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Fresh Air Remembers National Book Award Winner Robert Stone

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember the writer Robert Stone, who died Saturday at the age of 77. He wrote eight novels as well as a memoir about his life in the 1960s, including his experiences with Ken Kesey and the group that became known as the Merry Pranksters. They were among the first people to use LSD outside of the laboratory conditions that the CIA first tested it in. Stone explored the violent, paranoid side of the counterculture in his 1974 novel, "Dog Soldiers," which followed a shipment of heroin from Vietnam to America. The novel won a National Book Award and was adapted into the 1978 film, "Who'll Stop The Rain." Stone was exposed to extremes when he was growing up. He never knew his father. His mother was schizophrenic. There were times they lived in SROs and Salvation Army shelters. During the period she was institutionalized, he was sent to a strict Catholic orphanage. We're going to hear excerpts of two interviews I recorded with him. When I spoke with him in 1986, I asked him about his mother and the orphanage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT STONE: My mother was very affectionate. She was scrambled, but she was affectionate. She really did not serve me as a - as any kind of authority. I was very fond of her, but I didn't pay much attention to what she said. So, I mean, I was an ill-disciplined small child because I really was getting, you know - I was sort of in charge of myself. The strongest, I mean, impression I got when I was 5, when I went into St. Ann's, was that of being hit. I mean, not sadistically particularly, in most cases, but they did slap you around all the time. So I brought that with me right into adult life until, well, I found myself in the Navy many years later. And it took me an awful lot of discipline and conditioning of myself not to cringe when people yelled at me. Also, I picked up, I think, a knack for getting on with a whole lot of different sorts of people.

GROSS: After that experience, when you get older you went to the Navy for a few years, came back, lived in New York and became really a part of bohemian life there. And I was thinking, well, maybe you would have had a lot of trouble fitting into the mainstream (laughter) even if you really wanted to, given the kind of experiences that you had before.

STONE: You know, this has occurred to me. I think one of the - one of the - you know, there are - a number of things moved me toward becoming a writer. And one of them certainly was my childhood experiences because, as children will, I disappeared as much as I could into my imagination. And I was always telling myself stories about what was going on and turning it into narrative. And it became my primary survival mechanism. It became my, my way of keeping on an even keel. My balancer was to turn things into stories. And there's a way in which if you can tell the tale, you're not overwhelmed - as long as there's somebody to say what's going on, like the messengers in Job. Only I am returned alive to tell the - I mean, I felt like I was still functioning. And I was still alright if I was - as long as I could make it into a story.

GROSS: So you were making things into stories in your mind. But what made you think, when you were older, that you could actually, you know, write and sell the stories and make a living at it?

STONE: I didn't really think that. I never thought it was possible. I think what you said earlier about my chance at the mainstream is probably right. I mean, I think I had probably - I was, in some ways, somewhat eccentric in terms - certainly in terms of the values of the '50s - the late '50s, in which I came of age. So I pretty much naturally gravitated to the bohemian scene in New York. I was working on - at the other end of the spectrum and at the other end of the street, being 42nd Street. I was working for the Daily News. I was a copy boy in the Daily News. And what they demanded from copy boys was principally neatness and conformity and quiet and hustle, none of these things I was particularly distinguished for. So they didn't like me much at the news. And I knew my days were numbered there. I was also trying to go to NYU during the day. And that wasn't working. And I was also trying to hang out at the Seven Arts Cafe at the - at 9th Avenue and 42nd Street, which for a while in the late '50s was really an excellent place to hear poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Ray Bremser and all the great poets of that era.

GROSS: You started in California becoming involved with Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster scene, which is the most celebrated acid-tripping group of people (laughter) from the 1960s. And I'd really like to hear your comparison of what the West Coast and the East Coast counterculture was like at the time.

STONE: Well, the way I remember it, it was like going from black and white to color. I mean, we were living in an apartment between Avenue A and 1st in New York. And we suddenly found ourselves in this - what struck us - I mean, it was like everything turning color under this beautiful blue sky, where there was just no equivalent for 4th Street between 1st and A. A place of - that seemed tremendously gentle, where people were polite and soft-spoken and where everything was just extraordinarily peaceful. I mean, I remember the California of 1962 with a great deal of affection.

