The Fiction of Addiction

What can addiction teach us? Can its complexities ever be honestly represented in fiction? And is writing itself a kind of drug?
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded December 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen