Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Caitlin Barasch’s fiction piece, Exhale
Sommer: You do such a great job of showing the narrator’s neuroses regarding her appearance and intimate relationships. Her self-loathing and anxiety crawls through the story, eventually encasing it. I really felt this! Can you talk about how you decided upon and used an extended metaphor (the narrator’s breath) in order to build a claustrophobic tension, and to show the narrator’s state of mind? Did you ever find yourself forgetting about its significance and needing to pull the story back to it?
Caitlin: Thank you! I love the phrase “claustrophobic tension.” I actually didn’t set out to use an extended metaphor—I originally intended for the narrator’s “bad breath” to be taken quite literally, but it ultimately took on a life of its own. I wrote this story after a routine dentist appointment, and as a distraction, I presume, from what she was doing, the hygienist waxed poetic about all the unlucky mouths she’s seen (while I stared at several alarming posters on the wall opposite). So naturally I thought about how essential our mouths are—we use them to eat, to kiss, to breathe—and how often we take them for granted. I went down the Internet rabbit hole afterwards (hence the halitosis/xerostomia/cysteine) and started writing. When engaging in research for whatever reason, I’m completely consumed by it—becoming, dare I say it, obsessed. And obsessions are often arbitrary, mysterious, messy; I usually discover, as I write, that what I’m really trying to say is lying right underneath the surface of the literal. I have to get my hands dirty to unearth the heart of a piece, to try and understand where a fixation is coming from, and so my narrator’s anxiety about intimate relationships arose quite intuitively once I questioned why she might be so fixated on her breath. And I never forgot about or lost track of the metaphor’s significance simply because it was my narrator’s obsession, and obsessions don’t easily loosen their grip on us.
The pivotal scene, of course, is the one between the narrator and her mother. “Ah ha!” I thought. But this vital scene is couched in the middle, almost as an afterthought—her mother flitting in and then out. To me this reiterates the narrator’s lack of complete understanding of her essential problem. Did you always know you wanted this scene at that spot in the story? Did you struggle with finding the balance between emphasizing/telling too much and too little?
I agree that it’s a pivotal scene! I wish I could say I had a grand plan for its placement within the story, but I spent a lot of time moving passages around during the revision process, hoping they’d end up in the right spot. Because the narrator’s escalating obsession is so internal, I hoped to balance her interiority by also writing scenes where she interacts with other people. I didn’t want to pathologize my narrator, nor did I want her to pathologize herself, which is why I resisted revealing more information about her mother, her background, etc. Humans rarely know for certain why we behave or feel the way we do, and over the course of these pages, I didn’t think it would be particularly believable for her to suddenly identify her essential problem.
One thing I appreciate about this story is the way you intimate the narrator’s blindness about certain truths even though it’s from her point of view. (For example, no one, except her, seems to think she has bad breath). This is hard to do. How did you do that, and were you aware of certain pitfalls to avoid?
Because I write primarily in the first-person, it’s definitely more difficult to break out of my narrator’s perspective and introduce other realities. All first-person narrators are “blind” in some way, and I do feel it’s my responsibility to either signal their unreliability or find a way to widen the lens and give readers more information to make up their own minds (i.e. not taking my narrator’s word for it). Much easier said than done! But to be perfectly honest, I’m rarely intentional about this, at least not from the start—I write until it feels right, then tighten everything in revision. My narrator is also somewhat afraid of the truth, which contributes to her blindness. She could ask Dylan the million-dollar question (do I have bad breath?) and he would answer, and that would be that. But of course the real question, buried too deep for her to easily access, is: am I worthy of love?
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Rejection is inevitable, so the faster you get used to it, the better! I’m aware encouraging desensitization isn’t always advisable, but it really helps in this context. These days, when I receive a rejection, I rarely even blink—just dust myself off and keep going. Always keep going! On a more practical note, as a volunteer reader for another literary journal, I’ve learned how arbitrary rejection can be. Sometimes it quite literally comes down to your story being too similar to one they’ve previously published—or perhaps one reader loved it but the other two readers were lukewarm. Of course, if you’re interested in trying to improve your work, I highly recommend having a critique partner you trust. Getting an honest opinion before sending your work out into the world is a gamechanger!
What keeps you inspired to write?
I read as often as I can, and try to stay open to the world. Especially when listening to people’s stories. (Eavesdropping is a particularly fun habit.) I really do feel it’s as simple as that.
Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!
Thank you so much!