Remembering Robert Stone

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.)

Workshop 2
Robert Stone, Mary Casanova, and me waving for the camera. Stone said, “There’s one in every group.” (Key West, 2012. Photo by Kate Miller.)

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.

RIP.

KWLS 2012

So I’m back after spending eight days at the Key West Literary Seminar and workshops, and am still getting back into a home state of mind. The week was amazing and hectic. I met a lot of great people. I stayed up too late, drank too much, woke up too early. I was on a boat. Below are some highlights.

-I should mention something about the lineup first. The seminar featured George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, among others. It was such a strong string of lectures, readings, conversations, cocktail hours… It was really great.

-It was topped off by a four-day workshop with Robert Stone. I learned a bunch from Stone, mostly in listening to how he analyzes a story and his take on history and the history of literature–but I also learned quite a bit from the other writers/instructors talking about their experiences with Stone and his exploits, stories they’ve heard about the things he’s done. The guy has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Many of us in the workshop really treasured our time and felt lucky just to be in the same room as him. A very gracious, intelligent, and fascinating man.

-Highlight: George Saunders talking about having to get rid of his “Hemingway boner” in order to start writing his own good fiction. Saunders ruminating on his experience as a young writer was pretty special.

-Highlight: Jennifer Egan discussing PowerPoint as a medium, and going through some of her story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” By the way, Egan has the actual PowerPoint story on her web site if you’d like to read it. (Do this!)

I was on a boat.

-Egan also talked some about Gothic fiction, which I found very interesting. She mentioned “The Turn of the Screw” as the perfect Gothic novel. And, apparently, Michael Cunningham is adapting the novella for the screen. Or trying to at least.

-An agent sympathetic to the cause (political, not literary) from El Salvador flew over for a couple days to visit. No state secrets were compromised.

-I went on a sunset cruise on an old schooner.

-With a few other guys, I happened into a cocktail party hosted by Lee Smith and Hal Crowther. They’re so nice. The party was at a beachfront condo where (or next to where) Jimmy Buffett used to stay. It was pretty swank. There was an observation deck on the roof where we simultaneously watched (1) the sunset, (2) a lightning storm over the ocean, (3) heavy winds batter the beach. It was pretty intense up there, with the wind, the visuals. The wine kept splashing out of our glasses from the wind gusts. Still, the conversation never faltered through any of this. It was very invigorating. Something I don’t imagine I’ll soon forget.

Our pink home. The William Skelton House.

-We had a party at our house the last night of workshop. It was a lot of fun. We stayed in a big pink house just off Duval Street. There was a private pool in the back. I slept on a futon the whole week, but it could have been worse. Thanks to Eric, Spencer, Denton, Mark, Claire, Sabra, Emily, and Brad for being great housemates. (I hope I haven’t left anyone out. I don’t think I have.) Also, to Cat, Linda, Vanessa, Diana, and Jacquira too. We had a pretty strong crew going. Careless Whisper.

-If you get the chance to attend the KWLS some year, you should definitely do it. They give out a ton of financial aid, with no application fee. Why not try for it? Next years topic: “Writers on Writers.” This year was my second trip down, and hopefully not my last.