The Salon Interview: Robert Stone

The Salon Interview: Robert Stone. The author who has been called "the apostle of the strung-out" talks about his new story collection, "Bear and His Daughter," and why he is drawn to men and women in extremis.

Published April 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

robert Stone claims that his hard-living days are behind him. But when he meets an interviewer in the lobby of New York's Soho Grand Hotel, where he's staying while in the city on a book tour, he is rubbing his bearded chin and grimacing. "An old friend of mine socked me in the jaw last night in Boston," Stone says. "It was a playful punch, and it was thrown by a woman, but it still hurts like hell."

Stone may have been on the receiving end in Boston, but at age 59 the deeply tanned author still looks like a guy who can mix it up. The characters in his five novels -- "A Hall of Mirrors" (1967), "Dog Soldiers" (1973), "A Flag for Sunrise" (1977), "Children of Light" (1985) and "Outerbridge Reach" (1992) -- have often been strung-out loners, on the run from either the law or personal demons, and Stone himself looks like a man who has been there, done that. And to a degree he has. In the 1950s, he hung out with the Beats in New York. In the 1960s, he went west with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey, and became a member of Kesey's Merry Pranksters. In the 1970s, he spent time as a journalist in Vietnam.

Stone is currently on the road for his new book, a collection of short stories titled "Bear and His Daughter" (Houghton-Mifflin). The book marks Stone's first foray into short fiction, and the results are often breathtaking -- the collection's best stories are searing and often brutally direct portraits of men and women in various stages of withdrawal from alcohol, drugs and a lifetime's worth of bad vibes. They are characters who have lived, as he writes about one of them, "as if no bills would ever be charged to his account."

Robert Stone was born in Brooklyn and suffered through an afflicted childhood, raised by a schizophrenic mother and spending the years between 5 and 8 in an orphanage. After returning from a stint in the Navy, he plunged into the Beat scene of the late '50s. His novel about Vietnam, the National Book Award-winning "Dog Soldiers" (which was later made into the movie "Who'll Stop the Rain?"), has become a classic. Stone and his wife, Janice, who have been married for 37 years, divide their time between Westport, Conn., and Key West, Fla. They have three grown children and five grandchildren.

Stone spoke with Salon about his experiences with the Beats, about the recent death of Allen Ginsberg, and about one of the major themes of his new books -- the impact drugs and alcohol have had on a generation.

What's it like to hear that Ken Kesey has called you -- as he has recently -- "a professional paranoid, someone who sees sinister forces behind every Oreo cookie"?

Well, Kesey is a mythologizer and that's what he likes to say about me. He sort of reduces all his friends to characters in an ongoing serial, and that's my role -- as a total paranoid. I think it's because my tendency was to take a somewhat dimmer view of things in general than many of my contemporaries. He likes to paint me as the guy with the perpetual cloud over his head and constantly riddled with suspicion. I think I was one of the first people from New York that Kesey ever met. That may play a role in it.

Allen Ginsberg died a few days ago. You knew him, and I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about him.

I was very moved to hear about it. I've known Allen off and on since back in the late '50s, although I didn't get to know him well until the early '60s. We weren't close friends, but we'd stop on the street and talk. Although Allen wasn't a Christian, in a way he really was the one true Christian of the last 70 years. He was absolutely fearless. I once saw him read a poem about the Hell's Angels right in front of a whole gang of them. He wasn't fazed for a moment. He had the qualities of a genuine shaman. He may not have been the greatest poet of his generation, but he was absolutely the real thing as a teacher and as a shaman. He didn't do anything for the publicity, or to advance himself. Many of the greatest things he did never made the newspapers. He believed in the holiness of things, and he stood against the American public's complacency at a time when we really needed it. Attacks are already being made on him, three days after his death. I find that disgusting. I miss him already.

peaking of Kesey and Ginsberg, how important is it for writers to be where things are happening? I'm asking because you've led a fairly wild life.

