Author Madeline Cash Writes Stories in Her Notes App

The Forever Mag cofounder discusses her debut collection of short stories, “Earth Angel,” disavowing autofiction, and loving the books of old white men.

by Madeline Howard

A black and white portrait of author Madeline Cash
Photograph by David Spector

It’s a breezy Wednesday in New York City’s Chinatown when I meet Madeline Cash at Peachy’s Bar on Doyers Street. Cash is the author of “Earth Angel,” her debut story collection, though you might know her as co-editor of indie lit’s Forever Magazine—a celestial-chic take on traditional print mags that publishes writers like Sheila Heti and Nico Walker. Cash is sitting in one of the restaurant’s round, red plastic booths, sipping a white wine and wearing tiny pins in her hair. We’re meeting to discuss her new work, published by Clash Books, which I devoured in nearly one sitting. The waitress asks if I want anything, so I panic-order off the cocktail menu. My drink arrives with a comically huge red pepper in the glass. It is absurd—though absurdity is a subject matter with which Cash is all too familiar.

The stories in her book are bizarre in the way that only a writer with her precision can employ. Using humorous, eccentric characters like an Al-Qaeda marketing coordinator and girls who cut their labia with safety scissors, Cash is intentional with the difference she presents in an auto-fiction-dominated literary world. In fact, her writing pet peeve is the idea that you should “write what you know.” “I’ve strived to do the opposite of that,” she tells W. “Yes, I will write what I know, but also, why can’t I write a character that’s committed war crimes?” Below, Cash unpacks the controlled chaos of her book and shares her current Culture Diet, which includes the likes of “old white men” and the thrills of independent publishing.

There is so much variety and imagination in your stories. How do narrative plots come to you?

They aren’t pulled from my specific life experiences. They’re just random. It’s like an Exquisite Corpse: two things are at odds that I think would be funny if they were paired, and then I mash them together ineloquently.

Would you describe yourself as a nihilistic person? Stories like “Fortune Teller” and “Plagues,” with lots of end-of-world, apocalyptic descriptions, point to that.

No, not at all. This generation is incredibly nihilistic, but I have a middle-of-the-road, liberal optimism where I’ll talk about topics like climate change or sexual assault, but flippantly. But I definitely am an advocate for these causes. I don’t want to pretend that I don’t give a fuck because I actually care so much. Maybe my characters don’t, but I notoriously am neurotic about everything.

I did an interview recently and they were asking, “Why are you such a dissident voice? Why are you trying to be against the grain?” But I’m not. I’m like when you’re crossing the street and the walk sign comes on. I feel you should just look at the traffic light instead of the walk sign, because you’ll get to cross the street a few seconds earlier. You’re not doing something different than everyone else, you’re doing it a couple seconds earlier than everyone else. It’s not dissident. It’s trying to beat everyone to the punch.

Your writing is self-referential, circular, and repetitive—not in a way that gets old, but instead is surprising and delightful every time. What do you like about this technique and where did you learn it?

That’s my style, dude. Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and Daniel Orozco were big influences for me; all of these old men influenced my humor. Jen George as well—she wrote “The Babysitter at Rest.” I would steal things from them and see how I could subvert it and put my feminine quirk onto it. I always loved when things were meta or made fun of themselves in the end.

The last story in your book is titled “Autofiction,” though it’s a parody of the practice. The final page features a photo of a melancholy black hole, which I thought was hilarious.

I was trying to make fun of autofiction. Growing up with a digital landscape of Sex Magazine, and HTML Giant, and Tyrant, all of these early alt-lit adopters, was formative for me. Then everyone started writing autofiction, and it got incredibly boring.

I wanted the book to end in a black hole because that’s what it felt like. I also love that picture because when it came out everyone was freaking out, saying, “there’s this photo of a black hole, you can actually see a black hole.” But it was just a shitty photo. It showed absolutely nothing.

How many years did you spend writing these stories?

Four years, but not consistently. I was doing a litany of different things, and then I’d write a short story and put it out somewhere and forget about it. Eventually, I put them all together and started drawing through lines. I sent it to Clash Books on a whim. It was a misspelled, sloppy document. They were like, “We love this, we’ll put it out.” I was shocked.

Tell me about your writing process. Where and when do you do most of your writing?

Notes app all the way. I always like to tell people to have a regimen and just write in the morning, but I can never do that. It has to be when I’m feeling it, which will often be in the middle of the night or if I get home tipsy from a party. I’ll write something down and in the morning I’ll revise it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a steadfast process—I don’t have a typewriter. I don’t go to a certain oak tree with a notepad.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I’m incredibly basic when it comes to reading. I love Jonathan Franzen. I like the book “The Nix” by Nathan Hill. Old white men are my bread and butter. I recently enjoyed this book called “Panics” by Barbara Molinard. Joanna Owens is an online prophet who I can’t recommend enough. Etgar Keret is this Israeli microfiction writer who wrote a story called “Crazy Glue.” In terms of publications, I like Recliner Mag, Spike Art Mag, Impatient Mag. Deluge Books is putting out some great stuff, too.

Do you have any favorite visual artists? I know you publish lots of them in Forever.

This gallery in Chinatown called Blade Study is putting out cool artists all the time. Genevieve Goffman is a girl who does 3D modeling like I have never seen. And then Shannon Cartier Lucy, who did my awesome cover.

Tell me about what music you listen to. Are you a Spotify or Apple Music person?

Spotify. Music is embarrassing for me because I mostly listen to hyperpop or Gregorian chants while laying on my floor. But to blow up some people, my friend BlakeTheMan1000 is really killing it. I also like Japanese music; I love music that came to Osaka in the ’90s. I like Planet 1999. I like the Hannah Diamond album Reflections.

Do you have a favorite cultural establishment, whether that’s a restaurant, museum, or otherwise?

Dim Sum Go Go in Chinatown is the best. ABC Locksmith in Chinatown will get you into your apartment no matter what. Beckett Roset’s Loft in the West Village—he’s this old man who’s always getting evicted from his place, but he has shows there all the time. And the Precious Moments Chapel in Missouri is sick, I can’t recommend it enough. The Bonaventure in Los Angeles—I’m a big fan of architecture and that place is a prime brutalist design.