In “Deliver Me,” A Young Woman Will Stop at Nothing to be a Mother
Elle Nash on fictionalizing economic strife and marginalization in the South without playing into stereotypes
Elle Nash’s novel Deliver Me tells the story of Daisy, a Southern woman in her 30s seeking control over her life. Daisy struggles under the thumb of her partner (a petty criminal with a sexual fetish for exotic bugs), her mother (a domineering matriarch who wields the evangelical church like a weapon), her job (a chicken slaughtering facility with a daily kill quota in the hundred thousands), her best friend/love interest/bitter enemy, Sloane (a better-in-every-way version of Daisy), and even her own body, which refuses to give her the thing she wants most: a baby. Daisy’s quest for agency and love upends the lives of everyone in her orbit until the horrific, vindictive and mind-bending final pages.
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.
I spoke with Nash via Zoom from her home in Glasgow, Scotland about fictionalizing the reality of economic strife and marginalization in the South without playing into stereotypes, her journey into witchcraft, and the ways humans can sexualize things that aren’t inherently sexual.
Chris Heavener: Can we talk about bugs?
Elle Nash: Oh man, the bugs. What would you like to talk about?
CH: Where did this idea come from to give Daisy’s partner an insect fetish? Is that a real thing?
EN: There’s a kink for everything. I’m fascinated by the ways humans can sexualize things that aren’t inherently sexual, and how they become cultural taboos. I remember a viral thread on Twitter once where a woman talked about some guy trying to get audio of her coughing because she tweeted about having the flu, and a bunch of other women came forward saying the guy had contacted them, too, after they also tweeted about being sick, so he could get off to it. Like, a woman hacking up a lung is the hottest thing this guy can imagine. The range of human desire and motivation is so vast and totally wild. The insect idea was hanging out in the recesses of my mind, and it felt necessary to complete the boyfriend character. I think after I did that, everything felt way more clear and balanced.
CH: What made you want to set a book in the South?
EN: There’s a general presumption about the South, that it’s largely straight and conservative, that every economic inequality that occurs is the regions’ fault and something they deserve, from climate crises to cuts to social welfare programs. And the South is not this monolith. It’s a vibrant landscape with many kinds of people and beliefs and experiences and a very specific history that has lead to the economic strife and marginalization that occurs. And anyway, I just didn’t want to read about the upper middle class fantasy anymore. I do understand why it sells. I understand why they make TV shows out of it. Some people want to escape into the fantasy world where they don’t have to have a job or make ends meet. I have that fantasy, too. I get it.
Having lived in the South, certain areas are definitely economically depressed and you have people coming and going and you have problems with drugs and poverty. I wanted to write about the reality of these experiences, the consequences of letting people fall through the cracks when social programs don’t support them. I wanted to explore how this happens, how it affects the community around it when people slip through the cracks? Especially in a place where culturally, the religious communities are so against social support programs because they largely believe charity in the name of God is supposed to “do the work” that social programs actually do. Also, the Ozarks itself is so beautiful. I wanted to capture that. The landscape is unique, ethereal.
CH: Did you actually work at a chicken processing facility?
EN: No, I did not. It was a lot of research.
EL: What gave you the idea of that job?
EN: It’s something people don’t often get to see inside of. I used to be really zealous about trying to find ways to eat and live without partaking in industrialized agriculture, but it’s difficult. Especially difficult when a person doesn’t have the means—it’s a privilege to access food that is expressly from a small, cruelty-free, independent farm, for example. At the same time, people need these jobs—factory work provides stability, but the corporations that run them are inherently cruel.
When I lived in Arkansas, we had a backyard for the first time, so we got chickens. I was in this new mom mindset of wanting to give my infant the best quality food possible. And having chickens was going to be the cheapest way for me to access [fresh food]. I’d planted vegetables and all that stuff. But then the chickens ended up eating all the vegetables because I didn’t think that through [laughs]. I got to experience how to access cruelty-free food and how that process works. It was eye-opening for me and it had its challenges, I wasn’t successful at all of them. I spent lots of time with the chickens and saw just how they’re so intelligent and cute and loving in their weird little ways.
