Chicago Literati exclusive: Abby Sheaffer interviews Alissa Nutting, author of the controversial novel Tampa

Tampa is a game changer, and that’s exactly how author Alissa Nutting wants it. It’s a shocking debut novel that broaches female pedophilia and the egregious cracks in the U.S. legal system. In this exclusive interview with Chicago Literati, Alissa Nutting talks forwardly about what prompted her to write Tampa and some of the challenges she faced.  (Interview after the jump.)


(Image courtesy of Alissa Nutting)

(Image courtesy of Alissa Nutting)


What were some of the challenges you faced when writing Tampa? How did you overcome them?

I knew that if I was going to write a book about this topic, there were a few essential mandates I had for myself—otherwise, it wouldn’t have felt important to me. One is that I wanted the female protagonist to be effectively soulless. We have such a hard time with literature where female protagonists are merely unlikable, let alone unredeemable. I didn’t want her POV to be mediated by anyone else. I wanted to write it in a very graphic, sexualized way that directly confronts readers with the fetishization of cases like this, the celebritizing of the female offenders, our cultural inability to accept the male students as victims. I wanted the novel to be more an indictment of society—the various factors that contribute to the perpetuation and sense of general approval about cases like this; the attitude that states this isn’t ‘truly’ a crime unless the offender is male. The factors that privilege female appearance over any other aspect of female personhood. The factors that allow us to see male sexuality as powerful and dangerous but prevent us from seeing female sexuality that way.

At the same time, I also realized how much each of these mandates would cause the book (and me as an author) to be unpalatable to some, or seem extreme. But the very real line of thinking that casts a scenario of sexual predation as a fantasy or entertainment--I felt the need to wallow in that slimy line of thinking: fully actualize it, hyperbolize it, satirize it. Take it all the way to its grotesque and campy finish.

The problem is that I’m a long-time people pleaser who is still working at being comfortable around conflict and debate. It’s difficult for me to feel like I’m not liked, or feel my work is not liked. It was a really hard decision ultimately, especially because I knew I wanted to have a child (and did have one by the time the book was published). It was unbearably painful for me to think about my future child Google-searching me and seeing all these ruthless comments; I worried s/he would feel ashamed of me or embarrassed. But I also knew that there would be things about me that s/he would be ashamed of and embarrassed about no matter what—mothers can’t fully escape that, right? Hopefully I will instill enough love, tolerance, and critical thinking skills in her that even if she loathes the book, she’ll be able to respect/accept my reasons for writing it, and maybe even be a little proud of me for staying true to my vision of the book despite knowing the scorn would be a lot to withstand.

How did the idea for the character of Celeste Price come to you?

 I was interested in a female character that would cause the Etch-a-Sketch diagram of conversation surrounding the issue to shake up a bit. We live in a society that is still very powerfully misogynistic, and cases like this (as with every other cultural topic) all pass through that filter. But social factors don’t usually come up in the dialogue surrounding cases like these. We don’t talk about the ways that our culture actively denies female sexuality toward men can be predatory, or the ways we actually celebrate/endorse such cases through media attention and celebrity, or the ways we fetishize these scenarios. Instead we look at the female offender with a sense of bafflement and sympathy. When we ask, “Why did she do it?” a lot of problematic things occur. We decide that we will not discuss the crime or acknowledge the victimhood of the male student; instead we will focus solely on how the female herself is a victim. We pretend that we don’t live in a society that glorifies this behavior—that the teacher never received social messages that doing this would mean indulging a fantasy rather than committing a crime, that the male student never received social messages that doing this would mean he’d gain masculine social currency rather than be sexually victimized. We imply that we should focus on motivational factors other than sex, thereby negating the sexual crime that occurred; we highlight the woman’s contrition. So I was interested in a female character that dismissed all of the well-worn “individual” paths of conversation around the issue: one who was entirely motivated by sex, entirely predatory in her encounters with underage victims, entirely void of remorse. A character that would allow the way that society objectifies and dismisses this behavior to take center stage.

 What was your reaction to how critics compared Tampa to Lolita and Belinda?

 Tampa is very much its own book, written for its own reasons with its own stylistic choices that are quite intentional. So I personally enjoy talking about what my book is doing.

 Critics often compare Celeste Price to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, what are your thoughts on this analogy?

 One thing that’s interesting about Celeste is that gender is truly the hallmark of her character. She’s a self-aware female object, and understands all the specific guidelines, benefits, and penalties associated with that in our culture. She in turn objectifies the young men she pursues, but that’s her secret that she doesn’t have to share—if she’s caught, others will assume she wasn’t objectifying them because they are male; in our society we like to give males agency.

 Tampa deals with a lot of sensual prose, almost to a monstrous degree, where did you find inspiration for this level of sexually charged prose?

 It would be a wholly incomplete book without it. This is a book that has to go there; the going there is not a means to an end. Reading Tampa, you’re forced to walk through the haunted house and look in all the warped cultural mirrors inside before you can exit.

 Your interview with Cosmopolitan magazine addresses the fact that beautiful women who commit heinous crimes often get incredible media attention for their crimes in a way that almost placates them from their reality from their actions, has this dialogue increased or decreased since the publication of Tampa?

 I hope it’s on the minds of readers during and after their encounter with the book.

 How has Debra LaFave (the inspiration for Celeste Price) reacted to Tampa?

 We attended the same high school and her case was what made me begin to really pay attention to this phenomenon, but I didn’t know her then and I don’t know her now and the book is not about her. LaFave has become a celebrity (as have many women who have done this) and people are still very anxious to talk about her ten years after the fact. But Celeste is a fictional monster inspired by social messages surrounding female appearance and female behavior (particularly in the context of female teachers’ illegal sexual relationships with underage males). She’s not based on a real person, thank goodness.

 Are you grateful that the intrepid indie publishing house, Ecco Books, allowed you the freedom write Tampa?

I think “intrepid” is a perfect word for Ecco—they publish such a fascinating range of books.

 Are you presently working on another book?

 I am! It’s a completely different taxonomy of weird.


 Alissa Nutting is author of the novel Tampa (Ecco/HarperCollins 2013) and the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone/Dzanc 2010), which won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction judged by Ben Marcus. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin HouseBomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues.

Read Mikaela Shea's review of Tampa here.

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