Poet, Short Story Writer & New York Literary Lion Tim Tomlinson Interviews Novelist Stephen Policoff
Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 16 million people!) I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Confession: I am totally biased with this one. I love these two writers dearly. They both helped me find my voice as a writer so many years ago when I was a student at NYU. Tim was one of my teachers and Stephen ran the literary magazine and published my first poem when I was still a teenager (and we joked that we were related since both or names ended in “Off”.) It is my great honor to publish this. And, to call both of these men my friends.
The other day I was emailing with Stephen about his daughter (you’ll read about her below) and I felt overwhelmed with sadness. “Why does the world have to be filled with such pain,” I wrote to him. He replied, ‘I always knew we would come to this but I never thought I’d have to do it by myself.
So it goes. Or as Kenneth Patchen observes, “Christ Christ Christ that the world should be cold and dark for so many.’ “
I hope this interview leaves you feeling the opposite of cold and dark as it did for me. Love, Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station.
Tim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction and poetry have appeared in venues from China and the Philippines to Toronto and New York. He is a Yoga Alliance certified (200 hr) instructor. He believes the easiest asanas are the hardest, and the hardest aren’t easy at all. He lives in Brooklyn, he teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program.
Stephen Policoff won the James Jones Award for his first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else (Carroll & Graf 2004). His memoir, Sixteen Scenes from a Film I Never Wanted to See, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in 2014. His second novel, Come Away, won the Mid-Career Author Award and will be published in November 2014 by Dzanc Books. Like Tim Tomlinson, he teaches in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, and edits their literary magazine The West 4th Street Review, where many years ago, he encountered Jen Pastiloff, then a poetic waif, and published her first poem. He lives in Manhattan with his two daughters.
Tim: In Beautiful Somewhere Else, your rendering of the psychedelic experience seems, well, informed. And well informed. What’s your thinking about the writers of our generation, whose kool-aid may have been spiked by irresponsible friends? We hear so much about the negatives of drug use that I wonder: is it possible that drug use, especially the psychedelics, yielded positive results?
Stephen: I can’t really speak for the other writers of our generation (many of whom, let’s face it, don’t speak so well for themselves either), but I have always been patriotic to the psychedelic experience. In Come Away, the narrator’s (younger) wife, who is exasperated with him for ceasing to take an anti-depressant, says,“I don’t get it…Because you once told me, ages ago, that drugs were at the top of your list of key life experiences. That’s what you said. So, now, when you need a different kind of life experience—when I need you, when Spring needs you to have a different kind of life experience—why can’t drugs help you now?”
And he replies: “It’s not the same thing.” I was holding the empty orange Zoloft bottle between two fingers, like it was some disgusting tidbit of garbage I picked up off our floor. “Those drugs were about opening doors—doors maybe I don’t want open any more but still, I don’t mind that they were once opened. This is more about closing doors, doors that maybe I’d like to be closed but not so hard, not so completely…”
I hasten to add that the narrator (Paul) is NOT ME, a far-more-loosely-wrapped version of me; but those thoughts are not unlike mine, and although I was a mere foot-soldier in the psychedelic revolution, the experience of opening what Huxley famously referred to as the “doors of perception” was central to my young adulthood, and has stayed with me in a way that very few other elements of my young life have.
As a teacher—and the father of a 14 year old—I feel duty-bound to add that quite a few of my acquaintances did not fully or happily return from their psychedelic vision-quests and I lost two very dear friends to drugs. So, the dark side of that experience cannot be overlooked. But this has not changed my general feeling that the funhouse mirror image offered by the psychedelic experience was significant to the way I see the world, and tremendously influenced how I write about it.
Tim: Dreams figure significantly in your teaching. How about your fiction?
