Natasha Stagg Is Almost
Not-Famous

The Author and Magazine Editor Speaks Out on Celebrity and Credibility in the Internet Age

    Interview: Bianca Heuser
    Photography: Brianna Capozzi
    Styling: Delphine Danhier

As you grow into yourself, things become more complicated. By “things,” I mean: you. Desire relentlessly rams the divide between pleasure and pain like a rabid bull, and a world which once saw black and white neatly separated by youthful ideals ends up looking more like chia pudding. By nature, your early twenties are murky waters. Armed with nothing but the abstract idealism of your teenage self, the adult-in-the-making spends most of their time negotiating “what” to “stay” “truthful” to. What does this even mean?

The muddiness of the subject matter makes for the appeal of the coming-of-age novel. At its core eternally are themes of love, identity, and yearning, but how people come of age changes with new circumstantial and environmental factors to respond to. Jane Eyre might still be relatable for its romanticism—but none of these people knew the Internet! In a time that allows you to not only wallow in your crush, but stalk them and their mother on social media, too, romantic relationships seem to have so many more moving parts. Surveys, Natasha Stagg’s debut novel, investigates just those parts. Having grown up in Tucson, Arizona, Stagg today lives in New York where she is a senior editor at V Magazine and VMAN, as well as DIS Magazine’s advice columnist. Published by Semiotext(e)/Native Agents earlier this year, Surveys’ protagonist Colleen, like Natasha, starts off bored to death at a survey center in Tucson, but the 23-year-old meets a kinda famous guy online and decides to move to Los Angeles, more or less to be with him. As a couple, their fame expands rapidly and before they know it, Colleen and Jim are touring the U.S. hosting sponsored events, “cashing in on the buzz surrounding their romance.”

As Colleen’s jealous tendencies turn into full blown obsession, Natasha lends her a tender, yet distanced tone that rings true to those who have experienced the dissociation brought about by trying to sanely navigate the intersection of the digital and analog realms. Rather than pathologizing the effect technology has on our emotional lives, Stagg’s narrative connects its simultaneous strands of coming of age: Colleen is becoming herself, while becoming famous, while being on the Internet. Surveys is a story of self-invention, loss, and young love in a time after sincerity and cynicism melted into one sinister puddle. It is a fantasy of the reality behind retouched images, and events unfolding in between carefully edited lines.

Bianca Heuser spoke to Natasha Stagg about the appeal of the celebrity, ideas of credibility, Semiotext(e), and Internet lingo.

Bianca Heuser: Your work at V Magazine entails a lot of celebrity profiles. The idea of celebrity is present in Surveys too.

Natasha Stagg: It seems weird now, because celebrity is something I have to think about every day at work now, but I think about it so much anyway. Since I started working at V, I’ve learned so much more about celebrities and their whole publicity machine that if I wrote the book now, it would be totally different. Not necessarily better, because I think that’s really Bret Easton Ellis territory, you know? I would rather keep it sort of naïve.

What fascinated you with the idea of celebrity in the first place?

I’ve always been interested in it. I have followed sort of fringe celebrities my whole life. I’ve always been interested in the celebrities people become angry about: socialites, who people used to call celebutantes, anybody who was famous just for being famous. Obviously, that kind of fame is more about charisma than anything else. I always thought it was interesting how upset people get when someone becomes famous simply for being themself. To me, that seems more genuine. It’s portrayed as less genuine instead, because they don't have a vocation. But I think the vocation part sometimes is a veneer, or a falsehood of someone’s fame even, because we all know that the real reason for it has to do with the image of the person and anything related to it. So when someone becomes famous who is not a singer or an actor, that seems more interesting to me. It shows all the inner workings of how that person came to be in the public eye more transparently.

How does that relate to Surveys’ protagonist, Colleen, and her fame?

When I started writing Surveys, I wanted to explore the idea of people becoming famous. Not necessarily for no reason, but the idea of someone’s fame blossoming seemed like pretty fertile ground to write a coming-of-age story. Coming into a new public space is another way of coming of age—it’s like coming of age doubly if someone becomes famous while they're growing up. It also just seemed like a fun thing to write about. I wanted to write about a young person. All my favorite books are coming-of-age books, and so I wanted to write one of those and for it to be contemporary. I didn't want it to be about a movie or rock star. Something so specific would have seemed pretty isolating. The trick I started with was just saying that I’m not going to describe how this person is viewed, what kind of atmosphere she’s viewed in. I wanted it to be very vague so the reader could fill in the blanks. Reading the reviews, people obviously filled the blank with this Internet fame narrative that I really never intended.

That’s so interesting!

It’s just the obvious one to go with. I don’t mind that, but I didn’t mean for it to be so topical.

I also immediately jumped to that conclusion and thought it was amazing that you didn't mention any platforms, because constantly referencing Facebook and Instagram would have made for such an ugly language. It would hinder its aging well.

It was almost accidental that it can age well, if it does. [laughs] I was writing a lot of the middle section in workshops in grad school, and in my small group, everyone agreed that any mention of exact platforms would make it feel dated almost immediately. In high literature circles there is this emphasis on separating Internet lingo from the classic or evergreen story. I don’t really agree with that. It’s strange that people have found it so difficult to recognize that all of this stuff is going to stick around and will be as relevant as mentioning a television set in a story. I just felt this pressure to not name specific platforms and numbers because it does feel kind of gross. I wanted to stay away from shocking anybody with any of that information and instead just lay the groundwork. These people are whatever amount of famous you think they are. They are doing whatever kind of aesthetic research you think they’re doing, and they become endearing to whatever population you think they attract.

The way you describe Colleen’s style—a lot of nude tones, greyish nail polish—made me think of the Kardashians.

Oh, really?

I feel like that’s so Kim Kardashian’s color palette.

That is true. I don’t think she was dressing that way five years ago when I wrote those parts, but that’s really interesting now. I’ve read that people think about the Kardashians, and others think about a more avant-garde type, like an artist, you know? Like people who are super famous on Instagram just for being in their bedroom all the time who make still lifes with drugs. I don’t mention drugs specifically, or any kind of photography, but whatever’s going on in your life you can project onto that character. I love that.

Surveys does feel like a generational novel. But compared to a show like Girls, for example, which deals with similar matters, its take is very generous. I think this partially has to do with your not naming platforms and figures, or the amount of selfies Colleen takes in a day. That part of the conversation about millennials is inherently trivializing—it sounds patronizing.

It does. Working at magazines we have to go through this process of making sure everything is correct, relevant, not personal, and somehow project an image of the magazine as a whole. But then there’s these more popular publications that are just single entities, just one person. Just living their life the way they would normally live it makes an impact. So reading critical thinkpieces on millennials, you just know that the people writing the piece are a little jealous, or at least, you know, skeptical. I’ve never written a thinkpiece like that, and I never would. I hope my book doesn't feel skeptical of millennials. I really appreciate learning new ways of thinking about these things. That’s why I read about them. But I understand both perspectives.

Semiotext(e), where Surveys was published, also published Bernadette Corporation’s novel Reena Spaulings—a collectively authored coming-of-age novel that defined a generation and art scene in New York about a decade ago. You met Chris Kraus, who founded the press’ imprint Native Agents, when you interviewed her for Dazed & Confused. What started your conversation about publishing the book?

I couldn't even believe that was happening, because it had always been my dream to publish something with Semiotext(e)—ever since my first trip to Berlin, actually, where a friend introduced me to it. I remember being so blown away that a publishing house like that existed. All of its history was so interesting, and the people who were involved seemed to me like the coolest inner circle I’ve ever heard of. So when I interviewed Chris Kraus, I knew I had to ask her about publishing. I sent her my book and about six months later, she finally got around to reading it and liked it. She said, “I think we want to publish it on Semiotext(e).” It was just a casual e-mail. I was like, this can’t be real! It was just a really smooth, wonderful experience. Reena Spaulings was the first of their books I read. I had no idea what anything in it was, you know? I wanted to keep reading it forever.

I do see some similarities between yours and Chris Kraus’ concept of femininity. The way I Love Dick’s protagonist throws herself in her obsession, and the way Colleen immerses herself in hers, and how their obsession isn’t pathologized in either book.

Probably a lot of people will say this, but when I read Chris Kraus’ work I was so blown away because it was like she was speaking thoughts I had had, you know? I don’t think I read any of it until after I’d written Surveys. When I did, I started wondering how many people are going to think she had a really heavy handwriting in or edit on my work, because there are a lot of similarities: the sexual, too, the way Colleen and Chris think about sex are pretty similar. They feel detached from it, but it’s necessary, and it’s a power play. But you can’t untangle the one from the other. Like sex must be this struggle.

Interview: Bianca Heuser

Photography: Brianna Capozzi

Styling: Delphine Danhier