Robert Stone is the author of seven novels: A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers (a National Book Award winner), A Flag For Sunrise, Children of Light, Outerbridge Reach, Damascus Gate and now Bay of Souls: A Novel. He has also published a story collection, Bear and His Daughter. Stone was born in Brooklyn in 1937, attended Catholic schools but did not graduate from high school and enlisted in the US Navy in 1955. After the Navy he lived in New York for a couple of years, got married and in 1962 won a Stegner fellowship to the creative writing program at Stanford University. Robert Stone has been published in periodicals too numerous to mention and also has taught at numerous schools, most recently Yale University. He currently lives in New York City with his wife, Janice.
In Bay of Souls, Michael Ahearn, an English professor at a Midwestern university (the upper plains, more exactly) who is married to a Chaucer scholar, Kristine, and whose family includes a twelve-year-old son, becomes obsessed with Lara Purcell, a new faculty member who specializes in Third World politics and who was born in the Caribbean and educated abroad. The mutually obsessive relationship takes Michael and Lara back to St. Trinity, the island of her origin, where he is embroiled in a smuggling intrigue and Lara’s belief in voodoo. The backdrop is an American-sponsored coup that ratchets up the already plentiful supply of angst in the narrative.
The Boston Globe‘s Gail Caldwell observes:
…we can feel his bruised heart as he follows a woman to his own ruinous decline. Few writers can summon such intimacy and, perhaps more important, make it worth our while. But Stone has always headed toward the blank spot on the horizon, where either no God waits or, more dangerous, gods with power but no plan. That, too, is classic Stone, widening the reach of contemporary literature and bringing chill to the dawn.
Robert Birnbaum: Can you tell me about the epigraph to Bay of Souls, the one by Robert Graves? The one that says, "There is only one story."
Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.
—Robert Graves, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice"
Robert Stone: Yeah. I came close to that poem because of the enveloping snow in it and that it conjures up the story, a myth that’s enveloped by snow, as this one is. And the only single story is the matching of life against everything or for everything you want out of it. I think if you wanted to sum it up and really deconstruct it, the one story and the one story only would be that nothing is free. And all stories are about how nothing is free. And that everything must be matched, everything must be paid for.
RB: Somewhere in the story, Michael Ahearn, the protagonist, says something to the effect that some debts have come due.
RS: I think he does, yeah. And that in a way that is the story, that nothing is free.
RB: Last summer Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer wrote a lengthy article in which he was fascinated by the Robert Lowell poem ("Lord Weary’s Castle") that was the source for the title of Hall Of Mirrors. It was a bit scholastic for me, but it led me to wonder about how much do poems and poetry affect your writing? Is it an after thought when you are looking for something to introduce a completed novel?
RS: Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the epigraph will grow so strong that I won’t use it. I had an epigraph to Outerbridge Reach, which was from Job. And it was one of Job’s counselors, one of his bad counselors, saying, "You have done all these bad things that you deserve because you think God can’t see you. Clouds are a barrier to him and he seeth not. That’s what you think, that God can’t see you." But it was so much the story that I put it into the text. It was too heavy for the epigraph. And sometimes the epigraph becomes too heavy for the story and sometimes it seems too overwhelmingly portentous for the story. If it approaches sidewise, it’s more effective. I used to write a lot of poetry. I don’t write poetry anymore. That is to say, I do write it, but I use it in the prose. Some of my prose is poetry. So I use it there and try to make prose and poetry contiguous in what I write. I also use epigraphs that way because I break them down for parts. Not that I use anybody else’s poetry but mine. Except the Bible, maybe. Epigraphs have a special role. I like them and I use them for a purpose.
RB: You aren’t a believer in God, but you are certainly fascinated with the issues that religion(s) are concerned with.
