David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Julie Myerson’s Nonfiction, a novel that explores maternal love as an emotional foundation to both crave and fear, a story of damage and addiction, recovery and creativity, compassion and love. Nonfiction: A Novel is an unflinching account of a mother, daughter, wife, and author reckoning with the world around her. Called “powerful and utterly compelling” by Sarah Waters and “Glitteringly painful” by Rachel Cusk. Myerson’s novel asks, “Can a writer ever be trusted with the truth of her own story?” Nonfiction: A Novel is out January 2nd from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s conversation with Elle Nash is kind of a best of both world’s conversation. Her latest book Deliver Me on the level of theme, politics, and existential questions braids motherhood, misogyny, sexuality, poverty, religion, capitalism, industrial animal slaughter, and cross species kink into a situation and atmosphere that not only exerts a certain inescapable pressure on our protagonist but also provides innumerable interesting things to explore together. But on the other hand, Elle is also, perhaps more than anything else, interested in language and in creating atmosphere with language, so today’s conversation is also very much a conversation as well on craft and what it means tangibly to take risks on the page. Our conversation, similar to the one with Melanie Rae Thon where in talking with Melanie about her writing, we end up talking about the act of writing. Also with Elle, our conversation is in a way both about the book and about the making of it, and the considerations of it as we go. For the bonus audio archive, Elle reads from Elizabeth V. Aldrich’s Ruthless Little Things, a book that is described as, “A kaleidoscope of sapphic saturnalia and fast living, stroking the barrel and pouring ropefuel over your clean sheets, a book of callow lust and hollow predation, of addiction and personality disorders, of heartbreak and wild nights, gallery shows, incontinent ragers. It is a tender, sorehearted transmission from a self-made prison, and an earnest flight toward escape.” This contribution from Elle joins Kate Zambreno and Sofia Samatar’s epic 40-minute call and response reading to each other, a long-form conversation with translator Megan McDowell about Latin-American horror, particularly the work of Mariana Enríquez, and much more. The bonus audio is only one possible thing to choose from if you join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our collective brainstorm of who to invite next and every listener-supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode with the best things I discovered while preparing most of what is referenced during the conversation, and where to explore once you’re done listening. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Elle Nash.
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is novelist, short story writer, and editor Elle Nash. Nash’s debut Animals Eat Each Other was a novel that prompted Publishers Weekly to call her, “A debut writer to watch” and for past Between the Covers guest Sarah Gerard to say, “A savage, nuanced dive into the dynamics of queer sexuality, love and anti-love, jealousy, sadomasochism, Satanism, and everything else caught in the fray of a woman’s self-abandonment. Nash’s subtly spare prose renders matter-of-fact what we’re so often afraid to articulate to ourselves, let alone to the people we give ourselves over to.” Her debut story collection Nudes was picked by Dennis Cooper for his Favorite Fiction of 2021, was dubbed a sad girl summer book for Cosmopolitan UK, and of which Entropy Magazine said, “Relentlessly, whether the scene is a suburban home or an urban sex club, the aura of existential threat is borne.” Her next book was a novella Gag Reflex, once again featured by Dennis Cooper in his Favorite Fiction of 2022 and of which Heavy Feather Review said, “Nash’s ability is that she isn’t constrained to a subjective point of view at all, but may perhaps embody the omniscience of a daimon, trapped in a physical form insufficient to its capacities.” Elle Nash’s work has appeared in BOMB, Guernica, Lit Hub, New York, Tyrant, and many other places. She’s the founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine. She also is a writing teacher and consults on manuscripts for other writers. Elle Nash is here today to talk about her latest book Deliver Me published by Unnamed Press in the US and forthcoming from Verve Books in the UK. Chelsea G. Summers says, “Deliver Me is a gift to readers who love a seriously unhinged woman. With the creation of Dee-Dee, Elle Nash spelunks in the depths of human depravity and leaves readers (even me!) gasping. A wild, disturbing, super-smart novel, Deliver Me is unforgettable.” Melissa Broder adds, “To read the work of Elle Nash is to be restored to faith in the wildness, wetness, and visceral power of contemporary American fiction. Deliver Me is a barbed liturgy of bugs, babies, meat, the gospel, women lusting women, women lusting men, and the human body. Get saved.” Past Between the Covers guest Brian Evanson adds, “Deliver Me muddles the line between the intimate and the deranged in a way that keeps us off-balance to the very end.” Finally, Chris Heavener at Electric Literature says, “Nash’s Ozarks conjure the colorful and desperate scenes of Dorothy Allison and JT LeRoy. Her descriptions of industrial killing call to mind Eric Schlosser and Upton Sinclair. The complex relationship between the main female characters echo Jeffery Eugenides and Amy Hempel. The oppressive religiosity of the Southern church summons Flannery O’Connor and Dennis Covington. The sum of this concoction is a hallucinatory, pressure cooker of a novel that spills from Nash’s soul onto your own.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Elle Nash.
Elle Nash: Thank you for having me. It’s quite an introduction. [laughter]
DN: Well, I wanted to start with one of the origin stories of this book and how it influenced the structure of it. When you posted about the cover reveal at the time people could first begin pre-ordering the book, you said, “I started this novel before the pandemic was real in 2018. I was in a fugue state, breastfeeding, sleepless, struggling, the sharpness in mind ground down with the steep learning curve of newborn baby life. It took more out of me than I ever expected. I’d been trying to write the same novel over and over again until a former mentor told me she just didn’t feel like it was as ‘dark and intellectual’ as she knew I could be. I felt so damaged by this but maybe she was right. I set out to teach myself how to write a ‘normal novel.’ I taught myself the basics of plot (of which I did not know), the elements of fiction I’d never learned. I read a million craft books, read 90 day novel because I read that Ottessa Moshfegh had used it too. This would be my basic b*tch book I decided. I finished the first draft in 11 weeks but it took two years of refinements from then on to make it something truly real. What it morphed into toward the end was something that was darkly me more than anything I’ve ever written. I’m so proud of this book which has taken a lot of my tears in my attempts to finish it.” You’ve echoed this in some of your interviews. In one you say, “I’m going to write this novel in three months and I don’t care how bad it is,” yet in an attempt to write this normal novel to be formally mechanical about it so that you could write anything at all, it seems like you found it became particularly meaningful to you and like I just quoted, more darkly you than anything you’ve ever written. I wanted to start here with two questions about this. The book in its broadest strokes is a classic double timeline, three-act structure, and the book is very pregnancy-centric, those three acts are the three trimesters of pregnancy and the pregnancy is the ticking clock that structures the suspense of the book. My first question is do you feel like this became a particularly meaningful book to you because of what you learned about writing plot and perhaps that the constraint of this format made what you did better? Then if that’s true, how did it do that? Or do you feel like the surprise of your “normal book” actually being not normal at all was really despite the classic formal schematics that you adopted, that these constraints maybe just got you through the brain fog but otherwise, it wasn’t the reason why the book became so meaningful? In other words, do you think this new approach will carry forward for books that you write in the future that don’t have these particular challenges of this postpartum period? Tell us how and why if so.
EN: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think what I learned about the process was that the first was there is this debate that exists between plotless novels and plotted novels, and character-driven novels and plot-driven novels. I think what I learned through that process, it’s either plotted or it’s got language and it’s almost like I felt probably at the time, “Oh, maybe that’s not something that can meet in the middle,” because I am very language-driven, I love work on a sentence level, so when I said, “I’m going to write my basic b*tch novel,” it was this process of letting go of that and just saying like, “Okay, we’re just going to try to get to point A to point B.” I think that thing that surprised me was that after I did that, I was like, “Okay, I’m plotting. I’m doing this thing that so many people view this as a lower arch I guess to plot it.” I was actually like, “But I like the language of this. This still feels like me. I don’t think I’m actually losing or letting go of anything.” I think the other thing that surprised me as well was that I think I gained a new understanding of plot overall. I don’t think plot and character or plot and voice are at odds. I actually think that plot is just like what the character is thinking or what the character is doing. I think that plot actually exists even in things that are not necessarily plotted. It’s just a different throughline in that respect. A lot of that surprised me just in terms of looking at these elements and trying to understand them for myself, and also exposing my misconceptions about what I thought about that kind of work. I do think that it’s something that I will carry forward with me. I see a lot of value now in trying to understand where I’m going with a project before I actually sit down to begin it. With Deliver Me, I sat down and I worked out where I wanted to go with the storyline in about two weeks, and I had it on this big piece of butcher paper, I mean it changed over time of course, like I wasn’t solidly stuck to it but having that when I sat down to draft it made it so easy to get through that first drafting process. Then honestly for me, it was such a relief to have the whole draft completed because for me, I’m an editor, like I love to edit, I love to edit my own work, I love to edit other people’s work, so I think for me, where I love to play is in that realm of the carving but I didn’t know where to carve, like I need that big block of marble first. Otherwise, I’m just trying to manifest marble from air and that feels a little bit more difficult. Not that I don’t enjoy it. Even now, I’ve got these two projects. One is going to be like I’m going to have the plot written down and everything, and the other I’ve already written halfway into but I don’t know where I’m going with it, and that one, it’s got 20,000-25,000 words but I’ve been working on it since 2021, so it’s a more slow-going process but maybe some novels just need that. Sometimes, you look at a project and you’re just like, “I don’t even know if I have the skill set or the life knowledge to complete this project yet.” [laughs] That’s kind of that one. I’m just letting that sit and we’ll see where that one goes.
DN: Do you typically work on several books simultaneously?
EN: It wasn’t my intention with Deliver Me but whenever I would hand off a draft of that to my agent, to friends, or to an editor, I would then switch gears. I was working on my story collection at the time, then also Gag Reflex which is my live journal novel, so I was playing both of them off of each other, like procrastinating one with the other or what have you. I guess so. We’ll see how it goes with that. [laughs]
DN: Well, I mean when you say that plot and character are not separate or not as separate as people make them out to be, I think one thing that really works in that regard with Deliver Me is that, as I mentioned, the three-act structures, the three trimesters which would be a structure that your character very pregnancy-focused, that would be the form of the way she would be thinking about her own life is also the form of the novel which I think is really smart. When you interviewed Kate Zambreno about writing as a mother under capitalism, you asked her this question, “How do you get yourself to that space that you need to go to to do this higher level thinking that you need to write?” and she said, “Roland Barthes speaks about desk writing versus bed writing. Desk writing is formal thinking and bed writing is dreamy. I have not been able to sit up at a desk to write since I had the baby. I exist so much in a notebook space. Making lists, making notes.” It made me wonder if there were other ways either pregnancy itself and early motherhood or the million craft books you read, other ways that have changed your process going forward. Are there other things that you find you’re doing differently now that you’re going to hold on to even when the circumstances change?
EN: That’s such a good question. One thing that I’ve done a lot of, especially since moving to Glasgow, I got a full-time job and I was parenting alone for the first time, so I didn’t have a lot of creative space to sit down and formally work on stuff, and I do so much Notes app writing now, it’s one note and there are just so many snippets in there but whenever I have just the thought, I’m like, “Okay, I need to capture that.” I really try hard not to lose those moments because I used to be like, “Oh, if I have that thought, I can just work on the idea and put it away later.” But the way that my life has been structured now, it’s like a revolving door of activities and I won’t remember it, I know that I won’t, especially because when you get so busy as a parent, there’s so much going on for me. I just feel like I forget a lot. My short-term memory has really changed. That has changed. I’m definitely like a Notes app person now. I wish I was like a notebook person though. I wish I could handwrite prose. I can journal really basic feelings like, “I had a bad day today,” but I can’t get the rosy part into the handwriting and I don’t know why that is. [laughter] I used to be that way and I wonder if that’s because of our relationship with technology but yeah, I don’t know, it’s curious.
DN: But I think the Notes app space is probably a kindred space to the notebook space that Kate Zambreno is talking about. Well, before we talk about the book directly, are there any of those craft books that you would particularly put forth for others? Since you read so many books about structure and plotting, are there one or two that you would say, “These are pretty great”?
EN: Yeah, the one that I will recommend that I really liked was called The Plot Whisperer. It’s so funny because it’s a cheesy book, it’s a really cheesy book and it goes into the hero’s journey. But for me, I didn’t have an MFA, I didn’t have that formal understanding of these parts of a story and that broke it down really well for me in terms of how I create a plot, and it had a lot of really useful sheets and stuff like that, like worksheets and that thing. I laugh at it too because I literally found it at Goodwill for a dollar and I just bought it, and I had it for two years, then I looked at it and I was like, “I’m just going to read this and try it,” and I really liked it. It was really useful. The other one that I would really recommend is The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop and that’s by Stephen Koch. I don’t know why. That one just was really useful in terms of thinking about voice and style, and putting things towards that I would not have otherwise thought of as well. I like those two.
DN: Well, thinking of writing as a mother under capitalism, our protagonist Dee-Dee is into mother. In fact, she’s lost five pregnancies and she’s desperate to become a mother but she’s suffering under conditions. They’re not the same as postpartum brain fog and exhaustion but they’re nevertheless conditions that are huge obstacles to her living a full life, most notably poverty and a crushing and punishing job at a chicken processing plant. In a way, just as you hoped a double timeline three-act structure would deliver you from brain fog, Dee-Dee hopes having a baby will deliver her from the inhumane grind of her work. That it will set things right with her mother and it will put her relationship with her boyfriend on more solid footing. That being delivered not from motherhood but into it would be a sort of salvation for Dee-Dee. I was hoping we could hear the opening passage of the book, of Dee-Dee going to work, both to give us a sense of her daily life but also to get a sense of the language of the book, then as a preface to us, I was hoping to discuss what the book is about.
[Elle Nash reads from her latest book Deliver Me]
DN: We’ve been listening to Elle Nash read from her latest book Deliver Me. I’m torn about whether to begin by talking about the content of what you just read or the way it is written but I wanted to at least spend a moment with the horror of chicken processing itself. When I used to host a health show, these were the things we would parse out on the show. Many of the labels like cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised, I think most people would be shocked to discover the conditions and methods that are allowed to occur under many of these labels, to discover how much the important true significance of the words in the real world often have little to do with the actual practices going on, and how the labels are not meant really to help consumers as much as they are to give cover for the producers. I’ll just mention this, it’s not really related to our conversation but there are places like the Cornucopia Institute that put out scorecards where you can at least filter out the worst offenders but a lot of these debates are really complex and counterintuitive. For instance, beef having the largest carbon footprint, yet if we’re looking at humane treatment, it’s much easier actually to find cruelty-free beef than it is to find humanely raised egg-laying chickens where most people think that eggs are particularly good because you aren’t killing anything. They’re not realizing that 50% of the chicks are killed immediately because they’re male and they’re often ground down, and macerated while they’re still alive. Not to mention millions of other cruel but common practices that make the life of most egg-laying chickens far from one that gives it any resemblance to a chicken life during its life. In this book, Dee-Dee works at a chicken processing plant where she processes 140 birds per minute and the workers aren’t allowed to keep watches or phones with them, so there’s this massive digital death counter and it becomes a defacto clock, so the major clock of the book is pregnancy but there’s this other work clock that isn’t time but how many birds you’ve killed. If you manage 140 birds per minute, you know that you are at break time when the counter reaches 26,000 and that the first shift is over when you reach 50,000. I guess I was hoping maybe you could talk about why you wanted this to be one of the significant settings of the book, what the setting affords you as you tell this story, and perhaps why you’d want to pair this work environment with Dee-Dee’s other concerns as an aspiring mother.
EN: Something about that world really drew me to it. I’ve always been pretty passionate about being against large agricultural farm work ever since I was a teenager. I had read Eric Schlosser’s book and that inspired me to be vegetarian. Some of it was like in Colorado Springs where I grew up, there was a lot of the meat packing industry all along the front range in Colorado, so I was really intimately familiar with that. Where I went to University, there’s one town over where the major meat packing plants were, so on Thursdays, you knew that they always burned the vats of blood because the entire region would smell like blood and like farm shed, and all of this stuff for a couple of days, so you get used to that, the rhythm of that world. But something about chickens and the way that they are consistently breeding eggs maybe is one of those things that uniquely drew me to it. Once I started researching more about how chicken processing plants work, like for example, the fact that many of the chickens that they raise, they’re not old enough to lay eggs by the time they’re slaughtered when they are made for meat, the juxtaposition between that and what I was wanting for Dee-Dee just seemed too perfect. The pairing seemed like I needed to have that. I think about it two ways, like societally, when a person goes through a miscarriage for example, especially if the miscarriage is before the 12-week mark, I think that’s when they usually say, “That’s when it’s safe to tell them about a pregnancy.” I just feel like it’s not necessarily treated with the sympathy that you should have with it and it’s easy for a person to feel dismissed in their experience or not know how common it is. It happened to me once, I did not know how common it was for that experience to happen until I actually had to start reaching out and talking to people. People were dismissive of it, also in my experience, so it was through that where I was like, “Okay, so we have this end of it,” then on the other end, we have the way that we view meat as a product, like when you do look at it in the supermarket, especially just chicken, in particular, is a special kind because it’s white meat, there’s no blood, it’s not like with beef where it’s bleeding, it’s very beige, so it feels like a product. It feels like not an animal when you’re purchasing it with how different it looks to when it’s alive. I think just on both of those ends, the way that we just move through society and don’t think about death or are very protected from we live in a very sterile world when it comes to those kinds of deaths, that was something I was just thinking about all of the time when I was working on this novel. Part of that might also be because once I did have my baby, I thought about death so much and that’s actually common too. I know a lot of new mothers who say that, they’re just like, “I think about death so much,” and I’m like, “Yeah. I did not know that was a thing.” I was like, “Mom, why didn’t you ever tell me that you have this experience?” [laughter] Maybe that was also a result of it too where I’m just really contemplating it on a deeper level now.
DN: Well, let’s stay with this excerpt another minute and talk about the language of it. From the get-go with the opening line, “The factory is a fertile body, each breast a beginning,” and the following one, “I make geometry of the meat and that keeps my mind in line. Calming, comforting tenders, and perfect fingers, my pneumatic scissors make sense of the mess,” it’s super obvious that you attend to the sentence and the music and imagery of language. I know that prior to your newfound interest in plot structure, your focus was very much formed through a lineage to the language-centric philosophy of Gordon Lish where when you interviewed Lish and asked him if philosophy was as important as sound in fiction, he answered, “Between idea and sound, if you were to put a gun to my head, I’d take the bullet for the acoustic and every last one of its relations in the domain of speech.” I suspect you might also, with articles you’ve written like What Joy Williams and Denis Johnson Can Teach Us About the Art of First Sentences, both very acoustical writers I’d say, and your connection to Lish is through Tom Spanbauer who long ago was one of Lish’s students, and who might not be a name most people in the world immediately recognize but who was for the longest time the biggest figure of writing and writing pedagogy here in Portland, Oregon with his Dangerous Writing workshops, which held a big space in the imaginary of the Portland writing community. A decade ago, you came to Portland to study under him in the Dangerous Writers group and he pushed the story you were working on into a book-length project, your debut novel. I was hoping maybe you could talk to us about his influence, what dangerous writing is for him and for you, and also any anecdotes you might have around working with him.
EN: It makes my heart swell thinking about his workshop so much because it was one of the first actual writing workshops that I did attend. I was new. I did not know that literary magazines were a thing. I did not know that independent presses existed. It was like a whole new world that opened up to me when I went to his workshop. I think the thing that really changed my world with his workshop was that I came into writing through science fiction and wanting to do work like Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler and that kind of thing. But what was hard for me was I had a journalistic background and I did not know how to connect with what I was writing about. That’s like on an emotional level. I just kept thinking in my mind, I was like, “I only know how to do journalism. I only know how to tell the truth of things. I don’t know how to lie,” and that what was so revolutionary about working with Tom is that he has that quote, I think it’s from Lish where he says, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer.” It was through his practice of Dangerous Writing where the very first assignment we got was to think about a moment where after you’re different. It was about taking the sore spots, the places we’re afraid to look at in our lives, and examining them from all these different facets. One thing that I learned from Dangerous Writing was that when you’ve got that source spot, you already have atmosphere, you have setting, you have motivation, you have your characters, and you have all of the stuff already that’s at the outset that you can connect to and through that, and through exploring it, then you can create the atmosphere that you’re looking for, that you’re trying to express and that’s where you can start to manipulate. That’s where I started. I don’t know, it was revolutionary for me thinking about that where I was like, “Oh, I don’t actually have to world build. All this is already in me.” That’s the thing that we all, like I think love about fiction anyway, is not necessarily always the world building but it’s the themes of human connection and closeness, even through all the best sci-fi. Do you know what I mean? Not that world-building is bad. I love good sci-fi. It’s just that I was learning for myself. I didn’t have to try to push myself too far, too hard at first. I had to connect at that outset. I think that’s part of what it was for me. I also really liked and admired that idea of going into places that scared you most, that idea of bringing the reader to their knees that all felt really powerful to me because that is what I go to reading for. That’s what feels the best. In some ways, since that workshop, just on a personal level that felt unrelated at the time, I’ve deepened my own spiritual practice with ritual and magic but meditation and Buddhism too in terms of thinking about my relationship to suffering and what that looks like. In a lot of ways, my relationship to writing has deepened my understanding of my relationship to suffering. My relationship to character building and how I think about how to connect with a character that isn’t me or has a completely different life experience or a character that is not sympathetic, a character that people don’t like, I’m able to understand humanity, people, and the psychology of those things more because I can look at suffering which is something that we all experience as like this universal thing. They have intertwined in a way for me. I think it’s partly due to that idea of going to those places that scare you and having that sympathy for the areas of our life where we need to be redeemed that everybody has. That is taught in Dangerous Writing. Hopefully, that makes sense. Is that a complete sentence? [laughter]
DN: Yeah, I think so. Well, I love that notion of thinking about a moment where you’re different after which I think you’re right. I think world-building is already inherent in that moment. If you’re thinking of that moment, you don’t need the exposition because it’s already there in the moment. But before we talk more about dangerousness in writing, you just mentioned ritual and magic, and it just made me wonder if your spiritual practice and/or ritual and magic interfaces with your writing practice. Is it something you do that more intangibly gets carried into your writing? Or is there a way it actually intersects explicitly with your writing where you might be doing ritual or magic as part of composition or as part of something you’re doing with whatever book you’re working on?
EN: I guess it’s a little bit of both. I almost feel like this is the immature baby me, like a perspective of an immature baby me now but for a while, I was like, “Oh, spelling is manifesting a thing.” It’s like you’re actually conjuring an idea, like you’re putting that in someone else’s mind which is really cool. But I’m looking at it a little bit more differently now. I’ve got these short stories and there are these different characters in these short stories, and sometimes they’re interlinked and sometimes they’re not, and I do have people ask me sometimes like, “Who is this? Is this a person? Is this based on anyone?” or what have you. I had this realization where I was like, “Well, it’s not a person in my life but they are representations of particular feelings and experiences that I’ve crammed into, like a particular almost entity in some ways.” I was thinking like, “Is that like a tulpa? Is this character living and breathing through all these different stories?” This representation of this pain that I’ve experienced, that I’ve had to examine in all these different ways, I’ve put them to life and looked at them through many facets. I haven’t thought about those kinds of things since I’ve completed the stories and put the book down like they’ve gone out into the world, like I’ve released them and that is somewhat a magical process in a way. On its very basics, everyone does magic or whatever different but it’s like this idea that if you create a sigil or whatever, you charge it, then release it and you don’t think about it anymore. That’s what I feel like I do maybe with a short story, with a novel. Like When Animals Eat Each Other, I have honestly not thought about whatever experiences were the basis for that book in so long. I think that Tom once wrote in an article, I think it was NAILED that maybe it’s this idea of like you’re psychologically exhausting, whatever pain it is that you’re examining. I don’t know if that’s always true because I think it can be different for everybody. But I’ve often thought about that in some ways, is that maybe that’s part of that process. People tend to say like, “Is it therapy or not?” “Well, I don’t know.” Maybe I don’t care if it’s therapy but it’s like asking that question, it’s like, “Well, why do you feel driven to do it?”
DN: Well, let me read some of the different ways you framed Spanbauer’s approach, some of which you’ve already said, I’ll just be reiterating. In your bio, you say that you follow his teaching philosophy, that good writing has a feel to it, and that it’s imperative to bring the reader to their knees but you’ve also written, “What Spanbauer meant by ‘dangerous writing’ was to explore the work that personally scares or embarrasses the author; to make it dangerous is to express those fears honestly through art.” In a podcast, you said, “Spanbauer’s approach is to think about one of the most painful things in your life and that becomes the seed. You can examine it from so many facets. When you look at one of those moments, you have everything you need to tell a story, to create a fiction,” and much like your connection to Lish, having come through his former student, Spanbauer, you also came to Spanbauer, at least in part through one of his students or former students, the Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, and when you interviewed Chuck and asked him about Spanbauer’s influence, especially given that he had dedicated his craft essay book Consider This to Spanbauer, he said that before Spanbauer, his own writing was like a lousy Stephen King copy and that Tom told him that the world already had a Stephen King, and showed him how to reverse engineer storytelling so that he was creating stories from his own style and from his own voice, building a deep framework from something more deeply connected to his own particular experience of the world. In your intro to that interview, you say, “The problem with being vulnerable as a writer is there’s a paradoxical desire for the work to be liked, whether that means validation through the publishing process or being accepted by some sort of readership, while simultaneously shutting out self-critique or worry about whether others will accept the work. I once talked to a writer friend who discussed the need to ‘lean in to your disaster’—disaster being the raw, distinguished pain of one’s words which makes a writer’s work unique, wild, and telling. Often in Spanbauer’s workshop, this practice started with an assignment about the thing you’re most afraid to tell. The idea was you might exhaust all of the emotional or psychic pain of a moment through writing, make the pain totally vulnerable, and come to a new place on the other side, changed.” I guess I wondered what you consider the edge with Deliver Me, the place of fear for you of speaking if you feel like going there. I know this might be too personal a question but I’m curious about the edge of vulnerability that becomes the energy of this book if there is one that you can speak to. If not, I’m also curious either way about this tension that you paint between true disclosure and also the awareness of wanting the book to be loved or liked, and brought into the world and embraced which feels like a legitimate tension if you’re writing in this way of vulnerability.
EN: Yeah. Oh, that’s so hard because one reason that I love fiction is that I can hide all my feelings in it. I think Elisa Gabbert made this really funny tweet a while back that was like, “Fiction is great because you can have a feeling, then you can be like, ‘It’s not me that has that feeling. That guy has it.’” It was like, “Oh my God, I’ve never felt something so deeply true.” [laughter] I think there are a lot of edges in that book for me and one that I can speak to definitely is for a while, like in my mid to late 20s, I surprisingly wanted to have a baby so bad and I never felt that way before in my life. That was like to the point that I was in a yoga teacher training class and I had met this other girl who also was in the same boat, and we were both like, “Oh, we’re coming up on our 30s and we feel so burnt out with our jobs. Wouldn’t being a stay-at-home mom be so wonderful?” which to me it’s funny and naive that I thought at the time that having a newborn and being a mom 24/7 would somehow be easier, which is funny. [laughs] It’s a labor of love but there was a girl in our class who did get pregnant and she was a nanny, so she got to have her baby and still have her job, and she had this dream life. I was surprised. I was envious. I was so envious that I didn’t want to talk to her anymore. I was surprised by those kinds of feelings at the time, so I think exploring that was an edge of vulnerability for me, then I think also just examining the psychology of violence. I think I didn’t know, when writing it, how people were going to necessarily take it because people I think do so often associate my work with autofiction. But yeah, I don’t know, it’s tough, it’s tough, like I love having the veil of fiction because even if I write something that seems similar to something I’ve experienced, I’m also able to look at that and say like, “Well, that’s not really me.” I’ve externalized it from myself and I’m twisting it into all these different patterns now. It’s very satisfying to look at that, to be like, “Look at this carving I’ve made of my pain, it’s not me anymore.” [laughter] I don’t know why. I really like that but it is a fine balance because in order to get the work done, you have to not worry about the thoughts of others to keep them from crippling you. But then to feel motivated to put it out in the world, which is also just an equally difficult process, like querying, publishing, the waiting game, facing the rejection, and all of that, you have to want the validation bad enough to get through that too. You almost have to play tricks on yourself or it’s like I’m looking at one side of a mirror, then I’m looking at the other side or something like that, like it’s a double-sided mirror or something in terms of that but yeah, I don’t know, it’s a weird thing. It’s a weird thing. [laughs]
DN: Well, I know sometimes you teach a class called Textures and another self-guided class called Knife Party about how to be a better self-editor where you say, “Learn how and when to cut, how to tighten work at the sentence level, and root out laziness in your creative work.” I wondered if those were extensions of what we’ve been talking about, about this Lishian school but I’m also interested in how you teach or how does one learn when to cut and how to cut.
EN: I would say that it is probably out of that realm, like the Lishian realm. When working with Tom, for example, one thing that we did every two weeks was we would just read the work aloud. He did not do line edits in documents or on Word, track changes, or anything like that. A lot of our work was simply reading the work aloud and finding where it did not work. When you do that enough, you start to build an idea of how smooth something is and where something’s unnecessary, and the two places are like, “Is it hard to say?” If you’ve ever tried to read over a sentence and you’re just like, “I’m getting clunky here,” or something like that, that’s when I think that you need to edit. Then the other place is you feel yourself getting bored of your own work that you’re reading. If you’re reading your own stuff and you’re like, “This is a slog,” that to me is a big sign those are places you need to tighten and edit, there’s a lot you could do without because if you’re bored, anybody else experiencing that is likely to be bored as well because it’s your work and you’re the most interested in it so that would be a bad sign. [laughs]
DN: That sounds like a terrible sign.
