Zoje Stage, GETAWAY

Zoje Stage, GETAWAY

“You can only control your own life and what you do. Tomorrow isn’t here. We just have today. Today, we’re fine.” Author of Baby Teeth Zoje Stage joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, Getaway, which is not about a breezy vacation as the title may suggest. Zoje shares how the trauma she endured as a resident of Squirrel Hill —the neighborhood that was home to the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting— inspired the story’s psychological and religious themes, and the parts of herself that she sees in her characters. Check out Zibby and Kyle’s appearance on Good Day LA where they recommended this book here: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CSXW1bUJhVp/


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Zoje. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Getaway.

Zoje Stage: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. By the way, I thought the funniest part of this book was when the three women were all hiking, obviously, in the Grand Canyon and they have a conversation about writing books. Imogen is saying, “Sometimes books aren’t about the writing. It can be a completely different kind of book. This is your life, your words. I’m sure it’ll do really well.” She says, “‘If I can write it, it’s probably the most daunting thing I’ve tried to do.’ ‘Except for this,’ Beck offered. ‘You might be relieved after this to get home and only have to write a book,'” which is brilliant and so funny. Can you tell listeners what Getaway is about?

Zoje: Getaway is about sisters Imogen and Beck and their friend from high school, Tilda. They’ve all been friends for twenty years or so except that Tilda and Imogen have some issues between them, some things that have come between them. Their relationship is estranged. Imogen has also recently gone throughout some sort of traumatic experiences. Beck, her sister, has this idea that she’ll take all of them to the Grand Canyon for a seven-day backpacking trip. That will be the perfect environment for them to work their stuff out and get their lives back together. Then very soon after their trip starts, Imogen starts seeing and experiencing things that get her worried. Her sister Beck thinks, this is just Imogen being paranoid because she has these issues. Then at some point, things start to happen that make it very clear that, no, something is happening. There is, perhaps, someone there whose presence is going to imperil their trip. I don’t want to say too much more about it because I think it’s nice to experience it as it unfolds and not know quite what’s going to happen.

Zibby: This book is why I don’t like to go hiking, basically. Every fear I have of hiking comes true in this book. I feel like you should talk to — have you read Claire Nelson’s book? It’s her memoir. What was it called? Fear of Falling or something. It’s about how she falls off a cliff and had to live by herself in Joshua Tree for three days. She’s British.

Zoje: I have not read that. That sounds very interesting.

Zibby: I feel like the two of you would be good in conversation, if you ever want to do that or have me moderate or have someone moderate. You two take that show on the road. I feel like you should talk, with the walking sticks and you with your — not you with your dad, the character with her dad, Imogen, and her walking stick going flying. I feel like I’ve been living in the hiking world. I just need to shore up my boots to get going here. This book starts off, interestingly, with the Pittsburgh shooting in the synagogue. In the notes, it looks like you’re from Pittsburgh. You were Pittsburgh Strong. Tell me about your experience of that incident and how you decided to put that real-life event as the opening for this novel.

Zoje: I lived in Squirrel Hill. I’m a native Squirrel Hill resident. I have spent some years outside of Pittsburgh. Whenever I come back to Pittsburgh, I live in Squirrel Hill. I bought a house in Squirrel Hill. The morning that that happened, it was so freaky because had I not had a book event that day, I would not have turned on the news. I was getting ready to go to a book event. I was going to have something to eat. I turned on the news and was absolutely shocked to find my neighborhood on the news. At that time, they were telling everybody to stay inside. I started messaging online because that’s what you do. I go out to Twitter, oh, my god, there’s a shooter in my neighborhood. Everyone’s like, stay away from the windows. Had no idea what was going to happen. My sister was driving to my apartment to pick me up. Of course, I’m freaking out. I didn’t know where she was going to be outside. We didn’t know where the shooter was.

For something like that to happen in such a small, close neighborhood was really traumatizing for this neighborhood. It was very hard to get over it. It’s not something you really get over. To this day, I was walking up the street just a couple of days ago, and we still have these crocheted stars of David that people sent from all over the country. They’re still hanging on some of the trees and on some of the parking lots. There was this constant daily reminder for months and months and months afterwards when I would just walk outside of my apartment and go to the supermarket. It made it even harder to process. It was very hard to put it behind you. I think that’s how it found its way into my book, because it was still so present in my mind. I process the world by writing. For me, it’s like, okay, let me write about someone else’s experience of this. It will help kind of process it for myself. I think it did help, honestly.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that that’s happened and that that’s your town. I was horrified when it happened to begin with, obviously. I remember writing about it that night. I had gone to a bat mitzvah that day. It was such a meaningful, emotional moment to be surrounding hearing all the Hebrew and knowing that this had just happened. I’m terribly sorry. What you said — I keep saying you. When you talk about Imogen in the book, that fact that it’s in her neighborhood, she feels like she can’t get past it. What you’re basically saying now is she can’t drive another direction and forget about it. I feel like that’s happening a lot now with COVID, honestly. My husband lost his mother. It’s not like he can get away from COVID news. Everybody’s talking about every news thing, everything. I feel like in some of these traumatic situations that are also shared by so many others and become national things, it makes the individual experience somehow just that much harder to get over and to cope with.

