After founding a literary press and publishing her debut novel, the trend forecaster swaps juicy book recommendations with media’s most notorious It Girl
Emily Segal is looking to Gossip Girl—the books—for inspiration. She is interested in that New York: the pre-Instagram private school playground where lines were cut with a Black Card and the last glimmers of innocence were blinked away in the blinding flash of The Cobrasnake’s Canon. Segal is in the research phase of her sophomore novel, following her literary debut, Mercury Retrograde, an incisive semi-autobiographical account of New York’s downtown art and startup culture in the 2010s. It was during this decade that both Segal and Mercury Retrograde’s protagonist (also named Emily Segal) co-founded K-Hole, the trend forecasting group responsible for normcore. After shuttering K-Hole in 2016, Segal (the IRL version) focused her superpower as a cultural seismograph into founding Nemesis, a design and strategy consultancy, alongside her friend and music artist, Martti Kalliala. In 2020, she started Deluge Books, which, with a sexy line of merch and only two titles so far on its website—Mercury Retrograde and a book of poetry by Jeanetta Rich—promises to deliver “fun to read” books that marry erudite literary and delicious pulp sensibilities.
If Gossip Girl’s New York were transposed onto the real thing, Cat Marnell would have a place next to Nate, Serena, and Blair as one of its main characters. To any Zoomer readers, I would simply describe her as an idol of Caroline Calloway. (In a July edition of Brock Colyar’s nightlife newsletter for New York Magazine, Coylar notes that a large portion of Calloway’s evening at the infamous Drunken Canal Russian Samovar party was spent explaining Marnell to the New York party scene’s beautiful, bucket hat-wearing next gen.) To anyone else, I would describe her as a media It Girl, notorious for drug-fueled exploits, rehab stints between stretches at various magazines—including Lucky and Vice—and fantastic beauty writing. She published her explosive memoir How to Murder Your Life in 2017, and recently she joined the newsletter revolution, publishing her column, BEAUTYSHAMBLES, on Patreon. A patron herself, Segal reached out to Marnell to discuss astrology, ‘Condé Nasties,’ and facing the anticlimax that is publishing a book.
Emily Segal: I’m curious what you read for pleasure—if you have been reading for pleasure lately—or what you read for pleasure in general.
Cat Marnell: Right now I read NBA books for fun, like Andre Iguodala’s The Sixth Man. But I grew up in a house with a million books, and I was the kid who snuck armloads of them into my room way before I could process them. I liked titles with cool cover art like Borges’s Dreamtigers that I could take from my dad’s office. My parents are both readers. My dad has read literally everything. He loves Harold Bloom, Thomas Mann, Dickens, Shakespeare. He and I both love Hemingway. I’ve read The Sun Also Rises at least ten times. Lady Brett Ashley is my favorite character from literature. My mom loved poetry and all of her books were in the house. That’s where I first read Robert Creeley, Roethke, Rilke, Yeats…I still always have all those books in my home. Though most of my poetry collection is at her house in DC right now and we’re beefing over me taking them back.
For trash, The Warhol Diaries is the book that I think can be read like it’s the internet. I always tell people to read Trading Up by Candace Bushnell. It’s about this social-climbing Victoria’s Secret model who’s fucking this guy who works at the equivalent of the Time Warner Center and she’s mixing in all the business. I like a feminine intelligence. I read to learn stuff. I like anything glamorous. I like artist biographies and memoirs, but I’m someone who can’t get through the press release at the gallery. I don’t even try. I just hung out with Marina Abramović so I ended up getting her book. She got my book which is amazing. What do you like?
Emily: I also love chick lit junk. I read a lot of anthropology, esoteric, magic tarot astrology, spirituality books. I think that’s part of my LA conversion.
Cat: Astrology is like TikTok: You connect to it or you don’t. With astrology, I’ve always read Susan Miller. I’m friends with her daughter, Chrissy. Camille Paglia believes in it. So I’m always like, if she does, maybe I do.
Emily: I was ultra, ultra obsessed with Susan Miller and read her for years. Then my mom sat next to her on a plane. My mom is a huge social butterfly and befriended her, and they hung out that weekend. When they got back to New York, we all went to brunch on the Upper East Side and Susan Miller read my chart on the back of a napkin. It was fab.
Cat: I love that! I love poetry the most. My favorite book of poetry is Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel, and my favorite poems it is are ‘A White Tiger’ and ‘A Fresh Stick of Chewing Gum.’ He’s a wealthy Upper West Side rich octogenarian who used to fuck Diane Von Furstenberg and hangs at the Carlyle and puts saddles on women and goes to Paris and stuff. I’m a super-fan. My favorite first line of his is ‘I want to date-rape life.’ I loved Birthday Letters, the controversial and extremely juicy Ted Hughes book. That poem ‘The Earthenware Head’ about Sylvia Plath sculpting a clay head and putting it in the oven? Insane. The Dream Songs by [John] Berryman is a sick-o favorite. I’m reading Michael Robbins’s Alien Vs. Predator right now. I discovered him when I was addicted to Adderall and tore his wonderful poem ‘Lust For Life’ out from a New Yorker in my prescribing psychiatrist’s waiting room because it matched my life so much it was crazy. Now we’re friends on social media. Anyway, sorry…I’m babbling! I’ve been writing so right now I feel like I can either write or talk. Now—as I’m talking to you—I’m having trouble staying focused and I can’t engage that well with your words. It’s weird. It’s very annoying.
Emily: I’ve felt like that before, during heavy writing times. If I go to a social event after having written all day I really feel like an alien.
“My favorite part from Virginia Guiffre’s unpublished memoir The Billionaire Playboys Club: the way that she managed to keep some money so that she could have money when she ran away was by putting it in her scrunchie. I literally think about that every day when I put my hair up.”
Cat: But what else do you read?
Emily: I’ve been reading stuff about New York because of the book that I’m working on now. I started writing my second novel—is a private school thriller. So I reread all of Gossip Girl. I’m reading Edith Wharton. I’m reading books that I feel give a particular aesthetic gloss on New York. The first book that I wrote was more like a poet’s book. It’s a novel but I was super obsessed with the sound, and it was based on my life even though it’s fictionalized. Astrology is a theme in the book but it’s not about astrology. It uses Mercury Retrograde as a metaphor for an information economy that’s constantly breaking down and glitching. In the book there’s this decadent 2010s mixture of technology, art, and commerce that’s messy and sickening, and what it’s like to be a young girl navigating all that stuff and not knowing if you want to fuck, marry, or kill all the men in your life. It’s autofiction so it’s based on my experience but I also made a lot of shit up. Now I’m starting to write something that’s in the third person, heavily plotted, much more of a genre. I’m trying to take in more inputs like that before I dive into writing it in earnest.
Cat: What time period does it take place during?
Emily: The 2000s.
Cat: The Candace Bushnell’s are good for gloss even though it’s not kid’s stuff. I learned a lot from memoirs in general. The book I’m actually reading right now is Joan Juliet Buck.
Emily: The Price of Illusion?
Emily: I love that book. It’s insane and so long she just goes and goes and goes.
Cat: I’ll read any editor-in-chief’s book. Grace Mirabella, Tina Brown. All great for gossip. Sometimes I’m really tempted by the ultimate trash books. Did Jerry Oppenheimer do a Kardashian book? The Angelina Jolie book or Anna Wintour book. They’re so campy—I worked at Condé Nast when that came out and people just called it ‘The Book That Has No Name.’ People wouldn’t even put the name of the book in the email.
Emily: Joan Juliet Buck had one of the most tragic Condé stories of them all. She’s a ruined Condé Nasty.
Cat: They all are.
Emily: To the max. In that vein of total pulp, I read a book called The Spider about Jeffery Epstein which I really recommend. It footnotes The Daily Mail if that gives you any context for how legit this book is.
Cat: I read an Epstein book three years ago by James Patterson, who knew him because he lives in Palm Beach in the same circle. It’s a nonfiction book and the jury goes, ‘Epstein, have you heard the story of Icharus? Do you relate to it?’ And Epstein’s like, ‘Does Icharus like massages?’
Emily: My favorite part from Virginia Guiffre’s unpublished memoir The Billionaire Playboys Club: the way that she managed to keep some money so that she could have money when she ran away was by putting it in her scrunchie. I literally think about that every day when I put my hair up. She had this big scrunchie and she stuffed it with rolls of dollar bills.
Cat: That’s amazing. Usually, I have all the beauty moments memorized in my head. That’s just naturally what I do.
Emily: Can I ask you what heavy writing times are like for you? What’s a day in the life? And how does it feel right now working so intensely during the pandemic?
Cat: I’ve woken up at 11:11 now three days in a row. When I’m writing heavily I basically wake up thinking about it and sometimes I go to bed thinking about it even though I try not to use my brain after dark. In the evening, I either go out or I work out, watch TV, eat, and dumb down. Then I go to bed late. In the morning, I’ll work right when I get up until about 5pm. I’m writing about Zaha Hadid who I love. I’m really trying to restrict these BEAUTYSHAMBLES columns to 1000 words. That’s my big flaw as a writer right now. My Patreon columns are too long.
Emily: I’m one of your patrons.
Cat: Oh you are? Thank you! Patreon is like a private little world for people who are in there. Anyway, there’s really a limit on how much I can work before I say, ‘hands off.’ I always write my clear first draft [on the computer] because I need the full keyboard, but I mess with it way too much there. I open different documents to cut this and save that. My tricks these days: I edit on the train. The other day I went up to Queens. I took the 1 train up to the 7 and then got off at a random street. I did 40 minutes on something I was stuck on.
Emily: So you put it on your phone? In the Notes app?
Cat: In Notes on my phone, it’s just one page, and I can work on it anywhere. Working on a phone is annoying so I don’t waste time fussing, rearranging, and fixing what’s not broken. My pieces right now aren’t wordy. I wanted them to be clear and simple. No big words or anything. It’s a different style. It’s very organized. The most important thing is that I always get it done. What’s your writing process?
Emily: I like to do timed free writing in the morning and write by hand. So for like 10 minutes, just write whatever I can think of. That really helps me get away from the screen-related problems that you’re describing, like notifications or getting too laterally mixed up with shit. I actually wrote my whole first book by hand but then you have to type it up which is a huge pain in the ass.
Cat: Yeah, but you can edit as you type. I edited my whole book by phone. I had big trackpad issues. The phone made it so I would absorb it in different ways. I like the freedom—it seems much smaller on a phone. These tricks do work. I just love being able to go work somewhere else. I’ll walk and edit.
Emily: You worked at Lucky magazine. I grew up reading every last drop of those magazines on the floor of the bookstore. So I know exactly the way a collective voice emerges in print media from the ’90s and 2000s. I wonder if that exists anymore because it feels so fragmented and complicated. The way that people share a voice on Twitter for example—where certain jokes and styles of talking will repeat—but it’s fractal.
“I would run the Manhattan or Williamsburg Bridge when I was younger. That’s the epitome of dark euphoria. I was on speed doing this exercise. I was euphoria-chasing for a very long time.”
Cat: Tell me about your new book you’re working on.
Emily: I just started working on book two. I’m processing having finally finished and published my first book, which took five years. Then you’re kind of like, Holy shit I have to do this again. No one’s making me I guess but I want to.
Cat: What’s interesting about a book is that it’s a slow burn. It comes out like it’s an article or something so you get the press around it. But it takes people years and years to get around to reading a book. I’m gonna read this Andre Agassi meth book, Open, and it came out in 2009. In this way, it’s constantly regenerating, and that’s the value of it. So it’s worth it to our careers to have done it. But anyone should know—and I’ve talked about this—you do pay a big price for it. It’s a huge chunk out of your life in the middle of it, especially for young people. I was a fucking It Girl, you know what I mean? I was in the clubs. And it was years of isolation for me to focus and finally get it done. I have super high standards. I took more time to really elevate every sentence and page, and I didn’t accept help. So I hope it was worth it.