Stephen: Dreams—and the strange, creepy borderline of what we like to call reality—have often inspired or informed my fiction. My first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, concludes (more or less) with a dream about my dead friend Michael (called Tommy in both that novel and the new one, Come Away), which was pretty much exactly the dream I had after Michael died (way too young; yes, he was one of the drug casualties). I had that dream as I was beginning to think about writing the novel, and it (hazily) pointed the way toward the conclusion of that book. With Come Away, it was really the opposite. I had been working on another novel, and felt frustrated by it. Around that time, I was very very worried about my older daughter Anna, who has a terrible neurogenetic disorder, and I began to have these recurring dreams that she was lost in a forest, crying out for me but I couldn’t see her or reach her. The dreams made me reconsider what I was working on; I later gave those dreams to the narrator of Come Away, and it helped me jump-start that novel. So, yeah, my interest in and appreciation of the dream state have definitely influenced my fiction writing. Lots of my writing has nothing to do with dreams but I do retain a certain affection for the writing that is touched by my over-active dream life.
Tim: We come from a time before zip codes. What’s your relationship to au courant techno things? Do you keep up? Do you have the iPhone 6? Can you do the google? Or have you pushed off in a canoe bound for Typee? I guess what I’m asking is: must contemporary writers grapple with contemporary trends?
Stephen: I have a slightly antique IPhone and a new-ish IPad which I don’t really know what to do with; my 14 year old daughter Jane is an avid tech fan, and I almost always have to ask her to help me figure out how to use anything more complicated than the TV remote. I am certainly a passionate fan of writing on my laptop. When I started out as a (not terribly successful) freelance writer a hundred or more years ago— for Cosmopolitan! Ladies Home Journal! Seventeen! Mostly magazines I would never read myself— revising articles was laborious, and cut-and-paste was a literal rather than a figurative technique. When I occasionally read about some writer who remains passionate about working on a typewriter, I shudder. And of course, researching is way easier with the behemoth of the Internet at our fingertips. Still, I often begin writing whatever I am working on in an actual journal rather than a digital one. I began Come Away that way, and wrote almost all of my memoir Sixteen Scenes from a Film I Never Wanted to See (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2014) in a journal. For that little book especially, I needed the comfort of a notebook. I wrote it—obsessively—the summer after my wife Kate died tragically young. I went almost daily to Washington Square Park, sat on a bench, listened to children and squirrels screeching, and poured out my miserable heart. I don’t think I could have written it on my computer; I think I needed not to feel like I was writing a memoir but rather just opening a vein and bleeding onto the page. Technology has its hugely valuable role to play. But sometimes the soul wants to be soothed by something small and quiet.
Tim: Saul Bellow said that writers are readers moved to emulation. Who got you on the emulation tip, and who or what do you read now for sustenance and inspiration?
Stephen: The books I read when I was 19 (a LONG time ago) still resonate with me and were major emulation-stimuli for me (I don’t know if that means I am a case of arrested development or just that I stumbled at that age on a trove of worthy books). I read Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time at around that age, and for years tried to emulate his dark/witty/language-intoxicated/mildly perverse prose. This is, of course, an almost impossible task but his novels did drive me on to try creating difficult and complex narratives, and made me fall in love with the Untrustworthy Narrator, a narrative gambit I still enjoy (both of my novels are written in that kind of voice). I stumbled upon Donald Barthelme’s Snow White also around 18 or so and something about the melancholy/giddy language was tremendously compelling to me. For years, I have repeated Snow White’s cry—“Oh how I wish there were some words in the world that are not the words I always hear!”—and for quite a while, I could not write anything that did not sound vaguely like Barthelme. I also discovered Alain-Fournier’s singular journey novel, Le Grand Meaulnes (called The Wanderer or The Lost Domain in English) which I still teach. And in a marvelous modern German literature class (in translation; I was always hopeless with other languages), I devoured pretty much everything Kafka wrote. That’s sort of a strange mishmash of books, and there were plenty of others—I went on an Iris Murdoch kick in my early 20s, I loved and still love Jane Austen—but those were among the strongest in influence. I don’t have as much time/energy to read now as I wish I had. I find solace sometimes in re-reading poets I loved as a boy (Yeats, for instance, and, for some reason, Kenneth Patchen have recently been on my revisit route). I still appreciate Dickens and occasionally dip back into those vast tomes; I recently re-read Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, another brilliant example of the untrustworthy narrator. There are many contemporary writers I admire—I love Lorrie Moore, I think Jayne Ann Phillips is way underrated, I think George Saunders rocks—but between reading student essays, trying to do my own work, and taking care of my disabled kid and her 14 year old sister by myself, I don’t get to plunge into a novel very often.