RS: I am not a believer in God. I have been a believer in God. I am obsessed with the absence of God. I believe in that phrase from Pascal, that says—I can’t remember where I used it—I think it’s in Damascus Gate, where he reads somewhere in Pascal, "Everything on Earth gives a sign of the divine presence. Everywhere we look there seems to be evidence of it. And it never yields itself to our discovery. And yet it seems to be everywhere." Or as in the Kabalistic notions, it is as though God has separated himself forever and would have to be put together by gathering up all these items of light which is a virtually impossible task. That whatever that was, whether it was some kind of physical force, big burst, or blast we have seen the last of it, and yet it has conditioned the way we feel and what we want for all eternity. I think we go without it, we go with this longing and with this kind of half hallucination that we are seeing it out there. We want it to be there. There is almost a psychological space for it to be there, as Pascal was suggesting and yet as far as we can discover… I mean because I am finally a pragmatist when I come right down to it. I do admit that faith is not what you believe, it’s not about believing in a body of doctrine. Faith is something else. Well, I don’t have the body of doctrine. But I don’t have the faith either. Which is an insistence that somehow that things are all right and as they should be. I don’t have that.
RB: And that things are going to work out.
RS: And somehow they’re working out in a dimension that we can’t understand. That’s faith. I would give my fingers for that.
RB: Just your fingers? [both laugh] In this novel, Bay of Souls, you have gone past examining or touching on Judeo-Christian thoughts to the more exotic regions of voodoo. Is this the first time voodoo and its various forms have occupied your mind?
And sometimes the epigraph becomes too heavy for the story and sometimes it seems too overwhelmingly portentous for the story. If it approaches sidewise, it’s more effective.
RS: It’s really the first time I have dealt with voodoo. I made a couple of trips to Haiti, and I had a lot of conversations with Madison Smartt Bell, who is very interested in actually practicing voodoo. And I was holding his coat when Madison was trying to endure the ceremony of possession. I also got very interested in a woman named Maya Deren [Stone writes of her, "Her insights will guide errant souls forever, all our lost brothers and sisters in pursuit of the light where the world began."] who wrote a book called Divine Horseman. She’s dead now. She died as soon as she got back from Haiti. She was young, she was beautiful, forty years old, and she had won a Guggenheim. She had come from Russia to America. She had gotten a Guggenheim to study Haiti, and she went down to film there with this 1940’s equipment and spent a year down there filming. She was taken possession of by a goddess named Ersuli, who is a kind of Venus figure, and she describes it in an incredible chapter called "The White Darkness." Now what these figures mean, what they are, is impossible to say. Whether they are some kind of psychological entities, I am sure the Jungians would have a lot of theories about what they are. But they have this power, or they are able to use our power in such a way that they alienate it for what seems to be their purpose. I can’t explain them. I was just talking to somebody who spent six years in Brazil and got close to condoble, and he said the same thing. This African-Caribbean religion, which is in a simple way, a way of preserving the wisdom and the knowledge of the dead so that it can be used by present generations.
RB: And there’s santeria also.
RS: Santeria is really the same. The figures are the same. They are called orishu. What are called loas in Haiti are called orishu in Cuba and the other islands.
RB: The last time we spoke, your intention after Damascus Gate was to write a big novel about Alaska and about a character who was a religious missionary type. You seem to have taken a big turn.
RS: I took a turn and I mean, I hope to get back to that. I liked that, and I think there is a good book there, and I really hope I am going to be able to write it.
RB: You wrote Bay of Souls because you were stimulated by your trip to Haiti?
RB: This novel seems to have a bigger ensemble—I don’t want to say of your usual characters, who get into serious trouble. There is an assortment [even a barmaid that we meet early in the novel is later encountered showing evidence of serious difficulties]. The two main characters—one is an "overeducated hick" and the woman, Lara, is a "disaster waiting for a victim." It would appear that Micheal Ahearn, who is a professor at an American upper plains university, has a good life, at least by outward appearances. His actions, of course, don’t seem to acknowledge that. Why no match up there?
