Charlene Elsby is the author of Hexis (CLASH), Psychros (CLASH),
Agyny (SELFFUCK), Affect (Porcupine’s Quill), and Musos (Merigold
Independent), the latter of which is only available until May 18.
Through crystalline prose, her work explores our darkest impulses. With
a philosopher’s eye, Elsby dissects the psyche, laying bare the human
desire to lash out, whether through sex, violence, or a combination
In Psychros, an unnamed narrator grapples with her lover’s suicide.
Grief manifests as a series of erotic encounters that turn increasingly
dangerous. We absorb her most intimate thoughts, drawn into her
obsessions, her calculations, her rage. As intelligent as it is
unnerving, Psychros is a short novel that cuts straight to the bone.
I was fortunate to correspond with Charlene between the release of
Psychros and Musos. We discussed the marriage of phenomenology and
existentialism, the psychotic internal monologue, and conjuring dread on
When did you start writing fiction and what drew you to the form? Do
you see any themes, ideas, images from your early attempts manifesting
in your current work?
I started writing in high school. I wanted to be a psychologist and
wrote journals emulating Freud. Then I figured out that psychologists
don’t do that anymore, and I wrote poems. I was really into Nietzsche,
Dostoevsky, and then August Strindberg, and I wrote little scenes. I
published a chapbook in 2005 under a pen name that was never distributed
after the publisher was convicted. I sent two copies to Amazon to stock
(back when that’s how it worked), and they’re still trying to sell them.
I think it’s prescient you’re asking the question, because that’s also
when I started writing what will be my next book, Musos. It’s about a
man who’s obsessed with his high school girlfriend, Laura. I was into
murder stories and still am.
I’m not surprised you mentioned Freud, as I found Psychros to have a
certain psycho-analytic, almost clinical quality. Even the title plays
into conjuring all things “psych-“ (looking it up, I noticed psychro is
the Greek word for cold). Where did the initial concept for the book
spring from? How long did you spend working on it?
Psychros was a natural follow-up to Hexis. Christoph from CLASH
Books was calling it the “spiritual sequel.” The dead male character is
actually the same character, and I was thinking about how certain people
force you into a state of coldness. The initial concept for the book
was, what if this guy actually offed himself? (After I killed him 10
times in Hexis). What then? Then I let her go wild. I worked on it
sporadically for a few months in early 2020. Hexis was released just
after I finished it, I recall.
I took the title out of an ancient Greek medical text. There it also
means cold in general, but with respect to people it gains a whole new
meaning—to say that someone is cold, or coldhearted. The human was
conceived as being a mixture of the cold, the hot, the wet and the dry.
Those who have excessive amounts of any of those qualities are deemed
For all her coldness, as you mentioned, the narrator of Psychros is
such a compelling character. She’s dealing with the trauma of her
lover’s suicide, though admittedly theirs was an unhealthy relationship.
It seems like there’s a mixture of grief and ambivalence in her
reaction. Her thought process also has a kind of disturbed logic to it.
She goes from using promiscuity to self-harm and ultimately murder as a
coping mechanism (though perhaps that’s the wrong phrase). Can you walk
us through the way you developed this character? Was it ever challenging
for you to inhabit her headspace?
With the character, we’re getting into some other things I may never
otherwise admit. It happened with Hexis too, that the character is
interpreted as psychotic, when all I’ve done is written down my thoughts
but loosed them of some social confines which I have always experienced
as external constraints (rather than integrated rules of thought). The
trick to writing those characters is just to admit to your own thoughts
and write them down—and to excise any anticipation of how those
thoughts will be received. That’s the difficult part—writing things
without regard to how they might be received by someone else.
I believe her logic is sound. It’s her situation that’s unorthodox. So
the method of writing goes like that—you take a rigorously logical
consciousness, free it of social confines, and put it in a violent
situation. That’s just natural for me. It’s getting more difficult now,
because when I wrote Hexis and Psychros, I had no concept of the
audience and how the text might be taken up by an external
consciousness—god forbid, an external consciousness who might have
feelings about the text or want to talk to me about it. The psychotic
internal monologue is just a compendium of private thoughts on
display—things I’ve exorcised from my own consciousness and expelled
into the world. It’s less challenging for me to admit to my own thoughts
than it is to cover them up all the time.
