Earth Angel: devious stories for the digital age

We quizzed author and Forever Mag co-founder Madeline Cash about AI and how her electrifying new book captures the weird spirit of our times.

Here’s a line from TGIF, one of the short stories in author Madeline Cash’s dizzylingly fun debut collection, Earth Angel: I type zero words per minute. My Gmail never empties. It’s a renewable resource, a digital hot spring. My inbox runneth over. I don’t care if my make-up is tested on animals. I imagine lab rats with up to 36 per cent lash volume.”

Get the gist? What follows is a heady appraisal of our equally maddening times, the book offering a deft and observational parody of millennial culture and life – branded content, the bitcoin craze, the For You Page’s iron grip. Having put together these short stories over the last four years, Cash has created vibrant, sometimes nihilistic, often cuttingly hilarious vignettes, which you’ll be hard pressed not to whizz through in one sitting.

It feels so vulnerable to have something like this out in the world,” the 26-year-old says, Zooming in from her apartment in Chinatown, New York. There’s a really pretentious Da Vinci quote that’s like, true art is never finished, only abandoned’. I definitely abandoned this. I’m proud of it but it terrifies me. Maybe this is what it’s like to have a kid…”

On the side of her full-time job as a copywriter for companies such as Snapchat, Cash also makes up one half of the duo who founded Forever Mag, a DIY print magazine which publishes the work of up-and-coming writers. Since she launched it with her friend Anika Levy during the pandemic, it has become a magnet for downtown New York’s cool kids to get their work read beyond the confines of a Google Doc.

Starting Forever Mag was a way to create connection and community in the literary sphere,” Cash continues. Since then, it’s been a huge learning experience. I’ve stepped into every pitfall possible and learned the hard way about starting a small business publishing project, but it’s been so rewarding.”

Cash only moved to New York last summer, from the Valley in Los Angeles where she grew up. It was quite suburban and middle class there – my mum was a hospice nurse for nuns at a convent, so she’s definitely going to heaven,” she says. After studying writing at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, Cash headed out to Japan to work on journalism work, while fucking around and travelling” – all formative experiences that somewhat helped shape the riotous mass of absurd characters and storylines that make up Earth Angel. You’ll have to read it to believe it.

Hey Madeline! What was your favourite story to write in Earth Angel?

Different ones hit at different times. They Ate the Children First is one I wrote at the tail end of a very long relationship. That was very cathartic and helped me work through some fears that I had. Conversely, Slumber Party, which is completely nonsensical and crazy, also helped me grapple with a fear of ageing, womanhood and becoming a parent. Both of those were good meditations for me. Sometimes I’ll deal with difficult topics very flippantly, which makes them more palatable, like sexual assault or climate change, both things that are very scary. If I can speak about them as bluntly as possible, it helps.

In Jester’s Privilege, you wrestle with the idea of work being spiritually fulfilling. What fulfils you?

Well, I write copy for Snapchat and Jack in the Box. I don’t find that particularly fulfilling. One of my most recent headlines was for a squash-based vegan burger: Squash the Beef”. I was like, this is what they call a sell-out! But I also consider myself extremely lucky that I have been able to capitalise on doing something at least tangentially related to what I love doing, and make enough income that I can support myself and write. I’m not laying concrete and then staying up to write all night. Maybe that means I’m not a true artist”, but I’m comfortable and doing what I love, which is spiritually fulfilling enough. I’m not my mum – I’m not taking care of dying nuns, but I’m helping people understand the intricacies of Snapchat, so… Fuck Earth Angel, I’m the squash the beef” lady.

Squash the beef is a worthy line to sell out for. What inspires you day-to-day?

A lot of the book is about technology and I’ve done a lot of writing about Web3. Some people have called the book a critique of the dot com era, or think that it exaggerates fears about technological advancements. But actually, day-to-day, I’m pretty optimistic about the future of technology. There’s a lot of baggage that goes along with it but there are some really great ideas at play, too. Individualism has become so prevalent, especially in North America. Now that we rely on institutions so much, we don’t feel the need to care for each other. You can see a desire for connection in people and how they interact online; I think Earth Angel is about a post-internet search for community, despite a culture that champions the individual. A lot of technology helps to fix that problem. That’s my rant! People speak so negatively about AI, but there’s a silver lining.

It’s nice to hear you don’t think the world’s all going to shit.

Absolutely not. We’re all trying to create our own utopia, aren’t we? I work with ChatGPT a lot as a copywriter and should probably be scared about losing my job in a couple of years. But this is a programme which is based on our digital memories, our collective histories. That’s a really interesting movement towards collectivism, I think. We’re finding ways to come together even if we can’t do it physically, whether that be because of the pandemic or political divides. There’s beauty in that. So as cold or nihilistic as some of the characters in my book are, I’m quite optimistic. A hammer isn’t going to take your job, it’s going to make it easier.

Are there any up-and-coming writers you feel excited about right now?

This new writer Jasmine Johnson has a book coming out via Archway Editions, which I’m really excited about. I think it’s the future.

What would you like for readers to take away from Earth Angel?

Nothing! Reviewers have come to such interesting conclusions about stuff that I never intended whatsoever. I love that it can be a crazy blank slate that people can impress upon their own agenda. That was my intention with so many of the characters – they’re not fully formed because I don’t feel fully formed either. I love it when people extrapolate their own meaning from different stories. So nothing and everything. Earth Angel can be whatever you want it to be.

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