The news started to spread last night on social media and I’m sure, if you’re a fan of his, you’ve probably heard that Robert Stone died yesterday. The New York Times broke the news and today published this appraisal of his work. Even though my connection to Stone is nothing special, I thought that I’d add my own remembrance as well. Please indulge me.
My first encounter with Robert Stone (or the promise of one) came in the summer of 2007. Earlier that year, finishing up the second semester of my MA, I’d applied for a scholarship to the Key West Literary Seminar and learned that I’d received partial aid to attend their forthcoming session in January. It wasn’t confirmed right away, but I was also informed that Robert Stone had expressed some enthusiasm about the manuscript I’d submitted and might accept me into a special workshop he was holding during the week. A month or so later I was confirmed in his workshop, and was thrilled. Things changed quickly that summer, however, once Nicole and I learned that our first child was on the way, and then that she would be a girl, and that she was due to arrive the same week I was supposed to be in Key West in a workshop with Robert Stone. I was in Omaha that week in January, of course, too elated to worry about what I might be missing in the tropics.
I did see Robert Stone read that summer, with Richard Bausch, at the 2007 Wesleyan Writers Conference. It was a strange week for me. A lot of the other attendees were trying to chase down agents or were out partying, but I kind of stuck to myself and made only a few friends. The day before I’d left for the conference was when we found out Nicole was pregnant; she’d confirmed this with a test at her doctor’s office while I was in Connecticut. This doesn’t have a lot to do with Robert Stone–except I heard him read that week, and now I can only remember the reading in terms of what I was preoccupied with at the time.
It was five years after this that I was actually part of a Robert Stone-led workshop at the Key West Literary Seminar. Nicole was again expecting a child, although with a two-month buffer before Clara arrived. (I was kind of a mess that week in Florida. I was anxious about what the future held and drank too much pretty much every night. I got the best and worst of Key West, I suppose, and spent the better part of our morning workshop meetings sweating out what I’d drank the night before.)
To be honest, I don’t think Stone was too fond of me during those four days. He had some nice things to say during the workshop of my story, although he didn’t really seem all that hopeful for the direction I planned on taking the material. He was generous and fair during workshop, and often profound with such an easy intellect that it was breathtaking. Being around a celebrity, particularly one who’s had an influence on so many, seems like it will be such a strange experience to me, but it really wasn’t in this case, and usually isn’t when it comes to authors, who aren’t really celebrities at all, I guess. The vitality of a great writer is something to behold. In undergrad I had the opportunity to do a special workshop with Rita Mae Brown and it was the same then. She was clearly operating on a different plane than the rest of us and, the same as with Stone, it was dazzling to watch.
A few of us would stick around on the front porch of the Skelton House after the sessions as Stone waited for his ride to pick him up. He’d share some stories with us. What it was like dealing with publishers when he got started and how things changed later on; how he got into sailing and deep sea diving by volunteering to serve as crew on yachts; how he’d gotten his grandson suspended from school by sending along a diving knife for show and tell, and how supremely funny he found that to be. Stone seemed most comfortable in those moments, I thought–that and when he read “Hills Like White Elephants” aloud to the group, a moment when several of us looked to each other and grinned with such exhilaration, such content at being in the room as one master communed with another.
When I was at KWLS last year Stone was slated to read from his newest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, but it was announced that he’d injured his arm and couldn’t make it. I’d been excited that we were both on the schedule for the seminar that year, and was disappointed I wouldn’t get to again hear him read. But a broken arm is a broken arm. What can you do? Just another near-miss in Key West, a common enough thing.