Caitlin Barasch, NOVEL OBSESSION

Caitlin Barasch, NOVEL OBSESSION

Author and writing instructor Caitlin Barasch joins Zibby to talk about her debut novel, A Novel Obsession. The two discuss what their armchair psychologist diagnoses of the story’s protagonist might be, why Caitlin centered the plot around social media and cyberstalking, and the best books she has currently read. Caitlin also shares what she’s working on next and how her family history has inspired her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Caitlin. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Novel Obsession, which is a novel.

Caitlin Barasch: Thank you again for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: I love fiction set in the world of fiction. It’s hard to pull off successfully because it’s so self-referential. You’re like, oh, but she is writing a book. This is the scene that she’s talking about writing. I’m doing this book a disservice by the way I just described that. Let’s try this again. Caitlin, why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about?

Caitlin: You’re on the right track, obviously. We’re going to talk about that. I’m sure we are going to talk about that because it’s a big part of the book. Essentially, the premise of A Novel Obsession, it’s about a young woman named Naomi who is a bookseller in New York City. She’s a bit aimless. She recently graduated from college, has never been in love, meets this handsome Welsch man that she’s hoping she will finally fall in love with and experience her first real relationship. Then unbeknownst to her, she finds out that he actually moved to the United States to follow a woman. Turns out that woman, Rosemary, is also in the literary world, as Naomi is, but is an editor at a major publishing house. Immediately, Naomi is a little jealous, a little threatened, and of course, incredibly curious about this woman who came before her and feels like she can’t possibly measure up to this great love story even though they had broken up and she is now dating this man, Caleb. She becomes desperately obsessed with Rosemary, stalks her both online and then in real life and forges a friendship with her under false pretenses. After that, essentially, all hell breaks loose. That’s the premise. It’s a wild ride, or so I’ve been told.

Zibby: It actually scared me a lot. First of all, I’m like, who is this Caitlin? What is she doing on social media? Just how intimately you can know someone’s habits, someone’s whereabouts, someone’s interests — I put all my stuff out there all the time. Now I’m thinking, anyone could just pretend to run into — I’m not advocating anybody — do not pretend to know me if you see me. You know what I mean. Obviously, her obsession goes beyond the normal consumption of social media into this very not-okay place. I kind of related to her when she was asking her — I’m so bad with names. What is her boyfriend’s name?

Caitlin: Caleb.

Zibby: Caleb. When she was asking Caleb why they broke up. He was like, I don’t know. We both loved each other so much. I can’t even explain it. That is so unsatisfying. I would not be okay with that answer either. I’d be like, wait, then you could easily just start it up again, so I relate to her.

Caitlin: Thank you. I’m glad. To your point about how she goes beyond the normal in every way, that was the seed for me. Being a millennial and just being online — everyone’s online regardless of who you are at this point. My mom’s as online as I am these days.

Zibby: I’m probably friends with her. We’re probably Facebook friends.

Caitlin: We have access to so much information of our friends, of our acquaintances, of complete strangers. In that sense, we all are guilty about being curious about the people that we encounter in our daily lives. At the same time, I wanted to show how that internet rabbit hole could quickly and dangerously become a real-life obsession. In that way, I was able to do on the page what I could never do in real life, thank god. Do not pull a Naomi, anyone listening. Please, do not pull a Naomi. I’m beginning to use her name as a verb. I’m like, are you going to Naomi me? Essentially, I wanted to have fun with that what-if scenario. What if this completely spiraled out of control and she just took it to a completely new level in a way that no one would ever dare to because it is not socially acceptable and also incredibly toxic and unhealthy?

Zibby: Have you read Jenny Mollen’s books? They’re memoirs.

Caitlin: I haven’t. I need to.

Zibby: You have to go back and read — I can’t remember if it was the first one or the second one that she wrote. She’s so funny. She becomes obsessed with her husband’s ex-girlfriend and literally stalks her, talking about her. They end up at the nail salon across from each other.

Caitlin: Okay, I have to read this immediately. Jenny Mollen, you said?

Zibby: M-O-L-L-E-N. I became friendly with her. Not that I was stalking her. We were becoming friends as we were reading each other’s books. She was like, no, that’s a real person. Then she was sending me the picture of the real ex-girlfriend. It was so funny.

