For the past month, whenever I talk to other writers or booksellers about new books they’ve been thrilled by, Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa, usually becomes the focus of the conversation. Just mentioning the word Tampa causes these literary folk to open their eyes wide and exclaim, “Holy shit! Have you read that?” Indeed, this is the kind of book—about an unapologetic female pedophile (and junior high school teacher) obsessed with fourteen-year-old boys—that sends a shock to your system. Saying the title to anyone whose read a review copy, which was emblazoned with a bold warning: CAUTION EXPLICIT CONTENT, was like a sly insider’s wink.
We are all probably thinking the same thing: What the hell are people going to think of this beastly book? There are almost no words to convey Tampa’s daring. It takes on a very serious and disturbing subject but does so with such flair and dark humor and bawdy sexual energy, that Nutting is sure to become a member in the small club of authors who turns risky writing into high art. And last week, Tampa became real, its chalkboard-black hardcover sitting there on bookstore shelves just daring you to pick it up.
Nutting is also the author of a short story collection, Unclean Jobs For Women and Girls (Starcherone), which displays her fantastical skills as a short story writer.
Kevin Sampsell: I had no idea you could actually write sex scenes with a minor and get away with it. How did you come to the decision to be so graphic with the sex?
Alissa Nutting: As with any depiction of violence, it’s not something to be approached lightly. Ultimately I didn’t feel like a euphemistic or implied discussion of the sex was going to paint an honest picture since the book itself revolves around that transgression and all the messy social questions it entails.
KS: Would you fault a reader for getting turned on by the book?
AN: No—let me qualify that, because, given the premise, I’m sure that sounds odd if you haven’t read it. I wanted to put readers directly into the crosshairs of the conflict in this novel, which is largely about attraction and social context.
KS: Why did you name the book, Tampa? How important is that Florida setting to you?
AN: It’s representational of where my personal interest in this subject began. I went to jr. high and high school outside of Tampa, and about five years after graduation a woman I’d gone to high school with was arrested for sleeping with her fourteen-year-old student. This was a pretty shocking event for me—it’s one thing to see these stories on the national news, where events can feel pretty distant and irrelevant to your day-to-day life. It’s another when the face looking back at you is someone you used to pass in the halls on your way to your locker. But this sort of scandal happens all over; at the moment there’s one playing out in Louisville where the teacher has pled guilty. One of the troubling things that happen in the media when cases like this occur—a female teacher and an underage male student—is that the female teacher gets sexually objectified in the media. Particularly if she’s attractive, there’s this sense of the boy being “lucky” rather than victimized. So the purpose of the graphic sex in the novel is two-fold. One, she’s an obsessed sexual predator, so it makes sense that’s what she’d be thinking about all the time. Two, I’m asking readers to question whether adults being attracted to or aroused by the thought of the teacher should actually have any bearing on how we view the crime, because I think that implication does occur in our society. It’s tempting to drain arousal from the issue for simplicity’s sake, but that’s a false omission that doesn’t solve anything. Instead, as a culture we need to openly embrace the fact that the teenage boys, as well as the viewing public, being sexually attracted to these teachers doesn’t change the students’ status as victims.
KS: There are moments in the book where I see some of the fantastical elements of your short stories slip in. How much of a transition was it to go from your shorts to this novel? Have you written a novel before this?
AN: I have two desk-drawer novels. I’m not sure yet if I’ll ever do anything with either of them, but the process of writing them was definitely helpful training. I don’t usually outline ahead of time when I’m writing short fiction, but with novels I’ve realized I have to. It’s a long journey. I need a map.
KS: And I assume you’ll keep writing and publishing stories?
AN: Absolutely. I need the immediate gratification of writing short stories. I’m not patient enough to only work on novels.
KS: Do you think young males and young females view sex with adults in different ways? There’s a common thought that underage girls are victims and underage boys are living out a fantasy in these situations.
AN: I think our culture promotes problematic sexual messages for both young males and young females that can make them vulnerable to predatory adults in different ways. For young males, there’s this implication that they have to earn their masculinity through sexual conquests. They might feel like saying “no” will make them less of a man and saying “yes” will make them more of a man. Young females are shown this “prince charming” trope in our society, where a man comes and sweeps a princess off her feet. So if an adult male suddenly begins paying tons of attention to a teenage girl, saying super romantic things, it might be easy for her to plug that seduction into an idea of a fairy tale…to feel like this is love and going to result in a happily-ever-after scenario.
KS: Have you ever had a fixation on a certain age or type of person?
AN: I like men with beards. There’s something kind of closer-to-nature for me about beards that’s pleasant. My husband has a really great beard and the other day at the park, a bunch of those white fuzzy dandelion seeds were blowing around in the air and got lodged in his beard. He’s a tall tattooed dude, so I thought that was pretty cute, his face being covered with these wispy delicate things.
KS: Did you find yourself rooting for Celeste toward the end of the book? Even when she’s under the heaviest legal scrutiny, she’s still thinking unapologetically about young boys. Her stubbornness is actually very comical. How did you want the humor in this story to hit readers?
AN: I wanted her to be a satirical figure. That’s the thing about Celeste—she’s absolutely remorseless, absolutely voracious, comically so, as you point out. She’s not going to learn or change. She’s not going to feel guilt or be rehabilitated. And because of the way she looks and our culture’s social values, she doesn’t have to.
Alissa Nutting‘s debut novel, Tampa, was published by Ecco/HarperCollins in July 2013. She is author of 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 or will appear in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, Bomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues. An assistant professor of creative writing and English literature at John Carroll University, she lives in Ohio with her husband, her daughter, and two spoiled tiny dogs.
Kevin Sampsell is a bookseller and writer in Portland, Oregon. His novel, This Is Between Us, comes out in November from Tin House Books.