Caitlin Mullen, PLEASE SEE US

Caitlin Mullen, PLEASE SEE US

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Caitlin Mullen who’s the debut author of Please See Us. Caitlin received her BA in English and creative writing from Colgate University, an MA in English from NYU, and an MFA in fiction from Stony Brook University. At Stony Brook, she taught undergraduate creative writing, served as an editor and contributing writer at The Southampton Review, and worked as a bookseller at WORD in Greenpoint. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residences from the Saltonstall Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center. Her short fiction has appeared in Joyland, Blackbird, Meridian, The Baltimore Review, and Day One. Originally from Upstate and the Jersey Shore, she currently lives in Brooklyn.

Welcome, Caitlin. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Caitlin Mullen: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Caitlin and I were just commiserating over kids who don’t sleep. She has a four-month-old. We’re going to go easy on her because she didn’t sleep at all last night. Welcome anyway.

Caitlin: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Please See Us, tell listeners, please, what this is about.

Caitlin: Please See Us takes place over the course of a single summer in Atlantic City. At the beginning of the novel we learn that the bodies of two women are hidden in the marsh behind this seedy Atlantic City motel. No one knows they’re there, even that they’re missing. Then we meet Clara. Clara is our first main character. She is a recent high school dropout. She’s working as boardwalk psychic. She and her aunt run this shop, but they’re having trouble making ends meet. The casinos have been shutting down. There haven’t been as many tourists in Atlantic City. Clara also starts having these disturbing, violent, powerful visions. She doesn’t understand what they mean or where they’re coming from. Then we meet Lily. Lily’s our second main character. Lily has recently moved back to Atlantic City after starting her career in New York City in the art world. That all fell apart in one disastrous, ill-fated evening for her. She’s working as a receptionist at a casino spa. Lily and Clara set out to try and figure out what Clara’s visions might mean. What is happening to women in Atlantic City? Is there any way they can possibly help these women?

Zibby: Why this book? How did you pick this topic? How did you get involved in it?

Caitlin: I grew up outside of Atlantic City. The book is inspired by true events. In 2006, the bodies of four women were found in the marsh behind a seedy motel on the outskirts of Atlantic City. The crime hasn’t been solved, so no one really knows what happened. I was away at college during the time, so I wasn’t in the area when the events occurred. Every time I came home from college, I would drive by this scene, this marsh where these women were found. I just found it so heartbreaking and so sad. I was haunted by it. When I went to get my MFA and started work on a novel, I decided to explore the crime a little more deeply.

Zibby: Did you always know you wanted to be a novelist?

Caitlin: Like a lot of writers, I was a really bookish, quiet kid. I could spend hours by myself in my room reading books. That was just heaven. I didn’t think of writing novels as something someone could just do. I thought you had to be so special and anointed in some way. It took a long time for me to come around to the idea that I could actually write a book and I could go to graduate school for writing and maybe come out of that with a novel of my own. It took me a little while to get there, but I always loved reading. I worked in publishing in my twenties and was around books. I structured my entire life around being around books, but it took me a little longer to get to the point where I thought I could write a novel.

Zibby: What was the turning point? When did you say, “Okay, fine. I’m going to do it. Why not me?”

Caitlin: I remember that moment distinctly. At this point, I wasn’t working in publishing anymore. I had taken that marketing job that I just hated. The people at work were so mean to each other. It was not a nice place to work. I went to this family party. Everyone’s asking, “What are you doing? What are you doing at your job?” I remember explaining to people what I was doing and thinking, I don’t care about this at all. Why am I doing this? Why I am taking the plan B path first? Why aren’t I do plan A first, which is what I really want to do, and write a novel? I applied to graduate school a couple weeks after that. That was it.

Zibby: Did you write this as your MFA thesis? Did this come after? What was the process for writing this book like?

Caitlin: I did. I started my MFA with another book in my mind. It was a book that was also set in South Jersey that also explored the area in the wake of the casinos shutting down and the 2008 economic collapse and storm Sandy. I sort of took a break from that book between my first and second year of graduate school and started this book as an alternate novel to that book. Then I was quickly much more consumed by the themes of this book, by the characters. It just took over. It was my MFA thesis.

Zibby: Then what happened?

Caitlin: At the end of my MFA program, I had a meeting with an agent before I graduated. She and I clicked. It was just good luck that this was the right reader for my novel. This was the person who had a vision for how we could edit it moving forward. That was really lucky for me. She and I talked about some changes that we could make. I spent the summer working on those changes. I also was the recipient of a residency at the Saltonstall colony in Ithaca, which is a really, really wonderful residency for New York State-based writers and artists. I just spent my month there with pages pinned to the wall and Post-its everywhere. It was my Beautiful Mind, John Nash moment, just would unfurl sheets of butcher paper and scribble all over it and do timelines. I was sort of spat out on the other side of that experience feeling like, this is my book. It’s finally at the place where it’s meant to be. We had a few more rounds of smaller edits after that, but that was pretty much the book that got submitted to publishers.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Then it sold. That was it? End of story?

Caitlin: Yeah. Of course, I worked on it with my editor after it sold. You hear a lot of stories about writers, it takes a long time to find an agent and a publisher and an editor that you click with. I was just really fortunate that those things clicked into place.

Zibby: And the book is good. I mean, that’s why. It’s not just like it got plucked from obscurity for no reason. You’re a really, really great writer. Thrillers are so popular. It’s great. It’s the combination of a lot of very marketable, awesome factors.

Caitlin: Yes, that also helped.

Zibby: I also found it so interesting, you used to work at WORD bookstore, which I’ve been to which is fantastic. I love independent bookstores. What was it like having that point of view, that you could see what people were buying, and just getting an inside look into a bookstore life, and then having a book that now you’re having your launch event there? which is so perfect. Full circle.

Caitlin: I wish every author would have the chance to work at a bookstore. It was such a formative experience for me. I would be shelving books. I would have spent the morning working on my own novel. I would shelve other people’s books and say, well, they did it. They figured it out. This person figured it out. It made me see it as something more obtainable. I got to meet authors who were my heroes when they would come in for events and come in to sign stock. It made me think about — when you’re selling books, you have a short amount of time to tell a customer why you’re so excited about a book, what makes it different from every other book in the store. Why should they spend their money and their time on this book? Then I was able to think about my book in that sense too. If this were a book in a bookstore, what would someone say about it? What would they hopefully find exciting about it? That was a really useful opportunity for me to get out of my own head. You spend so much time writing this book in your head. It put me in the reader’s shoes, which was beneficial to jolting myself out of my own brain.

Zibby: I interviewed Mary Laura Philpott who works at Parnassus Books. She said part of what inspired I Miss You When I Blink — I hope I got that right — is that she wanted to find something on the shelf like that but couldn’t. That inspired hers. Did you have any of that sort of, “I want a thriller, but I want it like this. There’s not a book about South Jersey. There’s not a book about this crime”? Was there any of that type of, “I need to fill this void”?

Caitlin: For sure. I definitely believe in that advice. Write the book you wish existed. Write the book you’d want to read. It was a bit of all those things. It was a sense that people aren’t really writing about South Jersey. Since I grew up there, I had this well of knowledge and experience and knew the textures of the places pretty well. It was the idea that I wanted to write a thriller that was, in my mind, a little bit of an inversion of a typical thriller. A lot of those books start out with the murder or discovery of a body as the inciting incident for the plot. Then you leave the victims behind or you’re following a police detective who, in a lot of cases, is a man. He’s going to go crack the case and deliver justice. I wondered what a thriller would look like that also gave the victims more of a voice throughout the book. The book features stories from the point of view of the murdered women, both leading up to their deaths and afterwards as a way to incorporate them more fully in the story.

Zibby: That’s so cool. Not to delve into your personal life too much, but did anything in your own family background inspire this book or your writing? Has having a new baby changed the way you see the world, anything about those relationships?

Caitlin: I have a daughter. This book is very much invested in the way the world treats women, the way violence is committed against women in these heinous, horrible, huge ways and in smaller day-to-day ways. When I think about the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in or the kind of person I want her to be, I don’t want her to be a person who has to spend her life worrying about the things that maybe I’ve had to worry about, or the things that my mom’s generation had to worry about, or the way her mom’s generation had to worry about things. She’s not going to live in a perfect world, but my hope is that it will be one that’s safer for women and more encouraging of women in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Tell me about these visions that Clara has. Clara and her Aunt Des have a store. They’re handing out little cards on the street that everybody drops two seconds later. It’s completely demoralizing. Yet she has all these visions that keep coming back to her. How did you come up with that? Also, have you ever had any visions? I’m assuming no, but you never know. This could be the best question ever.

Caitlin: I don’t have any visions like Clara, for better or for worse. When I was writing Clara, she was a character who didn’t have a lot of power. She’s sixteen. She’s a high school dropout. Her aunt, in a lot of ways, manipulates her, coerces her into doing things she doesn’t really want to do. I wondered, what if she really was psychic? What if this wasn’t a sham or a con? What if she did have some sort of power that she could use to her advantage? She doesn’t always understand what her visions mean. Her gift, as she calls it, is limited in some ways. It was a lot of fun for me as a writer to play with what is, in an otherwise very realist novel, something touched with magic. Also, I got to do a lot of research with tarot which was really fun. Clara reads tarot cards to pay her rent. Every time Clara would give a reading in the book, I would take my tarot cards out. I would deal a reading. I would use whatever came up in the scene in the book.

Zibby: No way!

Caitlin: I kept them all. They were totally on point. It was very eerie. I don’t have visions, but that made me feel like I had a little bit of interesting —

Zibby: — In my spare time, I would like to be a tarot card reader. That would be so cool.

Caitlin: Yeah. It’s a really interesting tool for introspection. I know a lot of writers use tarot.

Zibby: Really? I’m late to the party here.

Caitlin: You should try it. It’s fun.

Zibby: The scene where Des makes Clara dye her hair this ungodly shade of red in order to perhaps attract suitors and go onto this new adventure she has in mind, she has to then be out in the world with this horrific new identity. Tell me more about that decision. I was like, maybe Caitlin will come with this shade of red, sort of channel the hair dye job that she put in her book.

Caitlin: It’s sort of funny. Last year around the time I was getting my author photo done, I had gone to a salon and gotten my hair done. I wasn’t even thinking and they’re like, “We want to take you a little more red.” I was like, sure, okay. Then in the author photo, I’m like, oh, wow. Okay, this is sort of like Clara’s. I feel a shift in who I am because I’m not a redhead. This feels like a different person. I was really interested in exploring the ways we represent ourselves externally, how they do or don’t match up with who we are internally. In this case, Clara is not someone who goes around with bright red hair seeking attention. She would rather be more watchful and on the sidelines of things observing. She’s feels like this hair just puts her in the middle of everyone’s attentions, unwanted attentions.

Zibby: Let’s talk a little about Lily who came from this it-girl type person in the art world and then has this very unpleasant experience and ends up coming back home on her hands and knees and trying to find her way in the world. The interview you had with her trying to get a job at the spa, it was so real. I just could see the whole scene playing out and how far she had come and how she was desperate for this job and yet — I don’t know. Tell me more about this scene.

Caitlin: I, like Lily, worked at a casino spa in my summers off from college.

Zibby: No way. It seemed very real, so that’s why.

Caitlin: If you told me then that I was going to write a novel partially inspired by my experiences working at a spa, I would’ve said you were totally insane.

Zibby: Everything is copy, right? Isn’t that the whole thing? Nora Ephron.

Caitlin: Exactly. It’s all come back to me. It’s totally been grist for the mill. I worked at a casino spa in Atlantic City. My dad worked at casinos. My grandmother worked at casinos, went back to work after raising six kids. In a way, it was just in my blood. It was what you did. It was a really interesting environment. The spa was supposed to be this place that was really serene and calm. Then just outside the doors you have the chaos of the casinos and all the colors and sounds and the craziness that comes with that. There were these women like Clara and Des who would come to the spa. They would say, “Please, let me read your palm. Let me tell you your future. Then you let me back into the spa and let me use the jacuzzi.” It was so ridiculous, the kind of thing that maybe could only happen in Atlantic City.

Zibby: And the theft element too?

Caitlin: Yeah. They would put samples of products in their purse. If you had a tester bottle out in the open of some of the more expensive products, they would just swipe them. They would get their eyebrows waxed and then they would scratch, scratch, scratch their eyebrows and say, “Look what she did to me. She injured me. I can’t pay for this.” It was wild.

Zibby: No! I would love to have a customer-facing experience like that. I worked at Weight Watchers for a little while and weighed people in and restocked the shelves. Then I ended up being a leader at the meetings. I know this is in another lifetime for me. Interacting with people, especially at a sensitive time where they’re weighing themselves and everything, and then having to process the payment for the two-point bars and everything, it was eye-opening, being just customer facing in that way and seeing all the different types.

Caitlin: I always say that was the hardest job I ever had. Customer service is so hard. People bring a lot of guilt and baggage to those situations. Weight Watchers, I can imagine it would be very similar.

Zibby: I feel like people don’t really have respect for people in general who are checking them out. You just don’t think. I wish people would stop and be like, what does this person have going on?

Caitlin: You become invisible, especially in a tourist town. Everyone’s bending over backwards to serve the customers who come there, but they’re supposed to do so in a way that’s totally invisible to those customers. You can’t see that labor happening.

Zibby: Right, interesting. I’m glad I do this now and I’m not like —

Caitlin: — Don’t have to weigh people.

Zibby: Exactly. In this chapter called Jane Four you write, “You are happy until you’re not. It happens as quickly as someone throwing a bucket of cold water over your head.” I was just wondering if you had a moment that you could think of that maybe you were really happy and then you had a bucket of cold water thrown over your head. Maybe you could tap into that moment that you described.

Caitlin: When I think about that character, she’s describing a moment when the narrative she’s telling about herself changes. She had a very troubled childhood and then was adopted by her aunt and uncle who gave her this really nice life. She starts to tell herself, “I don’t deserve these good things. My old life is just going to come back and claim me.” This really damaging narrative seeps in. That can be really dangerous, the stories you start to tell about yourself. It can really affect your happiness. It’s so insidious. A much more low stakes example maybe in my life was you’d go to a writing workshop and you’d have your nice new story to share with people. You maybe would have an experience where the people in the workshop weren’t seeing what you were seeing. They’d go around the table and heave criticism on your story. I’m a sensitive person. That’s a tough situation to be in. I would leave those situations then be like, clearly, I’m a failure. Clearly, I’m not meant to do this. That was the narrative that would stick for a little while. So nothing quite as drastic as what happened to that character, but I do think in a lot of ways I wanted to use the book to explore the ways that the narratives we tell about ourselves can really impact our choices.

Zibby: How did you bring yourself back, for instance, in those workshops? How did you regroup and say, “You know what? No. I am a good writer. I’m going to keep doing this”? I feel like this crisis of confidence is what separates people who end up getting published and people who don’t. Maybe the talent is equivalent. Maybe it’s not. It’s the determination and having to go forward and something inside you that makes you keep doing it. Tell me about yours.

Caitlin: I think ultimately it comes down to for me, for better or for worse, I’m a very stubborn person. Even when I would have those experiences where I was inclined to be susceptible to another narrative about myself, I would always try to right my course and say, but this is what you want to do. You don’t have to be successful at everything every step of the way. Everyone has fallbacks in the writing world. A lot of writer’s careers are much more full of rejection than they are of celebration. That’s just the life. That’s something you have to get used to. The process of going through graduate school made me a lot better at handling those experiences. As a writer, you really have to be prepared to pick yourself up time and time again because not everyone else will do that for you.

Zibby: This is your debut novel, very exciting. It’s coming out. Are you freaking out? Are you excited? Is there something you’re particularly looking forward to in the tour or anything?

Caitlin: It’s a mix. I never thought I would say that because you look forward to publishing a novel, if you want to be a writer, for years and years. There’s something a little scary about putting yourself out there, about putting your work out there even though in this case this is fully a work of fiction. It’s not autobiographical in any sense. It’s a little scary, but mostly exciting. Like you said, I’m really excited for the launch at WORD and to come full circle. I remember eating my lunch in the basement in my Converse and jeans and being like, maybe one day I’ll be back with a book. To see that happen is really rewarding.

Zibby: That’s so awesome. I love it. Do you have any other books in the works or anything coming next? Movies? Tell me. There must be. What’s next? What’s coming up?

Caitlin: I’m working on a new novel now. I’ve been working on it for about a year. It’s still, though, in that very messy, undefined stage, so I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s set in Upstate New York at this isolated ballet school for talented teenage ballet dancers. I’m really interested in what happens to people in isolated, close-knit communities. I’m really interested in ambition, particularly female ambition. This is a way to dig into all those themes.

Zibby: Ooh, I love that, very cool. Thriller still, or not so much?

Caitlin: Maybe some thriller elements. It’s still a little early to know, I think.

Zibby: That sounds awesome.

Caitlin: It’s really fun research getting to watch ballet clips on YouTube and learn all the dancing terms and how dancers break in their pointe shoes.

Zibby: You should talk to — I had a former dancer on the podcast. Her name’s Siena Siegel. She wrote a whole book, To Dance, and used to be a professional dancer. She got injured and stopped. Maybe you could talk to her about it for research.

Caitlin: I’ll have to check that out.

Zibby: Any advice to aspiring authors? I know you just gave some a minute ago about not giving up. Anything else, especially coming off your first novel?

Caitlin: When I taught writing, I used to tell my students this all the time. Don’t be afraid to make a mess your first draft. Be really forgiving of yourself, which, again, is something I have to remind myself of all the time. That’s a hard thing to put into practice. Just get in the habit of finishing something, not of making it perfect. Then once you have a full draft of your poem or your story or your essay, then you go back and shine it up. You can be a little more ruthless on yourself when you’re editing. Just let yourself finish things. That’s my best advice.

Zibby: That’s great advice not even for writing. That’s just good life advice. Just get things done. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Caitlin: Right. There’s always this moment of translation where the beautiful, perfect thing in your head and the difference between what it actually is the world, and you just have to forgive yourself when they don’t match exactly.

Zibby: This is like the difference between my first kid’s birthday party and my last kid’s birthday party. My aspirations for perfection and all the details — now my last kid, I make one phone call. I’m like, “Do you have parties there? Can you do it? Yes, I want the full package. Okay, see you then. Bye.”

Caitlin: Thanks. Can we order some pizzas? All right.

Zibby: You know what? My fourth kid ended up being a lot happier because I’m not stressed about it.

Caitlin: It’s still fun.

Zibby: You live and learn. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this fabulous book, Please See Us, Caitlin Mullen.

Caitlin: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Caitlin Mullen, PLEASE SEE US