“The thing about credit is that interest stacks,” writes Elle Nash in “Define Hungry”—one of several stories in her debut collection that grapple with being alive in contemporary working-class America. The story follows an unnamed narrator slipping supermarket groceries under a lifelike plastic belly ordered from China. All the while, she is considering her debt, the headlines she prays to see: Federal Government Forgives All Student Loan Debt Universal Basic Income Begins in Select Cities Across U.S. Her anxieties stockpile as she makes her way down the aisle, stuffing more and more food into the fake belly. One is inclined here to pause, look up from the text, and acknowledge this sense of checklist urgency as their own, too.
Nudes, forthcoming from SF/LD Books this spring, is a provocative manifestation of grief, hunger, and neuroses. Nash forges a raw intimacy with the reader as she renders her narrator’s indignities carefully in each story, elevating shame to shared comfort in its depths.
Below, I speak with the author about her collection, safeness, self-worth, and the constraints of morality in our culture.
Hi Elle! Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Hi! Thank you for having me. I’m writing from the mountains, in a smallish-sized town. It’s been alright. It snowed this week, which has felt peaceful and nice.
How have you been spending your time in quarantine/social-lockdown?
I have been reading a lot, editing and teaching which keeps me busy, spending time with my kid, going on walks, watching old movies, and sleeping. A lot of sleeping. I feel tired all of the time, now.
Nudes is forthcoming from Short Flight/Long Drive Books in just a few weeks—how does it feel to have your collection coming out into this new world?
I never thought I’d have enough stories to put inside a collection, honestly, so it feels good.
Could you tell us a little bit about your experience working with SF/LD?
Working with SF/LD is a dream come true. I have a lot of creative control, it feels more like a collaboration than anything else. The book is not imagined as a product, the way larger presses might handle something like this. It’s an art object. Something to hold and admire and look at. I think Elizabeth sees it this way—and the way the whole book has come together, from the insides to the cover to even how and when it’s released—it’s been freeing.
How long did the book take you to write, from start to finish? Which were the first and last stories written?
The stories I’ve been writing since 2013. One of the first ones was ‘Deathwish 006’ and probably ‘Rifle.’ The last story to be written, actually, was Nudes, I believe, the title story.
Nudes is divided into six symmetrical sections: Fluffers, Yuri, Pukkaki, Moneyshot, POV, and Snuff. What was the impetus behind this categorization?
It’s linked with the impetus to title the collection Nudes. The categories are all some form of pornographic categorization or element of it which, in my mind, relate to how the stories might be categorized. My work has been labeled as ‘self-indulgent,’ skewed to a negative effect. I imagine it similarly to how ‘Selfish’ by KKW was conceived of and published. What is self-indulgence, really: exploring one’s own desires or passions without restraint. Seeing ones’ time and self as worth that exploration. In that vein, what novel, what story, is not self-indulgent. Writing as a profession is of the privileged, because of the time and effort it takes; if you don’t have money to support yourself or get paid enough with your writing, then you have to carve out that space and time, outside of work and all of your other duties, for yourself. In a word, to be selfish, or even ‘self-indulgent.’ Doing something that might not be monetarily productive, just for the sake of it. America has such a culture of self-denial, even though it’s also inherently full of empty consumerism. It is immoral to over-indulge in every day pleasures (like masturbation, or spending time by ones’ self to write, or eating high-fat food, as evident in no-fap culture, sex-based shaming, the casual way we speak about eating, the way that mothers struggle to balance time between themselves and their children), even though advertising seeks to carve out a sense of personal lack and fill that problem with a useless product. Imagine if we let ourselves have what we want, experientially, rather than shaming ourselves for having it. This see-saw of self-denial/indulgence is something I think my characters experience a lot, which I touch on in ‘Thank You Lauren Greenfield.’ So I wanted these categories, the title, as a kind of nod to that experience. What if we did indulge, and let go of shame?
Could you tell us about your favorite structures in short story collections?
I don’t think a lot about structure when reading, though I have to say that Dennis Cooper’s Closer and also the way he structured Frisk really blew my mind. I love linked stories. It feels like less pressure than a novel, but gives the experience of one.
The stories in Nudes keep coming back to the idea of self-worth—I’m thinking especially of “Dead to Me” and “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield”, and pretty much all the stories in the Pukkaki section. Your novel, Animals Eat Each Other, touches on similar themes. How do you manage to navigate this topic without weighing it down with a sense of morality?
We exist, constantly, within the constraints of morality in our culture—and not just that, but competing moralities, all of the time. I just don’t want my art to be like that. I want art to be a freeing experience. And I’d rather have the morality of it be something the reader can determine for themselves. I’m also just not sure why people would come to my work trying to figure out ‘what to think.’ I’d like to spur thought and self-reflection, sure, but not in the sense that people should think or feel a certain way about something. Spoonfeeding is the biggest turn off in literature, for me. The only virtue I aspire to in my art is replicating beauty.
What does the idea of ‘safeness’ represent to you in literature?
Literature is a suspended arena in experience—it occurs in the mind. To me that means it is a safe way to explore many things about the human experience: dangerous or scary things, sad or heartbreaking things, ecstatic and titillating things, within a realm of general safety. It’s not real life, is what I am saying. Real life is dangerous all of the time.
One of the aspects I really admire in this collection is the discussion of money, which seems surprisingly missing in a lot of contemporary literature. In “Define Hungry”, the narrator prays to see headlines about student loan debt forgiveness and fixates on debt collections. In “Dead to Me”, we learn that the family credit card is maxed out at twenty-one percent APR. Was discussing social class a deliberate choice? Why do you think class is so underrepresented in contemporary literature?
It was a deliberate choice. In American lit in particular, I think most Americans—general consumer population Americans—just are raised without and not encouraged to develop any class consciousness. As a result they have no interest in consuming work that is class conscious. And because of that, I think American publishers find less interest in publishing fiction that has elements of working class life, because it doesn’t sell as well. (Though, as of this writing, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison has been on the NYT trade paperback best-selling list for five weeks, and that is wonderful).
I also think sometimes people come to fiction for the fantasy. They love thinking about a life in which they don’t have to work, where things are taken care of. So fiction with those kinds of elements—inheritance from rich parents, or some handsome actor you’re having an affair with, paying your rent—those elements go far, they get popular. Because work sucks.
Let’s talk about “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield”, which is a story written in the form of an essay, and meditates largely on Lauren Greenfield’s 2006 documentary Thin. What drew you to the form of a fictional essay to tell this story?
When I am in the grips of my eating disorder, my thoughts beat through my head intrusively, like a drum beat. I wanted to replicate that feeling…but also, I really love to bend time and space and all of that, I love to construct ideas out of what may be underneath the surface of experience and terraform them, in a way. I can’t tell any story that is true—I’m a liar. I am terrible at writing essays. I prefer atmosphere over everything, and I am just not as skilled at the essay as others are, so this seemed like the best way to tell this story.
Do you have a daily writing routine? A day, or place, or time, perhaps, where you prefer to write? What does your process generally look like? And, does it vary from project to project?
I love to write early in the morning when I am alone and no one needs me. Although I am terrible at waking up on time. It is the easiest time for me to write. When I’m in the midst of a project I do work every day, obsessively… I slip out of bed, grab my laptop, find a secret hovel (or go to this shed on the property I’m living at), make coffee and set up shop. Then write until the day starts and my family needs me or shift gears into freelance work. It’s been this way since my daughter was born, before that I didn’t really have a writing schedule. Before her, I would write after work, or at work when no one was looking, or whenever my shifts (grocery store/barista) ended and no one was home. This year my husband has helped immensely by giving me lots of time and space to write, and I am thankful for that. For a long time I could not write if anyone was in my apartment, or only wrote when the inspiration struck, but now I’ve learned to write through constant interruptions, through the sound of Baby Shark on repeat, through any kind of writer’s block or lack of inspiration. It’s compressed, now, my need to write. It has to happen whenever it can.
In addition to writing, you’re also a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at Hobart Pulp—how do you tend to separate your projects?
When I have a lot on my plate, I set timers for myself throughout the day: two hours on personal project, one hour on reading submissions, one hour on organizing edits, one hour on freelance work, etc., it really helps. Sometimes though if it’s towards the end of a book project I will spend 3-4 eight-to-nine hour days just blowing through as much as I can and then I switch to something else.
Since it’s been a tough year, I feel compelled to ask: what are some measures of self-care that you employ for yourself as a writer and person?
Things I’ve tried to do this year: Set good boundaries. Work on my self-worth. Stop being so hard on myself. Let myself be bored (got a flip phone).
What are some books you’ve read and loved in 2020?
For poetry: Elaine Kahn’s Romance or the End (Softskull); My Safe Word is Harder by McKenna Clarke (rly srs lit); for fiction: Fucked Up by Damien Ark (Expat Lit), I’m From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman (Clash Books). I also read Elena Ferrante for the first time this year and am obsessed. For non-fiction, I read Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory.
Could you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
I don’t know yet! I need a new project. I’ve just been editing and teaching. I might take a short break from it so I can work on something for myself.
Are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers?
One I like is Mutiny Information Cafe in Denver, CO. They have an online eBay store, lol.
Thanks so much for your time, Elle!
Thank you for such thoughtful questions. <3
Elle Nash is the author of Animals Eat Each Other(Dzanc Books), hailed by Publishers Weekly as a ‘complex, impressive exploration of obsession and desire.’ Nudes is forthcoming from SF/LD Books in 2021. Her short stories and essays appear in Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, Literary Hub, The Fanzine, New York Tyrant and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at Hobart Pulp, and teaches a writing workshop called Textures. You can find her on Twitter @saderotica.