Caitlin: It happens.

Zibby: It happens. I consider her a very normal, mainstream person. Perhaps, I shouldn’t. No, I’m kidding. Yes, it does happen. Actually, I’m really good friends with one of my ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends. She’s a really close friend of mine.

Caitlin: See, that is kind of the fantasy and the dream. In a sense, Naomi went through all this trouble to stalk someone under false pretenses. I feel like she would’ve had a lot more luck just going up to Rosemary at a party and being like, hey, we dated the same guy. Let’s shit-talk him a little bit here. Did he do that thing with you that he does with me? I think that’s sort of the inherent tragedy of it, that she feels like she can’t just be authentic and go up and say, hey, we have a lot in common, clearly. They do, which is why the friendship is able to progress in the way that it does.

Zibby: Except then when he says, oh, no, but you two are really different. Then she’s like, but wait, what do you mean by that?

Caitlin: She takes it as an insult, almost.

Zibby: I know. I get it. I totally get it.

Caitlin: You’re right. I think that’s really admirable that you could be friends with someone that your partner dated. At the same time, I’m like, of course you could because you have a very strong experience in common.

Zibby: Although, I am not dating that person anymore. I’m not friends with anyone my husband dated. Maybe that’s it. Maybe you have to both be over it.

Caitlin: You have to be ex-partners somehow. It’s very John Tucker Must Die, which I was obsessed with in high school. Maybe middle school.

Zibby: I have to tell you, because I am obviously so not a millennial, I didn’t even know the song that you referenced in the beginning of the book. I went and downloaded it and listened to it. I was like, this is terrible. Why are they cooking to this music? I don’t even understand.

Caitlin: There’s a lot of weird music in this book, their specific tastes. Is that the Gang of Youths song?

Zibby: No, it was something “Underground.” “Underground and Underwater” or something.

Caitlin: Hiatus Kaiyote, band.

Zibby: It’s true, though. I really wanted her to, in the chai latte line — that’s not what they got, but whatever it is that they ordered. She could’ve just so easily said something normal.

Caitlin: Yeah, and she didn’t. She chose, in most instances —

Zibby: — This is your fault.

Caitlin: That was what was so fun about writing her. What would she do in this situation? What would the average person do in this situation? I had her do the complete opposite. At every moment, too, I was asking myself, how can I escalate her behavior? How can I keep escalating it? I don’t want to call out any books, but as a reader, I’ve read several books about women who obsess over other women, and it always plateaus for two hundred pages, just the woman obsessing over another woman online, which once again, we’ve all done, so incredibly relatable. It always ends with this climactic moment that comes out of absolutely nowhere. It goes from zero to a hundred. I was like, I want my book to do something different. Regardless of whether or not that is the correct way of doing it, it was just how I wanted to do it. I wanted every chapter to somehow escalate in behavior until the point of no return and/or the turn when Rosemary kind of wrestles control of the narrative from Naomi. No spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read it. In a sense, that’s sort of the inevitable thing that could happen.

Zibby: The other reason that’s effective is it becomes such a slippery slope. One thing leads to another. It all seems like, well, this isn’t such a big deal. I already did that, so… It’s more believable or something.

Caitlin: I think she’s able to justify nearly all of her actions to herself. Her justifications become increasingly erratic and increasingly unbelievable to anyone around her. If she were to justify it directly to her best friend or even to her grandmother, I think they would be like, you need to stop. Her self-delusion and self-sabotage instinct is so strong that I felt like she couldn’t possibly stop her behavior at that point. She was too far gone.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I have a little podcast network that I’ve started with a few shows by other authors. We have this one show called “Characters on the Couch.” They’re analyzing diagnosing, recommending treatment for pop culture characters on TV, like Don Draper or Mrs. Maisel or whatever. I want them to do her. Naomi needs a major Harvard psychiatrist to lock in on her. Maybe it’s too obvious. I don’t know. What do you think her issue is?

