An Interview with Alissa Nutting, by Julienne Grey
January 27, 2014
Alissa Nutting’s work has the power to cauterize and charm. While her award-winning short story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, set the tone for her prowess as an artful provocateur, the release of her acclaimed debut novel, Tampa, is further testamentto her mastery.
In Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, each story explores an unusual occupation. From the woman having a love affair with a panda to the woman in Hell who grows breasts that spray venom, Nutting delves into the absurdities, impossibilities, and dangers of womanhood.
With Tampa, Nutting goes even further. Tampa follows a young, beautiful teacher—who is also a sociopathic pedophile—as she preys on her teenage male students. Yet Nutting makes the story as surprisingly funny as it is brutal. Wielding expert humor, Nutting skewers the double standard that suggests that a gorgeous woman can never be a monstrous predator.
Just like her short stories, Nutting’s novel is bold, poignant, and mesmerizing—and I couldn’t wait to ask her about it. In our interview, Nutting assures us that she doesn’t adorn herself with animal skulls, that she’s learning to cook spicy food, and that she’s a proud soldier in the Vulgar Women Army.
What has surprised you most about the reaction to Tampa? Have you been thrown by any questions at your readings?
I suppose the shock of many at how normal I appear—that I’m not wearing a necklace made of bloody goat skulls, that my breath doesn’t smell like gasoline vapor, that my head is void of demon horns.
Do you feel there’s anything that folks overlook when talking about the book?
I’m pretty filled with gratitude; every day I hear from readers who get the book on every level and approach it looking at layers of gender, at the social and cultural markers of masculinity and femininity the book critiques—at its lampooning campiness of what we as a culture tend to fetishize, and how problematic that can be. The book is a very self-aware grotesque, and I think that’s what I wish were addressed a little more in public discussion, although many readers and reviewers have spoken of this in brilliant ways—the places where the book is very goofy or disgusting aren’t accidents.
You shared the inscription you wrote in your parents’ copy of the book: “For my parents, whom I dearly love. do not read this it will only cause you trauma!!! i am serious. not a word. Your Daughter, Alissa.” Will they listen?
They will. They’re not looking to read something that will send them to the hospital with cardiac arrhythmia. They far prefer Chicken Soup for the Soul narratives, so this arrangement is much better for all of us.
At holiday gatherings, distant relatives or acquaintances must have asked you what you were working on. Given that you were writing about a psychopathic sexual predator, what did you tell them?
I like to ask the question, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?” Most people have and are pretty willing to talk about it at length. It takes the heat off. It lets me wolf down a large number of cheese cubes and swill my wine.
Have you ever been surprised by their book fantasies? Did you learn that your great aunt is an aspiring romance novelist or that your second cousin is penning an exposé on tri-washed kale?
Book fantasies are amazing. While I hate talking about the book I’m currently working on, I love hearing about books other people want to write. What I hear about most often are people’s memoirs—they want to write a book about a specific point or time in their own history—and often it’s something I’d never know or guess about them. “My father was a spy against the Nazis,” they’ll say—these are people I’ve known my whole life, but I never would’ve found that out in a million years if they hadn’t told me what they’d like to write about. It gives you access to this pool of information that would never come up in regular small talk.
For many people, confessing to wanting to write a book is a secret they harbor, never telling anyone about this wish—they’re so worried about being told that it’s too improbable or insignificant. So when they meet someone who has published a book, suddenly the veil of shame is lifted. They know that my dream of publishing has come true, and that allows them to talk about theirs. Being a published author is a very privileged social role that I don’t take lightly. It’s easy for authors to get into pissing contests about presses or sales or awards or fame and forget that a very surreal act of wonder has happened in their lives, and that it’s something to be so grateful for: they wanted to write and publish a book, and they did. I’m a very self-critical and self-deprecating person, so it’s hard for me to do that, but I’m determined not to search for reasons to be unappreciative instead of counting my numerous blessings. Talking to other people about the manuscripts they’ve always wanted to write really helps me keep that in perspective.
As an educator yourself, what was it like approaching s persona as a different sort of teacher?
Celeste is only a teacher in terms of her paycheck—she doesn’t care about education in the least; she’s just there for the boys—so it was really interesting to write the classroom scenes. She uses discussions of books simply as a veneer to talk with them about sex for her own entertainment.
Author photo by Aaron Mayes.
*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 14 of Slice. To pre-order a copy of the issue, due out late February, click here.
Alissa Nutting is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at John Carroll University. She is the author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls and the novel Tampa.
Julienne Grey was recently awarded the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference Scholarship and has done feature interviews for Slice Magazine. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Squawk Back, theNewerYork, The Ink and Code, and Quail Bell Magazine. She has stories forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Blue Fifth Review, Eunoia Review, and Slice issue 16. Check out her website atjuliennegrey.com and follow her @JulienneGrey.