Earlier this year, Natasha Stagg published Surveys, a coming of age novel set in our social media age. Its chapters are titled after secondary characters and U.S. cities — Jewelia, Javier, St. Paul, Detroit, Marfa, Mom — which its narrator, Colleen (23), phases through on her rise to fame. At the beginning of the book, Colleen is working in a mall in Tucson. She conducts market research surveys for new products like perfume and spirits. She is bored or blasé, cooly desiring difference, and she gets it — a covetable romance, celebrity for documenting her just being online. Still, she, or her tone, remains the same. All storied events — sex work, eating Subway, Standard hotel stays, breaking up, a family reunion — are leveled to the same plain plane. The whole thing’s got a pale tinnitus ring. In late October, I met Stagg at Langer’s, a high-turnover delicatessen adjacent LA’s MacArthur Park. Over cold beet soup and half sandwiches, we discussed Surveys, its publisher, Semiotext(e), and our corresponding work as magazine journalists.
When did you write Surveys?
In grad school, before I moved to New York. That was five years ago, I graduated in 2011. I guess I’d sort of started writing it before school, but not really. Mostly I was working the survey center job that ended up in the book. I wrote the middle section, the fame stuff, in school, then I wrote a bit more at a residency in Prague, and the rest in New York, like on weekends — I was working at Beacon’s Closet.
Cool. Which one?
The one in Williamsburg that doesn’t exist anymore.
Semiotext(e) is an interesting publisher for this story.
And I think the best one for it, because now I get to talk about it in this way that’s more theoretical. I think if it had been with a more mainstream publisher, it would have been more of a TV movie style pitch, you know?
Totally. How would you describe Semiotext(e) to someone who doesn’t know what it is?
Well I have been doing that, so… I say that they’re known for translating French philosophy and theory and that the imprint Native Agents that I’m on is mostly female writers, Americans. I think some people assumed I self-published, or they haven’t heard of Semiotext(e), so they’re like, oh, you settled, but I actually, if I had every option, I would’ve still picked Semiotext(e). They’re big into feminism and they’ve championed a lot of writers who are very popular and important now, but they were the first ones to publish them. It’s this scene that’s cool to me. The first Semiotext(e) book I read was by the Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings. I got it on my first trip to Berlin. I knew a girl who worked at this German bookstore. She was like, we just got this book but it’s printed wrong, do you want it? I took it on the plane and read it cover to cover. I was just so blown away. That’s what I want out of books — this whole interaction around it, you feel like you’re entering into a new society.
How did Surveys end up with Semiotext(e)?
I was working at V magazine and doing a lot of freelance writing, because V didn’t pay my bills. I was writing for Kaleidoscope, and they asked me to interview Chris Kraus, and that’s how I met her, over e-mail.
When was that?
That was 2014. Once Chris decided to publish Surveys, it happened really quickly. I was surprised by that; books can take years to get published with other houses. Semiotexte is just cooler, they do whatever they want.
It surprises me that you wrote this book so early because it feels like it has distance from its material while also being immersed in it. A lot of the realizations that the narrator has about social media and fame I only came to recently, though I observed the substance of them when you would’ve been writing the book.
I actually think that it would be harder for me to write it today, because it’s not that I had distance from the subjects, it’s that I wasn’t aware of them as much as I am now. Instagram didn’t exist yet.
Whoa. So what were you imagining your characters becoming famous on?
I was one of those people who avoided social media for a long time. I was like, I don’t want everybody to know my shit. I’d only heard of Twitter when I first started writing the book. I think I had this idea of what it would be like. I knew about My Space and LiveJournal, but I remember thinking, all those things are dead, so whatever this Facebook thing is, it’s probably not going to last, and Twitter is probably not going to last, so on purpose I was just not including any of that — no numbers, no platforms. I never got specific because I don’t even know what things would be cool.
There’s a lot of omissions, like the narrator gesturing out, saying I don’t need to go into that…
Yeah, like, it’s on the Internet, look it up. I think that’s also my fear of the book becoming dated. I didn’t think it was going to be about the Internet at first. I just really wanted to write about fame. I’ve always been obsessed with celebrity and the relativity of celebrity. I had just been on tour with a band. I was the merch girl, so I tried writing about that, but I didn’t want band associations. So I made it vague. It kind of became, they don’t do anything. Like DJs.
Yeah I definitely pictured like, a Misshapes kinda thing. Like party promoters, DJs, an It girl.
I was interested in the kind of fame where your status is changing wherever you are. Colleen and Jim are recognized in places, but maybe only one of them will be recognized, or maybe they’ll be recognized for their coupledom, or maybe nobody knows who they are, so they’re super aware of what places them.
What exposure to fame did you have before you were writing the book? During? How has it changed since then?
I had very limited exposure to fame, which probably exacerbated my fascination with it. Every time I heard of someone I had gone to school with dating a guy who had been in a famous band, I would feel this mix of agony and glee, like: so close yet so far away. In college I dated a guy in a band who had a hit and I went on tour with them, so I met this Detroit rock scene that was big back then, but mostly I was blown away when I met people who had been in Hole between recordings. Then I met Vincent Gallo at a show, which was a dream come true because he totally held up the character he created around himself. Later, I dated my biggest celebrity crush, Brendan Sexton III. He is a great guy but totally not like the characters he plays, so that was a weird one for me to come to terms with.
Brendan Sexton III! Welcome to the Dollhouse. Vital. Are there writers or other medium artists whose work on fame you like? I’m reading The Philosophy of Andy Warhol right now, it’s so good.
I love the idea that Andy Warhol invented scene superstardom, or something. It’s kind of better when you meet someone who is on the fringe of fame but you feel more invested in their work than you could be with a mega celebrity. I’ve met many celebs now that I worked at V magazine, and I have stories about Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus and James Franco, but all of these stars know the game so well, it’s like talking about a politician. You only know one side of the story.
Last night I was thinking about how fame, or fame plus wealth, used to enable people to have a lot of privacy – you could afford it, to work behind closed sets, to have your own car, plane, lawyers, agents, etc. Now fame is like, publicity.
Yeah, I recently talked at Marymount College to a class of English students who had read my book as part of a “fame” theme, so I was using that opportunity to ask younger people if they even aspired to fame or meeting famous people, and I could tell that they did. One of them asked me how famous I was on a scale from 1 to 10 and I got nervous and said 0, but I should have used that moment to discuss what scales we use to measure fame now, since everyone is on the scale or at least has the ability to be. It used to be that some people could never be TV-famous unless they died in some weird way or were abducted by aliens.
There’s this vacancy to the book that’s really unsettling. Like there are tensions and discomforts, but no major clashes that would make for like, a paradigm shift.
That’s good if it’s as motion-sick and pressurized as the conversations we try to engage in online.
Ugh, yes. It’s also got such a specific tone, which is why it took me so long to read: I knew it would take me over, and I had to write my own shit. I have to be careful what I read while writing.
Sometimes reading something changes my personality to the point that I can’t even have conversations with people. The first time I read I Love Dick I got into so many arguments with my boyfriend— [Laughter] — like everyday.
That’s funny. Yeah, I think about media like food, some things are nutritious, others will clog me up or make me sick. I read a lot of magazines when I was younger. Did you?
What magazines did you read? What do you think that diet did for you?
I had subscriptions to YM, Seventeen, Vogue, Nylon, and W. Can you believe that? I thought that was pretty normal, and maybe it was. I found out about Purple in college and loved that one.
I used to love the romance of magazines.
And then I started working in magazines and got really depressed.
Me too. The golden age is over. I love those stories from older writers who used to take celebrities on three day trips with them. Now you open a Vanity Fair, and it’s like, this is our interview with this person that was conducted over Skype. Then it’s like, why don’t I just watch her Snapchat?
Did you want to be a writer when you were younger? Did you have an idea of what that was?
Writing books is really cool to me. When I was very young I definitely thought of myself as someone who is writing a book and someone who could be very cold to anyone who asked me what I was doing because that’s what writers were like: they could be alone for a long time, and come out with this big document of their own experiences, and everyone is allowed to access it, but you don’t have to actually socialize with anybody beyond that – you’re just like, read my book if you really wanna know.
[laughter] This book is very cool. Like…
A cool tone.
Exactly. Not impassioned.
Yeah. I was talking to Chris Kraus about the similarities between our books. I thought our characters were similar and she was like, oh no, you’re character is very cool and she’s very confident and she does what she wants. It was weird to hear her say that because I think of Chris Kraus as that, but I think she thinks of her character “Chris” as a very anxious person, and then I think of my character Colleen as more anxious than what she comes off as, because a lot of her experiences are based on my own, and I’m an anxious person. It’s a good thing she doesn’t come off as me.
She doesn’t. What is “cool”? Like is there an essence to it?
Cool is changing, but generally it stays the same. It’s aloofness, but what is read as the right kind of aloofness depends on the era. I mean, to be cool you can’t simply be aloof.
How about that cover. Did you pick it?
I didn’t, but I love it. Hedi El Kholti did, and at our reading I finally asked him what his logic was, since so many people have asked if it’s a painting of me. He said people have asked him that too, but the truth is that was a coincidence, because he had only met me very briefly once in New York before picking the image (from Brian Calvin), and he didn’t remember what I looked like then.
Some of my favorite scenes and characters in Surveys come from the survey center part. I love hearing about day jobs.
I have a day job at a consulting firm. It’s boring to talk about. It’s in an office. There are so many people I know who have never worked. Actually working at a job is really hard to explain if you’ve never done it. You have to wake up and do the same thing every day. I’ve been working since I was 16.
What other jobs have you worked?
My first job was at a nursing home, then I worked at an office as like a secretary’s assistant, and I worked at a school cafeteria in college, then I worked at a liquor store, which was my favorite job, like, ever.
What was so great about that job?
It was all townies, and that was what I needed after a day of liberal art at the University of Michigan. We would pour airplane shots into our cans of Coke and be rude to frat boys buying handles of flavored vodka. After that job, I moved back to Tucson and worked as a stagehand because that’s what my family does.
What’s a stagehand?
It’s like setting up sets and lights at a theatre or a convention, whatever needs to happen.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been writing some essays and reviews for a few magazines, mostly about fashion, so I’m wondering if a collection of essays or a chaptered essay about fashion is next. I’m also in the very beginning stages of a new book, or short story, or book of short stories, depending on how it goes. And I’m experimenting with writing dialogue with no story attached, in the hopes that it will become a screenplay and then I’ll have written a screenplay, so I can next become good at writing screenplays. So, just a lot of starts and a lot more stops, at the moment. The pressure to write something as extensive as — but not at all like — one’s first novel, or, in effect, writing away from a subject, is a road block, it turns out.