I was one of those annoying child writers. I wrote weird animal stories when I was 7, I wrote the class play in 5th grade, satirical stories and skits about my school all through high school. I was (who knows why?) much praised for this stuff, so I suppose that encouraged me to keep going. I started to take writing seriously in college (Wesleyan University, in Connecticut); my senior thesis was a slender and absurd rock musical called Two Dwarves in a Closet. It was a huge (and some might argue inexplicable) success; people danced in the theater at the finale. This fostered the delusional belief that I might be able to make a living as a playwright.
I recently enjoyed reading and reviewing Beautiful Somewhere Else, an intriguing novel about the bizarre experiences of an unusual group of people enigmatically thrown together during a hurricane on Cape Cod.
After reading the novel, I contacted the author Stephen Policoff in New York City and asked him for an interview. He graciously took time out from his very busy schedule, and he provided wonderfully detailed, thoughtful insights into Beautiful Somewhere Else as well as some insights into a writer’s life and the surprising ups-and-downs of writing, publishing, and marketing a novel. Here are the results of the interview with versatile novelist, playwright, journalist, and university instructor—Stephen Policoff.
Tim Davis: Before we talk specifically about your recent novel Beautiful Somewhere Else, let me begin by asking the obligatory, conventional opening questions. How did you become a writer? When did you begin?
Stephen Policoff: I was one of those annoying child writers. I wrote weird animal stories when I was 7, I wrote the class play in 5th grade, satirical stories and skits about my school all through high school. I was (who knows why?) much praised for this stuff, so I suppose that encouraged me to keep going. I started to take writing seriously in college (Wesleyan University, in Connecticut); my senior thesis was a slender and absurd rock musical called Two Dwarves in a Closet. It was a huge (and some might argue inexplicable) success; people danced in the theater at the finale. This fostered the delusional belief that I might be able to make a living as a playwright. I worked in Off-off Broadway theater for many years and had many plays produced for audiences of, oh, 10 or 12; a couple of these plays got me grants and interesting commissions (the libretto for a wonderful children’s opera, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, done by New York City Opera, for instance) but somehow it never quite happened for me in that realm. In my late 20s, I fell into writing magazine journalism—I met someone who took pity on me and got me work writing for Cosmopolitan. I was subsequently a freelance writer for years until the mantra this is a stupid way to live threatened to overwhelm all other thoughts. I was offered a part-time teaching job and, with some trepidation, took it. My two YA books both came out of my teaching experiences—Real Toads in Imaginary Gardens (Chicago Review Press, 1991) which I co-authored with the poet Jeffrey Skinner, which was a tremendously successful creative writing book now, alas out of print, and The Dreamer’s Companion (Chicago Review Press, 1997). For a number of years, I continued to juggle magazine writing and part-time teaching, but I was offered a fulltime teaching job at NYU, and (prodded by my far-more-pragmatic wife) decided to take it.
TD: How long have you been at NYU? What is your role there? Do you consider yourself now principally a teacher (university professor) or writer of fiction? Talk a bit more about the path that led you to become a university professor? Are they are conflicts (or advantages) with the dual roles?
SP: I’ve been teaching at NYU since 1986, full-time since 1994. My current title is Master Teacher of Writing; I teach freshman comp and creative writing classes, I also edit the literary magazine for my program and run a freshman essay competition. I tell my students that I consider myself a writer who teaches rather than a teacher who writes—this probably seems like hairsplitting to them but to me it defines my role as being almost exclusively about writing rather than academics. I had neither intention of nor interest in being a university professor. I sort of backed into it—I like to eat regularly and prefer to have roof over my head—then discovered I was pretty good at it and derived some pleasure from it as well. The disadvantages/conflicts are pretty clear—I have a difficult time focusing on my own writing for much of the school year (I also have 2 small children, who are remarkably uncooperative in my efforts). But as jobs go, it’s a pretty good one.
TD: What kinds of writing experiences led up to Beautiful Somewhere Else? How long had this project been “in the works” before finally being published? Was there any particular catalyst for this story?
