Last year I created a friendship with Elle Nash in my head after discovering her writing and looking at pictures I saw of her online. She looked like the kind of girl I’d hoped to befriend in high school, the mysterious gypsy that nobody really knew, the loner who cut gym class to smoke under the bleachers. Elle’s writing is stark, provocative, and primal— which is how I fantasized she would be in person.
I read her debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc, April 2018) last month. I’d recently moved past a break up that ruined my entire summer. Elle’s novel sucked me back in time, causing me to relive the self-inflicted torture I was trying to forget— disguising sex as love and being clueless about it, and the initial choice, and then agony, of being “the other woman.” The novel’s 19-year old unnamed narrator works at a Radio Shack where she is sleeping with her boss during her shifts when she meets Matt and Frances. The three begin a sexual relationship, and the affair becomes complicated once the narrator, now referred to as Lilith, tests the boundaries of the relationship with Matt and starts to break the rules imposed by Frances. The book is set in the late 90’s, but there is a timeless feel to Animals Eat Each Other. Desire, daddy issues, obsession and jealousy are hardly assigned to decades.
Last week I spoke to Elle to discuss her writing and spirituality, among other things.
In your fiction story Me and The Flies, which was published this past September in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, you wrote about bulimia in such graphic detail that I felt queasy dry heaving as I read your story. Then I read Animals Eat Each Other and the inaugural sentence describes a sex scene where a knife gets held against the protagonist Lilith’s face, and again my reaction was visceral. I identify with both subjects from personal experience and have held back on writing about them. I admire the dark places you go with your writing. How do you feel about women being labeled “brave” in our current cultural landscape?
Thank you, I really appreciate all the nice things you’ve said about my writing. Some of the best writers I know write about topics that others would approach as having courage to discuss, and I very much appreciate the work they put into the world. I would just hate to see that same work commodified on the sole basis of being brave— there’s more to it than that, what Lidia Yuknavitch calls “art doing it’s verb thing,” afflicting people the way it’s supposed to. In some ways, storytelling is very much remolding the stories that have been handed to us… at the same time, storytelling is an exorcism, and both forms need to be out in the world.
Is there anything you consider too personal to write about? As both a fiction and nonfiction writer, do you prefer one genre over another? Do you use one over the other to write about specifics topics?
I feel the writer has the freedom to write about whatever they want. There’s a lot of discussion in nonfiction concerning writing about people in one’s life and whether or not it is ethical to do so without telling said person, for example— something that could be too personal. In fiction you make things whatever you want them to be. So there really is nothing that’s too personal for me in that realm. I definitely prefer writing fiction, where there is more freedom— I also don’t have a very good memory, so writing non-fiction is a little difficult, especially since non-fiction adheres so concretely to more traditional formats of storytelling. Fiction gives me a chance to be more experimental in form and prose. Subject wise, I have written a lot about the body and eating disorders and beauty in non-fiction. In my fiction writing, I tend to explore relationships between people and what that looks like in its worst form. Lately I’ve been trying to marry the two—that’s kind of what Me and The Flies was about. I was trying to push my writing on the body to a more creative and personal place. I like writing that makes me go to the places that hurt.
In Animals Eat Each Other, Lilith is a teenager with an unfaltering self-awareness from the very beginning of the novel, and the clarity about what motivates her resonates throughout the story. Regarding her tattoos, you wrote, “After a while, I began to enjoy the dry, dull pain and the way each tattoo forced me to confront my own commitment to be hurt over and over again.” Lilith knows who she is, and her choices bring her both physical and emotional pain. Tell me about how you created Lilith as a character.
I have spent a lot of time examining nontraditional relationships and the mechanisms of manipulation within those and heteronormative relationships as well. I’m fascinated by the ways in which women’s friendships can become intimately vulnerable so quickly and also turn incredibly toxic and painful so quickly. Lilith is roughly nineteen and feels like she has no idea what she is doing, either, without much guidance. When I was nineteen, I also didn’t have a lot of direction with what I was doing with my life. I wanted Lilith to speak to that time when you’re feeling self-aware but not really knowing where to go with it.
I recently read an old NY Times article written by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, and in the piece she confessed to being addicted to seducing men who were unavailable. She writes, “That’s what I was after: the telekinesis-like sensation of steadily dragging somebody’s fullest attention toward me and only me. My guilt about the other woman was no match for the intoxicating knowledge that — somewhere on the other side of town — somebody couldn’t sleep that night because he was thinking about me.” It reminded me immediately of Lilith’s determination of ‘winning’ Matt away from Frances and also my own experiences with having an affair. Affairs cause so much emotional turbulence but I now see I wanted the drama and chaos as a means to avoid facing myself and working on whatever issues. Why do you think the chaos of an affair can be so alluring to someone?
I think from Lilith’s perspective a huge part of it is her lack of self-worth and her lack of belief in herself that she deserves someone’s full attention. With Lilith for example, she posited that her needs weren’t important—what was important were the needs of the person she was trying to seduce, the emotionally unavailable man, because his significant other already had needs and she wanted to be the “chill” girl, the solution to his relationship problems that was uncomplicated and easy, the living fantasy. She ignored her wants and needs because she felt it made a person unattractive. The story of the other woman is that she has needs and wants she ignores because she has no way of knowing how, or doesn’t feel that she deserves to ask for them to be fulfilled. I feel like that’s something that women are never really taught growing up. Most times, we’re really only taught how to serve others.
