'At the Speed of Light': On Cat Marnell and Addiction Memoirs

Discussing the amphetamine logic of How to Murder Your Life.

A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won...

Safy-Hallan is a writer and editor.

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn.

Hazlitt regular contributor Sarah Nicole Prickett knows all the words to two things: Clueless and William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech...

Cat Marnell (photo credit: Christos Katsiaouni)

Magazine girls are magpies, covering walls, notebooks and now Tumblr pages with disparate parts configured to make a whole that feels like home. Growing up, former beauty editor Cat Marnell pieced together her own print editions. In the throes of addiction, she papered the walls of her room with an obsessiveness that bordered on hoarding. There’s an instinct for manipulation here, a desire to craft something better out of broken parts.

The magpie instinct inevitably informs memoir writing, especially memoir writing done by those who, by virtue of substance abuse, remember rather less of their history than they might otherwise. As David Carr writes in his book about recovery from crack use, The Night of the Gun, “We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future.” Carr mitigated that effect by reporting out his own memoir, gathering interviews and research about his darkest moments. Without that reporting, the effect of hindsight is a kind of personal power-washing: you look better in the rearview mirror, especially if you were driving drunk, because once sober, as Carr discovered, even the most honest brain finds ways of coping through self-delusion.

In Marnell’s case, though, the cobbled together history serves as a different kind of self-preservation.

Marnell’s memoir, How to Murder Your Life, collages together years spent in the thrall of amphetamine addiction. Full of print mag fangirling (and an admiration for the women who craft those magazines, such as her old Conde Nast boss Jean Godfrey-June), ’00s pop culture history and New York nostalgia, the world Marnell paints around the darkest corners of herself is a bright and compelling one. But she’s not dressing up her own failures—she is, in fact, making it clear that her continued addiction prevented her from succeeding in even the best of circumstances.

Offered a few dream jobs, she used her way out of every one, though she managed to keep failing up before she faceplanted. The magpie instinct, unfortunately, doesn’t always work as effectively when you’re trying to art direct your own brain.  We’re all trying to cobble together a self we can live with from the pieces we’re offered, but sometimes, we’re handed a piece so powerful it overwhelms everything around it. Like pills. 

Nothing strikes you more reading the memoir than Marnell’s loneliness—a sister who’s sent away to reform school, a childhood spent in a cold basement isolated from her cold parents. Marnell is in her late twenties before she refers to anyone in the book as a real friend. But far from alienating, Marnell's writing is compelling, as evidenced by the cultish devotion to her beauty columns for xoJane, and she’s as amazed by that fact as anybody. Her book is a window into a time when the internet was nascent, oblivious narcissism was fashionable and a strung-out beauty editor could twist her pill-popping party-girl hair mats into a topknot and get away with quietly destroying herself as long as her speed addiction kept the office organized.

Haley Cullingham: One of the first things I wanted to ask all of you about is the idea of capturing relationships in addiction memoirs. Even though Cat’s isolated in her addiction, the way she talks about the people around her, and her admiration for them, was one of my favourite parts of the book, especially in a genre that’s usually more insular/isolated.

Safy Hallan-Farah: Haley—I was also struck by the way she admired and pedestaled people in this really genuine way. (To be honest, the book could have been titled How to Murder Your Life and Why Jean Godfrey-June’s A Total Babe!) But at the same time, her friends and mentors were always in the periphery. “I kept myself out in space, instead of down on earth with the humans,” she writes. I found her isolation almost endearing because it meant the few friends she had weren’t her supply.

Larissa Pham: Two things coming up for me here: her relationship to mentors and her relationships with men. I think it’s hard to figure out whether to call someone a friend whether you’re addicted to anything or not, but these two modes of relating to people are useful ways of looking at the world, especially Cat’s particular world. Her writing about JGJ is so sweet. Her writing about men makes me curious about how much she actually wants to write about men.