RS: He wants more—like a great many people, he really wants more than he can have. He wants life more abundant, and because he is an intellectual and because he actually studies the literature of vitalism in which one burns ordinary life for the life more abundant. Even Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage is actually blessed, he doesn’t know it. He thinks that, at the beginning of Red Badge, life has become more civilized and he is not going to have to fight in this battle and the world has passed through that stage. He doesn’t know how lucky he is. He is going to see the Great Death and know that it is only the Great Death and he is going to become in the sense that none of the others around him, the one who going go to see the elephant, who will know. It’s like that wonderful portrait by Thomas Eakins, sometimes it’s called The Veteran, of a young man. It’s what Michael Herr called the hundred-yard stare. And it’s a Civil War veteran with the hundred-yard stare. He has seen things that nobody else has ever seen. So in a way, a writer like Crane, who is one of the writers Ahearn teaches, influences him philosophically. His life is good. It is rewarding, it is satisfying. It has everything in it that a reasonable man can want. He stops being a reasonable man. Look at bourgeois Europe in the Twentieth Century. It had achieved and was achieving a state of physical comfort, a standard of living unlike any before it. It was beginning to provide pensions for old people. It was beginning to provide for the poor. It was about to blossom in the arts—to produce in art and literature the most creative, almost possibly the greatest creations of its civilization. In the name of transforming life into art in some way, it embraced nightmare and transformed itself into a nightmare landscape of ruin and dog-eat-dog and people chasing each other through the ruins where there had been this comfortable, good life.
RB: There is a character in Bay of Souls, some right-wing island strong man who spouts some racist mythology that seems to express admiration for the totalitarian movement that wrought this nightmare.
RS: No but it isn’t. Because that guy is just…that’s just…
RS: Yeah, that guy has a black Nazi rap. I’m not saying what Europe did was wonderful. Obviously what Europe did was to destroy itself. But it destroyed itself not in the name of anything real. In hopes of transforming life into art and the Wagnerian nature of both Marx and the Nazis is obvious. The Wagnerian story underlying them, German Romanticism going back to Hegel, informed the disaster of Europe. And still does.
RB: What is vitalism? You mention another writer, James Cabell, and his novel, Jurgen.
RS: Let me give you another example in the feminist heroine, Edna Pontellier in [Kate Chopin’s] The Awakening. This is a kind of American Madame Bovary. She is in Louisiana; Pontellier is a wild girl. Actually, she is an Irish girl from Kentucky. Her father was like Kate Chopin’s, a Confederate officer. She marries into the French aristocracy of post war New Orleans. She has a family. She has everything that a—like Madame Bovary—she has everything that a French bourgeois could want, a good family, a good house, a loyal husband (although he may have his quadroon sweetie), he is still considered a good husband, many servants, a coach, a house on Isle Royale to go in the summer. She has everything she could want except that transcendent love. She takes a lover like Bovary. It really parallels Bovary. Like Bovary’s lover, he turns out not to be much. She has her children. Still she has her life. Now the time has come to settle for married life. She has had the affair, and it hasn’t worked out. She has the marriage, and she’s got all that, all that other women around her do not have. She goes, she takes her clothes off, she swims out in the bay, she keeps on swimming. She will not live. She will not settle for this. She will not settle for being a wife and mother. This horrified people at the time. She thought she was too good to be an ordinary Southern wife and mother. The high ideal of the gallant South, she was too good. And the writing is ecstatic and sexual at the end. I did a book of the making of the movie of this. Then I discovered they were actually making the movie. I had to write like a son of a bitch because the movie would have been made and it would have been impossible. But I beat the movie out, fortunately. But it ends with her triumphing over life. It’s just, "Screw these people, screw this lousy life. I would rather swim into the sunset as my own autonomous woman than be any kind of Southern Cavalier’s beau ideal." That’s why the feminists like it.
RB: Interesting use of the word, ‘triumph’.
RS: Death as triumph is not unusual in vitalists.
RB: So Ahearn then comes into the orbit of this
so-called "agent of influence," placed there, I guess
by the spooks who do such things.
And then, can we say, things fall apart? Or do they come together [laughs]?
RS: Well, they fall apart and, of course, in falling apart they come together. At first it’s fun, and then it goes from being fun to being obsessive and kind of mutually obsessive. And he wants to have his family, but he can’t really stop doing this. This is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, and in a way this is the woman he has wanted all his life. Kristine [Ahearn’s wife] is the second most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He really has a problem there.
