Photo by Aaron Mayes
“Fiction shouldn't be an entirely safe space,” says writer Alissa Nutting. There’s nothing safe about Tampa, Nutting’s debut novel. Aggressively sexual, yes, ambitiously conjured, certainly, but safe? Not at all. A satire dealing with America’s relationship to female sexual predators, Tampa is by turns titillating and appalling, and that’s just what Nutting intends. “In our society<“ Nutting notes, “we have a difficult enough time with female characters being unlikable, let alone entirely unredeemable. So I felt like I had to do it; I had to go to that place and write a female character who truly thinks of nothing but her sexual obsession with fourteen-year-old boys and her obsession with youth and beauty. There is no better side to her--that's the point.” Nutting spoke with Our Town about female sexuality, connecting with an unsympathetic character, and inevitably, Lolita.
Our Town What’s your writing process like?
Alyssa Nutting It's caffeinated, manic, obsessive. I like to get an entire draft finished before I begin revising. One of my favorite shows is MasterChef, which is fascinating to me because I am such an awful cook that some weeks I will literally eat nothing but cereal for all three meals. But I feel like my first drafts are like the "ingredient box" that the contestants on that show get. After the first draft is done, I can look it over and decide how best to arrange and combine its factors to strive towards the finished product I eventually want.
OT What was the original inspiration for Tampa?
AN I didn't know it at the time, but I guess the seed of my interest in this topic was planted when a woman I went to high school who'd gone on to become a teacher was arrested for sleeping with one of her male students. That's what made me begin paying attention to cases like these. Once I did, I really couldn't believe how these cases were handled and responded to.
OT You say the book is a satire about the perception and treatment of female sexual predators in our society. Why did that feel important for you to take on?
AN Because of the way that real-life female teacher/male student sex scandals, which are appearing in the news on a seemingly (and increasingly) regular basis, seem to be treated as a "fake crime"--I think it goes back to our society not taking female sexuality that seriously in general; we seem to have an inability to grasp that it can ever be harmful, ever have a victim (particularly a male victim). My previous book of short stories was comprised entirely of female characters who society wasn't treating fairly based on how they looked--specifically, because they didn't look attractive or weren't young or their body wasn't like the female image we see on magazine covers--they weren't accepted. In this book, that's inverted. The main character looks very attractive and young, so she's accepted despite her behavior being monstrous.
OT Did you worry that making Celeste so extreme would alienate readers?
AN She's beastly but she's also a hilarious, horny mess, so she's actually pretty fun to read about. Part of the grand discomfort of this book is how great of a time readers can have despite their best intentions.
OT In writing Celeste, did you feel sympathetic to her? Was it necessary to find a point of connection?
AN I think her ability to see the worst in others and relentlessly make fun of them in the privacy of her own mind is one point of connection--we all have a person in our lives that we have to deal with for one reason or another that we'd prefer not to, a person who makes us cringe inside even though we smile "hello" and wave to them for social reasons. Also, as a woman, I certainly empathize with Celeste's fear of aging--we're really taught that it isn't acceptable for women's bodies to show physical signs of growing older.
OT Comparisons to Lolita are unavoidable. Any thoughts on that?
AN They are indeed; there are so few books about this subject in our national consciousness. But Tampa isn't a rewrite of Lolita, for many obvious reasons, not the least of which is the very graphic sexual explicitness. This book is even more about women and our society than it is about the taboo it contains: what women should and shouldn't write, what female sexuality can and cannot be written about, and how graphically. The insistence of cultivating/maintaining physical beauty and youth to be a top priority for women. The privileges that women who do prioritize cultivating/maintaining these receive vs. the punishments and withheld opportunity or immunity of women who do not.
OT How did the character of Janet originate?
AN Janet is treated horribly and vilified, even though she has many of the same personality traits as Celeste: utter contempt for nearly everyone around her, a willingness toward sarcasm, a hatred of doing actual teaching in the classroom. The difference between them is appearance. Because Janet is unattractive, she can't get away with anything. But Celeste can be a complete monster and fly under the radar due to her beauty.
OT Overtly sexual books can be marginalized, as if sex and literary relevance can’t coexist. Did that worry you during the writing process?
AN Certainly. The moment you cross a boundary, there are lots of voices who want to automatically try to diminish the book's importance and worth instead of taking a fair or balanced look. And not everyone can tolerate feeling uncomfortable--I understand that. It's a threatening feeling for some people, and they respond with negative anger. There have been a number of "books with a lot of sex can never be as important or good as books without a lot of sex" sentiments expressed. That only reinforces for me how badly needed books like Tampa are.
OT On a personal level, do you have any qualms about writing something not only sexually explicit but taboo? (I promise I would ask Nabokov the same question.)
AN I felt that as a female writer it was really important work for me to do with a female character. Here's a taboo that's somehow more controversial than murder in our society. Reading about it causes a stronger reaction in people than reading about a graphic killing. I wanted to write something I'd never read before. I wanted to push myself to do that.
OT Related, what do you think of the idea that women writers are asked more personal or less serious questions than male writers? What's your experience been like?
AN I wrote a book that I knew was entirely different because I'm a female writer and the main character is a female sexual predator, so many of the questions I'm asked naturally gravitate towards gendered questions, which I think is important and interesting. Calling attention to gendered difference, not just on the part of the characters but also on the part of writers, is one of the things I wanted this book to do, so I love that this is coming up. I love that you asked me that question. It's a great thing to call attention to.
Follow Alissa Nutting on Twitter. @AlissaNutting
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez and Facebook.