Caitlin Macy, A BLIND CORNER

Caitlin Macy, A BLIND CORNER

Guest host Julianna Goldman speaks to award-winning author Caitlin Macy about A Blind Corner, a sharp and playful collection of short stories about pride, privilege, uncomfortable truths, and ill-fated good intentions. Caitlin talks about her writing and publishing process (her editor was expecting a novel!) and the real-life details that inspired the stories. She also discusses her fascinating Wall Street Journal article about performative social media, emojis, teenagers, and the mental health crisis.


Julianna Goldman: Caitlin Macy, author of A Blind Corner, thank you so much for joining us.

Caitlin Macy: Thank you so much for having me.

Julianna: A Blind Corner, stories about good intentions that can go horribly wrong, tell us about it.

Caitlin: My agent and I came up with that tagline because I think many of the stories are about a situation where someone really does have the best intentions. They are trying to do good. If not overtly trying to do good, they’re at least trying to conduct their life in a respectful way. Because of their preconceived notions or their biases or what have you and their social/emotional makeup, they end up tripping themselves up, biting off their noses to spite their face, digging their own graves, all that. There are a range of stories, as you probably saw. That encapsulated a lot of it.

Julianna: One of the things I loved about it was, after reading it, there were stories or vignettes that really stayed with me that I would wake up thinking about, which I think is the hallmark of a great book and great writing.

Caitlin: Thank you. I’m glad to hear that. I agree. I also find it funny as a reader and a moviegoer and so on, the things that do stay with one because it’s often not what you’d expect. You’re thinking about some strange comedy that you watched because nothing else was on TV one night twenty years later. I’m glad that you’re finding that they stick a bit.

Julianna: How did you come up with the concept? Where did it come from, both in terms of the content but also the idea of writing it as short stories?

Caitlin: My stuff in general tends to start with a nugget of the truth of some actual thing that either happened or that I observed. Then I push it, push it, push it to the limit. Many of the stories had some little incident, not exactly as told in the story, but some little incident that then I thought, imagine if that really went all the way, that problematic interaction or something like that. In terms of doing stories, it’s funny. I’ve done a little bit of stuff out in Hollywood. Sometimes when you’re out there, if you’ve got a screenplay, they’ll say, why don’t you write this as a novel? If you’ve got a novel, why isn’t it a script or stories? I tend to think of things in totally discreet genres. For me, if it’s a story, it’s a story. There’s one story in the book that I could see developing further. Most of the stories, they’re done at fifteen, twenty, twenty-five pages. I think that’s because usually with a story, there’s a certain moment, a revelation, a turn. Whereas in a novel, you really live in a novel. You get to know everything about the people. To me, it’s a totally different endeavor. I had written a couple stories. Then it just came down to, contractually, I owed Little Brown a book because I had a two-book contract. I emailed my editor thinking that she’d sort of say no because I technically owed them a novel. I said, “I’m really not feeling it right now with a novel, but I’ve got these stories that are burning a hole in my pocket.” It almost began to seem as if, I just need to write these down, as opposed to, I need to sit down and create a story. I said, “I’ve got all the stories. I just have to get them down. I got to get them written.” My editor at Little Brown, Judy Clain, was incredibly nice and gracious and said, “Yeah, you can always write stories.” That was the germination of doing a collection.

Julianna: Over what period of time did you write it? Were you writing during COVID? Were you writing them all together? Were some written years ago? Tell us how that part came together.

Caitlin: Exactly. In a word, yes. There’s one or two stories in there that I worked on forever off and on and would massage slightly and revisit a year later. The nice thing about a story collection is that if you don’t have the collection ready, but let’s say you have a couple individual stories, why not revisit them if you haven’t published them? You can see if they’re making sense to you. I love to let something rest for a minute and then look at it later because I’m somebody who revises a ton. I always feel coming to it with a fresh eye is revelatory because you can see, oh, it’s nearly there, but I’ve got to do X, Y, and Z. To your other point, in the main, it was a COVID book. It was funny. The whole family was obviously camping out together. It was kind of chaotic in its way. Somehow, escaping to my bedroom and working on this worked. I pushed it along during COVID. Then I ended up cutting one of the stories I didn’t like enough to include. In terms of getting there, there were just a couple that were written very quickly. To my mind, they were very straightforward once I knew where I was going with the collection. Whereas several years ago when I was starting one of the stories, I remember just having no idea where I was headed. Oh, I’ll see. I’ve got this germ of an idea. I’ll see where it takes me.

Julianna: In one of the stories, going back to the point about certain vignettes or lines sticking with you, in Nude Hose, I loved the line where Suzanna — she’s in college at the women’s center. You write that, “It was an attempt at finding herself so misguided it could still make her wince twenty years later.” I loved it. It was so relatable. You think back to all these times in college where you just have an outsized sense of yourself, of certain things being important or significant. The image of her sitting in there and thinking that this was her space, I love that. Who doesn’t have the things that you could wince about twenty years later?

Caitlin: Obviously, that line is a moment in the story where I leap forward a couple decades, which I always think is interesting to do. The character is a person for whom going to college is this huge, exciting thing. Then she, like many naïve people, gets to college and just makes mistakes and is confused. Then I think the cringe-worthy moments are always the ones that are worth drilling down on. Why is it cringe-worthy? For someone else, it wouldn’t be. That’s really the character’s psychological makeup.

Julianna: What was the real-life story that inspired that story? What was the thread that pushed you to want to explore, what could happen if…?

Caitlin: That story is one of the ones that I wrote for a long time. It got longer. It got shorter. Then it finally reached the version that appeared in the collection. I wanted to write about someone who was a goody two-shoes. She’s kind of a goody two-shoes, , etc. I don’t exactly remember why, but I was thinking about how for some adolescents — you see this in every generation. Some adolescents just, instead of rebelling traditional style and throwing kegger bonfires in the backyard, they almost double down and get closer to their parents. They’re staying home and going to the museums with their parents. At the same time, at some point, adolescence will out. At some point, they are going to go through adolescence, whether their parents know about it — it may be later. It may be earlier. The setting could be different. It’s thinking about, what happens to someone like that when all the kids, her peer group, are out partying and having sex and so on? She’s doing her goody two-shoes thing.

Then the CODA and the title, Nude Hose, and everything, that is a germ that’s from real life. I had gone to boarding school. Then when I got to college, my friends were a little bit artsier. I had this one friend, a really, really significant friend, that friend from freshman year that you meet all your other friends through. I remember one day she said to me — I don’t remember if I was actually wearing stockings or not. I may well have been. I think we were talking about other fashion. Basically, she made the point that everyone wears black tights and black shoes. I sort of thought, oh, right. Then for the next four years, I was in black tights. It was one of those tiny, little things that for me — I certainly never wore black tights at boarding school. We had a little bit of a uniform. I was in, for lack of a better word, preppier stuff. Then I got to college. I was like, right, new uniform. I can’t put on a pair of black tights without thinking of my friend Anna. It was that transitional moment showing up freshman year and thinking college could open up a whole new world if you could get it right.

Julianna: You tweeted out, “TFW when your parents’ friends say they can’t wait to read your new book and you smile brightly thinking, as long as no one mentions the sex, we’re good.” For the record, I had to google TFW. I’m pretty out of it. “That feeling when,” for people who don’t know.

Caitlin: I probably figured that out about a week before. My kids make a lot of fun of me for being so out of it.

Julianna: Which story was that referring to? Was there a specific one?

Caitlin: No, just in general. This book has sex in it. It has sexual assault. It kind of runs the gamut. There is that funny way where you realize as your parents age, you can’t sit around thinking that you’ll really start writing once they’re gone. You have to just write what you’re compelled to write. My mother, who’s so good at promoting my books, sometimes she’ll say, “ book.” What’s that emoji with the hand covering the face? You’re thinking, oh, god, here we go. Writers put down on paper — we all have had experiences, obviously. As my sister and I used to joke, we each have two kids. That means we’ve done it at least twice. We have all these experiences. There’s something about it that when the older gen is going to confront it and read it, I still feel a little bit sheepish about it. I have to just grit my teeth and do it anyway.

Julianna: I love it. Do your parents ever say anything about the sex in your pieces, in your writing?

Caitlin: It’s funny. My dad was reading the book. Apparently, he said to my sister, something like, “A lot of sex in it.” She just did the one note, “Yep.” Let’s not go there.

Julianna: It sounds like you’re close to your sister. Do you ever bring that relationship into your writing?

Caitlin: Very, very close. I have one sibling. We’re a year apart. I do. I’d love to write a proper sister novel. I think a lot about sister novels, my favorite sister novels. I’d love to join that canon of sister novels. I’ve got a couple stories in my old collection, Spoiled, that are obviously about sisters. Insider point, my sister lives in Tuscany and has always lived in Europe for pretty much her entire adult life. I’ve been lucky enough to have insider access to Europe, which has been really profound for my writing. While the Italian story in this book, it’s not about my sister in any way, but certainly, being in Italy in an up-close way where I could really observe the differences and not going as a tourist — she also lived in France. She lived in Germany. She sort of is in all of my books in a way.

Julianna: That actually was going to be my question, whether or not you went to Italy for this short story, A Blind Corner.

Caitlin: I spent a lot of time in Italy, I have spent, I should say, and continue to spend. How long has she been there? I think she’s been there twenty years. We don’t go every year. We try to go when we can. That wasn’t based on any particular incident exactly, but I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’ve seen the things that tourists bring to the table and that locals bring to the table and how that clash of cultures, even in a place like Italy that you think of as — it’s Europe. Everyone you know goes. Even something as close, in a sense, as Italy, there can still be that clash of cultures that I think gives rise to interesting plots and themes.

Julianna: I loved how you explored it through the different perspectives, through the different narration.

Caitlin: Oh, good. I’m glad. That was a little bit of a new thing for me. I’d been reading a lot of Mavis Gallant, who’s one of my heroes. She’s just amazing. She’s so crazy good. She lived in Paris her whole life. She’ll write from the perspective of a French girl or someone. It’s so good that you just go with it. I think reading her almost freed me to try something like that. I thought, okay, fine, I’ll try it too.

Julianna: It worked. It was great.

Caitlin: I’m so glad.

Julianna: Turning to something else you recently wrote over the summer in The Wall Street Journal, “The Age of Emotional Overstatement,” I love this. Who isn’t the parent who is trying to post something for their kid’s birthday and they think, I’m going to post these pictures, and is this really the space where I’m going to write every feeling I associate with my child? Why isn’t the caption, “4!”? Why do we feel this pressure? Can you tell everyone a bit about this idea?

Caitlin: I do think the pendulum has swung back a little bit. I’m seeing more off the cuff “HBD, Bobby” instead of the three-paragraph encomiums to the perfect child. I don’t know why exactly, but social media just lends itself to this overstatement. It’s funny because after I wrote my piece, of course, my friends were all razzing me. Guess you’re not going to heart this. We won’t expect a heart from you on this. Of course, the heart-ing is a really nice shorthand to be like, thank you so much. Really appreciate this. It’s come to stand for so many things that, of course, it has crept back into my own responses. I think it’s driven by many things. I think it’s driven, definitely, by just pure love for your kid. A lot of it/most of it is probably genuine. It may be driven by a little bit by pressure. It’s sort of related in my mind to the fact that we video every last damn moment of our kids’ lives now. When my girls were in grade school, I remember some mom saying, “I don’t really want to video this, but she wants me to.” It’s almost as if you weren’t a good mother if you weren’t videoing everything. I think social media can sort of throw down the gauntlet. How good a mother are you? If you’re a really good mother or father, you’re really going to go over the top. Then of course, there are people who decide more of what I did. I tried it a bit. It just felt so awkward to me because my family’s not like that. We’re sort of grumpy and withholding. It just felt incredibly awkward. I tried it in that maladroit way once or twice. Then I went back to, “Happy birthday.” I think there’s something that social media just — these emojis are right there. I also just think it’s the times. It’s the zeitgeist. There’s this pressure to be incredibly enthusiastic, over the top about everything, whereas older generations were much more, not calculating, not withholding, more measured, I would say, in their emotional expressions.

Julianna: I kept thinking about it because it sort of takes the nuance out of emotion in a way. I had this experience yesterday where my mother texted a picture of the memorial plaque at our synagogue for my grandmother. I hearted it in the text chain. Then I hearted an Amy Schumer post. Why does that get the same reaction?

Caitlin: Exactly. The hot shot that I took in the article was that sometimes I’ll tell my dogsitter that I’ve decided not to go away that weekend. Sorry, I’ve got to cancel, or something like that. I’ll get a red heart. That’s the younger generation. Right, exactly, versus some incredibly profound thing where a family member has died. You’re honoring that. You’re really moved. It’s incredibly emotional for you. It’s funny. I don’t really see a way back. I don’t know how it’ll scale back unless the new iteration of social media, it won’t be as emoji prone. I’m not sure.

Julianna: Even thinking about using certain emojis with an older generation, if you put a heart, and it’s a red heart, when you’re texting with someone who’s a little older, there might be more of a love, or it might feel a little less appropriate. The way I’m thinking about this is it reminds me of, maybe ten years ago, talking to a, not older man, but one or two generations above. He was saying, “I thought selfie meant something kind of untoward.” Now selfie’s just part of the mainstream. I kind of feel that way with the heart also. No, it doesn’t mean “I love you.”

Caitlin: It’s also curious to me that — maybe it’s just because people don’t have time to look for the purple heart or the yellow heart or whatever. I don’t really know what those mean. Why is it all the language of passionate romantic love? which is kind of funny too. This is just observing my own teenagers. The kids are so over the top. As I put it in the piece, it’s, “Love you. You’re amazing.” On the one hand, that’s probably better than the harshness and criticism of the eighties. On the other hand, you kind of wonder if it all just feels anxiety-making and insincere and empty. I think I’ll continue to contemplate that.

Julianna: Please explore this. The adolescents’ mental health crisis and the way in which our children are growing up, how do you link that to the anxiety-inducing?

Caitlin: Just as there are incredibly harsh critical things that people say online that they wouldn’t say to your face, it almost feels like the other side of the coin there is the over-the-top praise that people post on social media that they probably wouldn’t say to your face. Maybe they would. I don’t know. It just seems really, really, really knee-jerk. It could mask a host of actual reactions. Let’s say you see someone’s post. They’re on the beach somewhere glamorous. Your actual reaction is vague jealousy. Then you’re posting three red hearts as your response. Love you, honey. There’s that disconnect. I think straightforward communication is a way to counter anxiety. All this BS, to be a little bit harsh, but the continual crazy — there’s no way that a thousand girls love this person. There’s no way that they are all that enthusiastic. Then it just seems performative. They’re just doing it to make sure that she doesn’t think that they don’t — you go through adolescence, you have to take the baton and run with it. Instead of learning to communicate with your peer group in a straightforward way, which is always difficult — at best, that’s a really tricky, sticky, tough moment — you’re doubling down on the fakeness.

Julianna: It just perpetuates this Instagram versus reality and blurs the lines also.

Caitlin: I think so. Then it’s a little bit hard to take that and then write an appropriate serious note to someone that’s neither hugely sucking up nor going off on someone in a rage attack. It’s really hard. I think this whole country is having an issue with that, with just baseline straightforward communication. You think of the generation of George H.W. Bush, the Greatest General. You can’t picture them speaking, writing, or even writing personally in this way. You see how far the culture has shifted.

Julianna: I grew up being told, in a professional email, you don’t write, “I’d love to talk to you.” As a journalist, reaching out to people and saying, “I’d really love to speak to you about X,” that was a no-no. You would say, “I’m interested in… I’d like to… Please consider speaking with me.” Now I feel like that’s not the case anymore.

Caitlin: Precisely. As I also mention in the piece, there’s all this pressure from above, say, from job applications and college applications and so on. It’s almost like you have to constantly be doing your passion tap dance to prove that you really want this. It’s just not like that. That’s not really real life, even if you do have a talent that you’re dedicated to. At the end of the day, maybe you do love something. When we speak these things over and over, it just waters it down. It sort of ruins it. You may have put in twenty years of dedication to your instrument or whatever it is. People who do that, I don’t think they go around saying — is Yo-Yo Ma going around being like, “I love the cello. It’s my passion”? No. It’s a given.

Julianna: Is writing your passion?

Caitlin: It’s funny. I always wanted to write as a kid. I loved creative writing in school and so on. I always wrote stories as a little kid. It was definitely something I felt compelled to do. At the same time, anyone who has been on this podcast who has finished a book knows that you write alone in a room with self-doubt. You make your own schedule. You’re fitting it in where you can. You have to be your own master. Obviously, writing’s hard, so I’m always a little suspect when someone says they love writing. It’s more just, it’s a part of who I am, and so I’ll always do it. I feel compelled to do it. Unless I was applying to college next year, I wouldn’t naturally describe it as, it’s my passion.

Julianna: It is funny to think about a seventeen-year-old kid knowing what their passion is. It’s so much pressure.

Caitlin: It’s so much pressure. I think they think that they’re being kind to the applicants by saying, we want you to shine, but it’s actually a form of pressure. If you drill down, it’s pressure. What about the kid who’s incredibly bright, works incredibly hard, does incredibly well, and is suddenly, oh, god, I don’t have a passion? Who am I? It’s actually a form of pressure. I agree.

Julianna: Caitlin Macy, what’s next? What are you working on right now?

Caitlin: I just started a novel. I’m excited about it. It’s set in pre, during, and post-COVID, but with many flashbacks to New York in the nineties. It’s going to be a first-person novel. Not that anyone cares. I’m sort of keeping it under wraps because I’m at that point where it’s almost like you have a bird in the hand, and you’re afraid if you show it to someone, it’ll fly away. I’m working on a novel. I haven’t written a first-person novel since my first novel, Fundamentals of Play. I’m excited to get back to it. It feels really great to be back to first person. Also, it’s funny, I’ve tended to alternate between novel, stories, novel, stories. When I’m writing one, I can’t see writing the other at all. Now that I’m writing a novel, it’s a relief to be back into a longer work.

Julianna: How long is the process?

Caitlin: You mean how long will it take to write the novel from start to finish?

Julianna: Yeah.

Caitlin: It’s a really good question. It took me a really long time to write my third book, my second novel, partly because of health issues and partly because I had my kids. We moved to London. We moved back. It just took forever. Then this book of stories was a lot quicker. I’m actually hoping to get through a draft of this by this spring. I’m really trying to keep a pace, not a lightning-fast pace, but just, say, five hundred words a day and keep marching along. It feels like I have it. I know where I want to go with it. I’d like it to not take too long. Then with the weed times in terms of publishing and so on, they seem to need more and more time because of all the social media and the promoting. I would love to finish it and sell it in the spring. It’ll probably be another year of edits and all that. Fingers crossed. I’m going on record, so now I have to do it.

Julianna: Not to be trite, but all the fingers crossed, heart emojis. I’m really excited to read it. I just love your writing. Fundamentals of Play was a book that I read when I was living in New York years and years ago and just loved it.

Caitlin: I love it when people mention Fundamentals because it’s your first child.

Julianna: It was a great baby.

Caitlin: Thank you so much. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed too. Thank you for your support.

Julianna: Caitlin Macy, thank you.

Caitlin: Buh-bye.

A BLIND CORNER by Caitlin Macy

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