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Being There: An Interview with Robert Stone
Tin House was saddened to learn about the death of Robert Stone, one of the giants of American fiction. A clear-eyed chronicler of our county’s disfunction and simultaneous beauty, Stone’s wisdom will be missed. Last year, Rob Spillman interviewed Stone for issue #58 of Tin House, which we are happy to share with you today.
Robert Stone has been there. And he has come out with clear-eyed dispatches from the soul of dark America. Born in 1937, raised by a schizophrenic mother in Brooklyn, with a few stops in Catholic orphanages, Stone went from high school into the navy, and after his four-year stint traveling the globe, came back to New York to work for various tabloids, from the Daily News to a National Enquirer rip-off, before sending a story to Stanford’s prestigious Stegner Program. There, he honed his craft and befriended Ken Kesey, who introduced him to the early experiments with the new research drug LSD. Married and with a young child, Stone watched the Merry Pranksters take off in Further, Kesey’s psychedelic school bus, and greeted them many months later at his Upper West Side apartment. He was in Mexico with Kerouac and Cassady, and in 1971 he went to Vietnam to write magazine pieces, which he used as the raw material for his National Book Award–winning novel, Dog Soldiers.
For his previous eight novels and two story collections, Stone has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and once for the PEN/Faulkner. His 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, vividly recounts his time in the navy and postservice life on the edges of the psychedelic and Beat scenes. His latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, taps into his many years of teaching at prestigious universities, including ten years at Yale. Death of the Black-Haired Girl takes place at a very Yale-like university, and is centered around the affair between the charismatic ex-seaman professor Brookman and his student Maud, the daughter of a Queens cop, which threatens to explode both of their families. The novel goes head-on at class and privilege, the New Haven–like town engulfed in a “terrifying atavistic cloud enfolding shame and resentment, even humiliation and murder.” Like much of Stone’s work, his characters know better than to give in to self-destructive impulses, yet still throw themselves into compromising positions, trapping themselves in webs spun by their own delusions: “What brought him to the office and the meeting with Stack was akin to every other high-risk adventure he had ever undertaken. Maybe the temptation of oblivion, or an obsessive curiosity about the ineluctability of fate. And an ancient anger he had been born with, an insatiable rage against himself, his cast of mind—a sense that he had been born out of line, raised wrong, lived deserving of some unknownable retribution that it was his duty and honor to face down, prevent, overcome.”
I caught up with Stone on an unusually pleasant August day on New York’s Upper East Side, in the modest, comfortable apartment he shares with Janice, his wife of over fifty years. Art posters line the walls, and oriental carpets dot the floors. Lately, Stone has been dividing his time between Manhattan and Massachusetts, where he is undergoing regular CPOD treatment for his chronic emphysema. Our conversation was occasionally interrupted by his shallow coughing, the only sign of his hard living during the late fifties and sixties. Otherwise, the seventy-six-year-old is sharp, measured, and gracious, with a lively twinkle in his eye.
Tin House: One of the things I most admire about your new novel is the multifaceted way it deals with class and privilege.
Robert Stone: Aspects of class and privilege persist on elite campuses and are manifest in many ways to a greater extent than most of us realize. I wonder if there isn’t a greater social and cultural division between young people at the most prestigious schools and kids in our underfunded, undemanding public system than there was fifty years ago.
TH: Both Maud and Brookman are class outsiders at the university.
TH: In the crucial scene, you have a powerfully ambiguous moment of violence. I imagine it could be seen as a Rorschach test for readers as to who is most culpable. Are you clear on what happens at that pivotal moment?
RS: I’m quite clear about what’s happening physically in the violent moments. I’m less clear about the chain of guilt and desire that brought the violence down.
TH: So you are not in the Nabokov camp of treating your characters like “galley slaves”?
RS: Well, I don’t treat them very well. But, no.
TH: You’ve said in the past: “Ambiguity is not the absence of morality. It’s just a confusion about morality.”
RS: The confusions about morality in fiction come from attempts to resolve the whirl of motive and desire in life with a vulgarized formula of “good actions/bad actions, good people/bad people.” It’s not that moral choices don’t exist—it’s that they can’t be expressed in the kind of theatrical shorthand with which slack writing attempts to resolve moral questions. Obviousness in this regard is subversive of good prose and good fiction because moral elements are the core of our great stories.
