Monday, July 31, 2017

My First Time: Stephen Policoff

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Stephen Policoff, author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, his debut novel, which won the James Jones First Novel Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His second novel, Come Away, won the Dzanc Mid-Career Author Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His essay about his disabled daughter’s experience in music therapy won the Fish Short Memoir Award in 2012, and was published in Fish Anthology 2012 (West Cork University Press, Ireland). He teaches writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, and has recently completed his third novel, The Dangerous Blues.

The First Time I Realized I Was Writing a Trilogy

The first time I realized I was writing a trilogy was in 2013, when my younger daughter Jane, then 12 and a voracious reader of multi-volume Young Adult series, declared, “Daddy, you’re writing a trilogy!”

I shook my head. “No. No. It’s just that all three of these books have the same narrator…and okay…some of the same weird characters and ideas.”

“That’s not a trilogy?” She eyed me as if I were simply being a dense dad.

“Maybe,” I said, backing away. “Maybe.”

The thing is, I never intended to write a trilogy. But the various dislocations of my life kept leading me back toward the voices, images, and obsessions which inspired the first two of my unplanned trilogy of novels.

When I wrote my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, I had no real idea that I was writing a novel. I had mostly written plays performed in obscure off-off-Broadway theaters, and magazine articles for glossy magazines (Cosmopolitan! Ladies’ Home Journal! Seventeen! Family Fun!).

When my wife Kate and I spent a wretched vacation on Cape Cod during Hurricane Bob in 1991, I had an idea for something—it involved heavy substance abuse, possible alien abduction, and sinister behavior in a storm-battered setting. I didn’t really think that it was going to be a novel but I liked the not-entirely-trustworthy narrator, Paul Brickner. The voice I devised for him was a more conflicted, unstrung version of my own voice, and that was fun. I also liked some of the minor characters—Nadia, Paul’s dynamic girlfriend; her father, Dr. Maire, a scholar of occult lore; Tommy, Paul’s lifelong friend, a drug omnivore and aficionado of hallucinations—and the way in which I was able to weave the banal details of that miserable week in Eastham, Massachussetts (no electricity, no running water, a lot of crazed behavior from stranded vacationers) with the eruption of less naturalistic events (mysterious lights, inexplicable messages, an abandoned inn hosting a 12-step program for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens).

It took me a long time to finish that novel. I was teaching , parenting, working on other projects. And despite winning the James Jones First Novel Award, it took me almost as long to get it published. While waiting for Beautiful Somewhere Else to find a home, I started another novel. I had the title for this one before I had the idea: One day when she was about 4, my older daughter Anna pointed to my oddball collection of Buddha figures arrayed on a bedside table and said, “Look, Daddy, a Buddha train.”

Anna, who suffered from a terrible neurogenetic disease called Niemann-Pick C, often did not say much for days at a time, but when she did speak, she had a strangely poetic turn of phrase. I filed the expression Buddha Train away, and when I haltingly began a new novel, I knew that would be the title.

The Buddha Train was about art, toxic relationships, and a death-haunted cult called The Dream People. I have written about this before but it’s an important part of this story: writing The Buddha Train was a somewhat torturous process for me, at least in part because during that time, Anna’s illness progressed, and so did my sadness and feelings of helplessness. I began to have recurring bad dreams about losing her: Anna in a forest, calling out my name and I cannot find her.

When I confided these dreams to my friend Lucy, she said, “That’s the novel you should be writing.” I knew at once that she was right. I put The Buddha Train aside and started fiddling with another idea.

When I finished Beautiful Somewhere Else, I was reasonably certain that I was also finished with Paul Brickner, Nadia, Dr. Maire, Tommy. But at the end of that novel, Nadia is pregnant with Paul’s baby, about which he is (of course) conflicted. As I was trying to figure out what this new, inchoate novel would be, I kept coming back to Paul’s voice, to his life filled with visions and revisions. I found myself slipping naturally into that voice again. I gave Paul and Nadia—married and living in upstate New York—a five year old daughter, Spring, who has suffered a frightening accident. I imbued Paul with my bad dreams about my own child. I gave him new, not-entirely-explicable fears of losing Spring to the creepy lore of the changeling and the ominous mythic figures of the Green Children of Woolpit.

“So, I think I might be writing a sequel to Beautiful Somewhere Else,” I casually told my then-agent.

“Ah,” he said, just a hint of acid in his voice, “because so many readers are clamoring?”

It’s true that Beautiful Somewhere Else, like much of my work, was largely ignored by press and public alike. But the small, fervent band of people who did appreciate that book, seemed especially intrigued by the way I entwined day-to-day details with strands of dread, of the unexplained, the overlooked.

Somewhere, Nabokov says that the word reality is the only word which does not make sense without quotation marks. I’ve always liked that idea. Someone once called my work slipstream. I don’t know what that means, but if it suggests a world where we cannot be sure that what we are seeing is what others take to be “reality,” I am down with that idea. That is what I hoped would fuel Come Away.

But while I was working on Come Away, my wife Kate became terribly ill, was diagnosed with cancer. She spent six spirit-crushing weeks in New York Hospital Hell, while I lurched back and forth between home and the ICU, doing what I could for her, trying to care for our two devastated daughters, trying not to slip too deeply into the slough of despond. Working on Come Away was one of the very few tasks that allowed me to enter another world, one I had slightly more control over.