RB: One is steady and dependable, the other is totally unpredictable.
RS: Totally undependable.
RB: There is scene where Lara is called to a meeting in Washington, DC, to a house of spooky people. And you trot out a monster [Manilo Perez or Triplemos], that is beyond the banality of evil. I don’t know how many Americans are really aware of the fact that the Argentines, during their so-called "dirty little war," would, as a matter of course, fly people out over the Atlantic Ocean and throw them out of the airplanes. Here, in our last contact with this character is where he is recounting to Lara how he would comfort these people who knew their deaths were imminent, by assuring them there were no sharks in the waters below.
RS: It’s pretty heavy stuff. [long pause] But that’s how heavy it is.
RB: So then we have Michael and Lara ending up in the heat of this Caribbean’s political night. I don’t want to give away any of the plot or story from this point, but there is a coda which left me wondering if it actually happened.
RS: Yes, it is open to question whether it actually happened.
RB: It seemed unlikely.
RS: It’s outside probability.
RB: There seems to be so much of you that is committed to thrashing out these urgent and big questions. Are your efforts and perhaps your difficulties localized to the specific work you are creating, or even after you are done, are these persistent issues that still weigh on you?
RS: You are just making pictures. It’s just like any artist who portrays his dilemmas. And you can make a beautiful painting out of your dilemmas, but your dilemmas are still there. It helps…insight helps. Insight is resolving. But it can’t—Freud pace—it isn’t a cure. If you understand it you are not cured. If, we could understand it.
RB: Do you feel better? At least for the completion of a book.
RS: Oh yeah. For the obvious reasons. But, for the obvious reasons [both laugh]. If it felt worse I would be a very strange guy.
RB: Why did you become a writer?
RS: It was what I did best. I always wrote English best. I always got rewarded for what I had written. I plainly felt that this was one thing that I could do that—you know. Some guys had things that they could do that they did better than the other guys. This was what I did. And that was a way I could make my way through life one way or the other. I was in the Navy and I was a radio operator and got the chance to become what the Navy calls a journalist. And so I was a writer in one form or another ever since I was quite young. I worked in tabloids; I worked in writing advertising copy. Didn’t much bother me to have to do that. I accepted it as…
RB: In the Grub Street tradition.
RS: Yeah, I would have been sorry to do have had to do it forever, but I didn’t think it was dishonorable.
RB: I hope you don’t remember that every time I speak with you I harp on this, but because I have always enjoyed reading your nonfiction, call it journalism or essays, I wonder why there hasn’t been any interest in a collection of that work. I assume it starts with you.
RS: Yeah, there is. I must do more of that. I have to do so some more. I am doing some Kesey memoirs from my days with Kesey, writing a little bit about that. I’d liked to write about my childhood. So I am, God willing, going to do that.
RB: What about collecting what you have already written?
RS: I could do that.
RB: [laughs] You could do that?
RS: Yeah, I could do that…
RB: You’ve said that before. But it appears you are not particularly interested.
RS: No, I think I need more. I get the feeling that if I collected it there wouldn’t be enough, but maybe I am wrong. It would be nice if there was enough. I have to get my wife…
RB: You haven’t kept track, no personal archives?
RS: No, I have really not. I am very bad at that. I have no records at all. Or pictures. My wife was just saying the other day, "I’m the invisible woman. There’s no pictures of me." But there is a nice picture if her, in of all things, Entertainment Weekly." I’m in it as a voodoo guy.
RS: Yeah! I should have brought it. They should have put it out on the stands at B&N. Oh yes, it’s the copy of Entertainment Weekly with the Dixie Chicks on the cover.
RB: Are you still teaching at Yale?
RS: No, I just resigned. Give myself more time.
RB: So you don’t have to have any concern about what Yale might think about—would anyone at Yale be pissed off that, as you mention in the novel, Yale has an intimacy with the intelligence community?
RS: Fuck ‘em.
RB: [laughs] In any case, would anybody be concerned?
RS: A few.
RB: Really? I had this sense that they were so arrogant that they would say, "So what"?