I think it really depends on the writer, and what you're trying to do. It was a very fraught and interesting century, and my being where the action was partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of seeking it out. Vietnam I sought out, and consciously went. But I kind of stumbled on the Beat scene. When I got out of the Navy I went to NYU, and I worked for the New York Daily News. NYU was down in the Village, and we were all hanging out at the Cedar Bar -- or trying to hang out looking like we belonged at the Cedar Bar. The woman I subsequently married was a waitress at the Figaro down in the Village, and also at the Seven Arts, and circumstances brought us into the edges of the Beat scene. I mean, we were really kids who people kind of stepped over. But my wife -- then my girlfriend -- waited tables at the Seven Arts, and that happened to be where Kerouac and Ginsberg and those guys read. I met Gil Sorrentino in those days, and Ray Bremzer, and all the poets of that era. And then I just happened to get a Stegner fellowship to Stanford at the time that Kesey had just left his job at the veterans hospital.
So a lot of it was gratuitous and serendipitous.

I think it was extremely useful to have seen what I saw, but I don't know if it was necessary. It's always seemed to me that a writer can live the most reclusive life and know more than he or she knows, so to speak. Fiction is really a thing of the imagination. But on the other hand you can't know too much, and you can't experience too much -- to the degree that it doesn't destroy you.

You've lived a somewhat exotic life, yet your work has never been self-dramatizing. You've even stayed away from first-person prose. Was it a conscious decision, to stay away from autobiographical impulses?

I don't find the first person congenial. Nothing wrong with it; I don't criticize it. I can think, offhand, of two of the greatest of all American novels, "Moby Dick" and "The Great Gatsby," and they're both in the first person. But I don't find it congenial because it's too close to me to relax. If I have to assume a first person stance, it's limiting in terms of the ability of the characters to comment and witness aspects of what's going on.

There is one somewhat autobiographical story in your new collection -- it's called "Absence of Mercy." It details the life of a boy who, like you, spent time in an orphanage, who didn't know his father, whose mother was a schizophrenic.

It's the most autobiographical story I've ever written. I really stay away from autobiography, partly because I've always thought that one of the uses of fiction -- outside of its more important functions -- is the possibility of escape. Escaping from yourself is one of the purposes of fiction for me. So I really haven't been directly or even too indirectly autobiographical. That story is an exception. I think you can tell in the book that it's different; it has less dialogue, it's really an anecdote. It's more or less true, as far as I can remember. Everything in it is pretty much experience.

The boy in that story, who is abused in the orphanage, grew up with what you call a "permanent cringe." Only the Navy could drill it out of him. Did this happen to you in this way?

If you spend 12 years more or less expecting to be hit by people you displease ...
Or by your old friends in Boston bars ...

(Laughs) Yeah, right -- or old friends. That was one I didn't expect, I was sucker-punched. But yes, from the time I was about 5 or 6 until I was a teenager, I was always out of line, and every time I got out of line somebody would hit me. And one of the things that was a relief about getting in the Navy -- I joined the Navy when I was 17, I left school -- was that they didn't hit you. I mean, they could yell at you, they could terrorize you, and boot camp was absolutely nightmarish, but they didn't hit you. They would do this number that they used to do in boot camp in the '50s, which was rendered very well in "Full Metal Jacket" -- that routine is word for word the way I remember boot camp in Perryville, Md., in 1955. And I thought when they would go into this fit of what seemed to be demented rage -- but of course was actually a calculated routine -- this had to end in my getting hit. But I was delighted to find that it didn't, that they didn't actually hit you. So I gradually stopped covering up at a certain point.

Given the bleakness of some of your writing, people must have the impression that you're a fairly hard character.

Well, maybe people who don't know me think of me that way. The review my book got in the New York Times ... I thought it might make people think that having my book in their house might reduce the house to wreckage. Or the family to a mangled, bloody mess. I don't think either my work or myself are nearly as scary as (Times book critic) Christopher Lehmann-Haupt make them sound.

Yet you sound like someone who's been there.

