Zibby Owens: Stephanie Storey’s debut novel Oil and Marble was hailed as “tremendously entertaining” by The New York Times, has been translated into six languages, and is currently in development as a feature film by Pioneer Pictures. Storey is also the author of Raphael, Painter in Rome and has a degree in fine arts from Vanderbilt University and attended a PhD program in art history before leaving to get an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. She has studied art in Italy and been on a pilgrimage to see every Michelangelo on display in Europe. Stephanie has also been a national television producer for nearly twenty years in LA from shows including Alec Baldwin on ABC, Arsenio Hall for CBS, and Emmy-nominated The Writers’ Room on the Sundance Channel. When not writing novels or producing television, Storey can usually be found with her husband, Mike Gandolfi, an actor and Emmy-winning comedy writer, traveling the world in search of their next stories.

Thanks, Stephanie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” today.

Stephanie Storey: Thank you so much for having me even in the middle of all of the crazy world we have going on outside of our doors. I appreciate having any opportunity to talk about books and getting a little bit of an escape for a moment.

Zibby: Yes, I’m happy to provide the forum for that. You have such an interesting background. Your first book was Oil and Marble which took the world by storm and is now becoming a feature film. Is that right? Is that still happening?

Stephanie: It is still happening. Pioneer Pictures is making the movie. They’re a great group of guys. I believe they have just finished up getting the screenplay solid. Now they’re going out and attaching other elements and still hoping to plan on shooting in Italy once all of this closes down. There will be news forthcoming on that, but the moviemaking process is slow.

Zibby: Yes, I am acquainted with that a little bit. How nice does filming in Italy sound? Even the idea of being able to travel. I know that’s the least of these days, but just the ability to be in other parts of the world.

Stephanie: Just the ability to think about going back to Italy soothes me in some manner, to think about being able to head back to Rome or head back to Florence or just do something that feels a little bit more global than being sheltered in place in a house right now, which I understand is important. I’m all for it, but it is nice to be able to dream of going back to Italy at some point. Filming there would be amazing, oh, my gosh.

Zibby: I was looking at this picture. I have this photo of a pier with the Mediterranean Sea around it and all these people. There’s this one woman who’s walking down. I did this, I don’t even know what it was, mindfulness — I don’t know what it was. I was like, I’m going to imagine that I’m her and I can hear the sounds and smell the water and pretend that I am there because instead, I am in my same place that I’ve been now for weeks and weeks and weeks. It helped.

Stephanie: Then imagine yourself going and eating pizza or some pesto. Something like that would be really nice.

Zibby: I feel like you’re going to get to Italy before me, so you are now required to send me some pictures or some footage of that trip because I am craving that experience. You have Oil and Marble. Now you have a new book, a new art historical thriller coming out. Tell me about that. I see it behind you.

Stephanie: It is. It is behind me, not that anybody else can see it, but it’s right here.

Zibby: Not that you can see, sorry. We’re on Skype.

Stephanie: It came out on April 7th. It just came out. Oil and Marble was about the rivalry between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci when they were both living in Florence. At the end of that book — this is not really a spoiler because it doesn’t really give much away. At the end of that book a guy by the name of Raphael shows up on the scene. My newest book sort of in a way picks up where Oil and Marble left off. Although, it’s very different. We follow Raphael down to Rome where he then engages in this high-stakes rivalry with Michelangelo. While Michelangelo was painting the Sistine ceiling, Raphael is just down the hall decorating the pope’s private apartments. This newest novel is written in first person from Raphael’s point of view. You only get this big rivalry between these two huge artists from the eyes of Raphael. You only see Michelangelo through the eyes of Raphael. He’s sitting across a tavern table from you, the reader, telling you this story of how he engaged in this huge rivalry with Michelangelo, and the story, and how Michelangelo does create the Sistine ceiling during that and how Raphael deals with his rival doing such amazing things on a ceiling, and how he counters that.

Zibby: These days, someone’s rival might get more likes on Instagram. Then they’re painting the Sistine Chapel. Things were so much more impressive.

