THE NEXT is Gangi’s first novel, and has been met with astounding praise. Cathleen Schine called it “an elegantly written, thoughtfully sharp and surprisingly touching whirlwind of a book.” Erica Jong said, “I was instantly hooked by Gangi’s vivid writing, her psychological acumen, and her sharp observation of love and life. She is a fascinating writer who understands love, sex, men, and women."
The tale will hold you captive from the start: Joanna DeAngelis dies wrong. Consumed by breast cancer, betrayals, disappointments, and a blind lust to avenge a badly broken heart, she turns away from her devoted daughters and dog on her deathbed, and finds herself alone in a darkness of her own making. With no light to guide her to death’s promised land of peace, Joanna’s ghost plots a course for revenge on her much-younger ex, Ned McGowan, the man who abandoned her to take up—and trade up—with another woman. Joanna’s desperate needs—when she was alive, and now, while she’s trying to die properly—inspire a deep descent into the seat of the soul, an unflinching look at choices and consequences, at the last gasps of lust and love, and the wisdom to know how to go.
A Conversation with Stephanie Gangi, author of The Next
Right off the bat, do you believe in ghosts?
In a way I do. Not apparitions rattling chains or howling through hallways, no. But the ghosts that haunt me in the dark are the lives and loves lost to me, my secret regrets, missed chances, truths revealed in ways that I couldn’t see. The memory of crossing the borders of another person, spirits touching, by way of desire and intimacy. The quest to find that again! Some of the ghosts swirling inside me are well past their expiration dates. An old hurt or disappointment rises up and I think, “Not you again, I thought I laid you to rest.”
Why did you decide to make The Next a ghost story?
I was struggling with how to write a revenge story with which I felt comfortable. I guess I had to give myself permission to be angry. To imagine doing violence. I chose the ghost device so I could just let it rip, unrestrained, but as I wrote further and further in to the story, kind of going deeper into the whys of revenge, rather than just the acts of revenge, it really felt right. The ghost metaphor fit: To be a woman of a certain age, the loss of visibility. To be sick, a distortion of your old healthy self. To be uncoupled and unsure of who you are alone. Older, sick, single, unseen.
You are, as you say, a woman of a certain age and this is your debut. Where’ve you been?
Good question. I guess I’m a late bloomer. I’ve always been writing, and always had “real” jobs that involved writing and editing. Life happened, and I was detoured by all the things one is detoured by: relationships, family, finances, health issues. Lots of writers manage to work beautifully alongside similar challenges. I didn’t, until I did.
Those challenges are explored in The Next. The voice is so authentic, it’s hard not to hear it as autobiographical. Is it?
I’m not a ghost yet, but yes, there’s a lot that happens in the book that has happened to me.
Like Joanna, I have two daughters, I live in Manhattan, and I’ve been in relationships that ended in ways that left me feeling disappointed. I’ve had my feelings hurt, I’ve been angry. I’ve faced getting older, I’ve faced serious illness, I’ve had to confront how I spend my days in light of that. Also, I have a very big poodle.
Having said that, I’ve also been very lucky in love. I’ve had great big romances with good men that didn’t last forever, but that doesn’t mean they were any less wonderful.
And I’ve never taken revenge. That’s not to say I haven’t thought about it!
You mentioned serious illness. Breast cancer?
Yes. I’ve been living with breast cancer for 15 years or so. A bunch of recurrences along the way. I’m on drug treatment now and it’s going well for me. I feel great and grateful for the care I’ve gotten over the years.
Fifteen years – it’s hard to imagine coping with breast cancer for so long, and yet it’s hopeful for women newly diagnosed.
Breast cancer has become a chronic illness rather than a death sentence. A cultural shift in thinking has taken place over the years of my own experience with the disease. I feel like the poster child for BC as chronic illness, and very very lucky to have it under control.
And, I have had to figure out how to live with it. Not battle it. Not just survive it.
Figuring all this out – how to live fully when well, how to stay ‘you’ when sick – takes up a lot of energy, honestly. Psychic, physical, financial, you name it. The truth is, it all kept nudging me along to now, to the next. And The Next!
For the protagonist in The Next, falling in love with a younger man is very good medicine until it runs out. Your protagonist gets betrayed when she’s sick, and then obsessed with the betrayal.
I suffered a broken heart pretty late in life. It was tough. I spent an embarrassing number of hours rehashing the details, the injustices, the drama with my friends. And I could see how one could become kind of obsessive, have it take over and turn into rage if the stakes were high enough.
