Elle Nash’s short story collection Nudes (Short Flight/Long Drive), her second book after the novel Animals Eat Each Other, to which PW gave a starred review, is an exploration of the desires of working class women. From stories like “Cat World,” in which the variable unknowns and obsessions of the online world offer the seductive anonymity of a screen name, to “Ideation,” which finds identity stripped down completely and defined only by romantic attachment, Nash has modeled a portrayal of people operating on fringes of society. PW spoke with Nash about her new collection.
How did Nudes come about—which stories arrived first and what inspired the collection as a whole?
Some of these stories are pieces I had written as early as 2013 or so, when I was trying to learn more about how to write a story, get out of my journalism-centered mind, and get back into a creative pursuit. I had always wanted to pursue creative writing in college but focused instead on how to be a reporter. I'd been inspired to try writing nonfiction pieces but felt incredibly limited by that. Some of the earliest stories in the piece are “Joan Jumps into the Sea,” “Deathwish 006,” and “Off Screen I Ache,” which is a re-hashed version of a story published early on in Entropy, solicited by you! In terms of what inspired the collection, you know, I wasn't sure if I wanted to or had enough work to put out a collection. After my first novel came out, I had a small bunch of loosely-linked stories inspired by my time living in Arkansas, connected by prose in between—that was the main basis for inspiration, at first. And it was all heavily focused on eating disorders and the body. I thought, a lot of this stuff seems too weird, too experimental, in a way, but as I worked on a few of the stories, it kind of evolved away from that into something more tongue-in-cheek, more rounded out.
Across its six sections, the collection explores recurring themes of love, obsession, depression, loneliness, and more. Could you talk a little bit about the sections and their central themes?
The section titles all refer to some sort of obscene concept. In the case of “Yuri,” which isn't obscene, I chose the title because I liked it and felt it fit; all of the stories in that section relate to intimate and emotional relationships between women in some way, whether through friendship or something more complicated, relationships with blurry boundaries and confusing feelings. In the “Snuff” section, the stories deal in some way with death. Some of the sections are porn genres. I decided on “Pukkake” for example as a play on bukkake, but with puking, to categorize the stories whose dominant themes revolve around eating disorders—kind of a self-deprecating and humorous way to describe my own personal experience, having once been bulimic.
The stories continuously inspect both poverty and pleasure, often blurring the two into a third, something palpable yet difficult to name. How did you explore the depth of these inherently vulnerable subjects?
I suppose I would say I explored it through contemplation and experience. I think it's important to center working class experience, as often times I see so little of it in wider literature circles. Both poverty and the experience of pleasure are grounded on a struggle to survive, to experience, on the inherent nature of suffering, which is a universal experience. And these are experiences that do exist in the world: suicide, self-harm, living hand-to-mouth, the stress of having to survive while also being responsible for the survival of another human; also wanting love, affection, connection—these subjects interest me, they are important to me, and I want to see them explored with more complexity in literature, so that's what I dug into.
The collection also demonstrates a venerable range of structural techniques—from “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield” written as an essay to “Cat World” with its chat room formatting—how do you go about deciding the structure of a story, and does the structure inform the writing (or the other way around)?
The writing informs the structure. I'm not always aware of how I want to organize or structure a piece until I start digging into the sentences themselves. Some pieces have varied rhythm where the pace is quick because that's how I want the experience to be, or that's what it's like inhabiting the narrator's mind. Sometimes I want things to be more cinematic and I'll structure pieces that way as a result. I try to think about how it would look on film, and work to describe things that way. Recently I started a project where I decided the structure first—before diving into the writing—and it's produced something entirely new for me, almost like working within a frame. I took a class with Blake Butler (Alice Knott, 2020) where he taught his process of deciding the frame first and then working within it. And something about creating limits for myself (whether through word count or negative space or concept) has helped me push into my work in a new way. It has opened up a lot.
Your previous book, and debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other, explores a young woman’s increasingly complicated relationship with a young couple. With Nudes, you’ve crafted a darkly thematic prism of a story collection. What’s next for Elle Nash—what are you working now?
I finished a novel manuscript this past year, and for the first time in a few years took a bit of a break from writing every day. Before January, it'd been almost three years straight where I'd been writing every single day, with maybe a two week exception. I've been thinking about some other projects, letting them form in my mind before committing them to the page, and also, I've been exploring poetry again for the first time in a while. Part of it makes me nervous (will I ever get up to that momentum again?) but another part of me feels relaxed. I don't have to rush, as I'm so used to doing, and I'm enjoying it.