Zoje: It does. On the one hand, you might think we’re all in this together. Maybe there would be some sense of this shared experience and this comradery. Then there’s also, oh, my goodness, we’re all going through it. Are we all going to get out of it? I very much have that with the pandemic experience too. My mom died of COVID. It’s actually sort of traumatizing to see this big surge of hospitalizations and deaths again and just think, my mom would’ve killed for a vaccine. This shouldn’t be happening. We live in such a strange time. I don’t want to make your podcast a downer, but there’s definitely this national trauma. I really do feel like we are going through this collective traumatic experience. Hopefully, eventually, all of us can figure out some way to recover from this and, I hope, be better on the other side, somehow. That’s always my hope.

Zibby: I’m so sorry about your mom. We can trade horrific stories off the podcast if you ever want to go down that road again. It’s true, I feel like everybody is — and the uncertainty, of course, the fact that the — I just can’t believe it’s all starting. I’m looking down. I’m just going to look down. I’m going to do my podcast. I’m going to go through life. Ultimately, who knows what life’s ever going to bring? This just feels like such a crazy time.

Zoje: You can only control your own life and what you do and manage yourself. I was just talking about this to a friend yesterday. I know she was so worried about the what-ifs. Tomorrow isn’t here. We just have today. Today, we’re fine. We’re okay today. We’ll make today work.

Zibby: Exactly. I know, somebody was asking me about something in October. I need to lock this in in October. I’m like, October is a lifetime away in today’s world. It’s only August. Let me get out of this month. Let me just see. You never know. That leads your characters to go on this massive effort to cope, to really work through. It wasn’t even just this trauma from the beginning, but the thing which had happened also to Imogen and things they don’t want to talk about that had interwoven all of their stories and the loss that they’d all had together and the fractured family life that bonded them to begin with. Now here they are. It’s the ultimate in what you can’t control. They literally can’t do anything. The whole novel speaks to that sense of, you can be as prepared as you want and you can pack the backpacks and take pictures of the detritus by your feet and whatever, and yet things still are going to happen where you find yourself completely adrift. Yet you can make it through with your own mind and cleverness and all the rest. I felt like that was the lesson of the book for me.

Zoje: I think that’s a good lesson. I think when people hear about what the book is, they might think it’s some adventure thriller. It’s action-packed. It’s really much more internal than that. Imogen really had to think her way out of what’s happening. She has to try to analyze Tilda because they don’t get along as well anymore and think about her sister’s reaction. They don’t have all of this time to talk together. She has to internally process what’s happening, analyze the situation, and use her cleverness, as you said, and just her creativity and her mental ideas to figure out, how can they get out of this situation? I feel like that’s kind of a different approach for this kind of story where it’s really like, how does she think her way out of this?

Zibby: That’s great because that’s empowering. Thinking is something that we can all do no matter what. You can’t take that away no matter what else happens.

Zoje: Imogen infers multiple times about how she’s small and she feels like she’s not as physically intimidating. Her sister’s much taller. Tilda’s big and strong. Imogen is a very petite person, and so she doesn’t feel physically powerful. I think she hasn’t felt even mentally powerful in her life. This is her opportunity to take all of the things, the skills she’s learned from writing novels and the things she’s learned from studying human behavior, and figure out how to make this a survivable experience.

Zibby: That’s great. It’s great to put the power back in our control. Take back the canyon or something. Also, I really loved Beck’s wife as a character. I feel like I wanted to see — I’ll just be your editor. I wanted to see more of that character. If you do some sort of spin-off or something, I feel like there’s a whole story behind her, too, that you dip into a little. I feel like you could do something more if you wanted to.

Zoje: I think that’s important, to have secondary characters that still seem like they’re just as important as the main character. They’re not in those scenes. Afiya is off living her life and doing her thing while they’re in the canyon, but she’s just as real of a person.

Zibby: Tell me a little — I know, obviously, this happened in the synagogue as your opening. There was some sort of spirituality, Judaism woven in at different parts in the story. What is your philosophy on that? There was the half Jewish, what does that even mean? and all of that. Are you half Jewish? You don’t have to talk about it. Just wondering about all that.

Zoje: I am. Honestly, there’s a lot of ways in which I’m very similar to Imogen. It’s kind of funny, a lot of really superficial ways. We’re both writers. We’re very reclusive. We’re both petite. Yes, we are both half Jewish. As I said, I process my life through writing. That was definitely something that I had been exploring more of in the last couple of years. I did feel very out of place when I was a child. I did not feel Jewish enough when I was with the Jewish side of my family or even in my neighborhood, which is very Jewish. I did not feel fully accepted by my dad’s side of the family. The whole idea of organized religion was kind of confusing to me. I felt like I was a very spiritual person, but I couldn’t figure out where that fit in. By having Imogen explore that, I got to think about some of those things too. There are definitely ideas and a lot of the things that she expressed in the book about what she decides it means to be Jewish, I feel that way. I’m very attracted to those ideas, that God or an empowered force can be anything. You can change it from day to day if that’s the way your feelings for it go. I really like some of those ideas and the idea which — I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that — she expresses later, this idea that some people have about heaven and hell. She says you have to live for this place, for here and now. It’s what happens here that counts. I believe that very much too.