EN: But that’s part of developing the intuition for it where intuition is a skill set. It’s really just about being able to turn down any other outside noise and listening to the little internal meter inside yourself, and that gets better and stronger over time the more that you can tune out that noise. Just with everything in general but with writing in particular, you get better by reading a ton of other people’s work that you are not familiar with because then you learn your own taste because editing really is about your own taste, it’s not necessarily like what one teacher says. One thing I do love about some of Lish’s students for example is their first novels with him are always 120 pages, then the second book is 400 pages. [laughter] Do you know what I mean? It’s always like that where the student leaves, then they actually learn for themselves what voice they prefer over what their mentor is teaching them. You learn through that. Like when you read other people’s work and you’re editing a magazine for someone else or in a workshop, I do think you learn very quickly that you’re like, for example, when a sentence starts with an ing verb, then drops me into the action and you have to just stop and think like, “Besides not liking it, why don’t I like this? Can I verbalize that to this person in my workshop and say why I don’t like it?” That helps you because the more that you do it, the quicker it comes to you, then you can do that without thinking when you’re looking objectively at your own work.
DN: That makes sense.
EN: Yeah. One thing that I want to speak to with Tom, I think one thing that he fostered in people was like with Chuck, remember when you were talking about Chuck Palahniuk and how you reverse engineer something, he does do such a good job of teaching the writer to learn how to say something in their own voice specifically because we use shortcuts so much, that’s what the cliche is, the cliche is just the scaffolding our brain is creating for that moment so we don’t have to delve deeper. But he has this concept called the Burnt Tongues and so that is the process of saying what you want to say but in your own unique voice. Everyone feels a heartbreak. We know what that feels like but there’s only one way that you experience, that you can use it by burning the cliche itself to express it in your own way and that was something that was really valuable to me in terms of reverse engineering, like the story and thinking about it. Also, there are a lot of great fears that I have from some of my writing students who say things like, “Oh, well, I’m writing a story about this but I saw so and so just put out a book like this, and now I’m afraid to write my story.” It’s just a bit like everything that we could conceptualize has already been conceptualized. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. The cliche exists for a reason. It’s a universal experience, like pain is universal or whatever the experience is but there’s only one way that you can say it. He’s always been that proponent too of like there’s no boring story because what makes it interesting is the way that you tell it. That was something really valuable that I wanted to touch on.
DN: Well, one way you’ve contrasted Lish and Spanbauer was by saying, “Lish says to write the thing you were scared most about, the most heartbreaking thing,” and that Spanbauer took that and said, “See how close to the body can we get with that heartbreak and with that fear?” I wanted to spend some time with the body in the ways you take things that society is trying to hold apart and separate from each other, and you bring them close, at least in my theory. This is my proposed theory. But the first scene you read began with, “The factory is a fertile body, each breast a beginning,” and it obviously evokes the language of birth and reproduction but to describe something that is actually about death and the physical dismantling of chicken corpses. Similarly, as Dee-Dee is cutting apart these breasts, she’s thinking of her early pregnancy at the same time, and the giant digital death counter is echoed in the book by the billboard above the hospital that counts every baby that’s born since the hospital was built in a state that is a very anti-abortion state. It begins even with your bipolar set of epigraphs because we have the one from Psalms, “Oh Lord, deliver me from evil men, preserve me from the violent,” and the other from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H which I think is a quasi-mystical text, yet one much more inescapably tied to the body and to the impure which goes, “The roach and I aspire to a piece that cannot be ours. It’s a piece beyond the size and destiny of the roach and of me.” It feels like every gesture of generation and birth in Deliver Me is mirrored with something related to death and degeneration. Perhaps this is in contrast to Dee-Dee’s mother’s fervent Evangelical life, which at least for me feels more linear, like a moving away from darkness toward the light. She belongs to a Pentecostal church with faith healing and speaking in tongues as part of worship, and she prohibits Dee-Dee from watching TV. Dee-Dee’s failure to become a mother has her own mother fawning over Dee-Dee’s pregnant best friend and nemesis Sloane. But I’m curious why you chose this specific strain of Christianity, a church that also embraces the so-called prosperity gospel where sin results in poverty. It feels like this is a choice because I feel like the mechanics or the ethos of the book, which I feel like is bringing the roach and the Psalms together, the cut-up breast and the life-giving breast together feels like a stark contrast to the world in which the characters are living, which feels like a world where the church is trying to push them as far apart as possible.
EN: Evangelical Christianity and this particular flavor has always been fascinating to me. My experience of them as a culture is that it is very clean almost, like very crisp corners. Laundry is always clean. Hair is always done right. These are things that are seen as values that get you closer to Godliness in a way but at the same time, I love studying Christianity because, in my mind, it will never not be like a death cult, so just its own juxtaposition, its own existence and that juxtaposition, I don’t know, I’ve just always been fascinated by it for some reason. [laughs] It just seemed like it was necessary and part of it is also because it is just true to that world. I lived in Northwest Arkansas which is 40 minutes from Missouri, I think it’s like an hour from Joplin, so being in and of that world, I just was like, “This is accurate to the people.” If there is a woman who is struggling in her life and trying to find independence, it’s likely going to be because she is struggling to get away from the church. The thing about Christianity, at least, in the United States is that it is in and of everything in so many ways culturally. I think I would even say that for communities that may feel that they’re secular, they may not even actually be. There may be echoes of Puritan culture that still exist in secular environments that we’re not fully aware of. I did want to examine that. I think that my work often comes back to that and I don’t know why. It is so funny. I think about this often. In the next two manuscripts that I’m working on, both of them mention Jesus in the first three pages and I’m like, “Why am I consistently thinking about this?” Maybe it is because for me, just as a person, I’m constantly trying to think how I can remove the structures of that thinking out of my own mind and find that liberation.
DN: Well, you also grew up in one of the most Christian cities in the United States too. I don’t know how many Evangelical organizations and churches exist in Colorado Springs but it’s a lot.
EN: 600. [laughs]
DN: 600? [laughter]
EN: Probably more now. [laughter] I know it’s a lot and that’s the home of focus on the family too. Growing up, I think his name is James Dobson or whoever it is, he was on the news all the time or we had junior achievement and focus on the family programs in the elementary, and middle schools. That was just normal.
DN: I know you attended a church as part of your research and I don’t think it’s the same type of church that is the predominant church in Colorado Springs, perhaps it is. But I would love to hear about your experience, what it was like attending the services. It’s also obvious you knew a lot about this community because as Sloane, Dee-Dee’s friend or frenemy says at one point criticizing the church, she says that oneness doctrine is the worst thing to happen to Christianity ever. I didn’t know what oneness doctrine was. I know that you got very specific to a specific Christian community. Talk to us about the very specifics of this church and also the experience of going there as a temporary congregant, and how interfacing with the people in it was like.
