Alissa Nutting would angle for a coveted corner spot inside Lakewood Public Library's quiet room, an oak desk where she could lean her laptop ever-so-slightly away from readers' wandering eyes and pen the sizzling, pedophiliac sex scenes that have made Tampa — her breakout novel — so controversial in such a short time.
"Sometimes the only space was next to this older, plausibly elderly woman," says Nutting. "And I thought, Please don't let her lean over and have a stroke."
Tampa's sinister central character, Celeste, preys upon 14-year-old boys, committing acts so deviant adult film stars might blush. "It's difficult as a female writer to write about sex because people assume you're writing about yourself," Nutting admits. "In my own small way, I wanted to contribute to the battle. We get to write about awful, grotesque things, too, and it's not a reflection of who we are in real life."
The 32-year-old author and assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University is not the narrator of the novel, she insists, despite growing up 40 miles outside Tampa, Fla. Nor is it based on Nutting's now-famous high school classmate, Debra LaFave, a beautiful teacher who in 2005 pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious battery after sleeping with a 14-year-old male student.
"Debra is a human being," Nutting says. "Celeste is a monster." Celeste feels no remorse for her desires or the chaos they cause, an intentional decision to introduce a character for which her readers would feel no sympathy.
"We have no idea in our society how to read and look at a female character who is doing bad things without somehow trying to diminish her predatory nature," Nutting says.
Yet negative reviews and ignorant comments have made Nutting question her decision to write Celeste's story as seriously as she struggles with her tattoos — impulsive decisions Nutting made as a young woman — that cover her left leg and abdomen.
"I got them for these personal and complex reasons, and I wrote the book as a reaction to societal messages that bother me," she says. "But I didn't quite realize how much positive and very negative attention I would get from either one."
Cosmopolitan dubbed Tampa the "sickest, most controversial book" of the summer, while reviews from The Washington Post to The New Republic berated the book for its lack of introspection.
"At the end of the day, the tattoos are something I needed to do at the time, and the book was something I needed to do, too," Nutting says. "I can't regret either of them."