GROSS: When I think of you being out there, there's something about the tone of it that doesn't seem quite right because you're from - I mean, you're from New York. And you'd had this almost bleak childhood, you know, in the orphanage and the Catholic school and your mother being institutionalized. And here you are with a group whose, you know, philosophy - at least the way Tom Wolfe tells it - is to, you know, like, get high and take things as they come and, you know, have a great time and do all these hijinks whenever possible. And I really have to kind of stretch my imagination to imagine you going from the kind of life you'd been used to to that kind of life. Did you - did you fit in?

STONE: I think I fitted in fine. I mean, why be miserable when you can be on a party? I mean, I had quite an - I didn't feel any responsibility to reflect my earlier life. And I was quite happy to party for a few years.

GROSS: So you kind of unburdened yourself of a lot of that.

STONE: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was great fun. And I wouldn't have wanted - I would not have wanted to miss it.

GROSS: You went to Vietnam in 1971 for a couple of months. You weren't there as part of the military. You were there as a journalist. Did you go there specifically hoping that you'd find material for the next book?

STONE: In a way. I went there partly because it was such a tremendous preoccupation of that - of that decade and such a tremendous preoccupation of everybody I knew. I mean, we were all very intensely involved in the Vietnam War one way or another, all of us - all my friends. And I thought, well, I'm really not getting anything done here. This is going on, and I'm full of opinions about it. I think I'll just see if I can't get somebody to send me over there.

GROSS: So you did. You got...

STONE: So I did. I got Ink, which was a London imitation of The Village Voice which didn't last very long but lasted long enough to send me over there and let me get my accreditation. But most of the time I was in Saigon because an old friend of mine, who I knew from Paris, had asked me to look up her boyfriend, who was working in Saigon as a freelance journalist. So I looked him up. And I found that he had a heroin habit and was involved fairly deeply with the dope scene in Saigon. And I thought, well, here, perhaps, is a story - the dope scene in Saigon. And before I knew it, I knew much more than I wanted to about the dope scene in Saigon. I used to drive around Saigon in a pickup, and we went to some extraordinary places that, again, seem hallucinatory. I could swear they were - they were caves in that they were down in basements. But they can't - they can't have been because there aren't any basements in Saigon. The water table's too high. Anyway, I got a good, close hard look at the - at the drug scene in Saigon, which consisted really of a lot of people smoking heroin. Nobody was shooting it. People would put it on a joint, on a joint of marijuana and smoke it is the way it was normally used.

GROSS: Your novel which comes out of that Vietnam experience, "Dog Soldier," starts with a journalist who's in Vietnam, an American, bringing back heroin that he's really just a courier of to America. And with that heroin comes a lot of the problems I think that we associate with the war, a lot of the violence. And were you trying to show there the kind of war that we created in Vietnam coming back to infect our own culture?

STONE: Oh, yes. I mean, very much that and also to underscore the irony of a juxtaposition between the affluence of America and the party that was still in progress and the fact that all this dying and death and maiming was going on on the other side of the Pacific. And, of course, by 1971, the party was really - on the American side of the Pacific was really beginning to die down quite a bit. In fact, some of it's - some of the ugly aspects of the '60s which had been suppressed began to surface.

GROSS: Robert Stone, recorded in 1986. He died Saturday. After a break, we'll listen back to an excerpt of my 2007 interview with him, when his memoir about the '60s was published. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering the writer Robert Stone, who won a National Book Award for his 1974 novel "Dog Soldiers." He died Saturday at the age of 77. The second time I spoke with him was in 2007 after the publication of his memoir about the '60s, covering the time that he lived with his schizophrenic mother and later hung out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who were famous for their adventures with LSD.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Robert Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read an excerpt from your new memoir "Prime Green." But I'd like you to set it up for us.

STONE: Right, well, the scene takes place in the summer of 1964 when Kesey and the people who'd become known as the Pranksters took a International Harvester school bus across the country, the bus painted many colors and featuring runic slogans and so on. And I was, at that time, living with my wife and kids in New York. And we were expecting the bus, and sure enough the bus pulled up in front of our apartment house. My daughter still remembers being taken down the stairs by a man painted completely green. And we rode around the bus; we rode all over New York. We rode through Central Park, dodging tree trunks and being yelled at by cops and anybody who felt like yelling at us.