SP: I tried to write a novel about 20 years ago but nothing came of it. In 1991, my wife and I were vacationing on Cape Cod and Hurricane Bob roared through the Cape, causing great damage and a lot of weird behavior. We were actually in the cheesy cottage that is described in the novel (though little else about BSE is strictly autobiographical). It was a fairly miserable vacation but I got a lot of interesting ideas, which churned around in my thoughts for a year or so. Shortly after that, a dear friend of mine died of stupidity (i.e. a drug overdose); I had a vivid dream about him which still exists in the novel largely unchanged—it’s the beginning of the final chapter. For some reason, I was also drawn to reading a lot of material about people who believed they had been abducted by aliens. All of this seemed to coalesce in my mind and I started writing something about it in 1993; I did not think it would be a novel. I called it Inchoate in my notes, because I had no idea where it was headed. I worked on it off and on for a year before it began to look anything like Beautiful Somewhere Else. I finished the 1st draft in 1995, but for a variety of reasons—the dream book and a children’s book (Cesar’s Amazing Journey, Viking, 1998), teaching, family obligations, angst & ennui—I didn’t get back to work on it until 1998. I showed it to some agents who were pretty uniformly unenthusiastic about its prospects, until Clyde Taylor, a semi-legendary agent at Curtis Brown, gave me some excellent advice on revising it. On a whim, I submitted the revised mss. to the James Jones 1st Novel Fellowship, and won that competition in 2000. Clyde Taylor was very excited about this, he was sure it would mean a fairly easy sale; shortly after that, he dropped dead. The James Jones Society folks—wonderfully supportive—helped me find another agent, Jack Scovil of Scovil Chichak & Galen, but it took another 2 years before Carroll & Graf bought it. The real world seemed to keep getting in the way—9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the lousy economy all conspired against me (OK, that is perhaps a somewhat solipsistic view of the last few years).
TD: Beautiful Somewhere Else will attract, I think, a diverse audience. Who do you see as the target audience for your novel? Who are your readers?
SP: The publicity department of Carroll & Graf asked me the same question and I had the same answer: I have no idea. Nabokov said he imagined his ideal reader as a miniature version of himself—now, that’s a terrifying image to me. The people who seem most enthusiastic about Beautiful Somewhere Else have been people who like dark comedy, who find life a poignant yet absurd pursuit, who don’t mind a teaspoon of sex and a pinch of hallucination in their literary stew.
TD: What kinds of reactions—among readers and critics—have you gotten? Any surprises?
SP: My biggest surprise was how few people wrote about it at all—I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. My wonderful editor (Tina Pohlman) left Carroll & Graf in a cloud of ill will in January 2004, and Beautiful Somewhere Else was orphaned there. Not that a quirky literary 1st novel by an unknown was likely to get a ton of attention anyway, but very very little was done to get the novel out to people who might write about it. It got zero print reviews (except for an unpleasant and inaccurate review from PW and a slightly nicer one from Booklist). Online sites have been far kinder to it—Salon was tremendously enthusiastic about it (“What to Read,” July 2004) as was the excellent online lit mag identity theory; January Magazine did a nice review and even placed it in their “holiday gift guide” and a site called readingdivas.com wrote one of the most intelligent reviews I’ve read. One thing that surprised me is how many people called the book “laugh out loud funny,” or words to that effect. It is funny, it’s meant to be funny, but it’s a sort of melancholy humor, there is a distinct undercurrent of sadness which to me anyway makes the humor more interesting, but which not too many people have taken notice of.
TD: Harold Bloom talks about writers always working against the anxiety of influence from other writers. But let’s face it, all writers are, in fact, influenced by others—either positively as models or examples of what to avoid. That being said, what literary and cultural influences most interest you or, in writing this novel, most influenced you?
SP: I’m not sure who influenced this particular book, but God knows I’ve been influenced by a wide range of people: Bob Dylan, world mythology, Kafka, Nabokov, Donald Barthelme would have to be my biggest “early” influences (though I loved and still love Dickens and Twain and Ford Madox Ford); Denis Johnson has been a huge influence on me, and I greatly admire and have learned from writers as diverse as Susan Minot, Angela Carter, and Ian McEwen.
TD: Your protagonist Paul is provocative and compelling, endearing and irksome, transparent and opaque. Talk a bit about his “genesis” and development (and the “genesis” of the novel and its development). What did you admire about him when creating him? What surprised you? If you were forced to explain your protagonist in one word, what is the word?
SP: One word? I wrote a whole novel about him and you want me to sum him up in one word? I’ve been told Paul sounds a lot like me, and I certainly used a lot of my own verbal mannerisms in creating him, though he is a far darker, more unstrung person than I am. Unstrung might be a good word to define him. He is someone who yearns to be a person other than the one he turned out to be. He is a lovely soul in many ways, but a not entirely competent human being; he longs for that which is good and true and beautiful and yet it seems to elude him at every turn. Certainly, the desire (which I think most of us experience at one time or another) to escape from the prison of the persona we have created for ourselves was one of the central images for me in writing this, and the way we get caught in the mesh of our past experiences and can’t wriggle loose. Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “Life is not one damn thing after another, life is the same damn thing over and over,” and the impulse to try and cut through that Gordion knot of repeated experience is maybe what pushed me along to write Beautiful Somewhere Else.
TD: Talk a bit about the other characters? Nadia, Fred, Tommy, and Jennifer are quite a colorful assortment, but each of them is paradoxically different from and the same as Paul in many ways. (Nadia seems to be the most “sensible” character, but the others have their moments of wonderfully practical insight, too—although they are, to say the least, working in very different realms of reality.) Do you have special interest in any one of these characters more than the others?
