Stephen Policoff's Dangerous Blues has been called "kind of a ghost story." It's about love and death and one man and his twelve-year-old daughter being haunted by the loss of the woman they both loved.
Says Susan Choi: "Policoff is a seer of the ineffable, the unbearable. A joy to read."
Policoff's first novel, BEAUTIFUL SOMEWHERE ELSE, won the James Jones Award and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His second novel, COME AWAY, won the Dzanc Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His third and most recent novel, DANGEOUS BLUES, was recently published by Flexible Press. He is Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU.
A portion of the proceeds from Dangerous Blues will benefit the National Niemann-Pick Disease Foundation, a non-profit, patient advocacy and family support organization dedicated to supporting and empowering patients and families affected by Niemann-Pick disease, through education, collaboration and research.
Thank you so much for being here Stephen!
So, your other novels also feature Paul Brickner and Nadia and Spring in a chronology of events which I love. Was this always your intent? Did you feel like one novel was speaking to you and urging you to write the next part? And will there be another book after Dangerous Blues?
I had no intention of writing a trilogy, and in truth if someone really cared to comb through the 3 books, the timeline makes very little sense (Nadia is pregnant with Spring in 1991 in Beautiful Somewhere Else, in Come Away, written 10 years later, Spring is barely 5, and in Dangerous Blues she is not-quite-12). Come Away (Dzanc Books 2014) was very much meant to be a follow-up to the first novel, but after that book, I was pretty sure I was done with Paul and his wife Nadia and their little girl Spring. But when my wife Kate died in 2012, I wondered how I might write about this—writing is how I process almost everything really—and it occurred to me that Paul, who has some kind of porousness to the realm of the unconscious, might be the best vehicle for exploring what it feels like to be haunted by the past. Right now, I think I am done with Paul. But I’ve thought that before, so who knows?
Music plays a huge part in this book, and I know your daughter was interested in music, “Music Today” won the Fish Short Memoir Award. What does music mean to your writing?
My daughter Anna, who died in 2015 of the dreadful rare, neurogenetic disorder Niemann-Pick Type C, was indeed a passionate lover of music, and some of the songs she loved (“Little Surfer Girl,” “Box of Rain,” “Love in Vain”) thread through Dangerous Blues. Music is one of the things which gets me through life, certainly, and I often listen to music while I am thinking about whatever I am working on—though rarely when I am actually writing, because I am easily distracted. In college, I had a friend who was a passionate blues aficionado, and I always found those melancholy/humorous songs to be tremendously relatable. When I was formulating Dangerous Blues, I heard some of those songs again for the first time in many years, and the hauntedness of some of the brilliant/desperate people who sang them really seemed to connect to what Paul goes through in the novel, how he relates to the world, how he learns to cope with grief, loss and fear.
I often say that the things that scare us are what we need to write about. We need to be the canaries in the coal mines everyone faces. Why do we write what we write, and how do you think we can get at that?
I was not sure that I wanted to write about losing my beloved wife Kate to cancer, but eventually I knew I would have to, just to understand how I felt about the world. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said that she needed to see what she had written in order to understand what she thought about things, and I fully embrace that aspect of writing. At the same time, I did not want to write a straightforward book about my loss and grief. I wanted to allow other characters to feel haunted and obsessed by different elements of life and our weird world, and that intuition really helped me create the somewhat intricate realm of Dangerous Blues.
What kind of writer are you?
A disorganized one? I think that can be said of many writers. People have often said to me, You must be so disciplined and organized to write these books…which makes me laugh usually, because I am totally undisciplined and thoroughly disorganized. But I am obsessive enough that I usually end up forcing myself to get down to work, and when I do that, I can get a fair amount done. I hate it when I see other authors advising writers on how to do your work, on what makes a real writer. A real writer is one who writes, regardless of the circumstances, success, or rewards.
You’ve said about your work, Love it. Hate it! Want to kiss the cover! Which I think is part of every novelist’s journey. I personally only love my work when I am writing it, then the terror comes in. Is that your experience too?
I usually think when I am working on something that it is the best thing I have ever written and arguably the best thing ever written by anyone….then when I read it over, it seems lumpy, clotted, and vile. When I was younger I hated revising; now I love it, and feel like that is where you turn the dross into gold (or fool’s gold anyway). When it is published, I usually can’t stand to look at it, even if I know in my heart that I did a fine job. I am quite proud of Dangerous Blues, and reading from it at my various Book Events has gone well, but I can’t imagine actually reading the novel from start to finish again. I need to move on, and hopefully will be able to get down to work on another project in the near future.
You don’t like to read fiction while you are writing? What work influences you?
I do read fiction while I am writing but I don’t like to read any novels which seem remotely like what I am working on. I read some ghost lore, and some blues history while working on this novel but in my reading for pleasure, I have hugely eclectic taste: Denis Johnson, Kafka, Yiyun Li, Dickens, the Brontes…I dipped into all of those books while I was writing Dangerous Blues. Music, too, influences me hugely. I doubt any writer has influenced me more than Bob Dylan. And Brian Wilson’s exquisite melancholy also finds its way into my writing process. And the beauty and sorrow of every day life. That is what really gets to me every time.