Big Think Interview With Robert Stone

  • Transcript


Question: Which writers influenced you most as a young man?

Robert Stone: I think I was still in grade school when I began to understand the degree of pleasure I was taking in telling stories and in language and in words and the power I felt they had. I took to repeating words over and over to myself and making connections with them. And I really liked telling stories and I really enjoyed language and what it did and what seemed to be its possibilities.

When I was a child, I read the kind of books that children read and series of adventure stories, like The Hardy Boys and this kind of thing. As I got a little older, I read Kipling. I read the first moderns. I read Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage. One of the first modernist novelists that I ever read was John Steinbeck and I was really moved by Steinbeck and his lyricism and maybe his sentimentalism, but then I discovered Hemingway and I read The Sun Also Rises, and I think any writer of my generation was probably electrified, or given fits by Hemingway. Just the sheer pleasure you could take in reading Hemingway, the astonishing nature of the discoveries he made about non sequiturs and how words could cast shadows and how you could use the white space. And this was all in one rush of reading.

It wasn't an uncommon reading list for the most part. It was everything I blended into. I read the African adventure stories of Paul Duchieu, who was apparently a preposterous self-mythologizer who explored, or claimed to have explored, Africa in the 1860's. I read Admiral Byrd's accounts of his expeditions, which was kind of ironical because I was eventually going to be on one of Byrd's expeditions, one he himself did not conduct because he had died. All those stories of romantic adventure.

Question: How did your voyage to Antarctica come about?

Robert Stone: Well, I had been reading these accounts, which I now realize were ghostwritten by some Navy PR man, such as I would sort of be later. And I joined the Navy and I went to radio school and I was detached to a radio outfit to go aboard the USS Arneb under the command of an Admiral named Dufek who was following through on the Operation Deep Freeze III of voyages. So, I was the, I think what they called me was the Senior Enlisted Journalist on Operation Deep Freeze III. It gave me the official rate of Journalist 3rd Class. I mean, I was a kid. I was really quite young, so I got a huge charge out of all of this, out of going around the world, out of being down in the Antarctic, and being 20 years old, and being technically a non-com, and I loved being at sea. I always have. Sort of **** with my reading in a crazy way. I felt that the years that I was in the Navy I was kind of growing up in the Navy, that somehow I was doing something I had always wanted to do and I had the odd feeling you get when you were young when you suddenly find yourself doing something you think you've always wanted to do.

Question: How did your experience as a Vietnam War journalist affect your writing?

Robert Stone: Well, it really dictates its own language to try to describe the infinite contradictions and ironies that are generated by language, language that is deliberately perverse, or often deliberately perverse and simply perverse because of its nature. The attempt to link life in language anyway, without even getting to a situation as complex and fraught as war, is a strange thing anyway when you try to hook up language with life, you run into millions of shadows and contradictions and ironies.

I should say that my experience of war in Vietnam was quite limited, but I did feel a necessity to see what I could. I wasn't in the military at that point; I was freelancing. But you always learn. I think you always learn from the experience of war and I was not circumstantially, my experience was not as demanding of me, of my sanity as it was for many people. But I certainly found out things that I hadn't known before.

When I was in the military itself, I really hadn't seen – I had seen a lot of water, I'd seen a lot of the world. I couldn't do much with it, but I could see it. However, I wasn't involved in any action as a sailor except as a witness to some of the fighting in the Middle East. But in Vietnam, I went to Vietnam with the objective of being a witness and it puts you in a place you haven't been. I learned a lot, I think.

Question: What was the most important thing you learned from the war?

Robert Stone: To just put a lot of experiences together. I wasn't there a long time, and I wasn't in the worst places, by any means. But, there's a phrase in Lear that always took hold of me and it's where Lear is wandering mad on the heath and he sees the character Edgar, who is pretending to be mad, pretending to be a beggar in rags, and in a way is not a beggar in rags in the play. Lear sees this demented youth who is coming apart at the seams and chanting and says, "An unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor bare forked creature as thou art." And the phrase "unaccommodated man" always stayed with me and I always associated it with what I had seen in Vietnam. And then what I had seen subsequently in the Gaza Strip, in various places, or difficult places that I'd worked. "Unaccommodated man," man in the wrong place, any man in the wrong place, any person in the wrong place, unaccommodated, lost, threatened, hungry, dislocated, unaccommodated, and some how those words became for me a kind of prayer, or chant, or invocation or something.

So, to roll it all together, what I saw, the worst thing I’ve seen, I think, has been the spectacle of the unaccommodated man.

Question: Do you miss the 1960s?