Sarah Nicole Prickett: Cat’s adoration of women, mostly the women she works with, is striking especially because it’s almost not politicized. Cat is a Camille Paglia stan. That’s her feminism, plus some social media awareness. She tries not to offend is my feeling, my other feeling being that she identifies somewhere between “apolitical” and “Ann Coulter is hot” on a very mid-2000s millennial spectrum. Also, by her own account, her career in magazines is finit. Which is to say she’s not being strategic, she is instead, inasmuch as this is possible in a commercial memoir, being sincere.

She doesn’t seek out what I would call sisterhood, and wishes she could have friends more than she feels she can have them. (Another reason she is bubbliciously nice in the book is probably to atone for past behaviour, and to implement the lessons of a very expensive Thai rehab.) It’s a mother figure she gets in Jean Godfrey-June and again in xoJane's Jane Pratt, and with a mother figure, you get many more chances, many more forgivenesses, than without. 

LP: Sarah, that last part—maybe it’s because I read the book all in one day while kind of wired and on deadline, but I was totally agog at how many chances she gets. It doesn’t feel like today’s media environment at all, or at least, not an environment I’m familiar with. I wonder how much of these anecdotes and these protections were retroactively glossed over or given a more palatable sheen in post. Even the book itself, as she says in the afterword, is another chance.

SHF: Marnell, to her credit, is aware of the privileges she’s been afforded in life and is accountable for her personal and professional problems. Not politicizing her friendships with other women, I think, is her eschewing the victimhood implicitly embedded in other dominant feminisms. Cat’s feminism reminds me of a scene in Six Feet Under where Brenda Chenoweth, a postfeminist (which is basically a Paglia feminist), is chatting with an ex’s current girlfriend who is a capital-F Feminist. The woman talks Brenda’s ear off about the number of women who’ve been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder versus the number of men who have, so Brenda starts to actively disengage, going into full Mr. Krab meme mode. To me, the scene reveals more (because I am projecting a bunch): Brenda’s feminism is an extension of her narcissism, like everything else in her life. The only ostensible goal of Paglia feminism/postfeminism is putting white women on an equal playing field with white men.

By virtue of Marnell’s background, there’s so much built-in preservation. It almost makes up for her own lack of self-preservation. That’s partly why I wanted to write the book off in the beginning, why I went in reading it in the juvenile white girl cadence I reserve for YA books. I appreciated the great care Marnell took in making people look good. Save for her abusive ex-best-friend, Marco, everyone kind of shines in her prose. I don’t think this is post-production glossing, but rather, a facet of her personality. Her numbness, that I view as partially fueled by the drugs and partially fueled by the absence of an emotional connection with her mother, made her anecdotes and overall perception seem a bit more surface-level, shiny, even a tad glib.

SNP: The book is certainly… Photoshopped. Safy, you’re right, and Photoshopped has bad connotations! Though not for Cat and not for me. I believe in Photoshop for all.

Anyway, it is a bit like reading a yearbook or looking into someone’s high school locker, all notes in glittery gel pen and grape-scented stickers. Cat wrote a book not for Cat but for Kitties who are going to scam their moms and dads into buying it.

Larissa, the sheer number of chances, let alone the escalating risk for her employer, does read as situationally impossible. Nothing accounts for it, not even the obvious, the usual, i.e. white privilege, family wealth, talent, beauty. Maybe the combination accounts. But a lot of young, professional women in media are also white and rich in New York City. I think it has to do with the question, the way that Cat relates to these women, loves them so that they love her too, feel responsible for her.

LP: There is this particular… it’s not vulnerability. There’s this sense that Cat’s just throwing everything at you, whether you like it or not, and “loves them so that they love her too” feels apt—it captures the sense that she isn’t alone, but she feels lonely; her way of loving is one-sided, in a sense, it’s like a force that opens a cavity that must be filled with something. But her descriptions of loneliness feel really apt, that “I should be having fun but” feeling.

SNP: Imagine how many people would hate her if she were having fun. I find it easy to love her. Not love her, but l-u-v. This is easy to do because I’m the oldest of three sisters, and even though she's older than me, and worldlier, wiser, she does elicit, after all of two or three meetings in person, at parties, a nearly unthinking protectiveness in me. She seems like she’d be a Bratz doll but she’s Bambi.

