Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa, is being heralded as one of the summer’s must-read books, and with good reason. Inspired by various female teacher-male student sex scandals that have rocked the headlines, Tampa tells the story of 26-year old Celeste Price, a strikingly beautiful, married middle-school teacher with a predilection for 14-year-old boys. Nutting boldly tackles the distinctly unpleasant subject of pedophilia and female predators without backing down—even when readers might prefer that she did. I spoke with Nutting about sexual transgression and satire, cultural narratives of victimhood, and why she’s asked her parents not to read a word of her book.
People have compared Tampa to Fifty Shades of Grey and Sex and the City. To me, these comparisons miss the mark; but the fact they’re being made at all is interesting, because they suggest that we as a culture don’t have a lot of ways to frame conversations about women and sex, or women who write and talk frankly about sex.
I think that’s really apt. Within our culture there’s a lot of discomfort in seeing women’s sexuality either outside the romantic love scenario or even outside the theme of women as victims. I find it very interesting that a comparison would come up at all that relates Tampa to these consensual, but also very positive, empowering, exploratory depictions of female sexuality.
In what ways is Tampa different?
I wanted to write it as a book of social satire. I wanted to make Celeste this hyperbolic sexual character, someone who is sort of standing on the outside. She fits into this fetishized role that people want to put her in, but she herself has no desire for that. She doesn’t enjoy these adult male relationships that everyone is so ready and willing to engage in with her. To go back to Sex and the City, all the sex on the show exists very, very much within that fetishized realm. It’s the attractive females calling out to attractive adult males, and doing it in a very socially acceptable way. Even though it may be a departure to have those female characters talking so frankly about sex, the sex they’re having is extremely acceptable. I think it says something that women talking about sex at all [laughs] or enjoying sex or having sexual agency—like we see in Fifty Shades or Sex and the City—is considered transgressive. That says a lot about how taboo women’s sexuality in general still is.
“I think we have an inability to see anyone who has sexual urges or sexual willingness—in any aspect of their lives—as a victim in a sexual scenario.”
I want to talk about Celeste. You’ve described her as an “exaggerated predator,” but in the end she is very much saved by her beauty. In this regard, Tampa is as much a commentary about gender and normative beauty standards as it is about the psyche of a female predator. But what if Celeste hadn’t been beautiful? How might you imagine the story, and especially the book’s ending, if Celeste had been just average looking?
That’s one of the aspects of these cases of female teachers and their male students that I really wanted to bring to light in this satirization. The cases that get the mass media attention are cases where the offender is very much sexually fetishized. If you go online and look at the message boards and read the articles, there’s a lot of commentary—often from adult males—talking about how much they’d like to have sex with these women, rather than talking about the case or the offense. I think that for me, for the satire to work, Celeste had to be exceptionally beautiful. I wanted to show the social currency that gave her. Even after what she did—even despite what she did—she has this extreme social value because of what she looks like; and things are possibly, plausibly going to work out for her in the end because she fits so well into that fetishized physical expectation of female beauty.
The book was very challenging to read. I was mesmerized, but horrified. There were times when I wanted to put it down, but I kept reading because I couldn’t stop. You had to live with Celeste far longer than the average reader. Were there ever times when you felt, “This is too much; I need to step away?”
There were definitely times and days when I had to step away, absolutely. I think that’s really a huge part of my choice to write this as a satire. In those moments when it was really weighty and taxing, the very dark humor sort of saved me. It was kind of this lifeline I could use that really allowed me to continue writing, and complete the vision of the book that I saw.
Last night I watched Debra Lafave’s 2006 interview with Matt Lauer. Despite admitting what she did was wrong, she also seemed to downplay her culpability. If she were to read Tampa, what do you think her response would be, especially to Celeste?
Celeste is an extreme, satirical version of cases like these. I think if she read it there probably wouldn’t be an ability to get past the initial defensiveness of thinking, “That’s not me,” and it isn’t. I don’t feel like a straight dramatization of any particular case would’ve approached the issue at a new angle or trajectory; it wouldn’t be a book that calls attention to the fact that it could only exist because of the female/male predator double standard, which is what I felt needed to be written. I had to make her comically unrepentant instead of dramatic and complicated with guilt because we see that sympathetic asking-for-forgiveness (and largely being forgiven) portrayal of female sexual predators every time one of these cases breaks.