And we ended up, that evening, at a party on the Upper East side, which was a kind of reunion of a - or a meeting of our generation that is Kesey's California gang. And some of the old beats who were Cassady's friends. Cassady had driven the bus - I should say Neal Cassady who was the prototype for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On The Road." At that party, well, Kerouac was there and Ginsberg was there. It was a very difficult party because of a number of tensions. And particularly I think Kerouac's jealousy, for lack of a better word, over Neal Cassady's having been appropriated by Kesey and the bus.

GROSS: Would you read that section for us now?

STONE: Yes.

(Reading) There was the after-bus party where Kerouac, out of rage and health and youth and mindlessness - but mainly out of jealousy at Kesey for hijacking his beloved sidekick Cassady - despised us and wouldn't speak to Cassady, who, with the trip behind him, looked about 70 years old. A man attended who claimed to be Terry Southern, but wasn't. I asked Kerouac for a cigarette and was refused. If I hadn't seen him around in the past, I would've thought this Kerouac was an imposter, too. I couldn't believe how miserable he was, how much he hated all the people who were in awe of him. You should buy your own smokes, said drunk, angry Kerouac. He was still dramatically handsome then. The next time I saw him, he would be a red-faced baby, sick and swollen. He was a published, admired writer, I thought. How can he be so unhappy? But we, the people he called surfers, were happy.

GROSS: That's Robert Stone reading from his new memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering The Sixties." So was it disappointing to you to meet Kerouac and find him so unhappy and bitter?

STONE: I had met him a couple of times before, but we hadn't had much to talk about. He was - you know, he was older than I was and than my friends were. So I hadn't really gotten to know him. I really expected, you know, far better from him. I expected him to somehow embody the sensibility in his novels, but he didn't. He had taken leave of all that in a way that I think a man as sentimental as he was can become embittered. And he had become embittered by the time we met - by the time we really met.

GROSS: Neal Cassady, who was a friend of Kerouac's and is the inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in "On The Road," was a part of Ken Kesey's group and usually drove the bus when people were traveling. Now, you describe Cassady as often being on amphetamines. And you say when he was on amphetamines, he never ate, he never slept and he never shut up (laughter).

STONE: Yes, that was about the situation. Moreover, he had a parrot called Rubiaco. And when you walked into a room, this rap would immediately begin. You could never be absolutely certain whether it was Cassady or the parrot. Many years later, my wife and I were up in - at Kesey's in Oregon - this was after Cassady was gone - and we woke up to see this fiendish-looking parrot walking over us. And for one brief minute, the parrot went into this rap that was something like - the last time I was in Denver, you think those cops had - and it was a little shard of Neal Cassady remaining in the world, all that was left in the universe of Neal.

But, you know, I never knew him at his most beautiful. You know, he was - he was pretty wrecked by amphetamines when I knew him. And, you know, I have to believe that, you know, the people who idealized him and saw him at his best, you know, saw someone great. But unfortunately, when I knew him, he was pretty out of it.

GROSS: When you were on Kesey's bus and Cassady was driving, did you feel safe? I mean, knowing that chances were he was probably on amphetamines or something else, and he was supposed to be, like, a really fast driver - driving fast around twisting roads and so on.

STONE: Never occurred to me, and I wonder if it occurred to any of us to ever feel unsafe with Neal driving. Neal was a driver of heroic proportions. I mean, it was a said of him that he could steal a car, roll a joint and back the car out of the smallest possible space all in seconds.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STONE: So we always thought he was heroic as a driver. I don't think we - many of us had a moment's anxiety.

GROSS: You also write, Cassady thought it a merry prank to slip several hundred micrograms of LSD into anything anyone happened to ingesting. Did you see that as being kind of funny and whimsical or as, like, dangerous and maddening?

STONE: I saw it as an act of violence. You know, that was not a prank that I had much sympathy for because you never knew what anybody's reaction might be, you know, even if you knew them pretty well. Now, that was something I didn't go along with, and I didn't think it was funny. I thought it was an act of violence, simply put.

