An Interview with Stephen Policoff
- By Mary Kay Zuravleff
- December 20, 2022
The novelist talks ghosts, grief, and the birth of his alter ego.
Stephen Policoff is the author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, which won the James Jones First Novel Prize, and Come Away, winner of the Dzanc Award. He’s also published numerous essays and fiction; his award-winning essay “Music Today?” about his older daughter’s experience in music therapy, has been widely published. Policoff is currently Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Studies at New York University. Here, we discuss his latest novel, Dangerous Blues.
I’ve just finished your poignant and darkly funny new novel, which is an imaginative mashup of ghosts, blues, and dreams. Paul’s wife’s ghost is infused with blue, from her shadow to her long blue fingers. Ghostie Boy is a dead blues singer. Bad dreams haunt every character, and Paul’s love interest Tara escapes a cult run by the Father of Dreams. How did you create a mix that’s resonant without being repetitive?
My initial idea was that Paul was possibly being haunted by the ghost of his beloved wife, Nadia, and that everyone he meets in his new life in NYC is obsessed by something as well. Nabokov says somewhere that “reality” is the only word which makes no sense without quotation marks. I took that as the connecting thread of how these characters move through the world. I don’t outline but I make lots of lists. Finding a way to weave dreams, cults, the blues, and dysfunctional family relationships into my story was somewhat accidental but quite satisfying.
All your novels feature your alter ego, Paul, and your alter family, wife Nadia and daughter Spring. Tell us about crafting this parallel world. Did you enjoy or avoid writers, like Elizabeth Strout, who carry their characters from one saga to the next?
I created Paul as a somewhat more unstrung version of myself for my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else. Come Away — more of a sibling book than a sequel — flowed out of anxieties I was having about my fatally ill older daughter, Anna, and it seemed that Paul was the right narrator for that book as well. I had no intention of writing a third novel with those characters, but when my wife, Kate, died suddenly in 2012, I found myself thinking about being literally rather than metaphorically haunted by someone you lost. Since Paul possesses some sort of portal to a hidden world, he seemed the obvious narrator for Dangerous Blues. I am tremendously impressed by authors who create an alternate world where their characters continue to live; I had no idea how to do that, had no intention of doing that, but seem to have somehow done it anyway.
The magical, musical, and mystical details are such a combination of real and invented that I kept looking them up. Was there as much pleasure in inventing things as there was in weaving in arcane and wonderful details?
The magician Sung Soo, a holdover from my first novel, is based on the actual faux-Chinese conjuror Chung Ling Soo, who was a pal of Houdini’s and did indeed die performing one of his illusions. The bluesman Ghostie Boy Wilson is totally made up, though he has analogs in legends like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. In both cases, especially with Ghostie Boy, trying to realistically render someone whose life was so distressing and violent felt too complicated. Making him a somewhat mysterious, ghostly figure seemed appropriate not only because of the spectral world of the novel but to honor the truth that so many of the great blues singers lived marginal, largely undocumented lives. I especially enjoyed creating those two characters, who are sort of true to life yet still phantoms about whom little is known.
Paul is surrounded by dynamic women: Lucy is in Bali and lends him and his daughter her New York apartment; his brilliantly named daughter, Spring, embodies both the season and a bouncy resilience. Tara and her daughter, Irina, are literally on the run. Even in his dreams, where he’s weighed down by a stone, Paul is static. What challenges did you face writing about his inertia?
Ha-ha! Every challenge. Inertia is baked into grief, I think, and certainly I began the novel as a way of dealing with grief. But trying to make the characters come alive when I felt not-so-alive, trying to imagine a life for them when I had no idea how to live myself…that was part of the challenge of the writing process and no doubt part of what helped me learn to go on.
Flashbacks show Paul, Nadia, and Spring as a loving and close family unit, while the families around them range from estranged to menacing. Can you talk about family as a theme in the book?
It was never my intention to be the bard of family loss and grief, but I seem to have gravitated to that vast subject. Obviously, families are endlessly fascinating and family dynamics are often weird and unfathomable. I think because I enjoy the idea of the supernatural, that the more mundane world of family love/loss/joy/grief becomes a natural setting for questions about what we take to be the real world. Also, families are a great site of darkly comic and inexplicable human behavior, which is a longtime interest of mine.
I thought of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo as I read. Paul’s father-in-law gives voice to Nadia being caught in a “spiritual fugue state” and likens Paul’s bereavement hallucinations to the phantom pain of an amputated limb. Writing seems like a spiritual fugue state as well, and I’m interested in how this book addressed your own state.
Like a lot of writers, I process my own experience through writing. Dangerous Blues is probably the most autobiographical thing I have written — though almost none of the events actually happened to me. My daughter Jane says she doesn’t have to read the book because she is in it…which is sort of true (in the same way that the novel is called sort of a ghost story) but also not-quite-true.
I doubt I would have written this book if I was not wrestling with my own grief and my own concerns about mortality, as well as questioning how to live with loss or how to help children go on with their lives after major trauma. I have often looked at the supernatural as a metaphor for the weirdness and mysteries of life, and plunging back into that world helped me, certainly, with this one.
Mary Kay Zuravleff’s fourth novel, American Ending, will be out in June 2023. Her most recent novel, Man Alive!, was a Washington Post Notable Book. She is a recipient of the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is a 2023 DC Commission on the Arts Fellow.