Robert Stone: Well, I think you always miss your youth. I mean, in a way you want it back, and that's the time when I was young and my friends were young and we thought we knew the score. And in our way, we were very snobbish in a sense, we really thought we had a lot of things going that nobody in the history of the world had ever had going before. We took ourselves – you know, we had a high opinion of ourselves.

And we had enormous fun with the music and with each other and with the drugs. You know, not everybody was lucky. There were risks; people did not always survive some of those ecstasies.

But I can't wish myself back there, I wouldn't wish myself back there, as much as I might wish for youth again, but it's an imperfect world and it's such a tradeoff what you have to pay to be young and crazy. You have to not know so much. You have to not understand so many risks. You have to be so much braver than you’re going to be later. You're always trading off one thing against another.

I mean, the world around the drugs was strange and very frightening. But there are effects that I had from psychedelics at times that I would never dismiss as illusionary. I mean, there are things; it seems to me, that I saw, experienced, out there on that psychedelic level that I swear are truths about how things are. But I can't defend them or even examine them very rationally. I think one thing you learn from those drugs I think – or your acquire a deep suspicion that what we see normally, is no more than what we need to see as creatures so many feet off the ground. And our perception is really functional and there may be a whole lot more out there than we are normally equipped to see.

Question: Would you advise aspiring artists to experiment with drugs?

Robert Stone: I myself, speaking for myself, I'm not sorry that I ever had those experiences. Well, actually that's probably not true, because there were times when I was so frightened out of my wits that I think I would have traded it all to be out of there. And I couldn’t recommend it to anybody because I've seen too many people really swept away and endangered by it. It's something that one can't recommend. I mean, to recommend it with one person it to really perhaps do that person a great disservice. It's just sort of taking your head in your hands and it may go well and it may not go well. So to suggest to anybody that they try it, I would have to feel I really knew them really well and would feel comfortable about any outcome. I don't think I could get comfortable guessing what would happen to anybody.

Question: Are reading and writing escapist drugs?

Robert Stone: Oh, they’re states of consciousness. They are all altered states of consciousness. I mean, the reason language has the effect that it has in literature is because it's recapitulating music. I mean, poetry rhymes or is metered so you will remember it. So what's behind the rhythms of poetry are these mnemonic techniques that are pure sound in a way. So, it's this mixture of sound and meaning that is as musical in a way, or certainly as sonic as it is rational. It's a rational narrative, or maybe an irrational narrative, but it's also something that's going on, on a purely sensory, sensual level.

So, it is an altered state of consciousness. And in that sense, certainly a drug. Certainly a drug made out of sensibility, made out of our senses and that occupies our space and removes us from our own space and lets the artist inhabit our space the way music inhabits your space, or poetry inhabits your space, or great prose inhabits your space, in a good cause. It alters your consciousness.

Question: What can addiction teach us?

Robert Stone: It's one of those things that keep reminding me of the concept of original sin. I mean, which is so hateful and corny, the idea of original sin. You know, when you really struggle to lose that concept as soon as you lose organized religion. But there's something and some quality in life, some kind of weakness or craving that one doesn't seem to be able to get away from.

I mean, addicts have often talked about their substance as something that almost has a life of its own; as a tempter. It's the substitution to everything else. I think the drug is whatever you want it to be. It's something that will take you away from your present space and brings you pleasure that's somehow free, that you don't have to pay for, which of course is illusionary because there isn't anything that you don't have to pay for.

One of the strangest tings about life I think, is how absolutely nothing is free. The old saw about there being no free lunch. It's uncanny. It's weird how true that is. That everything has to be paid off on, one end or the other. And so drugs are like anything else, you just don't get away with anything.

Question: Can the complexities of addiction ever fully be represented in fiction?

Robert Stone: I think it has been represented variously and well by writers like, for example, like Burroughs, and even writers who don't directly write about addiction in a way discover the principles, the truths that addiction leads you to. I mean, addiction is full of -- as Burroughs knew, it's full of dreadful pain. It's also full of comedy. I mean every addict's story is of course, tragic; a tale of destruction, but it also has its constantly ludicrous side. So, that it really is the human being as fool and you know, one knows that it's a mug's game, that you can't get ahead of it and it's never quite going to pay off, but you always sympathize somehow. At least I always sympathize with somebody after they're high. It's a distressing thing to see somebody get to worship their own asshole in this awful way, that all they're doing is trying to generate satisfaction and yet, in a way, you kind of have to sympathize with the drive for ecstasy.

When I was really young and dumb, I thought, thinking of the great musicians, I thought oh, well the junkies are holy. I mean, I don't think that anymore, but I thought of the great jazz musicians who had succumbed. I thought there was some kind of holiness about this. The glamour of it I think entraps a lot of people. It might have entrapped me. I think if I hadn't been lucky.