I finished Come Away on the day that Kate died, in March 2012. I spent the next months numb with sorrow, struggling to tie up the many loose ends of our life together, struggling to help Anna, who was 17, increasingly ill herself, and Jane, who was just 11, in sixth grade and in a new school, cope with a life suddenly devoid of their beloved mom. I could not bear to look at anything I had written then, but on a whim one lonely day, I sent the manuscript of Come Away to a competition at Dzanc Books. It won, and Dzanc chose to publish it.

I fiddled some more with The Buddha Train during this bleak era in my life but occasionally contemplated writing a novel about Kate’s horrible stupid death. I kept wondering what it would be like for my alter-ego Paul to lose Nadia; I had the nascent notion that he might be more literally haunted by Nadia than I was by Kate, and this little shard of an idea stuck with me. It nudged me into doing some desultory research into ghost lore and the neurology of loss.

That’s when I told Jane I was working on another novel about Paul and Spring, though I was not then sure it would grow into anything more than mournful musing.

I always assumed that anyone who wrote multiple volumes about the same characters must have planned it that way. The Ring Trilogy? Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy? Anthony Powell’s massive A Dance to the Music of Time? Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels? I loved all those books, but I certainly never imagined attempting a feat that daunting—constructing a continuing narrative, a world populated by characters who live beyond the pages of one book.

But in 2013, I discovered that’s what I was doing. I put The Buddha Train aside again, and began to wrestle with the ongoing lives of Paul, Nadia, and Spring. I shrugged off thorny issues of continuity—would anyone care that Nadia is pregnant with Spring in 1991 in Beautiful Somewhere Else but Spring is barely 5 in 1999, when I (vaguely) set Come Away? Or that she is just a pre-teen in 2011, in the book I had just begun? That Dr. Maire, mildly villainous in the first novel, turns out to be inadvertently heroic in the second and downright wise in the third?

I also made an abrupt decision to uproot Paul and Spring. Come Away was set mostly in Phoenicia, New York (where my wife and I had a weekend home for many years). But I wanted them out of there—they wanted to be out of there, fleeing the sad house where Nadia had recently died. I invented a sublet, and moved them to the city, placing them in a version of the NYU faculty apartment which my family has occupied for 20 years.

Although I have lived in New York for most of my adult life, I had never really written about it. Placing Paul and a pre-teen Spring in my neighborhood was strangely, almost preternaturally liberating. I could write about the Piano Guy in Washington Square Park, the Merchant’s House Museum, the Village Halloween Parade...

At some point during my blurry explorations for this novel, I heard a song called “Dangerous Blues,” which my friends, the folk/blues duo called The Four o’Clock Flowers, perform. It was written and originally recorded by Mattie May Thomas, a largely unknown blues singer, who may have been incarcerated when she recorded it sometime in the 1930s. The eerie howl of her voice sent shivers down my back; it contains the line I might get better but I won’t get well. Somehow, that seemed to sum up everything I had been feeling for the past year. I found myself throwing chilling blues songs into the mix of this book; I started referring to it as The Dangerous Blues.

But in Fall 2014, just as Come Away was about to be published by Dzanc Books, just as I was beginning to see how The Dangerous Blues could be written, Anna’s health imploded. She was in the hospital with pneumonia three times in ten months.

She left us in June 2015.

I know, I know. People ask all the time: How did you get through this? Insofar as I did get through it, it was because I didn’t really have much choice. I had Jane to think about, and stumbling along was what I knew how to do. As Dylan observes:
And when the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on.
I hid away for quite a while, doing only what I had to do, seeing only people who showed up at our door (in fairness, that’s pretty much the way I have always behaved; maybe this was a little more so). For a long time, I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t already know what had happened to my family; I felt almost apologetic if I had to catch someone up with my recent life. Once, in the vast, gray lobby of our apartment building, I felt compelled to tell the story to a neighbor who observed in passing that she hadn’t seen Anna for a while. She burst into tears, and I found myself, oddly, comforting her.

But if losing Anna—among the sweetest, loveliest children who ever lived—upended my life even more than losing Kate, it did eventually show me how to make The Dangerous Blues a little richer, deeper, at least for myself. Spring became more and more an amalgam of my two daughters—Jane’s exuberant resilience mingled with Anna’s soulful silence. I found that in detailing the father-daughter bond between Paul and the wounded Spring, I could also use some of my most poignant memories of Anna—walking her to preschool singing the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl”, watching a family of ducks paddle around the Esopus Creek upstate one summer, reading the disquieting Grimm’s tale “The Juniper Tree” one night, then having to sit there with her for an hour because she was so weirded out by it.

Anna’s spirit, like Kate’s, came to feel like an integral part of The Dangerous Blues. I am not especially superstitious and I lack the belief gene, but there were many times when I felt like they were hovering nearby, watching me write about them, and maybe, just maybe, smiling.

I recently finished The Dangerous Blues, though what will become of it is as yet unknown. I feel fairly certain, too, that I am finally done with the haunted lives of Paul and Spring. I’d like to be able to state definitively that no earthly or unearthly events could cajole me back into their tumultuous world. But I don’t think I can say that. I’ve been there before.