EN: I went to a United Pentecostal church and they are the faith healing type. They believe in glossolalia and the laying of hands. I think a big thing that they believe in is doing good works. I was a little bit scared at first. It’s a very, very small church. It was the closest one to me where I lived. In rural Arkansas, I mean it is a little bit like you don’t know necessarily what you’re stepping into. It’s like maybe 10 families at most would go to this church. It’s not my first experience going into a new organized religious environment. I was Muslim for a while. I went through the process of converting and was Muslim for four-ish years I think, and even converted from one sect to another sect in my time in the Muslim community. I’d been to different, but wildly different types of congregations and walked into that as a stranger, not knowing what to expect, so that part wasn’t necessarily scary. In fact, it was similar. When I showed up, I was wearing all black, I was wearing trousers, I had facial piercings and it’s like, “You’re not from here” because they’re very conservative. Women are not allowed to wear trousers. They don’t wear any makeup because that is about modesty and that sort of thing. But everyone’s very kind or nice and I would say that that is because they don’t want to scare people away. They want people to be part of the congregation because that’s part of the work is bringing people in by living this life that they feel is aligned with the word of God. They believe that is how they will attract people to the religion. For the most part too, living in Arkansas was largely my experience with anybody that was a part of the apostolic Christian community that I came across. I worked with people who were Christian. We went to church and did multiple church activities every week, like it was their lives, it was their lifestyle. Never once did they try to proselytize or change my mind about what my beliefs were, them knowing my beliefs. It really was more just like they made themselves available to me as friends and hung out with me, and through that, it’s like, “Oh, hey, well, on Thursday, if you’re looking for community, we have an international soccer team as part of our church group.” They bring you in that way and stuff.
DN: Were you on the soccer team?
EN: No, I was not on the soccer team but I’ve always been bad at team sports, just for the record. [laughter] But going to the church is very gendered, like the women generally are the ones that talk to me. The only man that really talked to me was the preacher, just asking me about where I was from, how I’d found them, and all that stuff. I would just sit in the back and listen to him speak, listen to a lot of sermons. I spent a lot of time also just watching sermons in general and doing deep biblical research, and trying to understand like, “Why does this sect think that this sect is wrong? Why are they against this idea of a Triune God? When did this sect break off from this one?” There are all these different reasons and interpretations. They seem so complicated to me but I guess if you’re passionate about something, it makes sense, just like with writing communities maybe. [laughs]
DN: Yeah, I think so.
EN: But I would sit in the back, just listen, and just experience it. It can be overwhelming sometimes, like listening to them and the sound of the organs or the sound of the praying and stuff and how loud it gets. There’s this weird communal pressure just from being in the experience of it. That was quite new to me because it is very different from going to the mosque on Fridays as a Muslim where you do your prayers and you learn the process and stuff but it’s more structured and you know what to expect. Then at the UPC Church, it was like you just have different groups that start doing the glossolalia thing, then it’s a little more hectic. It feels like the energy is more frenetic.
DN: Oh, that sounds so interesting. Well, I have a theory why this book is so unsettling, even if we put aside the last 40 pages where I think it spins into full-on depraved madness and I want to hear your thoughts on my theory because I think you do more than refuse to allow the spirit, soul, or the aspirational self or our dreams, refusing to allow that aspect of us to escape the body and death. I feel like there are a million ways that you transgress borders, blur binaries, or violate norms, whether those be the binaries and norms of the church that all the characters are orbiting in different ways or simply the norms of middle-class life which are not the life the characters are living but which I think a lot of the characters are dreaming of. There’s a way in which the norms of middle-class life seem to be aspirationally in the book for the characters even though they’re not materially living anything like it. For instance, some of these transgressions that come to mind are Dee-Dee’s boyfriend is called Daddy, which definitely gives us a weird taboo-like aura, and Dee-Dee’s mom who dotes over Dee-Dee’s best friend, and nemesis Sloane when Sloane successfully gets pregnant, the way she loves Sloane, the mom, almost has an erotic charge to me and most of the characters are bisexual, and only default to heterosexual relations due to the pressures upon them in society. Or in the case of Daddy, the trauma that he sublimates into a sexual kink where he uses insects that allow him to get aroused when having sex with women. The way insects are employed by Daddy during sex with Dee-Dee also, it’s crossing a species barrier which also in a way evokes death while they’re having sex as really the only other time we would think of insects crawling over us is when we’re a corpse. Also, the way Daddy treats these exotic insects that he collects, when they’re alive, they’re cared for like pets and when they’re dead, they’re lovingly preserved and displayed. Unlike the one-eyed stray cat in the book or the innumerable chickens which are really treated like things, they’re really treated like bugs for that matter. Unlike the bugs, the bugs are treated in an inverted way, this inversion between animals and insects which I think underscores the arbitrariness of what we love, and what we think is disposable. I think of your call for submissions at Witch Craft Magazine also which goes, “Witch Craft Magazine craves darkness, hunger, and the beautiful brutal. Feed your shadows to the hole,” and the hole is the place you submit your work at Witch Craft Magazine but I also think it’s a place where you can’t separate out good from evil where all boundaries are crossed, where, as Lispector said, “The roach and I aspire to a piece that cannot be ours.” I guess I suspect there’s a method to your madness that is all by design that every relationship in this book may seem familiar at first glance but at any moment, it feels like it could cross a boundary that would make it strange to us. Maybe it’s even similar to the energy of the church, which it’s a ritual but it’s an uncontained ritual, everything from the hints of the ancestral tone of having a boyfriend named Daddy and the crossing from heterosexuality to queerness, which isn’t happening in the book but always suggested like it could happen, well, it is happening in the book and when it’s not happening, it’s suggesting that it could happen at any moment. I wondered how that strikes you as one of the possible engines of what unsettles us as we read the book.
EN: I feel like that’s a really good observation. [laughs] I like it a lot. I came to Tom Spanbauer through Chuck Palahniuk and this idea of transgressive literature, I discovered Chuck when I was a teenager in high school, not knowing much about transgressive literature, I just slowly learned more. I know that now, I think people don’t like to use the term and that’s partly because it’s come to be associated with shock literature where it’s taboo for no reason or it’s just grotesque and violent for the sake of being that way. I have always felt like if you are going to transgress, if you are going to push up against boundaries, I feel like there has to be a good reason for it and part of that is maybe because we are trying to question these roles, these guard rails, and these boundaries that do exist in society in some ways. I do and intentionally did, I want to make the person experiencing this story uncomfortable but at the same time, I’m wanting them to have a sense of empathy for what Daisy is going through. I set out thinking about this person and the impetus behind the story saying, “I’m compelled enough to go on a ride with this story myself. Am I capable of bringing other people with me? How am I going to do that?” But I think I do want people to feel uncomfortable but not unreasonably so. I think it’s just because the nature of human existence is sometimes horrifying, I don’t know, maybe I just needed to expunge that for some reason, like examine it, look at it, and make sense of things. It’s interesting because and I don’t know if this was necessarily intentional at the outset but even with that gray area of the insects being cross-species, I wonder like in the kink world, I have seen people use it before but it’s like, “Does that even, in the kink world, cross a line for some people too into something that would then be considered like bestiality, which would be then completely unethical?” There’s this weird line even there with it and I don’t know for sure where people stand on that but yeah, I have often thought about that. But even with the characters, like with Daisy in particular, it’s like she’s pressing up against these boundaries but part of the reason why some of this obsession starts to develop is that she doesn’t even necessarily have the language or the life experience to express what it is she’s feeling or how to express it in a certain way and just because of her own unique psychological makeup, like for her, the way that it ends up coming out is in this really unhealthy boundary-pushing way. For her, expression is like a river. It’s like a river that keeps flowing. For her, it’s like this path is starting to carve, then it just keeps carving deeper and deeper as you go into the story.
