The Cemetery Dance Interview: Elle Nash

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Elle Nash

Elle Nash’s Deliver Me (Unnamed Press, 2023) burrowed into my psyche deeper than any other book in 2023. The novel’s neglected yet unforgettable main character, Dee Dee, whispers to us, using her perpetual inside voice, offering accumulative clues to the relationship between her environment and her biological delusions; a hushed effect of descent that eventually lands on what is truly growing in her depths. Sometimes the desire is greater than the acquisition; it can block the illumination of what lengths we are going to get it.  

Initially inspired by a bizarre true-crime event, Nash transmutes a headline with nothing left to the imagination into a delicate tapestry of inner hallucination, igniting a divine poetry from ignorance — all of it privileged information from a narrator so unreliable, it hurts. But one must always keep pushing. 

Nash is also the author of Gag Reflex (Clash Books), Nudes (LF/SD), Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books), and is the editor-in-chief of Witchcraft magazine. 

I caught up with Nash in early January to discuss Deliver Me, the miracle and terror of childbirth, the constitution of bloodshed between genders, and the desensitization of horror inside our American nightmare. 

(Interview conducted by Gabriel Hart)

CEMETERY DANCE: Dee Dee is driven by a combustible cocktail of stunted emotion and desire brimming over. Yet she suppresses both to appear “normal” enough to others just to get through the day, and to eventually get what she wants by any means necessary. The reader is trapped in her head. At what point can behavior like this go from common universal yearning in us to something more dangerous?

ELLE NASH: This is such a good question and I’m not sure I can say what it is that drives individuals from our common compulsions to something deeper and antisocial. Not everyone who feels alienated ends up becoming a dangerous person. The human mind is so complicated, unique as fingerprints, and I think that’s what makes being able to experience the map of another’s mind through something like a novel or music such an ecstatic, necessary and expansive experience.

The desire to have a child seems inherently conflicted. On one hand, you’re participating in humanity’s continuum, the miracle of life. On the other, you’re sacrificing your life to allow it to happen. The nihilist might take the baby-as-parasite angle, while one with perhaps a healthier outlook would see it as an extension of the self. Why does Dee Dee see so much validation in having a baby? Going through all the stress and trouble to keep her fantasy intact to the point where she sacrifices others around her?

While I think becoming a parent can feel like extending the self, you learn as time goes on the child is not an extension of your ego at all; she’s completely individuated from you, maybe in the way we (as consciousness havers) individuate from the consciousness of God. I think it’s natural that people seek salvation in what is outside of them because that seems easier than looking inwards — nothing is more annoying than confronting the self — and when paths are already trodden it doesn’t necessarily look like you must do as much work. We love what is known and perhaps tend to fear what is unknown, so it’s easy for her to attach to this pathway of motherhood as the balm that will “fix” her suffering, which is: what will make her feel loved, and also make her feel valued by her lover and her mother and society as a whole. It’s the same mechanism that hooks a person into any kind of craving: a Burger King ad that makes you want to eat a cheeseburger, a photoshoot of a model that makes you want to get fillers injected into your cheeks, a relationship that will make you feel whole — desire drives everyone to these ends, but the shape it takes and the intensity of that desire changes person to person. 

I realize this question is totally cliché, but it remains fascinating to me and says a lot about who is responding: Compared to men, are women less outwardly violent due to the inner violence of giving birth? What gender, if any, is built more for bloodshed, or has the greater constitution to withstand it?

I think any gender is capable of bloodshed; or really, anyone can be built to transgress against the social mores we have about violence. In his book The Murder Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill, David Buss found in a survey of 5,000 people that 91% of men and 84% of women have had thoughts of killing someone, which to me says that the capacity murder, or at least the idea that aggression is a tool of survival, doesn’t discriminate. The thing is what that “survival” is, is variable — people murder out of greed, need, love, hate, revenge, etc. — they snap AND they pre-meditate. It’s not necessarily just an element of psychopathy. I’ve also spoken to many women who found that having a child actually spurred in them an awareness of a new capacity for violence against anything that might hurt their child that they’d never experienced before in their lives. Maybe we think it’s more interesting or taboo when a woman does it because our society tends to see women as more of a “receiver” or “passive” kind of energy: it defies the societal expectations we have of them. Maybe this is why cases of “cold blooded killers” who are women tend to be more sensationalized.

For a novel that’s driven by the female instinct, you give a profound mercy to the male experience when the character “Daddy” reminds us:

(Men) work the most dangerous jobs, have the highest suicide rates, and they’re more often victims of violent crime. Men go to war… Society doesn’t see that as a problem… the most common cancer in the world is prostate cancer, but you don’t see those plastic bracelets around everyone’s wrists.

