Caitlin Barasch earned her BA from Colorado College and her MFA from New York University. Her work has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including Catapult, Day One, The Forge, and Hobart. A former bookseller, Caitlin currently teaches creative writing at the Writers Circle. She was born and raised in New York and now lives in Brooklyn. A Novel Obsession is her debut novel.
Stories of obsession can be told in so many ways, from horror to humor to deadpan play-by-plays, and you lean into the light of comedy in your debut novel, A Novel Obsession. I found myself cringing and cackling equally as I got to know your protagonist, Naomi, and was surprised to find how much I was reminded of my own mid-twenties; they were definitely a time for falling down but also for getting back up and learning to laugh at myself! Where do you think humor lets readers connect more with openly flawed characters and offer them empathy rather than judgement?
Alternately cringing and cackling is thus far the most common reaction to the book! I’ll admit, when I was writing it, I wasn’t especially intentional about trying to make a reader laugh — the humor arose organically and was often situational. By inserting fictional characters into impossibly sticky situations, authors can wink at the reader somewhat, acknowledging we’re aware of the absurdity. (Tragicomedy might be my favorite genre!) And though I never wanted to use humor to mock Naomi — she’s human, which is to say deeply flawed — humor absolutely infuses an otherwise dread-laden narrative with necessary levity.
I came to admire how bold Naomi is, how she leaps before she looks and follows the heat of passion in all its forms even (and perhaps especially) when it gets her into hot water. One trap that can trip up any writer is overly questioning a character’s motives and desires, which can delay or even kill a brilliant plotline. Where did you lean into Naomi’s “act first, question later” mentality as you wrote?
In real life I’m a pretty indecisive person, so I enjoyed embodying Naomi as she leapt before she looked. Writing has always allowed me to become an alternative version of myself! Naomi definitely overthinks and overanalyzes at times, too, but she does tend to act first, question second, as you mentioned. When I was writing the first draft, I barely thought about her motivation at all — Naomi was whittled down to her basest impulses, which helped me write something propulsive. It wasn’t until the editing process that I really began to dig into the why of her behavior.
Why was it important to tell this story using a first-person perspective, to not only follow Naomi closely but to bring the reader into her internal monologue as she navigates her obsession?
I intended to implicate readers in Naomi’s obsession, to invite them into all her manipulations, in the hopes that a reader would understand why she behaves the way she does. I also just prefer writing in the first-person — I’m fascinated by the inner workings of a character’s psychology, especially all of the strategies we employ to self-deceive, and I personally can’t access those deep, intimate layers without writing in the first-person.
Did spending so much time in Naomi’s head come to influence your writing outside of this novel?
Yes, it’s been challenging to write my way into new characters, new points of view, if I’m being honest. Naomi is such an intense person, and I had to fully commit to inhabiting her twisted mind — so finding the mental space to shake her off and start something new has been hard!
Characters can come to take on a life of their own as we create them, and my own certainly surprise me in their decisions from time to time — but those are my favorite moments, when they don’t need me to hold their proverbial strings and can move freely with me typing their wanderings and whereabouts. Did anything about your characters surprise you as they came to life, and how did they change as you came to know them better?
Rosemary surprised me the most — in the first draft, she wasn’t even a writer! It took me years to figure out how to effectively activate her character, and so by giving her and Naomi identical ambitions, Rosemary’s character (and the dynamic between these two women) finally clicked for me.
They’re at once so similar but also very different, as the reader comes to find! Both have a deep love for books, too, and we learn a lot about them through their observations on literature. If Naomi and Rosemary were each to recommend you a book to read, what titles do you think they’d choose?
I love this question! Naomi would recommend Ghosts by Dolly Alderton or Either/Or by Elif Batuman, while Rosemary would probably tell me to read White on White by Aysegül Savas or Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.
Naomi gets deep into a string of lies that crisscross and swell, practically inviting the reader to create their own literary murder board to follow along and play innocently complicit to her deceit. It’s a true web, and I’d love to learn more about how you kept track of her truths and lies in your drafting and revision process.
I love the phrase “literary murder board.” At a certain point in the drafting process I simply began to assume nearly everything Naomi said or did was a lie — or at the very least an omission — which actually threw into sharp relief the few nuggets of truth. And with the help of my intrepid agent, editor, and copyeditor during multiple revisions, I was able to manage any lapses in continuity.
During a family brunch to celebrate Naomi’s birthday, her father encourages her to write literary reviews as a way of “thinking deeply about the structure of contemporary novels” to support her own understanding of craft. You have your own string of reviews, interviews, and masthead credits (the Longleaf reading team being one of them!). How has your involvement in the support of other writers affected your own writing?
My involvement in all aspects of the literary world has been tremendously influential. First and foremost, it has reaffirmed how many incredible writers exist in the world and has inspired me to constantly raise my own artistic standards. For example, whenever I read a particularly incredible story in the Longleaf queue, I tried to understand how the writer accomplished it, identifying the enviable craft choices they made. On the flip side, when encountering the underwhelming first page of an otherwise competent story, I was reminded of the importance of an engaging hook.
