After a 10-year string of personal crises, including navigating breast cancer, Stephanie took stock of her life and committed to her passion for writing. In her first novel, The Next, she writes about love in all its forms—lost and found again, familial, canine, romantic.
Tell us a little about your background.
I have been a New Yorker my whole life, and despite fantasies of retiring to the seaside, anywhere, Manhattan is home. I grew up 25 miles away, on Long Island, and went to college in Buffalo, New York. When my kids were little, we lived in a small river town with a house on a hill above the Hudson. I live a short block to the river today. That’s a lot of New York!
I come from 100% Sicilian-American stock. I grew up in a big, chaotic extended family that cherished family gatherings, babies, dogs, lively conversation, laughter, card games, music, mass quantities of food, the sun, the sea, and the bonds of love. My mother had several miscarriages and was told her chances were nil to conceive, that she shouldn’t try, and yet, nine years into the marriage, finally, I arrived. She and my father thought they’d had a miracle bestowed, and so, I was – I am – an only child, and I do believe that has a profound effect on me. I was one small girl with a lot of responsibility to continue to be their miracle! And so, I had to push to do anything that was out of the family orbit and norms, including going away to college, including writing.
I studied Comparative Literature and was a student of the great poets Robert Creeley and June Jordan, and the literary critic Leslie Fiedler. I was the youngest student and the only girl admitted to Fiedler’s small writing intensive. It was intimidating, to say the least.
I wrote poetry and fiction on and off, mostly off until recently, for many years. I considered it a hobby as I worked at various “careers”—publishing, owning restaurants, and corporate communications, which is what I still do full-time, to pay the mortgage.
My family is small but mighty. My parents are gone, 23 years ago, both suddenly, six weeks apart. I’m divorced and single—happily so, I might add. I have two exceptional daughters with whom I’m very close. It is truly a wonder to have these fascinating and funny women in my life; they keep me honest. I also have a really big standard poodle named Enzo. He’s ninety pounds, attentive, soulful and remarkably loyal, and he managed to nose his way into my novel. And I have old and new friends, cousins, neighbors, writing partners, work colleagues. Not to mention, a busy and surprising cast of characters I’m writing about.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I had a ten-year run of loss of Jobian proportions: marriage, money, home, health, parents. I’ve had breast cancer five times, starting when I was forty-four and I’m sixty-one now; so my breasts went too (and my hair, twice). Things stabilized for a while in my late forties and I fell in love again, unexpectedly; five years later that ended, not unexpectedly, and I was diagnosed again, and I thought, “For fuck’s sake, it’s time to pay attention to this VERY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE message the universe is screaming in my ear: Time is short. Do you, world be damned. Honor all this that you have survived. Make your girls proud.”
On New Year’s Eve, 2013, I made a list—it sounds kind of harsh now—of all the ways in which I was disappointed in myself. The first one nearly jumped off the page at me: Not a writer.
I was fifty-seven and relatively healthy at the time, but harbored no illusions. The clock ticks loudly for those of us with advanced breast cancer. My corporate job is my commitment, my sustenance, and I’m proud of my work, but it’s not my passion. I wanted to follow my bliss while I still had the energy to do so. While the list of my accomplishments is pretty good—chief among them, resilience—I didn’t want “resilience” to be what I was remembered for, getting back up each and every time I’ve been slammed down, like some crazy Whack-a-Mole. I am more than just the accumulation of my trials and tribulations. I am a writer. So I decided to commit. Mind, body, hours of the day, social life. I decided to give it all over to the one thing I’d always wanted to do, because, tick tock, tick tock.
It took me two and a half years but I did it!
What is your next act?
My debut novel, The Next, was published in October of 2016. The trade paperback was published by St. Martin’s Press in August of 2017. I’m writing novel #2, and I am gearing up for “author mode” – vs. “writer” – once again to help support The Next. Doing readings, personal essays (look for me on LitHub in August!), book panels, and social media. There’s so much to do.
I continue to work full-time. My “real” job is as important to me as ever and I feel like I have little free time to write, but these are very good problems to have. I am not complaining. It’s a wave I want to ride. I love it all because I feel I’m finally in my element. I feel confident in a new way. I actually look different, I mean physically, in photographs, in the mirror. I can see the new writer-me right there, on my face; something has relaxed. I guess I’m proud of myself, for maybe the first time, for something I did all by myself, just me. Well, not exactly by myself—I had great early readers, agents, an editor—but the initial impulse, the discipline, the seeing it through when it got tough, that was me. I think I’m allowed to say that!
Why did you choose this next act?
Writing has been my secret ambition my whole life. When things fell apart, after the dust settled, I saw past the rubble to an open field and I ran! But I had to stay solo to do it. There’s a part of me that loves being in a couple but—for me, not necessarily other women—it has been all-consuming in the past. I had to talk myself into embracing a solitary existence in order to realize my ambition. I had to learn to be a novelist with no other distractions. I’ve learned!
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was nearly impossible. I read every craft book out there; I did not read fiction at all. I committed to a yoga practice and meditation. I stopped going out and socializing after work, on the weekends. I woke up at four a.m. on workdays and wrote until six. At six, I would walk Enzo for an hour, taking notes in a small notebook (not on my cellphone, too many temptations and distractions). I wrote from seven until noon on the weekends. I turned down invitations, weekends away. I made time only for my family and my closest friends. I stayed off social media, didn’t pick up the phone until after two p.m.
On the other hand, it was impossibly easy. I felt free and happy writing in the early mornings. I felt excited to see where the story was taking me, eager to get back to it each day. I felt like I had a big, delicious secret world that I inhabited, with a surprising turn of events around every corner, on every page. When the writing was going well, I felt kind of trippy, kind of high. It was addictive! It was also very healing for me to shut the world out, finally, and go quiet, and tap into my destiny. I know that sounds kind of grandiose, but, again, tick tock, right? It was a “now or never” scenario for me.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Tremendously supportive. Although a lot of “It’s about time,” came my way.
