WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Stephanie, I’m really excited to talk with you about this novel. It’s such an interesting work—it’s very transgeneric, to use one of the words my professors used in undergrad—it really does this fantastic job of crossing through a lot of genres and combining them well in a fluid, cohesive way. Can you tell me about the process for coming up a novel like this? Did you decide first to write about this investigation into Bea’s mother and photos of her from when she was young, or were you more focused on something other than plot when you crafted the novel? What comes first for you?
Stephanie Gangi: Matt! Thank you so much for reading and thinking about Carry the Dog. My initial impulse for the novel was to write “through” the experience of a character who, at a certain age, realizes she must confront trauma in order to fully engage with the foreshortened future. She’s an older woman with some perspective, and humor, and I hope – I’ve heard! – some grace. Her mission is to locate the past, and leverage it, but not be burdened by it.
MT: How long did it take you to write Carry the Dog? What’s the writing process like for you? Do you have a strict schedule? What scenario or situation helps prepare you for the most productive day of writing?
SG: I saw Amor Towles in conversation with Meg Wolitzer recently, and he gave a fascinating look into his process which is much like my process. He spends a lot of time thinking and taking notes, as do I. It seems like procrastinating some days! And maybe it is! But once I settle in to actually writing, I’m very disciplined. At my desk by 7 a.m., 4 or 5 hours straight. Then I break, and do my reading and note-taking in the afternoon. At night I dream about the work and that’s work too! My productivity is synched to the sounds of New York City right outside my window. It’s the perfect ambient soundscape for me, easy to tune out, easy to tune in.
MT: What books influenced Carry the Dog? Are there any you feel it’s in conversation with? What books do you turn to when you’re having a tough time writing, or when you need inspiration, or even a pick me up, or for any other reason?
SG: I did a lot of research for Carry the Dog, which I hope doesn’t show! I read the Sally Mann memoir, the Diane Arbus bios (Patricia Bosworth and Arthur Lebow), the Aperture monographs for both those photographers; and many books about photography (especially John Berger and Susan Sontag; also numerous books about trauma and resilience (my go-to is Bessel Van Der Klok’s The Body Keeps the Score); and a dozen more. I’m a big fiction reader, my list is long, and I read daily for pleasure, but it’s also my job – something I push myself to make time for: sit in a chair with a book and a glass of wine. Over the past year I’ve loved Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, Mysteries by Marisa Silver, and I re-read a couple of Le Carrés in homage to the master. As far as what I read that pushes me to write better, weirdly, I grab any book of poetry – I have a tall stack next to my desk – and just peruse. The brevity and precision and music and voice all jog my brain, who knows why!
MT: What’s the most important thing to you for any reader to take away from this novel?
SG: I’ve found on my current book tour that it’s hard to talk about Carry the Dog in detail because it is so chock full of plot – it’s been called a “page-turner” by more than one reviewer. But I do think the final line of the book – which I won’t reveal! – sums up my own philosophy. That as we get older, we get more comfortable with the fates and furies of a lifetime, and with releasing expectations about the future and even, about ourselves. If we are very lucky and intentional, we integrate our past selves, our same old struggles to design, in a way, who we want to be going forward. To me, that is the essence of resilience!
MT: What was it like creating Bea? How was she shaped in the writing process? I know Toni Morrison always said she has to know a character’s name or they aren’t formed, and in ways Bea’s name is important to her, too. I think of the beginning, when she talks about shortening her first name, or when she omits a part of her last name. What were the most important elements of developing Bea into a character who could truly carry the novel?
SG: I wrote Bea in the first person because the first line of the novel – “I’m in the dark, I can’t see” – about a woman experiencing insomnia, came to me and wouldn’t let me go. Once the book is closed, that line combined with the last line bookend a key theme of the entire novel. Writing a woman of a certain age in the first person, of course some of my own voice creeps in, and in the revision phases, I’m always working to protect Bea’s authentic, original voice. It’s a lot of work, especially since we share a knack for resilience.
As far as names, I will say that all of the main characters in the book – except one, quite by design, and I can’t give it away – have more than one name. That was a way to illuminate multiple selves within one self, and also, different perspectives of the person by others. The one character with only one name, that identity never fully develops.
MT: I review a lot of crime novels and interview a lot of crime writers as well, and I like to think that most novels—all novels—can in some way be seen as crime novels. I know that a lot of crimes—especially crimes not related directly to murder or death, especially of some sort of sexual nature—are overlooked, or oftentimes delved into less. What was important when addressing the photos, the issues with Bea’s mother, and do you think there’s a particular relevance in anything going on in America or across the world today?