I loved the late 90’s landscape of Animals Eat Each Other. I graduated high school in 1997 and I remember devouring Marilyn Manson’s autobiography a year later, which you mention in the novel. I knew nothing about Satanism until I read Manson’s book and I found the parts about Satanism to be spiritual, self-reflective, and completely fascinating. Would you consider yourself a religious or spiritual person?
I think that I’m religious. I don’t follow an organized religion, but for me to say that I’m religious that means that I believe in the process of rituals in terms of spiritual development. As far as what those practices look like, it’s really changed a lot for me over the years but I love learning about religions, studying them, seeing the role that ritual has in the development of the self. Lately I have been reading a lot about different forms of Buddhism, which I'd started exploring when I was first in college and then kind of forgot about. I'm really getting into the analysis of the self and consciousness, and enjoying learning about pureland Buddhism which I'd never heard of until recently.
Tell me about your experience with learning the tarot & reading cards.
When I was twelve or thirteen my grandmother gave me a book by art historian and occultist Fred Gettings about the tarot. My grandmother really helped foster my imagination about magic. Later, when I was around eighteen one of my best friends from high school bought me a tarot deck. We would sit in Barnes & Noble and do tarot for each other. We ended up living together in college and that was one of our favorite things to do. We would just drink, and read tarot, and we still ask each other for readings. It was a very long process for me to learn the meanings of each card without referring to a book and learning to trust my intuition on the symbols without referring to someone else’s knowledge base. That took quite a while, almost ten years. Only last summer I felt confident enough in my intuition to read tarot for money professionally.
In Animals Eat Each Other, Lilith receives a text message from a guy named Patrick that reads “I really like you.” Matt, the guy Lilith is sleeping with, tells her the same thing the night before. Patrick’s text has almost no effect on Lilith, and I couldn’t help but think about Elijah Woods’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also named Patrick) and how he mimics Joel’s sentiments to Clementine to try to win her over, and it doesn’t work in the slightest. What are your thoughts on chemistry? What do you think makes two people who start off as strangers click instantly?
I definitely think chemistry exists but I don’t even know where to begin answering that question! I think some of it comes down to fate and the ways our fates are interwoven. I am not sure if free will is real, for example, when we love or become obsessed with certain types of people.
I was listening to the WTF podcast with Marc Maron and he was interviewing author Neil Strauss, who has just written a book about intimacy. And Neil Strauss said something along the lines of when two people meet one another and instantly connect and infatuation happens immediately it is as though they’re really just attracted to each other’s baggage.
Yeah, I definitely think that’s true. Especially because I think one thing in relationships that people don’t really consider is that it’s just two people learning how to work out their crazy together. I believe in fate, and like I said, I question whether or not I believe in free will. I don’t know what makes two people click. Sometimes they just do. Or sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I meet friends and we really get along and it’s easy and other times there are people I meet and I become aware that I am forcing something, or I am aware of how weird I am. I don’t know what makes that happen, whether it’s internal frequencies or just like pheromones or if it is old past lives in which your consciousness or whatever it is recognizes other people that you’ve known before.
In the novel Animals Eat Each Other when Lilith is sleeping with her boss Sam, she compares him to Matt, another guy she is in a sexual relationship with. While looking at Sam undress Lilith thinks “I didn’t make eye contact. Eye contact made things too real.” Last week I asked a friend of mine what he thought about eye contact during sex and he seemed thrown off that I even asked him that, like his response was too intimate to even discuss with a platonic friend. So now I am going to ask you the same question. What are your thoughts on eye contact during sex?
Eye contact during sex is pretty hot. I think eye contact is really hard for people in general. I think to be able to make eye contact during a really vulnerable moment like that would just makes things a lot better.
How comfortable are you with crying? Do you cry a lot? Do you cry in public?
I used to not be. When I was growing up my parents would say “I’ll give you something to cry about” and so for a long time I would repress my feelings. Now that I’m older I’d be more comfortable crying in front of others. I’m definitely comfortable crying in my relationship, and I cry a lot, both at good things and bad. I cry because of books I’m reading all the time. I’m a sensitive person and I’ve learned to like it. I don’t want to change that. It’s one of the first things you do when you’re born, even before— babies cry in utero. In a way, crying is the first form of language, it’s the first way humans learn to express their discordance with the world before anything else.
In Animals Eat Each Other you wrote about Lilith wanting closure: “I thought if he hated me, this meant it was all over. It meant no more waiting. It meant no more purgatory. I was free to leave, to get the fuck out of Colorado Springs without him shaping my life for the first time in months.” This struck a vibration in me after I read it, it reminded me of how in past relationships I just wanted my guy at the time to get the torture over with just end it, I’d want him to hate me so I would have an alleged guarantee they’d never contact me again and I would have permission to move on. Lilith ultimately gets her wish. Why’d she get so lucky? I can name at least a half a dozen guys I wish had done this for me. What do you think about when someone has awareness that a relationship has no future and they would be okay if it ended but ultimately they don’t want to do the work to end it?
I can definitely relate to being in relationships and wanting the person to end things for me. It’s a process of not wanting to do the work, or, maybe not realizing that low self-worth is a factor. I think it’s easier for people to push others away in relationships when they think their partner could be with someone better. In a way they are making the decision for the other person without letting them decide for themselves what they want or what they’re willing to put up with. But I also believe closure is a myth. I think it is something that has to be made for yourself.