Judy Vogel's life is falling apart. Or really, it HAS fallen apart: Once, she was a successful children's book author whose work was adapted for TV. Now, a couple of flops and a nasty case of writers' block have reduced her to grinding out content for a wellness website; her estranged husband Gary, whose anxiety has stunted his music career, lives in the basement because they can't afford to divorce — a situation they're hiding from their sullen teenager Teddy. And her best friend is dying of cancer.
So what's a woman to do in this situation? Clearly, start wearing her dog in a sling, just to feel some kind of comfort and connection. And that's just what Judy's doing when we meet her at the beginning of Laura Zigman's new novel Separation Anxiety. "When I came up with the idea for Judy to wear her dog in an old baby sling, I didn't even know that dog-slings were a thing," Zigman tells me in an email interview.
"I didn't grow up with dogs, so when we got one in early 2009 — initially for my son, who was struggling with the loneliness of being an only child --it turned out to be transformative for me. About a year after we got Lady, our Sheltie, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I spent almost every day with my mother during her illness — bringing food over, taking her to chemo appointments, sitting with her at home while she rested. Throughout that sad time, Lady was my emotional support system: a therapy dog without the vest. I can't tell you how many times after a long day of watching my mother's illness progress as we braced for her loss that I came home and hugged my dog and wept. In the 11 years since we've had Lady, she has saved us all. So even though I never actually wore my dog, I felt like I did."
Did the idea of the dog in the sling come first, and then the story around it? How did this book develop?
I knew I wanted to write about a woman set in the time of life when loss seems overwhelming; when the sense of possibility you feel when you're young and when your family is young is lost and has been replaced by melancholy. People you love are gone; dreams you had for yourself haven't been realized; most things haven't turned out the way you thought they would. Loss and grief for big and small things can wear you down and wear you out and that's where this novel starts: In that still point of sadness. It's what I knew. That moment makes you wonder how you're ever going to get through the dark tunnel to the other side. Everyone I know has hit this point in one form or another — in their marriages; in their careers; following the loss of friends and family — so writing about it felt like channeling a kind of collective consciousness.
I didn't want to sugar-coat Judy's pain or the pain of anyone in the book. And yet: I still wanted the book to be funny somehow, because often there is still humor and absurdity happening right alongside everything else. It was very important to me to be honest about the sadness at this point in mid-life because we all struggle with it. We all hit a wall that feels like failure. Why not admit it? Why are we all so ashamed?
The idea of "leaving early" is an ongoing theme — funny in places, heartbreaking in others. Tell me about that.
From the time I first met my husband, he has wanted to leave everything early: movies, parties, trips. On one of our first dates we drove two hours to a historic town outside of Washington, D.C. where we lived at the time. Upon arrival, as we looked for a parking space, we turned to each other and knew that we really weren't interested in getting out of the car, so we turned around and drove home. We couldn't have been happier. Part of that sense of always wanting to leave early made us feel bonded — neither of us are joiners and we often feel most connected when we are "escaping" something we don't want to be at — but it's also such a huge symptom of our general ambivalence of being part of the world. It's so much easier to take yourself out of things, to disengage, to dissociate. Being present requires energy, and passion, and a kind of faith in life: It assumes that you believe your effort at engagement will be rewarded, with friendship or love or a sense of belonging.
In the book, Judy and Gary are not joiners either, mainly because of Gary's extreme anxiety — it's easier for him, and for them as a couple, to keep themselves apart from others than to try to find couples who can deal with their issues. But that separateness comes at a cost. By the middle of the book, Judy starts to see how their reluctance to engage socially has left her without a sense of community. With her difficult marriage and her now-distant teenage son, she feels alone in the world. Which only makes her wear her dog more.
The book really does not end the way I thought it would. Without being too spoilery, can you tell me why it was important that the story ended the way it did?
It's funny — the whole time I was writing the book I kept assuming that by the end of the novel Judy would naturally stop wearing the dog. She would have to, right?! It would be the necessary and obvious proof of growth and change: giving up the crutch would show she was "better." But that's not what happened. One of the threads that made it all the way through to the end of the book for me was how we all need to follow our own particular path from hopelessness to hope; how we each have to find a source of comfort and hang on to it for dear life.
For Judy, that meant wearing her dog. After surviving so much loss, giving up the dog seemed to me to be too much to ask of her. Why should she have to give it up in order to prove that she was better? Can't we all admit that life is hard and there are times we are especially needy? I have no doubt that eventually Judy will wear the dog less. But not right now. Right now, she still needs the dog, and right now that is just fine with her. Which is what I love most about Judy: she just doesn't care what anyone thinks.
What do you want readers to come away thinking, or feeling?
I want readers to finish this book with a sense of hope. That you can survive all the loss that occurs during middle age and re-emerge with a new and different life. That there is beauty in the pain and imperfections of our marriages and our friendships and our careers. Almost everyone goes through the kind of rough patch that I did — a period of time when they've grieved people they've lost or a version of a themselves they once were. I was a writer who had published 4 novels and had even had a movie made from one of them — and then I wasn't.
For over a decade — from my mid 40s to my mid 50s, I'd had breast cancer, lost both my parents and several friends, and lost the version of myself that identified as a novelist. Suddenly I was a ghostwriter hustling to earn a living. Finally, after years and years of writer's block, I went on Craigslist and found a shrink's office to rent by the hour. One day a week I'd walk into Harvard Square and sit in an empty psychiatrist's office to try to write fiction again. Sometimes I would write a little. Other times I would just play stupid games on my phone. But eventually, in between ghostwriting projects, with that dedicated time time and with the encouragement of amazing friends, I found my way back to what I love. If it could happen for me, it can happen for anyone.