by Lisa Peet
The eternal question: What nudges a reader toward an unknown book? What makes its heartbeat audible? I lean heavily on the cover to tell me things, but lately—with fewer physical copies coming in over the transom—I gravitate to titles that confound me just a bit. So I was immediately taken with Stephanie Gangi’s second novel, Carry the Dog (out today from Algonquin Books). The title alone stopped me cold: What dog? Who was carrying it, and why? It was what your Boolean operators would call a Statistically Improbable Phrase, yet it thrummed with a certain underlying heartbeat. Perhaps I missed carrying my own dog, but there are worse reasons to pick up a book.
Carry the Dog—warm, funny, and humane—did not disappoint. Gangi’s heroine, Bea Seger, is warm and complex, engaging and brave and messed up, but the book is deceptively likable; it also takes on big subjects: aging and sexuality, agency and consent, and who gets to say what, exactly, gets to happen in the name of art.
Bea has spent most of her life distancing herself from the legacy of her mother, photographer Miriam Marx, and Miri’s controversial and discomfiting series of nude photographs taken of Bea and her twin brothers, Ansel and Henry, as children. Bea is very resolutely not that little girl anymore. She he has her own life in New York City: an on-again, off-again aging downtown darling rock star ex-husband who still owes her royalties on a song she wrote him more than three decades ago; her young sort-of half sister roommate, who offers a breath of bohemian fresh air; and a cantankerous poodle on extended loan from her neighbors. Even as she closes in on 60, she still looks good in leather pants.
But Bea is also stuck. Estranged from what’s left of her family, she’s still financially dependent on her ex, unable to get started on her memoir, and grappling hard with uneasy concerns—her childhood trauma, her sexual viability, her standing in the world as a woman of a certain age, and that fleeting double take when she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
Then the past, as it has a way of doing, catches up with Bea. A Hollywood producer with a biopic of Miriam Marx in mind dangles some needed money in front of her—and it doesn’t hurt that his aftershave is amazing—and a curator from the Museum of Modern Art offers the absolution of high-art legitimacy. All they need is access to Miriam’s archives, and Bea, quite literally, is the one holding the key.
We may not be carrying the same baggage, but there is more than a little of Bea in all of us. Bloom caught up with Gangi shortly before Carry the Dog’s publication (and shortly after it was named People Magazine’s Book of the Week) to find out more about what makes the book’s heart beat.
Lisa Peet: Your first book, The Next (St. Martin’s Press, 2016) came out when you were 60. What was that path like?
Stephanie Gangi: I had always been what Julia Cameron calls a shadow writer. I was a writer from childhood, journals and journals and journals. There’s a song in Carry the Dog called “I Alive”—I lifted the whole thing out of a journal from when I was 22 years old. I’ve written poetry. I have a million starts that I never finished.
LP: What were you reading as you grew up?
SG: Harriet the Spy, It’s Like This, Cat, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My mother was a huge reader—she always had something going, Jackie Suzanne, Harold Robbins, Peyton Place, all those sex machine books. You remember that era. She would put them down and I would secretly pick them up and read them, and I think I learned more about sex from those books than I learned from my mother. Valley of the Dolls, The Best of Everything, The Group. I was riveted. And then in high school I fell in love with a darker kind of writing like The Bell Jar, all of Salinger. I was completely mesmerized by Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather, all New York books. The Exorcist. I always love a good thriller.
I came from a big, noisy, extended family, which was great, but I was kind of a quiet kid. So I just disappeared into a book. My mother she used to say, “You’re burying your nose in a book all the time, we never see you.” I mean, I got the habit from her, but I think she felt that I was maybe too introverted.
LP: Did you write as an adult?
I always had jobs that were shadow writing, like director of corporate communications, or freelance editing, copywriting. I worked as an editorial assistant for a while at Simon & Schuster Pocket Books. I still do developmental editing. I always was writer-adjacent, but I had not pushed myself to write a novel.
So after all my years of not writing, I feel proud of myself. I course-corrected in my 50s and set this goal, and I’ve achieved it.
LP: I love the idea of course correction. It certainly resonates for me, and it totally aligns with the theme of blooming on your own schedule. How did you get from there to here?
SG: In 2014, I had some health challenges. I started to take stock, as Bea does in the novel—as we all do, I think—and I thought, it’s now or never. I had a full-time super-corporate job, and I used to get up at 4:00 in the morning, because I was too tired when I got home from work, and write for two and a half hours. It took me a couple of years. I started getting very committed to submitting and, of course, got millions of rejections. But I also won an international poetry prize. Then my manuscript found its way to my current agents, whom I adore, and they took it on.
My agents loved the draft of The Next, but they didn’t think it was quite there yet. They were so kind and supportive and wonderful, yet they pushed it back three times before I got it right. That was a very stressful six months, wondering if I was doing it correctly. I’ve never been in an MFA program—I had very little experience, a few writers’ workshops, but nothing that really pushed me forward. Then I had a draft that everybody was happy with, and it sold pretty quickly to St. Martin’s. I knew nothing about what would happen next. I was just so happy that I had done what I had set out to do, and it had been well received. Then it was 2015, when the former guy rode the gold escalator down at Trump Tower, and my book published one week before the election. It did pretty well, considering. But the noise of everything else was so crazy at that time that all fiction, not just my book, was sort of secondary to the reality that we were all experiencing—and went on to experience for the next four years, and maybe still are. But it was a fabulous experience for me.
The only way I could manage the stress—because even good things are stressful sometimes—was to go back to my desk and write again. that’s when I started Carry the Dog. And in fact I’ve started number three now, because I just have to stay grounded by the writing and not get too distracted by the attention of being an author.