Question: How were you “lucky” to escape the trap of drugs?

Robert Stone: Oh, just to get in and out of that that world more of less – to the extent that I think I've escaped the world of addiction. I didn't – I haven't. at least by this point.been entrapped by the world of addiction. I'm still alive. I can still count to 10. I can still put one word in front of another and I think to that extent I have been lucky because some people have been destroyed, either by the work. I mean, in the case of a writer, writing is lonely. It's one of the -- Hemingway said about writing that -- It's a way of ending the day. And that's so true because you're by yourself, you get absolutely jacked up. You get in an intense emotional state, then the next thing to do is kind of come down and go to sleep and work it off somewhere. But most of the time you are in a room by yourself, you know. Writers spend more time in rooms, staying awake in quiet rooms, than they do hunting lions in Africa.

So, it's a bad life for a person because it's so lonely and because it consists of such highs and lows, and there's not always anywhere to take these emotional states.

I was writing in a college library once in the middle of the night and I was working on Dog Soldiers. I worked myself up into a state. I had rewritten this thing about eight times and I was crying. I went outside my little room into the dark library shelves and I'm weeping and carrying on and talking to myself and I run into a security guard out in the stacks. He's encountered this maniac, which is me talking to myself out there and I just thought what is the spectacle of this distraught character, this looney wandering through the shelves talking to himself.

So, it's a hard life to sustain. Or, it's a life that's tough to sustain without falling prey to some kind of beguiling diversion that's not good for you.

Question: How do you create a character that is not yourself?

Robert Stone: Well, they're all, not yourself, but by the way, they are not you, but you inhabit them. It's like acting in a way, or maybe it's like puppetry. It's doing voice. In fiction, a character after all is only a voice, is only a voice on a page whose sensibility is put in language and that's a little artificial because our sensibility doesn't only express itself in language. We have a lot going on inside us that isn't language in addition to all the language that's going on. But when you create a character in a book, he or she is his or her language. And that language has to stand for a lot more than what he or she says. It has to stands for their sensibility entirely.

So, you're creating a voice. When you start creating that voice, you are doing a kind of puppet show. You're doing the voices as Dickens once said, as one of his character say about another character in – I think it's in David Copperfield, or in Oliver Twist. It's one of the kids in that band of robber kids in Oliver Twist who reads the police reports. He can read, and he reads the police reports for his gang because he can read. And they love to listen to him do this and one of them says to another, "He do the police in different voices." He acts out the cops. He acts out the defendants. And so this is kind of what you are doing. This is kind of the fun of writing something. You're doing the voices. And the voices you hope will become more than just voices, but characters.

Question: Can memoirists ever avoid fictionalizing themselves?

Robert Stone: No, I don't think they can, because as soon as you change something from life to language, you're changing it. You're changing it in a **** way. It isn't the same. It's something different. And when you put it into language. Even if memory didn't distort, which memory does, you're still changing it. You can't help it. I mean with all the commitment to documentary realism and truth in the world, you still can't help it because you're creating your own voice on a page. I mean, it's not fiction, but it's still a creation. The voice. You write a memoir, and I write a memoir. Your voice is a creation on the page. My voice is a creation on the page. And it's as true as I can make it, and it represents me as if I'm going to be honest, as truly as I can represent myself. But it's still a structure, something I've invented to be me. I've written this style, I've written this sensibility, this way of thinking and I’m saying, okay, for all purposes here in the memoir, this is me. This voice you're hearing is me. There's always artifice there.

Question: Have you turned to short stories out of “novel fatigue” or love of the form?

Robert Stone: Oh, well I was always in awe of the form. I did my first novel before I did my first short story. I earnestly pray that it isn't novel fatigue because I have actually, I miss the novel. I'm working on one now, which I hope will give me the satisfactions that I have always got from the novel.

No, it can be harder to write a good story than to write a novel. In a way, you get the impulse to shorten, to compress. If you don't watch it, you can suppress everything. But you do get an impulse to make it simple, make it short.

But I am interested in stories. My stories are different from my novels in that I think I don't forgive people as readily in my characters. I don't forgive my characters in short stories to the extent that I do in a novel. I think I’m pretty hard on them actually. And if I have a criticism of some of the stories, it's that I'm a little meaner to some of those characters than I ought to be. But I do find it fascinating to write stories, to make them short, to deal with subjects briefly.

Question: What did you attempt in this new book that you’d never attempted before?

Robert Stone: Well, one thing I did, in a kind of incidental way, I had never used the first person in fiction before. I have a story in there that is in the first person, something I had never done before. And so, I did that. I tried it to consider a fiction from that aspect. I wrote a couple of things more about art, the visual arts that I had, I think previously at least one or two of the stories are very much about the visual arts and what they are made to carry for, for the writer's purpose in this story.