DN: Well, staying with making people uncomfortable, I loved Brad Listi’s response to the cross-species insect kink between Dee-Dee and Daddy when you were on Otherppl, his podcast, which was a real gross-out for him. But I would like to say unlike him, despite myself finding this entirely unappealing in the abstract and in the description of it, I think you find a way to make it erotic to place us within what turns the characters on and from there make something that is extremely unsexy sexy. When you interviewed Sarah Gerard at BOMB, you asked her about writing sex, what the most cringeworthy scenes of sex writing she had ever encountered were, and what makes her feel successful at writing a good sex scene. I wanted to ask you the same. Talk to us about your considerations around sex writing, whether it has insects or not, just sex writing, which is so fraught and so easily mocked.
EN: Yeah, that’s hard, right? I have a theory about this and part of it is because on a biological level, I feel like humans forget what good sex feels like faster than bad sex, so that way, they keep having it. [laughs] You’re like, “Oh, I’ve forgotten how good that feels. I’m going to go try and find that again,” or something. Whereas bad sex is probably more memorable because you definitely don’t want to go through that again or seek it out. But I guess there are a couple of things. I do always try to use those dangerous writing principles of going on the body. I think that comes from Lish too but Tom would say like, “Go OTB. Go on the body,” and that always describes a feeling from really what it feels like internally. It’s like saying instead of, just as a basic example, “I feel scared,” it’s more like, “Well, what’s going on inside the body physiologically when fear is happening?” It’s more than like a heart beating fast or something. There’s a lot more that’s going on there and it’s like diving as deeply into those five senses as you can, then seeing where that takes you. I think even from those five senses, you can develop through into the six senses, which is the psyche, what’s going on in the mind or the consciousness of everything too that can make it a lot more rich. That’s one thing. Another thing is I guess with the insect or just maybe sex writing in general in terms of making it interesting and unique is I love the use of juxtaposition, I’ve been finding in sex writing. I was like, “Can I sexualize an armpit?” That’s not something people generally may sexualize, some people would though, I mean that’s what I love about sex is that if something exists, people probably are into it. [laughs] I would just want to see, “Can I do that? Can I have a character that’s interested in a concave of another person’s armpit and what that represents?” which it does, it represents reverence or devotion or maybe they’re just like a pervert, maybe they’re just obsessed and those things are interesting to me. They make a person or character unique. I just read Body Work by Melissa Febos and there’s a really great chapter in there that I took a bunch of notes on about sex writing. She came to it too by saying part of it is about challenging what we have been programmed to think about sex as and a lot of that is in terms of what the heteronormative experience is, and pushing past it. I was like, “Oh man, maybe that’s also what I think makes sex scenes really good.” For example, I think people tend to criticize using porny words a lot which yeah, it can feel clunky and not very literary but Febos puts an example forward of Eileen Myles and a section from one of Eileen Myles’s works that use all of those words, yet has so much richness to it and so much consideration for these body parts that are, I don’t know, it’s hard for me to put words to it but that makes it so much more rich. It’s about breaking those rules of what the heteronormative experience is pushing past it. I do say if you are interested in writing sex, read that book because she’s got a writing exercise in there that is really good that I want to try for myself that seems crazy where it’s like summarize, so this is nonfiction but it’s like summarize the experience of your sex life in five sentences, then do it again but don’t refer back to any of the last five sentences, then do it again a third time and keep going, keep diving until you’ve got nothing left, then when you’re there, then do it one more time. It’s like challenging yourself to go into those deeper places that you wouldn’t normally dive into. I think that a big part of sex writing too is diving deeper than the shortcuts were primed for reaching towards. I think that’s why she was explaining like we’re challenging what we’re programmed to think of as sexual and trying to dive beneath that. I think that’s always what makes a sex scene really good is when you’re able to pull that out of an experience because then that expands an experience for a reader in a way. That’s what I love about fiction is it can be expansive.
DN: I like that discussion you had with Sarah at BOMB about this very thing, about the clumsiness in English of words like cock or boobs and I appreciate that you’re putting forth examples where you can make those work, and make them work in a really wonderful way but also that you were making word banks of body parts, I’m assuming armpit was in there, of body parts that people wouldn’t normally associate with sexuality and making them sexual, which I think even this insect endeavor is an extreme example of that, like taking something that would be very far away from a normative sexual experience and going so deeply inside of a character that finds that erotic so that we, by extension, could see it as erotic but Sarah wouldn’t answer your question. I’m guessing you’re not going to answer this question either but Sarah wouldn’t answer your question of any memorably terrible sex-writing encounters. But are you willing to name names about any that you particularly love for the ways they’ve gone off the rails?
EN: Gosh, I’m trying to think honestly of bad examples. I don’t know if I have any per se. I can only think of great examples. I’ve talked about this book so much in the last two years but Wetlands is one of my favorite books by Charlotte Roche because that is all extremely sexual but also extremely gross for a lot of people and it’s just that particular use of juxtaposition that I found to be so incredibly clever because she’s actually just writing about normal everyday things too that all humans experience but because there’s so much sexuality imbued with it, it can give you an ick factor. But I found that to be fascinating, then always like Dennis Cooper. [laughs] I know I’m only giving you great examples.
DN: Well, that’s great. I love that. Well, I think Brad Listi was right that one way to frame this book is around the idealization of motherhood, that Dee-Dee’s belief that motherhood will save her, that it will give her love and something to love, that it will somehow restore her to herself is almost a religious belief because all the examples of motherhood around her are not inspiring examples and they wouldn’t inspire this belief in her by example. The very thing that she sees as salvation as her form of deliverance is also oppressing her in its ideal form as much as the very real in the world things like poverty and her job are oppressing her but also we know she lives in a climate and a region where her choices are limited. There is only one abortion clinic in the state. It’s six hours away and she can’t afford the time off work to go there and come back. We learn of a woman addicted to drugs who is prosecuted for her miscarriage and Sloane, her nemesis is a cautionary tale herself, then I even had the question because, at one point, a strain of Avian flu broke out at the processing plant. I wondered if there was a relationship between her habitual miscarriages and her job. That’s not a connection that the book makes but both of these things are happening. Even if there isn’t a connection, the fact that the book opens with, “The factory is a fertile body, each breast is a beginning,” then she literally spends her day cutting breasts into pieces suggests it’s an existential ending for her. But thinking of the sea of misogyny that the characters are swimming in and the complete lack of support for mothers, and how the book is dedicated to every woman who must endure the torture humanity has to offer, I wanted to have you read a passage of Daddy mansplaining about why it is really men who are disposable, not women. But before we do, in the spirit of women succeeding against the impossible odds or in the spirit of the praying mantis who’s chewing on Daddy’s nipple with her mandibles in one scene, which of course, we also think of the fact that female praying mantises often kill their mates during sex, you have an essay called Writing Under Duress: How to Persevere When Your Job, Life, and Kids Are Also a Priority and you’ve also written a guide into how to step back into writing when you’ve avoided the work, so I wondered if maybe before we hear the reading, if you had any thoughts about persevering as a writer in the face of all these other things demanding one’s time or coming back to writing if you haven’t been able to persevere and are now in a cycle of avoiding the work because of it.
EN: For me, for a really long time, I think writing was the only place where I felt totally free to be myself. Like if you go to work, then you have work you and you have the pressures of work, and you have to be productive and on top of your sh*t, there’s a type of person that you have to project to be in that world, especially if it’s customer service facing or corporate world which is the same thing to me as customer service facing in that way. You conform to those roles or for example, if you’re a mom, I mean I’m still myself as a mom but there’s a lot that I’m not going to share with my daughters, like if things are difficult. I have to be the strongest, most calm version of myself for her to model that she can learn how to manage her emotions. I have to be the person that sets really good boundaries so that way, she learns how to set really good boundaries. That’s not stuff that comes naturally. There’s all that messy stuff. Do you know what I mean? I’ve persevered through the writing simply because that was my cope. I was like, “This is where I go.” I lost my momentum for a bit because Best Buy had ripped my hard drive out of my MacBook, then replaced it and I lost a bunch of writing, so I felt so dejected.
