Alissa Nutting, who will be at Eastern Illinois University this weekend as a part of Lions In Winter, made quite a splash in the literary world with her novel Tampa, a disturbing glimpse into the mind of a middle school teacher who methodically grooms and sexually takes advantage of one of her students. The novel, unapologetically told from Celeste’s perspective, is horrifying in that it depicts a woman whose transgressions occur first in her mind by way of a phenomenally twisted self-reflection. Or rather, the self-reflection that she exercises is always in service of her compulsion to have sexual contact with minors. Nutting’s realist look at a dynamic that is, in her words, “so often fetishized in the popular media,” is as disturbing as it is revelatory of how our culture relies on cliched narratives to understand a subject that deserves the realism and the explicitness that she lends it.
Smile Politely: The first movement in Tampa focuses on establishing Celeste Price as a sexual deviant who has tailored, among other things, her career and her marriage to accommodate her compulsion to have sex with prepubescent boys. Once she is in such a position, working in a portable classroom as an 8th grade English teacher, Celeste begins to methodically groom potential victims before fixated on her victim. This all struck me as being rather accurate to how sexual predators work, and so I'm curious: how much of Celeste's sexual deviance was formed out of research on the topic and how much was born out of your own creative process?
Alissa Nutting: I really wanted to make her hyper-deviant, for a variety of reasons, but one of the foremost being that I didn't want her character reduced to any real-life case or to any of the rationalizations/justifications that usually come up in the media and focus the victimhood off of the male student and onto the female teacher. She's doing it because she wants to do it, and the reason for that is so the book can focus more on social reception of her behavior and the gendered belief systems that lead to that reception. So that was my goal for the beginning of the book: establish she's doing this because she's sexually motivated to, that she does not like adult men sexually OR personally, that she does not care about these boys or want to fall in love with them or grow old with them. It's harder to make it clear that a female character is a sexual predator against males (even underaged ones) than one might think--socially, we aren't really set up to see the situation that way.
SP: That's an interesting observation: that when women (often white and upper-middle class) commit egregious crimes, the media is often more willing to form at least part of the narrative around their victimhood. Why do you think this is? Do you think Tampa is a critique of the rationalizations/justifications you're referring to?
Nutting: We give social privileges to women who conform to certain beauty ideals (and these beauty ideals definitely privilege the white and wealthy). What happens (or fails to happen) to the protagonist in Tampa is absolutely a social critique.
SP: Prior to writing this novel, you enjoyed success as a short fiction writer with Unclean Jobs. Did you see the move from short stories to novel writing as much of a transition? Do you still actively write shorter work?
Nutting: Yes, I'll always actively write shorter work — in the same way that there are people who you could probably see yourself dating and having fun with but not marrying, there are lots of topics I often want to write a story about, but don't necessarily want to work on for several years and turn into a novel.
SP: What common threads do you recognize as linking these two works (Unclean Jobs and Tampa)?
Nutting: They're both female first-person, and both about characters who are "outsiders" based on who they are or what they want. In Unclean Jobs, the characters are often treated worse than they should be, socially, due to the fact that they don't conform; in Tampa the protagonist is actually treated far better than she should be, because she conforms so well.