The Damage by Caitlin Wahrer is what one of her editors called a “moral thriller”. Think of Little Fires Everywhere meets Defending Jacob. Set in small-town Maine, the lives of Tony and Julia are changed when Nick, Tony’s younger brother, is sexually assaulted. As a case builds, each of the characters are faced with their moral compass that leads to making monumental decisions.
I spoke with Caitlin Wahrer in a wide-ranging and lovely conversation including her writing process, how her work as a defense attorney shaped her work, and how “The Bachelorette” played a role in the power bond for her female friendships.
Caitlin Wahrer (CW): My definition of feminism may be over simple but the belief that all genders are equal and action to that end and not just believing in it. To believe it is true and acting with the goal to be the way that systems actually treat people.
Ashley: Congratulations on your debut thriller The Damage! Tell us what the book is about and what was your process writing it.
CW: I should be good at this answer but I continue to be awful at describing. But I would say that The Damage is equal parts crime story, family drama, and one of my editors called it a moral thriller and I really liked that. Ultimately, it’s a story about a husband, a wife, the husband’s younger brother, and the family as a whole and what happens to them when the younger brother is sexually assaulted. And there’s a detective character who is first investigating that crime, but ultimately becomes involved with the family as other things happen in the wake of the crime. And the story is also spanning a conversation between the main character, the wife, Julia, and the detective that’s happening a few years into the future after the crime has happened.
Ashley: What made you decide to have a man at the center of a sexual assault case?
CW: I just had this kind of simple idea for, what would it be like if you were married to someone who was like a really wonderful partner and everything that you wanted. And because of something that happened, they started to kind of devolve, and stop being the kind of good person you’ve had been used to them being maybe they were really angry and feeling vengeful about something. And so I had this idea for what if something happens to a younger sibling of the husband, and it’s making an impact on the marriage between the wife and the husband. And then I thought, well, if I’m going to write a younger sibling, and then being a victim of a crime, I just really don’t want to write a female. And I decided to write about sexual assault, without even really thinking through how much that was going to maybe interest people, or even just be unique that it was going to be a male sexual assault victim until I had kind of started really writing it. And I realized this is going to change parts of the narrative because he’s male, and parts of it are going to be the same as any other person who was assaulted.
Ashley: What do you want readers to know about Julia aside from her being a wife, a mother, sister, friend, and attorney?
CW: I think what I was trying to do wiith Julia was explore this idea where she feels that she’s a really good person and has like a kind of straightforwardness. She may be not as good as she acts like she is at the beginning of the book. And someone pointed this out really recently, and I loved that he pulled it. He was someone on Instagram who did like a little snap review of it. And he pulled a line at the end. That was it’s easy to be good when things are good. I liked the idea that maybe she was never as great as she thought she was. And it was just that this is the time that she realizes what she’s actually willing to let happen.
Ashley: What drew you to make the setting and small town New England?
CW: The really simple, but like, very truest answer of why I set it here is because I practiced in Southern Maine. I wanted to set the book in Southern Maine, to make sure that the process looked accurate, because even within Maine, the way that we handle things varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, who handles it with law enforcement, probably how things go at the hospital, like everything really. In terms of maybe the small town aspects of the book, where Juliet and Tony live, are made up town that’s kind of modeled after a few towns in Southern Maine. Talking about someone like Nick, I thought that it was realistic that if he was living in a college town, even if the court process is in perfectly trying to keep his identity confidential, protect him from that aspect of things, people are going to find out that he is the unnamed victim.
Ashley: What were the parallels between preparing a case and writing the novel?
CW: No one has asked me that question. I love that question. I had this like, really broad idea of what I wanted this story to be, I have a paragraph written of this is how I think it opens, this is how I think it closes. This is like roughly what I think is happening in the middle, but sorting it out into a story that like, you can tell that or that someone is going to listen to and follow and not be bored and not want to hear it or it’s going to have like the more emotional impact at the right places. Lawyers try to do that, too. I mean, it depends. I’ve never had to tell a story as long as a novel, obviously.
Ashley: One thing I loved and appreciated about the novel was the inane shows that you mentioned as character development for Tony and Julia. There’s “The Bachelor”, there’s “House Hunters”, there’s “Criminal Minds”. What inane shows do you enjoy?
CW: Okay, this one is like, so embarrassing, but I’m going to fess up to it that one of my best friends and I have just started watching this season of “The Bachelorette.” And we’ve never done this together before. We watched “Love is Blind” on Netflix, which is maybe the most inane show I’ve ever watched in my life. And she and I just had so much fun, like, texting about it, and making fun of the fact that we had watched it like making fun of ourselves that recently, we were like, let’s do this for “The Bachelorette.”
Ashley: What do you attest to the power of female friendship?
CW: Oh my gosh, especially during the pandemic, I feel like I’ve had a group of friends that we chat pretty much like, all day, every day. I have a couple other close friends that I talked to frequently. And they just kind of give me the energy to go on. And then also just this total lightness goofiness that we have, like sending gifs. I have so many friends that they just reach out and we’ll go on a walk together and I just feel my spirits lift in a way that no one else really can seem to do. And yeah, and I feel like really releasing the book, I’ve made so many friends who are authors. And we have so much fun kind of supporting each other either behind the scenes or openly on our Instagrams and stuff like that.
Thank you, Caitlin Wahrer for sharing your thoughts with Feminist Book Club. For our readership, The Damage thoroughly builds characters dealing with traumatic experiences for a compelling novel.