Agency Over Anything Else: Talking with Elle Nash
Elle Nash is wreaking havoc wherever she can. Her stories are absurd and abrasive, riding the edges of publications like Guernica, Adroit Journal, Always Crashing, The Nervous Breakdown, and more. On Twitter, her username begins to explain the nature of her work: @saderotica. There’s almost always sex, but not in an indulgent way; something more brews underneath the surface, a tension that gradually unfolds as the words continue. Her debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other, displays this the best as it follows the life of an unnamed protagonist while she explores polygamy with a couple immersed in sadomasochism. Its follow-up is Nudes, her forthcoming short story collection out this month from SF/LD Books, and it showcases an array of complex perspectives that reckon with similar ideas of power dynamics, insecurity, and the overall confusion of love and sex.
With twenty-four stories, Nudes is a dark world full of complicated love, drugs, decay, crisis, and humor. It’s littered with revelations from “Blow jobs are Ambien for bad boys,” to “Some people will do anything to be taken care of.” Everything is high-stakes. Every character is real and tangible, though confusing and hard to reach in the way humans often are. As the collection progresses, it feels much like a merry-go-round for adults—one that moves so fast that it’s nauseating, and it’s as fun as it is stressful. There are moments of disorientation and sickness, along with ones of clarity and transcendence. Nash seems as if she is on it, too, like her work has graduated from being her creation to taking on its own life. It is reckless and colossal, similar to the work of Dennis Cooper or even Anaïs Nin. From the wreckage, truth emerges.
Nash is also a founding editor of Witch Craft Mag, and a fiction editor at Hobart Pulp. I called Nash over the phone at the beginning of the new year, and she spoke with me from her home in the mountains of Colorado. We chatted about the influence of the internet, the way “obscene” art is perceived, and the complex line between writing and romanticizing.
The Rumpus: I saw you posted on the first day of this year that you were writing at 5 a.m. Is that a good time for you to write?
Elle Nash: I usually really like early mornings because I get to be alone; nobody’s awake yet, it’s really quiet, and there’s not a lot going on. It’s easier for me to focus. Mentally, too, I get a little tired at first when I wake up. Then, after my first cup of coffee, that’s when my brain is the most active.
Rumpus: I know a lot of writers who like to wake up and immediately start writing before doing anything else because their mind is still kind of a blank slate. Is that what it’s like for you?
Nash: It is, a little bit. I try not to check social media. I feel like if I wake up and check, then I’ll be unfocused all day, continuously checking. If I just ignore it and sit down and write on my laptop, then I can usually go for a couple of hours without feeling inclined or the compulsion. I tend to stay focused that way.
Rumpus: Does technology affect the way you create?
Nash: I do think technology affects my creativity. In some ways social media acts as a pressure valve in terms of how we express ourselves. A lot of times I’ll think of these interesting lines or formations of words and sometimes I’ll be like, Oh, I want to tweet that. But lately I’ve just been trying to hang onto those words and formations in a notebook or on my Notes app. Then, they can really come together as either a poem or as particular lines that occur in stories. I’ll find places for them, prose-wise. I also think technology, specifically with social media, because of the dopamine-seeking feedback loop it creates, takes up a lot of real estate in our brains. It affects us in ways we don’t necessarily realize. I have a love-hate relationship with it. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Do you feel affected by the literary community online? Can it make you feel competitive when people are constantly putting out work?
Nash: I’m grateful for the literary community that exists—I tend to be a loner and having people interested in similar activities, sharing and talking about interesting things, has enriched my life. By the same token, there is a desire to compare one’s self with others and see where other people are. Like every time there’s a book announcement or something and you’re thinking, Why don’t I have a book announcement? even though you may not have even finished your book. It’s important though, when that happens, to recognize that instead of feeling bad about someone else’s success, you can actually see your desire to relate and experience that as a kind of pathway forward. To reiterate the real estate thing, ruminating too much on who else is successful takes up space instead of allowing you to focus on getting the work done. It can cause you to spend too much time thinking about where you want to be. And I think that if you focus too much on the outcome of the work, that can create creative blocks instead of just relaxing and focusing on the work itself.
Rumpus: Definitely. I also think the way that technology is integrated into your stories is very interesting—like with chat rooms and sexting. What do you think it provides in your work?
Nash: It’s just world people live in now, and it’s something we’ve been living in for quite a long time. I mean, AOL chat rooms have been around since [the late ‘80s], but at this point there are generations growing up that have always experienced it and have never really known anything else. I just think infusing that experience of the internet as part of our real world can add extra texture to a story.
Rumpus: There’s always a discourse about whether or not writers should avoid pop culture references in their work for the sake of timelessness. What do you think about that in terms of the internet?
Nash: I’ve heard of that. I do sometimes think it can be distracting. It’s partly a personal taste thing. For example, if I read a story and there’s a direct mention of Twitter or Facebook or something like that then I kind of get turned off. It’s such an exact description and I’d rather have the vague description of it, in a way. If someone said “I went on my social media profile,” that feels more timeless to me. It keeps me from being bumped out of a story. I sometimes wonder if that’s because Facebook and Twitter for example are still so current that it drives me out of fantasy and into the real world. But I think I directly reference AIM in one of my stories, and there are also these elements of nostalgia that I was really pulling for with that. As far as writing rules go, I don’t understand it if it’s a matter of pretentiousness or whether or not the story will be timeless, I think my only concern is: does it bump me out of the fictive dream? Because if it does that, then I don’t think it can be successful. If you can keep those elements, especially pop culture references, and still keep me entranced in the story and not bump me out of it then I think it’s successful.
Rumpus: When did the idea for Nudes start, and how did it end up with Short Flight/Long Drive?
Nash: I think I started pulling together my stories to see how much content I had right after Animals Eat Each Other came out. Elizabeth Ellen—she’s a really close friend of mine—said she was considering manuscripts for the following year or two. It just happened really naturally where I just had a little thing of stories and it’s not like it was something that was long enough to be an official collection. And, some of the stories are weird and unusual—not something that I think major publishers would’ve been interested in. I figured that saying indie is the way to go and working with someone who I look up to so much would be a blessing. So, we just decided to go for it.
Rumpus: Which stories of yours stand out as too weird for major publishers?
Nash: I guess some of the shorter ones. Like “Joan Jumps into the Sea.” Or the ones that are structured not in a very typical narrative fashion, like “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield.”
Rumpus: The stories are split into six sections. How did you go about titling each section and deciding which go where?
Nash: Part of the reason why was to play with this idea of something that is obscene or pornographic. There’s this argument that art without meaning is pornographic, or art that doesn’t contribute to some decided-upon wider cultural lens is pornographic and thus obscene. Pornography is very interesting because it seems like an inevitable but also essential element of consumption in our society. And because the US is a puritanical society, there’s a lot of shame around the way that we consume things that are “obscene” and we try to limit it. I wanted to play with those titles as part of that. I kind of saw that I could fit my stories into these particular sections. Like, “Fluffers,” for example—I don’t know if they still exist but fluffers used to exist on set to help male porn stars get ready for their scenes. I thought that would be interesting for these sets of stories that help set the stage. Then, “Yuri”—in my opinion it isn’t necessarily pornographic in nature, it’s really about female relationships, especially when girls are coming of age. Though some might title it obscene, to me it is about close, intimate relationships and I write a lot about that.
Rumpus: Do you think that our society has higher standards for art that might be thought of as obscene?
Nash: I would say it most definitely does, because who is really defining what is “obscene”? To label something as obscene means to say it has no cultural or scientific or political value, or that the art has an interest in sex that “exceeds reasonable limits.” But who is defining those limits—about what is “obscene”? There are certainly a thousand different ways obscenity can be interpreted and debated upon. When you have a piece of work that rouses this kind of debate—about its usefulness, about the author’s intentions, about the limits of what should be made or shown or presented to audiences—then it definitely seems like obscene art has higher standards. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that it’s bad to get people talking. As long as there’s actually room for discussion.
Rumpus: There’s a line in “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield” that reads: “Am I romanticizing the sickest parts of myself?” I was wondering if you ever struggle with people misconstruing your writing as romanticizing, or if you ever struggle with considering it that way yourself.
Nash: I kind of wonder if any of my work will be construed as romanticizing something. I’ve never had someone explicitly call me out for it, but I do think the idea that art is romanticizing something negative simply because a person is expressing it is kind of silly. People express these dark aspects of humanity all of the time. Literature and art are really the only places where we can explore those dark aspects in a way that is fundamentally safe. That’s really how I think about it. I think if someone ever said I was glamorizing something, I would probably just not respond. That argument is so silly.
Specifically with eating disorders, it’s really tough. As a person who has experienced for a long time the struggles of having an eating disorder, I’ve definitely consumed specific art because of the way that it triggered me. That was kind of the point in writing “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield” because of her documentary, Thin. When it came out, it was the first time that I really got to experience media that was about my experience. It also had a strange mix of this desire to hurt myself and seeing that embodied in other people as a goal in my illness to reach. It’s complicated. Because, as a person with an eating disorder, you want to be able to relate to people and see your experience embodied. But at the same time, having this experience can create a feedback loop that can become harmful. My stance on it is that I believe the individual has agency to decide what’s best for themselves. I believe in my agency over anything else. I will always believe in my personal autonomy. I would never try to take that away from another individual when it comes to self-expression, or the decisions they make.
Rumpus: There’s a theme of transactional relationships that evolves through the collection, too. Was that something you focused on intentionally?
Nash: Yeah. There can definitely, in our society, be a tendency for people to either experience relationships as transactional or view them as transactional. It can feel dehumanizing, especially when you’re just trying to connect. Especially, to bring it back to technology, because of the nature of social media. People relate now through clicking hearts and pressing the retweet button and responding to comments. Maybe even in the literary world, when one person is like, I’ll share these poems, so maybe this other person will share my poems… A lot of times when you start venturing into that territory you find people who will try to treat you transactionally because of what they want from you. It’s a reality. Some people are gonna function that way, and it can be sad to experience. It can feel a little lonely.
Rumpus: You collaborated with Elizabeth Ellen for the piece “Survivalist.” What was that process like?
Nash: That was such a fun process. Basically, when we decided to do it, I had this little paragraph in my Notes app that we started with as a prompt. She actually didn’t have her laptop at the time, so we were texting each other back and forth the paragraphs. It was really fun because it was kind of like an act of trust, being like, Okay, I’m gonna send this whole piece to you and you can edit whatever you think and I’ll just take whatever you think is best in terms of editing it, and then she would send it back and be like, Okay, you edit it however you think is best. We did that back and forth until it felt to both of us like a seamless piece of work. It was great to entrust someone with the final product of a piece, especially because I felt like it was a little more experimental in form and wondering how that would go over. It turned out really well.
Rumpus: Are there any writers you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
Nash: I think I would want to collaborate with either B.R. Yeager—he wrote Negative Space—or Maggie Siebert—she writes some really fascinating short stories which I always love reading. Those two!
Photograph of Elle Nash by Elle Nash.