SP: I love Tommy, who is based on my friend who died. Nadia is indeed by far the most sensible, grown-up character; she’s definitely a “family hero,” focused on making things work and I am drawn to—though I don’t really share—her sunny view of the world. I’m actually rather fond of all of the characters; lots of people find Jennifer repugnant but I admire her, she is very upfront about her yearning to be someone/somewhere else and quite frank about the means, which she has found to get there. Both Fred and Dr. Maire sort of came out of nowhere; Fred was supposed to be a peripheral character but he very early began to demand more attention, and the whole abducted-by-aliens thing became a more major theme because of that character.
TD: Your readers probably would like to know something more about the Lights, mysticism, and abductions. A lot of the phenomena never get explained (which, of course, underscores your themes). Where do they (as a writer’s creations) come from? You use them (and many other devices) apparently to blur the lines between “reality” and fantasy, truth and deceit, and a long list of other dichotomies. What do you hope readers take away from all the distortions of “reality”? And can you talk a little bit about the omnipresent Sung Soo? Where did he come from?
SP: Somewhere Nabokov says that reality is the only word, which makes no sense without quotation marks around it; I love that idea. I’m intrigued by how we define what is real and what is not, fascinated by delusions of all kinds. Magic and the supernatural have always appealed to me—more as metaphors, I guess, than as anything functional in my life. But the fact that people who feel powerless in their lives often turn to—or are seized by—mystical and/or alternate-reality scenarios fascinates me. Originally, I had no intention of making the alien abduction theme a central part of the novel, but once I had given Fred the whole rant about the Lights (which emerged pretty much fully formed from…somewhere… my subconscious, I suppose), that image began to grow in my thoughts and started to shape the story. Also around the time I was sketching out the book, weird little schizophrenic diatribes began appearing under the windshield wipers of cars in my NYC neighborhood—I would go out in the morning to move my wife’s car from one side of the street to the other (a NYC street cleaning ritual) and find these little scrolls of paper with psychotically tiny handwriting ranting about supernatural forces. Obviously, this made an impression on me; I enjoy random input into my work and the palpable yearning of people in the grip of such ideas to escape from the sorrow (and banality) of “real” life is very moving to me. Sung Soo is based on a real person—he called himself Chung Ling Soo, he was an American posing as a Chinese conjuror, he was tremendously popular in early 20th century London, and he was indeed a friend of Houdini’s. He also died performing one of his own illusions, though not at all as I have described it; nor was he the philosophical figure I have portrayed. But he was an interesting guy and, like Paul, I was an inept teen magician who grew fascinated with him and always wanted to write something about him. Originally, I planned to use the real person but I realized as I worked on the novel that I needed him to be even more enigmatic and more closely aligned with the mystical aspects of the story, so I turned him into Sung Soo. Some of the more bizarre facets of Soo’s persona—like his friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle’s belief in his supernatural powers—were actually lifted from Houdini’s life. I should add that some people seem not to like the whole hallucinatory thread of the book or seem to feel cheated that I don’t spell out what is real and what is hallucination in the longish section which I always thought of as the Walpurgisnacht section (after Faust), but it’s my favorite part and it works pretty much the way I always imagined it. Ambiguity seems to me the only useful response to so many of life’s serious questions.
TD: At the end of the novel, Paul seems to have finally gotten (or is on the verge of getting at least temporarily) a bit beyond his debilitating obsession with his past, but is the novel’s denouement as potentially positive as many might read it? Or are chaos, confusion, and more hurricanes (literal and figurative) always waiting there to derail Paul (and the rest of us)?
SP: Certainly, I think the ending could be read in several ways. I wanted there to be some notes of hope, of love and mercy. But it’s not hard to envision Paul slipping back into the slough of despond, it is not uncalled for to fear that love and mercy may not prove enough to put him back on the path. But I do feel that a door has opened for him, a door back into life, a door that he had felt slam in his face, and that maybe, with Nadia’s love and new responsibilities to rise to, he’ll make it through. As Hemingway notes, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
TD: What kinds of things should we look for from Stephen Policoff in the future? Do you have any projects nearing publication?
SP: I am about 75% done with my second novel; I would love to finish it this summer but I don’t know if that will happen. I have several other projects vaguely in the works (a children’s book, a YA novel), and the idea for a 3rd novel gnawing at my thoughts but the 2nd novel is my principal concern right now—it is somewhat bigger in scope, somewhat more complex in form and slightly more daunting in its ability to elude completion. But I like it, it is still pulling me along, and although it’s not much like Beautiful Somewhere Else, it does have dreams and cults and an “offstage” character who is an organizing principle of the story, so maybe it’s not so different after all.
TD: Thank for being so generous with your time and your comments. My best wishes to you for continued success, and I look forward to reading more and more from Stephen Policoff.
Interview conducted January 2005