Author Elle Nash Talks Early Internet, Obsession, and New Book ‘Gag Reflex’

Author Elle Nash has a new book 'Gag Reflex' out through Clash Books. She sat down with Observer to discuss fiction and much more.

Elle Nash Elle Nash

Elle Nash writes like she recently climbed out of a black hole, simply to invent the knife. She is the author of Animals Eat Each Other and short story collection, Nudes – but no blade is quite as sharp as her recent release, Gag Reflex. Comprised of a series of diaristic LiveJournal entries and set in garish throes of 2005, Gag Reflex follows Lucy, on the edge of finishing high school, and on the edge of her body itself, compulsively sharing her life online. In a thorough exploration of eating disorders, teenage pain, and the internet, Gag Reflex puts the blade against the skin, and takes an unflinching look at obsession.

Another, unexpected thrill (though maybe not given that Elle is a proven powerhouse) is that Gag Reflex is a quiet and unannounced sequel. In the final act protagonist, Lucy, identifies herself as Animals Eat Each Other’s Lilith, fusing the two worlds and connecting the bodily brutality contained within each book. The pairing works beautifully, allowing further commentary about how pain evolves in our aging bodies. 

Did you know that you were writing a prequel from the outset? Or did you find Gag Reflex’s connection to Animals Eat Each Other along the way? 

I don’t think I set out intentionally when I started it to make a prequel—it kind of just came perfectly. When Animals came out a lot of people speculated that, oh, one day she might be like I’m Anaïs Nin writing her diaries and just admit, ‘these are all true things.’ I just thought, what if I published a Livejournal and connected it to that world. Kind of like ‘fuck you, stop speculating.’

The other thing, too – in Gag Reflex, there are all these seeds. Like, little germinating seeds of obsession. And obsession with masochism and sadism that really are just beginning to start in this character. So I felt it provided really good background into explaining where earlier characters were coming from. 

Has the internet changed / do you miss the old internet? 

Yeah, I absolutely miss the old internet. I hate that we all visit the same website every single day and sit on it, scrolling through. It’s kind of like walking down the same street every day, but then you see the same faces. It’s nice to see the same faces all the time, but then the buildings are always the same and the weather is always the same. The weather in particular is never different, and the time of day is never different. That’s what it feels like visiting social media. It just kind of gets old after a while. 

But – that’s where all your friends are. That’s where all the familiar faces are. So, if you deviate from that, say you go down a back alley and you’re like, yeah, I’m gonna go to this different nightclub. Well, no one else is fucking there. Nobody. There aren’t even people there. There’s maybe one person, and they’re kind of a creep and you’re like I don’t want to actually talk to this person. Or – everyone goes to the nightclub for a little bit, but then they all forget about it, and then they never go back. You know? 

So, I definitely do miss the old internet. I think there was this level on anonymity in which you could exist and not reputation build. I think there are young people who do use Twitter and Instagram that way now. Without clout chasing, which is nice. So maybe it’s incorrect of me to say that the internet sucks now, because I think that world does still exist – but because of me choosing to have a public facing persona as a writer, it’s changed for me. Because now my name is attached to it and maybe I just feel like there’s a stake in that. 

I feel more observed now and I don’t like that as much. Maybe that’s it. 

Obviously eating disorders can be a triggering topic to both write and read. Did you have to put any boundaries in place for yourself, or for your audience, when you were writing Gag Reflex

I definitely didn’t put weights in the book because I didn’t feel like it was necessary for the reader to have those – I think there’s a tendency to judge ones’ self by weights in general. For someone to say, ‘oh maybe that’s not that low.’ That’s the eating disorder voice in my head saying: ‘if you put this weight in, someone’s going to sit there and say, oh, that’s not low enough.’ That the suffering isn’t deep enough.  I also think it could potentially cause someone else to be like, ‘I think I could get to that weight, and I want to get to that weight.’ So, I didn’t put those in on purpose. 

But as far as the experience of everything else, I didn’t think of the boundary aspect of it. 

Do you feel like writing about eating disorders sometimes feels more taboo than other transgressive topics, like drug addiction? Because of the hierarchical nature and competitive culture involved in eating disorders?

It does seem a little taboo, I guess – because it’s like a different kind of addiction than doing something like coke. I mean, having a coke habit or a drinking habit is certainly dangerous and it’s hard to abstain from, but also, eating disorders are very specifically difficult because you need to interact with one of the main triggers of your addiction every single day in order to survive. Exposure therapy isn’t a choice. It’s a requirement. It can be a little taboo in that respect. 

I had to go through a lot of old journals and old photos, and it is triggering. It’s easy for me to just sit and fall into that world. I could sit and sift through photos obsessively or go through my old journals and read them for hours– and I know they’re interesting to me because they’re about me and about my sickness. So, you could say it’s a triggering thing in that way because it makes me obsessed. 

