My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Stephanie Gangi, author of The Next, “a novel of love, revenge and a ghost who can't let go.” Stephanie was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side. She has worked in publishing and marketing and PR, owned restaurants, and now holds a corporate communications job. She has two daughters, all grown up, and a damned good dog. For more on Stephanie and The Next, visit her website.
All My First Times
My First Time
It was prom night and I was wearing a cornflower blue high-necked, long-sleeved, Empire dress, very sister-wives by today’s standards, and my hair was curled under but the bangs were winged back and I held a bouquet like a bride and my date, my first boyfriend, clasped my waist and....
Oh. Wait. No. Wrong first time.
My First First Time
I went to Negril with my girlfriends in my early twenties in the late seventies. We stayed at a Hitchcock-bizarre B&B run by a boozy blonde older lady who wore voluminous tropical dresses and appeared to never leave her rattan chair on the veranda. She held an ebony cane and shook it as she shouted instructions to her houseman, a tall Jamaican named Mr. Penney. He wore only white tennis shorts. He was gorgeous; picture Idris Elba, but the whites of Mr. Penney’s eyes were blurry. There was something strange between them–violence and love fueled by sun and housemade rum–which I couldn’t put my finger on then. I was young and self-involved, and I don’t think I even really formed any conscious thought about the proprietress and Mr. Penney, but the mystery of their relationship made its way inside me and I can tell you, still resides there.
I wrote a story about the proprietress and Mr. Penney called “The Local.” It was the longest piece–okay, the only piece–I’d ever completed. It’s typed on newsprint, yellow now and as thin as my skin was then, with the bleary impression of keys hit, pounded, all the letters together making words making a story, a clear story. When I think about this now, it seems like something I saw in a movie instead of what really happened when I was a young woman in New York wanting to write, taking the subway uptown to buy a typewriter in a pawn shop. But it happened. I bought a Selectric in a pawn shop on 57th Street and I wrote a story called “The Local,” and I sent it out.
I found what we call today my “target markets” in Writer’s Market, a doorstopper of a reference book that listed publishers and magazines and literary journals, with addresses and names of editors. I blithely chose impossible targets for my weird story of the proprietress and Mr. Penney and a lost young American woman who spies on them: Ladies’ Home Journal, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
I got rejected from all, of course. I remember retrieving the letters from my mailbox among a wall of mailboxes in the lobby of my apartment on Third Avenue, where I lived over the original Kiehl’s store, with a racing car parked in the front window. I would snatch at each letter, ride the elevator with my eyes squeezed closed up to the eleventh floor, run to the bathroom to hide from my roommate, and sit on the edge of the tub and whisper Please Please Please. I remember being crushed and defeated with the very first sentences of the letters as I understood I’d been rejected. After “The Local,” I stopped writing for a few years and distracted myself with fun and money troubles and “relationships.” I don’t know why that word wants quotes, but it does. It just seems like too weak a word, a word that needs some kind of qualification, for what I managed to create–conjure–and try to wring out of those unions. Such effort. In fact, all my effort.
Just last year, my debut novel sold to St. Martin’s Press. After more than thirty years I went through old boxes and found “The Local.” I was stunned. The story was good. The rejection letters were in a manila file with the word NO Magic-Markered across the front. NO. The Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan had both sent me handwritten notes signed by editors, dead now, and both said the same thing, in effect, how much they enjoyed the story, how it wasn’t right for them, how I had talent, and how happy they’d be if I tried them again with something else. Esquire, too. Esquire! Gordon Lish, Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, Truman Capote. Esquire! The associate fiction editor sent me this note on letterhead (and I’m quoting accurately because it is pinned to the bulletin board three feet away from my face):
Dear Stephanie Gangi,I received these letters as rejections instead of what they were: honest encouragement to keep going by professional fiction editors who had taken the time to write to me.
Thank you for sending “The Local.” I was glad to take a look–and it does seem good–though not quite suited to Esquire.
Perhaps you’d try me again with something shorter?
My Second First Time
A few years later–in the early 80s–I was still distracted, still living the expensive freelance fantasy (my business model was to spend the money when I booked a job, spend it when I invoiced for the completed job, and then spend it a third time when I actually received the check) and in a panic, again and again, taking and quitting writer-ish full-time work (publicity, copywriting, editing).
I’ll leave a lot out, because when I set my mind to it, I can make amusing anecdotes out of all the fits and starts, parties and men, clothes and friends, music and moods, hangovers and highs–again, the detours–that charted those years. All that effort at not writing. The decades of distraction. I could go on and on and honestly, I almost did.
But, let me tell you about me and Liberace.
I was waiting tables in Manhattan, trying to write during the spare time I didn’t have (or didn’t protect). I fell in love with the restaurant owner, my boss, and vice versa. He had a friend, a deal-maker kind of guy who knew a guy who wanted to tell all about his years-long gay relationship with a celebrity. Liberace’s ex needed a ghostwriter. My boyfriend’s deal-maker friend brokered an introduction for me, the only “writer” he knew, in Los Angeles, where the ex was trying to drum up movie interest in his story (which, decades later, became–no help from me–an HBO movie starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon).
This was the summer of 1984. I remember that. I was fed up with the restaurant-owning boyfriend, who was digging his heels in just as I was getting done being single. I called an old flame living in L.A., Rafe, to tell him I was coming to town for two, three weeks to work on this project. The truth was, I was exerting old-school pressure, a non-ultimatum ultimatum, on my resistant boyfriend.
I packed all-black New York clothes and a little Sony voice recorder I could not master. I practiced and practiced with the Sony in the hotel room. When I met with Liberace’s ex, he was sweet and sincere but also hurt and sad and broke. His eyes chased around the room. He’d been cast out of his big, candelabra-lit life, no more pianos, no more rhinestones, no more matching Shar Peis. He was betting on the momentum from his tabloid-heaven palimony case and the tell-all book he wanted me to ghost-write to lift him up and out, once and for all.
I stayed for three weeks. I figured out the Sony. I spent a few hours a day with Liberace’s ex, asking questions, listening to him tell his truth. I went back to the hotel room every night and listened and typed. Newsprint, borrowed typewriter, set margins, roll to the top of the page, type. I typed up a pitch, I typed up the notes, an outline, a chapter framework, I typed up the first fifty pages of what I hoped would be the beginning. I would close my eyes and listen to the nasal whine of the cast-aside lover, and feel his desperation, and my brain and my fingers took over, worked together, and it was better than anything, it was biorhythmic, what I’d not found elsewhere including the many interludes of my heart beating against someone else’s, including the many beats of the pulse of desire, and even though the topic was not of interest to me, channeling this sad man was relaxing. Like a meditation, body and thoughts paced each other. Were aligned. That’s what it felt like.
I was trying to write my way out of waiting on tables, maybe trying to write my way out of a “relationship,” everything that was ultimately the opposite of biorhythmic. Were not aligned. Maybe, I don’t know. I was writing. I felt like a writer. I did my work and I flew home to New York confident that I could finish the first draft.
I’d forgotten about the Rafe ploy but it worked. My boss-boyfriend was at Arrivals with an armful of roses. I don’t know if this really happened. I watch too much television, too many rom-coms, but I believe people at the Arrival gate clapped when he crushed me and the roses in an embrace.
We tumbled into a yellow cab, cinematic. I cried with happiness, I think, but I was secretly skeptical of the big airport scene, the roses, the clapping audience. My own doubts. So of course, I pushed to lock it in, as we do. We crossed into Manhattan, straight to the restaurant, to make our announcement to the regulars at the bar and the crew. Engaged! Wedding in ninety days!
This really happened. I left the tote bag holding the Liberace tell-all manuscript pages, my only copy, and the tape recorder and tapes too, of course, in the cab, and I let my next life close over me.
This First Time
Thirty years later, heavy-hearted from the dissolution of another consuming relationship, obsessively reviewing the dream of love and the death of the dream, traipsing, again, across a landscape of disappointment and loss, not knowing where to go or how to go alone, sick of sitting on wisdom and experience instead of navigating by those precious lights, sick of not being at the center of myself, sick of having been actually sick, life-threateningly sick and not honoring that by changing my life, sick of not knowing my self, single, I looked in the mirror one day in my late fifties and made myself say out loud what I had accomplished and what I had not, and writing a novel was the one thing, the damnedest thing, the hardest thing, and so I did that.
The Next First Time
My debut novel, The Next, will be published by St. Martin’s Press next week. What joy as I age and realize it is in my power to approach everything with new eyes! Now that I’ve done the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, everything feels like the first time. Novel #2 is in the works, titled, for now, The Marx Nudes.
Author photo by Tracy Rhine