There’s so much to be said for a strong opening line or paragraph, and you bring the heat immediately by describing Rosemary as Naomi observes her in secret. It’s exciting and risky, and I loved how you put the reader right into the action without setting the stakes too high. While you were writing, how were you thinking of your future readers and the experience they’d have following Naomi on this wild ride?
As a reader, I love a quiet and philosophical book just as much as I love a pulse-pounding one, but since my short stories have primarily captured just one pivotal moment in a character’s life, I wanted to challenge myself to sustain an engaging plot over a longer timeline. I hoped readers would have a fun and wacky (albeit stressful) experience, so I definitely focused on crafting a rollercoaster.
You’ve also worked as a bookseller — a Jill of all trades! As you write, booksellers “keep the wheels turning for the entire publishing industry.” Was this where you began conceiving the plot for A Novel Obsession? And how did this experience influence your writing, both broadly and for your debut novel?
Certain aspects of my bookselling experience definitely influenced several scenes in the book, especially given Naomi herself is a bookseller. I actually wrote an essay for Catapult on this topic recently, so I encourage any interested parties to check it out (when it’s published) for a more detailed response, but the short answer: as I became increasingly skilled at articulating what customers should read and why, I became equally capable of articulating to myself what kinds of stories I most wanted to write in the present and future.
How did that come to affect your writing? And why do you think it’s important for other writers to identify this for themselves?
I don’t think any writer can bring sufficient energy to a project if they don’t know what they’re passionate about or what they most want to say. Writing a novel essentially feels like entering into a long-term relationship (with your own work!), so it’s essential to be invested in the subject and themes. It can be difficult to identify the stories we want to tell, of course, and often we avoid topics that feel scary or overwhelming or charged. In an NYU class with Hannah Tinti, she introduced an exercise where we gave ourselves “permission” to write about certain topics, places, people, feelings, ideas. If there’s fear-based resistance, it’s usually something to pay attention to. We also burned our writing fears — literally, set them on fire — in that class, so needless to say, it was awesome.
As a lifelong New Yorker, you’ve written about the city in your other works, including “Exhale” and “The Way We are Built.” New York has a way of being more than just a setting, though, and it’s something of an unnamed character in A Novel Obsession: it’s as much a nursery as it is a casino, welcoming its characters to find a home within it while also encouraging them to take risks. What about NYC do you think captivates so many readers — from fans of Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Hanya Yanagihara and Meg Wolitzer — and what is it you hope readers will feel for the Big Apple when they walk its streets through Naomi? What draws you to write about the place where you live, especially through fiction?
“A nursery and a casino” is such a great description! I believe so many writers are compelled to write about New York because writers need to be fascinated by people, and by their untold stories — and in New York, we’re confronted each and every day by hundreds if not thousands of those untold stories. It’s a writer’s dream! So many lives to imagine ourselves into.
Personally, though, writing about New York, my home, allows me to spend more time focusing on character and plot rather than trying to invent the atmosphere of a place I don’t already know intimately. When I tried in the past to write stories that took place elsewhere, I admit to being told by workshop-mates that the setting wasn’t quite coming alive. And while I definitely intend to improve upon this with future books, I’ve simply never had that problem writing about New York! Perhaps most importantly, I feel like the city itself informs the characters I tend to create — women who are ambitious yet directionless, who crave the freedom of anonymity, who enjoy a fast-paced and voyeuristic lifestyle where they can alternately act on impulse and sit back and observe.
Naomi’s grandmother was one of my favorite supporting characters, not only for the love and encouragement she shows her granddaughter but for the way understands the deeply human need to create. “Most people do things for love,” she says at one point, and that’s inherently true about writing: we do this because we love it, because stories call to us and asks to be told. What is it about fiction, specifically, that keeps you in love with the craft of writing?
She’s my favorite character too! And this might sound super cheesy, but I love how fiction allows me to live multiple lives. We can only ever live in one place at a time, can only ever inhabit one body, and as much as I wish there was, no parallel life is available to us — pursuing a parallel existence would require exiting the one we already have. But on the page I can pivot again, and again, and again — and that will forever excite me, forever keep me in love with the craft.
Any words of wisdom, motivation, or support for others attempting to write their first novels? Your grandfather Norman encouraged you to “just finish it!” when it came to your own novel, which is so much easier said than done!
I agree that it’s easier said than done — it took me nearly three years to finish a first draft. Don’t be afraid to take a break and write something else just for fun, just for you. Writing should feel mostly joyful and exciting, so when it doesn’t (which of course it won’t sometimes!) give yourself permission to reset. I believe Susan Choi once described Trust Exercise as the book-equivalent of a mistress — it was the book she was writing on the side while trying to write something else, but ultimately, the side-book captured her attention and excitement the most. So don’t be afraid to scrap something and start over, to pivot, to follow your excitement. And believe it or not, adventuring and just plain living counts as writing too, as it will ultimately feed our creative minds. Also, I can’t say enough good things about a well-timed long hot shower. I’ve done some of my best brainstorming in the shower!!