I originally became a fan of Charlene Elsby after reading her novel Psychros (CLASH Books, 2021). The book follows a woman as she engages in increasingly violent sexual encounters after her lover commits suicide. I read it while on a flight to Denver to help a childhood friend deal with the logistics that followed the death of his brother. The death and the flight came at a moment of crisis in my own family life, and it was strange to be up in the air somewhere between my past and present life while simultaneously escaping into the head of a woman who was expected to grieve in a particular way but couldn’t. I found relief in the grit and gore and sex that was that character’s grieving. I often look to fiction, and horror in particular, to provide me with a reprieve from my own corporeal experience. There’s something oddly comforting about the horror genre in its refusal to present life as some clean sparkling thing, and instead portray it with all its filth and pain and misery.
This is what Elsby does best, and her newest novel, The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty (Apocalypse Party, 2023), is a spectacular dive into the soiled self. The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty follows a teenaged protagonist living and working in the trailer park diner after her mother commits suicide. She spends her days serving greasy food to locals and tourists alike, while dreaming of escaping the depravity of poverty. This is a novel soaked in spilled salad dressing, burnt coffee, and blood. It is peopled with characters in the grips of despair brought on by “huge financial losses. Family estrangement. A general sense of helplessness in the incontrovertible fact that their time was coming to an end, and everything they wanted to achieve, now there was no time for it. There is such a thing as being too old to accomplish something. It’s basic math.” And in a world of such despair, it is easy to imagine how the devil might creep in. And he does. He is the voice that guides the protagonist through the dark daze of adolescence, leading her towards a chaotic climax of sex and violence. The Devil Think I’m Pretty has all the satanic panic of an 80s teen scream, but unlike the latchkey kids of those pictures, Elsby’s protagonist has no one to fear for her future self, and so she moves closer to the flames of hell without so much as a single angelic hand reaching out to save her.
I spoke with Charlene Elsby via email about the magic of indie publishers, writing about the body as it actually is, and her novel The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty.
Shelby Hinte: I first became a fan of yours through the publication of Psychros and since then you’ve published like three other books and have another slated for publication next year, so I am curious to learn a little bit about your writing process. How do you get so much written in such a short amount of time?
Charlene Elsby: I like to write at night, and it seems I write better during the colder months—probably because it gets dark earlier. There are a lot of long periods where I’m writing nothing. When I do write, I type as fast as I think, and then a lot gets done at once. We also have to take into account the absolute weirdness of publishing schedules. CLASH accepted Violent Faculties before Psychros came out, back in early 2021. But they were also getting settled with the distributor, and now that book is coming out in 2024. Musos had been lurking around (as a manuscript) since the mid 2000’s. Every so often, I’d pick through it and improve something. Merigold Independent picked that up and put it out quickly. Our only time constraints were how long it would take to edit, format, get the cover, put it online. While that was out, I saw a tweet from Filthy Loot about the Talented Perverts series, and I had an almost chapbook ready, so I got in touch with Ira. And the whole time, I was writing a short story whenever I felt like it. Apocalypse Party was looking for unsettling horror, so I sent a pitch, and those stories became Bedlam. At the same time, I had half a novel —The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty— and I told Ben I could get it done in six months, and then I did. I don’t work on a schedule, but I do have a pretty good idea of how much I will get done in a time period based on past observations of myself, so I made a guess, and it turned out to be pretty accurate. Even though schedules are strange, I feel like there is a logic to the order things are being released. Like even though Violent Faculties was written in 2020/2021, and my work has gotten somewhat more… explicit? Since then, I think there are still things that are going to make people uncomfortable. I guess the answer to your question is, I don’t really know. Time works mysteriously when I’m writing such that much is accomplished while I barely notice, and when it’s done it feels like nothing really happened—but then there are books around.
SH: Something I think a lot about is the difference between writers who spend 10+ years working on a single book versus writers who churn out books very quickly. Both feel “brave” in different ways, but I think I always get a little thrill from writers who are less precious with their work. That’s exciting to me. You described yourself in an email, unrelated to book writing, as “not precious.” Is this true when it comes to writing books as well?