Yes, the narrator’s voice has an astounding clarity and honesty as
opposed to rambling, deranged incoherence, which makes it all the more
chilling. Speaking as an external consciousness who has thoughts and
feelings about your text, I’m glad you were able to forego any concerns
about audience reactions, though I agree it’s challenging. I think we
often overlook how those social confines can limit our work. It
manifests as self-censorship—I can’t write this! What would people
think? I struggled with that when my first book came out. I worried
readers would think I was completely out of my mind. To remove the
barrier of other people’s expectations is liberating, especially when it
comes to our art.
I’m also curious about the other central character in the book—the
narrator’s dead lover, who haunts every page. He’s paradoxically both
absent and omnipresent. He’s the catalyst to this streak of violence
without actively participating in any of it. He seems like a total
bastard in retrospect, but we only have the narrator’s perspective to
inform our own perceptions of this non-person. How did you approach
handling a character who exists only in the memory of others?
I did not have an approach to handle those sorts of characters, but I
can speak to the theoretical grounds that allow us to write them. Fact
of the matter is, we know most things about most people only through a
sideways perception. (Brentano would call it in obliquo, like when you
see a type of flower and think of a dead loved one, that dead loved one
is presented in obliquo.) Same for my main man. And I argue it’s a
normal mode of perception for humans, both to conceive of other humans
and to be conceived—we depend on this form of perception and learn to
manipulate it. There’s a line in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness about
how you can make an infinite number of inferences about someone’s
character based on the minutest of actions, utterances or mannerisms.
And it stands out because that’s correct. While on the one hand, we want
to believe that people are infinite wells of potentiality, whom one can
never really get to know (and sometimes that, in a problematic way),
sometimes all you need to know about a person is one thing they’ve said,
or to watch them jump over a puddle. We fill in the rest by intuition
and by using a reference framework of loose generalizations and our own
conceptual baggage. It is a paradox of absence and omnipresence—an
individual infinity contained in an instant, the crook of a little
finger. He’s just a regular guy in that sense.
Earlier you mentioned part of your method was placing characters in
violent situations. There are some gruesome scenes in Psychros, but
the portrayals of violence aren’t necessarily explicit. It’s more
subtle. Much is left to our imagination. What attracts you to exploring
violence in your work?
You’re right. I feel like Psychros is more violent than it is. I only
noticed when reading the proofs that there’s really only one murder.
There are ten murders in Hexis, but it’s always the same man.
I think I came around to violence the same way a lot of people do. You
grow up with the ambient threat of violence, and then there it is. Maybe
then you date someone for a while who’s really into serial killers and
especially the sexual aspects of it. You buy a copy of Murder Ballads
at HMV and read everything by the Marquis de Sade. Violence becomes
integrated with your worldview. You just kind of know that life and
death aren’t all that far apart and that violence is the shortest path
between them. You sign up for philosophy and talk about death all day
and whether or not the soul dissipates at death or is left to wander the
graveyards, having taken on visible form after becoming too enamored
with its flesh. Then it comes time to write something down and what
comes out first is violence. You don’t realize you’re a creep until
other people notice and mention it to you, but really you think that
people are violent and it’s more authentic not to pretend they aren’t.
I think eschewing graphic depictions of violence is what makes the
book so effective. There were scenes that genuinely induced anxiety as I
was reading. I’m reminded of the old horror movie trope where the
audience sees the killer while their victim is oblivious. I knew
something bad was coming but couldn’t be sure what it would look like or
when it would materialize. As you write, are you conscious of inciting
dread on the page or is it more intuitive? What tools does the writer
have at their disposal to create suspense?
