Saturday, January 28, 2023

Stephen Policoff

Stephen Policoff is the author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, which won the James Jones Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf. His second novel, Come Away, won the Dzanc Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. He was writer-in-residence at Medicine Show Theater Ensemble, with whom he wrote Shipping Out, The Mummer’s Play, Ubu Rides Again, and Bound to Rise, which received an Obie. He was also a freelance writer for Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, New Age Journal, and many other publications. He helped create Center for Creative Youth, based at Wesleyan University, and has taught writing at CUNY, Wesleyan, and Yale. He is currently Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, where he has taught since 1987.

Policoff's newest novel is Dangerous Blues.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Dangerous Blues was the title of this novel from the moment I first imagined writing it. (Full disclosure: it was originally The Dangerous Blues, because that is the title of the song which helped inspire the novel, but Bill Burleson, my editor at Flexible Press exhorted me to drop The, which he said was clunky and possibly pompous. I profoundly disagreed with him at the time, but now think he was right). Clearly, the title is imagistic rather than direct but I do think it conjures up a fitting picture of what Paul, the main character is going through, and what his eerie world seems to offer. My editor also added kind of a ghost story as a subtitle, which I love, and which I think helps cue a reader into the mysterious atmosphere of the novel. The song, “The Dangerous Blues” is a primal howl of the blues attributed to Mattie May Thomas, who wrote it while incarcerated some time in the 1930s. When the novel was a mere wisp of a thought, I heard that song in a Greenwich Village bar, and it immediately clicked with me, as if I had known it all my life.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Since I never imagined writing a novel when I was a kid, my kid self would probably be mildly but not completely surprised. I was in love with the theater as a boy, and dreamed of writing plays—my college honors thesis was a rock musical called Two Dwarves in a Closet, which amazed and amused audiences with its psychedelic nonsense. But I was also a voracious reader of novels, and a budding writer from the age of 7, when I wrote animal fables and long rhyming poems. So, I guess writing anything (and/or everything) would not have surprised me all that much. For whatever reasons, writing was what I saw myself doing even when no one else shared that confidence.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I often come up quickly with the opening line or two of whatever I am working on, and fairly frequently, that ends up as either the actual beginning or as the second paragraph. Dangerous Blues had a few openings but the first words I wrote are the beginning of the 2nd chapter. Endings are much harder for me. I almost never know exactly how I want my novel to end—I may have a final image in mind or a situation or even a line of dialogue but exactly how I get there and what the ultimate scene is, I rarely know. I rewrote the ending to Dangerous Blues at least 4 times. I knew that I wanted the 5 main characters to be in the same place, and that music (which plays a huge role in the novel) needed to be part of it. But what they were actually doing, who said what to whom, what kind of forgiveness and forbearance Paul has toward the enigmatic Tara, those things were what I struggled with. Somebody once said that when he removed commas and then put them back again he knew he was finished with his book. I removed a conversation, put it back again, took it out, then shortened it, made it slightly more humorous, and put it back… and that’s when I knew I was done.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Paul Brickner, the narrator of Dangerous Blues is emphatically a more unstrung version of myself. I allowed him to have my voice (a number of people have told me he sounds like me) and a few of my eccentricities but gave him a much different background, different family relations, and a propensity for the supernatural which I do not have. I liked the idea of allowing him to behave in ways I would never behave and to be open to things I would never consider.

Although Dangerous Blues is in some ways the most autobiographical novel I have written—my beloved wife did in fact die young, we did have a house in upstate New York—none of the events of the novel actually happened to me. Paul’s daughter Spring is a blend of my 2 daughters—Anna, who tragically passed away from a horrifying genetic illness in 2015, and Jane, who recently graduated from college. Jane likes to say she doesn’t need to read the novel because she is in it, which is semi-true, though Spring is almost-12 while Jane is now 22, so fortunately there are many differences. The other characters are either amalgams of people I have known or, like Paul’s father-in-law Dr. Maire, a specialist in occult lore, they are the product of my feverish imagination.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music has been undoubtedly the greatest nonliterary influence on my writing. Dangerous Blues is filled with music, especially the blues which I loved as a college student, then kind of forgot about until shortly after my wife died when those plaintive songs seemed to conjure up a world of sorrow mingled with the absurdity of life, which was exactly how I was feeling in that blue moment. I invented the spectral musician Ghostie Boy Wilson to allow for some of that music and some of the legends of those amazing performers to be part of the novel. I would also have to say that a lifelong interest in the inexplicable ways people behave toward one another, and a fondness for eerie phenomena like hauntings and nightmares have also been huge factors in what I find myself thinking about, what I find myself writing.
Visit Stephen Policoff's website.

The Page 69 Test: Come Away.

My Book, The Movie: Come Away.

Writers Read: Stephen Policoff.

--Marshal Zeringue