Monstrous Women: An Interview with Alissa Nutting
I learned about Alissa Nutting’s debut novel when I put together some half-baked thoughts on Amazon’s purchase of GoodReads. I came across the Book Page for Tampa and noticed that there were a lot of really weird reviews. One said the book was “ too explicit, too graphic, and too weird…to finish;” another said, “I don’t think women will read this for a thrill, especially anyone with school-aged sons.”
These reviews weren’t surprising–people have weird responses to sex. People have even weirder responses to stories about young female teachers who seduce their barely-pubescent students (and yeah, that’s sort-of-but-not-really the plot of Tampa). But still, I was not happy about these reviews, even before I read the book. I didn’t know Alissa then, but I knew her work well enough to know that she would not write a book like this just to be a sensationalist.
Tampa is not a book about pedophilia–it’s bold, sharp critique of the unreasonable expectations and the myopic judgments that contemporary women face on a day-to-day basis. The subject matter may be shocking, harrowing, and morally repulsive, but what makes Tampa so important is that this isn’t really satire. This stuff (and the ridiculous conversations around each instance) happens every day.
I don’t want to reveal more because I think you should read this book. I think you should react to it, and think about why you’re reacting to it. I think it’ll teach you something about the way you think about women.
Alissa deserves thoughtful responses to her work, because this book is really damn good. I wanted to talk to her about some things—about her intentions, her process, and her fears. I’m really grateful to know Alissa now.
MC: What made you want to write Tampa?
AN: I primarily devote myself to female characters, and I’m drawn toward topics that evoke social discussion. One of my areas of interest is monstrosity, and I was very aware that there aren’t many novels that follow a predatory female protagonist–especially a female sexual predator. Women are tasked with the social role of nurturer, so it’s taboo for them to perform any act of violence that isn’t protective or defensive. But it’s doubly taboo if that violence is sexual and the victim is male. As a society, we aren’t simply conditioned to accept males as victims of sexual violence perpetrated by females. This book is meant to challenge and engage that blind spot.
MC: Yeah–the only other book that I can think of with a female sexual “predator” is Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, but that was written by a white dude. Why do you think there aren’t more books like this by female writers?
AN: I think there’s a certain Scarlet Letter factor in play. The same sort of slut-shaming dualism that lauds men for sexual conquests but chastises women absolutely applies to literature as well. There’s this sense that males (and male authors) can explore as much as they want–they’re being “edgy” and “groundbreaking” when they do. But women need to be reserved, and when they aren’t, there can be a pretty big backlash. I think it’s harder for women who write truly scandalous literature to get published, and riskier for publishers to agree to take it on. Mainstream culture is comfortable with women writing domestic fiction, historical romance, etc. Transgressive fiction to date is still mainly a boy’s club.
MC: Is that something that you discussed openly with your publisher? It seems like the odds are stacked against you–or, at the very least, that you’re cognizant and concerned about how this book is going to be perceived/reviewed/etc.
AN: Absolutely. I was incredibly lucky to find a publisher who fully understood the text and was willing to weather the controversy. But it can be a little daunting, knowing that some people will be so opposed to the book. It’s a psychological push-up I have to do each morning. As an author, you’re hoping people read your novel…in this case I also have to hope they don’t burn it.
MC: Did you do any research regarding the study of pedophilia?
AN: My research was incident-specific for what was relevant to the book; I reviewed a lot of cases of female teachers who slept with underage male students between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. But it was important to me that this book not be some attempt at a diagnostic or explanation–there’s no agreed upon cause of pedophilia, and I think it would’ve been irresponsible of me to try to suggest one for the main character, Celeste. Instead, I’m interested in the various ways that Celeste receives a pass (or even encouragement) in regards to her illegal behavior, and why–the social messages we can read into that, and what that says about our culture.
MC: What did you learn when researching those cases? The only one I’m familiar with is that of Mary Kay Letourneau–who married her student after being released from prison–and I remember their relationship being treated as taboo.
AN: It’s funny you bring that up; I was in 10th grade when that happened and I remember having such a naive mindset about it. Hearing about it as a fifteen-year-old, I honestly had this mindset of, “But what if they’re just truly in love?” She was 34 and he was 13! That was an important memory for me, writing this; I think it’s really difficult for teenagers to understand that these relationships are inherently predatory, especially when they have a sexual attraction towards the predator. This kept coming up over and over in these cases. The relationship is usually “discovered” rather than the student reporting it. It can be common for the student to view it as a romantic affair or a consensual sexual encounter.
MC: Interesting that you mention that, because the reader barely gets any interior/insight from the point of view of Celeste’s student–he’s basically this virginal canvas that Celeste is using to fulfill her sexual urges. And Celeste objectifies the shit out of him. Is that a commentary on how society is so quick to characterize these teachers as “predators” and these students as “victims?”
