Fiction writer Robert Stone revisits the 1960s in his memoir Prime Green.
Why do you think there's so much interest in the '60s now?
Young people have a sense of the '60s as an epic era. There's this exaggerated mythology to it. Of course, it was also important to the [baby] boomers who went through it. Publishers certainly pay attention to that.
You were close to a lot of important events—the early acid tests, the Merry Pranksters, Vietnam, the Tate-LaBianca murders.
At first it was just luck, but later on I looked for those things. I put myself in a position to encounter them.
What was the most pivotal part of the era for you?
For me the best time was the early '60s. My friends and I were pretty elitist. We associated ourselves with the French decadents and all that. As far as the drugs went, we were thinking more about the fin du siècle than, you know, hipsterism. A lot of things were coming together, the civil rights protests, all that sentimentality and idealism, good things, fatuous things, brilliant things, all mixed together. But when it became a mass phenomenon, it lost a lot of its luster.
There's an aspect of your youth—taking Greyhound buses across America, living in New Orleans, San Francisco, L.A. It seems like that's our American mythic heritage.
America is so different now. Circa 1960, you could travel through central Alabama and still see wagons loaded with bales of cotton. There was a real sense of the Old South that was going to manifest itself very violently when pressed. Regions were very different, speech was very different. I went into boot camp in 1955, and when the cooks made pizza, almost everyone put their ice cream on top of it because they thought it was pie. You know, pizza pie. Only people from Boston, Philadelphia and New York knew what pizza was. Sometimes it's hard to think your way back to how it was before shopping malls, before [big] box stores, before the universal distribution of pizza.
You left the States in '67 and went to London.
Partially it was to get away from the craziness of America. I had young children, and London was still much cheaper than New York.
And you came back in '71.
It was pretty amazing to come back and see the ruins, the ruin of so many hopes. I didn't expect the world to be saved or the country to find its soul. But I also didn't think things would get as bad as they did, and I thought more of what was positive from the '60s would be preserved.