The ghost in Stephanie Gangi’s The Next is not Patrick Swayze, tenderly watching over Demi Moore while his spirit is unable to move on. Gangi’s resident ghost, Joanna DeAngelis is anything but tender or peaceful: she’s raging. The specter of a woman scorned, she lingers on after a slow and agonizing death from cancer with the sole purpose of getting even with the man who callously left her during the worst of her illness for another woman.
Joanna’s dog Tom, who became a sort of ally and enabler during her last days, is the only one who can see her. Anna and Laney, Joanna’s daughters, each react to her death in completely opposing ways, while Ned, Joanna’s much younger lover and the target of her impending vengeance finds himself living, perhaps justifiably, a rather unsatisfied existence filled with regret and painful memories.
It is difficult to believe that The Next is Gangi’s first novel. While the narrative is extraordinarily well-crafted, it’s her talent for painting powerful emotions which vibrate off the page that is astoundingly unique.
I spoke to Stephanie Gangi over the phone to ask her how The Next was first envisioned, and to explore a bit more the complicated psyche of her characters.
Which authors inspired you to become a writer?
I’m a voracious reader and was a secret writer for years, but ultimately what made me decide was when I read Gone Girl. When I closed the book, I said to myself: “I could do that.” So I spent the next two and a half years learning how to write a novel. I give a lot of props to Gillian Flynn because it’s not at all easy to do something that seems so simple and effortless. But I love spy novels, and some of my favorite writers are John le Carré, Graham Greene, Phillip Roth, Hillary Mantel.
The narrative and the stream of consciousness in this novel is incredibly distinctive, not to mention the topic. How did you come up with the idea for The Next?
Some of the book is autobiographical. I had cancer myself, I do have daughters and a dog and you know, I’m sixty. So at this point in my life I’ve been taking hard looks at where I’ve been and where I’m going. Heartbreak too, in the middle of all that really got me thinking what I wanted to do with the next part of my life, specially given my health which has been precarious; right now it’s fantastic. So I really wanted to appreciate the moment I was in and whatever was coming next. And I mean whatever that was: good, bad, up, down. I just wanted to be present for it.
The title is intriguing: ‘The Next ‘ what?
It’s interesting because during the writing of the book I tried to talk about the title as little as possible. I mean, it’s my debut so I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. People would ask me the title and I would whisper, “The Next”. And people would ask what you did, The Next what? And that was exactly the point: the next what? I tried many variations of it but none of them captured that kind of open and ambiguous feeling. I felt that it was The Next not just for Joanna, but also for Tom, Jo’s daughter’s and even Ned. I thought every character had to own their moment, and those moments are not always pretty moments. At times they’re messy and complicated but sometimes you just have to go through.
Joanna inspires both sympathy and a sort of loathing for the way she frequently forgot her self-respect to go after Ned, ignoring her own daughters in the process, particularly in her final days. Did you want readers to perceive her character this way?
This is kind of a mixed bag question. Probably yes, I did. I absolutely knew that she was ‘unlikeable’ at least in the beginning. But she embarks on a journey to find herself, and I wanted readers to take that journey with her. So yes, I knew she would be unlikeable, although I was surprised by exactly how unlikeable readers found her, particularly younger women. Younger women now are so much more confident than I ever was, so I think that when they read Joanna’s story they can’t understand why she doesn’t immediately kick Ned to the curb.
In relationships I have sometimes given too much of myself and I don’t think it as being as much of a compromise as the strong young women I know see it as, but that’s the way I was brought up. I’ve had young women ask me: “Ugh, how can she stand him?” And I say, “Well, because he’s fifteen years younger than her, he’s lusting after her, and she had been nearly dead from breast cancer.” I thought it was pretty obvious.
Why does Ned deny his feelings for Joanna until it’s too late?
I think Ned in my mind does enjoy a little bit of redemption in the end. Ned struggles with his own demons; he had a childhood with a depressive mother, a closeted father, had ambitions beyond what his parents had in mind for him. He tried to be a good soldier, trying to protect the myth of family in a household of alcoholics. When his ex-girlfriend Trudi becomes pregnant, he is too weak to speak up, wanting to protect the myth of normalcy, and never found his strength while Joanna was alive. He becomes paralyzed though, once he realizes what he’s lost, and I do think as we go through life it’s a mixed bag. We try to accommodate to the choices we’ve made, but once we get older, we try to do better. But sometimes those choices have consequences that we can’t undo, and we have to learn to live with that.
Why did you choose to write Jo’s POV from the first person while Ned, Anna and Laney are in the third person?
While I was writing, I kept flopping back and forth from a full first person to a full third person point of view. Because of Jo’s unlikeability, complexities, or whatever we want to call them, a full first person felt too ‘ranty’, it felt too much. I wanted to be able to present her daughters’ dilemmas too, and Ned and Tom were characters I expected to be more in the background. But they pushed forward during the writing, and I had to revise a lot of chapters. Crazily enough, towards the final revisions, I had decided to go first person, third person and so on. And in the third person I do some head-hopping and get deep interior to some of those characters, including the dog.
It wasn’t easy, but what I did in the end, was separate the first person chapters and the third person chapters and read them separately from each other to make sure there was a coherent narrative, to make sure a reader would be able to understand the story. I feel like the third person chapters helped soften Joanna, while the first person chapters helped the reader understand all the loss she had suffered prior to meeting Ned that made her in a way ripe for his attention.
The characters in the novel are all multilayered and complex. How difficult was it for you to create these characters?
