Robert Stone published his first book, A Hall of Mirrors, in 1967. In November, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish his eighth novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, about a college professor who gets in over his head when he begins an affair with one of his students. We spoke with Stone recently about his long writing career, his favorite authors, and his work in Hollywood.
My subway ride uptown to meet Stone is a journey into my own past. Geographically, I am traveling to the vicinity of my first New York apartment, where I remember being enthralled as I read Stone’s neo-Conradian novel, A Flag for Sunrise (1981). But it’s also an inner journey back to my coming of age under the sway of books like Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors, and, especially, the Vietnam War–era Dog Soldiers (1974), winner of the National Book Award.
Stone isn’t intimidating in person. He’s soft-spoken, reserved, and even courtly as he ushers me into a room filled with books, including multiple editions of his own works. I see a copy of A Hall of Mirrors, which won the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and which came out when he was 30. During the 46 years since then, Stone has published 11 books, with a 12th, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, due Nov. 12. I ask him about how the publishing world has changed since he began.
“I started out with Houghton Mifflin when they were located in Boston,” Stone says. “The office was so straightlaced. If you walked in and saw little old gents sitting on high stools and writing with quills you wouldn’t be surprised.” He notes that at the time, publishers had more of a sense of responsibility to their authors, and to the public, than they do now.
I ask Stone which authors he likes to read, when he is not writing. “I really appreciate the ambition of David Foster Wallace. He was something of a perfectionist. I’m a perfectionist. But the difference between us is that I’m perfectionistic and I’m lazy, whereas David Foster Wallace was perfectionistic and he was diligent.” Stone also points to the work of Philip Roth: “American Pastoral is one of the great fiction reads of the last 20 or 30 years. I think it’s just an amazing book.” As for his all-time favorites, Stone says, “I always thought one of the great American books was The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. The funny thing about that book is, you think that she has gotten a certain kind of American character down, a certain kind of American family nailed. And as it turns out, it was originally set entirely in Australia and all the characters were Australians, and her publisher talked her into making them all Americans for the U.S. edition. They were never intended to be Americans. It’s a book I go back to a lot.” He adds, “I also go back to Evelyn Waugh—a despicable individual, but I think he was a wonderful writer, very funny.” And, he says, “I still haven’t gotten over the state where I think that Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel is a better book any day of the week than [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road.”
Stone knew Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey in New York and California in the ’60s. “I was just never a fan of Kerouac,” he says, adding, “I knew him slightly. He was self-mythologizing.” He describes Ginsberg as “the real article.” Stone recalls that actor Nick Nolte once asked him to describe Cassady, whom Nolte was playing in the movie Heart Beat: “I said that Cassady was just like Popeye the Sailor Man.”
Nolte also played Ray Hicks, a soldier turned drug smuggler, in Who’ll Stop the Rain, Karel Reisz’s 1978 movie adaptation of Dog Soldiers. And Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors was turned into the movie WUSA, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Anthony Perkins in 1969. Stone notoriously skewered the movie business in his novel Children of Light (1986), and I ask him about his experiences with Hollywood.
“Who’ll Stop the Rain was a victim of studio politics, and Karel Reisz... was denied the final cut,” he says. He pronounces WUSA “one of the worst and most boring movies of all time. It begins, and as soon as it finishes beginning, it starts ending. The only thing I’m grateful for is that it isn’t titled A Hall of Mirrors, so people don’t associate the movie with the book.”
In addition to his fiction, Stone wrote Prime Green, a memoir about the ’60s, in 2007. The early chapters were devoted to his Navy career in the late ’50s and I ask him if he had ever thought of writing a service novel. “I didn’t, because I didn’t have a war—not until I got to Vietnam, and I wasn’t in the service anymore. All you can write about in peacetime service is a kind of an ongoing comedy.” He adds, “James Jones was not a good writer. He was not a skilled writer. But I think he got a pretty worthwhile novel out of the peacetime army [in From Here to Eternity]. I think [Jones’s] The Thin Red Line is actually a better book. But from my point of view, I didn’t see any grappling with the human spirit in the peacetime military to make it particularly worth writing about.”
I quote one of the most famous lines in A Flag for Sunrise, in which the character Frank Holliwell speaks about “the abridgement of hope.” I ask Stone if this is a theme that he thinks runs through all of his fiction. “I think I’m always dealing with the refusal to abandon hope, to abandon the best of possibility, to abandon moral perspective, to embrace despair. I always give my characters some vision out of the corner of their eyes, the possibility of hope, of other resistance to despair. There’s always something of a religious perspective in my work.”
I ask Stone why he thinks he has outlasted so many once-feted authors. “I think maybe partly because I worked harder,” he says, adding that “what I was after was maybe more important—at least it seemed that way to me, and maybe it seemed that way to a lot of other people in the world.”
Ken Salikof is the author of Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress.