Want to know what you’re going to be really, really worried about in, say, early 2007? Ask Robert Stone.
For his entire career, Stone has been the canary in our cultural coal mine, discovering hot spots and danger zones early, and warning that cockiness can breed catastrophe. His first novel, 1967’s A Hall of Mirrors, anticipated the proliferation of right-wing talk radio. His second, 1974’s National Book Award-winning Dog Soldiers, presciently traced a line from the fields of Vietnam to America’s growing drug culture. 1981’s A Flag for Sunrise focused on Central America’s roiling politics, and five years ago Stone turned his attention to terrorism and the Middle East with the novel Damascus Gate. His new book, the terse, touching Bay of Souls, features an emblematic Stone book, the terse, touching Bay of Souls, features an emblematic Stone blunderer — an American professor seduced into the religion, crime, and culture of a Haiti-like island in the Caribbean.
On the day EW catches up with Stone in the inviting, modest New York City apartment he shares with Janice, his wife of 43 years (the two also spend much of the year in Key West, Fla.), the war in Iraq has just begun. ”This, I think, is as worrisome and awful a situation as I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. ”I don’t think I’ve ever seen the country in so much trouble.” That kind of conviction has led some to accuse him of everything from pessimism to paranoia, a charge that Stone denies. ”I know critics think I’m some kind of crazy, bitterly anti-American leftist,” he says, in tones more befitting his status as a recently retired Yale English professor than an alum of Ken Kesey’s high-living, acid-dropping Merry Pranksters. ”I’m really not. I only have one country. And I can’t keep from identifying with even the levels of America that I find extremely uncongenial.” Here, the rueful chronicler of Western misadventure weighs in on the state of his art.
EW You have a phenomenal knack for telling us where we might be about to get into trouble. So what’s on your mind these days?
ROBERT STONE [Laughs] Well, I haven’t been traveling quite as much. It’s not as much fun. No place has really grabbed me except for northern British Columbia. But I’m thinking of doing an Ivy League campus thing. There were a couple of events on the Yale campus — including a murder — that were really quite intriguing. That’s what I’m thinking of — a story of conflict on campus.
EW When you started Bay of Souls, you abandoned a novel set in British Columbia that you’d worked on for some time…
STONE I don’t see it as wasted or abandoned. Well, it is abandoned, but it’s like an abandoned car. You can strip it down for parts. Or find a story there and pursue it. Or maybe take it up again and finish it. You have to be, in some ways, tough-minded…. I believe that stamina is necessary — and the strength to cut and the strength to change. To try not to be indulging yourself. Writers get their favorite little things, things that turn them on. You have to try and tell the difference between what personally delights you and what’s worth setting down. They’re not the same.