In July, author Alissa Nutting released a novel that would change her life. Tampa (Ecco, $18), is the first-person account of Celeste, a gorgeous, 26-year-old eighth-grade teacher who is sexually obsessed with her male students. By employing such a controversial tale, Nutting set out to critique society’s preference for women’s youth and beauty above all else, even pedophilia. But society didn’t always understand. Case in point: In describing the seduction of a 14-year-old, The New York Times says, “It’s hard not to be a little happy for the guy.” Tampa ignited a firestorm, landing attention from unlikely venues for a literary author, such as Inside Edition. Nutting, who earned a doctorate in English from UNLV in 2011 and is now an assistant professor at John Carroll University in Ohio, returns to Las Vegas for the Vegas Valley Book Festival, where she will speak on two panels: The Art of Short Fiction and Las Vegas Writes. Here, UNLV professor, former colleague and Art of Short Fiction panel moderator Maile Chapman interviews Nutting.
There is historical precedent of women being declared insane rather than being found guilty of taboo crimes. So, is Celeste a sociopath or a normal person with an overwhelming compulsion?
Sociopath is fair; she’s certainly unapologetic—I think that that is the biggest controversy of the book. We have such a hard time in our culture accepting that women can be truly unlikable, let alone evil. I felt it was very important to write a book that had a truly bad female who wasn’t at all saying sorry. It was really interesting to write a novel that didn’t give readers any escape hatch. It makes for a very disturbing and discomforting experience.
It’s not a redemptive book. Celeste doesn’t learn anything, she doesn’t change. Do reviewers know what to do with that? The New York Times called it a “gender-swapped Lolita,” but that seems too reductive.
It’s an extremely different book [from Lolita]. I don’t think we want to give women the power of saying they can be sexually predatory, they can be violent for the sake of violence, and not simply because they are insane or there is some sort of mitigating circumstance that means that their actions weren’t their own.
Celeste doesn’t have a fully fleshed-out back-story. There is no reason given for why she is the way she is. Did you feel pressure to include that?
I did. This was a very difficult book to write because those are the rules for acceptance: If you want to write about a bad character, particularly a female, there needs to be some excuse or epiphany. A lot of people had this reaction of, “Oh, she forgot to put that in,” which is interesting because that is one of the main points of the book: Here’s a women who is not apologizing; she has no sympathy for her victim.
In Tampa, Celeste refuses to say she loves one of the boys, which would have made her crime seem less vile.
If her motivations were coming from a romantic place or from a place of victimhood, people would be able to digest that. It was something that I felt compelled to explore in narrative. What happens if we take that sophisticated veneer off and take that romantic gaze away and show only the behavior? In this country, we are not fully comfortable with sex. It’s still taboo compared to violence, [which] doesn’t get people up in arms the way that art about sexual transgressions does, particularly if there is a woman at the helm.
It makes me think about Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who was imprisoned for an affair with her 12-year-old student that produced children. She sort of redeemed herself in the public eye because they’re married.
We have such a strong urge to fit those relationships—when it’s a female adult and an underage male—into the narrative of a love story. For Celeste, the kind of real-life things I kept seeing [was that] when the women are young and beautiful, there’s this implication that no true crime has been committed. There’s this regard for the males’ consent in a way that we don’t have when it’s an underage female victim. We are used to giving males of almost any age independence in a way that we don’t for females.
Did you consider the possible reaction when writing?
I had to set that aside or I could have never finished the book. I think everyone has a personal aesthetic baseline. A lot of my favorite films, a lot of my favorite visual art—they’re horrifying. They don’t have the uplifting thread that helps people feel safe when exploring darker topics. I think of that practice where people submerge themselves in freezing water in order to strengthen their vitality. For me, art is not redemptive. I appreciate having experiences that throw me off kilter and remind me of the harsher realities of life that we’re insulated from in our suburban lifestyles.
I’ve seen reviews disembowel any approval of Tampa.
Even in good reviews, how do you say you love a sexually explicit book about a first-rate female pedophile? How do you say that you enjoyed that book without in some way seeming that you approve of her behavior? A lot of people have a myopic spot for the differences between a first-person character and an author. I’ve certainly been accused of having these feelings.
There are so many moments in Tampa that are grimly hilarious, such as when Celeste clamps her knees together because she feels that if she lets them apart her vagina is going to let out a shrill noise because she’s so aroused. To what extent is the book satire?
The way she fantasizes in this outlandish kind of surreal obsessive way—she can look at an object no matter how mundane and see it as a sexual prop—is extremely satirical. Humor in all of my writing is one of my essential building blocks. Humor and irony are the absolute best tools for exploration of any disturbing act or emotion. … I wanted to write a book that was purposely very grotesque and very irreverent—particularly with a female narrator.
Will this book’s reception affect your future projects?
My first book was a short-story collection on a very small press [Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, 2010], and it was easy for me to write this novel and not have thoughts about reader response. That will never be the case [again]. I was initially thinking about taking a darker direction on my current [project], but I don’t know if I’m going to do that now.
There are always puppies, kitties and birds.
My next novel will be about a puppy that has a wonderful platonic relationship while walking on the beach.
See Nutting at the Art of Short Fiction panel (moderated by Maile Chapman, 10 a.m. Nov. 2, Room 125) and at the Las Vegas Writes panel (11:15 a.m. Nov. 2, Auditorium) at Fifth Street School.