Industrialized chicken farming in the United States is horrific, and it’s extremely dangerous for the people working in the industry. They’re working at really inhumane standards of productivity, their companies lobby the government to lower the safety standards for profit, and there is a human price for that. When I was seventeen or eighteen I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser which featured the meat-packing industry in Colorado Springs, where I was living. I felt too close to it and became vegetarian, though I am not now. And the Tyson headquarters is right where I was living in Arkansas.
EL: Have you ever had to slaughter an animal before?
EN: When we were living in the woods in the Ozarks, my friends would often go wild hog hunting. I would watch them bring the hogs back and help them process it and we would eat the meat, heart and all. It was a humbling experience to be that close to it.
EL: I’ve heard you talk about your concern around how the story is going to be received by different communities. Writing from that place can often close off a lot of creative opportunities. How do you protect that spiritual and creative place from external forces like publishing and criticism while you’re trying to write?
EN: In terms of the content, after periods of waffling, I’ve recommitted to the things I want to write about. So with this novel, the major publishers that rejected it, rejected on the grounds that it was too violent. They said it made their skin crawl, the ending was too much. So I went back and forth for a long time thinking, “Is this the right thing to do?”
I think it depends on how you want to view yourself as an author. I don’t want to live my life thinking that, because I didn’t get a particular opportunity, or was rejected from a certain publishing house, it’s because my work is too much, or too ‘niche’ for a particular audience. For me, harboring that can create a kind of bitterness, or a closed-offness, that can limit your art to simply being ‘anti-‘ whatever the big thing is. I want my mind and art to stay open to possibility and expansion.
I can accept that I’m not ever going to make a full time living only writing, that I will have to think about income for the remainder of my life. In a way that releases me from a desire or need to perform for the market. I will probably always think about whether or not a book will be ‘successful’ in the traditional way, but I can’t necessarily control that. And in a way, how we view labor, how we view the value of labor, and the way it creates conflict between work and the creation of art, probably sharpens my experience and likely the expression of my art, as well.
EL: You can only really be who you are.
EN: Right. What’s more important? Is it gaining notoriety, which isn’t that interesting? Or is it writing something that that like you really fucking love because it’s the thing you have that’s spiritually, creatively fulfilling? A day job isn’t fulfilling. The monotony of life isn’t fulfilling. The art is fulfilling. And that’s the thing that makes me want to stay in that expansive mindset and protect my vision and my words.
EL: There was a minute there where graphically sexual and/or violent content was very popular in literature and movies. Why do you think readers are having a hard time stomaching that lately?
EN: I’m not sure why readers dislike sex or violent content in novels or movies, though I feel like movies have been exploring graphic violence more than I’ve seen before—however, a lot of those tend to be independent, rather than stuff you’d call ‘big box,’ right? I want to go the Jungian route and say maybe people are rejecting something in themselves by rejecting sex scenes in movies. But readers aren’t monolithic either, and people have all kinds of preferences in what they read/watch/consume that don’t always make sense to me, and that’s okay!
Maybe it’s partly because of the proliferation of the Internet. People are so exposed to so many different kinds of stories on the daily, hundreds of different kinds of experiences. Perhaps they are not going to books to find these experiences or that transcendence quite as much. Someone can watch a viral video and that can be a transcendent experience for them.
EL: Was your experience with the church in the South similar at all to Daisy and Sloan’s story?
EN: My grandparents went to a Baptist church and then I would go to Sunday school when I was very young. My mom is a Methodist. But if you ask her what that means, she wouldn’t be able to tell you. Church for my family was that you just went, it didn’t really matter the sect. My dad did, however, have an obsession with Jesus. I grew up having to watch the Left Behind movies. He read all the books and would tell me to read them. He was obsessed with Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He was obsessed with The Greatest Story Ever Told. Any film adaptation of Jesus’ life. When I was 13 and I was like, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” that was a really big deal for him. He was angry, devastated by that news. He never really forced me into anything after that, though. I was really lucky in that respect.
