Last year, it became difficult to escape the presence of a particularly provocative book cover. Ostensibly showing the front of an unbuttoned pale pink gingham dress, the cover focuses upon an open buttonhole which is puckered slightly, undeniably suggestive of a vulva. Where the cover was evocative, the contents were explicit, and the novel, Tampa, unsurprisingly became controversial. Several bookstores in Queensland refused to stock it, and a Dymocks chain in suburban Melbourne sold it with an R18+ sticker on the front. One of the stated reasons for the refusal to sell the work was due to the loaded political connotations the word ‘Tampa’ has assumed in Australia since the 2001 asylum seeker tragedy. For its American author Alissa Nutting, however, Tampa signifies simply the city in Florida which became notorious for the legal battle surrounding an affair between a female teacher and her underage male student: the real-life case of Debra Lafave, a 23-year-old teacher who had an affair with a 14-year-old student and who escaped a jail sentence because she was considered too attractive to be imprisoned.
Nutting had been to high school with Lafave, and tells me that she was watching the news one day while eating breakfast, and as the news flashed on the screen her ‘Cheerios spilt all down my front as my jaw dropped.’ Such a line gives an insight into both the author and the work. Nutting is as comic in real life as in her writing, and Tampa is certainly a dark comedy with an intentionally monstrous protagonist, an aspect that many of its fiercest critics missed. At Melbourne Writers Festival I was lucky enough to chair a panel with Nutting on sex and literature, and I caught up with her the next day to talk further about transgressive fiction, the cage of female attractiveness, and her novel of the pursuit of pleasure by her female sexual predator Celeste.
KYD: Let’s talk about the literary tradition you’ve set it in, because Tampa is quite explicitly – and often quite comically – an inversion of Nabokov’s classic Lolita, though altered in interesting ways. I think it’s reductive to discuss it as only a gender-flipped Lolita, because the novel does much more, but why did you want to invoke that classic transgressive text?
AN: Well, I had mentioned it very early on, meaning solely that while Lolita is about a male paedophile and a younger female, this is about an adult female and a younger male. But a lot of reviewers took that as this sort of exclamation on my part that I was saying that I was Nabokov, or that stylistically it was supposed to be similar. Which it in no way was. It was very bewildering to me to see all these reviews that were like ‘This is no Lolita and she is no Nabokov,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Well, of course not!’ This is a very different book in style and I had very different reasons for writing it. But there are just not very many books that are first person from the point of view of a paedophile and I certainly wouldn’t have felt the permission to write this had it not been for Lolita. So that was certainly on my mind, and I did do what I thought were some comical nods, but a lot of reviewers didn’t see them as comical nods, they just saw it as me completely failing. Me wanting to put it on, like I’m cutting the face off of a corpse and reinhabiting it, but I don’t mean it to be a direct rewrite in any way. I was just seeing this contemporary action that was being replayed over and over on the news: a female teacher and an underage student, and I thought that it was quite interesting to address the ways that we’re failing to see them as predatory at all.
KYD: There is a flattening of language and affect in the work. That was something that critics noted, but still seemed to punish the novel for. You have a blank style; I know it’s been compared to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in that way. Why did you want to write in that style rather than mirroring the kind of linguistic play that Nabokov did in Lolita?
AN: I feel like with female characters and female writers, there’s this expectation of lyricism. And that very much subverts and undercuts the grotesque sexuality that I was really trying to flaunt. I did not want to elevate what was going on with language. I wanted to shine a mirror on what was going on by failing to dress it up in lace or bows or any kind of verbal makeup. I really wanted it to be base and to be vulgar, and to not shy away from that.
KYD: When Ellis published American Psycho, over twenty years ago, he was often conflated with his protagonist – seen as a misogynist and a sadist. I’m not sure whether attitudes have matured but I didn’t see that you got that level of condemnation?
AN: Oh no, very much so. People would say, ‘You deserve to burn in hell. You’re a paedophile. You’re an unfit mother.’ Things along that variation. And because I teach at a university, and we have a summer course that high schoolers can take, someone wrote, ‘How is she allowed to be around younger students?’ and we had to write back and explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It was a bit alarming. But that sort of thing happens all the time and I feel like with women in particular, the sexual imagination isn’t really believed. So women are allowed to write this kind of romantic, safe, loving erotic literature, but for us to inhabit a character whose sexuality is wildly different from our own, or predatory, people say, ‘The only way you could do that is if this is your fantasy.’ That I don’t have the imagination to be able to think it up.
KYD: You’d think we learn in high school to divorce the author and what they present. Or even the fact that the author might depict something and that therefore is not an endorsement of it. But it happens so much in reactions to explicit works.
AN: It does. Lots of hate mail did understand the book – rather than as a critique of this kind of behaviour, and the social reception to cases like this – very much as saying, ‘Women need to be able to have sex with boys if they want to.’ Which wasn’t at all my intended message. It was surprising. Intellectually you know you’re going to have the gambit of responses, but it’s still a bit surprising when it happens in real time.
KYD: Even among my group of friends there were wildly differing reactions to it. But what I loved was that it was clear you had this background in literature, it’s very clear you knew what you were doing and that it’s a black comedy. I felt the fierce critics couldn’t see the clever nods to Lolita behind it. I guess because it’s a high literary text people who haven’t read those other classic erotic works perhaps aren’t getting it.
AN: It’s funny for you to term it that because so often the responses I got were that because it contains this vulgar language, because it is describing extremely sexual territory, it cannot be literature. One actually rather big news outlet’s tweet was ‘Tampa: wildly paedophilic, but not art.’ And I think it comes from that impulse of highbrow/lowbrow. If you’re dealing in vulgarity, particularly if you’re dealing in sex, particularly if you’re a woman, it’s just not literature. That as a female author, I need to be writing about some slowly unravelling failed marriage, in extremely lyrical terms. That’s my territory.
I think that when it comes to sex, people tend to feel that it’s this wildly easy topic. That anyone can write sex and sexuality so if you have a book that is, it’s just this thing that you kind of crapped out that is in no way something that was intentional and slaved over just as much as a non-sexual novel would be slaved over. So it becomes a math equation, if you have more sex parts in your novel than non-sex parts it can’t be literary. And I completely reject that. Why do you have to write around sex? Why can’t sex be a major component of a literary novel? I think particularly in America, which is – as far as the mainstream readership is concerned – a very puritanical society still, it’s very much guarded that way. And I think it goes back to these very problematic gender binaries. We have this safe territory that we’re comfortable receiving women’s books and women’s fiction in, and if you venture out of that territory you’re socially punished. That was something I had an awareness of going into. It’s still a bit disappointing when it happens so predictably, but I don’t regret writing the novel.
We were talking yesterday about how, had I made this a ‘romance of the ages’ and made the woman feel very in love with the student and conflicted and sympathetic, that a great deal of the people who had problems with the novel might have heralded it as wonderful and that was not the book that I wanted to write and I have no regrets about not writing that book.
KYD: Yes, the people who had a problem with the book argued precisely that Celeste should’ve been more nuanced and conflicted, and I felt as though such critics were completely missing the point of what Tampa was doing. Celeste is intentionally monstrous, and you mentioned your debt to gothic works such as Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe tales.
AN: I think with Frankenstein’s monster, the problem was a cosmetic one. He wasn’t accepted because of the way that he looked. And with Celeste it’s completely the inverse of that, she’s very much a monster on the inside, but on the outside she looks very lovely. It’s a social indictment and I think that it holds true, really even now, how difficult it is to be accepted if you look wildly different, no matter how good of a person you are, and how easy it is to be accepted if you’re beautiful no matter how horrific of a person you are.
And I think that that’s doubly true for women. For men, if you look at, say, famous actors, musicians, politicians, businessmen, people in these positions of power and authority, there still seems to be a script for the female appearance that there doesn’t seem to be for men. I see people in those roles that are much older, much more varied in terms of appearance. Appearance isn’t policed in the papers. Male politicians have their policies talked about rather than have their cankles talked about. You know, what a radical notion, that we might describe what someone does instead of what they look like.