Stephanie: Right? The Sistine Chapel. It’s so funny because I’ve been talking to book clubs and people who have already read Raphael. They’re like, “I went to the Vatican to go the Sistine, but I don’t remember seeing Raphael’s rooms, the pope’s private apartments. I don’t know if I went through them.” I’m like, oh, no, you have to walk through them in order to get to the Sistine. The Vatican forces you walk through the Raphael rooms. They are gorgeous. They are little jewel boxes of rooms of these amazing masterpieces. People are so focused, I think, or at least Americans, are so focused on seeing the Sistine that they forget and they don’t stop and pay attention to this other amazing art. I’m hoping that my book can do a little bit towards reviving Raphael. He was the most famous of the three, of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael during his lifetime. He was the most beloved. He was the one that everybody held up as this perfect painter. This year was the five hundredth anniversary of his death. There was supposed to be this huge global celebration going on of Raphael’s life. This huge exhibit in Rome got shut down days after it opened. I was heartbroken for Raphael, not for me, for him. I was like, this was supposed to be your moment. I guess that’s why I wrote it, because I get all flustered and weird when I talk about how we’re missing out on Raphael’s art and his brilliance and how we need to go back and reconnect to it. He was a nice guy, so he gets left out of the history too much. People go, he was so nice, so generous, so humble. He’s not interesting. No, he’s really interesting. Trust me.

Zibby: You have a PhD in art history. No, you don’t? You don’t.

Stephanie: I went to a PhD program. I attended one. I did not finish because academics do not like it when you make stuff up.

Zibby: So then you switched to your MFA?

Stephanie: Then I went to go get my MFA.

Zibby: I was like, how did she do all of these things?

Stephanie: I’m old. I’m forty-five now. My first book came out when I was forty. I’d already had time to go to a PhD program, drop out, go get my MFA, move to Hollywood, produce a bunch of television, and then come out with a book. I don’t know. It’s an obsession. I’m obsessed.

Zibby: You can tell the passion in your voice. Now I all of a sudden care about Raphael. I was just going about my business not really — I thought I had enough of an impression of what he was like before, but now I have to revisit the whole thing.

Stephanie: You have to. That’s the point. He got left out. Now he’s just a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Come on. He’s so much more than that.

Zibby: Wait, back up a little bit. You were a TV producer also for a long time before this. How did you decide to quit your day job and pursue fiction writing?

Stephanie: I have written novels or books, fiction, since I was seven years old. I wrote my first, Hoardy the Hog Goes to School, when I was seven. I’ve written fiction every day since. Everybody told me that’s not a real gig even though I had my MFA in creative writing. I moved down to Hollywood because I heard there was this business where people told stories and it was an actual industry where you can get a job and make money, so I did. However, Hollywood was my total plan B. I was like, I’m going to do this until I get a novel. I went there and I produced primarily news and talk television. Candice Bergen had a talk show. Carrie Fisher had a talk show, Governor Jesse Ventura, Tava Smiley, Arsenio Hall’s relaunch to CBS. Alec Baldwin just had a talk show a couple years ago on ABC that I produced. I did that forever while in the mornings and at nights and on weekends I was writing screenplays for a while with my husband.

Then I had one of those moments in 2011 where you realize life is really short and it’s not going to last forever, so you better do what you really want to do. I was terrified of writing a novel. I thought, oh, man, what if I’m not good enough? What if I’m only good enough to write a screenplay in television? I’m not good enough to write a novel. I really wanted to. I really wanted to tell the Oil and Marble story, the Michelangelo versus Leonardo story. I just bucked up and did it in 2011. I was thirty-six when I started, when I really said I’m not just going to write fiction for myself. I had seven novels or something in a filing cabinet by that point that were never going to see the light of day. This was the first time when I said, okay, I’m going to try to make one good enough to get it published and send it out into the world. Then I sold it. Then my husband and I sold our condo and went on book tour. I thought, that’ll take three months. We don’t need to pay the mortgage at the Marriott too. Up until this pandemic, we were still traveling full time with gigs and writing events and speaking events. I don’t know how it happened. I just looked up and went, I guess I have a noveling career now.