It’s more intuitive, but this is something I have discovered I can
manipulate a little bit. The first draft of something is how it is, but
I found with Psychros that, abandoning it to the publishing process
and coming back to it after almost a year for edits, I could read it
like someone else would. And then I discovered pacing—and that when a
character is known to the reader mainly through their thoughts, the
extent of those thoughts needs to correspond to however long it takes
for them to do whatever it is they’re actually doing, which isn’t always
clear. So you get bound up in these tangents of consciousness, and
what’s actually happening becomes obscured for some amount of time. We
assume the character is doing things, but it’s not the focus of the
narrative, and we become more concerned about what they’re doing the
longer we don’t know (like when we’re expecting someone to show up, but
they’re late and haven’t communicated). That also can’t go on for too
long, or else we get exasperated with them. So there’s a virtuous mean
A lot of the narrator’s inner monologue in Psychros has a
philosophical bent. She’s constantly deconstructing and analyzing what
she thinks, feels, sees. I understand you studied philosophy, so I’m
curious how your academic background bleeds into your creative work. Are
there any particular philosophers or theoretical frameworks that have
been especially influential?
Phenomenology and existentialism are the big ones, and there’s some
stoic fatalism in there. Phenomenology is a method for reducing lived
experience to reveal the phenomenon’s essence, so that’s what I’ve come
to do by habit. But the method itself doesn’t account for the fact that
our lived experience is often plagued by a vague and omnipresent threat
of non-existence and a sense of the futility of human endeavours, so
when I started reading existentialism, that really filled a void.
Stoicism comes in with respect to the metaphysics. There’s an order to
how the universe is organized, and we are able to know that order and
sometimes even influence it, but there are inevitabilities, things you
just cannot avoid living through. My discipline is realist
phenomenology—“realist” because we believe that the way the world and
lived experience are organized is real and not a construct of human
consciousness. That’s the logos.
It factors into writing because ideally, writing makes some part of the
logos physically manifest. You have to seek out and trap it, wrestle
it into a form comprehensible by humans, and then sell it to them for
about $15 on Amazon.
Psychros is a quick read, clocking in under 150 pages. There’s so
much compelling prose happening in a relatively short span. I think you
accomplish the kind of impact that other writers fail to muster in books
that are twice as long. There’s no wasted space and the book doesn’t
overstay its welcome. Are there certain signals that tell you a book is
finished? What are some similarly slim novels/novellas that you've
I had a professor who, when I started writing philosophy papers, used to
give me back my drafts with the comment, “Make this twice as long
without saying anything new.” I make the reader work for it, apparently.
But CLASH lets me get away with it, and I think the difference is that
people actually want to read every word of a novel. Everything should
count for something.
I can tell a book is finished when it feels dead to me. Some works have
a sense of propulsion that feels like something is still missing, and
other works feel complete. You just keep writing until the former turns
into the latter.
For slim books that don’t waste any words, we’ve got Elle Nash’s
Animals Eat Each Other, Lindsay Lerman’s What Are You, Mila
Jaroniec’s Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, and whatever you can get by
Duvay Knox. This is a really hard question, because I’m enjoying the
hell out of Michael Seidlinger’s Anybody Home? but it’s just not slim.
Sorry, Michael. Oh! Logan Berry, of course. I just received my copy of
Transmissions to Artaud. Booklets are slim.
As a writer with several published books under your belt, what advice
might you offer someone who’s just starting out? Is there something you
know now that you wish you had discovered much earlier in your career?
Damn, Matt. That’s a rough question. What if somebody reads this and
actually takes my advice seriously? I feel like there are things
everyone should know but aren’t necessarily my experience, and then
there are things that are so particular they might not help anybody
else. Or maybe it will. My advice is to always write in the dark. Don’t
force yourself onto any schedule. The words will come when they’re
supposed to, and the right person to work with to print those words will
either come along—or they won’t. You can trash a whole book if you
want. Don’t worry; you can write more, as long as you’re not dead yet.
Remember that the “big importants” are just squishy fleshed humans too.
And don’t listen to anyone on Twitter.
Charlene Elsby is a philosophy doctor and former professor and the
author of Hexis, Psychros, Affect, Agyny, and Musos.