KYD: I don’t imagine that you would follow Australian politics, but we just had our first female Australian prime minister recently, and a lot of the coverage of her centred on her looks. It was quite amazing, Germaine Greer was on our national political talk show Q&A and was talking about Gillard having a ‘fat arse’ and saying that she wears unflattering jackets! No one could believe it. That just shows the scrutiny that comes in those sorts of positions of power when you’re female.
AN: I just remember when they announced Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate for John McCain; I’d never heard of her prior to that, but just seeing that play out and how she was this attractive, conservative, maternal figure. Young, as well. And how in the interviews the various foibles that came out when she was asked about different issues, I mean, how clear it was how unprepared she was. I’m not even a Republican, it’s very seldom that I feel any sort of Republican sympathy, but I just felt so enraged on behalf of all these Republican women who I knew were so well qualified and could’ve just done dynamo interviews, but probably were passed over because of their age or their appearance. Whereas John McCain, they joked on Saturday Night Live about him being a grandpa, age certainly wasn’t an issue for him in running for President. So I just remember having that sick feeling in my stomach, of okay we’re still nominating beauty queens and passing over women based on appearance.
KYD: Both your short story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, and Tampa are transgressive literature, and I wonder if you are interested in the limits of the novel and what drew you to pushing those bounds?
AN: I guess from the youngest possible age that was something that I did notice, that there were things women and girls were not allowed to say. I would kind of drift between rooms at family gatherings when there’d be these male areas where there’d be crass jokes being told and swearing and laughing, and then I would go to the women’s areas and that wasn’t going on. It just kind of struck me as odd, that there was that division. And that was something I always sort of rebelled against. Part of what draws me to writing is that it’s this place where you get to really craft what is being said and think about it and edit it. I knew that I wanted to embody a more vulgar space, a more traditionally male space. A space where I didn’t have these limits of manner or politeness or acting like a lady. It just never interested me.
KYD: Several bookstores in Queensland refused to stock your book, and a bookstore here in Melbourne sold it with an R18+ sticker. It’s clear your work is interested in pushing the limits of what is acceptable in literature but how do you feel about that refusal to engage with your art? I find it quite confusing considering how much sexual content is easily available online.
AN: It goes back to that division of high culture and low culture. I think it sort of states that anything with a certain degree of sexual content isn’t valuable to the mainstream, or isn’t worthwhile to enough people to have in a certain space. I find all censorship a bit confusing personally. Because I have a daughter, I’ve been asked repeatedly, ‘What would you do if you found your daughter at a certain age reading Tampa?’ And to a certain point I think I’d be delighted to see her reading! But I definitely at a very young age came across these outrageously vulgar books and I can’t say that maybe some people would argue that’s what’s turned me into the wretched monster I am today [laughs]. But one nice thing about reading is it’s sort of this self-led journey where any time you want to stop or you don’t feel comfortable or you don’t feel safe or you don’t feel interested, you put the book down. And that’s why I think reading is such an important tool for children and adolescents to explore what they feel safe enough to explore at that time.
Whereas with a film it just keeps going, you don’t get to stop and think or pause and reflect and put it down and go ask someone something and have a conversation and return to it. So I find censorship in literature all the more confusing because of that. Certainly I think that at certain ages there are things that aren’t appropriate for children or that they wouldn’t understand effectively, but as far as adults and having things in a market or not, I wonder.
KYD: Yes, I noticed in my research for our interview that people constantly ask you about how you would feel if your daughter or mother were to read Tampa. Even in our panel yesterday, an audience member asked whether you felt art should have a responsibility to depict sex in a safe way, which I found really odd. How do you feel about the idea of the responsibilities of art?
AN: I think that’s the thing about art – it’s not one thing. It can be a place for information, it can be a place for instruction, it can be a place for social and cultural responsibility. But it also needs to be the opposite of all those things. We need art that does all of those things. I think so often art is exploring these territories that are frightening or problematic or terrifying rather than these places that are safe and comfortable or proper.
For me, all of my favourite art is quite shocking, for lack of a better word. I like to see things that shake me out of my everyday experience. Art that has this sort of instructional, social message, one word for that is propaganda. So if all artists were told, you have to write about sex responsibly, or you have to insert condom use in your novels, I would feel that is a form of censorship.
KYD: When people talk about the respons-ibilities of literature, they talk about it in terms of it being very explicit in the text, that the message should be clearly evident. Which is odd because I feel like Tampa actually does have quite a moral point, it’s just that the moral is the inverse of what you’re representing. And it’s just so odd to me that that’s missed because your book could not be more satirical.
So you seem to be drawn to writing about the dark side of life and sexuality – this is true of Unclean Jobs and certainly of Tampa, the kind of corruption of bodies and the shame around bodies.
AN: I just always felt that there’s this whole ‘damned if you do’ aspect to female representation in culture. On one hand you’re told to be very attractive and sexually alluring, and then when you are you’re called a slut or labelled as promiscuous. So all of that, I guess, weighs upon me. I’ve always been disturbed by the very narrow and often impossible ideals and representations of beauty or labels of beauty and how exclusionary and hurtful those labels are. Representation is so important, and to grow up and never see anyone who looks like you on the cover of a magazine, you know, why are we positing our culture this way?
So these things are intrinsically thematic to me when I write, they’re things that kind of haunt me on a daily basis. I can’t turn on the TV or pick up a magazine without being confronted with that reality so it does make its way into my writing. As does the fact that I am now a mother, now I’m in my thirties, I’m beginning to look at all these representations of ageing in women and all this shame regarding ageing and all the ridiculous things we’re supposed to do to deny that we’re ageing. It’s a lot to be assaulted with on a daily basis.
KYD: You seem to be interested in the idea that women are trapped by beauty, and their sexual desire. It’s often seen as advantageous to be attractive, it’s known to open doors, and yet you look at the way that it’s a cage, in both your works.
AN: It’s a double-edged sword. I feel like when men are attractive they kind of get this double power. For women, I feel like it’s two plusses that make a negative. On one hand you get this social power for as long as you’re young and beautiful, however, you’re objectified and there are lots of negatives that come along with that and lots of negatives that come with people only being interested in your appearance and only wanting to have a sexual experience with you.
So it seems like this lose-lose. You get these horrible things if you’re beautiful, and you get all these horrible things if you don’t fit the standard representation of mainstream female beauty. But at least with those who do fit, there’s that level of social privilege if you want it, but you have to objectify yourself to get it.
KYD: You’ve talked about the social reactions to these sorts of cases, where if the predator is female, the young boy is seen as lucky. There’s a current case in Utah someone had told me about so I was Googling, trying to find it, and I couldn’t believe how many of these cases there were, and in all the pictures the female teachers are stunning. Maybe it is that because they’re beautiful that’s what gets the media coverage, or perhaps because they’re beautiful it’s more easy to lure the young men.
AN: It definitely is a case of what stories do the media seize upon. What stories do they follow and what gets picked up from local to state to national coverage. It does seem to be these cases where the woman is very attractive. And I think it does go back to that power binary. The more attractive she is, the harder it is for our society to see her as a sexual predator towards men. And so these are the cases that get represented. We don’t want to acknowledge that women can be sexual predators. It’s a power that our society wants to reserve exclusively for men.
What’s interesting and disturbing in these cases is the way they’re reported; oftentimes the language of victimhood is used to describe the woman, so they talk about how she was in a loveless marriage or she had this very traumatic event happen to her and it froze her development, or he brought wine to her house and got her drunk. Things that send the message that she’s not a responsible adult, that in any situation, even an underage male has more agency than an adult woman. And that’s not to say that these things aren’t important, and that’s not to say that we shouldn’t look at these cases and ask why. But when it’s a male offender we don’t ask why. We never say, ‘Well, wait a second, you just slept with this fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, did something bad happen to you when you were a teenager?’ We don’t care. We just say, go to jail forever. So that really interests me, the way we have this incredulity to seeing that an adult woman could act in a way that is sexually predatory towards an underage male. And that that experience could be something other than positive.
KYD: What struck me when looking at articles on these women who had offended, and goes to why the young men are such victims of the culture, is that the girls look like Barbies. They are overwhelmingly blonde, they conform exactly to the safe, Barbie doll look.
It’s always interesting to me that the celebrities adolescent girls find attractive are often boys who are very androgynous and almost feminine – like Justin Bieber. For young girls that’s a safe way to be attracted to the opposite sex. And I feel that for boys a safe version of an older woman is one who looks like a doll.