TH: At the end of Dog Soldiers, you echo the marine motto “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” As fictional god, do you pass judgment on your characters or let the reader, God, or history make up their minds?
RS: To some extent I’m passing judgment. I can’t not. I can’t escape that. But it is more incumbent on the reader to make a moral call on the characters. And of course it is about how well the characters behave, how corrupt they are, and to what degree they fail each other.
TH: There has been a spate of absurd articles lately about the “likeability” of fictional characters, and this being some kind of litmus test.
RS: Well, it is absurd. Their relative likeability is silly. Likeability is something else altogether. It reminds me of a student’s story. I can’t remember if he had been in the military. He had been in one of those situations where there are a lot of young males competing for survival. It might have been a boot camp. And in such a group there is always a scapegoat, a persecuted figure, the one guy whose case everyone is on, the tormented figure. So all kinds of things are done to this person who is inadequate in some way—he can’t keep his gear in order, that kind of thing. So when this person in the story is persecuted, pranks of various sorts are played upon him, and they are meant to be funny; the reader is invited to enjoy the persecution of the persecuted. Well, it spoils the story, because it makes the narrator look like such a no-good son of a bitch that we don’t believe him. This is close to the issue of likeability. There’s a naïveté. The writer is failing to understand that when the writer is inviting the reader to enjoy cruelty, this really spoils the reality and usefulness of the narrator as a narrator. The same thing happens in Waugh. But Waugh, who was a complete no-good prick, knew perfectly well that in order to have a viable and reliable character, useful as a point-of-view character, it wouldn’t do to have him rejoice in the sufferings of the victim. So he makes a POV character, the narrator, actually helpful and kind.
TH: The moral presence in much of your work comes through the female characters. Brookman’s wife, Ellie, reminds me of Grace in my favorite story of yours, “Helping.” But Ellie seems tougher, her religious faith unshakable. What drew you to her and the Bezeidenhaut?
RS: Well, Ellie was born into it—into one form or another of Mennonite. Grace is the kind of Catholic that she has chosen to become. There’s more magic around Ellie. Ellie’s religion is quasi-pagan. It is really a subarctic Hutterite religion touched by Indian beliefs.
TH: It feels otherworldly.
RS: It reminds me that I have no business writing about places like Peru, places I’ve never been. But there too it is deep Indian magic.
TH: Do you admire people with absolute faith?
RS: I think they are lucky up to a point. I wouldn’t say that absolute faith is worthy per se. Sometimes absolute faith is a good guide for life and useful to the world; sometimes it just makes everything more of a drag. It depends on which faith you invest in.
TH: Did this novel start with a character, an image, a word?
RS: It had its origins in a scene of a room with two young women. It just began to happen.
TH: Is this typically how you work, starting in scene?
RS: Yes. Something outside of the narrative structure of the novel that happens before the main action, that isn’t sequential.
TH: Is this voice-driven?
RS: I certainly see the characters and their dialogue is them. So it is voice-driven. It is kind of like acting; it is impersonation, doing the voice.
TH: But it is also radical empathy.
TH: Brookman, like many of your characters, has a restlessness that can’t be tamed by alcohol, sex, adventure, or violence. Do you see your protagonists as suffering from a particularly American affliction?
RS: There’s a very broad sense of entitlement in America. And we deny our impulses less than citizens of other countries.
TH:Like with the character Browne in Outerbridge Reach, who thinks that “the logic of ordinary life was the logic of weakness and fear”—there’s a rage against ordinariness.
RS: That’s Browne at his best and worst. It sounds downright Nazi, but actually Browne is talking about responsibility.
TH: But he also will keep going in the face of near death, saying at one point, “I will lie here as long as it takes to die and call no one.” That refusal to back up and get yourself out of the predicament you’ve put yourself in.
I find it strange that some reviewers have called your work pessimistic. I view your work as clear-eyed and truthful. We live in a delusional society and speaking the truth can be seen as pessimism.
RS: “Pessimistic” is the wrong word for characterizing the work I do. It just isn’t a very considered description.
TH: You’ve spent time in the academic trenches, both as a Stegner fellow and as a teacher. Can fiction be taught?