I should add that music, too, has influenced me greatly—I love the blues, folkie stuff, the British invasion, the Beach Boys. And very few books have been as influential to me as Bob Dylan’s amazing oeuvre: And when the bottom fell out/I became withdrawn/The only thing I knew how to do/Was to keep on keeping on/Like a bird that flew/Tangled up in blue… Come on, what could be more powerful in its solace than that?
Tim: Is there a question you’ve always wished you’d be asked in an interview, but haven’t been?
Stephen: I thought you’d never ask. I have to say that the way I came to write—and finish—Come Away is worthy of a rambling answer.
So here goes: I was working on another novel, and was frustrated by it. My first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, though largely ignored by press and public alike, still felt alive to me, or at least the characters did—the anxious narrator Paul, his younger, upbeat wife Nadia, Nadia’s New Age philosopher dad, Dr. Maire.
Around that time, my older daughter Anna, who was born with the terrible disease Niemann-Pick C, began to get worse, and I began having those dreams I mentioned earlier. Also around that same time, I was chatting with a neighbor about our special-needs kids, and he admitted that when his son was diagnosed with autism, he felt as if his much-loved child was a changeling—a healthy child whisked away by fairies and replaced with a withered husk of a kid. I was intrigued by that idea—not that I thought of my daughter as a changeling, but I began to think that the lore of the changeling might well be some kind of folktale explanation for ill or disabled children. As I began to research some of those tales, I was reminded of yet another youthful enthusiasm—the Victorian craze for fairy paintings, and especially the work of Richard Dadd, who killed his father and spent most of his life painting mad masterpieces in the infamous Bedlam. I began sketching out an idea for a novel about a father’s fear of losing his child to a supernatural force.
I have always been fond of the supernatural, not really as a belief system but as a metaphor for all the things we can’t explain in our lives. What I was writing began to unfold in the same voice I had used in Beautiful Somewhere Else, Paul’s voice, and it felt right, so I began to think of those characters a few years down the road, married, with a kid, a kid who was imperiled in some way. Around that time—and this often happens to me, some synchronous bubbling up of stuff into my limited attention span—I read a review of a book about unexplained mysteries, and came upon the story of the Green Children of Woolpit, a weird medieval legend about green-ish children who appeared one day in a small English village. That was a jolt, and it sent me right to my computer, and suddenly the tale of the green children was interwoven with changeling children, the twisted paintings of Richard Dadd, my disabled daughter, my fear for her life…
I worked on this mess sporadically for maybe a year and a half. Then—and I hate to even tell this part—my beloved wife Kate was diagnosed with cancer; she spent a horrifying 6 weeks in New York hospital hell and I was dashing back and forth from home to office to hospital, trying to take care of my wife, my kids, my teaching, afraid to think about the future, or about much of anything really. The only thing that provided me any relief was working on Come Away; because it was both about my own anxieties and impending despair but also totally not about that. Working on the book was like going into a trance or something. I finished the first draft the day Kate died, in March 2012. I didn’t know, of course, it would be the day she died, only that I had already lost her and needed to work hard to keep from losing myself. For several months after she died, I did not look at the manuscript—there was too much to do, too many sad loose ends of our life together to tie up. During the fall of 2012, I took the semester off from teaching. Instead of working on a project I had planned to work on, I went back to Come Away. I liked/hated it, the way I always do with anything I’ve written. I revised it and, on a whim, sent it to Dzanc Books, which was holding a competition for a Mid-Career Author Award. It won the award. Various friends of mine have said, “Kate got you that award.” And maybe she did.
I should add that when my daughter Jane heard that I had won a mid-career award she said, “Gee, Daddy, if this is your mid-career, you’re going to be really old when your career is over.” How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child!
So, that’s the story. Come Away will probably always remind me of that terrible time in my life, but the book itself, though a bit on the dark side, has laughter and hope in it, and I like to think those are the elements which may intrigue others, which may endure.