HC: There’s a line in The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: “Why do you put yourself in unsafe places? Because something in you feels fundamentally devoid of worth.” I think the gap between the opportunities she’s afforded and the scary things her brain is telling her about herself is a space that exists in between everything in the book, even though I feel like she holds it at arm’s length at certain moments. (Re: sisters, this book made me want to call mine immediately after I finished it. She does have such a little sister element to her.)

LP: Thank you for that line, Haley, because you’ve summarized a feeling I had while reading—that she is holding this gap, this loss and this discomfort at arm’s length, sort of like circling it as one might circle a mouse in her apartment, and I was reading and was like, why not go closer, why not spend some more time with this feeling, it’s going to be okay, but she never really does. The lines that really gutted me were the ones where I felt her look into this darkness (I’m thinking of a line where she’s describing some binge and she writes, "The pill was caught in my throat; I kept swallowing and swallowing but I couldn't get it down.") but she never looks for very long.

SNP: Have any of you seen Ciao Manhattan!? The Warhol movie with Edie? Cat’s narrative is a lot like Edie’s speedy monologues in it. Edie says something like, I think drugs are like strawberries, but they’re also like nightmares. Everything I owned got stolen by these Queen Bee speedfreaks and all my jewellery was stolen and all my Balenciaga whatever. I was just so frightened, but I was dancing. (This is not a direct quote. But close!)

LP: I haven’t seen it! But I have run into people from Twitter at raves at 6 a.m., so I feel like I understand.

SNP: Running into people from Twitter is actually… illegal.

My sense with regard to the gap is that one, jacket copy aside, she is not really a memoirist, she certainly didn’t go to like the Iowa Writing Workshop to learn how to tug at the heartstrings, and she had never written anything longer than a long blog post or a short magazine article. Her editor(s) must have been desperate to get the thing finished—she started it the day it was due—and so wouldn’t have pushed her to dwell where she didn’t want to dwell. It’s bad enough from her point of view, as indicated by the several times she’s like “I tried to take this chapter out!!!” or “they made me put this in so FINE,” that she has to talk about her childhood and her traumas at all.

Two, she has been out of body for some time. I don't want to psychologize where she doesn't, but I will say that it's problematic (as in "interesting") to me that reviewers or interviewers have referred to her father as a "Republican with a temper" instead of as "abusive," as they would almost certainly do had Cat Marnell been poor and not a poor little rich girl.

Three, I bet she wanted to sell it to teens, and I bet it was easier to write it like “a teen novel that happens to be about me” than to write it like “my literary debut.” It’s kinda like a post-millennial remake of The Bell Jar on the CW Network. What are the first lines of The Bell Jar? “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Then something about being burned alive. “I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.”

The fourth, and to me most excruciating, chapter of HTMYL starts, “It was the summer that JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s plane went down. God, that was the worst.”

LP: You know she knows or definitely her editor knows that we’d all read those lines and nod in recognition.

Can we talk about Cat’s taste? I loved reading about what she was reading or what she was looking at and it disappointed me that this book didn’t reflect what was clearly a really deep, even obsessive knowledge of pop culture—at least, not stylistically; everything was a reference point, not a source of identity formation. Though of course that’s probably because she was writing a memoir at the speed of light and not essays where she got to connect the dots a little more and flex what she’s good at.

SNP: Cat’s tastes and fascinations and particular brand of blonde ambition are all, and not even suddenly, dated. She’s a born groupie but we don’t have rock bands. She may be Edie but we don’t have a Warhol. (I don’t, personally, want a Warhol, but for the sake of a… point.)

All I want is to see the Alterna-Teen zine she made for seven months that her mom threw out, or the magazine she made before that, Beauty Queen Magazine. I do know what you mean, though. She reads poetry, likes John Berryman (I almost said Chuck Berry) and Frederick Seidel and presumably the Beats. She loves Diana Vreeland. She would have made a great Diana Vreeland Jr. in the Reagan years, even the Bill Clinton years.

Somewhere I have an email she forwarded to me after sending it to her publicist about how she wanted her book cover to be a photo of her dressed as Sharon Stone in the movie Basic Instinct. My friend Dayna (Tortorici) always jokes about wanting to do an anthology, like, The Best American Emails 2017, and I would put Cat's at the end. It's that good. I really do adore her!

Beyond being dated from birth, she’s especially wrong for the present moment. This is a nuts analogy—all my analogies are nuts—but How To Murder Your Life coming out in the first month of the Trump administration is like Mariah Carey’s Glitter coming to theatres ten days after 9/11. The kind of hysterical asynchronism no one could plan for, or would. Though it is funny and apt that Marnell, who was born in a suburb of D.C., looks like a bizarro hotter version of Trump’s other daughter, Tiffany.

HC: You’re right, she really does feel like she was made for another time, and that feels kind of electric and tragic at once? Larissa, what you said about reference point versus identity formation really captures for me this sense that she’s a spectator in her own life a lot of the time—like everything is a wall collage, she’s just collecting and collecting but she’s not really there.

Stylistically the book felt very nostalgic, to me, for the time she’s writing about, and I kind of loved that. I wonder if that magazine/what-the-fuck-is-the-internet-going-to-be hybrid language that was so of that time is something that resonates now if you weren’t observing it/reading it then?

Is the style and language here doing deliberate work, or is it just a natural extension of who she is? I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but I’m curious about how often we’re just right inside her head versus how often she’s strategically using her experiences/language/online persona to dramatic effect?

SHF: Yes, Haley! I specifically felt nostalgic for Guest of a Guest blog posts about Tinsley Mortimer and Cory Kennedy. What a simpler time…

I think the language is deliberate and a natural extension of who she is. The conversational tone is accessible but also stagey, like she’s still in acting school.

To speak to what Larissa said about identity formation: “I loved my new alterna-Groupie identity, but my father was not feeling me” is a curious sentence in the book. In the next sentence, she calls him an ultraconservative. She’s at once laying claim to and asserting her identity while defining herself in contrast to her father. I get the sense that while we’re getting the real her, I don’t feel she’s unmasked herself in HTMYL.

LP: While reading HTMYL I kept thinking of a line from So Sad Today: “Once a cucumber turns into a pickle, you can’t turn it back into a cucumber.” It’s about spending too much time on the internet, in Melissa Broder’s case, but it felt apt regarding Cat’s style. I think there’s absolutely a tactical component to the style, the chattiness and the all-caps and the slang… because it’s a book for teens, as Sarah has suggested, but also because it is a good way of creating dramatic effect. When you write about your life for a long time, especially online, you gain a sort of meta-knowledge of how language can so easily affect the perception and therefore the creation of… you! (I say this as someone who comes out of that ~confessional writing~ school too. Actually, I once answered a Tumblr ask that attacked me for my sluttiness/drug use by being like, “But at least I don’t write about it like Cat Marnell!” I am sorry, Cat. I was nineteen.)

Anyway, it’s a tactical thing, it feels also like a particularly feminine thing, knowing how to wield one’s story, knowing how to be Bambi, knowing how to present yourself as a particular kind of person using a very specific style. The medium is the message! Once you learn how to do it, you can’t stop doing it. But she has a meta-textual awareness throughout the memoir. She knows she’s writing it in a specific way; she knows she’s writing it for specific reasons.

SNP: Cat, in this book, doesn’t write like Cat Marnell either. (It’s like the Cindy Crawford quote: “Even I don’t look like Cindy Crawford!”) She overcompensates for not being a person in a productive, societal sense. She’s so chatty, italicized. Like non-alcoholic champagne. I don’t know how much of this is her and how much is her editors; I do think she would write it basically however she had to write it to sell.

There’s a part in HTMYL where she talks about the VICE columns and how dark and inaccessible they were, and I went back and read them, and it’s funny. I remembered not liking them as much as I liked the xoJane posts, because the xoJane posts were, obviously, something new in beauty, and because the co-dependencies on display were so perfect a commentary on, like, The Theme of Consumption, whereas the VICE posts were not so different for VICE and weren’t about drugs plus anything, just drugs. Maybe I felt reflexively bored or embarrassed at the time, and it is tacky to write about drugs qua drugs, just as it’s tacky to hate your parents. But now I wish she were able to write more in the quicksilver vein of those pointless, productless, almost-rhyming prose pieces, which is what I would call them. A lot of those almost-couplets stuck in my head. “A burned-out brain sinks like a stone / girl drug addicts sleep alone” is the big one. It’s bad, that kind of writing, but it’s bad to the limit.

I think I’m talking about Cat’s writing because of how I feel about my own writing in my twenties, almost all of which I regret, less because I revealed too much, I didn’t, I don’t think, I never re-read it, but because it was all done to please all over the place. My first internship was at a Canadian fashion magazine and I loved it, I loved my boss, but I could have stood to learn something besides “don’t write anything that Susie in Saskatoon can’t understand!” Any time I wrote a sentence with an idea in it, I felt I had to immediately follow it up with a silliness, some quip, an instantly lame slang expression, just so I wouldn’t make anyone think I thought I was too smart for fashion.

SHF: There’s this ongoing thread of self-neglect and self-indulgence, and how both play off each other. It feels right to say self-neglect is passed down on the mother’s side but it also sounds gender essentialist. What I will say: for myself, and for a lot women in my life, the hedonism of our twenties is in part a response to having our needs ignored by others. But I don’t think we ever truly let go of our neglectful selves, we just learn to prioritize differently, which is what I think happens to Marnell, too.

You don’t have to be a proper addict to understand what it means to spend $100 on something you don’t need. By the same token, we’ve all had glass stuck in our foot before and have done nothing about it! There’s humor in that sort of messiness, which is something that a naturally humorous person like Marnell recognizes. “Humor in beauty writing was definitely a little edgy at that time,” Marnell writes in HTMYL. When I read this, I thought, “And now applying a critical/feminist lens to everything—beauty writing included—is edgy.” I’m so glad Cat Marnell’s edginess is the kind of edginess you can laugh at.

My first laugh came when the VP of Marketing for a brand she does not name confronts her, and she delivers the line: “I may have been a drug addict, but I had my dignity.” Certain turns of phrase, too, made me chortle, like how she says “white girl privilege” in this way that seems to say hey, no disrespect to this jargon I just learned.

At one point, I scribbled the question, “Does Cat’s ambition get knocked down/stifled by her addiction or accelerated by it?” I wonder how much of her manic passion (for her interests at least, not life itself) that’s been there her whole life, before the onset of addiction, is still intact and how much of it has taken this new, crazier form because of the pills. There’s this addiction versus ambition dichotomy set-up: “I thought my ambition—to be a beauty editor, a creative director, an editor in chief—would always be stronger than my illness.” Both things seem to work together as much as they work against each other, though.

SNP: One hundred per cent. “Performance-enhancing drug” is the term Cat uses in lieu of “productivity drug,” which I think is correct. Amphetamines have long been handed out like condoms in hyper-male, hyper-competitive environments, like … the German army. Or Wall Street. Or rich boy’s schools, boys being diagnosed with ADHD earlier (in the 1960s) and more often than girls. Part of the reason that women don’t talk about being on speed is that it feels like copping to an unhealthy, untraditionally female desire for an edge (even though every woman I know who’s on it is prescribed it legitimately). We’re not supposed to compete the same way. I know this is broad and I dislike being basic re: gender roles but this is America!

What’s dangerous about amphetamines, which, by the way, I’m prescribed, is that at a too-high dosage they can make you feel incredibly productive while not helping you get a single thing done. So, you are, in this very tiring way, performing your non-existent productivity. On the other hand, this performance works to a point. Everybody sees you in work mode, so when the work doesn’t get done, they assume not that you’re not doing it but perhaps that you have too much of it to do.

Amphetamines do burn out your brain. Between the spring of 2014 and the winter of 2016 I was on an increasing dose of Vyvanse that was too high in the first place, so that it never really worked the way it was supposed to. I thought for almost a year that I couldn’t write. (I did write but not, I thought, well.) If I wasn’t abusing the drug, according to my doctor, I want to say the drug was abusing me…. only I can’t say it because I did sort of like it. 

SHF: Sarah, you feeling like Vyvanse was abusing you and not the other way around is such a provocative idea. I think there’s a bit of that idea in HTMYL but I’m mostly interested in the ways Cat abuses herself. A lot of addicted women like her are pathologized as these exploitative people who manipulate everyone around them—and Cat even says this about herself—but I saw a vulnerable person attacking inward. And that self-directed harm, that almost vampiric masochism, doesn’t fit neatly in her characterization of addiction as a progressive disease. Calling it that almost feels like a disservice to herself because progressive connotes linear, as in happening in stages, but for all intents and purposes Cat’s addiction manifests in intermittent and inconsistent ways. Sometimes she’s not getting worse, she’s just not getting better. The only aspect of her life I can really distill into progressive stages are the periods of her life that facilitated her monomaniacal “tastes and fascinations,” as Sarah aptly put it. She was a teenybopper turned zine-loving alterna-Groupie, and then she was all of those things in the body of a grown invalid who works in media. I hate to call her an invalid because it makes me think of the main character in A Woman Under the Influence, but Cat cops to it, admitting—and I’m paraphrasing here—some folks aren’t meant for the grind.

Her state of unwell is varied throughout, yet in the afterword she contends that she’s a “totally different person,” citing the fact that now she’s only on speed and she tidies up her space and gets eight hours of sleep at night! In reality, she’s the same person—she just finally has some coping mechanisms in place.

I gasped in the end when she absolves her father of almost all his blame because of her mother’s lack of nurturing. Her father was an angry man with deep pockets. When he wasn’t bailing her out of problems with his money, he was ignoring her for as long as possible and yelling at her. The ignoring part hurt the most to read because, as a psychiatrist, you’d think he’d know better? Ignoring your child’s needs and weaponizing silent treatment against them seems more harmful than being an anorexic space cadet. The first time I cried reading the book was during the part about when her sister was in boarding school and her father instituted the ninety-day no contact rule (the second time: the sad, scary Marco saga). I feel guilty passing this judgement because I know he was just trying to control her so she wouldn’t hurt herself but it was still cruel, and, not to mention, ineffective.

HC: That tipping point Sarah mentions is something Cat talks about often in the book—veering between her prescriptions making her unstoppable and her prescriptions completely arresting her ability to do anything. But altered versions of yourself can be so weirdly intoxicating.

LP: Yes, to Safy’s point, it really seems like the addiction and the ambition are working in tandem. It’s telling that it’s a book about work and drugs; they’re bound up in each other.

HC: Especially for someone who’s been medicated for as much of their life as Cat has.

LP: Thinking about it now—as a current party girl partying maybe the hardest I have in my life, except for maybe last summer, which was entirely too hard, I went into the book thinking, “Oh god, this won’t be anything new,” and… it’s not, really. But it’s a different narrative than the one I was expecting. I find that Cat seems to write, at least in this memoir, across all events with more or less the same brush, but that treatment gives her highs and her lows the same resonance, making the lows and the weird, dark parts feel… normal, in a way that I found touching. I don’t find party scenes interesting most of the time, unless they’re written by Mary Gaitskill or Eve Babitz (whom I love, I wonder if Cat’s read her, I hope she has), but the parts that aren’t about being high, the parts that are about dealing with what your high self did—those, even as they are repetitive, were interesting.

SNPThere is a literary notion of what “Adderall writing” or “amphetamine logic” sounds like but the notion is not borne out by any special stylistic consistencies among the works of those many writers, from Sartre to Sontag to Tao Lin, who were or are said to use a lotttt of speed. (Though if you ever try to read some of Sartre’s unfinished works, written at the height of his corydane usage, you will rue the day you Googled “existentialism.”)