RS: No. Only in a negative way. You can catch people doing something that doesn’t work. And you point out to them why it doesn’t work. You can’t impart to somebody the gift of storytelling; you can’t teach them how to do it. You can only tell them that they are doing it wrong or that they are doing it right when they are doing it right. You can help people learn. There is no body of technology to impart, no tool building. We’ve invented a diction around things like tropes, but it may not be instructional.
TH: When I teach, I frequently use “Helping” as a great example of physically and psychologically boxing in your characters. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, when Brookman is trapped, you write, “So he stood there in the room that had been contaminated for them by his treachery and tried to figure it out.” To me, that is what fiction should be.
When you were learning to write, did you learn by example?
RS: Pretty much. When I first started to read, I was reading Hemingway and I found it utterly magical. Of course he strode the world, this colossus. I was this high school kid and he was having the greatest life possible to ever have. And you could see that there was something special in the way he was getting inside of people, that he was doing things differently, a different way that people spoke to each other in his stories. I imitated him; I imitated anyone who grabbed me, I would say, shamelessly. I imitated anyone whose work spoke to me. I imitated J. D. Salinger. With the European work you learn differently. I loved Flaubert. I don’t read French, but I could feel the quality and truth. Constance Garnett’s translations of the Russians get mocked now, but they were the only translations we had at the time. I couldn’t imitate the translators. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was always trying to learn. I wanted to write. It was something I really wanted to do. It was like looking at an ivory carving and wanting to be able to do that.
TH: When did that start?
RS: It started in high school. It was the only positive feedback I received. I was very much out of line. I didn’t work hard. I didn’t do my homework. I was a fuckup. But I got positive feedback on my writing. Outside of the school situation it was something I really wanted to do.
TH: Did you spend a lot of time at the library?
RS: Yes, I was a very bookish kid.
TH: Was this at the main Brooklyn library at Grand Army Plaza?
RS: I was in Manhattan by the time I was in high school, so I was using the New York Public Library. My branches were the one where Lincoln Center is now, Ninety-sixth Street on the east side, and Amsterdam and eighty-something.
TH: When you got to Stanford, did you continue your autodidact ways or did you learn more from your contemporaries and teachers?
RS: The world was in the process of changing wildly. I was kind of clinging to realism, which seemed to be disappearing at the hands of John Barth and John Hawkes and so forth. I was sort of hanging in back there with Steinbeck. I remember a whole bunch of us student writers, what we discovered was Revolutionary Road, a realistic novel that refutes the death of realism. Then I had to make a discovery. And that discovery was that there really isn’t any difference between what is realism and what is not realism. I was not, as I had thought, a realist writer. That was not what I did. I wasn’t bound to realism. There are all sorts of ways to write, to make up stories, to tell them, and you don’t have to view realism as a technique and an ideology. I didn’t like the stuff that was supposed to be replacing realism. On the other hand, I wasn’t bound to the realist mode. I just learned that what I thought was going on wasn’t what was going on.
TH: What about Ken Kesey’s work? I know that he influenced you as a person, but what about his actual work? He was slightly ahead of you.
RS: He was two entire novels ahead of me by the time I finished the novel I was working on when I got there. I can’t say that I was influenced by his actual work. He certainly influenced me on what we were going to do that day! But he wasn’t a literary influence.
TH: Sometimes a Great Notion holds up to me as a great American story.
RS: That’s the one, by far, the better book. That’s the goods. I think he was sometimes too influenced by films. We were all influenced by films. You couldn’t be that age and go to the movies all the time and not be influenced. I thought his work was very entertaining and that is the bottom line. One wants to be an entertainer and a storyteller, and he was that. He lacked patience. His problem was impatience. Writing is so lonely and he didn’t like the loneliness. He wanted the audience, literally. He really wanted an audience out there digging it. And of course they aren’t. Or maybe they will still be there in three years if you are still alive. He was like a performer or athlete—he really wanted to perform; he wanted the applause.
TH: In Prime Green you write that Kesey ran “a halfway house on the edge of possibility.” Do you think being a ringmaster was his greatest gift?
RS: He was certainly that. But that’s not what writing calls for. Those aren’t skills that writers need. Showmanship isn’t what is good for a writer. He was impatient when he should have been patient. He should have taken it easy.
TH: Seems like it would have been physically impossible for him to do that.
RS: He was like that. It was virtually physically impossible for him to slow down, to not compete. The great thing about Kesey was that he was really a good person. I mean for a competitive guy with a lot of power and influence, the ability to influence people, the fact that he was actually a good person and a kind person was important, because there were a lot of people like him around at the time who were bad people, involved in drugs. Kesey was not a bad person.