Zibby: Wow. That’s really impressive. Essentially, you’re homeless. You’ve just been bouncing from one place to another.

Stephanie: I am very lucky. My parents have property on a lake in Arkansas. They have a guest house. Whenever we need to stop down and do some laundry or have a home-cooked meal, we stop in at the guest house. Then we leave again for the Marriott. Although, we are sheltering in place by lake in Arkansas which has turned out to be great. We’re away from humanity. I only go to the grocery store. It’s a quiet place to write my next novel.

Zibby: What’s your next novel about?

Stephanie: All I am saying about it at this point is it’s still art historical fiction because I hope to be writing that until the day I die, like Michelangelo. Michelangelo was still carving the week before he died when he was eighty-eight years old. He was still carving marble. Come on. Raphael dies when he’s thirty-seven, so he’s still painting his greatest masterpiece two days before he dies. Anyway, I hope to be doing that. Art historical fiction, but the new one is leaving the Italian Renaissance for now, not that I won’t be back. I have other eras of art history that fascinate me. I’m leaving both era and I’m leaving the country. I’m leaving Italy to go to a different country too. That’s about all I’m saying about it, unless you follow my social media in which case you might be able to figure out what country I’ve been obsessed with lately. That’s all I’ll tell people.

Zibby: I’ll go back and do some detective work. What happened in 2011? What happened that made you rethink your life and decide that now is the moment?

Stephanie: My husband had a stroke. He was forty-nine years old. We were in a hospital. He’s the healthiest guy I know. He was a vegetarian. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He runs every day. He does yoga. He is literally the healthiest guy I know. I’m sitting there. At the time, I’m thirty-six. I’m going, this is crazy. How can the healthiest guy I know have had this big of an event? We didn’t know at the time when I’m sitting in the hospital room. He’s fully recovered now. Now you’d never know. At the time, you’re like, this is bad. We’re in for physical therapy. We’re in for a long journey. I don’t know how he’s going to be. The beeping machine, I could still just — in that moment, you go, well, this isn’t going to last forever. If this can happen to my husband, it can happen to me. He’s healthier than I am.

Zibby: How did the stroke present itself? How did you even know it was happening?

Stephanie: It turned out he’d already had a smaller one earlier in the year which we didn’t identify. He just started walking like a drunk cartoon character. We were like, that’s weird. The morning of I had already gone to work. I was producing television, so I was up really early in the morning. I got a phone call at my office phone from a neighbor saying, “Hey, I’m with your husband. He’s asking you to come home.” He gives the phone to my husband. My husband says, “Come home.” Something’s happened. I don’t know what. I get home. I don’t know what’s happening. He woke up and his arm flew up in the air without him doing it. Then he couldn’t dial the phone himself. He was sort of confused. We go to the hospital. It’s a very long story. I’m going to make it very short. We go to the hospital. They run some tests. They do not run an MRI. They send us home telling him he’s dehydrated. That was at nine o’clock in the morning. That night he kept getting worse, but they had sent us home. They told us he was okay. I just wanted to get him to bed. Went to a friend’s house for dinner. He’s not talking right. Something’s not right. Then he woke up in the middle of the night. He was choking. I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “Agubhughughu.” I went, “What?” He went, “Agubhughughu.” What he thought he was saying was, “I just sneezed.” I got up and raced him back to the hospital. By that point, it was obvious. His whole left side was flat. He couldn’t move his arm. He couldn’t walk. By that point, it was beyond anything I would’ve — there was no doubt once you get back to hospital then. Then the hospital goes, oh, my gosh, we sent him home. I don’t usually tell that story. You’re very good.

Zibby: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry into your life. I’m sorry. I’m just so interested. I’m sorry.

Stephanie: You didn’t. It’s not something I keep that I don’t share. I just don’t usually talk about it, so it’s interesting that I did in this scenario.

