Fun With Problems / Robert Stone is a National Book Award-winning author of seven novels. A friend of celebrated local writer Ian MacMillan from his time at the University of Hawaii, Stone recently released Fun With Problems (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), his second collection of short stories. Honolulu Weekly spoke with him about writing, his new book and his memories of MacMillan.
A native New Yorker, you write in Prime Green about coming of age as a writer in the 1960s, as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Is it still East vs. West in the literary world?
That seems to still go on. My friend Kem Nunn’s greatest following is between Honolulu and Reno. [But] I think in a way there aren’t regions so much as there used to be. You’re just as far from the core of the New York cultural scene if you’re looking at it across the river from Queens or New Jersey–I don’t think it matters where you live.
At UH in 1979–80, you and Janice met Ian and Susan MacMillan. Mainland editors wouldn’t take his Hawaii fiction.
I didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised to hear it. A writer like Ian, when he treated with themes that had to do with the Islands, didn’t exactly ring a bell of recognition. The thing about Hawaii is, it’s neither familiar nor exotic. The overwhelming majority of people on the mainland think it’s familiar, but they don’t know anything about it. I think Hawaii has always had a lot of bullshit written about it from people passing through.
You stayed lifelong friends.
Yes, well, I always liked his work, I have a book of his here, and it was just an important time for us. We love Hawaii. We were happy there, so that probably says it, and we always thought of going back. We went back last year for his memorial service.
Are you writing short fiction more frequently now?
I certainly did more stories in the last dozen years or so. I published my first novel before I published a story, I think because I had an intense respect, a kind of awe for the short story as a form. The stories I read and studied, most enjoyed–Joyce’s “Araby” and some of Flannery O’ Connor’s–made me hesitate to actually start out. It should be one continuous move, like a pitch in baseball.
In the title story, the lawyer Matthews is empathetic and responsible toward his client, but gets a woman drunk and strikes her. Does he lack self-awareness?
He can do that, or have those qualities because he actually is very aware, I think. I mean the thing about Matthews is he knows what he’s doing all the time. He knows this is going to cause him pain and it does cause him pain when he sees her on the stage [and] he has this ruthless observation of himself, of the whole thing.
In “High Wire,” I wonder if the writer realized how much he hurt the actress.
It’s the only fiction I’ve ever written in the first person. It just seemed to work better stylistically; I’m not a particularly autobiographical writer. From Lucy’s perspective, she’s a victim of her own folly in a way, and I know something about the world of addiction and I want to write about the folly of addiction, but she’s funny and she’s smart. He knows that, he does love her, but he’s not going to throw himself under the wheels of her fate, which he sees coming and he reproaches himself once in the story, “Maybe I could have saved her.” But he also knows one person can’t save another even if we want to and think we ought to.
Leroy in “From the Lowlands” seems to lack any moral compass whatsoever.
If I don’t get my characters out of trouble, I usually at least forgive them for being so awful, and I suppose in some sort of cosmic courthouse Leroy could sue me. I think at the end he gets an inkling of the weight of some terrible justice descending on him but while it’s written in a realistic mode, it’s a kind of fable, complete with the cat. “The Wine-dark Sea” is also a kind of fable.
In “Bear and his Daughter,” the poet Smart, en route to giving a reading, visits and does crystal meth with his illegitimate child. Why?
It wasn’t my intent to have Bear “do” crystal meth with his daughter. God knows their relationship is fraught, but they wouldn’t kind of get together and party, I mean they hardly know each other, really. She does a lot more thinking about it than Smart, who is sort of in ruins and not a vicious person but not a very thoughtful person either, and self-involved, as poets will be.
In “The Archer,” the painter Duffy wreaks havoc before a lecture.
Duffy is a preposterous figure. I do want him to be a bit of a monster.
But he seems really alive and perhaps redeemed, at least while he’s drawing the hideous coastal tourist strip.
That’s exactly what I was after; that’s what I meant.