CE: I did say I’m “not precious”, and I use that phrase a lot to assure editors that it’s all right to edit me. I’ve done some editing, and there are certainly different reactions amongst writers with their responses to suggestions. I too have been subject to the “how dare you” response from an author when suggesting a change or even just a formatting requirement to what they believe is a work beyond reproach. That was more common when I was an academic. Writing fiction, and fiction that is weird, I more commonly run into an editor who, when I fuck up, might assume I am fucking up on purpose to make an obscure point when in fact, I just fucked up. When it comes to writing books, how precious I am depends entirely on the actual recommendation. An editor like Elle Nash, who can see beyond what I’ve done to what I’m trying to do and then more importantly, how to do it better—I’ll do whatever she says. But I’ve had bad edits too, some of which made it to publication, which I regret letting happen. Ultimately, I’m happy to edit extensively for the sake of producing a better book. And I know now that I shouldn’t make a book worse to fit some superficially imposed sense of propriety because I will regret it. It’s important to work out those boundaries with an editor.
SH: What draws you to publishing books with indies?
CE: Thank fuck for indies. Given that I write the sort of books that I write, and given the constraints on large publishers to pick up projects with broad appeal, I don’t foresee us working together any time soon. I read somewhere recently something Peaches said, and I’m paraphrasing, but the idea was that if she was going to become mainstream it would be because the mainstream came around to her. And I was like, same. It’s self-evident in entertainment (books, music, tv) that there is no correlation between the quality of work being produced and the attention it gets or the profits it produces for shareholders, and here in book world, that does mean big publishers are not necessarily putting out the best books (where “best” is defined according to aesthetic value and not other spurious measures, like appeal or marketability). And this goes back to my work in philosophy, because if we’re looking at what it means to be a “good human,” to achieve eudaimonia through enacting our human potentiality to the fullest possible extent, that excludes being motivated by money or honors. It’s just silly to think that’s what humans are meant to do with their lives, and it diminishes the concept of what we are—like, metaphysically. But then there are indies, these magical people who read books to enjoy them or feel something or otherwise fulfill some kind of purpose, who really gives a fuck about expanding the concept of literature—and they’re willing to help me get my stuff out there because what—they like it? Bless them and their self-sacrificing romantic souls. The work is the purpose, and the indies are letting me get away with that, and I fucking love them for it.
SH: I think it’s aspirational to forge a relationship with writing that is purely for the sake of art/process, and yet, I know so many writers feel the pressure to make money from their writing or be recognized for their writing. Of course, part of this is because we all need money to live in the world, but I do think there is a social element that adds to the pressure to produce work, or anything that is seen as “of value.” I was thinking about this a lot as I read your book, because the protagonist is so concerned with how she is perceived — particularly how she is perceived based on her labor and class. There is this great moment in the book when she is imagining herself all dolled up at a talent show and she thinks “I could show all these people I wasn’t just a waitress, a server with my hair back in bad shoes.” And I thought, damn, that is such a heavy burden to feel you have to prove yourself and that one moment in time might finally shift people’s perspective of you. What drew you to writing about this type of social pressure?
CE: Now, I’m speaking from down here in the indies, but the amounts of money we’re trading around are in no way going to alleviate the burden of material existence, and by that I mean the fact that I prefer to live inside where it’s warm and eat food sometimes. So for me, a day job is a given and always has been. The rent—which I do care about—can’t depend on my royalties or the $25 I’ve got coming in from an article scheduled for three months from now, so that money doesn’t seem real. Maybe I resent the idea of my work having a monetary value like the character resents being judged by others based on where she lives and what she can afford to look like. Works of art have aesthetic value; human actions (sometimes) have moral value; commodities have a monetary value. It’s an axiological category mistake to talk about how much a Dostoevsky novel is worth—if we do it, we’re talking about the edition, the condition of it, hardcover, softcover, the rarity of the actual material object, not the words or their profundity. Nevertheless, people judge each other this way, as if the value of a human is measurable in currency. It’s pervasive and, at the same time, alienates us from our humanity by falsely equating a human or their work with a commodity. At the same time, people do it. They do it to this character all the time, because it’s so ingrained in our perception of people to recognize someone immediately as being “of value” or “not of value.” This perception is so automatic and so completely changes the way this person will now be treated that it feels like persecution by all of humanity—and having an abstract argument to refer to about how they’re wrong doesn’t make being constantly dismissed any less painful. I wrote about that, I guess, because it hurts, and I write a lot about things that hurt.
SH: Why do you think you’re interested in writing about things that hurt?
CE: To make them stop hurting! It really works.
SH: Do you feel the pressure to prove yourself as a writer (whether for money or honors)?
CE: I want to say yes, just because I have the constant compulsion to keep going, and it feels damn good when someone says I’ve done well or made them feel something. But I don’t feel pressured to do it. I was talking to someone over the weekend, and she said that reading Bedlam made her feel this sort of protracted loneliness, and then I felt like I’d succeeded. I don’t know if that counts as proof. I also feel like we’re talking about “making it” as a writer, and I don’t think there is definitive proof of that—nothing really to aspire to. I want to infiltrate the collective psyche and affect the way people think and feel, but there’s no performance metric to establish whether or not I’ve succeeded in that.
SH: I’m really interested in this idea of value systems as it pertains to art and humanity. As a reader, what do you value in writing?
CE: I want to read something that’s emotionally or intellectually stimulating—something that feels like I’m getting unfiltered access to someone else’s consciousness or that does something interesting with theory or form. I guess the unifying factor is that what I want to read is going to extend upon the experiences I can gain from my own perspective and open up that space beyond my subjective limitations. I realize that sounds like a lot, but it’s not really. I just want to feel someone else’s feelings for a while, or think someone else’s thoughts. I want it to feel honest—not autobiographical, but authentic. I’m thinking of this story in BR Yeager’s book, “If I Could Speak Would You Still Be Laughing?” That’s a pretty perfect example. There’s a poem by Ira Rat in Endless Now called “I’m Sorry Mom.” All of Elle Nash.
SH: For writers who don’t know much about indie book publishing, can you share a little bit about what your experience was like sending work out and getting published by a small press?
CE: My experience was pretty good, by which I mean I sent out Hexis for months and months and got nowhere for a long time. For someone who doesn’t know much about indie book publishing, I can’t emphasize enough how much the publishers are people. They are people first and foremost. I think the same thing happens with indie book publishing as the academic job market in philosophy. People assume there’s a reason and a logic to it, and there kind of is, but it’s probably not the one you think. There’s no magic number of journal articles that’s going to guarantee you that professor job, and with an indie publisher, they’re not using a rubric to grade submissions and giving publishing contracts to whoever has the most points. The process is murky and fluid, and you just have to stick it out until you click with someone who turns out to be the exact kind of weirdo you need. I had a couple of good bites on Hexis before I found out who CLASH were, and one of those publishers ended up turning it down because of some distasteful content. So when I saw on the CLASH site that they had a book cover where a parade of men were marching into a giant woman’s vagina, something just felt right. Once you fall in with some people online it’s easier to figure out where your weirdos are.
SH: One of the things that really haunted me about The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty is the way in which you write about how grotesque the human body is. There are so many sensory details about the filth of having a body. What interests you about this particular relationship to the body?
CE: I feel like I need to be careful answering this question. I wonder how much of our bias toward the rational goes into our assessment of the aesthetic of the human form and how as humans we’re supposed to be “above” the physical because of our capacity for intellectual detachment. It comes out as a moral claim sometimes, like I’m thinking of this part of The Brothers Karamazov (and it’s been a lot of years since I read it), but there’s a holy man who dies, and it’s supposed to be a judgment on how holy he is if his corpse starts to reek, and then it does start to reek, and it becomes a crisis of faith. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just writing about the human body how it actually is. The non-idealized version, where the idealized version is a fiction. People are actually sickly, rife with decay, and sometimes infested. It’s on society—and a long history of thought informed by the religious concept that humanity is too good for this material world—for pretending that’s not the case. Maybe I’m mad about that, I don’t know. Maybe I’m mad at the human body’s limitations whenever I have a purpose it seems incapable of fulfilling, or when it makes it obvious how dependent all of my goals are on its proper functioning, especially when it refuses. The human body is a thing we have to live with that is at once entirely inside and outside of our control, and you’ve got to admit that’s a little frustrating.
SH: For a long time I had these really romantic ideas about sex and the body —maybe that they could be pure, or clean— but at a certain point I sort of became overwhelmed by how disgusting they are. It took me a while to realize that this feeling of disgust was actually just becoming aware that sex and the body are vastly different than how I’d seen them depicted in commercial media. You write about the body and sex in a way that feels so realistic and it’s honestly a bit unnerving. What’s the hardest part of writing accurately about sex and the body?
CE: The hardest part is eliminating the social consciousness from infiltrating my head space as I’m writing. I think that I am right to describe things how they are, and I feel I too have been deceived by inaccurate portrayals of what it’s like to exist in a human body. Not only have I been deceived, others are deceived, and then they expect me to live up to their deceptions? The whole system is fucked. So we need to slough off those filters and just write down how it is. At the same time, even as I’m writing, I have been trained to anticipate what the possible reactions will be to what I express, and that can turn into a block. But we just have to push through, and that’s possible with either practice or chemical interference, and it just gets easier over time.
SH: If I had to categorize The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty, I would probably call it horror, but it also feels totally outside the genre in a lot of ways. What do you think it is that calls you to the horror genre and how do you feel your work subverts genre expectations?
CE: When I sent Hexis to Clash in 2019, I called it literary fiction. It just so happened that it’s violent and contains a lot of what I now know is called ‘body horror.’ I thought it was just dark, like Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. Christoph (from CLASH) told me it was horror, and I was like, ‘OK, I believe you.’ I make no attempt to abide by the rules of a genre when I’m writing, so now I’m viewing genre as a way of finding the people who would be into what I’m doing. As far as that works, I’ll happily adopt the horror label, or the transgressive label, or whatever label helps people communicate to one another ‘Hey, you might like this kind of thing.’ Word definitions shift over time depending on what gets included under the label, and that’s a social determination. Violent Faculties will be a fun test case. I was going for Sade or Bataille. In contemporary terminology, it’ll be extreme horror, or dark academia (because it’s set in academia), or literary splatterpunk. I didn’t know these words three years ago, and I’m not going to let the genre terms tell me what to do, but if they help me connect with people, let’s go.
SH: Last week, I watched River’s Edge for the first time and in a way your book reminds me a lot of that film. The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty has that same disaffected youth vibe, and the characters have, for the most part, a pretty casual response to death and violence. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to explore this relationship to death and violence in the novel?
CE: Yeah, it’s hard to say if that was a choice. By which I mean it comes naturally, you know? I never had the conscious thought of ‘I’m going to express a casual response to death and violence.’ I set out to write a novel about my experience as a teenager living and working in the trailer park, and then I kind of centrifuged some aspects of that into the devil character and wrote the book. I tried to write this book once before, but without the devil. It didn’t work. I remember when I was about 16 having a big argument with my Mom when I was listening to Nick Cave and reading Sade and she decided I was “obsessed with death” and made a whole thing about it. Maybe she was right? 😉
SH: I love hearing a little bit about the origin story of The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty. When did you end up adding the element of the devil to the novel and how did adding that element of the book change the way you wrote about your own personal experience?
CE: I really needed the epitome of evil to work through what was going on in The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty. I heard the Void Collective say on a podcast that I don’t really do supernatural, and when I heard that I wondered if I just broke that rule, but I don’t think so. The evil is mundane, like it’s part of the environment. The devil and the narrator are fully integrated. I knew I needed to own the worst parts of myself, and this book is that. I’m the actual fucking worst but, to be fair, so is the rest of humanity. Nothing happens in this book that people don’t do. We try to eject the worst part of ourselves, refer to circumstances or what’s been done, or otherwise get rid of the idea that it was me, I was the one who fucked up, and for this book, I decided to stifle that tendency and just be the bad guy—the actual devil.
Charlene Elsby is a philosophy doctor and former professor whose books include Hexis, Psychros, Musos, Bedlam, The Devil Thinks I’m Pretty and Violent Faculties. Her essays have appeared in Bustle Books and the LA Review of Books.