I didn’t relapse or anything when I was writing the book, and I think that was because the act of writing itself became obsessive for me. I think I was editing and writing different manuscripts eight to ten hours a day for weeks and weeks straight. I would sit at my computer and work until my body was like, I am physically too tired. I am hungry now. Then I would eat and come back and do it again, you know. 

So, I don’t know. I think I learned about myself. That I have these obsessive tendencies and that the obsession is always going to be there – but maybe where I focus it is something I can change and make work for me in a productive way. 

I’ve read Gag Reflex twice, and both times I got through it in the space of a day. What was your pace like as a writer? Similar to Lucy’s emotional chaos or more meditative? 

I feel obsession and meditation hold hands in a way. Obsession is like the chronic illness version of meditation. It’s a type of sick cultivation. Meditation is about cultivation, too. One hand is about avoidance and increasing momentum and intensity and the other is about acceptance and equanimity and space. 

I honestly don’t remember how long this book took me to write because it was during COVID – which was not a good time mentally for me or for a lot of people – and so I think the time compressed. It’s hard for me to believe that two years have passed. I think in 2020 I wrote something like 300,000 words.

When the new year came, I was so burnt out it was impossible for me to try and get into a regular writing habit the way I had been. And I don’t think I’ve been able to pick up that same momentum since. 

Reading Gag Reflex, what comes across most, above the brutality involved in eating disorder communities, is the earnestness of your characters. It’s clear that you as an author have a real respect for teenage pain. What do you think we can learn from the particular way that teenagers process emotions and express themselves?

I still remember what it’s like to be a teenager. I think people are so quick to dismiss teenage girls a lot. They feel so deeply and openly, and there’s a lot of vulnerability. But there’s a lot of fear in that vulnerability because they’ve just hit the point where their childhood trauma starts taking root and starts expressing itself in the way we relate with other people. Which is what makes it so difficult to contend with, because you have all the effects of what’s gone on in your childhood, but you don’t have the self-awareness per se to understand the context of it. So, you’re just like, stuck in the storm.

I remember explicitly having a very hard time with that and with my feelings. When I was thirteen – really before my self-harm habits started taking root – I actually expressed in my journals that I wanted to have these habits. I wanted to be complex and have pain. I wanted to hurt myself and I did the first couple tries where you’re like ‘I’ll scratch myself with a safety pin,’ or whatever, and then everyone at school calls you an attention whore or a poser. 

When you look at that behavior from the perspective of an adult – well, an empathetic adult – you would see a person who actually is asking for help but doesn’t know how, maybe doesn’t know what avenue to ask for help in. So, I obviously, very clearly had some issues, but it’s just that I didn’t know the right pathway to get that help. On one side people would say, ‘she’s just faking it, she doesn’t really need help, she’s just looking for attention’ – well, needing attention is still a problem in real life. So, why did I need that? What wasn’t I getting at home or from my parents or from my interpersonal life, that I felt I needed to do that? I definitely do have a lot of respect and reverence for that experience. I think about that a lot now that I’m a parent, and how I can do differently in breaking cycles of parental trauma. 

The book has a particular relationship to music. How did music influence the writing process? What is your favorite song featured in Gag Reflex

I just really love nu metal and I love that specific period of time. I think for a while it seemed really uncool, but then it hit this new level of coolness again for being so uncool. Where people are ironically wearing Limp Bizkit shirts, but the first CDs I got were actually Limp Bizkit CDs. My dad bought them for me for Christmas when I was twelve, and then he heard me listening to them and then he took them away from me! He said that the lyrics were not appropriate, because they were misogynistic – which is so funny because my dad is a fucking asshole to women. 

I think the track that’s most foundational for me is ‘Blood Pigs’ by Otep. I think it’s really important. Otep sings a lot about sexual trauma and CSA, and the pain she is expressing really comes through. The lyrics, specifically to ‘Blood Pigs’ are like poetry. For me there was nothing else like her anger and frustration. They really are a step above any lyricism of the times, in my opinion.

Two Frankenstein quotes feature at the start of the book. What relationship does Gag Reflex have to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Frankenstein is probably one of the best books I’ve read. It is so good. It’s a book about despair and grief of existence. I think it’s just how I feel about having an eating disorder. How I feel about having a body and being a person. When you’re suffering with it, you feel like that monster. You pray to be forsaken, right? Which is kind of what Frankenstein’s monster does – he tries. He tries to have a life. He tries to interact. He tries to convince the doctor to make him a wife. He flees. He’s just like, ‘why am I here?’ Like, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ I think that is kind of the experience of having an eating disorder. You’re in this sense of despair where you’re not going to end your existence, but you don’t really want to exist either, and you feel so horrific about who you are and how people interact with you and see you, that there’s no way out. The body is a terrible, terrible cage. The body is a vessel for grief.

Author Elle Nash Talks Early Internet, Obsession, and New Book ‘Gag Reflex’