Last night two East Village iconoclasts rolled into the Newsroom, and it was major. We paired writer Cat Marnell with photographer Richard Kern for a conversation moderated by novelist Porochista Khakpour, whose third novel, it turns out, includes a character based on Marnell. Watch the hour-long blow-by-blow above, or check out the highlights below.
Marnell: I always thought Lena Dunham’s life is so glamorous – you know, the artist’s daughter in the loft and all of that. That’s the show I want to watch, not this like – they look like they’re in a freaking Willa Cather novel in these aprons and things, in these brown apartments, wearings these stumpy smocks and it’s like, what is this show? Like, working in a coffee place. Like, why don’t I see the glamorous life that she…
Khakpour: I mean that’s Brooklyn, really. I think it’s a part of Brooklyn.
Marnell: That is not what Brooklyn is! I go to these amazing afterhours here and it’s just crazy awesome stuff.
On the state of young women
It’s fine to knit but it’s also fine to fuck and to be like, “Yeah, I don’t use protection, whatever.” The most condemned I ever was when I wrote something about how I took Plan B three times in one month, which is the morning-after pill. You know, whatever! That’s what it’s there for, sorry. If I happen to be that irresponsible that month, and I got – people went crazy and I was attacked and I was just like, whatever. It’s like, anyway, I mean, I think they need to be more in touch with their sexualities and people say really horrible things about like strippers and this and that, which is, you know… I think you should get out of these air-conditioned offices and these computers and go out into the real world and read Don Diva Magazine.
Kern: Usually the people that get on my case are male feminists.
Marnell: Ugh, so unsexy.
Kern: But I can’t speak for the girls and then I always wonder how, well, okay so I’m this old white guy who’s working with these girls but how does this young white guy get to speak for the girls? That’s always confusing to me. But, everybody’s all mixed up is all I can see.
Marnell: Why do we have to worry so much about the girls? These girls aren’t, for the most part, you know… they should just take some initiative; they’re fine, especially if they’re at Columbia or whatever. They should be getting out there, doing something. You know, be ill. Be awesome. Be power – do the, even if the, you know, whatever… like, why? I mean, obviously it’s, women are like swamp things, you know, they really are. And I am, too, half the time. You know, I’m all confident now but in two days I’m like Bambi and everyone’s worried. Like, literally my sister called the fire department thinking I’m dead because I couldn’t get out of bed for like two weeks. Whatever. Women are crazy! And vulnerable and sensitive, but you know what? Like, we need to stop –- we need to just go out and do something for ourselves that’s different and take risks and go out into the world.
One issue that I had with Vice –- and Rocco Castoro will argue with me –- is that they’ll send men to fucking Bolivia to do whatever whatever whatever and they made me editor-at-large which then I just didn’t show up and then I eventually I just… you know. And the first assignment they gave me was interview Natasha Lyonne and I was like, Natasha Lyonne? I was like, what? I mean, she’s cool and everything but I was like… in fairness they did send me to rehab in Thailand. I didn’t write the story but you know, like, I can go — I can do things. And that’s what I wanted Jane Pratt to do with xoJane, I wanted her to be, like say, I’m like, women aren’t going out into the world and doing things. They’re not, and maybe it’s because they’re all henpecking. That said, I think it’s a completely admirable, their sexual choice to like be cool and have a boyfriend. I don’t have boyfriends, I don’t have relationships, I could never live with a man or go to bed at 1 a.m. but I like that, too. But it’s just like, stop acting like victims. That’s taken me a long time, believe me. You know, blame dad and all that.
On negative reactions
Kern: Most people have a problem that there’s an older white guy shooting it, that’s the problem I always get. But my answer is always there’s a long tradition of naked women in art so I’m trying to be in that tradition but I have my own issues with it. And the whole political climate – you know, what’s acceptable – is really changing right now as far as, the same stuff you were talking about, like, everybody is so concerned with doing everything exactly right and it’s really a thing that’s always in my head. This last show that I just had, “Medicated” — every time I do something I think it’s okay and then I get all this flack for it, and it’s always a different kind of flack but it has the same interior… everybody said — not everybody, but — people said I was manipulating and making fun of these girls with their drug problems, but it’s just documentation. It’s just strictly, this is what’s going on.
Marnell: To paraphrase Camille Paglia, I just want to remind you, female sexuality — like beautiful hot naked women and wanting to look at that — that wasn’t a concept invented by men on Madison Avenue. Like, it’s okay to appreciate that and to look at it and to find that beautiful and sexy –- like a hot naked girl, it’s not wrong. And if that girl’s doing drugs, whatever. All good. That’s very appealing to me: it’s illicit, I think it’s hot. I do.
Marnell: In general don’t do heroin but if you do and you live, you might as well make out with someone. It feels good.
…and Kern’s early zines, “The Heroin Addict” and “The Valium Addict”
Kern: The magazines were more about that outlook you have as a heroin addict, or a drug addict, where it’s just like ech, where a lot of your life is just in pursuit of one thing and you have a dark — maybe you have a dark viewpoint sometimes?
Marnell: Absoltuely, most of the time.
Kern: Okay, so it was about a dark outlook. The bad part is, I quit all the drugs and I still have the same fucking outlook! The drugs weren’t really doing anything, except making me broke.
On being co-opted by corporations
Marnell: I won’t do anything, in terms of publicity stuff — like, I will never listen to a publicist. I imagine [Simon & Schuster's] publicity department at some point is going to clamp down on me or something when the book is out and tell me not to do something that’s just what, but I just don’t ever listen to what anybody tells me and that is why I’ve had success, I think, in a lot of ways. I mean, you have to break rules, that’s just it. I’d rather get in loads of trouble and fight for what I believe in even if that means, like, I want to have whole chapters that rhyme that represent when I’m really high. Because that’s what I’ve written and I like them and they haven’t seen them yet but you know that’s what my brain does when I take too much Adderall and I write in rhyme and Simon & Schuster doesn’t know that’s what they’re about to be handed. And I have no idea what, what’s her name? How do you say her name, from the Times? Michiko [Kakutani], she wrote a book review in rhyme that I saw, so I know it happens to her.
Kern’s advice for New York newbies
Kern: Get a Citi Bike key. Yeah, that’s my big suggestion.
Marnell: Face your fears. Like, I’ve never ridden a bike in the city… but I have done lots of angel dust.
On drugs and the scene
Marnell: As much as I’m joking around, drugs have been very, very devastating to my life and they’re the sickest part of me. Like, going out and going to parties and clubs and all of that stuff is something different, it’s something that is a healthy thing. Socializing is healthy. It is not my natural instinct as an addict to socialize at this point, like at this point I really just always want to hole up and so any time I’m getting out into the world that is healthy, and being stimulated and having my brain remember that the world is awesome and beautiful and special as opposed to being inside and self-obsessing.
And my problem mainly being prescription drugs, that’s just something I go to the drug store and I get and take by myself, it’s not about what’s available on the streets, this that and the other. But I will say that the one thing about the East Village, there’s no music anymore that speaks to me and that really sucks and I’m like a history buff of the past New York eras. Now there’s no rock n roll. I go to London for Babyshambles and Pete Doherty. Instead, I think the biggest sort of rock stars or the artists in some ways are the graffiti writers and so I always sort of revered them. Now they’re actually my friends, but now a lot of that’s been taken over by angel dust, and so that is something that I think is on the streets in a way that I have to avoid, like people coming over with it all the time.
Oh yeah, PCP is back –- in such a way that it’s been hurting my friends and making people really wack and just out of it and that’s downtown with the young graffiti writers — like early 20s, especially kids who were raised sort of in the East Village — are all doing it together and it’s really sad.
Prescription drugs, redux
I think that painkillers in particular and benzodiazepines are devastating. I think that Xanax bars, just take it off the fucking market and I think it’s a joke. But then again believe it or not I was a nanny, a very good nanny, when I was in college at Eugene Lang at the New School, and the father was dying of cancer and he was on OxyCoton and I stole – I did, but he had tons of it, and he died, you know, sorry, I’m a drug — this is true, I’m not even making a joke, it’s gross… But there are pill dealers, you know, I think these days it’s just body after body, these celebrities for example it’s always perspectipton drugs. It’s always this and that, and but I mean what are you going to do?
It’s just always going to be there. My father’s a psychiatrist, my mother’s a psychotherapist. When I was 16, Lilly pharmaceuticals took my entire family to Puerto Rico and we went on horseback rides with drug reps through old San Juan. It’s the culture. Prescription drugs helped me throughout high school very much, I failed junior high and everything, but it also made me into this addict. But then again, I get confused because I’m such a mess but then I’m like but wait, I’m sitting here, I’m a success in some sway. So I don’t know, it’s confusing. But I will say that people are going to be sick, they’re going to be sick, they’re going to do drugs, they’re going to do drugs.
I think I was born an addict and I would probably be doing a whole lot of cocaine if I didn’t have Adderall. Adderall is my main problem — I just take tons and tons and tons of it every day but I don’t do much coke at all whatsoever. I mean, this is a horrible answer to the question but the thing is I haven’t lost enough to really want to get better and I feel like everybody’s just on this stuff, you can doctor shop, it’s that easy.
Khakpour: You haven’t hit rock bottom, Cat?
Marnell: I guess not. I’m not saying I won’t but I mean people are going to be drug addicts and that’s how it is, and they either get clean or they don’t and I don’t feel sorry for them. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I mean I do, I’ll admit it. But in terms of prescription drugs for young women – I would never put my kid on a fucking drug. If I had a child I wouldn’t. You don’t teach them skills, you don’t teach them anything. A.D.D., whatever, you’re messy, you’re hyper, big deal, that’s cool, I mean that’s the personality of the child, so I just… these Ritalin kids — I’ve said a million times are turning into these Adderall adults and the New York Times is ten years behind doing these above-the-fold stories in 2013 being like, “College kids are abusing Adderall after college.” I’m like, oh really? Like, you fucking idiots, you fucking, you dumb paper, I hate the New York Times drug coverage, they’re so like ugh, come… – cheers!
But, the Adderall thing is really lame, it makes me really lame, it makes everyone have bad personalities, like everyone just needs to give it up and just exercise and eat better and they’ll be so much healthier. I know I’m lame, like, it really hasn’t done anything for me. I have my career and am where I am now not because of Adderall or drugs or doing all that it’s because I have a really good media brand savy and have worked very hard and I’ve been really clever with how and who I’ve connected myself with. I don’t want anybody to ever think that it’s because of drugs. Prescription drugs are definitely to be avoided. People tweet at me, like, they’re like, “Oh Cat, should I take this Xanax?” and I’m just like ugh, gross… It’s so bad, it’s just going to get you into a depressed hole, you don’t want any chemical dependency like that, it’ll suck, it’ll lift you up, tear you down and all the sudden you can’t do anything, you have no natural cues in your body. It’s a shitty way to live, just don’t do it.
Kern: I just made a documentary about this subject and most of the people were taking drugs because of the stuff I was talking about where you get to this certain age and you don’t know what to do with your life and so it gets diagnosed in all these different ways, but I don’t really know. I do know that there was a period of two, three years where one of the things I would shoot is I would say to the models, “Are you on any prescription drugs? do you mind if I photograph you holding the drugs?” and maybe 50% of the girls had some kind of prescription drug thing going on here in the States and Canada. It wasn’t as much in Europe. Here it was mostly prescribed and most of the girls they just did it because their doctor told them they should do it. Anyway, that was my experience.
Marnell: Fuck pills!
On living in the East Village
Marnell: I’ve lived in New York since 2000 and nine of those years was in the East Village and I’ve just moved from Avenue C to Tribeca and now I want to move back. Tribeca is really great, it doesn’t fit me. As to whether I’m a product of the East Village I’d say definitely. There is a bohemian and seedy, beautiful, fantastic… I always lived on Avenue C and there are secret parks you can go into, there are treehouses you can climb and go up there and smoke a joint or do whatever. I don’t mean to focus only on drugs but those are the characters that I identify so much with. You know, when you say, I mean, the punks aren’t around but there are still the dust heads stuttering, you know, they can’t talk, they’re trying to bum change but they can’t even get the words out of their mouth. I’m like whatever dude, sitting outside Banco Popular. And that’s what I miss, like being where I am – I’m like oh great, I can go to Bubby’s? Tribeca’s lame.
I had dinner with Nancy Jo Sales and her daughter, she’s another person who lives in Alphabet City she’s the fantastic writer for Vanity Fair, New Yorker, wrote The Bling Ring, etc. and I was just sitting there underneath the willow trees and a rat was scurrying by as we were eating and I was like, “Oh my God, I miss it here.” It’s the worst and the best and it informed my writing so much. No matter what I would always just get up and go take a walk and you would just see things to… I mean it’s just colorful, like I said, it is what it is. And I lived in the most gentrified elevator building on Second and C, I was just all about it but at the same time I liked to be able to walk to Avenue D and then go back and do my little… And right down the street was Chrissie Miller and Leo Fitzpatrick, the artist, but then again you had Padma Lakshmi on the same block. I mean you had all these people on the same block. Where are you?
Kern: Third, between C and D. But for me when I moved there it was more, I mean I moved to New York so long ago that it was where you went when you couldn’t get a place in SoHo. Because SoHo was the cool kind of Bedford-y neighborhood so I had to move to the East Village because I couldn’t find a place in SoHo and I’ve been there ever since. The block, where she lives and where I lived, my neighborhood now it’s still pretty much the same because I’m lucky enough (not really, but) to live on a block that has a halfway house, women’s shelter, rehab, all this stuff.
Marnell: Section 8! Section great!
Kern: Yeah, it’s a neighborhood that still has all the bad stuff, you can’t get away from it. So it doesn’t seem like it’s really changed.
Khakpour: I think that’s the interesting thing is that sometimes a lot of New Yorkers who don’t live there confess to seeing the changes sometimes but it is hard to deny in spite of a lot of the changes that there’s still a spirit there and I think certainly the proof is in the pudding, right? You guys embody that in a way, too.
Kern: I’m there because of the rent. My rent is so cheap I’ll be there forever. New York is pretty much definied by how much rent you can pay and you get your apartment that’s cheap, I don’t care where it is, that’s where you’re going to live. You’re going to live in the cheapest apartment you can get.
Khakpour: You would move to another neighborhood?
Kern: I couldn’t get any cheaper. My apartment is so cheap [$1,300 for a three-bedroom), it’d be impossible. Maybe in rural Poland.