Emily: As your reader, it was worth it. I reread How to Murder Your Life recently. I read it when it came out in a PDF galley because I wrote an essay about this idea of dark euphoria for a German academic art magazine.
Cat: That was so great. That’s exactly what it was supposed to be. You have to get people high if you’re writing about drugs. It was easy to structure that book. There was so much going on career-wise. I would run the Manhattan or Williamsburg Bridge when I was younger. That’s the epitome of dark euphoria. I was on speed doing this exercise. I was euphoria-chasing for a very long time. And I still do it. Like once I got addicted to fucking airplanes.
Emily: Berlin was my place where I felt really intimate with my own solitude. It seemed like a logical place for me to write a book, but I did feel like I was throwing my life away when I started writing. I spent all day by myself doing God-knows-what, trying to write a book with no plan and with no real sense that it would ever work out. It’s a really scary feeling.
Cat: They’re all these different media career trajectories. In the big picture, the most exciting thing was the start of it. Getting the book deal was cool, but when they got published it didn’t result in any big change in my life. I didn’t have one of those situations where I publish, and then it made my life awesome. As I was working I was waiting for it to be this thing, but I didn’t realize that was actually behind me. I’m not saying it wasn’t a quality experience.
Emily: Don’t you think the anti-climax is so important? That’s so true about the experience of writing a book or making other kinds of art. I was talking to this woman over the weekend, who’s 70 and just finished her first book. She was saying that she thought the afternoon she finished it the dog would start barking, the house would catch on fire, or the car alarms in the neighborhood would go off. Like there would be some acknowledgment from her environment spontaneously that this big moment had been reached. Instead, nothing happens. When she was saying this, I was like, that’s so true. In a certain way, it’s the biggest thing ever—and internally incredibly climactic—but even when you’re lucky enough to get amazing feedback and people reach out to you or cool stuff happens—it’s still fundamentally anticlimactic to put out a book in a way that I don’t think people could imagine. Or I could not have imagined personally before I did it.
Cat: Yeah, it’s really true. The aftershocks come later and keep coming. Like my narration was meant to mimic the enthusiastic voice of somebody young who hadn’t discovered the magic and glamour of the world yet, or been taken down by addiction and dark people yet. Now people meet me and they think that I’m going to be a lot perkier…But I do think that because I wrote in a positive tone, I attracted a positive response to the book. I’ve seen too much come true with what you put out there. I believe very much in that law of attraction. You can’t only put those druggie things out there. You can’t just talk about being sick. I don’t like that stuff. I don’t do that anymore.
Emily: It’s like a spell in that way.
Cat: My Patreon is a drug-free zone.
Emily: I’ve noticed that. I had to stop taking Adderall in order to write my book.
Cat: Did you take anything else besides it?
Emily: I would take Modafinil sometimes.
Cat: That’s so funny. That’s just awesome. I wish I could take that. I’m never around it but that stuff’s dope. Do you travel?
Emily: I traveled like crazy for years because I lived in Europe and worked as a consultant and trend forecaster. I was traveling for work all the time.
Cat: I used to love that. I was so proud when ‘amphetamine logic’ made one of those trend forecasting journals I subscribed to.
Emily: Oh, really? That makes sense. It would definitely fit. I had a report called K-Hole that I made with a group of friends in New York for five years. Now I have a company called Nemesis. We put out really weird cultural analysis and trend reports sometimes, and I also do it for clients.
Cat: The funniest thing I ever saw on a trend report was hunky Disney villains.
Emily: I was doing trend reports for MTV for a period. They had done one right before I started working with them about evil as a trend: the evil villains.
Cat: That’s what I would read online. I have this book called Exploiting Chaos.
Emily: The biggest trend right now is the breakdown of consensus reality—and just chaos generally—so exploiting chaos definitely fits.