What challenges did you encounter?
Well, as I said, I gave up a social life, sleep, old habits, television, reading fiction, and the long-held assumption that I’d be part of a couple in my golden years. It was challenging to accept that as I approached sixty, I was deciding to NOT pursue relationships, something I’d been pretty good at since I was fifteen years old. That I was choosing the possibility of spending the rest of my life single, that I might be setting that trap for myself. It wasn’t until I realized it was the opposite of a trap—it was freedom—that I actually started to fall in love with being single.
The other challenges are ones writers know well: the plot holes, the broken story arcs, the lack of time, the temptations of the Internet, the insecurities, the inner censor that tells us we’re wasting time, we’re foolish, we’re not talented enough, original enough, fast enough, that we might as well give up, that nobody cares what we have to say. Those are pretty big challenges, and even more ominously, they come from within. All from within. I had to learn to shut down the naysayers in my head—they were all different versions of myself, trying to subvert me.
Here’s what kept me going: My daughters, who never doubted for one moment. My dog, who got me up and out of the house for restorative walks three times a day. My love of cooking, which gave me creative time in a different way, and gave me time to think. Reading the better craftspeople who’ve figured it out and help other writers to do so. Yoga and meditation—it’s cliché by now, but both practices in tandem are truly life-changing, and require only you, yourself, and a willingness to slow down and try and stretch, physically and mentally. Binge-watching Breaking Bad, Law & Order SVU re-runs, weirdly soothing. Playlists. A good night’s sleep. Trips to the ocean, to Italy, to Barcelona, to San Francisco, to the Berkshires, to the East Village. New vistas brought me new ideas. And my early readers, who, despite the mess of early drafts, understood what I was trying to do and helped me get there with kind, constructive criticism and advice. Over and over!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Being solitary has been a revelation. I had an intellectual understanding that “alone” is different than “lonely,” but living it for the last few years has been tremendously rewarding for me. It’s given me a chance to identify myself—better late than never.
I learned that the thing I didn’t want to be known for—Whack-a-Mole—is the very trait I needed to finish my novel. Resilience in the face of failed drafts, criticism, crashed computer, ennui, writer’s block, job pressures, and an advanced cancer diagnosis nine months after I started the book.
I taught myself to write a novel, and I learned that I thrive when I’m learning. That I feel better, more youthful, more flexible, more interesting when I’m in learning mode.
I’m a good listener. I’m a good observer. I’m a good writer. That’s a really good combination of traits, and I’m grateful I set them loose! Finally!
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
The obvious answer is: Started sooner. But I can’t diminish this moment I’m having with regrets. I got here when I got here. I guess I had to go through what I did, my Job years, and then stabilize, before I could tackle this next act. Funny, my book title—The Next—resonates with your blog name!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I’ll quote Elizabeth Gilbert—she gives much better advice than I do. “I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting tired of their own bullshit.”
I got tired of my own bullshit. I was much more powerful on the page than I ever was in any other circumstance, than I ever imagined I could be, than I ever allowed myself to be. Maybe I was afraid of that? That was bullshit. Once I unleashed that secret power— my solitary, selfish, heart’s desire, to write a novel—I was happier than ever. Once I allowed myself to be greedy with my time and my love, I thrived. I don’t know if I could have done this younger, I don’t think I could have. I had to become this version of myself, older, tougher, with a well-honed BS detector (for my own BS) in order to push myself harder, do more, and take what I wanted. And when I did, my two biggest fears—loneliness and advanced cancer—ended up being what turned me into the person I’d always wanted to be, a novelist. How cool is that? How crazy is life?
What advice do you have for those interested in writing?
I can’t give advice, I can only say what worked for me. Declare your passion to yourself and make a commitment. Declare that commitment to your close circle, so that you are accountable. Make a schedule. Cut out all the time drags. Be quiet and reflective. Go into learning mode. Put down the phone and step away from the screen. Plan your month, week, day. Sit in the chair and find the flow and revel in the high that flow provides. Give yourself rewards: cook a meal, have a glass of wine, take a few days away from work, take yourself on an art date to a museum. Go easy on the new you; you’ve taken something on that is so difficult and so rewarding, and you will fall and fail and prevail. Do not stop. Just don’t stop.
STACK OF BOOKS OR YOUR BOOKSHELF WITH FAVORITES
What resources do you recommend?
Here are the resources I used:
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story and Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M.Weiland
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
There’s no denying the power of social media. I do a good amount of networking on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I’ve met other writers, reading series curators, editors, and just plain old interesting people via each channel. I belong to “closed” groups on Facebook that appeal to my writing intentions. I learn from others and share my experiences writing poetry, essays, novels, short fiction. I join groups that represent my readership, too, so that I can stay connected to what readers enjoy or don’t enjoy.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Oh my gosh, yes. One of the doors that has opened for me through the publication of The Next is a way to collaborate, in a sense, with my illness, a way to navigate alongside cancer – leading writing workshops for other women with breast cancer. It has been a tremendous experience, and the students have been my teachers, as it should be. I’m enjoying writing personal essays, continuing to “relax” my writing practice with poetry, and I’m hard at work on novel #2. I’m celebrating the successes of my daughters and my friends, too. I have the sense that women of all ages are really speaking up, speaking out, more than ever before, and that’s exciting.
Who knows what the next moment will bring! It’s so exciting. At the time of this writing, I have a date on the calendar too! Who knows, maybe a late-breaking romance is on the horizon.