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High Anxiety. High Art.
Two years after earning her doctorate through UNLV’s renowned Black Mountain Institute Ph.D. Fellowship, Alissa Nutting’s first novel, Tampa (Ecco, $25.99 hardcover), was published in July 2013 to extraordinary reviews. Critics in high-prestige publication such as The New York Times and The Guardian likened Tampa to Lolita and American Psycho. A Huffington Post headline read, “Is Alissa Nutting’s Tampa the Most Controversial Book of the Summer?”
It’s the story of a beautiful, sociopathic middle school teacher and based in part on the real-life misadventures of a former classmate of Nutting, Debra Lafave, who was convicted of battery for having sex with an underage male student.
I knew Tampa would be polarizing and generate controversy, but I never imagined a response like this. I’m thrilled that it’s been reviewed in such high-profile publications.
Not all of the reviews have been good, of course. The New Republic’s was pretty scathing: They said it was “like Lolita without the charm.” But at least the book was being discussed.
What really threw me were the emails. I lost count of how many nasty ones I got: How grotesque I am, how I must be a pedophile to write a book like this. Nothing directly threatening, nothing that necessitated contacting law enforcement, but definitely some “You’re gonna get what’s coming to you”-type stuff.
In literature, we have this huge obsession with female protagonists being likable, and I really wanted to write a female protagonist who was not only unlikable but irredeemable.
With Tampa, I wanted to write a novel showing, “Look how awful you can be and get away with it if you’re simply very attractive and men want to sleep with you.”
Female teachers sleeping with their underage male students just seems like such a phenomenon. Every time one of these cases was reported, it seemed like it was with a snide wink: “Oh, there really wasn’t a crime here. The boy wanted to do it. The teacher was hot ...” I wasn’t seeing a conversation about how a female can be a sexual predator.
That shows one of the many Achilles’ heels of a culture that values beauty above everything else. Misogyny still reigns, in that the underlying assumption is that female sexuality cannot be powerful enough to be predatory towards men, and that women’s worth is based on what heterosexual men would find sexually titillating.
I wanted to write a novel where there’s no argument that there is a crime, and the reaction to that illustrates that discrepancy.
I’ve just always been a little sad. I mean, that sounds awful, but the world can be pretty sad.
It was kind of world-shattering to me, that a bad thing could happen to you for no explicable reason, and then you die. So I started writing these little books about cancer, and they weren’t even happy books where they recovered. They died.
Looking back, it seems pretty weird. But I showed my little books to my parents, teachers, my brother and sister. And they encouraged me, “Keep going.” I think they realized it was an educational thing, and that I was just a dramatic child.
I grew up in rural Michigan — a little town called Eaton Rapids, just outside Lansing. My parents are super-Catholic, no-nonsense, no frills. They really don’t like to spend money. They get their clothes at Goodwill and wear them until they’re in tatters.
I had the sense growing up that no matter how hard something is, it’s your job to present a happy front, or a calm front, at least.
When I was doing my MFA at the University of Alabama, the depression and anxiety just got paralyzing. It finally got bad enough to where I went to a psychiatrist, who prescribed Paxil.
The diagnosis explains why I had so many strange fears when I was young — like worrying constantly about getting abducted by aliens. I was tortured, paralyzed by this worry. It was terrible. So writing was my essential coping mechanism.
Just seeing other characters in books who had problems and endured them, or did not endure them — either way was just as comforting to me. I would think, “OK, when bad things happen to me, I’m actually not alone in that. I would read something by Stephen King, and it’d be like a depressurization valve.
I still take Paxil.
My family moved to Florida when I was 12, and I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Florida in 2002. I wanted to write, but it was really frightening to me to declare a dream.
Some of my friends were MFA candidates who would talk about how they were living in poverty just for the privilege of being able to write. So I was terrified of just taking the plunge.
After graduation, I tried to live a, quote-unquote, normal life. I lived at home and worked at a call center. It was bleak. It was the darkest time of my life.
I began dating Shawn around this time. We were so desperate to live our own lives that a month into dating, we began living together in an Airstream camper in a trailer park. And six months after that, we got married in a Norwegian black metal ceremony. We both were just so angry at these traditional expectations of us.
Now, at 32, I think I can freely admit that I got married to upset my parents. I didn’t tell them for a month. I just wanted to do something that only I wanted to do. We’ve been married for 10 years now.
So I decided to really make a run at writing for a living.
I was so lucky to get accepted into UNLV’s doctorate program. When you’re there, you get a lot of support and freedom; they really invest in you. The Black Mountain Institute brings such incredibly talented writers to campus, and I really wanted the opportunity to work on the Witness (magazine) staff.
Of all the programs I was accepted into, this was a no-brainer. It had a transparency I’ve never encountered before.
I did independent study with Richard Wiley, this hugely accomplished novelist. He would come in and talk about the problems he was having with his manuscript, problems with his agent.
It’s like he was venting to me as a peer, not an understudy. Just the fact that he was treating me like a writer made me want to go all in.
Still, there were times when I was so scared, I had so much fear that it wasn’t going to pan out. I remember going into (English professor) Doug Unger’s office, just weeping, and he did not bat an eye. He made me feel like this was such a normalized thing. He showed me the manuscript he was working on, and we talked about what I was feeling — that even my doubt was confirming my status as a writer.
That was so powerful.
Dr. Carol Harter, the director of the Black Mountain Institute and former president of the university, really took me under her wing. I got to experience exceptionally talented writers giving me feedback on my work. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Daniel Brook, Timothy O’Grady. It was unreal.
Since July, I’ve been balancing my teaching (at John Carroll University in Cleveland) with traveling, doing readings from Tampa at book festivals, a lot of universities.
How did my parents react to Tampa? It's difficult. You obviously want your parents to be proud of you, and while they’re very proud of my accomplishments, they could never like or appreciate my art; it’s very antithetical to who they are as people but very essential to who I am, so that is a gulf between us that can’t be helped.
I am working on a new novel. I don’t want to reveal too much.
But I can say it’s a comedy.
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