Ace Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles, April 14th, 2022
“Have you seen Nat?”
“Have you seen Anika?”
“Have you seen Madeline?”
“I think she’s over there. Look for the girl in the beautiful, big bow.”
Everyone’s looking for them. No one can find them. Almost like a mirage, they appear, disappear, and reappear again, but maybe you're just mythologizing. Maybe you’ve had too much. They’re hard to pinpoint. Depending on who you ask, the narrative shifts. To their skeptics: they’re too trad, they’re not trad enough. They talk too much, they don’t speak up enough. They should publish the r-word, they shouldn’t publish the r-word. They should kill themselves, they should live to see man-made horrors beyond their comprehension. They should stop saying they’re saving literature. To their supporters: they’re picking up where Tyrant left off—publishing what’s real, forgotten, or untouchable by big presses. They believe in truth, beauty, transgression, and love. They’re emblems of eternity. They’re Forever.
Nat Ruiz, Anika Levy, and Madeline Cash are the trio behind the literary magazine, Forever Mag, on the tip of everyone's tongues. “The Forever Girls,” as some call them, are attempting to bring a dwindling scene back from the ether. Whether they’re rescuing Tao Lin from purgatory, pulling Marie Calloway out of hiding, or publishing an excerpt from Dennis Cooper’s first book in ten years, they keep busy. Since Forever’s inception in October 2020, they’ve launched a website, published three issues, and hosted eight readings between Los Angeles and New York. I recently sat down with them for Flaunt to discuss God, gatekeeping, (literary) masturbation, and their origin story.
Jasmine Johnson: The first reading was somewhat peak pandemic, we were down bad and then gradually people started leaving the house. Everyone started going out, getting God-pilled and looking for something—how did Forever originate from this moment?
Madeline Cash: The first reading started as just a reading, I wanted to have a literary event because everyone was having their bands play. We did it at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which was lovely. Although, we got banned for life because it was way larger than anticipated. That's where Forever originated, even though we're “legally” not allowed to say that.
Before evolving into a magazine, we formed around this specific culture. There's the “downtown New York scene” and the small literary scene in Los Angeles, but we want it to transcend location.
Nat Ruiz: I want to take this project to Latin America because there is no “scene” there like in the U.S. There are so many writers, living such different realities. I think independent publishing or something like Forever could help these works become known.
Anika Levy: These things have always felt a little gatekept. A lot of our ethos comes from the idea that anyone can put something out. It's this illusion, the idea that you can't do it.
MC: I was born in the South Bay in a weird conservative community, Nat was born in Costa Rica and Anika was born in rural Colorado. We weren't born into royalty. Anyone can print something out, anyone can be a publisher, and your parents don't have to be the founder of Kate Spade.
JJ: Where did everyone meet?
MC: I met Anika in high school during a creative writing class, at Champs (in The Valley).
AL: Nat and I met at Pratt, where I edited her thesis. We sort of fell in love with each other, and really wanted to work together.
NR: I met Madeline through Anika when they first approached me about the project.
JJ: How would you describe your roles?
MC: Anika’s role is emotionally placating everyone that freaks out at us. In all seriousness, it's much more than that–
AL: That is a crucial part of it. As the New York editor, I handle everything over there. My main job is building relationships with great writers.
NR: I’m the Art Director. I deal with all the visual elements: making the magazine, reaching out to artists for their work, designing posters and other online media content.
MC: You really helped us figure out social media. We were inept.
I’m considered the CEO. It's not really a literary term, but if something needs to happen, I figure it out. I learned how to make our website, which was just copying lines of code from Reddit and plugging it into a really basic HTML. I also go through and edit everything that comes onto the site.
NR: We have a CFO too, Bryson Kane, who's in New York. He was an early investor and teacher to us.
MC: He’s extremely kind and sweet.
AL: He also taught us how to use a computer.
MC: (Laughs) When we first started our focus was the print publication, we wanted to work with the oldest form. He was like, “you also need the newest form and to be ahead” if we want to have a technologically progressive publication. He drew Web3 at a bar. He’s a genius.
NR: We have two designers as well, Zoe Stone-Molloy and Adam Colello.
AL: In terms of editorial, Madeline and I had a similar set of aesthetics. There was a total deference and trust in one another, because we had a lot of the same favorite authors and occasionally the same wrong thinkings.
NR: When I was brought into the project, I didn't know Madeline at all. She invited me to a shared Forever album, and I texted Anika immediately like, “Did you make this on your own?”
AL: We have so much overlap.
MC: That's how we started taking Christian iconography and appropriating it. In no way did we originate this, but I do think there are a lot of reverent ways of going about God-posting. We all came from semi-Catholic backgrounds. So, I think there's more of an appreciation than appropriation for God and taking things to a higher power.
NR: I’m not actually religious, although I do believe in something. My family is extremely Catholic on both sides. I had the communion, but I didn’t get confirmed because I was being rebellious.
MC: I grew up in a really Lutheran community in Palos Verdes, we went to church every Sunday. I was communed and confirmed, my only real sacrament left is getting married.
AL: I was essentially raised by Satanists. I learned how to pray the rosary using an app on my iPhone, religion was my way of rebelling as a teenager.
JJ: In our subsect of LA, religious intent is easily misinterpreted. People wonder, is it newly sincere? Is it ironic? It gets muddled.
MC: The irony of it kind of depresses me, there is such art in the history of religion. I mean there's also genocide, it's complex. We try to come at it from a progressive standpoint, but I do think that returning to religion is a big foundation of the magazine.
AL: These girls went to Catholic school—where it’s taught to be the oldest form of morality.
MC: I was in Catholic school until the seventh grade and I remember one of my pastors saying praying is ultimately, at its core, just a form of deep attention. That's why people find value in it, you're solidifying your attention in one place for a long time. That is what you do for any project, essentially you're praying.
JJ: You're including writing that’s transgressive in a way that tests religious notions. Is there a certain message you’re trying to convey?
AL: Truth and Beauty.
MC: We need to bring up alt-lit.
AL: It's basically the only literary tradition we had. As much as it can be seen as repetitive or deeply problematic, it makes sense as the logical conclusion of literature at the end of history.
NR: We definitely want to expand our reach beyond the alt-lit scene. Certain ideas are a big deal within that sphere, but they never make it out. We want to reach people, there’s no power when you can’t affect the broader culture.
AL: What people hate about the literature scene is that it's a presentation of a scene without any invitation of entrance, it’s hyper-hyper locality. We would rather package and present something that's of its time and of its place and for whoever.
MC: Ultimately, we are giving people a platform. If their work is seen as controversial at first, maybe there's more to it, maybe there's not.
New York Tyrant was always this great publishing model, prohibitively dense and unedited. Giancarlo DiTrapano saw something in alternative forms of literature.
AL: Our greatest ambition was to be in New York Tyrant Magazine. Even more so after Gian’s passing, we saw a cultural void that needed to be filled. No one was going to publish a bunch of Tyrant “freaks.”
JJ: There’s an oversaturation of pseudo-autistic language today. How do you navigate what’s sincere when everyone’s replicating the same tone?
AL: Ultimately, it's the work that's surprising and unknown that ends up being the most important and truly transgressive. I think so many people want to transgress for the sake of being neoreactionaries, and that’s not what we're interested in. It's about doing something new, something declarative, and taking a risk.
JJ: It sounds like you're going to find your JT Leroy.
JJ: I noticed a culture shift after the first few readings. The literacy levels started rising in Los Angeles because reading was suddenly cool.
AL: I think we show a lot more sympathy for our audience than other readings do. We tell all of our readers, no matter who they are: read for five minutes, be funny, make sure people are having a good time and don’t drag. People often tell us, “oh wow, I've never been to a fun reading, this is unusual.”
