“You will have to imagine my confusion when Ms. Nutting’s debut story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, appeared on my doorstep. She had chosen to defy all reasonable laws of feminine desire by spurning me as a sexual object. And yet she had managed to publish a book.”
Can I claim to have ever formally taught Alissa Nutting?
I might have been able to make this claim, had Ms. Nutting bothered to submit a manuscript for my consideration back in 2005, when I served as Visiting Scumbag at the University of Alabama’s MFA program.
But Ms. Nutting decided not to subject herself to that kind of abuse. Instead, she showed up at the party after my reading – a sullen affair, even as these things go – and consumed by her own estimation 177 beers. She then approached me and the following exchange probably didn’t take place.
Alissa Nutting: Hey! Can I tell people I partied with Steve Almond?
Me: You may.
Nutting: I love your work! It always gives me an idea to go write about!
Me: I am your muse.
Nutting: Yeah, sort of.
Me: You may now use me as a sexual object.
Nutting: That’s sweet, but I’m married.
Me: Does your husband care nothing about your art?
Nutting: Wait, are you joking?
You will have to imagine my confusion when Ms. Nutting’s debut story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, appeared on my doorstep. She had chosen to defy all reasonable laws of feminine desire by spurning me as a sexual object. And yet she had managed to publish a book.
What’s more, it was (to my disappointment) a fantastic book, full of strange and necessary tortures.
Whether or not Ms. Nutting was driven exclusively by her lust to engage in Super Hot Word Sex with me isn’t the point. The point is her vibrant little book, which I have been reading before bed. It is now almost over and I am sad.
Let the Super Hot inquisition commence!
The Rumpus: I don’t suppose we can avoid this, so let’s just get it out the way. Ms. Nutting, can you discuss how your sexual rejection of me has shaped your fiction? Take your time.
Alissa Nutting: For many years I wrote nothing but “I will not sleep with Steve Almond” over and over again, page after page à la Jack Torrance in The Shining. Finally, hundreds of psychotherapy sessions and an intense shaman-guided DMT sweat lodge experience led to a breakthrough, and I was able to write about other people I would not sleep with, and also about people I would. The book before you today is like a weed that managed to survive a hearty spritzing of Roundup.
Rumpus: What I love about your stories – one of many things I love – is that you write about the absurdity of contemporary popular culture without sacrificing compassion for your characters. I’m thinking of the story “Porn Star,” which is narrated by a porn star who’s expected to have anal sex on the moon for a reality TV show. In the wrong hands, this story could be a didactic mess. But the final paragraphs are sad and haunting. Do you worry that folks (critic folk in particular) will miss the quiet tenderness beneath the wild plots?
Nutting: Luckily I’m on prescription drugs that prevent me from worrying about anything too much. But yes, I do…I think humor is like a shield that lets you get as close to the sad sad flame as possible—far closer, oftentimes, than drama. The stories are funny and many have absurdist premises, but that’s the (hopefully enjoyable) coating that makes the bitter pill go down a bit easier. All of the stories’ narrators experience pretty grave pain. I wanted the stickiness of emotional agency to be highlighted throughout.
Rumpus: Your openings are sublime. Here’s how “Dinner” begins:
I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people. Our limbs are bound and our intestines and mouths are stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain.
It’s a completely bizarre situation, but related with such authority and precision that the reader is immediately onboard. Do these first lines act as triggers, or do you patch them in later?
Nutting: They’re triggers. When I was writing these stories, I tried to explain each premise to the reader (and to myself) as immediately as possible; if it felt natural I’d do it in the initial line or two. All of the stories are in first person because I really want readers to put themselves into the shoes of each character. So the opening lines are an orienting technique: this is where you are, this is who you are. Go.
Rumpus: What’s the sickest fairy tale you’ve ever read? I ask this not just because you’re the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review, but because your stories often seem energized by the same kinked out monster id.
Nutting: There are the usual horrors of cannibalism, etc., but I think the most terrifying ones are euphemistically disturbing. Consider this line in “All-Kinds-of-Fur” by the Brothers Grimm about a father forcing his daughter to marry him: “He seized her by the hand and held her fast. As she attempted to free herself and run away, her fur cloak opened a little…”
Rumpus: How has your family reacted to your work? Do they understand what you’re trying to do?
Nutting: My poor family. I try to protect them from my work. My parents are very religious, and my brother and sister are very normal. We have an understanding, I think, that what I do isn’t quite down their alley. They’re really good about humoring me. Once in the pet store I saw a hamster cage where all the other hamsters were sleeping in a giant pile, but one with bedraggled fur was off playing with its own turds in a corner. It’s like that.
Rumpus: How about your classmates? I can see some of them being freaked out – not just by the fabulism, but the audacity of the language.
Nutting: During my MFA, I was lucky to be surrounded by a really supportive group of peers. And now I get feedback pretty exclusively from freaks only. My writing circle isn’t too full of people who fall into the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought Tuesdays With Morrie” category.
Rumpus: Has living in Las Vegas (aka The First Seating at the Apocalypse) bled into your stories at all? Or were they written before you became a gambling addict?
Nutting: Las Vegas is incredible. Either you love it or you’re a classy person with morals. I fall into the former category. It’s definitely bled into my writing. When you see people playing slots while holding a tiny dog and wearing an adult diaper so they don’t have to abandon their machine to go to the bathroom…how are you not going to use that? I’ve seen men in $5,000 suits urinate in public fountains here. Las Vegas is the best place on earth.
Rumpus: You once wrote me a note in which you claimed to have gotten married in corpse paint. You even attached a photo. Will you be reading from the book in corpse paint?
Nutting: Yes. In corpse paint and a corpse suit and a merkin.
Rumpus: Finally, can you tell us what’s next on your dance card?
Nutting: I’m finishing a novel about a girl who gets pregnant with the ghost of her father. Don’t worry…it’s more tender than it sounds.