When Philip Cioffari’s publicist first sent me an advance copy of his latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, the title caught my attention immediately. Who could ignore such a catchy title?
Learning that the book begins in the Bronx in 1960—when I was already on the planet—was a little alarming, simply because I don’t like to think about my life as historical fiction. But nonetheless I dove into the story of eighteen-year-old Joey Hunter, his hopes, his friends, and his family.
To find out more about Philip Cioffari’s latest book and his plans for it, just read on.
The title comes from an African-American folktale about two mythical lovers, Betty and Dupree. Betty wants a diamond engagement ring, so Dupree, who is very much in love with her and has no money, goes into town and steals one, in the process shooting the store clerk. At his sentencing, he explains he was done in by the heartbreaking blues. In my novel, I wanted the title to reflect the young main character’s struggle to find true love. I wanted it to convey, in a mostly comic and ironic way, the blues he suffers on that journey, as well as the more general and inevitable blues of adolescence.
The Bronx in the 1960s: what made you want to set a story there?
For one thing, it is a period I know well, having lived through it. More importantly, though, I think of the year 1960 as the beginning of a decade that served as a turning point in American culture. The postwar cultural mores were beginning to slip away, being replaced by newer customs and more progressive values. The conformity of the 50s was giving way to a more personalized, individualistic kind of freedom. Especially for the young, it was a time of bright hope and anticipation that one’s destiny was less a prefabricated mold and more a malleable substance that could be shaped according to one’s need.
Tell us about your protagonist, Joey Hunter, better known as Hunt. Where is he in his life at the opening of the novel?
Hunt, on this his eighteenth birthday and senior prom night, is on the cusp of manhood. He is experiencing for the first time what he thinks of as love. We would call it infatuation, but he doesn’t yet know the difference. He also longs for independence. The one thing he asks for on his birthday, and is given it, is the right to stay out all night. This night he takes important steps in becoming a man. He moves from infatuation to a deeper sense of what love really is. He understands the ways, despite his own struggles, he can be a support and comfort to others.
And how would you describe his personality?
His personality is basically upbeat and optimistic, though he suffers through bouts of what he calls the Deep Blues—the result of his insecurities and uncertainties—that cause him to feel disconnected and alone.
Hunt, when we meet him, is anticipating his first date with a girl named Debby Ann Murphy. What can you tell us about her—particularly in terms of how Hunt sees her and what she means to him?
He’s infatuated with her: her looks, her clothes, her blossoming womanhood. The reality is, though, that she’s absolutely the wrong mate for him. They share none of the same values. He wants to be a writer and thinker, and she has little tolerance for school or things intellectual. He has a creative mind and wants to live, in all ways, an adventurous life, while she sticks to the basics. She sees her life as already planned out for her: marriage, pregnancy, motherhood. None of these things deters him, however. All love might be blind, but certainly first love is. He pursues her till she shuts the door.
Hunt also has two pals, Augie and Johnnie Jay. Who are they, and how do they help him handle the various mishaps that he endures in the course of this story?
Johnnie Jay is the best friend of his teenage years. They share the same love of adventure, the same intellectual pursuits, the same desire for girls who, in one way or another, are beyond their reach. But Johnnie Jay’s more carefree approach to life and love lightens Hunt’s more serious personality. If a girl refuses Hunt’s invitation to dance, he’s crushed; Johnnie Jay, on the other hand, takes a “no” as a challenge to try harder. They complement one another, a fact that has made them such close friends.
Ten year-old Augie is Hunt’s sidekick. He is the only African-American kid in the neighborhood, the smartest student in the fifth grade, who in his free time is either playing his harmonica or reading his pocket dictionary. Because Augie’s parents leave him mostly on his own, Hunt “adopts” him. Augie serves, in some ways, as a substitute for the younger brother Hunt has lost. He is a cunning, street-smart boy who helps Hunt survive a number of difficult situations, some funny, some quite serious.
You already have one independent film to your credit, Love in the Age of Dion. Would you consider turning this book into a film? Why or why not?
I would certainly consider doing another movie, and I’d love to do this one. The main obstacle, of course, is the cost of making a film. It’s one thing to have a character perform an action on the page—it merely takes a few sentences to describe. To render that same action in real life on film, takes considerable effort and financial resources. So I guess the short answer is that it’s more economical to sit at my desk and write novels and stories.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Philip Cioffari grew up in the Bronx. He is the author of the novels Catholic Boys, Dark Road, Dead End, Jesusville, and The Bronx Kill, as well as the story collection A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize and the D. H. Lawrence Award. His stories have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals, and commercial magazines. He wrote and directed the independent feature film Love in the Age of Dion, which won a number of film festival awards, including Best Picture at the Long Island International Film Expo and Best Director at the NY Film and Video Festival. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Find him online at http://www.philipcioffari.com/.