As I got older I explored all these different aspects of God. I was Muslim for four years, I converted to Islam. I’m fascinated by organized religion, like why certain sects of certain religions function the way they do, why they branch out, why they’re different, why they disagree with each other. Where certain practices come from, and why they believe this branch is most pure.
I attended a UPC church [as research for the novel] and it was actually a lot like my first experience going to a mosque. Everyone was really kind to me. People are very open and welcoming, even though, for example, every woman was wearing a maxi skirt and no make up and I had facial piercings and was obviously very different. But part of that feels like it’s because they want to be the one to save you, bring you into the fold. It was a surreal experience, but I wanted to get it right. It was overwhelming when everyone was speaking in tongues and I was the outsider.
I had a lot of acquaintances in Arkansas who were Christian, who, in my mind, were living by example in the word of God. What I mean by that is they never proselytized me or pressured me to convert. They knew I was not a believer, but by being a good person to me, being kind and generous, I think they were trying to show me what Christianity does for a person, in the hopes that maybe I’d come to bible study once or twice. Maybe I would come to the church on Sunday. Maybe I would become part of the community. And that would help them do the “good works.” It would help them get God’s grace on the “day of resurrection.” I’m sure they came from a good place but it also made me wonder, were they seeing me, or were they seeing someone who could help them get into Heaven?
EL: I was fascinated by the moments between Daisy and Sloane where they were experimenting with pagan rituals. Have you had any experience with Wicca or Chaos Magic?
EN: I discovered witchcraft when I was young, like six or eighth grade or something. It was the first time I was trying to understand what it could be like to acquire power. Or try to garner a sense of control on the world, which is so uncontrollable. To me it seems natural for teenage girls to start experimenting in that realm at that time. All my friends were interested in it. Then The Craft came out and it was the cool thing.
I do have experience with it. I definitely do practice, but not formally, if we are talking about understanding that the mind is a tool and you’re performing a ritual to elicit a certain result. I’ve used these techniques to undo a lot of mental strife and rebuild my self-esteem and create better boundaries in my life. That is all solely through stringent meditation, subconscious access (self-hypnosis) and developing focus. I think I’ve been doing that for three or four years. The ritual process, seeking to understand my mind, and figure out how to make it work for me to bring forth whatI want in the world, that to me fundamentally is magic. Working with my subconscious to access the patterns that hinder me, and make steps toward my ideal self, to find my ‘true will.’ It’s been transformational.
EL: So much of this book is about the process of being a mother, or becoming a mother. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your experience with that and how that informs Daisy and Sloane’s story.
EN: Even before I became a mom, I was constantly thinking about this story. In my late twenties I suddenly wanted to start a family, which I never considered myself a person who would want kids or could even be maternal. I had a friend I did a yoga class with once and she wanted to be a mom really bad. We would talk about it all the time. This other girl in our class became pregnant, left the workforce, became a stay at home mom. And I think we both, or maybe just me, got this bitter feeling of being like, “Okay, well, we will never have that.”
That life didn’t feel possible for me at that time. I ended up just not talking to her anymore, which is such a bitchy thing. It wasn’t on purpose to reject her. It was more out of avoidance of not being able to handle that she was pursuing something that I wanted—I was burnt out by work, and at that age I also thought becoming a stay at home mom would release me from the struggle of labor (which was shortsighted and wildly incorrect). It was something that didn’t seem possible for me at that time. And so I lost touch with her. There was some point for the novel where I thought, oh, that’s relatable, wanting to have the baby so bad, and putting all these hopes on motherhood. It’s weird to have that feeling come out of nowhere, like, why did I feel that way? Why did I want that so bad? Why was I bitter and avoidant? That was maybe seven, eight years ago now.
When I started writing this book, [my daughter] was nine months old. Becoming a mother unexpectedly deepened my understanding of humanity and experiences of what love could be. It also deepened my resilience. I was having little epiphanies all of the time. All of that now feels very normal because I’ve been a mom now for five years, but also in that moment it was so deeply profound. There’s this boundaryless connection that’s happening that I can’t control. It was like nothing I ever felt before. That experience is something Daisy wants so badly. Connection with another human.