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Talking Sexual Politics, Sexual Predators, Literature and the Library with a John Carroll Prof and Author

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Sam Allard: And we're on the air! This is an iPhone, and we're now being recorded.

Alissa Nutting: I'm Amish, and I don't understand this technology.

I know that's a joke — very good — but you do sort of have an Amish vibe.

Totally Amish. I mean my book is totally Amish.

It's almost too chaste.

We were like, "Velvet cover? Or bonnet? Maybe we should just put it in a bonnet."

I like the velvet cover. I think it would probably stand out in a bookstore.

Yeah, I mean I really like it because it attracts dog hair, which in my house is prolific. It's more and more like a living thing every day.

Speaking of prolific, how would you characterize the lit scene here in Cleveland?

I think we have a phenomenal literary scene. It was kind of a treat—one of my favorite contemporary books is Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply—so getting to go to Parnell's, which is mentioned in the book, was amazing. And with all these universities, there are so many great readings. Ummm... you're gonna edit out my stutters and stuff, right?

Absolutely.

Good, just make me sound caffeinated.

I could make you sound like you were freaking out... you know like, with dashes and capital letters.

(Laughs like a straight-up hyena). No, but honestly I feel like it's like an embarrassment of literary riches. There are more readings than I could even get to. And unlike New York or Chicago, which would be super hard to navigate and get to know the writers, just because of the scale, I feel like it's not a stretch here to reach out and have writing groups and sit down and have a beer after readings with the authors. To me, that's the most exciting thing, when the land of books and the land of people who write books collide, to have a personal relationship with a writer you admire. And the other thing is that it's been very welcoming. Everyone is so friendly. It's definitely a "more the merrier" vibe.

How long have you been in the area?

I moved here in 2011.

And you write at home mostly? Or do you work in coffee shops and stuff?

Okay, the Lakewood Library's quiet room is like my office. I actually need to scale it back a little bit. I'm getting to the point where I feel too comfortable. First, it was sort of, "all right, I'm dressing up as though I'm going out in public." Then it was, "Oh you know, maybe a nice cardigan with pajama pants and Uggs would be okay," and now it's just devolved. I literally feel like it's my living room. When other people come in, I'm like, "What are you doing here?"

Well it's certainly a lovely library.

I just love it. I mean at any given time, it's such a diverse sampling. It's one of the most heterogenous places in any given community. I love going in there and feeling very much that, you know, this is my city! I live in Lakewood! These are my people!

Did you write the majority of Tampa here?

Yeah, I wrote it exclusively here. I started when I moved here.

Just kinda got that pedophile vibe in Lakewood?

No! It was in no way scene-specific. I had just finished a draft of a novel for my dissertation in Vegas, and with the move I wanted to begin something new.

Complete left turn here, but do you realize that you got your Ph.D at UNLV, the same school that Cavs' No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett went to?

I should know that. I did see this on the Twitter.

Just a little trivia tidbit for you.

Yes. I need to know these things.   

So from Vegas to Cleveland?

Yeah, it was such a dynamic change in scenery. Like, there are living plants in Cleveland. There are animals that are not animatronic. In Vegas, there's this thing called Sam's Town and there's this wolf laser light show. If you're ever in Vegas, it's incredible. I went so religiously. There's steam mist and lasers and patriotic theme songs that play while a gigantic robobear roars in the distance.

Sounds almost too good to be true.

Except, then you come here and go to a Metropark and see an actual living bird and it stirs these odd feelings in your chest, like your frozen soul is melting.

So what about Tampa? What's your connection?

We moved to the area when I was 13, and I lived there for high school. And I went to high school with a woman who went on to teach and was later the object of a huge student sex scandal. And she was beautiful, like striking. I remember passing her in the halls and thinking, "My life would be perfect if I looked like that." And then I turn on CNN in 2004 and see her mugshot. It was such an out-of-body experience. In a way, I didn't process it for seven years until I thought about writing this book.

The book by the way, despite all the depraved sex, is really funny.

Yeah, so I really did want to make this book a book of social satire. I think that it really says something about our society, like the fact that these things are in the news the way they're in the news, the way that these hot female teachers are fetishized rather than condemned. To me, it's all very interesting and something to be examined.

Examine away!

Well, we don't look at it like "This is a scandal that's going on between an adult and a minor.' A lot of times, it's very common for adults to look at it with an adult sexual gaze, where we gauge by saying, "Well, I would like to have sex with this person, so what's the harm?" You know? Lucky boy! I think that the first step in changing the dialogue around cases like this is acknowledging that it's looked upon with an adult perspective.

And would you argue that that phenomenon is gender specific?

Oh yeah. I think there's this tendency to look to the minor when it's a male, and say, "Do you feel victimized?" Which I don't think we do with females. If they're saying, "But I was in love with him!" or "I wanna marry him," we'd be taking her aside and saying, "Oh dear, oh dear, he's using you," and explaining the predatory power dynamic. Whereas with male minors, we want to give them the adult autonomy of saying, "Did you wanna do this?" And if the answer's "yes," it's almost assumed that it wasn't a harmful encounter. And I don't think any minor is really equipped to predict how something like that might affect them in the future. It's really hard when you're a teenager to understand that you could want something sexually that might not be good for you.

And you feel that satire was an effective way to talk about all this heavy stuff?

I feel like it's the best tool. I mean, when you talk about it dramatically I think it can tend to come off like a soapbox. I think that it's been done, and people have made that argument very straight-faced before. Humor is a new and unexpected way to approach very serious topics that people who might otherwise dismiss them will perhaps be willing to engage with if it's also making them laugh. With this book, I didn't feel like it would be successful unless you could read it without a certain amount of discomfort.

There's an awful lot of discussion about rape culture and female victimization. Do you think your book fits into that discussion?

I think what this book gets at that's very relevant to the Steubenville case and conversations about rape culture is the tendency in our culture to feel like sexual victims have to be 100-percent innocent, that if the victim had any sexual feelings at all, somehow it negates their victimization. So we get to this slut-shaming philosophy, where if you want to "prove" — ironic quotes — that she's not a victim, you show her being a sexual being. You talk about the fact that she maybe had other partners or all these other things that are completely irrelevant. You see that in these trials. Instead of talking about the encounter and whether or not it was a rape, suddenly her reputation comes under fire in this really kind of horrific way. And the converse happens in the book, the idea that if these young men were sexually attracted to the teacher, then of course they're not victims. It's such a ludicrous, harmful view.

Can you comment on the level of controversy you're expecting?

One thing that's really interesting to me is the way that sexual trangressions are separated from violence, and how we don't see that as a part of violence, but almost as a separate subset that's far more controversial and taboo. I think the violent content that's in children's movies is bananas. Had I written a book where, say, 12 women were stabbed, I'm not sure that anyone would call it controversial. Violence just doesn't show up on our radar and make us blink in the same way that sex crimes do. That was something I was interested in bringing into the dialogue.

How are the folks at John Carroll taking the publication?

Well, censorship is not part of the Jesuit tradition, and neither is ignoring challenging texts. As a professor, I never teach my own work as a matter of principle so it's not like a case of the classroom world intersecting. But no. I mean we teach Chaucer and all sort of bawdy, ribald texts with literary merit.

What's your optimal writing time or mode?

I usually drink a lot of caffeine, like more than any health professional would look benevolently upon. I probably have three energy drinks and two large coffees with a shot of espresso. I might go into renal failure.

I heard that if you do that with Monster, your heart will explode.

So I should probably step back. But after the caffeine, I start writing immediately. If I put off writing until the afternoon, I'm cranky until I do it, and that just stops me from being a bitchy person all day.

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