LP: I’ve… never… written on amphetamines, this feels like a weird disclosure. This is going back to the ambition/addiction narrative setup, but it is interesting to me that because the work is bound up in the drugs, she’s using while she’s working—it’s different, say, than having a great time and then writing about it because it was great, in the VICE style of things. The style or flow of the work is also bound up in the drugs, and the narrative almost feels… secondary.

SNP: I’ve… never… published on amphetamines. Actually, that’s maybe not true. There was a time during which I stopped remembering, not because I was that fucked up, just because memory seemed inessential. But I do think that if any writers more aspiring??? than I am are listening, I should tell them to take the old advice and write however they want, but edit sober.

HC: I feel like the underlying tension behind so many addiction memoirs is, basically, does this substance make you a better or a shittier writer? (I do think there’s a thread of memory being inessential that runs through Cat’s book, especially in the editor call-outs, and that’s interesting.)

LP: Haley, I did avoid it in college because I heard rumors that it made your writing soulless and bloodless and I was trying to be a poet(?). But does the book feel revisionist to you?

HC: To me, honestly, it didn’t, or at least (because obviously any time you write about yourself it’s revisionist to some extent) it didn’t feel revisionist in a manipulative way, and I liked that.

SNPAfter speed you feel not only slower than ever before, but disoriented, mostly without bearings. It’s very hard to see what in your own work is worthwhile. This is a common experience. Friends of mine got totally burned out on it in grad school or in the first years of a start-up. So Cat must have zeeeero idea whether she can write off speed. I don’t know whether she tries. (Even after getting the cleanest she had been in years, she still took a little bit of Vyvanse or something every day to write.) Obviously, I also don’t know whether she would be better off drugs entirely, and I don’t want to say that her writing was better when she was blotto, so what I will say, which is very dumb and saccharine and whatever, is that her writing would be best if she did it to please herself.

Writing is always more embarrassing when a writer who does not fundamentally relate to most people is trying to relate to most people. Every attempt I have ever made to be relatable is worthless. It’s not that I’m a… what is the word everyone uses… snowflake. I don't even like snow. It’s just I didn’t grow up in a usual way and I didn’t get over being estranged and neither do many people. Joan Didion still sits at the acme of the paradox here: "California Notes," which she published last year, has the line "I was doomed to unconventionality." How many people read that and think, me too? What else makes Didion so popular among young women, each and every one of whom is equally "misunderstood" or "different" from everyone else? I don’t know anyone in this most solitary of pursuits who doesn’t constantly compromise or over-relate to get published and it’s making some of us more mediocre than we should be. Imitating Didion's style isn't as good an idea as imitating her extreme lack of compromise, but the latter is harder to execute.

LP: I never had the glory days of print journalism to learn from; all magazines felt totally fantastical, like fully-formed objects from some exclusive world I’d never be part of. I was writing for the Internet from the start, where you have very little filter and quality control and everyone is looking at you all the time.

HTMYL feels very Internet but Cat has a print pedigree, so I’m wondering if by “Internet” I just mean incredibly sensitive to social networks and machinations and perceptions, which is what being totally submerged in the Internet will also do to you. The book feels hypervisible to me; it’s something that’s made to be seen. It’s not for her. It’s not really for us either. And that’s why it reads the way it does; it’s like dressing for the job you want. I’m not totally convinced of Cat’s talents, which in the book she refers to; which her family and friends also refer to, but it’s clear there’s something else going on beneath the surface of the text. It’s just the case that thanks to markets and drugs and whatever other cocktail of circumstance, this is the book that we’re being handed—holding in our “chic little hands.” I’d be curious to see what she does next.

A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won the Governor General's Literary Award, the Kobo Emerging Writer Award, and several National Magazine Awards. She is from Toronto. 

Safy-Hallan is a writer and editor.

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn.

Hazlitt regular contributor Sarah Nicole Prickett knows all the words to two things: Clueless and William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. She's tattooed like an eighth-grade notebook and reads Lydia Davis, or Joan Didion, like the Bible. She lives in New York and Toronto and writes for the The Globe & Mail, FASHION Magazine, BULLETT, Style.com, and The New Inquiry. Her moon sign is Aquarius. She is never bored.