RS: Oh well, yeah. That’s what they’d say. They wouldn’t say, "Rats. We’ve been turned." No, they would say, "Fuck ‘em!"
RB: When you say more time, you mean that you will concentrate on writing?
RS: I may fall back into teaching if I’m healthy enough. If my back doesn’t give out or something.
RB: Are you still spending time between Key West and Westport?
RS: Yeah, well not Westport anymore. We moved to New York.
RB: New York City? There’s a restful place to go. [both laugh]
RS: We may go back to Westport.
RB: There are a couple of sniggling questions that arise for me in Bay of Souls. You observe that the NRA confuses art and truth.
I want to see the plans of these idiots come to disaster, but I dread the plans of these idiots coming to disaster because it’s my disaster as much as anybody else’s.
RS: Oh yeah. [chuckles]
RB: Regarding the NRA I didn’t get it?
RS: Okay, it’s…well, in terms of the NRA, the NRA is on this kind of vulgarized vitalist cowboy trip where they all—they all think they are cowboys and they can run around waving guns, like they are extras in cheapo westerns. I am also making a joke about confusing the NRA and the IRA.
RB: That crossed my mind. I share your view that the ’70s were a terrible and ugly period but haven’t been able to articulate the reasons.
RS: First of all, the mass-culture authorities didn’t understand what had happened in the ’60s. The moguls were still running Hollywood and they were clueless. All they knew was that were…what they knew in Hollywood was two things. There had been all these hitchhikers on Sunset Boulevard, and they had never seen anything like that before. And Roman Polanski’s wife and his friends had been murdered. And that was basically what they knew about the ’60s.
RS: And they were scared and they didn’t understand. This is when they started edging over to Nixon. They didn’t understand what was going on. The whole, everything began to go—their sense of privilege, their leftist orthodoxy as left wingers. They began to feel the cold wind of oblivion. And they couldn’t—really couldn’t understand— the art form. Creatures like Andy Warhol were able to take hold of the arts, "You see you don’t know what you like. You don’t really know what you like. You can’t tell this from that." Terrible political corruption ran through the country, a loss of idealism. The military was, for example, really corrupt. People would get mugged in barracks. When I was in, boy, that would never happen, to get robbed on your own ship. Just never ever happen.
RB: Was that the beginning of the professional army?
RS: It was supposed to be the beginning of the professional army. I regarded myself as being in the professional Navy back in the ’60s, but we didn’t have draftees back then. But you would never get robbed in your barracks. That was unthinkable. The ’70s were a low point in just about everything you can think of. The worst movies, the worst army, we subsequently almost lost a war in Grenada. Ollie North, the Napoleon of the Caribbean, almost lost that war. Everything was low quality, everything was lousy. What is that decade in painting? The Sesquigenta, after the 15th century was really not that great and then 17th century which is really not that good at all. It’s really imitative and derivative.
RB: Of course, American culture has rebounded.
RS: Yes, America is tremendously viable. I don’t know about this rule-the-world shit. [chuckles]
RB: No, huh? [both laugh] It would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic. George Bush burns a lot of money to take a jet to a ship that is close to docking anyway. This is very cynical. That was sort of a question, what do you think?
RS: Well, I think there it is, while he was dodging the draft and pretending—dodging his National Guard duties, even. Jesus I wouldn’t have dreamed of not doing the military stuff I was supposed to do. I was just a petty officer in the Navy. But I would never have dreamed of trying to get out of it even under any circumstances I could imagine. I happen to resent George Bush being flown onto a carrier all dressed up like a pilot. But the people who go for that, God they have it coming, except we are all in the same boat. These are a bunch of triumphalist babbits who suddenly think that their way of seeing the world and their way of operating is so superior that the rest of the world is going to fall down before them. And they are going renegotiate, as it were, the Sykes-Picot Treaty in the Middle East and start it all over again. I think it’s really a terrible mistake. Of course, they don’t have the imperial style. If they had any style at all [both laugh] but they have no imperial style, they are just babbits.
RB: It’s frightening that ostensibly, Americans seem to be eating this stuff up. How about the move to time the Republican convention closer to Sept 11? That’s really cynicism.