Zibby: I think I dogeared that. I think I dogeared it. This is not totally related, but it is a Jewish theme, so I can bring it up now. This is how Imogen is feeling about Gale. She’s saying, “She’d wanted to believe in a goodness in him that wasn’t there, and Frank had done that, but believing that people are really good at heart hadn’t kept her from dying at Bergen-Belsen. Imogen often thought of young Anne and the tragic irony that her physical life had expired but the fragile pages she’d written in pencil lived on. How had Imogen been willing for so long to accept the microscopic degrees of Gale’s humanity? Things had gone so far because she was weak.” It’s true. Then the next page, you had said — yeah, here it is. Good, I did get it. “Gale appeared to be waiting for her to continue, so she did. In Judaism, it’s about what you do with this life, the one you’re living. This is the only life that counts.” Check plus for me for finding the passage. I’ll put that down now. I totally agree with that. I am Jewish myself. I always feel this intense pressure to get the most out of every day because this is sort of it. Race to the finish. What can you do? I’m like, I have all these ideas that I want to do. I just hope I don’t die. I just need to fit them in. Somebody I was chatting with was like, “What? I don’t think about that, ever.” I was like, “Oh, no, I think about it every day, all the time. That’s my motivating thing.”

Zoje: I think that’s a great thing, though. It is true. We have no guarantee of tomorrow. You can’t live for another time or another day or another experience. You got to do everything you can today that feels like what you want to do.

Zibby: Yeah, while putting some things in the calendar for October with a question mark, perhaps.

Zoje: Yes, I use a calendar. I hope that all of this can come to fruition, but you never know.

Zibby: You never know. What is coming next for you? Are you working on another book? What’s in the cards?

Zoje: I do. I just finished a first draft of a new book.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Zoje: I don’t think I can really talk about it yet. I just showed it to my agents. I’m talking to my agents about it tomorrow. I’m pretty sure they like it. It’s so new. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s very psychological. Then the other project that I will have out, I think, in spring 2022, I will be publishing my first novella. It’s going to be a little bit off-brand for me. It’s not suspense or psychological in that way. It’s a dark fairy tale. It works as a parable. On the surface, it’s a story about this young girl who keeps growing and growing and growing. She grows into a giant. Her father and the doctors are so worried about her. They’re trying to concoct some sort of treatment to help her. She’s terrified of their treatment, so she runs away. It’s the journey of her discovering who she really is. It’s very much a fairy tale, but in my mind, it serves as a parable for how patriarchy treats the female body, always having an opinion on it, always needing to be involved in what’s happening, and just making girls and young women feel a certain way about who they should be and what they should be. Here she is very different than what’s considered normal and acceptable. She’s trying to figure out how she fits in with that. It’s a little different from me but still kind of dark and a little bit whimsical.

Zibby: Interesting, so this is the “petite wanting to be tall” situation replaying itself in this parable.

Zoje: I’m happy being petite.

Zibby: How tall are you?

Zoje: I’m five foot one.

Zibby: I’m 5’2″, so I’m a giant in this conversation. I appreciate it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Zoje: Oh, gosh. That’s tricky because I think the advice would vary depending on where you were in the process, whether you were writing your first book or whether you were seeking publication or whether you were about to be published for the first time. Definitely, there’s a go with the flow kind of thing that happens, for sure. There’s a stick to it and don’t give up thing. That needs to happen, for sure. One of my other life philosophies has to do with this idea of balance and opposition, that good things don’t exist without bad things. The darkness doesn’t exist without the light, etc. I know people very much think of getting published as a dream job. It is a dream job, but as with anything, it has its ups and downs too. I think sometimes writers get a little discouraged because of things that happen that are beyond their control. There are just ups and downs. It’s just the way it is. I think if people can understand that you’re going to encounter a balance of things that are good and things that aren’t as good and just be prepared to roll with that, hopefully it won’t be as disappointing when you have some setbacks.

Zibby: That’s great advice. That’s great life advice as well from the woman who just took us all through the Grand Canyon for hundreds of pages. Thank you very much. Amazing. Thank you so much. This has been so much fun and interesting and all the things. Thank you for sharing Getaway. I’m excited for this to come out in the world. I still have not been convinced to hike, but that’s okay because now I’m leaving this conversation feeling very tall and, hopefully, clever.

Zoje: You can just feel that you’ve been there. Maybe that’s enough.

Zibby: That’s enough. That was great. Thank you.

Zoje: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun.

Zibby: Have a great day. Bye.

Zoje: You too.

Zoje Stage, GETAWAY

GETAWAY by Zoje Stage

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