubble gum bubble and, I imagined, as delicate. I had created this. The whole deal was so neat I started hyperventilating and had to stand up.
The books have a dedicated following. Todd Stocke, Sandlin’s editor at Sourcebooks was a fan before he gained Sandlin as an author-client with the book Lydia. He actually created a Yahoo e-mail account: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A little weird, a little fan boy,” he admits.
Other fans include actress Drew Barrymore, who phoned Sandlin after reading his books and struck up a friendship. The rock band Sonic Youth penned lyrics inspired by his prose.
Sandlin and his wife unlisted their phone number when a few too many ardent fans called late at night.
“While Tim was out of town, early into our relationship, a girl called at 2 a.m., very drunk, demanding to talk to him and accusing him of being an alien,” said Carol Chesney, Sandlin’s wife.
Eventually, Hollywood got wind of Sandlin’s talents. Both “Skipped Parts” and “Sorrow Floats” have been made into movies. “Skipped Parts” (Trimark Pictures, 2001) stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mischa Barton, with Drew Barrymore in cameos. “Sorrow Floats” was made for cable TV (Showtime, 1998) and renamed “Floating Away.” It stars Rosanna Arquette and Paul Hogan. Sandlin wrote the screenplays for both films and sat in on both sets.
He enjoyed the experience but describes it as surreal. “There were some 150 people who had jobs because of something that I’d daydreamed. That was the neat part. Seeing all these people working — some of them made good money — and it was because one night when I couldn’t sleep I was just daydreaming about these characters.”
Why Sandlin’s novels have never broken into the mainstream perplexes his supporters.
“I don’t know why they’re not best sellers,” said Brophy, his agent.
Sandlin has garnered awards, including having his work named to the New York Times‘ most notable books list, and high-profile reviews, but he hasn’t broken through to best-seller status.
“The reviews don’t necessarily move the needle in terms of sales,” said Stocke.
For some readers, Sandlin’s material, which includes no-holds-bar sex scenes (between two experimenting 13-year-olds in “Skipped Parts,” between free-loving senior citizens in “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty”), is a turn-off. On the book-review site Goodreads.com for example, among 95 reviewers, many gush over Sandlin, but others say they’re done with him. “Sandlin is a genius,” posted Autumn about “Skipped Parts,” while Eric Thomasma concluded, “This wasn’t a story worth telling, no matter how well told.”
There’s not a lot of middle ground.
Art imitating life
Sandlin said his problems have always been fodder for his novels.
“The first five books are all about my problems,” he said. “The fact that I got five books out of me, shows you what a mess I was.”
When he “ran out of problems,” Sandlin jokes on his Web site, he turned to writing screenplays for Hollywood. In addition to his own books, he was hired— and paid well — to write nine more scripts. (None are out yet.)
“Money for screenplays is at least ten times more money than you get for a novel, but ten times less work,” said Sandlin. “And the [Screen Writers Guild] insurance was good.”
“Hollywood loved Tim,” said Bird, who was writing screenplays at the same time. “The young Masters of the Universe were endlessly enchanted by his utter genuineness, his utter lack of interest in remaking himself to please them.”
“Tim was my rock during the time we were both doing our Hollywood tours,” she said. “I always aspired to being as unfazed as he was and still cherish the advice he gave me about dealing with the operators I encountered out there. ‘Just treat them like beautiful children in a petting zoo.’ Brilliant.”
But Sandlin eventually grew weary of writing for movies.
“It’s not a real satisfying way to write,” he said, referring to being hired to flesh out a preconceived movie idea. One of the unmade films is “Stacked,” about a man who accepts a $100,000 bet to get breast implants.
Sandlin returned to writing novels about 10 years ago with “Honey Don’t.”
Greeter at Chapel of the Transfiguration
On his Web site, Sandlin proclaims: “I wrote five novels about my problems and then I ran out of problems so I wrote movies because you don’t have to have problems to write movies. After a few years of that I developed all new problems so I went back to novels and that’s where I am now.”
In truth, his life seems problem-free these days. He has been married to Chesney, 56, an accountant, for 13 years. (All of his books, since 1990, when he met his wife in the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, include dedications to her.) He and Chesney are “regulars” who volunteer as greeters at the Chapel of the Transfiguration, a log chapel near Moose. The couple adopted a daughter Leila, now 10, from China.
“Tim is a wonderful father,” said Carol. “He loves to play board games with her and loves his Daddy days.”
Around his neck, Sandlin wears a circular Jade pendant on a red thread, which he purchased in China when adopting Leila. He has worn it every day since, “like a wedding ring for a child.”
He also has a “career” — the horror — outside of his writing. He is a founder and director of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, now in its 19th year, which draws speakers and writers from across the country to a weekend in June in Jackson. Sandlin raises money, schedules guest authors, and runs the event.
“Once a year I get to talk about what I’m interested in,” he said. “I wrote for 20 years before I met anyone who had any common interests. I didn’t downhill ski. I didn’t sell real estate.”
Sandlin only drinks an occasional glass of wine these days.
So where will he find new material for his darkly comic novels?
Sandlin assures he is working on a new novel. It is not, however, “Death Before Decaf,” a book he has fabricated in press interviews.
“I always talk about it as the next book when I’m getting interviewed, but it’s really not. It’s about a guy who’s discovered a poison. If you mix decaf coffee with skim milk, you could kill people. Each time I get interviewed I add a detail or two.”
He pauses, “I may actually write that book.”
Fans need not worry: Tim Sandlin’s wry humor is intact.
CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from Tim Sandlin’s screenplay, “Stacked.”
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Previously in the WyoFile Writer’s Series: UW Professor Brad Watson nominated for fiction award
Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.