AN: Yes, she absolutely objectifies him. He’s silenced by the text, which I think stresses the abusive power dynamic in their relationship–readers see him mistaking his arousal and sexual desire for agency, and are aware he’s being victimized. This is critical because Celeste doesn’t care–she’s not about to devote narrative space to the ways she’s harming the boys. So I had to show and imply the harm in less-direct ways, and omitting deep characterizations of the boys was one of them.
MC: While reading Tampa, I couldn’t stop thinking that you were trying to make us examine the way 21st-century society treats women: Celeste goes to great lengths to prevent herself from aging, even though she’s only 26. What made you want to use this narrative to be hyper-satirical about women’s “beauty?”
AN: We live in a society that polices female aging and female bodies. It rewards and prioritizes youth and beauty, far more so than actual deeds or behavior. Celeste excels at exactly what our media states is most important for women to excel at: looking sexy and young. So yes, it’s a satirical message to say “we’d rather have our nation’s women be beautiful pedophiles than be dowdy humanitarians with cankles.” But looking at the images of popular culture and what it champions, I think that’s actually a far less satirical message than I wish it were.
MC: Right! And in this book, it’s not just men who treat Celeste this way–her female colleagues and students also respect and admire Celeste, even though there’s a lot of evidence that she’s not that good at her job. So this problem isn’t solely related to the male gaze, is it?
AN: It’s not. It’s also the ways that women are culturally encouraged to pursue the social “rewards” that come with an attempt to achieve and maintain a specific appearance that’s acceptable to the mainstream. Women and girls are told to idolize females like Celeste who look a certain way. I know I did growing up…I felt like as a female, anyone who was prettier than me was automatically better than me. It wasn’t that I didn’t see accomplishments and personality being valued in women. I just saw them as being valued less than appearance was valued. I think that social message is still being put out there to girls and women today.
MC: I’m happy you brought that up, because the main reason I love this book is that it really forced me to look inwards at all the things I find funny, sexy, taboo, and horrifying. And I kept thinking about what my comfort levels said about me, as a man and as a feminist. Were you actively thinking about how different genders would respond to this book?
AN: That’s a good question. For male readers at times I think there’s this natural comparison of putting one’s self in the shoes of the student that goes on–this feeling of being seduced against one’s will. I really wanted that tension to be there. As an adult reading about an adult woman who is very sexually aroused, the inclination at times is of course to find it sexy, but we’re fighting against that because it’s happening in a taboo and wrong context. That’s definitely a commentary on the way we glorify sexual encounters with attractive women as earning one’s masculinity, even if the encounter is empty or (as in this case) illegal or predatory. It’s also a commentary on the way we allow the mainstream media to sexualize teenagers in our society. What’s the message when clothes are being sold by half-naked teen models in compromising poses? When thong underwear is marketed to tweens? In what ways do those things imply pop-culture sanctioning of Celeste’s behavior?
MC: Yeah, that all makes me feel pretty terrible. This next question is more about process, but whatever–are you actively thinking about your audience’s reaction when you’re writing? How do you want them to feel, and how do get them to feel?
AN: I knew I had to battle against normalization and complacency on every page. As the novel progresses, we go deeper and deeper into her head and she begins to engage in more and more transgressions. So my challenge was to ensure that her behavior continued to feel shocking and dangerous, and continued to make readers feel very uncomfortable–I couldn’t let readers become desensitized to what she was doing or have it feel routine. My process with that was to ensure that I continually disturbed myself writing the book. Editing, if I could read through a few pages without getting a knot in my stomach, I knew I hadn’t pushed things far enough there and needed to revisit that area of the text.
MC: How concerned are you that people will misinterpret this book?
AN: Writing a book like this, intellectually you of course know going into it that it’s going to be misinterpreted by many–but I’d be lying if I said that emotionally, as an author, it’s not nerve-wracking and disappointing when that happens. It is; I have to be honest with myself about that. I have to let myself cry and vomit and get one-beer-drunk (I have no tolerance whatsoever) as needed, and mourn those misinterpretations since I certainly can’t control or prevent them. In addition there will be people who write off the book for the subject matter alone without reading a page, and disapprovers who read anyway but can’t put their bias aside to give the book a chance and meet it on its own terms. I’m aware of all of this; I have been since I sat down to write it. It’s still a hard truth to know. Maybe my skin will thicken during this whole process and that will be for the better, but that isn’t the way I’m wired. I wish it was. I don’t know how to prevent myself entirely from caring what people say about my work, and I put myself through a lot of needless anguish because of it.
MC: I’d argue that the people who dismiss this book because of its subject matter are the people who need to read it the most. What would you say to convince those people that they should read Tampa?
AN: It can be difficult to read something that makes you feel uncomfortable. But that discomfort is an integral part of this book; the material needs to make people feel distressed. I’d invite readers to think of it as an anthropological text; to observe the acts and facts of the book and ask what it says about the society where these events occur.