August 2013

Matt Bell


An Interview with Alissa Nutting

In her debut novel, Tampa, Alissa Nutting offers readers the story of Celeste Price, a young, recently-married, beautiful middle-school teacher -- who also happens to be a sociopath who throughout the book recounts her systematic and relentless seduction of a fourteen-year-old student, a goal which all the rest of her life has been built in service of. Her pursuit of her student Jack Patrick never leaves the center of the book, her obsession driving every other concern to the periphery of her point of view so that the deeper we go into Celeste's mind the more we might find ourselves trapped there too, by her seductive voice, by our slowly-flagging hope that, somewhere in the pages left to read, Nutting might have left us an escape hatch from Celeste's unrelenting and terrible success.

Readers of Nutting's story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls -- winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction -- already know about her confident prose, her frank depictions of sexuality, her tricky wit. Fans of those stories will undoubtedly be rewarded by this newest book, which met and then exceeded my every expectation: For all her monstrousness, Celeste might also be the summer's most compelling narrators, and Tampa is certainly among the best novels of the year.

For this interview, Nutting graciously agreed to answer my questions about how she created Celeste, and about how Tampa means to morally implicate its readers -- an aim that I think will challenge her readers, but one that creates an experience I think no one should miss.

I want to start by talking about Celeste Price, your narrator. Can we talk about where Celeste came from? I'm assuming you almost had to have her first, before you had anything else, but maybe I'm wrong.

I could say that the premise came first, but Celeste and the premise are really one and the same -- I knew I wanted to write a novel about a female teacher who sleeps with an underage male student, and I wanted to complicate it as much as possible with his age by making him fourteen. This would be a much different novel if the student were a few years younger or a few years older. Likewise I wanted to muddle things even further by having her be this hyperbolic version of a predator -- almost comically so (she thinks of nothing but having sexual encounters with tween boys), although the comedy is of course undercut by the readers' revulsion at what she's doing. Basically I was interested in crafting a text that would produce knotty reactions in readers due to a mingling of binary extremes, and that mingling is what defines Celeste's character. She's beautiful but she's soulless. She's hilarious but she's beastly.

I'm glad you mentioned the hyperbolic nature of Celeste's character, which I was also struck by: The exaggeration allows her to take on different sorts of roles, in that she seems to be both a suburban legend and a teenage fantasy version of sex and sexual aggression, different than what an adult would expect from another adult: more single-minded, more obsessed, as you noted. One of the moves I always find fascinating is when a writer uses the special relationship the reader has with a protagonist against us: I think we have been conditioned to take the protagonist's side, to cheer for the protagonist to achieve her goals. But of course, in this case, the protagonist's goals are morally repugnant, which means that we're in a sort of trap: To read on is to take part in the quest, but here we also want to see the quest thwarted. We want Celeste changed or else punished, perhaps. Are these issues you thought about? What did you want the reader's relationship to Celeste to be like?

Exactly -- this is something that occurs within the book's characters as well: other people want to give Celeste the benefit of the doubt, to think the best of her even in cases where there's growing evidence to the contrary. I think this is something that sociopaths count on and manipulate to their advantage: most people don't like to speak up about doubts or admit that something terrible is going on; at times we can be willing to overlook or deny a great deal in order to pretend that everything is okay. So for the reader, I wanted to make that challenge a little more ultimate, and address how complicated the urge inside of us to hope for the best can be. At the book's most difficult moments, I think it's interesting to be aware of what we're telling ourselves as we keep reading. This will be different for everyone, but it addresses something very messy and essential that I think is a key part of the book -- the novel becomes interactive during this fraught process in a way that a text that isn't morally implicating couldn't achieve.

What are some other books that morally implicate the reader in similar ways? Were there models you drew inspiration from? One of my own favorite books that employs this strategy of reader implication is Brian Evenson's Last Days: I will never forget reading that book for the first time and arriving at the protagonist's own sudden moral doubt at the violent acts he was committing, and realizing that I should have stopped backing his side long before that point. I think Tampa is probably the most implicated I've felt in this particular fashion in a long time, and I'd love to hear what other books or other works have had the same effect on you.

That's a great example -- Last Days is an incredible book. I feel that sense of implication reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which is one of my all-time favorite novels; it always gives me a complicated sense of awareness throughout that I'm serving as an audience for extended descriptions of incredible violence. I think many of the narrators in Edgar Allan Poe's short stories do this fantastically -- "The Tell Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are textbook cases. Norman Mailer's An American Dream and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me are two other examples. Most of the texts that immediately come to mind for me are written by males and have male protagonists, so that was added inspiration for me to write this book.

It's interesting that you brought up the fact that most of the more obvious examples of this strategy for creating moral implication in the reader have been written by men, as I thought the same thing almost as soon as I asked the last question. I don't necessarily have any idea why this is, and I'm curious if you do. Any thoughts? It occurred to me, just now, that the moral ground in the examples above that I'm familiar with almost all have to do with transgressions of physical violence, whereas the transgressions in Tampa are sexual. Not that this kind of sexual aggression isn't a violence too, of course, but it's not exactly the same thing, and so I think it makes for an interesting difference, a part of what's unique about your novel.

