Reviewers have called Alissa Nutting's controversial first novel, Tampa, "desperate to jump on the Fifty Shades of Grey gravy chain" and "relentlessly graphic." Bookstores around the globe have refused to put it on shelves. But it's also been labeled a bold, gutsy, and brave exploration of sexual politics; a Lolita meets American Psycho satire on the glorification of female monstrosity. Whether applauded or admonished, it can't be denied that the story of Celeste, a beautiful middle school teacher with a pedophiliac fixation on young boys, has gotten readers and critics talking. The author talked to PW about the publication process, the attention her book has garnered, and what she has planned next.
PW: Can you talk a little bit about unveiling the book, so to speak? What was it like getting first reads?
AN: I showed it to absolutely no one while I was writing it. It felt like this deranged secret I always had to run home to attend to, like I had several people locked up in my basement depending on me to bring them sustenance. When people asked what I was working on, I’d turn bright red and laugh a bit too loudly and guzzle down whatever drink was in my hand before changing the subject. After I’d sent it to my agent, at one point I remember sitting in one of the bathroom stalls at work and panicking, then eventually realizing I had zoned out and about a half an hour had passed. When we sent it out to editors, I ate a lot of fast food in my car. I basically lived in my car for much of the wait. I think my plan was to drive south for a really long time and randomly pick a place to start a new life if no one was interested, and to continue living in my car.
PW: What were the editorial and publication processes like? Did you have to mitigate the content, in a way, with either your editor or publicist?
AN: They understood why the explicit content was essential and never asked me to tone it down, but I did get to see reactions. I absolutely love the editorial notes on the manuscript—my favorite margin comments include things like, “Whatever would possess someone to think about the smell of another person’s entrails!” and “Yikes!!!!!!!” and “So cringeworthy!!”
PW: There has been a very mixed reaction to the novel. While some reviewers have called it an intrepid look at an unspoken double standard in cases like Celeste's, it has also been banned in certain bookshops and deemed gratuitously explicit. Did you expect the backlash, and how are you coping with it?
AN: I expected it to a point, but the theoretical backlash I imagined felt far more digestible to me than the real thing when it actually happened. You cope any way you can. I’ve started doing acupuncture and Reiki and hypothetically I may have acquired some crystals to meditate with. I’ve had to start eating very healthy because my body already feels like it’s under assault from other sources. I try to stay off the Internet and surround myself with comfort in whatever inexplicable ways I can. For example I bought silk sheets???!!? Our bedroom looks like a tacky cologne commercial now. My poor husband walked in and cringed and was like, “Wait, we’re going to sleep on this?” I can’t totally explain that purchase. I just need my private world to be really soft right now.
PW: A review in the New Republic placed Tampa in the "uneasy, unresolved territory between erotica and satire." To be sure, Celeste's sociopathic desire consumes the book in the same way it consumes her life. Do you consider the erotic nature and the satirical nature of the book one and the same?
AN: I absolutely do. Exaggeration, humor, and grotesque imagery are integral to the sex in the book, and there’s of course a centuries-old tradition of social criticism and satire being fundamental aspects of books of erotic literature, favorites like Boccaccio’s Decameron or Petronius' Satyricon. In today’s culture, when we hear the word ‘erotica’ we usually think of books that describe two attractive adults having pretty non-taboo sex, described in flattering language—books whose primary purpose is to appeal to mainstream arousal; this is what’s marketed as erotic literature. Many don’t think of vomiting or scatology or the main character wanting to play with an eyedropper of semen. We don’t think of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette and having sex with a turkey whose head gets sliced off at the moment of orgasm. I can only imagine one of my dear aunts being handed that book and told it’s an erotic novel, the critical way her eyebrows would rise as she’d declare, “This is NOT sexy.” Erotic fiction is about sex, and that can be a very different thing from being sexy. Because of marketing I think it’s pretty commonly interpreted today as being entirely separate from satire, and entirely free of yucky or comical content.
PW: The novel is told from Celeste's point of view. Was it difficult, as a writer, to come in and out of the perspective of a deranged character?
AN: It was. It was like going under anesthesia—once I was inside it, I felt like I had to make the most of it because it was so difficult to go in and out. I ended up writing in really marathon sessions, 7-8 hours at a time. People would ask me out to lunch and I’d have to decline because I’d need to spend at least a half an hour becoming me again, then at least a half an hour to an hour becoming her again, and when you added it all up it would be about a three hour diversion. After I was done each day I had this hangover feeling—my body felt a grand fatigue even though I’d been seated the whole time. It took me a while to become verbal again after writing. There was lots of me sitting down to dinner and my husband doing that thing where you snap your fingers in front of someone’s eyes to try to break their trance.
PW: Do you think your next project will also hover in similar controversial territory?
AN: I am working on it; I’m not sure about the controversial hover yet. In some ways I suppose it’s inevitable. I can’t come at any topic from a straight angle. I was joking to a friend that for my next book, I’m going to make it about something completely benign that no one could take issue with—a novel about golden retrievers playing with beach balls. He said, “If you were to write that, it would be the weirdest and most perversely sickening novel you could possibly imagine.” He’s right. I could never be a plastic surgeon. If someone came in my office and asked how their face might be improved, my first suggestion would be a third eye.