On the day that Robert Stone would have celebrated his 78th birthday, I think back to an unforgettable encounter with the National Book Award-winning novelist.
November 2013. The Polo Club Lounge, New Orleans. Stone’s final novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, had just arrived in bookstores, and he appeared boyishly happy in the city where he had lived in the 1960s, an influential stint that produced his debut novel, the William Faulkner Foundation Award-winning A Hall of Mirrors. From there, Stone made what would become the most famous of his literary journeys. In 1971, with credentials as a war correspondent for the British magazine Ink, he traveled to Vietnam. He was in search of a story.
“I didn’t have a plot when I left,” he said that day. “I let things happen. In Vietnam, I stumbled into situations. I looked and listened.”
We continue to read the results of this trip and witness the labyrinthine complexity of Stone’s imagination in his classic novel Dog Soldiers, recipient of the 1975 National Book Award. Dog Soldiers established Stone as one of the most original and exciting voices in a new generation of writers.
“All of us my age lived in a world bestrode by Hemingway,” he said. “We all wanted to be Hemingway—and why not? He proved that writers went out with beautiful women. They drank champagne in Paris and spoke three languages. They shot lions. Hemingway was also a hell of a writer. He made technical discoveries about how American English worked that were just extraordinary. Hemingway influenced everyone of my generation to some extent in life as well as in writing. Michael Herr just called me a little while ago, and we were talking about what the hell we thought we were doing when we were younger. I finally said, ‘Well, we were trying to be Hemingway.’”
Over the course of his writing life, Stone continued to embarked on other adventures. This resulted in body of work that is set all over the world—the fictitious Central American country in A Flag for Sunrise; Jerusalem in Damascus Gate; a circumnavigation boat race in Outerbridge Reach.
“While I travel, I’m listening and I’m observing,” he said. “Certainly, I’m thinking about the relationship between America and the rest of the world. If you’re in Southeast Asia or Central America, you are constantly confronted with America’s role, its place in the world, its effect on the rest of the world. America as an actor on the world stage—this is an inescapable subject.”
Other unforgettable moments from that afternoon at the Polo Lounge:
Q: What is the importance of taking risks in your work?
RS: There’s a poem of Lawrence Ferlinghetti about a trapeze artist: “Constantly risking absurdity / and death / whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience.” In a way, that’s the definition of a writer, of an artist.
And one more:
Q: What is it about fiction that has kept you in its service for nearly fifty years?
RS: It is a vehicle of truth. It is a way of exploring the realities of life and the nature of the human condition. It is, perhaps, the best way to do this exploring. Writing is a mode of exploring the human condition, and I feel this is my responsibility. Because I’ve become a writer, that is my responsibility.
Thanks to Ralph Adamo and Xavier Review for allowing excerpts of this interview to be reprinted. My full conversation with Robert Stone appears in Volume 34, Issues 1 & 2 of Xavier Review. Robert Stone's Death of the Black-Haired Girl is published in paperback by Mariner Books.