Well, to that extent, I have been there. I've been a lot of hard places. But I don't see myself as particularly hardened. I'm not insensitive, and I'm not particularly violent. I don't really feel that circumstances have hardened me or destroyed my good nature. Because in a lot of ways I've been very lucky. I haven't had things that tough. For quite a lot of my life I've been a middle-class guy with a family. I mean, a lot of this stuff was a long time ago. I've been a writer now for a long time, and I'm not the kind of writer who stabs people at parties nor the kind of writer who socks people who say things he doesn't like.

Are you still attracted to those kinds of characters? I imagine that Key West, where you spend part of the year, has its share of them.

Key West has its share. I did go out on a shrimp boat, one of the last more adventurous things I did, when I was writing "A Flag for Sunrise." I really wanted to find out the dimensions and possibilities of the shrimp boat. Yeah, Key West is a sort of rough and tumble place, but it's also got a lot of writers -- the people I see often these days are writers like me. So I don't know if I could say that I'm particularly fascinated by violence in practice, or that I look for violent milieu. Not these days. I mean, I'm really too old for that kind of carrying on.

You've been called, among other things, "the apostle of the strung-out." So many of the characters in your books are cynical drifters, they're down and out, they're members of the drug culture. The same is true of the characters in your current collection, except many of them are older -- they're fighting demons, alcohol, drugs. What continues to attract you to these characters?

I have a lot of experience of people who have had problems with alcohol and drugs. I mean that's partly a generational thing. But I think it's fairly ubiquitous and not that uncommon -- whether among shrimpers or among writers. Most people in my experience are having a pretty difficult time regardless of who they are or where they live. I really don't know how most people cope. I don't see a lot of happy endings, and I don't really see a lot of happy people around.

That reminds me that in your new book -- and in your previous work -- you often compare the world to an ocean floor. The idea is that the world is a cold, cruel, Darwinian place. People have called that view pessimistic -- I assume you see it as honesty.

Well, it's probably spite -- because it's an imperfect world. I think what I really want is a perfect world with a warm center and some kind of resolution. And I probably never forgave life for not being somehow resolvable. This is maybe an infantile attitude on my own part. But nevertheless I think a lot of people have a great sense of loss. People are missing something in their lives. They try to find a lot of substitutes for whatever it is they're missing, and often alcohol and drugs are a substitute.

So many of the characters in your new story collection are recovering -- they're in various stages of withdrawal from drugs and alcohol. Did you find that it was difficult for you to break from these things?

Yeah, I've had my troubles with drugs and alcohol.

In the story "Helping," when the protagonist starts drinking again after 18 months, he says to his wife, basically: "This is the most worthwhile thing I've done in a year and a half." The allure of alcohol and drugs is still very much in your work.

I've seen so much suffering as a result of drugs that I certainly don't see it associated with very much glamour. I think there are very few families in America that haven't been touched and wounded by drugs in one way or another. We never could have foreseen back when we were all getting loaded in the '60s that it was going to be in every junior high in America. I mean, we kind of associated ourselves with Joan Miro and Baudelaire in that tradition of bohemian hashish eating and so forth. At least, that was the way I felt. I never saw drugs as a universal cure for the uptightness of the world.

There's a great line in one of the stories -- about a character who lived "as if no bills would ever be charged to his account."

Well, yeah. Nothing is free. And that's the problem with drugs. That for some reason that may or may not be metaphysical, it seems like nothing is free -- you've got to pay off.

The stories in "Bear and His Daughter" were written over a fairly long stretch of time. When did you write the first one?

The first one is "Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta" and that dates from about 1970. What that's based on is -- to the extent that it's based on anything, because I don't do portraits from life -- but the informing spirit of the time and place was that period of Kesey's being on the lam down in Mexico, down in Manzanillo, which then consisted of a Naval base and a couple of hovels. It was not a world-renowned resort as it is now. So circa 1966 or so, Kesey had been busted a couple of times in California, and he was hiding out in Mexico, and a number of us made trips down the west coast of Mexico to see him. So that is a kind of really fantastic rendering of the milieu. And Willie Wings is a kind of a very distant and unfair and erotic rendering of Neal Cassady, who was down there at that time. I never knew Cassady at his best. When I knew him, which was mainly in Mexico and in the middle '60s, he was addicted to amphetamines. He was mainlining methadrene, he was shooting it. He never ate and he never slept and he never shut up. He was a bit of a nuisance. He had a parrot that sounded exactly like him. You walked into the room, you could never tell whether you were in the room with Cassady or with the parrot.

The Cassady character, Willie, interests me. Because he gives the protagonist of the story a lot of shit for being a writer. And it reminded me of "Helping," my favorite story in the new collection, in which a man who hasn't had a drink in 18 months falls off the wagon. He's depressed and when he looks at the books on his shelf they all seem so useless to him. Is your sense that literature can only help you so much?

It's partly a sort of joke at my own expense. I think that writers are often jerks -- and in my work, inquiring jerks. I often find myself in the role of inquiring jerk, and often have in the past when I was in Vietnam or on a shrimp boat or wherever. So it's partly a joke, but it's also a somewhat serious comment on the fact that, sure, literature can only get you so far. Anything can only get you so far. I value narrative in literature and insight more than I value anything else -- that is, I value insight anyway. So literature and narrative, poetry -- anything that represents insight in language -- is something I see as very valuable. And when that fails people they're in real trouble. And when my characters experience this failure of their most beloved works to pull them through, they're in extremis.

Has literature ever saved you?

There are times when I have that feeling. I don't think it's literally true, but I think something like a Chekhov play, or a Chekhov story, can really get you through the night. That's the great thing about literature -- that it makes the world less lonely. It provides a kind of reference point, kind of narrative reference point. That life is tough, things are tough all over, becomes more apparent and one feels less alone.

I read somewhere that you read "The Great Gatsby" at a crucial point in your life.

I read it as a teenager, and I didn't really get it. Then I read it and got it. And then I read it just to read it again, and on the third reading I thought: "What a beautiful thing a really good novel is." In addition to thinking what a wonderful rendering of American lives this is -- how full of true things about America and Americans this is. I thought: "A great novel is a beautiful thing to do. I would like to try to do that." And it's a free country. So if I want to try, I'm not going to write "The Great Gatsby" -- it's unlikely that I'm going to come very close to something like "Gatsby." But I might as well try. I am a writer, I do write -- that's how I live and so I go for the beans. I see no point in not. I try to emulate, in spirit at least, the works that I most admire even though I know that I'm not going to do anything to rival them.

In the title story of "Bear and His Daughter," the main character is also a writer. He's a man who has slept with his daughter. Is the subtext of this story about whether one can be a good poet and a bad man?

I don't see Smart as a really bad man.

You don't condemn him. But he's wrestling with some pretty dark things.

You can take the darkest impulses and turn them into art. On the other hand, art that employs language can never separate itself from moral perspective because the imperatives of language are necessarily moral. The imperatives of insight are necessarily moral. Something like humor is moral; it represents a moral perspective. It's very hard for art to remove itself from a moral reference point, and it's impossible for art that's made out of language to separate itself from a moral reference point, because it consists entirely of judgments. Often those judgments are difficult and laced with incredible ambiguity, but ambiguity is not the absence of morality. It's just a confusion about morality.

Catholicism informs some of your work, including at least one story in the new collection.
I don't think I'm going to find myself practicing the Catholic religion. On the other hand, I think that religion is a very apt and interesting metaphor for the way things are. And it was certainly true that when I was young, my thinking and my attitudes were very much influenced by my religious training and my religious background. So it had a great influence on me. I see religion really as more metaphor than something reflective of a literally true condition. We're in a bit of a bind in terms of the idea of God. In a way we want one, and in a way we're damn glad there isn't one. And probably damn lucky.

Have you followed the Heaven's Gate story very closely?

Well, those things happen. I've been seeing that stuff all my life. It pre-dates me and it will go on. There have been religious cults and religious mania all through history. And that's an ongoing thing; there's nothing new about that. Before Heaven's Gate was Jonestown, and before Jonestown there was something else. And there are always charismatic lunatics selling some trip and no matter how preposterous or absurd the trip is, there are at least a dozen people ready to surrender totally to it.