Then when Dee Dee mentions how dangerous her job at the meat processing plant is, Daddy says: “That’s a class issue… Men, especially men like me, are still more disposable than women in this world.”

I feel like this scene could have a polarizing effect, depending on which gender is reading. While I saw it as you perhaps throwing men a bone for their sacrifices, I could also see a female rolling her eyes, viewing it as an imbalanced sentiment. 

I enjoy hearing about how people read and interpret these scenes—it feels a bit like a prism.

Even as a meat eater, the most disturbing parts for me were your intensely researched, ultra-visceral meat factory scenes. Dee Dee with her pneumatic scissors slicing off chicken breasts as the “kill counter” added to surreal amounts. Then you toggled to the childbirth billboards displaying a similar real-time counter. Was this a simple, convenient parallel or something larger and more complex you were communicating? 

The pieces of it sort of fell into place as I was writing. I think parallels and mirrors make themselves known to me and I latch on to them, but I don’t always know why at the outset. The childbirth counter is based on a real billboard where I lived in the Ozarks. The kill counter felt like a natural counterbalance to it that creates a larger and more complex sense of the world about how connected consciousness and our experience of life is.

Another compelling parallel was Daddy’s obsession collecting rare insects — tiny creatures that will remain small, contrasted against Dee Dee’s life goal to grow something small into something bigger. On one hand, Daddy is the more mature one, though he lacks Dee Dee’s guts to nurture a living thing into maturity. 

Juxtaposition is probably one of my favorite narrative elements. One of my favorite novels, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, uses this kind of parallel in a big way that I admire greatly. I also just rewatched Gummo for the nth time and was reminded about how cleverly Harmony Korine uses it in his work often to sharpen the details of what he’s presenting — so it’s nice knowing it’s something I can do, too.

While they’re both unique to their own story, when I finished Deliver Me, I immediately thought of the French horror flick Inside (2007), where Beatrice Dalle plays a disturbed woman who will stop at nothing to remove a stranger’s baby from her belly, but the twist at the end nearly makes you forgive her once you understand what has “driven” her. Is the reader meant to “forgive” Dee Dee for all her suppressed wants, even when she just can’t hide it anymore? Is she merely a misshapen product of her environment? 

cover of Deliver MeI still have not seen that movie and I need to. I really try to present my stories in a way that don’t, within the world of the narrative, cast judgment on the characters or their situations. I don’t think there’s a specific decision or feeling I’m trying to instill in the reader always. I just want to represent the story. Sometimes I think of art as a mirror—the feelings that come up for me when I am reading a great book or connecting with a character are a result not just of the book but of everything in my life I’ve experienced before the book, too. So I guess I’d say, do you feel compelled as a reader to forgive Dee Dee? What comes up when you think about why you feel that way?

It’s been argued that the term “transgressive” is no longer relevant since culture has already transgressed to the furthest extremes and back again. Could the same be said for horror? We live numb among school shootings and genocide, inundated with images of the dead body. Is that drive still within us to seek out new ways to be terrified? Or are we just fetishizing the death trip at this point?

Iconoclasm is nothing new. The edges of what feels challenging to the rules of society and what feels stable and normal feel further away than before, and in this sense, what is “transgressive” is pliable and changing, but maybe certain aspects of cultural expression haven’t caught up. Because of this widening gap, content that attempts transgression becomes flatter. That’s what makes the term feel cringe, I think, now, because no artist wants to associate with art that has no resonance or self-awareness. I’m thinking about Terrifier 2, for example, which felt blatantly boring, despite being incredibly violent. But the main reason it feels so flat is because exploring baseless violence is no longer challenging in American culture (or in the world at large, currently) — it’s a lived reality people face every day. But symbolic transgression — real artistic transgression, work that challenges the dominant modes of storytelling and plays with breaking set societal rules — is in my view a necessary component to our artistic landscapes because it not only expands our view of what is possible in art but what is possible in the human experience, which energizes how we connect with each other. 

If you watch toddlers and children under-fives play with any toys that resemble people/animals, you see them “play” at the world — they enact things they experience and see and also play within the rules they’re learning about how the world works. And then they break them. You can reflect on the results. What does it mean to break this rule or that? What could it look like? Within horror specifically, seeking out new ways to be terrified is a kind of play at survival. In this genre we can run wild in our experience of the worst of humanity and even un-humanity (like supernatural stories) and experiment how survival might occur — how human consciousness might drive desperately at life despite seemingly unbeatable horrors. So yeah. I do think the drive is within us — it’s a drive to survive, to be the final girl. Or even to reflect on what it would be like if no one made it out all.

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