Zibby: Thank you for talking about it. I’m sorry you had to go through that. That’s a lot. That’s terrifying. Oh, my gosh. That’s a lot to handle. I see why it made you pivot in the rest of your life. When someone you love goes through something like that, everything changes. That’s it.

Stephanie: And you’re so helpless. You can’t do anything to help. All you can do is sit there and go, well, I can help him recover. Then I can reexamine my life and say, what’s actually important to me? What’s actually important to him? What’s actually important to us as a married couple? How do we navigate forward to try to make the best of the life that we have? I guess for me that meant writing about five-hundred-year-old dead artists.

Zibby: I might not pick the same sort of item in the toolbox, but to each his own.

Stephanie: I think it’s a weird choice, but I guess that’s what came up because that’s what I’ve done.

Zibby: How great that there’s a demand for it too. It’s also so unique. I’m sure that’s what drew publishers to it. Your passion for it, I know I already said this, but this is intense love of these artists and this time period. I took art history every semester of college. I like to think that I really do care about art and I’m interested and I like the backstory, but I am nothing. This is a whole new world.

Stephanie: I just care so much that they’re real people. That’s what bothers me. People walk into museums. They look at these artists as though they’re just up on these pedestals and they’re untouchable. They’re not like you and me. They’re these geniuses who fell from Earth to create these pieces of art that changed the world. That’s BS. They are real people who faced real struggles and really fought hard for the work that they created. Those are the stories I’ve tried to tell, is that story of creativity and fighting for creativity. It’s part of humanity. In addition to writing about art and humanity, I also throw in a lot of fires and floods and dramatic murders and all kinds of fun things because it’s a book. This period of history is full of that stuff. It’s full of popes poisoning other popes and dukes killing cardinals. It’s just full of fires and floods and all kinds of exciting things. You might as well throw them in. That’s the other thing. I try not make my art history like you had it in your art history class where you just look at a slide and you go, yeah, yeah, yeah, this is the name and the date and the title and the artist’s name, and then you move on. It’s all the most important stuff in the world to me. That’s embarrassing.

Zibby: No, it’s not embarrassing. It’s awesome. I love it. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors? Particularly because you said in the beginning that you just have drawers and drawers of these manuscripts and you’ve written so many novels and that you decided to finally write one that was good enough, tell me about that journey and why you didn’t give up. What’s your advice on not giving up there?

Stephanie: My advice on not giving up, boy, I don’t know. You have to really want to do it because it’s a really, really hard job and really, really hard process. My best advice to aspiring writers is if you are going to try to go publish something, if you are going to go aspire to put it out into the world, make it as good as you can possibly make it before you send it to anybody. I see so many young or older-but-aspiring writers who write a draft. Maybe they edit it. Then they go, yeah, this is good. I’m like, no. Compare it to Goldfinch. Compare it to Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Compare it to Dan Brown. Compare it to JK Rowling. Pick the biggest stuff you see on the shelves and honestly look at your work and compare it to the work that’s out there. Force yourself to get it as close to that as you possibly can. I hate to tell you that means like a hundred drafts, not two.

Zibby: Good point.

Stephanie: That’s the reality of it. Particularly when you get into the business, there are so many books out there. It’s daunting. You might as well aim for the planets. There’s a famous quote online. It’s attributed to Michelangelo. I haven’t found the actual primary source, but I’m going to give it to him anyway. The problem for most of us isn’t aiming too high and missing our mark. It’s aiming too low and hitting it. That’s the truth. Aim high even if you miss it. I think you’ll hit something more worth putting out into the world. We need new stories and new art out in the world right now because we need to all unify and find hope and move toward bending the world toward some sort of beauty instead of where we are right now.

Zibby: Preach. Love it.

Stephanie: I can’t help it.

Zibby: Thank you, Stephanie. Thank you for coming on my show. Thanks for opening up. I loved talking to you. Send me those pictures if you ever get to Italy.

Stephanie: I will. Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: It was my pleasure.

Stephanie: And for making me comfortable enough to tell you a story I don’t usually tell. I appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Bye.

Stephanie: Bye.