TH: Do you think that Kerouac suffered from the same impatience?
RS: Kesey was just a better writer than Kerouac. My mother sent me On the Road. She was a very strange person. This was the kind of thing she did. I loved the Beat scene. I was in the service at the time, in the military. But I didn’t have the feeling that I was reading anything special. This wasn’t Thomas Hardy! I saw that it was a great, new scene. I was a teenager, so I kind of thought I knew what was hip and cool, and I saw all that in On the Road. But I didn’t see anything really beautiful or moving there. If you take the last couple of paragraphs of Gatsby and the last couple of paragraphs of On the Road, it speaks for itself. The endings of those two books—we all remember the end of Gatsby, whereas the end of On the Road is embarrassing. I’m not an admirer of Kerouac as a writer. And when I knew him as a person, and I didn’t know him well, he was already being destroyed by alcohol. Life was not being good to him, which was scary.
TH: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” famously begins with “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” You’ve had a remarkable career, maintaining your clear vision while descending into the fictional depths of violence and madness. What do you attribute your sanity to?
RS: A lot of it is luck. A strong constitution. Luck and grace keep occurring to me. And I feel like I got away with a lot. Eventually you have to stop because you can’t get away with it anymore. I’m still trying to write. I was surprised that I was able to finish Death of the Black-Haired Girl. There were points where I thought I couldn’t do it. I don’t know exactly what it was that kept me going. I’ve always felt that writing is service. One of the moral perspectives we talked about. Writing is delivering insight, and insight is what gets you through in the world. I need an excuse to be around, I need a job, a serious job to do, and this is my job. That’s one way I pulled through, that I wasn’t destroyed by my weaknesses. I certainly did a lot of drugs, and drank a lot of alcohol. The people who did a whole lot more than I did are dead. I was also with a woman who is really special, and we had children that were young. We got married young; my wife was a teenager when my daughter was born. A lot of things came together in a good way for me.
TH: Some say that art should give comfort to the uncomfortable and discomfort those that are comfortable. Do you have a mission?
RS: I fall back on the insight mode. I think that truth is beauty. It shouldn’t further complacency.
TH: Twenty years ago you said that American fiction is “not in a high state of health.” Do you still feel that way?
RS: I believed it was not doing well at the time. I don’t know if I would repeat that, feeling the same things that I was feeling at the time. There are some really good, ambitious young writers around. Maybe more than there were. I’m not quite sure how to answer that.
TH: Whom do you admire right now of the young writers?
RS: I was very taken with Rachel Kushner. I think she’s a firecracker. I very much admire Madison Smartt Bell. He works very hard. I thought David Foster Wallace was a person of great gifts. I don’t know how that would have turned out in the end.
TH: What about your contemporaries, like Don DeLillo and Joy Williams?
RS: I think Joy Williams is really great, and she is funny. There’s a too Humane Society attitude, that kind of “Save the Whales” thing, but she’s good because she is so funny. Lee Smith, and certainly DeLillo. Richard Ford was always quite good. Not my kind of writer, but still good. Evan S. Connell, I like his work very much. His book about Custer could be a manual for the enemies of the U.S. Army.
TH: The Vietnam War phrase “There it is,” which you have said was invoked when someone had “glimpsed the dark antic spirit of the war,” seems just as apt now for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
RS: Yes, absolutely.
TH: Alice Munro and Philip Roth both recently announced that they are hanging up their pens. Would you ever retire?
RS: No. I will be incapable of it. If I can do it I’m going to do it. My pen is going to hang me. That’s the way it is going to be. If Philip can do that, and I guess he can—he’s very strong-minded. I guess that is true of Alice Munro. It has been really fun to watch her career and she got less and less prim, and less and less afraid of sex. It has been fun to watch this lady from the country go to the big city.
TH: Do you have any perspective on your own work? Do you have any favorites?
RS: I think that when I succeeded, when I felt like I succeeded in saying what I tried to say, was with Outerbridge Reach. That’s my baby. That’s what I wanted to say about life and art. Children of Light is also one of my favorites, even though it is no one else’s. Talk about not too likeable. I haven’t worked as hard as I should have, obviously. But I’ve done what I’ve done.