The points that you bring up are exactly what I wanted the book to raise, and for people to think about. I think we have an inability [in our culture] to see anyone who has sexual urges or sexual willingness—in any aspect of their lives—as a victim in a sexual scenario. So for these boys, it tends to become this thing of, well, they wanted to do it, which I don’t think is really relevant. There are a lot of things that 14-years-olds want to do that clearly are not great ideas or are harmful to them. But there’s this idea that if they are sexually attracted to someone, if they are aroused, this negates their victimhood.
I think the same idea operates in cases of female victimhood and rape. It’s become a common defense strategy to show that if a woman has had a lot of sexual partners or willingly had intercourse at other times, she therefore cannot be a victim. To me, if Debra—or any woman who has been arrested for predatory behavior—read the book, what I hope they would think about is not only that the males in this case are victimized, and set up by society to be victimized, but also the ways they may have utilized these double social standards to dismiss their own responsibility.
You recently shared via Twitter a photo of the dedication you wrote to your parents, which said in all caps: “DO NOT READ THIS. IT WILL ONLY CAUSE YOU TRAUMA. I MEAN IT. NOT A WORD.” I don’t know what my question is necessarily, but your dedication made me think about how those of us who write about sex negotiate our familial ties, especially when we may have parents who are conservative or religious. What you wrote was funny and endearing, but it also speaks to a certain reality.
It does. It does really speak to the reality that women are never supposed to engage publicly with sexual topics or themes, or their own sexuality. That’s something that women are not supposed to do in public, and if they do, it should be like Sex and the City—it should be this bubble gum kind of fetishizing thing.
If I had written a book that had contained gratuitous violence—which I know my parents wouldn’t enjoy reading either—I don’t think I would’ve felt the need to put the same dedication. I would have put, “I don’t think you’ll enjoy this,” or “You’ll probably stop reading this after chapter one,” but the thought of my mother reading it wouldn’t feel embarrassing or shaming in quite the same way as it does with a mother reading something very sexualized. I think that is harder as a female writer. Although it might be personally humiliating for a male writer to think about his mother reading something that’s very sexual, I don’t think there’s the same societal taboo of him writing it or that the idea of him writing it is so outlandish or transgressive in the same way it is for women.
Did you feel psychologically that you had to go through any special machinations to steel yourself for those potential reactions?
It’s really difficult; I’ll be really open about that. The book’s only been out a day, but it’s been difficult to get the various backlashes. The response that’s been the most prolific is people saying that there’s no value in this book; it’s just kind of sensational. It’s trash that aims to tantalize. That’s been the more ubiquitous criticism. Even though I knew that was coming and I knew it would happen—which is kind of indicative of the social factors that made me feel I had to write the book—it’s still hurtful. I’m human. All criticism is hard for me.
I don’t see how you could’ve written Tampa without the level of sexual detail you included. If you were going to tackle the subject of pedophilia head-on and make Celeste into this exaggerated, hypersexual predator, you had to include sexually explicit details.
Absolutely. There’s another thing that happens, which I think is really endemic to literary fiction. There’s this idea that what separates good sex writing from bad sex writing is that good sex writing is tasteful, and that bad sex writing is blatant. Good sex writing is metaphorical and euphemistic, and bad sex writing is explicit and descriptive. All throughout writing this book those distinctions kept looping through my mind. I could write that [more tasteful] book, and that book would be received very differently and in a lot of ways more favorably. It’s a really hard thing as a writer to know that you’re doing something that’s going against the grain of the writing being well received. I knew that it would be dishonest of me to try to write the book without that level of sexually explicit language. That was part of the reason why I felt that the book was so important. I mean, the fact that we’re pointing to Fifty Shades and Sex and the City to talk about in comparison to a conversation about pedophilia I think tells you how few well-known examples we have of novels with sexually explicit writing from a female writer about a female character outside of the romance or chick-lit genres. The book actively and purposefully engages this in the most uncomfortable way—I had to invoke that tendency to eroticize these female teacher-male student cases.