NR: A lot of readings feel like you’re going to mass. We’ve had readers be completely against the ethics of another reader, and it’s exciting. They're making fun of each other on stage, adding some drama to an already performative evening.
AL: I remember at one reading, Madeline was on her knees talking about our origin, saying God came down and said, “Madeline. LA needs a lit scene.”
MC: (laughs) Which was obviously completely patronizing and untrue, but if we can make literature more accessible, then that's great. If you want to punish yourself, read Gravity's Rainbow. If you want to have fun, come to a reading and maybe you can take a book home too.
JJ: You're trying to start a print resurgence, how do you see the website working alongside the publication?
MC: The website needs to exist in order for the print to work. One can't live without the other. It’s about understanding the current cultural moment and filling the voids where you see them. Similar to a reading, the website needs to be palatable or people won't read it.
NR: That's why our work online is never more than 2,000 words. We look at images for three seconds and distill our thoughts into headlines. If we want literature to matter today, it has to be bite sized.
Whereas, the printed magazine is meant for slow consumption. It’s a physical object that you have to buy, wait for, and sit with. You ideally revisit it, it takes up room in your apartment or office. It has a presence. It demands your attention.
AL: There should be more literary magazines, not less. It’s a very competitive field but our stance is that a rising tide raises all ships. We want everyone to start a magazine.
NR: It’s fascinating how ideas become a reality through art & design. When you‘re selling an ideology, rather than something of commercial value, you really have to try to convince people. You’re taking abstract ideas from thin air and converting them into symbols and iconography.
AL: We often have to solicit confidence from men to endorse our ideas.
JJ: In a way it's still a boys club, you need the co-sign.
AL: We got a lot of help from certain men by saying, ‘Oh, we're basically rookies.’ Then once they submitted to us and we went two days without responding, they immediately were like, ‘these girls are dumbass writers like The New Yorker.’ I'm like, really? There's no money in this.
MC: Yeah, you don't have to worry about us “selling out.” We have our magazine in select stores and with the percentage they take out, we make nothing. We give it to them because we want people to go and have that experience with the magazine.
AL: That's what makes print so magical, no one is in danger of making money–we’re all here because we want to be.
JJ: In the current cultural state, it’s easy to brand a new movement as unoriginal or for sell outs.
AL: Everything is eternal recurrence. All of this happened before, and all of it will happen again.
NR: In terms of culture repeating itself, at least in literature you have the opportunity to reference the internet and all these things that didn't exist in the way they do now.
MC: There's a line in Almost Famous where he says, ‘I didn’t invent the rainy day. I just have the best umbrella.’ We aren’t trying to reinvent the literary landscape, we just want to show the best work.
JJ: What do you consider the best work?
AL: I think the most subversive writing is declarative or somewhat unhinged. You don’t necessarily have to believe what you’re saying, but you have to be willing to take a stance.
MC: I went to a bar downtown the other day between Skid Row and Little Tokyo and they had all these stickers that said ‘Skid Row-kyo.’ It’s appropriation in the most insane way. Instead of trying to fix the problem, Mike Davis style, you're taking something and making it culture.
AL: That’s something I’m interested in, having a posture that’s completely unwell. It’s gesturing at the possibility of something new.
I think you have to be schizophrenic to really be a cultural critic right now.
JJ: It takes seeing something completely insane like, ‘Skid Row-kyo’ to get anyone’s attention.
AL: You are producing cultural artifacts.
MC: Instead of hiding the disintegration of art, you're actually making the disintegration.
NR: Because you understand the joke.
AL: For the next issue, I think the idea of doing camp at the end of the world is fun and hopeful. You're not wearing your Praying bikini, you're praying on your knees, praying without ceasing.
MC: And what do you have at the end of the world besides God?
Photographed by Murrie Rosenfeld
Styled by Café Forgot
Written by Jasmine Johnson
Copyeditors: Isabelle Adams, Isabella Miller