Cat Marnell Talks Travel, Trauma, And Tanner In Her New Audio Diaries
With 'Self-Tanner for the Soul,' the wild-child beauty editor turned best-selling memoirist shares her latest chapter—a life-changing trip to Europe—in audio format.By Kat JohnsonOct 28, 2019 12:48 PM
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With Self-Tanner for the Soul, the wild-child beauty editor turned best-selling memoirist shares her latest chapter--a life-changing trip to Europe--in audio format.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
KJ: Hi, I'm Kat Johnson and I'm an editor here at Audible. I'm talking today with Cat Marnell, a former beauty editor turned best-selling memoirist who is currently recording her travel diaries, Self-Tanner for the Soul, as an Audible Original. Welcome, Cat.
CM: I wanted to clarify that because I didn't think that my title Self-Tanner for the Soul made sense with travel diaries, so we had to add a bunch of words after it and that was the agreement that I made with my people here at Audible.
KJ: That makes sense.
CM: Whom I so enjoy working with.
KJ: Oh, that's great to hear. We're a decent bunch. So this is kind of your glow up travel diaries a little bit.
KJ: This is such a pleasure for me because I've been following your work for a really long time. I remember your column in Lucky [magazine] and, of course, the work you did on XO Jane and Vice, and I absolutely loved your addiction memoir, How to Murder Your Life. But this new project is kind of a departure for you. Can you tell us a little more about what it's about?
CM: It is literally a departure. It is a great dream and privilege to get to travel and write about it and get paid for it. Years and years ago, that was just sort of what I wanted to do. I had no idea how I was going to do that, but to be honest, you get kind of crazy. I get crazy, anyway. But I'm sitting behind a computer writing a book. It's amazing to get a book deal, to have all the opportunities I've had. But at the end of it, I needed to get out of town.
CM: Big time. For months. That's what I did.
KJ: Right. And by out of town, you mean New York, right?
CM: Yeah. I just had to really get out from behind a screen. Writing is super physical. Again, it's a great privilege to get paid to do it. Just everything, and writing a book was way harder than I thought. My eye was twitching and my hands got paralyzed and I was drinking while I was writing and icing my swollen hands, and the editing and the trackpad.
And how I would decompress after all of this would be watching shows like Anthony Bourdain, rest in peace. Or anything on television [about] travel. Like so many of us do. I'm not unique.
That's what I love about travel. Everyone wants to do it. Everyone wants more of it, and I was no different than anyone else. I'd only been to a few countries in Europe a few times, France, England like most Americans have gone over there. I just sort of looked at everything else on the internet.
CM: But then my lease ran out. I broke up with my boyfriend in a very ugly way. I had all this stress from the book. I had horrible physical issues. And I just said, screw this, I'm putting everything into storage. I'm doing this thing that people dream about, but they're always too scared to do, including me when I say people.
I put my stuff into storage. I bought a one-way ticket over there, and I just went. That's when I started keeping this diary.
KJ: Wow. So you started keeping the diary before you knew this was going to turn into a travel diary or a book or project?
CM: I had no idea what I was going to do with it. When I say diary, it was on paper sometimes because I found if I kept a notebook with me, I would actually do it every day. So you'll see, or you'll hear, sorry--I'm on a train, I'm on the plane, I'm on a boat, I'm on a bus, I'm on a train. So I was either working on paper or on a MacBook Air, and just keeping a log every day of what I did. And then I sold it to you guys here at Audible.
KJ: Tell me a little bit of the basics of the trip. It was about a hundred days? Four months? Something like that.
CM: Yeah, it was four months; it was only supposed to be three but I dragged it out. I had a three-month unlimited train ticket that I bought, I think it was about $900 from Eurail, and that covered 26 countries, unlimited train travel. I would get on six different trains sometimes. I was a maniac. The way I was traveling, it's not for everyone. But I could barely bring myself to spend one day in one place.
KJ: I actually read the manuscript, because you're currently recording it as we speak. One of the things I learned is part of the reason you went on this trip is because you were following Pete Doherty. Is that right?
CM: He is my dude. I love him. For those of you who don't know who that is, he is a great living rock star, along with Keith Richards [and] other luminaries. Pete Doherty, of Babyshambles, The Libertines, and now the Puta Madres--that's my man. And if you ever get a chance to follow an indie rock musician around Europe, a smaller act around Europe--or it could be an EDM group or a rapper, anyone touring Europe--the venues that they play, it's not even about the concert. You get to these magical little theaters or they're playing this old amphitheater, this ancient amphitheater by the Mediterranean Sea or in the forest in the Netherlands, and you get to go there. And it's just such an amazing experience that led to many of my crazy adventures.
KJ: Right. Well, tell me about some of your adventures. I know there were some interesting things that happened to you over the course of this journey. I'm thinking of a few, but what would you say is the craziest thing that happened to you?
CM: There were so many. I was chased by a pack of dogs at dawn through Montenegro and nipped on the ankle... and party boys coming out of a car, I had to wave [my] arms and shout at them to rescue me.
I watched a dog orgy outside of a mosque in Albania.
KJ: As you do.
CM: I was lost in France more times than I could possibly understand. You get on these epic walks through France that you think will be 20 minutes, and they turn into two and a half hours. And everything is closed and there are no buses and your phone dies and you don't ever think you're going to find your way out of where you are. And you meet a donkey and you find an abandoned ship graveyard and there are all these creepy boats that look like skeletons and the sky gets dark, and somehow you get home. Every day was like living inside a video game. I honestly don't know how I did it.
CM: It was so exhausting and crazy. I'm exhausted right now talking because I've just been recording this stuff all day. Sorry, my brain's a little fried.
KJ: Well, the recording isn't easy.
CM: It's not; it's hard.
KJ: And this isn't your first go-round, right? Because you recorded your memoir, How to Murder Your Life. How was this process different?
CM: I love Audible. I just want everyone to know this company Audible is so cool. There are these amazing snacks. They're like, "What do you want for your lunch?" I got this cool rider. I was like a rock star. So I was like, "I like grilled chicken and fruit." And then I got it every day.
Besides that, it's having this big manuscript. Well, it's hard. It's full of a lot of things I can't pronounce because I can't pronounce anything abroad in any other language. So that's embarrassing.
KJ: By the way, one of the beaches you went to in Croatia, I had been to.
CM: Sveti Jakov?
KJ: Sveti Jakov. I was like, I've been to that beach, and why is the name so X-rated?
CM: For those of you who don't know, Sveti Jakov is one of the most amazing, beautiful beaches in all of Croatia and possibly the world... Head there when you're in Europe. You won't regret it. You'll have an amazing time.
KJ: Yeah, despite the name, it's truly lovely.
CM: No, because of the name.
KJ: And you almost drowned--in Basel, I believe.
CM: Twice. There are two different rescue boat situations in this Audible Original because I didn't learn my lesson the first time that I went swimming after drinking alone in the evening. Remember Captain Kangaroo? He had a whole song like, "Never go swimming alone." That's my biggest lesson that I've learned from traveling alone.
KJ: Well, I'm glad you survived.
KJ: One of the things I really love about your work, and especially in How To Murder Your Life, is how you kind of subvert the usual recovery memoir trope of having it be sort of presented through this lens of recovery and redemption. You don't really do that in your work.
CM: With all due respect, I would love to do that. I would love to have that trope. What a trope. Recovery. Redemption. I'm not making that choice not to do that. That hasn't been where I am in my life. I've never been in recovery.
CM: I have people say that to me a lot, but I always knew it wasn't going to be a recovery memoir. But it's not something that I'm proud of. But I do want to separate work and life. Am I saying this right?
KJ: I understand that. That makes sense. I mean, this is your life, it's not necessarily just a memoir. This is your actual life.
CM: Yeah, and there we go. At least it's juicier. I mean, there was rehab and stuff in that book, but it didn't do that much for me. Oh well.
KJ: But you seem to be doing well.
CM: I'm doing unbelievably so, so, so much better. Taking a few years away from the city, [where] I was a big doctor-shopper. I was hooked on Adderall, a substance I haven't touched in years.
KJ: That's great.
CM: While I'm not in recovery, I'm so, so, so much healthier. So thanks.
KJ: That's fantastic. I'm really happy to hear that.
CM: Thank you.
KJ: I find your work really powerful because you also resist these sorts of patriarchal conventions that we all see. We're used to seeing these kinds of wild men, like you mentioned Keith Richards or Bukowski. We kind of celebrate and mythologize these exploits, where with women...
CM: Listen, I don't mythologize anyone. I mean Keith Richards, yes. But he doesn't even fit into gender as Keith Richards. I've never read Bukowski. I know that he's awesome and great. I actually personally haven't read him. But, you know what? When I put my best foot forward in this life, it's always as a woman.
But at the same time, I don't go around thinking about being a woman. In my work, and I'm not saying this because I think this is what anyone else should do, I try to just not talk about being a woman that much.
CM: I got bored of being a beauty editor. I got bored of writing for a women's website. It's a great privilege to get bored and then say, "Now I'm going to write about adventures and going to Europe."
I want to make sure that I acknowledge that. But I did decide to do something different with my career.
I've been talking for a long time about adventure, about women getting out from behind their computers where a lot of them are--let's face it, [though] maybe this is a sexist word--hen-pecking, and attacking each other in a way that I've always felt keeps women kind of trapped in being women because they're not out doing things.
CM: Again, it's a big privilege to go out and do things, but adventures can be just running around doing.
I was glad to finally put my money where my mouth is and go out and have some big adventures. I think that for women, traveling alone is empowering.
CM: I think that it made a big difference that I did this big adventure at age 34, 35, rather than at 24. At 24 I would have been drunk, and God knows what would have happened to me.
But when you're drunk and you're young and you're really messed up the way people in their 20s are, it's quite dangerous out there. I was tough. I was street smart. I've been there, and no one fucks with me.
But other people shouldn't necessarily do what I do in Self-Tanner for the Soul, wander around everywhere at 3:00 in the morning acting like a wizard, feeling like a wizard.
KJ: That's a fair warning.
KJ: Because you're sleeping on boat decks and sleeping on roofs.
CM: Yeah, no.
KJ: I want to talk about this wizard concept because I love it. I love, love the idea that you take wizard walks and get in touch with your wizard energy. For people who don't know what that is, which is probably everyone, tell us about that.
CM: Wizard, to me, it's not even something that I think is cool or marketable or new. I know it's not any of those little things. I know it's all played out. People are sick of the wizard things, and everyone's done it. But it is just what comes to me.
When I first took a plane ride by myself--it was when I was leaving for my boarding school when I was a teenager--and I looked out the window of the plane, and it was the glittering, the night, the lights, and it looks like this long ream of sparkly fabric. And that's electric, that glittery feeling. That's wizard, right? That's that energy.
When I moved to New York, I had that same connection with the lights, and that's when I started walking around at night by myself. And it would just give me this magic in my brain that was like peace for me.
CM: And my peace is different peace. I'm a person who's gone to chaos as that's just my life setting; I don't know how that wound up happening. But I do walk around at night, and that's how I charge. Like a cell phone, you know? But it's from all the energy in the world, and that's like the wizard. It feeds my creativity. And it makes me just feel better.
So in Europe, there's no better place for wizard walks because it's all lit up. There are these castles and everything's glowing and it's these enchanted streets. You can just walk around listening to Britney, or whatever, but just take in all the magic of the world. Then that feeds your brain, your wizard brain. Then that makes you more powerful because you're taking in all this power from the world. Then you go to sleep. Then you wake up the next day and you're like, "Oh, it's 11:00 in the morning and I have to check out of here," and I'm like surrounded by magic wands and cookies. I'm exhausted. But at night, everything is perfect. So that's how I feed my brain. I'm a freak.
KJ: I love that. You said somewhere in the book that you compare arriving in a new city to a drug high almost.
CM: Oh yeah. First of all, travel addiction is real. That's why I'm getting a little wary of my continuous obsession with travel. I'm like, "Is this actually doing anything for me?" Besides the rewards, I know it's rewarding my brain, but is it fulfilling my life? Because you have to look at compulsive behavior. Someone like me, if I don't want to stop doing something, I probably should stop.
KJ: Right. Well, and that's what addicts do, right? We transfer addictions.
CM: Right. Travel is kind of empty. That's what I've learned. All of this stuff, all of these places I went, it doesn't do anything for you emotionally. People do that--human connection.
I was literally in my own world, but I just made the whole world my own world. It was a lot of isolation, even though I was surrounded by people all the time. But that's just one way to look at it, the negative way. If I was sitting here with an addiction counselor, I'm sure they'd be having that conversation with me. But then I'm with my friends, and they're like, "Oh, that's awesome."
KJ: "That's so glamorous."
CM: "You were in Croatia? Amazing. I'm so jealous."
KJ: But that's what's amazing about your writing because it all comes through. You get this glamour and excitement, but then there's a lot of loneliness that comes through. It's really beautiful to read about.
CM: How loneliness is a human condition.
KJ: Sure is.
CM: And so is glamour. Those are actually my two favorite ways to be, lonely and surrounded by glamour. But the glamour of the world, that's what you get in tune with. That's the good stuff, like sunsets and moons and stars and stones and all this weird shit, right?
KJ: Right, like nature. Nature is glamorous.
CM: That shit is glamorous.
That's special. It's all great. Travel's amazing, you know what I mean? I'm so lucky to get to do it, and I would encourage anyone to take that jump. Everyone thinks they can't afford it. Most people can't afford it. But it took me years and years and years of wanting to do it to actually do it. So do it. Start a jar. Why isn't there an app where you're about to buy something and you're like, "Wait, instead of this $10 at Duane Reade, can I just zap this into my travel account?" But you know, saving up that way. People should do that.
KJ: People should do that.
CM: I shouldn't use "should." Sorry.
KJ: That's okay. I actually lived in Europe for a few years, and I feel like you nail that attitude Americans get there sometimes. And especially you being a young woman and traveling by yourself, and you get a lot of attention from men.
CM: Yeah, a lot of attention from teen boys. These European teenagers, these boys. Like in Belgium, God.
KJ: It's interesting. When you were writing this, it was a little before Me Too became this huge thing and we all got more of a vocabulary to talk about it. But you say that women's voices are kind of all they have in some of these circumstances. What do you think is the most efficient way you found to respond to that kind of attention?
CM: Listen, to quote the great Kimora Lee Simmons, "I will beat a bitch's ass." If these fucking men try to touch me, I will punch them. I don't care. I hate them. I'm done with being fucked with. But it's taken me a long time to get to this point, where I literally will snap if some other guy does anything to me ever again.
I'm also a person who, before I left for Europe and did the material that's in this Audible Original, was being hunted. My apartment being stalked, being staked out, Domestic Violence Unit coming to my apartment every few days--horrible stuff. And I'm just done, and I don't know what to do. There's nothing you can do. What are we supposed to do? I like [that] in France, the Me Too movement is not Me Too; it translates to "name your pig" [#BalanceTonPorc translates to "denounce your pig."]... and it's about calling the men out.
Why does it have to be like, "This thing can happen to me." I hate that emoji on Twitter; when you write hashtag Me Too, it changes to a hand. No, why can't we just be laughing at these horrible men?
KJ: What did you take away from your trip? What would you say you learned?
CM: I learned so much. I learned that in France, pillows are square, not rectangles. And I learned humility. I learned a ton of humility, and I loved it. My background in New York here, I just had this big book launch and I had gotten all this publicity. I had been in the newspapers and magazines and everyone was treating me really nice. I actually couldn't really handle a lot of it. So it was a relief to go to Europe and not have anyone know who I was like they did in the New York media or downtown scene. Also just, yo, sleeping at these hostels, doing all the things I did, I learned a lot of humility. I learned how to stand in line for hours and hours. I learned how to bear the heat. Oh, and with money--my money stuff has completely changed.
I have completely changed how I live and how I spend money. I also learned how to pack much lighter.
KJ: You had a lot of wigs in your travels also, which I learned were heavy.
CM: Hell. My personal hell. I also learned that you don't need to bring all the wigs with you. You can always find them abroad. And also that, in a weird twist, a helpful twist from the powers that be, the best wig stores are usually near the train stations. I love the areas near the train station, but I like crazy neighborhoods.
I think that just, on a bigger scale, opening your life up to things that you never would have done. I was coming out of some traumatic situations and the best thing I ever did was, to get through them, I just decided to do something really crazy.
So whatever that would mean to you, whether it's travel or I don't know, do something that makes you really uncomfortable. That cliché thing you always hear. It doesn't necessarily work as in fix what you're going through, but it does fill your brain with all this new stuff.
I was tortured. Really--mentally, psychologically, everything--by my own thoughts and pain. I [was] just sickened and nothing was helping. Not even exercise--I was taking yoga classes and crying during yoga during this really rough patch before I left New York. I was still going through all of that stuff while I ran around all of these countries. But there are rewards. You get what you put in.
CM: I don't know. I don't want to act like I did something so heroic by going to Europe with a suitcase. It just sounds so silly. Again, I'm the first person who needs to acknowledge that people want to travel, they just can't afford it. But that being said, I would love to, moving forward, do more and more travel and teach people how to do it for cheap, because I do it cheap now.
KJ: Yeah, that's amazing. And I love how transparent you are about money. I think that's empowering actually for people to hear about because we don't talk about it enough.
CM: Oh, I have $400 literally in my bank account right now. $400.
KJ: We kind of talked about the subtitle but we did not talk about the title, Self-Tanner for the Soul. What does "self-tanner" mean to you?
CM: Okay. I love self-tanner, but the reason [is] I always thought if I did a self-help project, which is a laughable concept because of our previously discussed addiction memoir with no recovery ending. But Andrew [Eisenman], here at Audible, approached me and said he would like me to do a self-help project. At that first meeting, I said, "Oh, I have my title, Self-Tanner for the Soul." Which, of course, is a silly kind of beauty play on the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, which are so popular.
So I said that to him, and he loved it. Then it turned into these travel diaries, but he still wanted me to use the title. I was like, "That doesn't make any sense." But it actually did because so much of what you do get from traveling is that inner glow, your spirit. That's what I mean by wizard. It's your spirit. It's the glittering spirit inside of you. And there's this expression I've kept on my notebook all the time: "The spirit makes no mistakes."
KJ: Oh wow.
CM: So whatever's pulling you, that energy, whether it's dragging you to Europe or dragging you to quit your job, do something. Again, quitting a job is a privilege.
KJ: Sure. Yeah.
CM: I don't know. Sometimes this all seems so silly that I'm even talking about this in a serious way. But I think adventure is a big thing. Especially for women these days. Have some adventures.
KJ: Stretch yourself.
CM: Get out of your head.
KJ: Yeah. Get uncomfortable.
KJ: Not too uncomfortable, maybe.
CM: You will be extremely uncomfortable. The things I have been through, at this point, I haven't even written about them yet. Let's just say never ever enter Morocco by ferry. I don't know. I've had some crazy things.
Anyway, I am so grateful for this project. I'm grateful for anyone listening to it. I'm grateful to travel.
KJ: We're grateful to you for sharing this experience.
KJ: And thank you so much for being here today. It was a complete pleasure.