LOS ANGELES — Natalie Beach is “not bothered” by the constant correlation of her name with her former best friend, Caroline Calloway.
“Caroline is an incredibly interesting person, and she’s really talented and a wonderful writer,” said Beach, who rose to fame in 2019 after writing the viral essay “I Was Caroline Calloway” for New York Magazine’s The Cut.
In it, she details a toxic friendship and unveils her role as the influencer’s ghostwriter. Calloway had become popular for her diary-style Instagram captions about her time as an American at the University of Cambridge, gaining a six figure book deal for a memoir that never quite materialized. That, along with questionable creativity workshops and Beach’s essay, eventually earned Calloway a reputation as a scammer.
Calloway leaned into that, finally self-publishing “Scammer” just days before Beach’s own memoir was set to be published by HarperCollins’ Hanover Square Press.
Stepping out of the shadows with “Adult Drama: And Other Essays,” published June 20, Beach does include two essays about their friendship but largely focuses elsewhere, interweaving larger issues like gentrification, abortion rights, body image and more.
“I didn’t write the book to explain myself or even to introduce myself to other people,” Beach said. “More to use who I am and the character of myself on the page as a jumping off point to bring people into ideas that really excite me and interest me.”
The Associated Press sat down with Beach to chat about her memoir-in-essays and the internet’s obsession with Calloway and Beach’s friendship fallout. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AP: What was the selection process like when you were going through and deciding, “I’m going to choose to tell my story through these different moments in my life?”
Beach: I gravitated towards subjects that caused me some tension that felt like a pebble under my shoe. I still had questions about what the experience meant to me. I didn’t have my feelings worked out. The essays are long and researched at times, and I wanted to attack subject matter that felt knotty and complicated. I really admire writers who can get to the point in, you know, 450 words, like the Nora Ephron. … But I needed to really stretch my legs and sort of explore digressions and research and go back into my diaries, which were a minefield and take a more expansive view.
AP: You mentioned gentrification when you were working at the stationery store and then also when you were working as a landscaper. Why was it important to bring up that issue and also acknowledge your privilege?
Beach: I grew up in New Haven, born and raised, which is a city that has undergone a lot of change. … There’s this conflict between the university and the townies, but also, this city wouldn’t exist the way it does without Yale. And I grew up getting to go take part in a lot of great artistic and cultural institutions run through Yale. So thinking about the conflict in a city between money and class and race and all, that is just the waters I grew up in.
I think personal essays offer a great opportunity to start with yourself and your own experiences in your own eyes and then use that as a jumping-off point to ask bigger questions and not solve or completely untangle systems of oppression that are semi-visible but to begin to get your arms around it.
AP: What do you hope that readers will take away from interweaving these issues into your essays?
Beach: One of my favorite books is “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard. And she writes about how there’s this naturalist, who she used to admire, but he had this line like, “Who knows why fireflies light up?” And he was just sort of giving in to ambiguity and metaphor. And Annie Dillard says, “Well, you know, we can figure it out.” The science exists. You don’t need to pretend that there are questions outside our understanding when the answer literally is there. And I think that you can, you know, walk around L.A. and be like, “Why is my neighborhood changing? Oh, well, like, I’m just going to go buy another $5 donut and that’s it.”
I wrote this book just in the teeth of lockdown, and that was just a very heightened time of driving home the point that we are all so deeply connected to one another. Our fates are interlinked and intertwined.
AP: Years later, how do you feel about Caroline’s name being attached to your early beginnings as a known writer?
Beach: I think part of us when we were kids and had wild dreams; we thought we would get famous together one way or another. And I don’t think it turned out the way we thought, but in a certain way, that’s what happened. Not to say that I’m famous or anything, but just to be known and interlinked, but also, you know. Maybe I would feel tethered to her a little bit more if I spent more time on the internet. But I am pretty much offline, with the exception of 10 minutes a day on Twitter. And I work in my garden, and I have my friends and my husband and my pets and my interests that are outside of what happened when I was in my early 20s.
AP: You mentioned in the last essay of your book how the internet pinned you and Caroline in the classic battle of brunette versus blonde. In your opinion, what does this say about our society and the way that people really engaged, took this feud and really blew it up?
Beach: We love a catfight. … And, you know, I watch reality TV, so I totally get it. It’s really fun. It’s a little different on the other side of it. But at the same time, you know, part of the reason I write is to give people a good time and so long as you’re not calling up my parent’s house, I’m totally fine with you thinking whatever you want about me and having a grand old time relishing in the drama.
I think it was easy to look at the two of us and be like: One’s blonde, one’s brunette. One is feminine. One is a tomboy. One is beautiful. One is the other friend. One went to private school, one went to public school or whatever it is. And yeah, there are those surface-level differences between us. But I think what really matters about Caroline or myself and what sort of led to the explosion in our relationship was sort of what we have in common, which is that we’re both really ambitious. We both had these designs to write about our own lives and the people who touched our lives. We both valued our relationship, but not as much as we valued our own creative freedom. And that’s, to me, what is interesting, the tension in that, in our similarities and not what set us apart
AP: Do you have any regrets about putting that out there when you released the article?
Beach: My short answer is no. I don’t regret writing about the experience. I think Caroline had already been living very publicly and writing about people in her life for so long that my feeling was it was fair game, and I had been quiet for so long. And she and I, when we met, I wasn’t in that class to be a silent collaborator. I was in that class working my ass off because I wanted to write my own first-person writing. But there are specific lines and choices I made in the writing that I say that I regret.
In the original essay, I have a line about opening the drawer of her desk and the pills scattering around, like I said, cockroaches exposed to light. That, I think, is just a pretty grotesque, exploitative image. I think I was enamored with the line in the metaphor, and I pushed it over the edge to a point of cruelty. It’s one of the few changes I made between the original and in this book where I just don’t want this in there anymore. I regret writing that. I have always also gone back and forth on the choice to include Caroline threatening self-harm. And I don’t know if that was up to me to publicly disclose. The way I think about it and still am wrestling with it is that it was such a huge turning point in our relationship. … And so when I was writing about it how can I tell the story truthfully without including that? But on the other hand, there are things more important than art, and someone else’s well-being is included in that.
AP: Both you and Caroline have books coming out at the same time. Did you know about that? Have you read it? Do you plan on reading her book?
Beach: You know, if you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said, “I’m so stoked to read Caroline’s book.” I’ve always been such a huge fan of her writing. I think she’s so talented and her voice on the page is just singular and explosive. But I wish her all the best and I hope that she gets — I hope she’s really happy with the book and that people read it and love it.
I just have realized that I need to create some boundaries between me and her. And you know, which might sound ironic considering I wrote about her, but I think that it’s best for me to not read the book. You know, I don’t follow her on social media and I don’t read news articles about her just because it was a painful time in my life and we’re not good for each other.
AP: What would you say to those critics putting you and Caroline in that same boat of seeking fame and notoriety?
Beach: I would say I don’t—I personally am not seeking fame being in front of this camera right now. I’m doing it, but it’s making me uncomfortable. I crave the sweeter elixir of recognition, not fame. And all I want, which is still a big ask, is to be read generously and for my work to touch other people. And to have smart, fun, lively conversations about my writing, my work and other people and be in the conversation. But, the idea of seeking fame is a true nightmare for me.