SG:That’s a great way to “read,” and I will now bring the “all novels are crime novels” perspective to my own reading. I worked very hard to walk a line regarding the photos. There is certainly the intimation of sexual exploitation if not outright abuse. But I wanted the images to eventually reveal things: a photograph is a frozen moment (and its subjects are frozen as well) out of context; and that the photographer is revealing something about themselves in the subject matter and framing and by way of the technical and aesthetic choices they make; and finally, that light is an aspect of dark and vice versa. The photographs that seem to define Bea’s existence from early girlhood, are not, “truth,” they are a version of a truth. Much like memory! She navigates alongside the girl in the pictures, but she is not only the girl in the pictures, which is something she has to learn.
MT: A lot of this novel deals with ideas and issues related to resilience, and how much Bea can bounce back from life’s tough—and for many, insurmountable—obstacles. I love reading about characters like Bea—I know Joyce Carol Oates comes to mind, when she talks about how she is less interested in things like romanticizing suicide, and instead focusing on those who really fight hard through like to overcome anything from personal losses to severe health issues. What was important to you in writing a character like Bea? Do you feel she’s different from characters in novels you might feel are similar, or in the same category or genre?
SG: I didn’t know that about Joyce Carol Oates, I love that. Certainly I had a similar interest in that kind of character. For one thing, I hadn’t read a novel (which doesn’t mean they’re not out there) about an older woman who was confronting her own myths about the past and setting out to revise them, no matter how resistant or fearful or bumbling she is. Also, an older woman character who is hellbent on learning herself and preparing herself – her many selves – to maximize her future, the time that is left, with humor and energy that is typically associated with youth (like her sexuality). I have a lot of women friends in their fifties and sixties and they are raring to go, and not slowing down and not invisible, no matter what the media tells us and no matter what they’ve been through and I wanted to capture that in a way that was not caricature or pathetic or wacky or sad.
Years ago I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and although I was so impressed with the writing, it did make me wonder about a character who might have a similarly traumatic past who does not succumb, who is not destroyed, who navigates that past with some awkward grace and stubborn resilience. I thought about that for a few years, and then Bea Seger emerged.
MT: Another part of Bea’s life which seems to come back to her over and over is her relationship with her husband/ex-husband. Can you tell me what it was like to write that relationship, why it was important in the novel and to Bea’s story arc, and how Bea had to cope with—you might say—making the same mistake multiple times with her husband, or perhaps dooming herself to the same bad outcome by marrying him again? Does Bea claiming some sort of ownership over music she helped craft with her husband relate in some way to her relationship with her mother’s photographs and the legacy there?
SG:I loved writing Gary Going, and readers are loving him too, despite his ancient-boomer flaws. I was so interested in how rock and roll ages. The twin cultural signposts for boomers – rock and roll and photography – grew up together, and I grew up at the same time. They are both part of my cultural DNA, and I wanted Gary to kind of live that arc.
I’m not sure that marrying Gary – twice – is a mistake for Bea! I think she needed to escape her childhood trauma and there he was, to sweep her away in the way that suited those times. To retrofit a lens on Gary is very much besides the point for Bea. He never thought – and Bea never thought, until years later – that he could be grooming her, or leveraging a power dynamic, or stealing her work. He was just the man, the rock star, the one with the money. Unfortunately (and fortunately times have changed) that was the way it was for many women and men way back then, early 70s. So it’s hard to condemn the characters for loving each other in the way they do. And the key to Bea and Gary is the profound “knowing” of each other, and the choices they make again and again to continue together, in some way. Duration counts for so much, especially as we get older.
MT: What’s your next book about? I saw that you’re in the process of writing your third novel (according to your website!) and I’m wondering if you can share anything about the new novel with my readers? What are we likely to expect?
SG: I am at work on novel #3, called The Good Provider. I’m not going to say much more than it’s about men and women and marriage and money, and you’ve got me thinking hard about your “all novels are crime novels” theory.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Stephanie. I really loved reading this novel, which is a compelling, thoughtful examination into some serious subjects, along with a great character study, and some particularly beautiful prose. I am so excited to read what you come out with next!
SG: Thank you, Matt and really great questions! I hope readers will head over to sgangi.com, check out my first novel, The Next which debuted when I was 60 and you can buy books through the links right there. There are also reviews, essays on topics including writing, aging, mothering, men+women and more! I also work with writers to develop their own narratives. That’s my day job!