I think it's certainly been more socially acceptable for men to write about violence of any sort than for women to -- I don't think we're past that dual standard even today. That did factor heavily into my decision to commit to writing this book. I've always felt the urge to dedicate my career to experimental and transgressive literature, and I knew there was a void of predatory female characters, particularly sexual predators. As you mention, violent transgressions are so much more common in literature than sexual transgressions -- I think this also goes back to acceptability. At its heart, America is still a largely puritanical nation. Superhero movies geared toward children can contain an incredible amount of violence and even killing, and be blockbusters not in spite of it but because of it. The most morally conservative legislators -- the ones championing abstinence-only sex education programs -- are often also the most pro-war. To me, that hypocrisy is directly linked to misogyny. The suppression of sexuality and the suppression of women's rights have always gone hand in hand. The glorification of violence and the suppression of women's rights have also always gone hand in hand. So I think that's why violent novels are so much more commonplace traditionally than sexually transgressive ones -- violent novels don't challenge or implicate mainstream patriarchal ideals in a way that sexually transgressive novels might.

Reading through parts of Tampa again today, I was once again struck by the choice to write the book in first person. On one hand, the book probably had to be in first person to give us the kind of access to Celeste's inner workings that make it so compelling, but on the other I can't help but think of how certain readers assume a first-person narrator is the author, or at least some version of her. Like Celeste, you're also a young English teacher, etc., and I wondered if you ever worried about how readers might react to you because of what Celeste says and does in the book -- even though this is clearly a novel. What was it like to write all these I-statements in Celeste's voice? Was there a level of discomfort involved? Were there places you were tempted to pull back -- and if so, how did you push past that hesitance?

Ha, I do teach English but luckily that's where my similarities to Celeste's character end! I know that in my case -- and I think this is true for so many authors -- writing is the place where I mull over the things about the world that are beyond my comprehension: mainly death, sociopathy, and inequality. For me, being a writer is like going to the zoo, holds the same level of otherworldly curiosity -- I can stand in front of a gorilla's cage and have just an inch of glass separating me from fatal danger, yet feel completely safe. I can get right next to all these bizarre creatures I'd never, ever want to be close to otherwise. Writing Celeste was a lot like that. She's so depraved that I didn't really worry about people conflating me with her voice in any way... after all, this is a book that indicts the narrator instead of glorifying her. In order to do that, to truly capture the wrongness of what she does, and how much delight she takes in it, I needed to show the grittiest aspects of her transgressions. For the subject matter to be adequately disturbing, I had to push the writing until I'd thoroughly disturbed myself -- that was the test I held the writing up to. And I did disturb myself, on a daily basis. I went through an incredible amount of antacid products while writing this book. Celeste is intense, to say the least.

Can you talk a little more about the process of writing Tampa? This is your first novel, but I'm not sure anyone would know that if they weren't told: I'm so impressed by how confident and assured it seems. What were the challenges along the way? Any especially unexpected triumphs?

Celeste is a very confident character, so I think, luckily, this makes my authorial voice come off as quite assured. The biggest challenge for me was staying on my toes transgressively -- when you start a novel with a character who's about to go too far, you have to not only maintain that crossed boundary but also push it even further as the text progresses. It's an interesting question for an author to have to ask herself: at this point in the book, is this scene depraved enough? One nice thing that did happen in the later hours of writing the novel is that my ability to enter the voice very quickly improved, to where I could sit down and immediately begin working at any point in the day. For a long time I could only work on the book in chunks of five or six hours -- it would take a while to work up to getting into the correct headspace, so once I got into it I had to make the most of it. In some ways I can liken it to flying: it took months and months of effort to climb up to the right altitude and have the writing level off and feel more automatic. I have terrible insomnia, and I have these CDs where you try to learn to hypnotize yourself to sleep at night. I was never able to do that. But writing this book I feel like I did learn to hypnotize myself to effectively work on command after a period of time. That felt nice; it was this sense of practice paying off.

One thing I realized writing my own first novel was that the deeper I got into the work, the more other possibilities became excluded. For instance, because my novel takes place in this mythic setting, apart from contemporary culture, it couldn't comment or include anything I was feeling or thinking about current events. Was there anything similar in your experience? There's so much emotional and moral and intellectual content included in Tampa -- but what was left out?

Well... balance, normalcy. Celeste's monomania definitely meant everything in the book had to be filtered through her own unique hierarchy, which glorifies and sexualizes anything tween and vilifies and debases everything else. I couldn't have any objective descriptions, because her obsession renders her incapable of objectivity. Where most characters could see a park bench and simply describe it -- painted black metal, waist-high, under a tree -- Celeste would see a space for a potential sexual encounter and elaborate on her fantasy instead.

I won't try to ask you to talk about what you're working on next -- it's enough that you've given us Tampa, and we shouldn't be so greedy already for the next thing -- but I am very interested in this idea that writing Celeste eventually became automatic, and what that means for you moving forward. I realize you probably finished Tampa a while ago at this point, and are well into new projects, so was it difficult to leave her voice behind? Was there anything specific you had to do to move on? Did you find it particularly difficult to go from the final stages of rewriting back to generating new work?

It was certainly difficult to return to square one with a new novel. I imagine it's a lot like getting divorced and being thrown back into the dating pool. I'm still getting to know the characters of my current novel-in-progress. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop. But they're slowly beginning to confess their secrets to me. It sounds silly because they're people of my own creation, but it just doesn't feel that way when I'm writing. All the countless hours I put into a novel at the beginning -- I don't exactly feel like I'm writing, so much. I'm just showing the characters I'm there and I'm listening. I'm putting in the time it takes to earn their trust.