Caitlin: I think she just suffers from deep, deep insecurity and compartmentalization. She also describes the way that she’s begun to feel quite numb. Over the course of the traumas that she’s experienced, she’s sort of numbed herself to all feeling. I think when you numb yourself to all feeling, you’re unable to feel self-love. I think if you’re unable to feel self-love, you can’t truly empathize with other people. I’ve heard some people say she’s a narcissist. She acts narcissistic in this book, but I think her insecurities are driving her versus any feeling of entitlement of specialness. I think she actually feels quite the opposite, that she isn’t special. That’s why she’s destroying her life, essentially. I don’t know. I resist pathologizing my characters or stigmatizing them because I don’t feel qualified to diagnosis her. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I’m so curious by that premise because I really do feel like, of course, characters in real life grapple with similar issues that real people grapple with. Otherwise, they wouldn’t feel authentic. That is fascinating. I would love to get her on a therapist’s couch at the very least.

Zibby: I’m going to propose it. FYI, not that I am qualified either, but as a former psychology major and an armchair psychiatrist that I am, I would say that people with narcissistic personally disorder typically have had some big wound to their self-esteem, and that causes the behavior. It does come from a place of deep insecurity that’s almost so deep that they can’t deal with it, and so they lose access to that part and instead are thinking they’re always right or they’re this. They can’t see the world in a different way. I’ll just put that out there.

Caitlin: That’s fair. I wonder, too, I imagine — I’m probably never going to write a sequel to this book even though some people have asked me, what the hell happens next? How could it end that way? Definitely, the ending’s been controversial, I’ll admit. With Naomi, I desperately hope for her that this is just a dark phase in her life. I like to imagine that after she loses everything, which she does, that she finally realizes, okay, what I’ve been doing is not working for me. It is not serving me. It is not serving anyone in my life. I desperately hope that she’s pulled out of that, that naïveté, immaturity, self-absorption. I wish that for her. I know I created her, but in a sense, she felt out of control. Even for me as I was writing her, it sometimes sent me into kind of a dark place. I want to imagine that the character that I’ve created would get better, in a sense, or become a better person at the very least. Wherever she is out there in the fictional sphere, I wish that for her, that she would escape that kind of diagnosis in the long term.

Zibby: I wish that for her too, but I am less optimistic.

Caitlin: That’s fair.

Zibby: I think she needs some therapy. Although, traditionally, narcissists do not respond particularly well to therapy because they don’t see any problems with themselves.

Caitlin: Or they can talk their way out of it.

Zibby: They can justify it. I’m not as optimistic, but who knows? Okay, so you’re not writing a sequel. Are you writing another book? You must be.

Caitlin: I am in the very early stages of something, yes. As you know since you’re also a writer, wow, it is coming very slowly. I feel like I keep pivoting on what I want it to be. It’s not going to really have much to do with social media at the moment. It’s going to be more of a family story. When I told my family, they were like, “Dear god.” I’ve been inspired by the generations of my family and wanting to tell the stories of people who have been long gone and fictionalize those and imagine other universes, other parallel lives for them. It’s going to maybe have something to do with art since I inherited a lot of my grandparents’ art when they passed. It’s all over my house, including this lovely little winter scene behind me. I feel like I’m sort of living with ghosts in my apartment and want to dive into that. It’s very unformed. It’s a very unformed idea, but I’ve been thinking about it.

Zibby: When my grandparents passed away, my grandmother, after my grandfather passed away — technically, my step-grandfather. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, she took up painting as her way. I always was encouraging her to do that, and so I have inherited all her canvases, which is great. I have them all around this one area so that I always walk in and see her with all her stuff. We have the clock that my grandfather sculpted for her. He was a sculptor. I have that in my room. Then the little thing where she kept her nuts that says “I’m nuts about you,” that’s where I keep my medicine. It’s just nice to have these little touchstones. I do hear you about living with ghosts. There is something about keeping the object that keeps the person a little more — I don’t know.

Caitlin: I think that’s absolutely it. You can’t help but think of them in some way as you pass by even if you’re rushing out the door. They’re living there and staring at you.

Zibby: I almost feel like more than a picture. I feel like you can be desensitized to pictures. Somehow, objects —

Caitlin: — Photographs?

Zibby: Yeah, I mean photos of the person.

Caitlin: Oh, yeah, because it’s also how you remember them. There’s less room for imagination with a photograph. Paintings, especially landscapes, you can sort of get lost inside of it in a sense. I want to explore that somehow.

Zibby: You’re right. Awesome. Good luck.

