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Why Do Stories of Female Sexual Predators Shock Us?

Alissa Nutting discusses her summer bestseller "Tampa" -- a tale of lust that draws out the dynamic between a predatory teacher and her lascivious students.

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Would you be bothered if your work weren’t taken as seriously as those more sweeping, tasteful books?

As a writer, I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t enjoy the acceptance and the admiration that comes with that recognition and that stature. But I’ve always felt that my writing is frankly too weird, too transgressive, to fit into that spot. I’m attracted to monstrosity, desperation, characters who are not socially accepted. I’ve never really seen myself as being one of the in-crowd.

Let’s talk a little bit about what you describe as the “humor” and “satire” of the book. Was it meant to be a sort of leavening agent amid all the darkness of Celeste’s sex life?

I felt like if this were just a book solely of scene after scene of depraved sexual action, I don’t see the pleasure of reading that. The main character in any kind of satirical novel has this role of showing what the social critique is. Whether or not the character [herself] is mindful of it. There are a lot of social critiques Celeste is mindful of. She herself realizes how out of control and insane her behavior is and is willing to poke fun at it. I knew that to have a character whose actions are as unlikable as Celeste’s are, the voice had to in some way compensate, in some way be likable. I wanted some of that tension to be stuck in the reader’s throats — she’s doing this repulsive thing but we’re laughing with her. We can see the faults in other characters that she sees. The father of her primary target, Jack, is wildly out-of-touch with his son and is more concerned with fulfilling his own libido than with ensuring he’s doing a good job as a parent. That’s something Celeste shows us. I wanted to use Celeste as an object of illuminating critique in other characters.

This book has many other obvious differences from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” but one that’s particularly striking is that “Lolita” depicts a male predator and female victim — and it’s by a man. For all your belief that you won’t crack the serious-lit crowd, “Lolita” is a classic, taught at the most hidebound universities. Is that just a function of time passing since its publication, or is something gendered happening here?

We would see such a situation [of sexual exploitation] with kind of a female [victim] traditionally in our society. Debasing her and reducing her and victimizing her. Where in the same situation with a male, it’s in some way him earning his masculinity, this initial sexual conquest that’s a feather in his cap rather than a victimizing experience. That’s one perception that this novel engages against. In “Lolita,” we understand, immediately, Humbert to be the predator. We understand the ways Lolita is vulnerable, and how he’s damaging her. In “Lolita,” he claims to be in love with her, he has this romantic way of justifying his actions and acting like a more normalized romantic relationship, whereas Celeste is just this hyperbolic libido. She has no concern about these students. She’s not worried what damage she does to them. She has no thoughts of monogamy or any lasting relationship. She wants to use them at this specific age and spit them out and move on to the next one. I felt like in working against that stereotype you mentioned of the boys being lucky, I wanted to have her be this exaggerated predator, but even then, society is really bad at not idealizing her simply because of the way she looks.

 
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