AN: That’s really interesting. I think we tend to equate desire with consent, which is highly problematic. Just because they’re sexually attracted to the teacher doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for them to have sex with an authority figure. I think there are just a lot of really complicated emotional and psychological boundary issues that can come up that we really push under the rug. And I also think about the social messages that these underage male students receive putting yourself in the place of that boy who gets propositioned by his teacher. What has society taught him about what it says about him if he says no? Or if he doesn’t want to do it. And what has society taught him about the peer response and the adulation he’ll get if he says yes?
It happens so often in the States I can really only label it a phenomenon, and I think that the national fetishisation and celebrity-making of these women sort of adds to that cyclone. Because I don’t think women get the message that doing that is going to be emotionally or psychologically harmful to the underage student. I think most women get the message that they’re only going to love this experience. It will suck to get caught but certainly no one’s getting hurt. Which I don’t think is true, but certainly that is the message that’s getting sent.
KYD: When you study literature, as you have, you learn about it in terms of movements or groups where writers are working towards an idea of the novel that they want to advocate. And I feel like that has dropped off in the contemporary era. The idea of writers working together towards a particular form has ended. I wonder if you see yourself as writing within any particular school and what you think of that idea?
AN: I think that that’s always been extremely helpful and necessary for artists to kind of have a posse. And I think the internet and virtual communities and the way that we’re able to connect with others that we don’t live near or haven’t met is really powerful. I live in a different state from all my best friends and all the sort of people who I would say are my, I guess, aesthetic pals. In the States they’re labelled ‘Gurlesque poets’ like Danielle Pafunda.
When you write a book like Tampa, I didn’t want to thank anyone in the thank-you pages because it’s almost like this indictment. So when you’re asking me this I’m like, ‘Well, do I want to pull them down into my swamp?’ But I will just say there is a group of younger writers who do lean to the extreme and the explicit and the grotesque whose work I am very inspired by.
KYD: I’m interested in the book as an object, and I noticed that there was no dedication, and no epigraph or anything like that. Which is interesting because it is laden with references; you’re very aware of the tradition you’re writing within. Why did you decide not to do that?
AN: If you compare the thank-you page from my short story collection to the novel, I only felt safe thanking people who were immediately involved in its publication, like my agent and my editor and the team at the publication house, because I understand that it’s a risk and in some cases a negative mark that I’m agreeing to take, and I don’t want to mark anyone else with it.
KYD: So you were aware of it as a dangerous thing. How did your publisher react when you came to them with the manuscript?
AN: It was very polarising, so publishers were either interested right away, or not interested at all. There wasn’t much in between. Very quickly we saw the ways in which it was a litmus test in that people were going to have a strong reaction one way or the other.
It’s funny to have written a novel where even when people love it, it’s a very complicated reaction. You don’t love it the way you love a novel whose protagonist you adore. And you’re maybe repulsed and upset and offended or disturbed or bothered even while liking the book or liking the book’s thematic work at play. So that’s sort of funny, writing a novel that people are a bit afraid to like or to admit that they like. I have so many people when I tour or do signings who say, ‘I secretly love this book, I would never read it in public though.’ So even as a reader they’re trying to avoid the judgment of others. So imagine me thanking another author in the actual pages! I just decided that I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to have anyone riddled with guilt by association.
KYD: One of the funny things you mentioned in the panel yesterday was that when writing the book, you were so inhabiting Celeste’s mind that if you went out one day and the police arrested you, you would’ve happily been in cuffs because you felt guilty. When I read it – I live opposite a primary school and my bedroom is the front room – I suddenly felt really awkward about looking out my window!
AN: You do, and I would feel not only the guilt about what she was doing, but what she failed to feel. Because that happens with wicked characters, any sort of sadness they fail to feel we might feel, and any guilt we put upon ourselves. So I just felt massively guilty, but that awareness was sort of a fuelling motivation for me. I realised that that was something that I was really interested in touching upon. It’s understandable that any author might feel a distaste at a foul character that they’re creating, but I felt like I didn’t even have permission to write it, or wasn’t allowed to write it and that was something I wanted to press up against.
