LaFave case inspires writer of buzzed-about debut novel 'Tampa'
Alissa Nutting is the author of “Tampa” about a teacher having an affair with a student. HARPER-COLLINS
BY AMANDA HENRY Tribune correspondent
Published: August 16, 2013
Updated: August 16, 2013 at 03:51 PM
You could try passing it off as a guide book – though the stark black cover with its chalk-like scrawl is distinctly lacking in sun, sand or Cuban sandwiches – but anyone with an eye for literary scandal will recognize “Tampa” for what it is: Alissa Nutting's buzzed-about debut novel, a sexually explicit satire inspired by the real-life case of Debra LaFave, among others. Nutting – who like LaFave attended Bloomindale High School in Valrico – stresses that Celeste Price, the 26-year-old protagonist of her book, is not a fictional stand-in for her former classmate. “I never wanted to make it about one specific person,” Nutting, who now lives in Ohio with her husband and daughter, said by phone. She described “Tampa” as “in no way a biopic of an actual human being,” though she credits the media attention surrounding the former teacher's relations with a 14-year-old boy with putting the subject of female sexual predators on her radar. “Debra's case made me pay attention in a much different way, simply because it's shocking to recognize someone that you knew from high school on CNN.” What she recalls about the teenage LaFave is her beauty: “She is so strikingly beautiful, I remember looking at her and thinking, 'if I looked like that, my life would be perfect.'” As stories about female teachers having sexual relationships with underage students continued to fill the news, Nutting found herself fascinated by the public response. “There's almost the fetishization of these women, where you have late-night talk show hosts talking about how lucky the male victim is.” By focusing on the attractiveness of the woman, and buying into the idea that males of any age always want sex, with anyone, under any circumstances, “we diminish the monstrosity of the crime,” says Nutting.
In “Tampa,” she was careful to avoid making excuses her main character's actions, whether by suggesting the relationships with young boys are consensual or painting the teacher as a victim in her own right. “This is not a book that asks 'why' women are doing these things. It's a book that asks why we ask 'why' when women do it, and we don't care why when men do it. … We're very used to, in our culture, looking for the ways it isn't the woman's fault.” To that end, Celeste Price is in every way an extreme: a cold-blooded and calculating sociopath whose sexual obsession with boys of a certain age is so driving she thinks of little else, even during her courtroom trial – and is not above letting another character die in order to protect her secret. “I wanted to write it in a way that was shocking enough to radically cause people to stop and think,” says Nutting. “Even if, hypothetically, one of these women were a sociopathic sexual predator, she could probably get away with it if she were attractive enough.” Those who pick up “Tampa” hoping for a few prurient thrills and some local name-dropping may get more than they bargained for. Spending several hundred pages inside the mind (and libido) of a pedophile is not for the squeamish – a group that includes Nutting's mother, who has strict instructions not to read the book. As for setting the story in Tampa, Nutting describes the decision as both a nod to her own background and “playing with the fact that these cases are so eroticized. In Florida you have the ability to wear clothing that shows a lot of skin. It's hot, you're sweaty, there are beaches where you're putting your body on display … the setting amplifies the interest this book has in looking at the ways we sexually fetishize these cases.” Yet aside from passing references to heat, humidity, thunderstorms and mangroves, as well as the prevalence of backyard swimming pools, “Tampa” could take place in the seamy underbelly of any town big enough to boast fast food chains and mall bathrooms. The name comes not from the fact that Tampa is integral to the plot but because the lurid subject matter dictated a more restrained title. “The text itself is so extreme, and boundary-pushing, I almost felt it needed this intentionally vague, very un-sexual word to counterbalance that.” (“Evil Sex Monster,” one of the joke names traded back and forth by Nutting and her husband, would have sent a very different message.) “A lot of people are going to write off a book that contains a lot of sex – particularly taboo sex,” Nutting notes. The tendency, she suggests, is to marginalize such fiction within a genre like romance, leaving the literary accolades for male writers, even though it's difficult to imagine a less romantic book than “Tampa.” (Cosmopolitan magazine called it “The Sickest, Most Controversial Book of Summer 2013.”) Nutting, who has a Ph.D. in English from UNLV and is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University, is more likely to quote Kafka and Dostoevsky than E.L. James. Her tastes as a reader have always run toward the satirical and grotesque. Still, she says it was a difficult decision to write a novel around such dark subject matter. “This isn't a feel-good book. It's not the next 'Eat, Pray, Love.'” Nevertheless – and in spite of her mother's wish that Nutting try her hand at wholesome children's fiction next – she is hard at work on a book about a serial killer, loosely inspired by another notorious Floridian: Ted Bundy.