What if vicious pedophile Humbert Humbert were a hot young woman? Tampa‘s Celeste is just that, and author Alissa Nutting explains why you might fetishize her.
Zola: You were born in Michigan, went to college in northern Florida, and did post-graduate studies in Alabama and Las Vegas. So why Tampa? What attracted you to the city? Did you spend any time there while writing the novel?
Alissa Nutting: I’ve lead a bit of a nomadic life, I suppose! I lived outside of Tampa from the ages of 13-18, and my parents continued to live there until this past fall, so the city is part of my identity. But for the novel, which is largely about how our society tends to fetishize female sexual predators, the city of Tampa nicely fits into that fetishization that the book confronts. This is a place where attractive teachers presumably languish by pools in bikinis and stroll the beaches. It’s a good locale to set a book that addresses crime versus fantasy.
Zola: What sort of research did you do to get into the head of a sexual predator like Celeste?
AN: I’m really interested in the social reception of female sexual predators—the way these cases are treated in the media, in particular the differences between the way male sexual predators are treated versus female. So I looked at a huge number of these cases, primarily seeing what I noticed to be stark differences between how they were reported upon and presented, and how they proceeded at trial—what the defense arguments were, what the sentences were, etc.
Zola: Readers tend to conflate writer and narrator, especially when it comes to controversial works. How much of “you,” the writer, do you find present in your work in terms of personal opinion on the subject matter? Did you set out to steer readers to experience empathy for Celeste’s behavior rather than condemn it?
AN: The “me” that’s present in this book is in its aspects of social commentary about what’s valued and championed about women, particularly in the media—the obsession with women needing to appear like they aren’t aging, to appear sexually attractive.
Zola: Your work is very conscientious of the roles of women in fiction. These were especially compartmentalized in Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls with “cat owner,” “deliverywoman,” “porn star,” etc. Is Celeste an extension of these categories in her role as “sexual predator”?
AN: That’s interesting. Celeste is probably the first attractive protagonist I’ve ever written. I tend to write about women on the margins, women whom I feel society treats unfairly based upon the way they look or act. Normally my characters are women who aren’t given the social approval I feel they should be given. But Celeste is the opposite—she gets lots of social approval, but I don’t think that she should.
Zola: How would you respond to a reviewer who said Celeste’s graphic sex with Jack was titillating or arousing: was this your intent?
AN: The whole reason this issue is so complex is that people do fetishize the women involved in these cases. Some do look at them and say, “I’d love to sleep with her; no crime has been committed here. The boy was lucky!” I wanted to write a novel that really addressed that in an unflinching way. Tampa raises a lot of questions, including how our society might let attraction cloud its thinking when it comes to such cases. Should it matter if the boy is attracted to the teacher? Should it matter if adults are attracted to the teacher? I don’t think it should—it wouldn’t if the offender was male and the victim was female. But these two factors are constantly brought up when cases like this occur.
Zola: Celeste will likely draw comparisons to other well-known literary sociopaths such as Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Were you at all influenced by these books and characters or perhaps any others?
AN: Yes, in general I’m greatly influenced by the satirical and the grotesque. Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, Angela Carter—these are all large influences on my writing. I think writing is most interesting when it simultaneously disturbs, repulses, and entertains in conflicting ways.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.