KYD: So with the book cover – which I must say is one of my favourites – this is the UK and Australian edition. Did you have any input into the design at all?
AN: I wish I did because I think that it’s rather brilliant. They did send it to me and asked if I liked it and I immediately really did.
KYD: There was one in the US, I’ve heard that was fuzzy? It’s black with chalk writing but it’s velour?
AN: It is. The technique is called flocking. They were just like, ‘So what would you think about the book being fuzzy?’ and I said brilliant. It feels sort of uncomfortable. Especially if it’s warm at all, or if your hands are warm. The book came out in the summer and so a lot of people were at the beach and had sunscreen or the sand on their hands [laughs]. It sort of invites you to reach out and touch it, but then the contents are so vulgar you feel bad about wanting to touch it. I think psychologically it was a really great choice.
KYD: We talked about the Bad Sex Award yesterday and I wonder what you think about the ways in which it appears to punish the very thing that literature is supposed to do, which is to be inventive with language?
AN: I feel like there’s such a narrow window of accepted writing about sex. It’s almost like pop music, it has to be so mainstream that it doesn’t offend anyone’s sensibility and doesn’t fail to turn anyone on. It has to be so universally benign in its sexuality in order to be celebrated. I think that it’s funny; in some ways I think the award draws attention to the difficulty of writing about sex, particularly the difficulty of writing about sex creatively. That what we’re willing to accept, and what we’ll say is a permissible sexual description, and what isn’t, and what we want to say is terrible or comical. I think of the space shuttle and re-entry, all these conditions have to be perfect for it to be okay and come back to earth and not get burnt up. I feel like if you want to have sex writing accepted by the mainstream, you have to play by all of these rules and you can’t go too far, can’t go too dirty or explicit.
At least in the younger generation of writers it’s really something that’s being rejected and they’re bringing sex back. You know I think of a TV show like Girls and the ways it’s showing these very non-erotic and failed sexual experiences and I think that says quite a lot. Sex is so often not ideal or fails to hit that mark of perfection and it’s such a huge aspect of the human experience and the full spectrum needs to be written about.
KYD: Is that why you get your students to deliberately write bad sex sentences, to break those rules?
AN: Yeah. I want them to see two things: what people label as bad sex; and to see how difficult it is to do even a really funny, bad one well. It really takes a lot of skill to think up two of the most unlikely contexts and put them together in a way that we realise is hilarious contextually. I think humour is surprise, and it’s quite difficult to surprise people.
KYD: What difficulties did you encounter in trying to write the sex scenes in Tampa?
AN: On one hand I really wanted to use the language of pornography that I see as being idealised and sort of projected as something that women should strive for, this sense that women need to be constantly up for it, and constantly turned on and very energetic. And then I also wanted to make sure that there were aspects in each sex scene that were clearly not sexual, that clearly showed the problematic angle of what she was doing. I wanted to make sure that there were these clear nods that said more is happening here than simple fantasy realisation.
KYD: The final thing I want to ask you, I really loved the essay you wrote for the New York Times about anxiety during your pregnancy and the experience of having to go off your medication. I thought that was a really brave thing to write about. I’m not medicated, but I have anxiety and panic attacks and it seems to be quite a common experience in the writing world. Have you found that writing exacerbates it?
AN: I think that it can be really common among writers because I think that writing is, at least for me, one of the few release valves that I’ve found that are effective and when you do have all these worries and you do think too much, I think it can quite naturally lead to wanting to sit alone in a room and sort out all these thoughts on paper. I know for me – even though it’s certainly something I’d rather live without – I can’t imagine being a writer without it. Because it’s sort of this constant imagining. No matter what situation I’m in, I’m constantly imagining the worst possible thing that could happen. The amount of my mental time that is devoted to fantasy – and not good fantasy! ‘I hope this horrible thing doesn’t happen’ fantasy – is probably ninety-two per cent. And I think that just naturally leads you to going with your imagination. I feel like I live quite a bit more in my head than out in the world. And I feel a bit safer in my head. So I think that it is, among a lot of writers, a unifying ailment.
Alissa Nutting is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University. She is the author of the award-winning collection of stories Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Bomb, among others. Tampa is her first novel.