Alissa Nutting’s first book, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, presented an impressive range of voices, from space-age pornstars to witchy cannibals to corpse-smokers and amputees. Somehow she was able to make any situation—no matter how fucked—seem feasible and hilarious. The expectation for her next book, then, was exceptionally high.
Her new novel, Tampa, just released from Ecco, takes that innate ability to its furthest possible extent. From the first sentence, Tampa promises it won’t be prone to blushing: “I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep.” Essentially a portrait of perhaps major-house fiction’s first female pedophile, Tampa presents Celeste, an eighth-grade teacher who is obsessed with fucking young boys.
The trick of the novel is how deftly Nutting makes this would-be female monster into a voice you can’t put down. The insane sex-scenes and rising tension of the ongoing taboo is tempered by Celeste’s sense of humor, her lack of inhibition, and Nutting’s ability to bury any alarm ringing in the reader with bizarre and unflinching sentences like: “I pictured us, airborne and naked in the backseat of the falling car, trying desperately to crawl toward one another against the forces of gravity so he could stuff his penis inside me for just one moment before death.”
Less language-heavy than Lolita, more suburban than American Psycho, Tampa is for certain a book that forces the reader to sit up and recalibrate the shape of their beliefs, while at the same time confronting all sorts of questions about predators, gender, perspective, and the taboo.
Alissa was kind enough to answer a few questions via email regarding some of Tampa’s takes on these ideas.
VICE: At what point did you realize you were going to write a novel about a female pedophile?
Alissa: From the book's inception I knew I wanted to write a novel specifically about the phenomenon of female teachers sleeping with underage male students. But the decision to write the book in first-person definitely came from a broader awareness that there aren't very many novels written from the perspective of a female sexual predator.
I was really impressed with how fluid and honest the voice of the narrator seemed. Was it easy for you to find a way into her voice, and to keep going deeper into the brain of the character as you continued?
I do think there's an advantage to writing about characters who have an obsession, because you always have their monomania to guide the voice, like a compass—no matter what she's doing, this novel's protagonist, Celeste, is always thinking about sex with young teen boys on some level, and part of the intrigue of the book is the reader getting to contrast the normalcy everyone around her assumes about her character with what Celeste is actually thinking.
Do you have empathy for Celeste? Is empathy important when writing this kind of book?
That's a great question. My empathy for her is restricted, I suppose, because she herself has no concern or empathy for others. But there are aspects of her character I can relate to, like being afraid of growing old. I did feel it was important that she be very interesting, since this isn't a book you keep reading because you deeply care about the main character as a person. Here you're reading because you're watching the train wreck of her choices unfold, or you're being entertained by her contemptuous making-fun of nearly everyone around her, or you're shocked by the situational irony of her thoughts.
It's complicated, I think, because Celeste's voice—even though everything she's describing is morally broken—has a humor to it. During the sex scenes I would sometimes almost forget this was an interaction between an adult and a child, I think because Celeste's sex drive is so insane at times, and your descriptions are so unashamed—even at times hilarious. I wonder if you'd say a bit about your approach to writing the sex scenes, if there were any rules you set for yourself—things you knew you wanted to make happen—and if it was difficult for you or if you felt removed from it?
I definitely felt that her character had to be really funny, so that there would be this disturbing pull of tension—on one hand at times you almost want to like her because she's making you laugh, but then there's the troubling context of her desires and actions that it's set against. The sex scenes were tricky. With the boys, I had to show her extreme, hyperbolic lust and her very adult approach to these interactions: she was completely turned on, which I had to reflect. But I also needed to reveal the impact and range of consequences of her behavior—how it was dishonest, damaging, frightening, or frustrating even as the boys were welcoming it. What I knew I wanted to make happen there was to display the lack of balance in regards to power, how unequal the playing field was; she’s an intelligent, manipulative, sexually experienced adult. And of course her sex scenes with grown men in the book are the least sexy thing in the world—they're atrocities she suffers through, though she does have a sense of humor about it.
It's interesting that early reviews keep comparing the book to American Psycho; the main link I see there is the narrators’ shared awareness that what they're doing is super fucked up, but they still do it, and get off on it, like pleasure is more real than law. I know Ellis was kind of acting out against a world he lived in that was full of drugs and blank people, and I wonder if there's something particular you were pushing against, whether it be the low number of female antagonists who are truly fucked up as compared to males, or a general sense in America of both demonizing and fetishizing these kinds of figures?
The book is definitely a response to each of those things, as well as to this cultural sense that physical attractiveness—much like wealth—is a form of immunity. That if you're beautiful enough the rules won't apply. In that vein, I feel like Celeste is this Frankenstein monster of male desire. She’s gorgeous and only thinks about sex: exactly what popular culture seems to state is every man’s ideal. She’s like if Maxim magazine made a wish but didn’t specify the parameters enough—“give us a perfect 10 nymphomaniac.” Well, like the proverbial monkey’s paw, here she is. Ta-da! So in many ways the character is poking fun at that ridiculous ideal.
You became a mother shortly after this book was released. I wonder if you feel you'd have been able to write the book the same way now, after having had a child, or if the life change has otherwise complicated or altered your perspective. At what age would you let your child find this book?
I do think it would be more difficult to write the book right now in particular—in this postnatal period where I'm awash with warmly fuzzy tenderness hormones and most of the items in our house are made of fleece and patterned with cartoon monkeys. I had to channel these great reserves of callous, satirical narcissism to write Celeste's character, and that would be a much more difficult headspace for me to enter at present. The age I'd be OK with my own child reading the novel would just depend on her maturity level I think. It's a very adult book, after all, but the topic is certainly one I want to discuss with her long before. I think as a culture we tend to do a better job warning our children about predators when our kids are younger, before puberty. After puberty that conversation seems to stop happening a lot of times. It's normal, I think, for parents to be uncomfortable about their children's budding sexuality, and particularly about the fact that their child might develop a crush on an adult—it's something no parent wants to think about. But it's my opinion that not discussing the possibility that those feelings might surface and the reasons against acting on them make teenagers more vulnerable to predatory adults.
Do you believe humans are evil by nature?
Perhaps. Of course there are so many lovely people who do a pretty great job of battling the worst in themselves, as extreme or benign as their own personal worst may be. They strive to be kind and they win at it. But I've always been intrigued by books with characters who have dreadful urges they aren't at all interested in fighting against. This novel is one of them.
Previously by Blake Butler - Conceptual Writing, Gender, Murder, and Bob Seger