Any author worth their salt will tell you that to craft a good first novel, you have to labor like you’re working the coal mines. It’s an emotional and oft-Sisyphean task that takes time, energy and a whole lot of pain.
Most of those authors are also full of shit. The hubris that attends your debut novel is something both naive and myopic. The bottom line is, most first novels blow, if for no other reason than the author went into it with the misguided intention of writing the next Great American Novel.
Elle Nash shows no signs of having suffered under such delusions and the amazing part is that her work shines as a result of this. Animals Eat Each Other is the kind of debut that all writers should aspire to, a highly literary work in an age where the trend has been to distance oneself from the literary.
Recalling at once the grimness of Flannery O’Connor, the ferocity of Gone Girl and the imagistic talent of authors like Darcey Steinke (see: Jesus Saves) and Francesca Lia Block (see: Wasteland), this novel tells a splintered tale of a bizarre love triangle in a way that we haven’t seen before and likely won’t see again.
Its author is an unexpected one, coming as she does from a background writing for manipulative mainstream publications like Cosmopolitan Magazine and the like. But don’t get it twisted, Elle Nash is not some insipid hack spewing out “13 Ways to Please Your Man & Not Be So Damn Ugly”. Nash is the editor of Witchcraft Magazine and a scribe who marries the macabre with the mundane in a way not unlike Bret Easton Ellis at his best.
I sat down with Elle to see if she could spill the realness about this incredible first book. Here’s what she had to say.
Bob Freville: “Animals Eat Each Other” is such an evocative title. What was your process with your debut novel? Did the story come first or did you think of the title first and then work from there?
Elle Nash: Thank you! The story came first. I had a few other titles previous to this one. In 2016 I’d written a poem called ‘the moon’ as part of a chapbook that won the Nostrovia Chapbook Contest, in which “animals eating each other” was a line, and that seemed to fit better than anything I’d thought of previously.
The process of writing it was long. It had started as a short story. I was working under Tom Spanbauer’s mentorship at the time and just kept expanding and felt it would be best as a short novel by the time I was finished with it.
In an age where more and more indie authors are kind of gearing their work towards the bizarro fiction genre, going out of their way to kind of give everything a shock factor without placing value on plot and character development, I found your book to be a breath of fresh air.
Was the humanism of the piece important to you and how did you approach the narrative? Were you aiming for something a bit more literary than what we see from most small press outlets today?
Thank you so much. I appreciate work that is shocking in the right way, but I’m a huge character person. Even with movies, I want things with far more character development than anything else– it’s something I find frustrating about blockbuster movies lately. There’s zero character development.
If you can’t make me care about the person I’m reading/watching about, even if I hate the character, which is still evoking something out of me, I just don’t feel invested in it. I want to be moved by what I read and the only way to do that is for me to know the character.
In that way I would say I was aiming for something more literary, if we describe literary fiction as something that focuses more on character. Plot is important too, but at the same time, I wanted the plot to feel natural and not too clean.
What’s more important to you as a writer? Style or substance? And do you think the two can be handled in a mutually respectful fashion?
Truly, both, but style more than substance. I can read a lot of sad substance stories but they may not break my heart. Style brings me to my knees.
You’re going to get this from every interviewer because it’s inevitable with any first novel: How much of the narrative is autobiographical?
I do get it from every interviewer! At this point, I just want to ask why it matters, if the work is good and compelling. Memory itself is a kind of fiction, so even if any of it were ‘true,’ it would only be true for a single person from a single perspective. It’s a similar experience reading a really good book, when you’re in the ‘fictive dream’ state. We love it because in that singular moment the truth is revealed to us in some small way.
Alienation plays a big role in this story, particularly the alienation of millennials from each other. It’s interesting to explore the detachment between people even when they are physically close. Is this something that you intend to continue to delve into in future works? Do you see your book as an artifact of the era that we are living in or would you prefer it be read as something more timeless?
Alienation is kind of a timeless feeling, I think, and it’s something I think about a lot, so it will probably show up in all of my future work in some form.
What do you view as Lilith’s biggest problem in the book?
That she wants to feel validated by her mother.
Fuck, marry, kill. Darcey Steinke, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Bret Easton Ellis.
Fuck Bret Easton Ellis, Marry Darcey Steinke, Kill Hubert Selby Jr.
Savage. (laughs) Are you writing another book or focusing on other things at the moment?
Yes, I’m working on a novel and also a book of short stories. I do try to switch to ‘focus on other things’ daily, like one day or for a few days I’ll wake up and think, “today I am not a writer” and I do all of the other things life demands of me. But I worry I might have too many days like that and then I become depressed and anxious and come back to writing again.
I know the feeling. What does your writing routine look like?
I frantically work when my baby naps most of the time. I also text a lot of one liners up into my notes app, and sometimes I just talk to a recording app on my phone while driving, which will transcribe (though not perfectly) the things I say to it. On Saturdays and Sundays when I can swing it, I will work a bit if I can while my husband is home.
I try to stay in the present moment a lot but it’s difficult. Most of the time, I’m thinking about my next project or story– about plot or things I should be writing down. Then I finish a story and I feel embarrassed by it and I’ll think about it until I can get back to the computer and add more or fix the parts I know are bad. Revision is hard. I try to revise things one moment at a time and not look at the big picture if I can help it…. that tends to overwhelm me, and it creates blocks in my work.
What are the two most important words in the English language in your opinion?
Animals Eat Each Other is available from Dzanc Books. Click here to pick up your copy today.