Coming back around: Robert Stone returns to New Orleans

By Derick Dupre

Robert Stone’s visionary fiction has led readers across the globe, from Vietnam to Central America to Hollywood, and now to a small New England mill town in his first novel in ten years, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. But the journey started here in New Orleans, where Stone lived for some time and began work on his debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors. With a story that begins on a bus and ends in a bar, A Hall of Mirrors was a bold example of what would become Stone’s primary themes: rootless and ruthless Americans shattering themselves against impossible dreams.

Stone, who won the National Book Award for his 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, will be reading from Death of the Black-Haired Girl at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 3, in the Woldenberg Art Center on Tulane University’s campus.

He recently spoke with Room 220 from his home in New York City.

Robert Stone: It’s a pretty miserable day in New York. It’s cold and rainy and generally dispiriting. But it’s a pretty good day for me, so I can’t complain.

Room 220: I wanted to congratulate you on the publication of your new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl.

RS: Thanks very much. I’m feeling good about it, I’m feeling like I got something done and that’s a good feeling.

Rm220: You’re visiting here to read from it next week. When was the last time you were in New Orleans?

RS: The last time must’ve been about four years ago. I said a couple of things about A Hall of Mirrors and talked to Mr. Sancton who teaches at the university and also plays a mean clarinet, without a C key. I had a really good time and enjoyed being there.

I go all funny when I get to New Orleans. New Orleans means an awful lot to me because I wrote my first book there. It was the first place of real significance to me, but I’m not sure what the significance was.  I had always wanted to go there. Maybe if I could’ve afforded it I would’ve gone to Paris or Istanbul or somewhere, but it was New Orleans for me. My wife and I spent a year there, my first child was born there. It was very fraught. It was 1960. A lot was going on that was dangerous and at the same time tremendously intriguing. It filled everybody’s heart with a measure of guilt. I loved it there. I’d be hard put to state precise reasons, but to me it was magical, always will be, and I just go all funny whenever I show up in that town.

Rm220: You mentioned in your memoir, Prime Green, that New Orleans was the most affordable and exotic destination reachable by Greyhound Bus.

RS: [laughs] It was a great adventure. I met the woman I married in New York. We were both at NYU and looking for some exotic place the Greyhound could take us, and that turned out to be New Orleans. Maybe we saw A Streetcar Named Desire too many times. It was such an exotic place for us. We lived in the Quarter on St. Peter Street. We were poor as Job’s turkey, we didn’t have two half-nickels to rub together.  But neither did anybody else in New Orleans at that time. It was one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, so we made our way through life, proving we could do it. Our first baby was born there, which she’s never stopped bragging about.

Rm220: Death of the Black-Haired Girl is your first novel in ten years. Has your approach to writing longer fiction changed in the interim, after publishing your memoir and your book of stories, Fun With Problems?

RS: It wasn’t so much that it changed. I thought there must be some virtue in doing things more succinctly. I was looking for the upside of the shorter way of telling a story. I also wanted to do something other than an ambitious novel.

Rm220: Was A Hall of Mirrors born here, or were there fragments of it floating around while you were in New York?

RS: I think there were fragments, but essentially it was born there. To live on St. Peter Street, to hear the occasional small arms fire going off after dark—it was a rough place, but at the same time, it was a caring place. This all informed the book.

Rm220: I wanted to ask about the influence of this town, or Louisiana in a larger sense, on your other work. For example, Lu Anne in Children of Light is from Louisiana and is a self-described coon-ass. There are also some oblique references in this new book: a student hails from New Orleans, and certain street names, like Felicity and Camp, seem to have been borrowed from our geography.

RS: I’m not sure it was conscious, but those names stayed with me.

Rm220: Like Morgan Rainey in A Hall of Mirrors says, this is a town that’s got its own ghosts. Maybe some of them have followed you, maybe they’ve been guiding you.

RS: I hope they’re guiding me well. I’m really looking forward to being in New Orleans again. It always makes me heart beat a little faster. I will never forget after Katrina, there was a reading in which everyone had a poem to choose to honor the city, and a woman read “The City in the Sea.” The juxtaposition of New Orleans as the city beneath the sea, it was so moving, enough to weep. This was some time after the storm. It just broke your heart.