As overly “creative” memoirists continue to generate scandal, Robert Stone (“Prime Green”) isn’t surprised: writing about yourself, he says, is much like creating any other fictional character.
Question: How do you create a character that is not yourself?
Robert Stone: Well, they're all not yourself, but in a 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 – has one of his characters 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 this ineluctable 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.
Recorded December 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen