Culture

Internet Fame and Crippling Obsession Collide in Coming-of-Age Novel 'Surveys'

Fashion editor Natasha Stagg's debut novel is a harrowing, philosophical meditation on selfies, relationships, and online culture. We talked to the author about her process and her chosen theme: blinding romantic jealousy.

Mish Barber Way

Mish Barber Way

Images courtesy of Semiotext(e)

"One day, I was not famous, the next day, I was almost famous and the temptation to go wide with that and reject my past was too great... If I had been born famous, the moment I would have started engaging in social media, I would have seen this fame, not the rise of it. But first I saw the low numbers, and later, the high ones."

I first met author Natasha Stagg in a gravel parking lot in Tuscon, Arizona, about five years ago. I was playing a punk show in some stale, sweaty room, and Stagg was a friend of a friend who I ended up drinking outside with. Leaning on our decrepit tour van, we chugged beer and got to know one another talking about music, fashion, whatever. She was smart and careful, and when I complained about only having one pair of shoes on tour, she gave me a pair of her old Doc Martens from the trunk of her car. I didn't expect to see her again, but years later we found ourselves connected through work emails and fashion magazines. I still have the boots somewhere in my garage.

Read more: The Weird, Sexy, Touching Emails of Writer Kathy Acker

Earlier this year, I was mailed a copy of Stagg's debut novel, Surveys, published by Semiotext(e), the independent publisher best known for bringing French theory to American readers. Stagg landed her book deal after interviewing the author and professor Chris Kraus (I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia), who is an editor at the company. Later, through emails, the two got to talking about failure (manly about how the success of Kraus's I Love Dick has overshadowed her other projects), and Kraus was encouraging with Stagg. "I mentioned that I felt a manuscript of mine was an exercise in failure, since it had seemed many times that it was surely going to be bought by a publisher but then something would always prevent a real response from the editor who held it," Stagg said. "Chris said she wanted to read the manuscript. She said that Semiotext(e) had a very tight schedule with only five books a year, but she was curious about my novel. Maybe six months later, she and [editor] Hedi el Kholti said they wanted to publish it."

Surveys seems to be a classic coming-of-age story: The book follows the life of 23-year-old Colleen as she goes from working at the local mall in Tucson, bored and unsatisfied with her tedious office job and her creepy, Peeping Tom neighbor, to becoming an Internet celebrity almost overnight. In Tucson, Colleen escapes her day job by developing her persona online at night. Soon, she is discovered by LA It Boy Jim, and they document their love online to a growing fan base. Soon, Colleen drops her life in Tucson to meet Jim in LA, and they embark on an American tour of sponsored events, wealth, and fame. However, when Jim cheats on Colleen with another Internet personality, Colleen becomes obsessive and jealous and spirals out of herself.

Calling a generation used to taking selfies self-centered by default seems shortsighted.

Stagg is a fearless writer, and she plays with stream of consciousness diatribes and obsessive inner thoughts to create a compelling and addictive story that explores contemporary understandings of jealousy and love through social media. Nevertheless, although this is an auspicious first novel, she says it's probably her last, at least until she retires from her busy day job as senior editor of the fashion magazines V and VMAN.

Stagg started the novel while in graduate school in Arizona, then moved to New York and finished the rest while looking for work. "I'm not sure I'll ever have time to write another book because of my full-time job," she tells me. "[Writing Surveys] went quickly because it's what I did to distract myself from the emails that weren't getting answered. Now, I can't delete my emails fast enough."

When I sat down with Stagg to talk about her creative process, jealousy, and Internet fame, but I admit: I also wanted to find out if her protagonist was a reflection of the punk chick who gave me those Doc Martens half a decade ago.

Natasha Stagg

BROADLY: What was the book you read over and over growing up?
Natasha Stagg: I don't know if I've read any one book more than twice. I should now, though, since I have a bad memory. The worst. When I was a teenager I read books about young women in mental institutions, like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I'm sure I read Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil (Le Fleurs du Mal) a few times.

It's impossible to not write pieces of ourselves into fictional characters, but how much of Colleen, your protagonist in Surveys, is you?
I'm sure a lot of me is in there, but I tried to separate us. I have to base places in fiction on places I have been, so I can picture every corner and the mood of a room. All of the places are real. I think I am pretty different from all the characters, though. For example, I've never been famous.

You don't show Colleen developing her relationship with Jim online, even though it was an essential part of her becoming famous overnight. Why did you feel that was unnecessary?
I think that had to do with the other abstracted and skipped-over parts. Everything that could really make any of the characters connected to a certain scene or practice—anything that would make them too immediately recognizable as a type—I tried to avoid. I wanted all of them to feel as vivid and present as coworkers, but not more so than that. You know a lot about your coworkers, but often you don't know the interests they would, for example, list on a dating profile. You know, instead, their mannerisms and how they will react to most news. You might know more about their behaviors than their own friends do, since your perspicacity isn't clouded by any social benchmarks.

When Colleen becomes obsessed with Lucinda after she finds out Jim is sleeping with her, you detail a scene about Colleen obsessively looking through the selfies Lucinda posts on her blog:

Lucinda's presence was blowing up. She posted many, many selfies, but that's a hard thing to notice unless you hate the person doing it. The narcissism of selfies is still weirdly invisible to most people, because when you look someone up, you expect to see pictures of that person, not pictures from their point of view.

So much of this book was written before I had much knowledge of social media, since I started [Surveys] back when I was in school and Instagram didn't exist then. I think I learned my own feelings about some of these behaviors through writing this, in a way. I think it's funny that selfies are by definition a picture of oneself taken by oneself, so they are by definition self-centered. But calling a generation used to taking selfies self-centered by default seems shortsighted. I think what I was getting at was that you shade your own view of someone's social media output with feelings that must pre-exist. If you're jealous of someone, you imagine that their selfies look self-involved. If you admire them, those same images just look like pictures of that person. You forget the context. All of these platforms were created with some motive in mind. They are designed to be used frequently, and no one would use them without a reason to keep up a strong front. Jealousy is what drives people to search deeper, or to implicate, to strive for popularity.

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I think a lot about jealousy and how overwhelming it can be. Are you jealous person? Why center a book around an emotion we all feel gross for having?
Yes, very much! It's awful. It's not like I was setting out to center the book around jealousy, though. It just came out, like it does in myself.

The only thing Colleen and Lucinda have in common is that they both slept with Jim and got famous online, but Colleen obsesses over Lucinda through her online persona, which I think many women do with exes, or their exes' new partners. What were you trying to say with this storyline?
I think Surveys is mostly about jealousy. Colleen fell in love and moved to LA, traveled, and met her icons after getting famous, but most of that isn't really in focus because she is blindingly jealous. Everything that happens to her reflects own jealousy back onto herself.

Why did you set Colleen's beginning in Tucson? What it was like growing up there?
I grew up in Tucson but went to high school and college in Michigan, so when I came back, it didn't feel like I was coming home. My family had split up, so I had to get a place and a car and any job that would have me within a matter of days [of coming back to Tucson]. Getting all of that together made me realize that this was the rest of my life, and that it wasn't very glamorous. I think I was in denial for a time, though; I had to be, in order to have any fun. And then I had a lot of fun. I was trying to not grow up right away. I hosted a lot of bands at my house during that time, actually. I treated Tucson as this neutral zone, in which I wouldn't age and none of my decisions would affect me. And then a lot of my decisions inarguably affected me, in both exciting and debilitating ways. I wish I could go back to living that way, before I started stressing out about it.

She posted many, many selfies, but that's a hard thing to notice unless you hate the person doing it.

How was the process of writing a novel different from writing journalism, and did it play out as you thought it would?
It did not. Not at all. I was writing ten pages a week for my class, and then I was editing that chunk down to nothing. Then, I was writing about that much again, but on my own, without the audience of my writing workshop group peers. And then it felt sort of done, but not really, so I let one friend who I trust read it, and he said, "It's done." I stopped and started editing again. It changed tense, point of view, order, parameters... everything. When I write articles, I don't end up changing much, just because there is always a deadline. I always wish I could rewrite something I wrote a year ago, when I see it again. It drives me crazy, actually.

What do you love most about writing?
I've just always done it. It helps with that memory problem.

What do you hate most about writing?
Starting. And finishing.

What were you trying to say with this story?
I wasn't trying to say anything. I really just wanted to write a novel. I love novels. Especially short ones.