During the dying days of my relationship, who explodes on the scene but Adele, with the record 21. I would walk down Broadway and it seemed that every shop was blasting Adele, Rumour Has It, Rolling in the Deep, Someone Like You, to name the most obvious. Those songs felt like anthems for betrayed women. For revenge.
A year later I read Gone Girl. I thought, I want to do that. Little did I know how hard it was! Anyway, forces converged. I stopped whining and started writing.
Speaking of Adele, you’ve got a lot of music in the book.
I’m sort of surprised that music doesn’t permeate more fiction. I hear a song and remember someone, or a moment in time, or a scent or even, who I was once. Melodies and lyrics pop up in my mind all the time. Certainly, I can’t imagine falling in love – making love – without specific songs providing the soundtrack. And no break-up and its subsequent wallowing is complete without an anthem. Without Adele!
The title combined with the cover imagery is so intriguing and mysterious. How did it come about?
The Next was my first title, first draft. I kept lists – dozens and dozens –but I always came back to The Next. When I’d test it, readers would say, “The Next what?” And I loved that response. Because yeah, exactly. Leaving it so open-ended really worked for me. When Jen Enderlin at St. Martin’s bought the book, she never questioned the title. I finally got the nerve one day to say, “So, how do you feel about the title?” and she said, “What do you mean? The title’s perfect.” That was when I knew I was with the right editor!
When I saw the current cover – there was no question. They nailed it. It’s a fantastic image that enhances the story and the title. And the blue was especially calibrated for The Next. Olga Grlic, the creative director at St. Martin’s, calls it The Next Blue. I love that! My own blue!
You alternate between a first person voice, and a close third person. Why did you choose to tell the story that way?
It was definitely a critical choice. Joanna’s voice is very strong. She’s ricocheting between rage and sorrow and joy with extreme intensity, and I thought an entire narrative in that voice might veer off into a rant. I wanted to let her rant a little, but not a whole book’s worth.
As I wrote, the other characters – Ned, Laney and Anna (and Tom!) – came so much to life that a close third-person worked for them. Alternating the chapters gave me the dimension I was looking for and also, balanced out Joanna’s intensity.
I was so committed to this structure that towards the final draft, I separated the two narrative voices and revised so they could basically stand alone, and then wove them back together. I tried to make sure that whatever was going on with Joanna teed up the third person stories, chapter by chapter.
Tom! The relationship between Joanna and Tom in The Next is so affecting. Did you plan to write a dog story?
I have a great dog, Enzo, who is absolutely the model for Tom. He’s a 90-lb standard and just the most expressive and sweet dog I’ve ever owned. He has literally propped me up when I was sick.
I’d not intended to have Tom become such a crucial character in the novel. He just popped up one day and I let him have free run on the page (probably because Enzo is always nudging my arm to get me to stop typing!). What happened next, the way Tom evolved within the world of the story, was magical for me. Completely unexpected.
Dogs –and Tom, the poodle in the story – embody old-fashioned values: faithfulness, reliability, devotion, pure love. I think Tom displays all of those things in a way that Joanna recognizes.
At its heart, The Next is a mother-daughter story. What do your own daughters think?
They think it’s too sexy! Also, they’re very proud.
The book is so cinematic. Did you have movies in mind when you wrote it?
I really didn’t but that was a universal comment from readers along the way.
I was reading a lot of fiction – trying to see behind the curtain – and reading about craft to teach myself to write a novel. To get a break, I binged on Breaking Bad, which was enormously helpful – Walt, after all, is a dying man trying to get what he deserves, with twisted scruples and a ticking clock.
How was the experience of writing your first novel? And then selling it!
Fun! I taught myself something new in my late fifties. I did something I’d always wanted to do. I made my heart’s desire my priority. I flopped a few times along the way but I didn’t stop. I course-corrected and pushed on. I had no social life, I was writing at four in the morning and then going to my day job. But it was a phenomenal experience.
Selling it, honestly, was icing on the cake. I truly mean that. Not that it’s not fantastic – like winning the lottery at my age, especially with the tremendous support from St. Martin’s – but I really did feel very gratified to just write this book and finally meet this other me. The writer me.
What are you working on?
Novel #2, still no title. This one’s a little different – a bigger canvas in a way. It’s another mother-daughter story that begins in the 1960s and wraps up today. The mother is not so literal a ghost as in The Next, but she’s still haunting everyone. I can’t say more – too new and exciting. I don’t want to jinx it.