This is your first collection of short fiction. Will you continue to write short stories?

I was always kind of in awe of the short story, maybe too much so. Some of the greatest artifacts of Western art, I think, are great short stories like some of Joyce's stories in "Dubliners" and some Hemingway stories. And I really hesitated to put anything out if I didn't think that it really made it. I destroyed many more stories than I ever sent out or published. I see it as a very difficult form. It's a little bit like a pitch in baseball. It's one continuous movement that ideally has to, like a pitch, break and then with a kind of retrospective inevitability end up in a catcher's mitt. It's a beautiful form when it works, but it's very difficult, and I'm kind of a perfectionist. I would like to do more. I think I'm learning how to do it. But I simply have not written a great many short stories, possibly because I approach that form with a certain diffidence.

A couple of your books have been made into movies. Have you been generally happy with the results?

No, the movie version of my first book ("A Hall of Mirrors") is a really dreadful movie. The movie's called "WUSA." It sometimes ambushes me at 3 o'clock in the morning in motels. It's a really bad movie. People who've read the book and seen the movie sometimes don't make the connection between the two of them, which is just as well from my point of view.

I have a few problems with "Who'll Stop the Rain?" -- as the movie of "Dog Soldiers" is so fatuously called. But ...

You don't like the title?

No, I think the title is ridiculous. The moral of the title is: Never use a Swedish diphthong to begin a movie title with -- like "Who'll." I mean it's a ridiculous title, an absurd, moronic title. God knows what moron came up with it. But it has wonderful performances in it. A lot of really first-rate work and thought went into the making of it. Karel Reisz, the guy who directed it, is no dummy and he really tried to do his best. He was in a weak position vis-à-vis the front office because of the failure of "Isadora," his previous picture. But he is a smart guy and a sensitive one and he did the best he could. He did kind of have to surrender very often to, and anticipate the wishes of, the people who have come to be called The Suits. But he did some very good things and above all the level of acting in it is great. I think there are wonderful performances. Nick Nolte went to the book for the character, and I think he delivered a first-class performance. I really think he delivered on the character of Ray Hicks. And I think that lesser performers in the movie, like Ray Sharkey and Richard Masur and Tuesday Weld and Anthony Zerbe, and others, all did really great work. So I don't despise that movie because I don't despise that work.

Do you remain connected to Hollywood?

I've worked on a few scripts here and there, and I have a number of friends who work in movies. There are a lot of very literate and smart people in the film industry -- the guy who first turned me on to Michael Ondaatje is a screenwriter and a director. There are a number of reasons, I suppose, why movies aren't better than they ought to be. Mainly the sheer commerciality of them. The reluctance to exclude anyone, the refusal to make an audience extend and reach a little. Lest a dime be lost.

Are you a passionate filmgoer?

Not at all. I can really take them or leave them. I seem to prefer old movies. A lot of the movies that I watch are on video. But it's movies I like -- I don't find screenwriting much fun. I suppose because you really can't control the storytelling process when you're the writer. It's not very satisfying. I mean everybody has a good time but the writer, I think, in the movies.

Are you working on a new novel?

I've almost finished another novel. I think it's bad luck to talk too much about it. Especially at this point, so I won't say very much. Except that it's set in the Middle East.

Will memoir ever attract you?

Yes, I think so. I did a piece in Architectural Digest a year or so ago that I really enjoyed writing. It was about growing up in an SRO (welfare hotel) in New York and I enjoyed writing it very much. So I can really imagine trying to do a memoir. But I'm not sure that I couldn't keep it from turning fictional in my hand. I mean that literally to be the truth -- in the same way that when Dickens tried to do his autobiography he ended up writing "David Copperfield." It's very hard for me not to fictionalize. You never want facts to get in the way of truth. That's why fiction is more satisfying than nonfiction.

Have you ever wondered how your life would have turned out if you hadn't become a writer?

Well, I think it would have been pretty lousy. Far worse than it turned out.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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