Philip Cioffari is the author of the new novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues. His other books include The Bronx Kill and Catholic Boys, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including North American Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your character Hunt?
A: I came up with the idea for If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues in a circuitous way.
For years, off and on, I’d been writing stories set in the time period of the novel—the late ‘50s and ‘60s in New York City. These stories often featured a young male protagonist struggling with entry into the adult world, in other words, coming of age stories.
I think for this book I wanted a larger canvas, a transformational event that would include many of those struggles that we confront on our way to adulthood. One’s 18th birthday is generally accepted as a key demarcation point. So I combined this with senior prom night—two pivotal events in any teenager’s life—and I had my basic structure.
The character of Hunt, my protagonist, came about as an amalgamation of the protagonists in earlier stories, essentially a good-hearted kid who wants to understand the trials and tribulations he’s going through. He wants to make sense of himself: his enthusiasm for life’s experiences, his pain, his loneliness, his yearnings.
Q: The novel takes place over the course of Hunt's 18th birthday. Were there any challenges to writing a novel that unfolds over a single day?
A: There were some challenges to confining the time period of the novel to 24 hours, the day and night of his birthday. In earlier drafts, the time period stretched out over several weeks, but I thought that made the story loose in a way I didn’t want it to be.
I thought by compressing the time, I could add more intensity to the situation and to Hunt’s feelings, and overall add more tension to the story.
But then I had to find a way to make the various activities—the dance lesson, his job at the beach, the overhanging threat of gang violence, and especially his relationship with Debby Ann, the girl he takes to the prom, fit into that one day and night. It took some juggling and telescoping to achieve that.
Among other things, it pretty much eliminated the use of full-on flashbacks. I had to find ways to get all the exposition into the present level of the story.
Q: The book is set in the Bronx in 1960. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: Setting has always been one of the primary elements of my craft. I’d go so far as to say I really can’t write a story unless I have a firm grasp of the time and place. That becomes the foundation on which the story is built. It makes me feel connected to the work in a visceral way.
I guess that’s because, even apart from writing, I’ve always been particularly sensitive to my surroundings.
I remember walking with my father one night in our neighborhood and insisting we walk on a certain side of the street because I thought it had more character. He rolled his eyes but indulged me; from his perspective both sides of the street had the same brick buildings, the same sidewalks, the same street lamps.
For me, even the quality of light is something I consider in the scenes I write. I have to know if it’s morning, mid-morning, late evening, whatever. Is it overcast or sunny? Winter or summer? Cold or warm? And so on.
All of those things affect my characters. They affect what I see in my mind, what I feel, as I’m writing. In short, I believe setting contributes mightily to the verisimilitude of a piece.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I’d been carrying the title around for several years before I found what I thought was the right story to do it justice. It comes from an old African American folktale/song, the story of “Betty and Dupree.”
I like the title because it seems to sum up all the pain and drama and sadness of love lost, or just beyond reach. I like the romantic implications of it. It’s lack of love that kills us, as much as any disease.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on a new novel about various people—at critical moments in their lives—who pass through a diner during the overnight hours this one particular night.
This diner, this night, I hope serves as a microcosm of human need and desire. People on the edge, trying to make what they can of their lives.
I’m also working on a novel about a writer who is asked by the husband of the only woman he’s ever loved to find her when she disappears.
And I’m writing a play and movie script of my previous novel, The Bronx Kill.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In my novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, I’ve tried to capture the feel of what it was like to live in that year, 1960. At the same time, I hope I’ve captured some of the layers of adolescence, its highs and lows, its humor, pathos, and romance.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb