Stephanie Gangi, CARRY THE DOG

Stephanie Gangi, CARRY THE DOG

“I feel like I’m still adding selves and identity. It’s not a process that stops. You don’t stop growing and sit in a rocking chair.” Zibby is joined by Stephanie Gangi to talk about her latest novel, Carry the Dog. The two discuss why it is so important to center stories around older women that feel honest, the influence Stephanie’s relationships and personal life have had on her fiction, and what she is looking forward to from life in her 60s.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful novel, Carry the Dog, which I was so captivated by. I loved it. You’re a fabulous writer. The story was haunting and just fantastic. Wow, it was great.

Stephanie Gangi: Thank you so much. Thank you, first of all, of course, Zibby, for having me. I’m a follower of yours, and a fan. I just really do, from the heart, want to thank you for how much you do for books and writers. It’s been a saving grace for me, reading, and writing too, in the last two years. Especially today with the current events, it’s just such a refuge. You are one of our sherpas. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, thanks for saying that. I know, I feel like this is my dirty secret, that I cope with everything by reading and basically not dealing with everything.

Stephanie: Same here.

Zibby: It’s better than other vices, I guess. Anyway, for people who aren’t familiar with Carry the Dog yet, could you give your little elevator pitch about what it’s about?

Stephanie: Carry the Dog is about a woman who is taking stock of her life on the brink of age sixty. She’s suffered trauma in her childhood and has figured out ways to navigate that trauma across a lifetime in ungraceful, awkward, wrong, crazy, and maybe not the healthiest ways. Yet she has managed to make a life for herself and get where she is with all the trials and tribulations that we all experience. Now at sixty, she’s ready to go forward with more grace and more power. She has to figure out what about herself provides that. It’s a journey that sounds very interior. There are aspects of it that are very interior for her, but it’s also a fun and also maybe even a little bit joyful journey for her despite the trauma. Does that…?

Zibby: That’s pretty good. Nice job. I don’t know why I start by putting all authors on the spot. It’s really mean of me.I should really have a different introductory question, but I do like listeners to –

Stephanie: — You would think by this point I would be able to have that roll off my tongue, but no.

Zibby: That’s okay. That’s all right. I love the photographer Sally Mann. I did a whole paper on her in college. I’ve been following her ever since and read Hold Still and the whole thing. I was thinking about that photographer and how she took inappropriate-esque, controversial photos of her three children, two boys and a girl. I was thinking about that until it came up in the book and you actually referenced Sally Mann and made it — she was in conversation with her, almost, in a way. There was a dialogue, as art does. Tell me a little bit if her body of work influenced you, if that spurred this, or if that was related at all to what inspired you to write this story.

Stephanie: I am a huge Sally Mann fan. Always have been. That work was never something I saw as pornographic. It always felt to me like the children, who were the subjects of her work, of course, much of her work, not all of her work, were very much themselves in the photographs. This story is really about a mother who actually does exploit the kids. They are not themselves. They are avatars for her own ghosts and her own life being haunted. She’s trying to work out her own issues through the kids. I don’t see that so much with Sally Mann. I read everything, of course, Hold Still, the memoir, and looked at a million zillion pictures. This is also a mash-up between Sally Mann and Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus famously had a relationship with her poet brother, Howard Nemerov. Sorry about the sirens. I’m sure you can hear that.

Zibby: I thought they were out my door. It’s the same. We could probably hear each other from across the par

Stephanie: They’re at my door. So it’s kind of a Sally Mann-Diane Arbus mash-up through the lens of the art mother. I really wanted to explore that a little bit. I’m a writer. I have adult daughters. I always think about what I write and how it impacts them. In fact, in some cases, that even drives what I write or what I don’t write. It’s always on my mind because I’m very respectful of them. I wanted to explore what it would be like to explode that and not be respectful of the children and just — I used the Sally Mann construct kind of as a device. I would say if we’re looking at it from a psychological level, it’s more Diane Arbus-y than anything.

Zibby: Interesting. There was a passage — there were so many passages, as I was telling you. I dogeared like twenty different pages of beautiful prose. There was one just towards the beginning that I think sets the scene about her relationship with her mother, the main character’s relationship, Bea, with her mother. I’ll read this one paragraph just to show how great a writer you are, at the least. “Miriam Marx is long dead, and yet she’s inside me where she has been my whole life, from before my life, from when I was cells inside her trying to gang up and become a person. She seeped in with her low murmur and cigarette smoke and darkroom chemicals. She’s dead, and yet when I catch a whiff of sour wine in last night’s glass or the stubbed butts from my ashtray on the fire escape, it’s like smelling salts. She’s revived. Just the thought of green beans makes me gag remembering how she would dump them from a can into a pot and heat them in their tinged water to show Albert she’d put something green on our plates. I would push them around with my fork, try to relax my throat, try to swallow to keep peace at the dinner table. Miri sat back with her wine, her cigarette, the squint that meant she was killing time until she could retreat to the darkroom with the day’s film.” So good. I could’ve read any passage, honestly, but that was a good intro. The way she wrote about her mother — obviously, so many people have complicated relationships with their own mother. This is a particularly fraught relationship. Especially as an adult, how do you look back and come to terms with someone who purports to love you and yet, in their actions, shows you the opposite? The person you’re supposed to trust the most is the one who has betrayed you. How do you come to terms with something like that?

Stephanie: Even further, maybe even one step deeper is then that becomes your definition of love, right?

Zibby: Right, that’s true.

Stephanie: That is the atmosphere you breathe. It equals love. It’s funny because every time I read for interviews, I’m so conscious almost every other page has a spoiler on it. There’s a lot of plot. A lot of things happen, some twists and turns. The sense for Bea of figuring out how to define love for herself, that path for her is not easy and involves many, many compromises and mistakes and wrong turns. Yet there is some part of herself that wants love, of course, and needs it and understands that it is a lifelong quest for her. Even though she rejects therapy and she’s not the most introspective person, she understands that she’s a seeker of love. I hope that we all have the gift of that in our lives. I’m sixty-six. At my age, that is the number-one goal, is more love, more love, more love. I wanted to give Bea that revelation.

Zibby: That’s amazing. At age sixty-six, tell me about your writing career and this novel. I love the idea of an older female protagonist because it is important. I’m sort of obsessed, as most people are, with what’s coming next. I’m very much craving all these memoirs and novels about women a little older than me just to see. This is like the older siblings, kind of, I didn’t have. Tell me a little bit about writing at this stage, if you will, and how your whole career has led to here.

Stephanie: My “whole career,” which I put in scare quotes because it was so fragmented and patchwork for many years, I was always what I think Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones calls a shadow writer. I always have had jobs like writing or some kind of writing, but it wasn’t actually fiction or essays, the kind of writing I’m doing now. I published my debut novel at age sixty. I loved when you said, I’m always looking to see what comes next, because the title of that novel is The Next. I too am always interested to see what comes next. I do feel that I’ve suddenly woken up as kind of a canary in the coal mine of aging. It is beautiful to see how many new voices I’m hearing. Certainly when my mother was my age, no one was talking about aging. My mother, she had four sisters. They used to whisper the menopause word on the phone. It’s great to hear and see, also represented, women my age. I don’t know one woman — I have a lot of female friends. I don’t know any who are like the stereotypes of what we’ve come to know over the years that the culture has fed us. They’re crazy, dynamic, and interesting, and quite frankly, more than the men they’re sometimes attached to. The women all seem like, all burners on, just doing their thing, figuring out life at this age, and also, like Bea, trying to figure out how to go forward with some grace by integrating not only wisdom that they’ve acquired, but the many selves they’ve been. I feel like I’m still adding selves and identity. It’s not a process that stops. You don’t stop growing and sit in a rocking chair. I don’t know anybody like that.

Zibby: They don’t even have rocking chairs anymore.

Stephanie: I know, exactly.

Zibby: Where’d they all go?

Stephanie: I wouldn’t mind a rocking chair now. I guess my path here was one that was kind of traditional. I was raised to be a wife and mother. I don’t think I realized that that wasn’t enough for me until my kids started getting a little bit older. I looked at all the work I had done. It was always writer-adjacent. I’d always written. It was a hobby. I never centered it and frankly, never valued it. I never saw myself in the group of people in the world that would be published. I started playing around with a novel at fifty-five. I had a corporate job. I was director of corporate communications, always like a writer. I, embarrassingly, but I’ll say it, had a big heartbreak in my mid-fifties after my marriage. I was divorced. I was with somebody. It was a big heartbreak. I had a friend, over a glass of wine, of course, say to me, “You got to stop talking about it. Just write it.” I thought, hell. It was like a thunderclap. Yeah. So I did. First of all, I did that secretly, the writing of that first book, for at least a year. Then once, I said to one of my daughters, “You know, I’m thinking about submitting this to an agent.” They were astonished and proud and said, “If not you, who?” They’re my kids, so they think I’m good.

Zibby: Not everybody’s kids would think their mom was good. You’re obviously close with them.

Stephanie: I know, very close and also very lucky. In fact, I’m working on an essay right now about what I’m learning from my adult daughters. They’re thirty-five and thirty-one. Every encounter is a learning for me. I think the tables have turned. Anyway, I submitted that book to an agent. As I still had a corporate job, I was getting up at four thirty in the morning and writing for two hours, you know, the usual story. It got sent back to me probably three times, easily three times, if not more. At that juncture, I had to say, am I really sticking with this at fifty-eight, or am I setting it aside and getting my nice corporate paycheck? I just threw the cards up in the air and decided to take a leave of absence from my job. I live in New York City, so it’s not necessarily the most financially sound decision that I could’ve made. It was the one thing, only mine, that I had always wanted to do and never did. The clock was ticking. I was very conscious of that. That novel was published when I was sixty. This one was published when I was sixty-five. One of the things I love is that I insisted on putting my age in my back-flap bio because I’m not invisible. I don’t feel invisible. I know visibility is something we struggle with. I feel I’m more visible to myself. Denying everything that’s come before seems crazy to me, so I felt compelled to say, this is who I am. This is what I’ve achieved. I’m going to keep going whether you like my age or not.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so inspiring. It’s so great. Why not? The more experience you get, and the wisdom and all of it, it only makes you better. When we talk about practicing writing or practicing anything, it only stands to reason that older women should be better writers. There should be more and more.

Stephanie: You know what’s funny? The thing about this new window into aging, which by the way, is of course being pioneered, in a sense, by women — it’s not the men talking about aging so much. It’s women. For cultural reasons, I understand that. Sometimes I read something and I have to remind myself that they’re talking to me, that I’m the aging person. I don’t necessarily identify myself by my age. That’s not to say that age is just a number because I am a human in a body. Obviously, I confront the mirror every single day, as does Bea, to mixed effect. It’s a mixed bag. I don’t feel defined by my age, so I am sort of a little, tiny bit resistant to all this age-centric convo right now. On the other hand, it’s absolutely a hundred percent necessary. I’m part of it. I’ve written two books now about aging women and how they’ve had to adapt, but also how they resist adapting, which is also part of it, right?

Zibby: That’s true. It’s very true. Wait, why did you say it was embarrassing that you had a heartbreak? Why is that embarrassing?

Stephanie: Ooh, you caught me. It was a relationship that was probably — I should’ve known better, in a sense. Right from the beginning, I knew it. There’s a part of me that has a certain, hopefully charming, recklessness where sometimes I just go for something because it’s just too shiny to not. I can’t say I regret one second of it, but it did not go in the direction that I’d hoped. I was more heartbroken over the fact that I recognized that this relationship wasn’t going in the right direction and even though it was fantastic, I had to stop. I had never really had to do — that was really hard, to be in love and say, this is not going to end well for me. I wanted to age gracefully. I felt that in the context of this relationship that would’ve been harder to do. He was younger than I was. We had a conscious uncoupling kind of motivated by me. I had to be a grown-up. I had to honor my experience and my knowledge and my wisdom and say, this is not going well. Then I had to do something also hard but obviously which has led me here today, to wind around to your point, which is decide that maybe I’m a person who can’t write my novel if I’m in a relationship like that, all-consuming. I know lots of people do. Maybe I had to stop with the men and just focus on — my kids were launched, so I had that runway. That’s why it’s a little bit embarrassing, because my writing life has been so impacted by my personal life. I even had to sort of strip down my personal life in order to get this work done. Of course, that’s been the right decision. Of course. Absolutely. That’s why it’s embarrassing, because it’s revealing more than I want to reveal.

Zibby: I don’t think it’s embarrassing. I think that’s super relatable. Everybody has been in relationships that maybe they’re not proud of or maybe they might not be right, all of that.

Stephanie: I just saw it all.

Zibby: Good for you for putting on the brakes.

Stephanie: That’s the bonus and also the curse of being in your mid-fifties.

Zibby: Meanwhile, you have some stuff in here about later-in-life sexuality with the egg whites. Is that a thing? I was reading, I was like, I didn’t even know that.

Stephanie: That is a thing. I’m not going to reveal how I know that. It is definitely a thing. I don’t know if it’s a medically approved thing. I don’t recommend anybody experiment with that on my say-so because I’m a fiction writer. It is a thing.

Zibby: That’s so funny, oh, my gosh. We were talking before we started recording about how I was saying this is such a great movie. This feels like such an indie film, dark and amazing. I can just see it and feel it, maybe because you wrote in such a visual way to begin with that I already feel like I saw the whole thing in my head. You were having some casting. Weren’t you having some casting? Who was your wish list on the cast?