DN: Oh, my God.
EN: I felt so dejected right when it first happened that I was like, “I don’t even know if I want to write anymore,” which is insane to think about for me but then I got over it of course, but I never got the same momentum back that I had with how I was doing. I have to learn to look at it and have been learning to look at it, it’s almost like learning to run a marathon. For people who do want to write every day but they aren’t successful at it, you have to build momentum, then the momentum begins to catch. It’s like if you roll a ball down a hill or something like that, it starts off slow but then it starts to pick up and you just have to not beat yourself up when you fail, and just get up the next day and say like, “Okay, I’m going to try,” and that’s how you start to do that. In terms of facing into the avoidance, there’s no easy answer to that. [laughter]
DN: Come on.
EN: I know. [laughter] I know it really is just like the work because I think what I wrote in there too, I recognized, I was like, “I am not writing because I’m afraid it’s going to just be bad,” which is funny because it’s just a first draft. No one else has to see it. I don’t know why I’m finding that avoidance there but it’s there and that’s the only thing I can do is that I have to look at it and say like, “Okay, I’m going to write 2000 words and it’s fine if it’s bad.” You have to let it be bad. It’s difficult but there’s nothing easy about that. It’s literally just like you have to get up and do it. [laughter] It’s like the meme, I can’t remember what cartoon it’s from. It’s just like, “Open a book How to Write a Novel. Step one, start writing,” and he’s got tears in his face. [laughter] It’s like the only way to do it is literally just to face into it. I guess with anything, like when I was running a lot, I would hate the beginning of running, so I would always trick myself into it by just telling myself that the first five minutes always suck. That’s I guess how I get myself to do anything. It’s just like gaslighting. [laughter] “You’ll be fine. The first five minutes suck, then you’ll be fine after that.” Then by the time the five minutes have passed, I’ve forgotten about that and maybe it still sucks but at least, I’m in the work now, I’m invested, I’m running or whatever it is. [laughs]
DN: Well, let’s hear Daddy’s Die Tribe.
[Elle Nash reads from her latest book Deliver Me]
DN: We’ve been listening to Elle Nash read from her latest book Deliver Me. True crime is also something in the background at all times in this book because Daddy is watching these shows constantly with murdered women, of course, a central component of lots of them and I know that Deliver Me is also partially inspired by true crime that happened when you were living in Colorado. I wondered what it was about that particular real-life event that became a seed for the story of this book or one of the seeds for the story of this book.
EN: The biggest thing was just that this woman had essentially been living a lie or at least telling everyone around her that she was pregnant for nine months and she wasn’t, so when the crime actually happened, everyone was like, “This is so shocking. I can’t believe this happened.” There was I guess this piece of me where I was like, “How does that happen? How does someone go through their life for nine months holding this secret and nobody in her life notices? Is that a community problem? Is that a relationship problem, a marriage problem? How does a marriage get that way? How does a community of people not see that?” If she was, which she definitely was, suffering from a lot of mental health issues like, “Why did she not get the help that she needed? Where were the issues of access?” That was a big part of the story that was interesting to me. It wasn’t like I saw that and I was like, “Oh, I want to write a book about it.” I was just like, “How does that happen? Why does this happen? Why did this person feel so compelled to do this to this degree and for that long?” It was actually through that case, just because I was researching and wanted to understand more, that I learned about the case of Lisa Montgomery. It’s like a similar crime that she had committed and at the time, when I started researching her case and writing this novel, she was in federal prison. She had been tried in 2005 and in January 2021 right before Trump left office, she was on death row, then they were like, “Okay, well, it’s her time.” She’s the first woman in 65 years on federal death row to actually be put to death. I don’t know, it just seems so awful because the way that her trial was handled in 2005 was also really rife with misogyny and stuff. If you want to look up the details of the case and stuff, you’ll see. But I don’t know, it’s so sad and harrowing to think that the lack of access to mental health services, and a community just letting these people fall through the cracks can lead to these kinds of behaviors, I mean that’s emblematic of any kind of mental illness that can lead to violent crime and stuff too. It’s devastating. It’s sad. It makes me angry at the state of the United States Healthcare System a lot. [laughs]
DN: Yeah and you have a unique perspective on that now being in Scotland.
EN: Yeah. The further away I am from the United States Healthcare System, the angrier I get about it. I feel more radicalized being here and seeing it work because it doesn’t make any sense to me. From a human perspective, I see it working. They tell you all the time, like when you’re there and you’re like, “We want universal healthcare,” and they’re just like, “Oh, it’ll never work. It never works. Here are all the reasons why it’s terrible and why it doesn’t work for people.” Now that I’m outside of that, I’m just like, “It was all lies. It does work. It works fine. Sure there’s some minor differences and nothing’s perfect but it does work.” [laughs]
DN: Well, given that we’ve talked about your self-directed Knife Party, your class on Textures, and I know you have a whole bunch of other things, like the Goth Book Club, maybe you’d want to talk about any of them, and what people could seek out that you do outside of your writing.
EN: Yeah. I do run a Goth Book Club every month through my Patreon. I select books once a month for everyone to read, we come together on Discord or Zoom and we talk about it, and sometimes I’ll feature the actual author. I try to focus on a lot of Indie books. there’s a mix of some older classic books. I’m thinking for example next year of including something by Yukio Mishima, just books I’ve always wanted to read that are more, I want to say challenging and less well-known probably is a good way to look at it, like more dark that’s why it’s Goth Book Club. But it’s been really good. Once a month we talk, then I do offer my self-directed class Knife Party and that’s how to become a better self-editor, and that class, some of it is basic checklist for just words to watch out for but some of it is also how to develop your intuition better as a writer, then I do one-on-one manuscript coaching as well. I’ll probably also be offering in the New Year some one-off workshops. I’ve been feeling really inspired by Lorrie Moore, so I want to do a workshop designed around that. I’m just thinking about what that’s going to look like and those will all be posted on my website, just ellenash.net. [laughs]
DN: Okay, great. Well, before we end or as a way to end, you mentioned near the beginning that you have two manuscripts in progress or at least two, and one is more plotted, it’s more a continuation of this new discovery of a way to write and one is less so, and more a feeling foreword. Do you know what we can anticipate next? Is it one of those or is there another already completed manuscript in the pipeline? What should we be on the lookout for in the world of Elle Nash?
EN: Well, I don’t want to talk about the project yet because I’m afraid if I talk about it that it’ll never [inaudible]. [laughs]
EN: I’m superstitious like that. But if you’re listening to this, let’s all put our collective energy together toward me completing this manuscript very quickly and sending it off into the world. [laughs]
DN: You can do it.
EN: I’m trying to get focused.
DN: Well, thank you for being on the show today Elle.
EN: Thank you so much for having me. This is a really good conversation.
DN: We’re talking today to Elle Nash about her latest book Deliver Me. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Elle Nash, her books, her workshops, her manuscript consultations, and more at ellenash.net. For the bonus audio, Elle reads from Elizabeth Aldrich’s Ruthless Little Things, which joins many readings, some craft talks, long-form conversations with translators, and more. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things discovered while preparing for it, things referenced during it, places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the bonus audio but also the Tin House Early Readership Subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.