(Random House, October 1, 2022)
Ellie’s father had four children by three wives, but she always knew she was his favorite. At least, until he died and left her a gaudy tie rack instead of his cherished baseball. But who was this person he left the ball to? Ellie made it her mission to find out and along the way learns more about her father and herself than she bargained for.
AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea to write this story and what was the first part that came to you?
FAIRBROTHER: The Catch is about a young woman named Ellie whose father dies suddenly when she’s in her early twenties. She’s always thought of herself as his favorite child, but when the family reads his will, she learns that he has left a family heirloom—a beloved baseball—to someone she’s never heard of before. Ellie must figure out why her father made that choice, and in the process, she discovers more about who her father had been and who she wants to become.
“I wanted to write about a young woman moving forward through grief…”
I lost my father when I was roughly Ellie’s age, in my early twenties. He and I had always been extremely close. After he died, suddenly and quite young, I learned things about him that I had never known. They were small things, nothing like what Ellie learns about her dad, but I started thinking about how well anyone can know their parents, and that question was the seed that started my writing. I wanted to write about a young woman moving forward through grief, and to explore how our perspectives on loved ones can change after they die. How we can understand parts of them that we may not have been ready to see before, and how that clarity can help us heal.
AUTHORLINK: How much did you know at the start or plan ahead about James’ story?
FAIRBROTHER: I knew the book was about a daughter coming to terms with the death of a charismatic parent. I also knew that the father had a prized baseball that he bequeathed to someone who was a stranger to the rest of the family, and that the daughter’s grief became especially barbed as she reconsidered what she had been to her father, and what had she misunderstood. But I had little of the plot at the outset, so there was a lot of work to do to mold the emotional truths into a surprising and twisty mystery.
I did start the book knowing that I wanted it to have a particular tone. Grief and loss can be potent and weighty subjects, so I wanted to come at them partly from the angles of humor and of surprise. Because there are moments that are charming and joyful and funny, even when life is shifting beneath your feet. While the book is about loss, it’s also about regaining a sense of self, it’s about funny experiences with roommates and dating, it’s about coincidences and paradoxes and surprises—the stuff of life.
Often we think literary fiction has to be staid and somber in order to be taken seriously. But I crave literary novels that are powerful but fun to read—beautiful and meaningful and funny at the same time. That’s what I was aspiring to, the kind of book I love as a reader.
AUTHORLINK: Can you talk about how your novel explores the changing dynamic of a daughter’s understanding of her father as she matures and learns more about him?
“The Catch might be considered part mystery, part love story…”
FAIRBROTHER: The Catch might be considered part mystery, part love story, part coming-of-age story, and while I don’t love the term coming-of-age, it does signal an important element of the novel, which is Ellie’s growth from being a daughter to being a woman. There’s a lot of vulnerability inherent to that shift. It can be vulnerable to see your parent as a flawed individual, but it can become an act of freedom to accept it. In the story, Ellie figures out that she has power outside of who she was to her family members, and who she had always been within her particular family dynamic. It turns out that her power is in making different choices than her father did. It’s in being able to name the choices her parents made, and the ways in which she was expected to live up to those emotional inheritances, and then to decide that other paths were better for her. But she makes mistakes too! None of us are entirely free from the emotional inheritances of our families.
AUTHORLINK: Can you explain your title, The Catch?
FAIRBROTHER: The Catch refers to the baseball that Ellie’s father bequeaths to an unknown person, but it also has deeper metaphorical meanings. It can refer to a romantic partner, or an unexpected complication, or a capture. I also used the term to examine the various paradoxes of growing up: there’s a catch to having loved someone, because you have to accept the parts of love that, even in retrospect, cause pain. There’s a catch to becoming an adult, in that you must overcome your family despite being shaped by them. Perhaps the most significant catch of all is that despite anyone else’s help or encouragement or model, only you can decide who you will finally become. I tried to play with all these meanings in the novel.
On a more literal level, Ellie’s father is a poet, and his most famous poem is called “The Catch.” That poem is the first clue that the reader gets about who Ellie’s father really was. So there’s the catch within a catch (and maybe even within a catch). I loved that Russian doll quality to the title. I love when a novel has a set of clues and mysteries for a reader to uncover.
AUTHORLINK: What research did you do for the story?
FAIRBROTHER: Ellie is a journalist in the novel, and I drew on my own experience as a reporter in DC. In my experience, being a journalist was like being a jack of all trades. In order to write articles about so many different subjects, I had to do research into topics as varied as water pollution, the Violence Against Women Act, and the status of Qatar in the international community. So you can get a really broad education that way, and I put a lot of interesting material into the book that drew on my experiences in the industry.
As a reporter, I learned how to ask the right questions and how to be systematic in finding answers. I used a lot of those techniques in The Catch, in which Ellie is using the tools of her trade to solve the mystery of her father.
AUTHORLINK: How did rewrites and revisions affect your story? Did you have friends or others who gave you critiques, ideas or suggestions before you submitted the manuscript?
“I rewrote the book four or five times.”
FAIRBROTHER: I rewrote the book four or five times. I was lucky enough to find several readers in graduate school who were instrumental in providing feedback on each draft. I continue to cherish sharing work with them. For so much of my life I thought writing was siloed and solitary. In graduate school, for the first time, I realized how integral good readers are to the writing process. I also enrolled in a novel revision program called BookEnds and revised the book for a year under the supervision of authors Meg Wolitzer and Susan Scarf Merrell. That program was wonderful. The deadlines, mentorship, and peer feedback encouraged me to take my novel writing to the next level of seriousness and professionalism.
AUTHORLINK: Did your work as an associate editor help you gain skills for writing your own novel?
FAIRBROTHER: Absolutely. There is nothing more exciting to me than seeing an early draft of a book and thinking about what an author is trying to say, and what the book is trying to be. You can learn a lot from reading the early drafts of other writers, about how the writing mind works. Aspiring writers don’t often have access to first drafts of published books, which is unfortunate, because the final version obscures the sweat and toil and fear and joy and deep emotional labor that goes into creating a work of art. So it is an education to be an editor and read manuscripts that are early on in their development. Editors can see a book from a different vantage point than an author can, (and the same goes for early readers), so when an author and editor join together to work on a project, it can generate its own massively creative energy. I have loved being on both sides of that process.
AUTHORLINK: As an editor yourself, how did working with the editor for your novel go?
Kate Medina is my editor at Random House, and she’s a legend. When I learned that she was interested in my book, I was floored. After she bought the book, I worked on it with her for nearly two years.
“Editing is all about revision, which is another way of saying that it’s about growth.”
Editing is all about revision, which is another way of saying that it’s about growth. It’s about growing a book up from something mushy and under-formed and sparkling with possibility, into the best version of itself. Often that happens through a long, sustained discussion between author and editor. It can take a long time to revise a book, and neither author nor editor is the same person as when they began. I’ve learned from wearing both hats that you have to be open to that process. It has been such a gift for me to have an editor who wants to engage in that patient learning with me, that slow and deliberate growth. I hope I can bring those same high standards and creative energy to my own authors.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
FAIRBROTHER: I have a few projects that I’m working on simultaneously. Each one explores different ideas that interest me, but I’m waiting to see which one will emerge as the frontrunner. My plan is to write until one of those projects takes over and begins to obsess me. That’s when I’ll know I have something.
About the author: Alison Fairbrother is an associate editor at Riverhead Books. She lives in Brooklyn. The Catch is her first novel.