NEW YORK – Seated on a small couch in his living room, beneath shelves filled with his many novels and story collections, Robert Stone knocks softly on a quilted pillow for luck.
"There are a lot of bad stories that I'm acquainted with. There's a lot of misfortune I'm acquainted with," says the author of "Dog Soldiers," ''A Flag for Sunrise" and other works of fiction, his beard white and his stare sharp at age 76.
"I didn't do so badly."
Stone, interviewed recently at his Upper East Side apartment, has made award-winning art out of failure and misbehavior. He won the National Book Award for his 1974 novel, "Dog Soldiers," a dark adventure of drug smuggling, violence and adultery, and has given his characters the chance to mess up their lives all over the world, whether the maritime bumbler who fakes his route in "Outerbridge Reach" or the journalist caught up in the Middle East's religious and political warfare in "Damascus Gate."
His new novel, "Death of the Black-Haired Girl," has a relatively local setting — an elite New England college — and a familiar narrative of chaos and recrimination. It tells of married professor Steve Brookman's tragic affair with Maud Stack, a brilliant student whose provocative advocacy for abortion rights enrages residents within the conservative, working-class community.
"They are not really in control of their lives and they make no particular effort to be," Stone says of Brookman and Stack, although he could be describing many of his fictional characters. "They're arrogant. They are part of an elite, and they see themselves that way."
Stone has spent enough time on college campuses to know what happens between students and teachers. His academic experience includes a writer-in-residence position at Yale University,
He says he didn't worry about taking on a well-populated genre — the campus novel — because he saw the story as a fresh chance to explore themes that have inspired him during his near half-century as a published author.
"I really wanted to get into some of the old questions, some of the old religious, moral questions that have occurred to me before," he says, acknowledging his debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne and other New England writers. "That's the tradition I write in. It's not like I consciously sit down and think, 'I'm going to write like Hawthorne.' But I think this is the tradition that I follow."
Some of the harshest stories Stone knows are about his own life. A native of New York City, he was abandoned at birth by his father and ended up in an orphanage after his mother was institutionalized. Desperate to break away, he dropped out of high school and joined the Navy at 17. By his mid-20s, he was living in New Orleans and selling Collier's Encyclopedias.
"I was selling them in Pearl River County, Miss., and other areas not far from New Orleans," he says. "And every time we hit a town with our encyclopedias, we always got busted by the cops, because they always thought we were in town agitating. We were locked up about seven times. We had to get the Collier's lawyers to come spring us. And sometimes we didn't know if they were going to beat us to death, or if they were going to buy us coffee."
Stone became one of those wandering souls who lived out a 1960s lifestyle before anyone knew it was a '60s lifestyle. After New Orleans, he moved to the Bay Area and met Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and "all those crazies" of the counterculture. It was a prime moment to "discover America," and Stone would begin sharing what he had seen and done with the 1966 novel, "Hall of Mirrors," a surreal tale of corruption, decadence and breakdown set in New Orleans.
"We were just going through this extraordinary experience," he says. "I really found myself deep in the heart of America, however deep in the heart of America was possible. I had a lot to write about."
"Everybody gets the America they deserve," he adds with a laugh. "But that's not true. Fortunately, it's not true."