Stephanie: Give me a Maura Tierney or a Diane Lane, even Robin Wright, just complex women who you can always see that there’s a lot going on behind their eyes, in a sense. Of course, I want that. Also, this character has a lightness to her and a love of life that no trauma has really flattened. As many times as she falls down, she gets up. There’s an openness, too, that I think would be so wonderful to capture on screen. I love how she navigates her looks and still cares about them and is trying to figure out a new way to look at herself so that the changes aren’t depressing every day. I’m sure you know — I know. Sometimes I do it too. There’s some days where I just can’t get out of my own way, looks-wise. I am literally avoiding mirrors. I wanted to capture that, but I didn’t want it to be handicapping her. She has to figure out how to manage that and keep moving and also not present it to the world because if you’re truly vain, you don’t want anyone to see all that going on. You want to manage that presentation to the world.

Zibby: You’re really beautiful, an elegant woman. No, seriously. The fact that you would have a day where you’re avoiding the mirror, seriously, you have such an elegant look. I’m like, really? You’re going to wake up and avoid the mirror? Then what does it say about the rest of the people?

Stephanie: Of course, I struggle. I had a mother who was — as my daughter would say, “Okay, boomer, don’t start launching into all this.” It’s a long time ago and long forgotten. I had a great mother, but she did dump green beans in a can into a pot. She was very concerned with presentation, is the way I’d put it. That’s something that I have worked to leave behind, mostly.

Zibby: My grandmother passed away recently at ninety-seven and was going to Curves until the end. Should I eat this? Should I not? All of that. What she did say to me, she was like, “You know, nobody told me I looked good until I was ninety. All of a sudden, everybody’s like, you look amazing. I’ve never looked better.”

Stephanie: I love the Curves thing. That is brilliant.

Zibby: What do you like to read?

Stephanie: I keep a list, of course. I don’t even know why I keep a list of everything I read, but I’m going to just take a quick look at it. I’m sure you do, but it’s your job. I guess it’s my job too. I read Elizabeth Strout. I loved Oh William! It was great. I actually really liked the Franzen. I know that’s controversial these days, especially with women writers, but I kind of liked it. I thought he took on the topic of religion in a way that was very balanced. It is a fraught topic. I thought he did a pretty good job with it. I loved that. I’ve been reading Joan Silber, whom I’ve never read. Wow, I feel like I’ve stumbled into this land of wonders. An amazing writer. I read The Inland Sea, which is a climate change novel set in Australia, but it’s also very Sally Rooney-ish. It’s about a relationship. The climate change is kind of the backdrop to the relationship stuff. I thought that was great. I’m just starting — I’m hoping to write a little bit of a more — I’m working on a third novel called The Good Provider. It’s a little bit more, I don’t want to use the word thriller because it’s too early in the process for me to say I’m doing that. I’m reading some Graham Greene now. Old-school, slow unfolding of tension, I love that as a reader. That’s my short list. There’s more, many more.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s awesome. I love it.

Stephanie: I keep reading. I’m always taking notes on what you’re reading.

Zibby: Last question. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Stephanie: My day job, in a sense, is I do editorial development with writers. In fact, I’m looking — I keep glancing over to my left. I know we’re on a podcast, but I keep looking to my left because I have four manuscripts right now that are in the end stages of work with each of these authors. One of the things that I have come to learn in a very compressed timeframe because I started so late and I had to learn on the job, in a sense — I don’t have an MFA. I’m not a big writing workshop person. Along the way, the issues you face that slow you down or make you feel like you can’t do it, those issues weren’t Stephanie issues. They were writer issues. I didn’t really know that. I thought I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t experienced enough. I hadn’t had an MFA program. Then the more craft I read and listened to online, the more I understood that every time I hit a big challenge, it was a challenge that other writers had hit too at that same point in time, the dead middle. I could go through a long list. One of the things that’s been most gratifying in working with other writers is to open their eyes to that moment when they feel like, I’m just not cut out for this, it’s too hard — novel-writing is hard; it’s world-building — to help them understand that that’s part of the process. That’s not a stop sign. That’s a yield sign. That’s been very gratifying. I work with such talented people who I want to succeed. I have a lot invested in it. Seeing that realization occur, for me, it’s just fantastic, really good. That’s my big headline news about that. It’s a process, not failure.

Zibby: Amazing. Stephanie, thank you. Thank you for all this. I want to continue this over lunch or something. I’m glad we’re so close by and that that could be in the cards. Again, I just loved this book and your writing style. I can’t wait to read your next book. Now I have to go back and read your last book.

Stephanie: Oh, yeah, that one’s a little bit of a romp. I think you’ll hopefully like it. I like that sleeping dog in the background. That helps.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Stephanie: Thank you. See ya.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Stephanie Gangi, CARRY THE DOG

CARRY THE DOG by Stephanie Gangi

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