Arts & Culture

Madison Smartt Bell Pens Biography of Novelist Robert Stone

Local author discusses his friendship with the late JHU professor and the works he left behind.

How did you come to write Robert Stone’s biography? Had an autobiography or biography ever come up in conversation with him?
I’d never talked to Bob about a biography, nor thought about it. I’d never written a biography of anyone living in my own time, although I’d done a couple of 18th-century figures—a very different undertaking. Also, Bob, till very near the end, was very determined to keep living and working. I think he bought himself a few more years, fighting off the dark angel as best he could.

Soon after his death, I wrote a little piece for the New Yorker website [about Bob]. I got a note of appreciation from Bob’s agent, Neil Olson, with the line “We need to find a biographer.” I forwarded that to my agent, Jane Gelfman, wondering if we were supposed to take that as a hint. Yes, indeed, Jane thought, so we began to explore the possibility.

Bob had died in January 2015, and my wife and I had a ticket to Key West to visit him and Janice [Stone’s wife]. I counted Janice a good friend at that time—we became much closer during the three years of making the book happen—and I knew I couldn’t do it without her. I knew I wouldn’t want to do it without her. She had not suggested it but had been amenable when I think probably Neil [Olson, Stone’s agent] floated the idea with her. I went to see her in Key West and said, “If we’re going to do this thing, I need to know how frank you want to be about two subjects: drugs and other women.” Janice is a very deliberate person, unafraid of silence. She thought for some time and finally said, “I think Bob would want the whole truth to be told. And I think that’s what I want, too.” So we began.

And how did The Eye You See With come about? I noticed some essays in it had been previously published and others had not. Did he leave behind a lot of unpublished work?
Bob died owing a third book on a three-book contract to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It was supposed to have been a childhood memoir (damn, that would have been great!), but all he had of it was an essay about his middle teens—published in Architectural Digest, of all places. Before I showed up, there was a plan to substitute his collected or selected nonfiction in a volume to fill the contract.

Most of the work was previously published in some form somewhere; I think there are maybe three unpublished pieces in the volume, which I found in the archive Janice had created. Aggregating this material and reading it through made a difference to the writing of the biography, because it gave me, as it will give its audience, a different angle on Bob’s mind. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal were probably the last literary writers to try to play the role of public intellectual to the hilt, but Bob did have a streak of that. He thought deeply, and commented incisively, about the way America was in the world of his time. His masterpiece novels emerged from that thinking. The Eye You See With makes a nice companion piece to the first volume of Stone’s fiction, which Library of America publishes in March.

As for unpublished writing he left, there’s a clutch of early short stories, to be classed as juvenilia probably, although they do indicate the strength of the writer Bob would become. Past that, there are several unfinished novels and one complete screenplay, Phosphorescence. About 50 pages of Off to Zamboanga (working title) will be published in Narrative Magazine.

There are a few pages of his Alaskan novel, working title Arcturus—I regret he didn’t finish that one. There are some larger pieces of a novel set in a rehab center, reflecting Bob’s late-life experience in such places. Most substantial is the 200 pages under the working title Charlie Manson’s Gold. Bob had taken the characters from his great short story “Helping,” extended the situation, and begun to connect it to a murderous West Coast cult. Strong stuff, it contains some powerful thematic material to which he never returned, and was far enough along, I wonder why he didn’t have the momentum to finish it. Janice once half-seriously suggested I might finish it. She might have been half-reading my mind then, too, but I kinda doubt I’ll do it.

What is the greatest piece of wisdom that you learned through your friendship with Bob?
Let’s just say “No man is a hero” and forget the valet. I entered my friendship with Bob with a totally worshipful attitude, mainly because of his work. When I got to know him well, and I think that would happen with almost any two people, I understood he wasn’t a demigod. He had tremendous weaknesses. In fact, I might say that his greatest strength—outside of the work—was fighting off those weaknesses for as long as he did. By the same token, there was a moment later when he began to admire me more than I could live up to, and I’m thinking no, no, no, you’re making a big mistake here.

Your introduction to him was his novel A Flag for Sunrise, and after reading it on a plane, you said you wanted to become the writer that he was. What was he doing that you hadn’t seen previous writers do?
Well, he was doing three things at once: telling a captivating story and bringing news about the way the real world is right now [while] combining both into a diamond-hard literary artifact. I also think his convergence structures are really cool.

How has his writing informed your own?
Ha, well, I like to think I’m so original as to be beyond influence, but in my second novel, my efforts to imitate Cormac McCarthy came out sounding a bit like Stone—go figure, but I thought, hey, okay. I have used those convergence structures. The editor of the biography, Gerry Howard, once said in a different context that I had the same ability to infuse an ordinary scene with an inscrutable energy—not in those words but I think that’s what he meant.

In a conversation with Bob, you realized that you’d been subconsciously writing “this stuff not so much to communicate it . . . but ultimately to be free of it.” What is your conscious motivation to write?
Very simply, to tell myself a story that engages me and maybe helps me understand something about the way the world is. With luck, maybe other people receive it the same way.

What do you think are the pros and cons of being married to another writer?
The other writer will understand the experience of what you’re doing, which is huge. In my youth, I knew a couple of wonderful women who would have devoted themselves wholly to me and my work; they scared me to death and I ran. I think I felt sure I would disappoint them, though I wasn’t very conscious of that at the time, nor of the fact, which unveils itself in hindsight, that I wanted to be married to a peer, intellectually and artistically. My great good fortune is that that’s what I got.