Whitney Mallett sat down with Natasha Stagg in a restaurant in Chelsea to discuss fame, internet girls, and writing a novel without even trying. Stagg is the Senior Editor of V and VMAN magazines. Her debut novel “Surveys” is available at Semiotext(e).
“Any time anyone is like, ‘Oh you wrote a book, what is it about?’ I like just saying, ‘it’s a coming-of-age novel,’” Natasha Stagg tells me about Surveys, her first novel. “I do think it is, but it’s also a funny answer because it’s published by Semiotext(e).” Coming-of-age screams YA, of course, and Semiotext(e) is known for Theory of the Young-Girl more than novels for young girls. “Semiotext(e) is definitely the dream I didn’t even dare to dream,” says Stagg, “Short of that, I wouldn’t mind being marketed to 15-year-olds.”
Stagg was sitting across from me at a kitschy Spanish restaurant in Chelsea. It was after ten and she still had a red lip on from the photoshoot before, so it felt like a date. We buttered our bread and talked about how much we both like celebrity magazines profiles that narrate the buttering of bread. Stagg is the Senior Editor of V and VMAN magazines. She started writing Surveys, however, before she landed that day job, workshopping early drafts when she was studying creative writing at grad school in Arizona and then continued working on it when she moved to New York. She sent a manuscript to Chris Kraus after she interviewed the writer and Kraus ended up editing the bildungsroman, which brings together early-twenties angst, visibility politics, and an acute commentary on bullshit jobs. Semiotext(e) published it this past March.
The story begins with a young woman Colleen fresh out of college suffering from post-grad ennui in Tucson. The novel’s first third finds her at a dead-end job conducting marketing research surveys at a mall. It’s the exact same gig Stagg endured after graduating from college in Ann Arbor and moving back to Tucson, where she’d grown up. Stagg narrates the loosely fictionalized survey center with agonizing detail. Colleen has a colleague with a fake Australian accent who asks her out via email writing in lime-green Verdana. One of the regular families who come in over and over again to take surveys in exchange for very small amounts of money have a small child in a stroller drinking an 89-cent Thirst Buster from 7-Eleven. Colleen can’t tell if he’s an old-looking toddler or an underdeveloped kid.
“When I worked at that survey center, it was a semi crisis every day,” Stagg says. “That part of the book is about how I wasn’t in control, and everyday I had to interact in a way that’s authoritative with people whose lives were so out of control. I was depressed and feeling like such a loser and a fuck-up and then at work I find these people who are riding the bus to the mall to get a two-dollar check. It was like how do I interact with them and appear as if I’m proud of my work?”
The novel’s protagonist Colleen escapes her bleak life in Tucson by way of minor internet fame. “Eventually that character became not me,” notes Stagg. Colleen meets semi-famous Jim online and moves to LA to be with him. The second third of the novel narrates their charmed life, hosting parties and making money off of their combined social capital. Sooner than later, Jim cheats on Colleen with another internet microcelebrity and Colleen finds herself unable to detach herself completely from him and impossibly jealous, a junkie for whatever new content the other woman posts.
Stagg found herself writing about celebrity and its particular manifestation in internet it-girls even though she started working on early drafts of the novel before she even had an instagram account. “It is funny that every review is like, ‘this is about social media.’ It’s not supposed to be some kind of message or comment on how we live today or about how this woman feels about the changing times,” notes Stagg. “I just wanted to write about the things I think of when I think of growing up. I think a really good allegory for growing up is becoming famous.”
Coming-of-age is a process of becoming more visible. “You start to feel the magnified shame of ‘people are looking at me,’” says Stagg. She explains that it’s two-fold: you’re ashamed because you question if you have anything to offer worthy of their gaze, and you’re enjoying the eyes on you and are ashamed of liking it. “Every woman feels those things as they are growing up and every famous person also feels those things as they are becoming famous.”
In Stagg’s novel, Colleen is both the object and subject of this gaze, but Stagg keeps it vague as to exactly what kind of Internet it-girl Colleen is. We don’t know much about the content of her posts, whether she’s a sad girl with fuzzy armpits or a health goth with neon nails. We never learn exactly how she monetizes her following either. “The Bret Easton Ellis version of this book would be lists of what companies asked her to do sponsored posts and which ones she said no to, which ones she said yes to, and how much they paid her,” notes Stagg. “But I thought if I made it too specific people would think, ‘Oh I know who’s she’s talking about’ and either be like ‘I hate that person’ or ‘She’s my new obsession.’ Because of how we become weirdly obsessed with these people, it’s dangerous to make the character too close to one of them.”
Another virtue of leaving out the specifics is Colleen isn’t confined to a hyper-specific time. Right now, maybe she makes you think of someone like Petra Collins or Alexandra Marzella (who Stagg profiled for Dazed last year), but Stagg had no idea about these girls when she started writing early drafts several years back. Maybe the only analog she had in mind, even if only subconsciously, was Cory Kennedy (whose ex-boyfriend is dating Collins now btw).
Kennedy was the internet’s it-girl in the Myspace and Blogspot era. “Never before have media, technology and celebrity collided with adolescents at such warp speed,” the LA Times wrote about the then 17-year-old almost a decade ago. “I don’t think I thought about it while I was writing the novel, but I did think of her a lot at a certain time in my life,” remembers Stagg. “It was before there was much social media. I would read her blog but it would be like two weeks or a month before she’d update it. I’d think, ‘what is Cory Kennedy doing? She’s probably having so much fun right now.’”
Stagg met Kennedy once. “I started dating this guy in college. He was in a band and took me on a trip to LA. We went to some magazine party and we were hanging out with Steve Aoki. Cory Kennedy was dancing and Lindsay Lohan was DJing and I remember I was way more excited to see Cory Kennedy. Steve Aoki knew her and she came up to us and was like, ‘Does anybody have a cigarette?’ I remember everything. I was like, ‘Yes. Me. I have a cigarette,’” Stagg recalls. “You see her and you think, ‘What if we suddenly switched places and nobody noticed? What if I got in her car and drove away and I could become her.’”
Stagg twelve years later has grown out of wanting to be Cory Kennedy or someone like her. “People will always want recognition and they will probably always conflate it with fame, like we all do growing up. I think most people want to control their fame and then realize they can’t and have to choose between continuing to be famous or becoming obscure in order to regain that control that they lost. And sometimes it’s too late,” notes Stagg. “People know fame is damaging. It’s always been advertised. Marilyn Monroe is the go-to. Maybe people will always want to be the most of something even if it’s the most tragic, but they don’t want to be like Jennifer Anniston. She did a good job. She was a good actor and then she got usurped. The love triangle will never leave her. I’m sure she would start over and not be famous at this point. I mean I’m not sure but I wonder.”
Photography: Lyndsy Welgos
Photo Assistant: Tyler Brooks
Stylist: Author’s Own
Make Up Artist: Nichole Hernandez
Hair: Brittany Mroczek for Oribe Hair Care