Come Away is an intriguing story. Where did you get your inspiration?
When my older daughter Anna was five, she was diagnosed with the terrible genetic disorder—Niemann Pick C—which triggered a series of recurring nightmares about losing her. Around that same time, I became interested in the ancient lore of the changeling child and the Green Children of Woolpit (a green boy and girl, who were said to have emerged from a world inside our world in Suffolk, England, in the twelfth century).
While wandering through the Tate Gallery in London, I was mesmerized by Richard Dadd’s hallucinatory masterpiece, “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke,” which became the elusive dream-like center of the novel; and I happened upon and reread with great delight “The Stolen Child” by Yeats, whose plangent chorus—“Come away, O human child!/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand/For the world’s more full of weeping/Than you can understand”—seemed to sum up everything I was feeling about the sorrow of life at that moment. Those elements eventually seemed to bubble and brew into Come Away. A friend of mine described it as a “fever dream” of a book, and I have to say that it felt a little bit that way as I was writing it.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
I have provisionally finished my third novel, The Dangerous Blues, which is the third in an unplanned trilogy (Beautiful Somewhere Else, Carroll & Graf, 2004; Come Away, Dzanc Books, 2014). I have also been working on an essay about my daughter Anna, who sadly passed away from Niemann-Pick C in 2015. That has been one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to write, though it feels like it needs to be written.
Which authors have influenced you the most?
I never entirely recovered from reading and loving Donald Barthelme’s weird and unclassifiable oeuvre when I was a boy; for quite a while, I could not write anything that did not sound like him. But writers as disparate as Nabokov, Kafka, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Bowen (Death of the Heart remains one of my favorite novels), Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Jamaica Kincaid—and many many others, really—have helped me see the beauty and sorrow of life and the beauty and sorrow of writing about life.
What makes your writing style unique?
I have sometimes described my novels as “dark domestic comedies with a buzz of the supernatural.” Someone once called my writing slipstream. I think my early experiences as a playwright—I worked in Off-off-Broadway theater for many years—has made me a pretty good writer of dialogue, so I do like to include a fair amount of strange and arguably offbeat conversations in my fiction, and I think I am pretty good at creating characters who push each other along into and out of conflicts.
I do not do a lot of pre-planning when I write. I am not the least bit spontaneous, but in my writing, I make some lists, do some brief character profiles, somehow come up with some images and ideas I want to explore, and then…I don’t know…plunge in. I have given up worrying whether this is the right or wrong way to go about doing what I do.
Who is the first person you show your writing to?
Well, this is a trick question for me, because I really don’t show anyone my work at all until I am ready for it to go out into the world. When I was younger, my friend Michael (the model for the mildly deranged musician Tommy in Beautiful Somewhere Else and Come Away) served that function, but he is no longer with us. I occasionally read a section of what I am working on to a few of my colleagues at NYU. I read it aloud to myself over and over…does that count?
Stephen Policoff won the Mid-Career Author Award with his book Come Away, which was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. During his career as a writer, he has received the Fish Short Memoir Prize and The James Jones Award, and continues to write both novels and essays. He currently teaches writing at NYU.