Sarah Stone is the author of the novels The True Sources of the Nile (Doubleday 2002) and Hungry Ghost Theater (WTAW Press 2018). She co-edited with Ron Nyren, her spouse and writing partner, two instructional fiction-writing texts. Stone holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and teaches creative writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and Stanford Continuing Studies. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. Her writing has appeared in the Believer, the Millions, Ploughshares, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I love that these nuns and this penguin are out on the town. I want to hear all about them and how they got here. Once they tell me their story, if they insist on hearing about my work, I might tell them I write about family, about artists and activists, about people who want to save the world but get in their own and each others’ ways, about the construction of identity, about mental illness and addictions of various kinds. My newest novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, has four generations of a half-Jewish family wrestling with these questions. The book has multiple pieces that move around in time and place, from San Francisco to Seoul, from theater spaces to psychiatric hospitals, from Zanzibar to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and into and through a series of Sumerian and Tibetan hells. It’s the first book of a trilogy – I’m currently working back and forth between the other two books. I would love to talk to the nuns and the penguin about the ineffable and actual, animals and humans, and how they conceive of reality.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
The mixture of self-awareness and self-deception in addicts and alcoholics and in everyone around them. A lot of the psychological mechanisms of alcohol and drug addiction show up in my fiction among characters who know their own vulnerabilities but are also full of denial. They’re honest with each other and also deceptive and self-deceiving. They’re idealists, artists, activists, scientists – they wrestle with their addictions but aren’t defined by their addictions. There’s much more to them than their weaknesses. I’m especially interested in the predicaments of those who are self aware but vulnerable to the emergence of self-destructive selves, pleasure-or-oblivion-seeking selves. And therefore vulnerable to relapse, despite all their knowledge.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
Family history, as with so many other writers. Addiction, both drug and alcohol, moves down through the generations in predictable and sometimes unpredictable patterns. The mechanisms of addiction and codependence feel so common, but every person, and every family, has their own story, their own particular ways of living this out. One of my characters, a mother, is so tired of being the enabler. In her next life, she thinks, she’s going to be the perpetrator.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
Although the language in my work tends to be clear and straightforward, the structures are often fragmented: a collage of different versions of the truth. Drugs and alcohol are only one manifestation of addictive living. Probably I wouldn’t see the world in this way if I came from a different family background.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
Hungry Ghost Theater moves among different kinds of addictive experience – the longing for drugs and resistance to those longings, the deceptive self-talk, the family member reassuring herself that she’s not looking at someone in the middle of a relapse. And it looks at the connection between altered experience and mental illness, from the way drug use can be self-medication for mental conditions to the long-term cognitive effects of substances. I especially like having a big range of perspectives. And there’s some question about the boundaries of reality and imagination. The book doesn’t completely vote on what’s real, what’s theater, what’s hallucination.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Hungry Ghost Theater gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
The chapter I could most see as a movie is the one in which an affective neuroscientist and her lawyer/war historian husband go to Seoul to try to rescue their daughter from her newest meth relapse. It’s about the triangle between them, about what this episode (and all those that have come before) have done to their relationship, and about the difference between the lives we imagine for ourselves and those we actually live. Credits song: Björk’s “Human Behavior.”