Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stephen Policoff talks about his dazzling new novel COME AWAY, the Grateful Dead, Changelings, magic, pain, and more

I've been a huge admirer of Stephen Policoff since his debut, Beautiful Somewhere Else, and his new novel, Come Away is extraordinary. (He's also a professor at NYU.)  I'm a sucker for stories about father-child anxiety, and this one also adds in imaginary and not so imaginary friends, and the mystery of the human bond. I'm thrilled to have Stephen here.  Thank you, thank you, Stephen!

On my New Novel Come Away:
Changelings, Dream Lore, and the Grateful Dead

I tend to collect bits and pieces of idea and images and characters, and then try to figure out how they go together.  In some long ago interview, Nabokov talks about how he scribbled images and phrases and moments onto file cards and put them in a box.  When the box was full, he said, he would begin writing the novel.  I’ve always liked that idea, though I’m not nearly organized enough to fill a box with file cards. My bits and pieces are more like imaginary file cards.
            Come Away—despite its slender size—emerged from many many imaginary file cards. It began about 7 years ago, when my older daughter Anna, who has a dreadful neurogenetic disorder, began to deteriorate.  She had been diagnosed at 5 but was leading a more or less normal life until she turned 12, and then, as in some frightening fairy tale, seizures came over her like the cloud of slumber that envelops Sleeping Beauty.  Around that time, I was talking with a neighbor whose son is on the autism spectrum; he told me that when his child was diagnosed, he felt as if his beloved boy had been replaced by a changeling child.  This sent a chill down my spine—and it also sent me back to read and research some of the tales I had loved as a kid.  Northern European folklore is full of stories of the changeling—the healthy child whisked away by malign forces and replaced with a withered husk of a child.  I always loved those stories—who knows why? They are certainly not cheerful childhood tales. 
I began to wonder if all these tales might not be folktale explanations of childhood illness and disability (it turns out there is some research to suggest this might be true), and I began to think about using that idea in something, though my original thought was that it would be a YA story of some kind. 
            But like a sticky plate left out on a table, other ideas and images and memories kept accruing,landing on that initial thought and staying there.  I remembered and re-read the wonderful Yeats poem, “The Stolen Child;” I recalled my undergraduate enthusiasm for the mad Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd, who spent most of his adult life in the infamous Bedlam after killing his father; I stumbled upon and became fascinated with the medieval legend of the Green Children of Woolpit…
            I had been working on another novel, but was not pleased with its progress.  When I confided to a friend my deepest fears about Anna’s declining health, and my not-entirely-rational  association with changelings and magic, she said, “Why aren’t you writing about that?  That’s the novel you should be writing.” 
And she was right.
            I have always been interested in magic—like Come Away’s narrator Paul, I was a barely competent teen magician and both stage magic and the supernatural kind have always beguiled me, not so much as a belief system but as a metaphor for how little control we have over our lives, and especially our children’s lives.  Show me a parent who has not engaged in magical thinking about his/her child!  Aren’t we always bargaining on some level with forces which may be wholly imaginary but still hold power over us? Well, that’s true for me anyway, and writing about my family’s struggles with the malign power of illness, while at the same time not actually writing about it, was both liberating and (occasionally) exhilarating for me.
Of course, some might argue that the reality of parenting is fraught enough without adding the strands of preternatural possibilities with which Come Away is threaded.  But I’ve always liked to interweave dark domestic comedy with the mild buzz of the supernatural.  It seems to be my natural m├ętier.
Like magic, dreams, too, have always intrigued me.  As a hyper-sensitive youth, I kept a dream journal for many years, and I have used dreams and dream studies to teach writing classes since I started teaching several (gulp!) decades ago.  Often, this is catnip for undergraduates.  I always make my freshman writing classes do a dream research paper, and even got a YA book out of it (The Dreamer’s Companion, Chicago Review Press, still in print 17 years later!).
I like the way in which dreams seem to gnaw at our sense of what is real and what is not…I think it is Nabokov who said that the word “reality” is among the only words which makes no sense without quotation marks around it.  In Come Away, the narrator’s father-in-law, a New Age philosopher, suggests that the small green girl Paul has been seeing, and whom he fears has come to take his daughter Spring from him, is a seeping dream object, an image which has leaked out of his unconscious into the world of objects.  This is a phenomenon I totally made up, though it’s hard to make anything up that is more fantastical than the Twilight Zone world of dream research.
I never outline, and I rarely know exactly where my work is taking me.  This is just a personality thing, and I certainly don’t urge anyone to write that way. I write lists, and scribble various fragments in journals but have never been able to sit down and outline a plot or a character arc. I am sure my writing—or at least my process—would be better served if I were better organized.  I have a lot on my plate—I am a single father raising my profoundly disabled daughter and her madcap 14 year old sister—so I have to be obsessive about my writing even when (or especially when) I am only randomly organized about it. Once in a while, I discourse aloud to myself about whatever I am working on, record it, then play it back.  That helps me sometimes.  And I often speed-write a kind of blathering forth about what I am working on, and then read it back to myself.  That is about as close to an outline as I get.
I have written plays and fiction and nonfiction for young people and adults.  I started out wanting to be a playwright, and I actually worked in the Off-off-Broadway theater scene for many years, and had a number of plays produced in obscure locations around the country. But I got frustrated by always having to deal with crazy egos and the many many assholes who work in the theater—not that there are not such people in every walk of life but writing novels allows me to avoid them for much longer. I sort of fell into writing magazine articles as a young man and did a lot of that for a while, but it was only a job, I never really cared about that kind of writing, at least for personal fulfillment.  Novels seem to be what I like to write these days (though it takes me far too long to do it).  I will probably try a young adult novel at some point, though mostly I seem inclined toward writing quirky literary fiction; it’s the kind of writing I like to read, and usually, whatever I start out with, it ends up in that genre.
I am currently obsessed with ghosts.  Not that I believe in ghosts so much but again, I love the idea of some energy that is left behind after a loved one leaves us.  After my wife Kate died tragically young a few years ago, I started wondering if I could ever write a novel about how much I missed her, how empty and unmagical life seemed without her.  I was reading Oliver Sacks’ s book Hallucinations (another subject of lifelong interest to me), and there is a whole section on bereavement hallucinations.  And it seemed to me that my character Paul—who, OK, sounds a lot like me, though he is far more loosely wrapped than I am—might well experience such a thing.  So, I started reading ghost lore, especially Asian ghost lore, which is somewhat different from the Western image of the phantom in a sheet. I never planned to write a trilogy, but it rather seems as if there is another novel featuring Paul, the narrator of Come Away (and my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else) and his daughter Spring coping (sort of) with the loss of Spring’s mother. So far, it’s called The Dangerous Blues.
No one has yet asked me why there is a repeated fragment of a Grateful Dead song in Come Away! I keep waiting…so I will now tell you, even if you do not wish to know.  My late wife Kate was a part-time Deadhead back in the day, and I too used to go see them now and then when I was younger (there was an epic Dead concert my senior year at Wesleyan, now shrouded in the mists of legend). One year, Kate’s brother Gerry—a major league Deadhead—gave us a CD of the 70s Dead classic American Beauty for Christmas, and the first song, “Box of Rain,” one I had loved when I was younger, really grabbed me, especially the lines
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago
And the final, enigmatic line: Such a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there
My wife and I used to joke that we wanted that song played at our funeral; but when Kate died, I was too distraught to remember that.  Actually, I barely remember anything about the funeral (except that Anna had a huge—and hugely appropriate—seizure just as the funeral began, almost toppling over while everyone around us wept). So, when I was revising Come Away, I remembered the song and the half-serious promise.  The beauty of that strange idea—how long we are “not here,” how painfully brief is the time we are here—really seemed to echo everything I was thinking about while writing Come Away.  So, I sort of shoved it into the narrative, as a song that Spring and her mother sing together, as an image that (I hope) will resonate with some as much as it has resonated with me.

--Stephen Policoff/November 2014


Stephen Policoff said...

Thanks Caroline!

Rita said...

Wow! I can't wait to read it.