LP: I mentioned earlier that I was initially attracted to the galley before I knew we would be talking about it because of the title. But actually “Carry the Dog” is a photograph that is somewhat less central to the story—it was taken by Miriam Marx, but it doesn’t feature Bea or her brothers. Why did you choose that for the book’s title?
SG: Interestingly, Carry the Dog was not my title—it was suggested to me—and it had that feeling. With titles, you want it to pop off the shelf, or off the NetGalley list. And the other thing you want is that when you close the book, the title resonates more than when you first saw it, that it becomes another texture of the book. Carry the Dog is the only photograph that Bea has kept of her mother’s. She’s not in it. Yet it’s of two children who are demonstrating fortitude and determination and resilience by carrying this dog, barefoot, through a crowded Time Square, almost like a Walker Evans photo. I loved the way the title sounded. I liked the way it looked on the page. And I really did feel like it demonstrated the core theme of the book, which is determination and resilience, and figuring out how to navigate with some awkward grace.
LP: You describe these very emotionally charged, often disturbing photographs of Bea and her brothers so well, but you leave a lot of room for the reader to supply their own details. Did you start with defined images in your mind?
SG: They came into focus as I was writing. I was setting out to write a book to explore who owns the body of a child, and at what point that body is owned by the child—that was always on my mind. I have two daughters who are very much their own young women, and when they pop up in an essay, I never publish anything without showing them. But how am I appropriating their experience for my own work? I never want to cross a line and make them uncomfortable or exploit them, so I always think about that when I’m writing. And I was thinking about a mother who doesn’t feel that way, whose art supersedes the autonomy and agency of her children. It was a question that I found fascinating.
LP: In the book, everybody is appropriating something, or wants something, from Miriam’s photographs. Obviously, all art is open to interpretation, but some interpretations are just more true than others, and sometimes art just really misrepresents life.
SG: Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret.” Photography freezes a moment in time, and then that image is interpreted countless other times by countless other eyes. And it’s not necessarily true, because something happened right before the moment and something happened right after. So like this photograph that Bea treasures, “Carry the Dog”—at the end of the book she says that she understands, after examining everything that happened, that those kids keep walking. They move on. Her mother took those photographs and Bea feels that she and her brothers weren’t allowed to move on from those personas. If you notice, a lot of the people have more than one name. The father has two names, the mother has three nicknames, Bea has a couple of names, Henry has a couple of names. Ansel was the only one who was trapped in one identity.
LP: Carry the Dog engages very deeply, but also with a great deal of humor and compassion, with big fears—aging and desirability, loneliness, illness. You’re so sympathetic with the way your characters deal with those issues, even when they’re acting out, and I feel like you’re looking at them as part of the larger cycle of life, not just issues relegated to “women of a certain age.”
SG: I remember being a kid and seeing my mother—I wouldn’t say she obsessed about aging, but she was definitely very conscious of it. She had her hair done, and her nails done, and everything done every week, always watching her weight, just constantly managing her appearance. To tell you the truth, as I have gotten older, I feel like if I do less, I look better. My mother’s not around anymore so I can’t ask her, but I’m not sure what she would say about that. She had old fashioned ideas about not “letting yourself go.”
I’m being a little bit disingenuous here because I love clothes, as you can probably tell—in the book I talk about fashion a lot: Norma Kamali, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana.
On the back jacket of the book—and I insisted on this—it says that my debut novel was published at age 60. So if anybody can do the math and figure it out, I’m 65. I have made a conscious decision to brandish my age. I am still going strong, I’m still interested in sex, I’m still interested in music. I don’t feel old and I’m not afraid of aging. I can’t say I love the disparity between how I feel on the inside and what I see in the mirror, as Bea talks about a lot. But I’m not going to let that hobble me, and I didn’t want it to hobble her. I wanted her to find her way to being okay with her age. I hope I did that. She has accepted her past and not moved away from it but made space for it. And I think she does the same thing with aging.
LP: A major theme in both of your novels is the idea of shaking hands with mortality. Is that a subject you’ve always thought about, or has that come to the forefront as you’ve grown older?
SG: I have had breast cancer, and have learned not to overidentify with that diagnosis. I’ve done a good job of that. It’s one way I learned about resilience, and I wanted to write about it. So yes, the question of mortality is not something I’ve considered intellectually or academically—I’ve confronted it head on. I’m always thinking about how to move forward, shoulder to shoulder with it in a sense, instead of feeling like I’m being chased by it, or that I’m running away from it. I’m navigating alongside it.
Now, that’s all cool to say when I’m sitting here feeling healthy and great and having done my three miles today. I am of a generation that, when I was a little kid, my mother used to whisper the C word into the phone if she was talking to one of her sisters, and now here I am, a “survivor,” although I hate that word. I use “navigator.”
So yeah, I’m always thinking about mortality. That fueled my course correction. I was like, You know what? It really is now or never. And I have to say I truly did not think I’d be sitting here talking about book number two and figuring out when I can steal some hours to work on book number three. So I took my own experience as a navigator, and I transferred it over to Bea, who navigates different threats to her mortality.
LP: The book engages deeply with all the ways that life doesn’t give you any breaks, or doesn’t turn out the way you think it’s going to, but it ends on a very sweet note of acceptance. Did you ever think about giving it a darker ending? Or did you always know that Bea was going to be okay?
SG: I always knew she’d be okay—that was the entire point of writing the book! What happens to Bea is that she stops resisting her impulse to fall back and let life catch her. The older I get, the more I don’t know. The minute I start to shed my expectations of what I think I know, the happier I become. And I’m open and ready for whatever it is, good or bad. I’m just going with it because … who knows? Nobody.
Lisa Peet is the News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
All illustrations ©Robert Gipe.
Photo of Robert Gipe by Amelia Kirby.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features