Caitlin: Thank you. We’ll see. Hit me up in three years. Hopefully, I’ll have finished it by then.

Zibby: How long did this take? Did it take three years?

Caitlin: It took six years, actually, from literal seed, first chapter written. I started it in the summer of 2016 and then worked on it on and off over the course of, I guess, six years including the year that I was working on it with my editor after it had sold, which was a transformative year. My editor is a fantastic reader. I got really lucky.

Zibby: Who was your editor?

Caitlin: Her name is Lexy Cassola. She’s at Dutton. We’re around the same age, so I felt like she really understood Naomi and understood what I was trying to do and the themes I was trying to explore and really made the book better in every way. I’m indebted. Editors can do that, secret weapon.

Zibby: Totally. What are you reading now in all your spare time?

Caitlin: In all my spare time, I actually just finished a book that I really adored, mostly because I’ve been feeling a lot of wanderlust lately. It’s called Six Days in Rome by Francesca Giacco.

Zibby: I’m going to interview her.

Caitlin: Loved that book. It was so beautiful, so sensual. I was salivating the entire time because the food descriptions were so great. Also, it resonated with me, the descriptions of living with a famous father. The narrator lives with a famous father and is reflecting on her childhood. You’ve read it, so you —

Zibby: — I have not read it yet, but I read about it enough and flipped through it enough to decide I wanted to do it.

Caitlin: It’s beautiful. I also really loved Post-Traumatic by Chantal Johnson. Really, really fascinating book, hilarious, wickedly funny, but also really moving and kind of infuriating at times because it just delves into a lot of relevant topics and mental illness. Ironic because we were just talking about armchair diagnosis. The narrator is a lawyer for institutionalized people. It’s a fascinating book. It manages to cover a lot of really dark, really heavy topics with a lot of dry, dark humor, which is up my alley. I’m, right now, reading a book called Housebreaking by Colleen Hubbard, which is wonderful.

Zibby: I’ve heard of that, yes. Awesome. Wow.

Caitlin: What about you? I’m sure you’re reading a million things at once.

Zibby: You don’t even want to know what I just had to pack for the weekend. I’m serious. I don’t have a babysitter this weekend. I’m going away with the kids. I’m like, there is no way I can read twelve books. This is stupid.

Caitlin: That does sound insurmountable, especially since you have your own book coming out soon. I’m sure it’s going to be a crazy summer. Buckle up.

Zibby: Anyway, I left half of them. I’m like, maybe I could get through six, but I really won’t. Actually, to be totally honest with you, in my head I was like, these are the times where I’m willing to read this weekend, and this is the time that I’m going to carve out and not be doing any work so that I can be present for the kids and whatever. Usually I’m like, well, if I just do a few more… Then an hour goes by.

Caitlin: That sounds stressful. I hope that you’re able to balance.

Zibby: I won’t be, but at least I’m going in with a plan.

Caitlin: It seems relevant given the title of your podcast.

Zibby: Yes, which, of course, is not just for moms.

Caitlin: I know. Yes, of course.

Zibby: It’s where I am in life, so there you go. This was really fun. Thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for scaring me to death about anything I post. I think I’m now going to grill my husband a little more about the exes.

Caitlin: Why not? Find out some uncomfortable stories. I know a lot of people change their profile to private after they’ve read my book.

Zibby: Oh, man. I can’t do that. It’s my livelihood.

Caitlin: I know. Me too.

Zibby: For all authors.

Caitlin: I decided to go public right before my book came out because I wanted readers to reach me. It’s been really lovely to connect with readers and just know that it’s out there in the world doing its thing without me. At the same time, I’m like, maybe I should give myself a deadline of when I’m going to slink back into the shadows. Who knows?

Zibby: Maybe authors should all start private second accounts. Maybe they already do that and I don’t even know. I’m going to find out.

Caitlin: The author fake account.

Zibby: The dark web of the authors.

Caitlin: The underbelly of the literary world is author second accounts. That’s interesting. We’ll have to do some digging.

Zibby: Another novel, perhaps.

Caitlin: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you for taking the time. Really nice chatting with you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Caitlin: Bye.

Caitlin Barasch, NOVEL OBSESSION

NOVEL OBSESSION by Caitlin Barasch

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