Well, I’m not sure I can answer this one perfectly, but I’ll give it a stab. I knew some of the characters very very well. I knew Laney; I lost my own parents as did Joanna, but I really understood Laney’s journey of grief and how it’s less like other people’s journeys. It didn’t feel like depression, more like moving through sludge. Personally, I remember not being able to finish a task and having no focus, so Laney I understood pretty well. With Joanna I understood where she came from, her loss and heartbreak, but I don’t really have any of the depths of anger that she had. Or maybe I do, but I’m probably too chicken to let them loose! (laughs).
I remember telling someone that everywhere I went, the song Rolling in the Deep by Adele was playing. If you listen to the lyrics, they’re actually pretty violent, and I thought, “what would happen if a woman was so unhinged and desperate that she could really end up paralytic with this anger, particularly in a moment when she should be honoring her life and not obsessing about the past?” When she dies, Joanna expects the Nancy Myers version of Heaven, and what she gets is this dark, broiling charnel.
She doesn’t understand why she’s stuck in her neighborhood, and decides that as long as she’s here everyone is going to feel it. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I did a fair amount of research on ghosts, and that’s kind of the premise; they stay in their neighborhoods, and they try to get the people they love to understand their plight and their neediness. I wasn’t super comfortable with a woman doing violence, so I thought if I made her a ghost that was easier for me. I also went with the whole idea of a ghost as a kind of metaphor for women of a certain age, that invisibility, not to mention how marginalized you are when you’re sick. All of these things really coalesced for me in the writing of the novel, a sort of the ghost in the machine,
Up until her death Joanna comes across as a tame and almost shy woman. When she dies, she goes through this transformation and is now a force of nature filled with rage and violence. Is this new change solely fueled because of her desire to take revenge on Ned, or is more than that?
I think yes, it may be other things that fuel her rage. For example, she has regretted that she never spoke to her mother on her deathbed. She never took off the oxygen mask from her mother’s face because she was afraid to monkey with the equipment, so she never really understood what her mother wanted to say to her, her last words, much like Laney as a matter of fact. She’s angry because her mother died of a massive heart attack six weeks after her father did, and she always had the feeling that her mother sort of checked out, you know, that she wasn’t really sick, she died of a broken heart in essence. So she was left behind by her parents, and when Ned also leaves her behind it triggers everything for her again.
Joanna because of culture and society and her age and how things were when she was growing up, is less comfortable when she’s alive to just say: “Hey, I’m editing that book”, or “I wrote that chapter” She’s kind of adjunct to Ned and puts him first, entirely by choice. But after she dies she asks herself, as does Laney, why was she always stepping back and letting them step forward? I think that it’s a feminist realization that she has, although much too late, that her life could’ve been completely different. She watches her daughters in the end, which I think is part of the moment of transformation, and realizes that her daughters are going to be ok, that she raised them strong, capable and independent. She’s given them the tools to be themselves, and that is what finally frees her.
Why are Anna and Laney’s feelings towards Ned in such opposition? Anna hates him while Laney seems to genuinely like him. Is it maybe because Laney doesn’t feel as close to her father as Anna does?
Actually, I think that’s very astute. I wouldn’t have said that before, but now that you mention it I think it’s true. Anna was off to college when Ned came on the scene, so she was never really under the same roof with him, while Laney became friends with Ned at a time when her parents’ divorce was quite contentious. He also taught young people and knew how to relate to them; he helped her with some of her insecurities about college, with the kind of removal that a parent doesn’t have. So she did have true affection for him, maybe like a big brother. I do think that Laney felt as betrayed as her mother, so when Joanna and Ned break up, Laney is kind of left nowhere.
Did you ever ponder about religious connotations such as Heaven or Hell when you were writing The Next?
Yes, I did and I struggled with that because I actually struggle with it myself, and I wanted it to be ambiguous. Joanna’s memories of her Catholic upbringing are hazy like God for her is hazy, like ghosts are hazy. I did try to write along the edges of religion without going deeply into it. I didn’t want religion to be a theme of the book, but I certainly couldn’t hide my own doubts and concerns about religion. Where Joanna is after her death, is in a place where all the souls of people that were unloved during their lifetime, or felt unloved go. And I think at first Joanna is in that place because of Ned, but later she comes to realize that she’s always had love; her daughters were devoted to her, and she to them before Ned came along. So everything she thought was lost with Ned, were things that she already had. Was it intimacy? No, but it was something bigger and brighter than Ned’s love.
What would you want readers to take away from The Next?
I guess I would hope that readers feel how real it is. I think it’s a story about love in all its forms, because I believe that sometimes when we love it’s not always out of our best selves. Sometimes we love out of weakness or sorrow or pride, and even though it’s a form of love it may not be the right choice of a love. But that’s who we are, we choose and we muddle through and make mistakes. Love comes comes in many forms, and the beauty of it is that it’s painful but it’s joyous, too.
What future projects are you working on?
I’m a few chapters into my next story, and it’s a little bit different from The Next. It’s about a woman who’s haunted but haunted in a different way, more like by ghosts of memories. The Next was very much a mother-daughter story and so is this one, a very complicated mother, and a woman who at age sixty comes to terms with a lot of childhood issues. I’ve put it down while all the excitement about The Next was happening, but I’m looking forward to getting back to it.
In the early part of next year, I will be running writing workshops for advanced breast cancer patients. This is a cause that is near and dear to my heart, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve also been doing a lot of personal essays, and I’ve never written in that form before so I’m quite enjoying it. In a way, I can say that I’m continuing to figure out what my groove is, and where I can go from here.
Author’s answers have been edited.