RS: I find that cynical I don’t know why…in the world outside the United States, I don’t think the United States is going to find too many friends.
RS: I don’t think there is too much we can do about that. Which is too bad. But you only have one country, what can you do? The stuff that they are getting away with is awful. I suppose Bush will be reelected if nothing goes too terribly wrong. I’m caught in a way. I want to see the plans of these idiots come to disaster, but I dread the plans of these idiots coming to disaster because it’s my disaster as much as anybody else’s.
RB: I had a dream last night that the Bushites screwed up. And then as befits their characters they compounded the screw up. Anyway, my experience in the Caribbean and Central America is that most people don’t hold the US government’s activities against Americans. I don’t know whether that’s true in Europe.
RS: Ah, everyone is different.
RB: What’s next for you?
RS: I have to really pick the writing project that I am going to do. And where exactly I am going to live. I really have a number of choices to make now that I have this one finished. I have to concentrate on those choices.
RB: Have all your books been audio-textualized?
RB: I noticed Arliss Howard read Bay of Souls. I am an admirer of his for his fine movie of Larry Brown stories, called Big Bad Love.
RS: I don’t know him. I must look him up.
RB: How do you think he did?
RS: I don’t know I’ve never heard it. I’ve never heard any one of them.
RB: [laughs] Why didn’t you record it? You have a very good voice.
RS: Nobody asked me to.
RB: You could volunteer.
RS: I could volunteer next time. But nobody asked me. I have never put anyone of them on. I feel about them the way I feel about photographs. If I was frightened of photographs before, I am really frightened of them now after being Baron Samedi [a voodoo loa] in Entertainment Weekly.
RB: You do enjoy giving readings.
RS: I do. I have a fantasy in which I would like to do a whole literary program of readings. When my voice is better, it’s suffering a little bit from, I guess, the fact that smoked a long time ago. I would like to do a whole lot of literary readings of different sorts—American literature.
RB: I used to think that audio books were a lazy device to replace reading, but I don’t anymore…
RS: I thought, for example, if I really wanted to hear what the schlock was like—if I wanted to hear Left Behind, and out of curiosity, I do. I couldn’t possibly read it.
RB: What is Left Behind?
RS: It’s a part of a series by Jim Van Lalehey about the end of the world. It’s number one on the best seller list. It’s about the end of the world, and Jesus takes all his dear friends and wafts them off—I made a joke about this in Damascus Gate—he wafts them off into the sky. And there is just nobody left but crumbums and semi-crumbums that wish they hadn’t done what they did. An airline pilot is flying along and the stewardess knocks on the door, before the age of armed pilots and steel doors, "We have a problem." "What’s the problem?" "Well, some of our passengers are gone." "What do you mean some of our passengers are gone?" "Well, captain, they’re gone. They’re not there." [both laugh] How can you resist a book like that? That’s it, if you want that book, that’s one way to get it…
RB: A novel approach. But I just as soon stay away from that stuff altogether, so far. What’s your take on, for lack of less cliched phrase, the literary culture …more people want to be writers, apparently there are more readers?
RS: I was in KGB [a bar and reading venue in Manhattan] last night and I think it’s very vital, even more vital than it used to be. A lot of people are even interested in publishing, in a way. Certainly interested in writing novels. The novel experience is going to be really special in this kind of crazy —you have to go somewhere to get away from the crazy media confusion. You have to go to the quiet of language, of traditional language, to make it mean sense. I don’t think this stuff is going to replace reading. On the contrary, reading is going to be more valuable.
RB: What’s your feeling about your students in the last few years, their ambitions and expectations?
RS: Their ambitions are great and their expectations are—they have been Yalies, they expect to rule the world. [both laugh] And many of them have published and so forth. They are good, they are being recruited into this literary world and they are needed.
RB: Are you in touch with and plugged into the literary community?
RS: Well, yeah, sure—I do, I know a lot of writers. Maybe more than I should. [Both laugh] I go to dinner parties and find myself at the same parties as Paul Auster.
RB: Thanks very much.
RS: My pleasure. It was good to see you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing