Nudes (Short Flight/Long Drive), Elle Nash’s debut book of short stories, contains a myriad of outcast characters trudging through strip-mall America as they flail against the trappings of their respective interpersonal, emotional, and behavioral patterns. A couple feeds a tied-up sex worker GHB from a vial, a bored married couple has a threesome with a Family Dollar manager, a man gives himself a blow-job, a woman shoplifts groceries with the help of a false pregnant belly made of silicone, and blood is shed. The breadth of voice and style in Nudes keeps up with the breadth of experience. Never a dull moment, Nash succeeds in capturing the full attention of her reader with the finesse of the most popular girl in school sharing everyone’s secrets.
Nash and I met in Arkansas while I was on a poetry tour with a mutual friend. She fed me snacks and let me sleep on the floor in her office. We’ve spent time together since in Colorado Springs under the shelter of a gazebo, where she worried about burgeoning lightning. We have kept up a mutually supportive friendship, providing feedback on one another’s novel manuscripts, commiserating over rejections, and liking one another’s tweets.
Shy Watson The section titles of Nudes really stood out to me: “Fluffers,” “Yuri,” “Pukkaki,” “Moneyshot,” “POV,” and “Snuff.” I know these are all porn-related terms; Your first book, Animals Eat Each Other, was also explicit in nature. A lot of the hotter books now, while being well-written, also have those kinds of themes. I wonder if part of people’s thirst for that content comes from being locked up in quarantine and wanting to live vicariously through someone. I mean, it was hot before then, but I think it’s clever you would think to use the obscenity in the titles.
Elle Nash Thank you. I was thinking about obscenity and art—how they intersect. That’s kind of where the title itself came from, too. A couple years ago, I followed this artist on Instagram, Rebekkah Morgan, and she would hide prints of her work in different cities and tell people about it. For example, she’d be like, I have a print in the New York City library, or something, and then people could go and hunt for it and try to claim it. So, when I saw that I was like, I want to do that with my books! How funny would it be if I was like, Okay, I dropped off Nudes at the Denver Library, go claim it. I laughed thinking about people scrambling to find actual nudes. “Yuri” is not necessarily a porn-related term, but more about intimate and emotional relationships between girls while coming of age, usually.
SW I noticed that a few of your stories have the ingredients for the “American Dream” (marriage, child, house), yet the characters seem to still desire more. Am I projecting, or is this something you think about in your work?
EN People want to be stable; they want to live on their credit in a reasonably functional way. They want to live in a nuclear family. I do think about how that looks and how people experience it, especially because class mobility is a myth in the States. It looks like we have class mobility, but we don’t, really.
SW I agree with that! I’ve never thought about it before in those terms. Why do you think that there’s that myth of class mobility?
EN Maybe because America doesn’t have a very good culture of unionized labor. We used to, but we don’t anymore. And we really have tried to. Maybe it’s also because in the ’90s we used to learn in school that assimilation was a good thing—
SW Yeah, same!
EN The United States was the melting pot, right? Maybe because we have this melting pot theory, schools were teaching us that anyone can succeed by pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. People aren’t aware of class differences and class consciousness. It’s like that John Steinbeck quote: “Everybody is just a temporarily embarrassed millionaire.” Class stuff is just not present in our media; it isn’t present on our TV or anything like that, because it helps feed into the idea that social mobility is still possible. But there’ve been studies—it’s just not that common.
SW It just seems like such a clever tool for capitalists to have us think, well, if I just work hard enough! Because then we’ll keep working hard for the capitalist machine with hope that we’ll break out of our class and move up to the next. I know neither of us grew up in wealthy families, and we both kind of grew up in smaller towns. I’m just thinking of all these people I went to high school with who are part of pyramid schemes now. Like, get-rich-quick schemes. Do you know people who fell into that?
EN Yeah, every other week I’m added to a Facebook group for LuluLemon or those plastic wraps or whatever.
EN Everyone has a side hustle. You can have a side-hustle business if you just have a Facebook or Instagram page, which I relate to. I mean, I run a literary magazine, which is like my side hustle.
SW I made a bracelet Instagram during quarantine, have tried to sell perfumes. It started at a really young age. I remember selling chocolate chip cookies to the boys on the baseball team in high school. I feel like growing up without money pushes you to always be trying to make a buck however you can, you know?
EN God! You’re so right. I don’t even think I ever made that connection. I was the same. I remember when I was thirteen or fourteen, I had just discovered raves. I would make fourth-of-July-themed kandi bracelets with plastic beads and go to the local fireworks stand and sell bracelets to people, too.
SW I love that we’re both former bracelet pioneers. Many of the characters in your stories exhibit escapist tendencies, whether it be through drug and alcohol use, indulging in fantasies, or sometimes even suicide. And all of these characters seem unable to escape their current patterns, as if trapped in an unending cycle. Do you think it is possible to escape patterns?
EN I do think it’s possible, through focused and intentional effort. Part of that is because I’ve been able to escape my bad patterns since I’ve grown, which I never thought would be possible. I’m very interested in this lack of self-awareness in people. Not having or developing it can lead you to be stuck in time without the ability to get out, but it’s contextual, based on what the pattern is.