GROSS: Did he pull that on you? And did you find yourself suddenly hallucinating without being mentally prepared for it?

STONE: It happened to me a couple of times, and I suspect that Neal was behind it. It was always a very tiresome prospect if you hadn't brought it on yourself. I mean, taking acid was a lot of work. I remember one occasion in which I had taken it myself. I was perfectly responsible for everything. I woke up in the morning after I'd finally gone to sleep. And my jaws were aching. There were just coming off, and I couldn't figure, you know, what was wrong with the lower part of my face. And then I realized, I'd been smiling for 12 hours.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STONE: It was work.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded with Robert Stone in 2007. He died Saturday at the age of 77. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We are remembering the National Book Award-winning author Robert Stone who died Saturday at the age of 77. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 2007 when his memoir about the '60s was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your mother raised you by herself. But she was on disability because of her schizophrenia. How old were you when you comprehended that she actually had a problem and that problem had a name and that problem was an illness?

STONE: Well, when she was losing her job as a schoolteacher, which she gradually was losing over a period of a year, she would mention some of the diagnoses that had been thrown around at her by the psychiatrists who were examining her for her disability. She would throw them around with great scorn. But I remembered them. Paranoia and what-not - I remembered these words. And I thought of them with great scorn, too, because I was really, really fond of my mother. And one of the great fears of my childhood was that I was going to be taken away from her. And in fact, we had the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on our case.

GROSS: Why? Why were they on your case?

STONE: Oh, because my mother was manifestly strange to anybody. We lived - you know, we were living in these furnished rooms. And people in the place could see that she was strange. They imagined the worst. I mean, at one point, I think, you know, I had a bloody nose from the cold or something, and so there was this bloody sheet. And somebody saw. They imagined she was beating me. I mean, she never laid a hand on me, but all kinds of fantasies developed.

So we were called upon to present ourselves to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So we fled. We had to leave town. But I could understand her. I used to tell my friends that she was deaf if my friends met her - a situation I tried to avoid. But if they met her, there were a lot of non sequiturs. And I would explain them away by telling my friends that she was deaf, that she couldn't hear them right. But I got to understand what she was saying quite well, without even thinking about it. I mean, I got on - I just got on the wavelength. I can still hear it sometimes in people. I mean, people who are living normal lives. I get these little cues that I remember from being a kid. And I think, hum, you know, I'm hearing that. I'm hearing that frequency. When I was out of the service or when I was still in the service and seeing her, she - her condition was getting more advanced. And I couldn't keep up with her. I was losing her. And I finally - I finally did lose her. She was enclosed with delusion and couldn't get through anymore.

GROSS: So, you know, you're brought up by a mother who is sick, you know, with schizophrenia. But she's a schoolteacher, so she's - she has this interest in books probably - right?

STONE: Right.

GROSS: ...Because she taught. But at the same time, you're growing up in a world where books aren't particularly valued - you know, SROs, orphanages. You said in the Catholic school you went to, you know, a kind of questioning look at literature was not what it was about. So can you talk a little bit about how you think you - and where you think you developed a love of writing and reading?

STONE: I think largely from her. Because although she got things somewhat scrambled, I think she really did love to read. And she really did not subscribe to the general prejudices of society in general. I mean, she was much more broad-minded about a great many things than, you know, than plenty of people who were nominally sane. I remember once, a long, long time ago when I was very small, I was on a bus with my mother. A guy got on the bus and I know who that guy was. He was a guy - I came to know who he was. He was a guy who they called Maurice the Prince of Bohemia.

(LAUGHTER)

STONE: And he was one of the very few people you saw around in the 1940s who had a beard. He had a long beard. And I thought this was amusing. And I pointed out to my mother, look - you know, something to the effect of, you know, what a weirdo. Look at the guy with the long beard. And my mother slapped my ears back. I mean, she didn't literally hit me. She said something like, you know, don't say he's ridiculous. He wants to have a beard, so let him have a beard. And that was the way she was.

GROSS: Well, Robert Stone, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

STONE: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Robert Stone recorded in 2007. He died Saturday at the age of 77. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.