sex dolls, mind games and a dolphin fetish: inside alissa nutting's new, nonsensical novel

Alissa Nutting writes about things we all fear -- but she’s by no means an author of horror stories. Instead, she’s one of the rare writers of American fiction who touches on the topics the best-selling authors wouldn’t dare to; a fearless rebel of the...

by Douglas Greenwood
08 August 2017, 11:15am

In the summer of 2013, things inadvertently worked in Alissa's favour when her debut novel Tampa wound up in the hands of every reader everywhere. It told the story of Celeste Price: a beautiful 26-year-old teacher whose lust for teenage boys is put into practise when she starts teaching at a Florida school. Much like Nabokov's Lolita, the book treats the topic with a twisted sense of humour, but subverts the idea that female characters are always the victim in these circumstances. The book was a word-of-mouth hit, eventually winding up in Harmony Korine's hands, who now plans to helm the hotly anticipated movie version.

So how do you bounce back from a novel so sordid that it shocked the literary world for a whole season? Four years on, Alissa tells i-D she still isn't entirely sure how to process it. Undeterred, she's flexed her literary muscle once again for new novel Made for Love. This time around, her protagonist is Hazel, a woman who runs away from her super rich, tech start-up founder husband Byron when she learns he's trying to 'mind-meld' the two of them together, allowing him to hear her every thought. With Byron hot on her heels, she moves in with her widowed father (who now lives with Diane, an eerily life-like sex doll) to escape from the madness with the help of a dolphin-besotted private investigator to keep Byron's spying eye at bay.

Sound nuts? Well, you'd be right, but as Alissa told us, there are elements of truth in her fantastical, fucked up new novel. We sat down with the acclaimed writer to talk Tampa's impact four years on, her love for seedy sex stories, and the gadget she couldn't live without.

Image via Twitter

It's been four years since Tampa was released. Are you still shook by the reaction?
I never thought about what it would be like to still be the author of that book! It's definitely something that's become a huge part of my life, but it's funny context-wise. Since then, I've been divorced, remarried and now I have a nine-and-a-half-year-old stepson - you'd never write that book [in those circumstances]! But I felt drawn to it with this weird, horrific gravity.

So what was your starting point for writing a book as batshit crazy as Made for Love?
I have a very short attention span, which is a funny thing for a lifelong writer and reader to say. Sometimes, authors get to write the things that we want to read and that certainly was true with Made for Love! I like books about sad or scary topics, but I like them to be approached with a great deal of humour, otherwise it's harder for me to write. I wanted to hold my own attention first!

There were certain things that I did know were going to happen, but it was definitely a story that I had to figure out. My marriage of 12 years was crumbling and I had a really young child. I wasn't quite at a point of acceptance with it yet [so] I began writing this book that is, in hindsight, about the impossibility of leaving, you know? We can break up and move apart, but we have all of these mutual friends, shared memories, property and - most of all - this human. Then I thought: what were the alternatives [afterwards]? Is there a way for me to feel sexually or romantically fulfilled outside of a relationship? I was thinking a lot about intimacy and privacy and how, in some ways, it's such an impossible balance.

The book strikes a really strange balance of being sort of preposterous while also being incredibly human. Do you feel as though there are elements of yourself in your characters?
In a lot of ways, yeah. There's always the female protagonist and a mean, male one, but I think both of them are trying to avoid authentic love for very different reasons. The bad definitely comes from me. I feel less like this than when I began the book, because I did genuinely fall in love, but I do think it's true to an extent: every relationship has to be a con in some way. You can't be completely honest with another person, even if it's little white lies or little boundaries that you push. How much dishonesty is required? When does the pendulum begin to swing into damaging or inauthentic or toxic territory? It's about trying to make it work.

Even before I knew [Harmony Korine] was interested, I was so intrigued to figure out was his vision for it would be. He would do something really crazy with it, so it'll be so cool to see!

Do you feel as though you can ever afford to be hesitant when putting your ideas down on the page?
Not as hesitant as I should be, clearly! I think that every writer has these hesitations that revolve around our obsessions. I'm obsessed with seedy and odd intimacy, because it puzzles me in a lot of ways. It's something that I'd like to know more about. So I think that it's a great exercise to make yourself write about things that you might [be second guessing]!

You're also a lecturer: do you have faith in the future of American fiction?
I have SO much faith! Reading what the next wave is doing and getting blown away by it is a really fabulous thing to be on the front line of.

In the book, Hazel's husband runs the tech start up Gogol Industries. Is there a gadget in your life that you couldn't live without?
I love every gadget! In one catalogue, they had a toaster selfie machine. You'd take a selfie, send it to the toaster, and the toaster would [burn] it on to the bread! I think that's incredible! This is the world I want to live in! I live in fear that when I'm elderly I'll get into a phone shopping addiction. I love everything and want every infomercial product I see. There are too many.

I had this intense Uber driver the other day in California, and he said that he replaced all of his faucets with this gadget that, when you turn on the water, makes the water rainbow-coloured! Like in his shower and kitchen faucets!

Before we go, there was talk of Harmony Korine heading up the film treatment of Tampa. Do you have any gossip on that? Is that still on the cards?
It should start falling into place next summer! There are not too many people who would touch that book - it's a short list - but he's definitely at the top of it. Even before I knew he was interested, I was so intrigued to figure out was his vision for it would be. I'm a huge fan of his films so I think that may have made its way into the writing. He would do something really crazy with it, so it'll be so cool to see!

Alissa Nutting's Made for Love is out now on Ecco Press


Text Douglas Greenwood

Harmony Korine
alissa nutting
Made for Love