In the past few years, I’ve been reading more about the world structure that Buddhism posits, which is that suffering is a continued cycle, but when this body ends, you cycle into a new one. Through each cycle, depending on how many lifetimes it takes and your cultivation of awareness, you get closer to being released from long-term suffering. You can end short-term suffering through analytical processes and meditation on a day-to-day basis, but the long-term struggle, well, you can eventually be released from that. I think it’s so interesting how humans form ideas about how we learn lessons and whether or not we learn from those lessons and what the reward for that is, you know?
SW You recently tweeted, “Thinking a lot about whether pain has value.” Did you come to any conclusions?
EN I think I’m in a liminal space about it because in some ways pain is necessary as a point of contrast—so we can have the awareness of what it is and what it isn’t. I think that’s speaking specifically to the psychic and emotional pain that we feel as humans, not physical pain of if you break your arm or something, but the pain that comes afterwards, like having to deal with just using one arm.
I’ve been reading Molly Brodak’s memoir this week, and she talks about the meaninglessness of trauma and pain, or the possibility of its meaninglessness. The universe is so big, and there’s so much unquantifiable suffering that exists. It’s an undeniable fact of life. In some ways you could say it’s meaningless, because if everything feels pain, is it important? I don’t know! It’s important to the individual, and I think that has merit. It was easy for me in the past to become obsessed with my pain and curl around it. It’s easy for me to be that way now sometimes, too. But I like that, because sometimes it helps me drive forward and make art. It’s complex.
SW One of my favorite lines in the whole book was this quote from Logan in “Dead to Me,” in which he dismisses the potential help of therapy by stating, “We suffer from psychological disturbances because our lives are unnatural.” I thought it was really funny, but I also thought it was really wise. Do you agree with Logan?
EN That was a statement that was spoken to me, actually, that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Like if you hear a poem or a koan. I was just thinking about that line for so long that I probably built the story around it, because I was like, I have to record this somewhere! There is a part of me that does agree. Sometimes I feel like the way we’re living is unnatural, and I only say that because it’s so hard, and I wish things were easier. But at the same time, there’s this huge part of me that resists the desire to call something humans do “unnatural.”
I think there’s a kind of arrogance to assuming something’s unnatural—who are we to decide that? For example, and maybe this is really bleak, but there was this article about how there is more human-made matter on Earth now than Earth matter, and the image it put in my head was this compounding planet of skyscrapers crunching down the soil. Part of me thinks, This is really bad, for animal life and people in general. At the same time, humans came from nature, and this is what humans have decided to do as organisms, functioning on this planet as cells in a body. This is what humans are doing. Maybe it’s fatalist, but part of me is like, This is nature. Maybe it’s fucked up in a way, but it feels arrogant to assume it can be controlled.
SW It reminds me of another line in one of your stories: “if all of the molecules in our bodies could rearrange themselves to exist in the same space, in the exact same way that they did when we met, would we have continued to do what we did? Yes. And that’s how you know there is no free will.” I thought that line was incredible, and it speaks to what you’re saying, that it’s all part of a big plan or something, and we’re just enacting the inevitable. Is that what you meant by that line?
EN Not even a plan, because that would imply a plan-maker. It’s almost like, This is just what physics does. These are just the laws of it, its functions, and we’re completely subject to these laws because we are made up of exactly the same matter that physics controls.
SW One hundred percent! One of my favorite themes in your collection is the desire to relive something that’s no longer available. Do you think we can step in the same river twice, so to speak? What draws us to reanimating the past?
EN Change is a pervading constant; even as much as people can’t change, they end up changing inevitably anyway, even though they might still have the same patterns like we were talking about earlier. One thing that draws people to that kind of nostalgia is there’s this easy tendency to romanticize the past, and that’s because the struggle has been lifted out of it. It’s weird, right? Each time we access a memory, it changes a little. We can’t even accurately remember the past. People will seek it out, but it’s tragic because it’s already decayed. They’re never gonna get it back.
SW What is your writing process like? You’re so prolific!
EN Part of it is that I’m obsessive. When I was in high school and college, I had an eating disorder, and I was obsessed with that all the time. As I’ve worked on recovering, I’ve noticed that I still have obsessive thoughts—they’re just not related to food anymore. So if I’m working on a project, that’s the only thing I can think about. I have this drive where I just feel like I have to finish it. There was an urgency to it, like, I have to do this before I die. I was writing poetry and my first thought was, You have to write an entire manuscript in eight days.
SW Eight days!
EN That’s what I was telling myself! Like, If you do this many poems a day you will have it finished. But I’m trying to take things in little steps instead of pushing myself super hard, because I’ve been doing that for a while and I really need to just chill out. I don’t know why I think that kind of stuff, like, You can do it!
SW Some of the pieces in this collection felt more confessional, or at least more like essays. Does your writing process for these pieces differ from the more fictional or at least prose-style ones?
EN No, not really, because as soon as I write something on the page, it’s separate from me. I want things to sound like a diary and to sound confessional, but they’re also not real and full of lies. So, I really appreciate when something can feel as realistic as possible. The only thing that’s different is the tone or the mood I’m focusing on. I think sometimes I just want to do things in pieces and thoughts, and I don’t want to create something with a lot of structure. And I feel like that’s more like the prose-y, poetry side of writing.
Whereas some stories, especially the ones I started working on after I finished my novel and last manuscript, they started getting more formal. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. There’s equal balance between dialog, scenery, character development, the internal thoughts of the character, and all of that kind of stuff. I can’t write a story that’s shorter than 6,000 words anymore. I’m forcing myself to try poetry and get back into these shorter narratives and focusing more on language rather than the wider, broader part of fiction.