In style, I don't think in my terms very experimental, but I did a few things I had never done before.

Question: Why had you never used the first person before?

Robert Stone: I just didn't find it congenial. I couldn’t get the right relationship with the narrative. I just found that conventional past, you know, “he went up…it was Tuesday and he went,”etc., just the distance, the right distance between me and the narrative and the "I" -- It was Tuesday and I went – the space just wasn't right. The distance, the amount of space between myself and the point of view just didn't feel right. And that's what you go on. That's what I go on.

Question: Does age mellow writing or make it more urgent?

Robert Stone: It doesn't make it any easier, as far as I can tell. I think maybe for some people it mellows it, but I think one has to be very ****. Mellowing is a suspect process. I don't think a writer ought to mellow too much. I think you have to be hard on yourself and not indulge your own lovable peculiarities, or you'll violate your best stuff. I mean sentimentality is the enemy, which is not to say that sentiment is, I mean, sentiment is the real stuff. It's sentimentality that is the enemy, it's not sentiment.

But I think you have to – I think it's easier to get too bitter than it is to get too sentimental, actually. I think it happens – it’s just as bad I think to be cheaply bitter. I mean, cynicism is easy and it's cheap. So, to be sentimental is inexcusable, but to be totally and automatically perverse and cynical is as bad as being sentimental.

Question: Why do you write?

Robert Stone: I don't feel I ever had a choice. The only thing that I could ever do that signified for me was write stories, invent people, invent situations because that was the way I made sense of the world. I did it and I do it because I have to do it in order to see where I'm standing; in order to find out where I am at any given time.

And also, because I think there's a service involved in working well as an artist. I think this is – I hope this is not too much of a claim, well I don't think it is too much of a claim. I think you serve by working, I think any artist that works conscientiously and does it as well as they can is furthering consciousness to some small degree, and that service.

So, I do it because I need to do it, and also because I believe that it's service and you need to do something beyond serving yourself.

Question: What books would you recommend to non-book readers?

Robert Stone: I think that if these are people who are capable of a literary experience, unless they've got themselves in some shape where they just can't do it, they can't have a literary experience because they've cut themselves off, or they've made themselves too dumb, or whatever – and this tragically can happen, I think – there's a literary experience out there of some kind for every intelligent, thoughtful person. There is something that will catch hold of them and I think you have to know the person and maybe you can guess what they would like, but I think there is something for everybody out there. I mean, literature is necessary. You need stories. I mean, you absolutely need them. You can't locate yourself. People need stories and they need the beauty of language.

Or language can uglify. I mean, a language that kind of is debased – is always being debased, whether it is on the street or by media demigods, if the language gets ugly or it gets debased, it loses its meaning, and everything that's good about language, that's youthful about language, gets cheapened. It becomes a weapon of deceit for the Rush Limbaughs of the world. It just becomes some kind of dross.

Question: What do the Beat writers have to teach us today?

Robert Stone: It's hard to go back in time to really assess the Beats’ legacy; you have to consider the way the world was in 1955 or so. And not that the world was so dreadful in 1955. It's just that you have to some how not know a lot of things that you know. And what was it like to come on “On The Road.” I mean, my relationship with that book, I think, is kind of interesting because it really woke you up in certain ways and for me, I don't think it’s a good book. I never was an admirer of Kerouac as a writer. I really found him just nauseatingly sentimental and indulgent and half-assed, crude, not bothering to finish his sentences. But above all, sentimental, and yet he could do a portrait – a guy like Neal Cassady, I knew Neal Cassady. Well, he wasn't a friend of mine, but I knew him pretty well. And it was a little like defining a new kind of animal in a way to come on the old vintage ’40s, hipster character of Neal.

I mean, Neal in life, the closest think I ever saw in art to Neal Cassady and his friends were the characters of the bikers in The Wild Ones. I mean, that was as close as I ever saw a representation get to the style of those guys.

So, it was really quite – in the way that the books that introduced the first 1920s characters, or ‘20s gangsters, they are very impressive because they present a new sort of person to the reader. And the world was different in ways that really can't be explained terribly accurately now. The sense of the American road, the sense of the American possibility; because possibility is God in America. Possibility is the divinity that we all serve if we can get away from money for a few mystical moments. Our god is possibility.

So, Kerouac and the Beats, that was one thing they were presenting to an audience of youth was possibility, which is great. I mean, Americans expect a lot out of life and can be put down for that reason, but at the same time, maybe that's what makes the place work to the degree that it does.

Recorded December 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen