The word that first comes to mind when I think of Tara Isabella Burton’s work is feast. Her travel writing features sumptuous landscapes and vivid interviews, while her critical essays—on religion, literature, and art—immerse readers in an intellectual history that is vibrant, richly detailed, and filled with unique glimpses into the way that our cultural attitudes are shaped by time and place.
Burton, whose work has been featured here at The Rumpus, and in National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist, has now published her first novel. In Social Creature, Burton uses her exceptional eye for detail in order to explore the thrilling and toxic friendship between two women—Louise, who has nothing, and Lavinia, who appears to have everything, each of whom is trying desperately to be seen.
Recently, Burton and I discussed the process of writing a novel, vintage clothes, and how social media has helped millennial women define themselves.
The Rumpus: You’ve been writing nonfiction for years, and now a novel. Have you always written in both genres? Was writing a novel something you always wanted to do?
Tara Isabella Burton: I’ve actually written quite a few novels, none of which were publishable! I found that in every work I developed my voice further and had a clearer sense for the story I wanted to tell. Social Creature’s roots were actually in an earlier novel I had written when I was nineteen, about a toxic female friendship. When I mentioned to my agent that I was interested in writing a novel about New York, she pondered about how there had never been a female Mr. Ripley, and this ended up inspiring me to reimagine my original story in this completely new setting.
I come from a theater background, which I think also helped liberate me from this idea that everything had to be right the first try. You never expect the first rehearsal to be perfect. It’s normal to try and then retry in the process of creating a final product.
Rumpus: Did you always know that you wanted to write a thriller?
Burton: I had no idea that I was writing a thriller! I’d always thought of myself as a writer of literary fiction, and earlier drafts of this novel didn’t really have many “thriller” elements at all. I wanted to tell a story about imposter syndrome, and obsessive, erotic female friendship, and about the construction of identity. The realization that, to tell that story well, and to take those characters to the extreme places I wanted them to go, a thriller-adjacent plot was the best way to serve those characters and themes. But the death was actually a late-stage addition to this story.
But one thing I will say is that the process of writing many novels helped me to understand why plot was important. In my earlier novels, I would focus almost exclusively on character, so the idea of writing a page-turner was really foreign to me.
But what I learned over time is that a really good story becomes the backbone to explore character more deeply. Having the idea to write a “female Ripley” helped to breathe new life into my characters and create a story with a purpose.
Rumpus: What interests you most about female friendship?
Burton: I’m interested in how women in their twenties are trying to figure out who they are and how they often try to find that out through their relationships with other women. Social Creature isn’t based on any one real relationship, but is more a composite of the friendships I’ve experienced or seen where you suddenly realize that you are a character in someone else’s drama. This gives female friendships a kind of erotic charge that is partially about admiration for someone else, but also, really, a reflection of who you want to be.
I also think there’s so much scope for good, quote unquote literary novels about female relationships. I think I’m conscious, too, of the way in which female writers and female-led stories in particular tend to be dismissed as commercial, or “fun” “beach reads” in a way that male-led stories aren’t. And in the marketing for this book, I’ve tried really hard to avoid talking about, say, the clothing of the characters (despite the fact that it’s a major part of the way in which they construct their identity), or the Upper East Side aesthetic out of a fear that they would lead to the book not being taken seriously. I wanted to write American Psycho rather than Gossip Girl. But the irony is that Bret Easton Ellis can spend pages and pages talking about Patrick Bateman’s skin care products, or his business cards, and have that be a serious character or identity marker, whereas talking about the way in which women create personae through clothing is somehow “unserious.” I want to make a case for the serious, literary legitimacy of the female experience of self-construction.
Rumpus: I know a lot of your nonfiction is also interested in looking at the ways we perform for one another. Do you find the process of writing fiction and nonfiction similar?
Burton: For me, nonfiction is more of an interpretive process of connecting the dots, whereas with fiction you are not interpreting so much as creating a story. Emotionally, they feel very similar to me, though; as a travel writer, I gained a lot of experience focusing on details. Details, of course, help you to think about how a moment, experience, conversation—whatever—can also tell us a story. I approach my characters in this same type of journalistic way.
Rumpus: Reading about the glamour and mystique of this very young and wealthy New York City lifestyle was like an anthropological experience for me. What was it like for you as a writer to capture this very specific world?
Burton: I am from the Upper East Side, and most of this book takes place in the Upper West, so I see myself as both somewhat of an insider as well as an outsider in exploring his place. The world of Social Creature is really an amalgamation of many New York City subcultures.
Rumpus: Did you assume that your readers would be familiar with New York?
Burton: I don’t have any assumption about my readers! I do think that my book speaks to a particularly female experience, but I also think that men could get something out of it, too. My ideal audience is someone who thinks she (or he) is too much. Someone who is emotionally intense and who reads this book will get that intensity so much that they then want to sleep with this book underneath their pillow.
Rumpus: A lot of that intensity is captured in the way that characters use social media to express themselves. Did you think about your own use of social media?
Burton: I don’t really have a lot of concerns about social media use. In fact, I have really positive feelings about social media! I had a bad eating disorder in my teens and social media was a way to create an image of myself that I was proud of and felt comfortable with. I think there is something beautiful about trying to become that perfect person. I like people who are performative on social media and I feel comfortable with it. I grew up on LiveJournal, which seemed even more of an intimate kind of self-creation than the way we curate a certain kind of image now.
Rumpus: You have a love of vintage clothes and you explore fashion throughout Social Creature. What was it like to write about your character’s fashion choices throughout this text?
Burton: I collect vintage clothes and I wanted to capture this unique subculture that I am a part of. When we began discussing film rights, I was very clear that the women in my story wouldn’t want to wear designer clothes—that, for someone like Lavinia, finding a unique dress is about crafting a special identity more than asserting a certain kind of status. The women in this world are very conscious of using fashion to become “self-created” rather than even necessarily beautiful. It’s an aesthetic approach to life—both an act of creation, as well as control.
Rumpus: Speaking of “self-created,” I know that you have any number of other projects that you are working on right now, both in terms of fiction and nonfiction.
Burton: That’s right! I’m doing religion coverage over at Vox, which I love. I’m also working on my next novel, which takes place at a boarding school. My elevator pitch is that it is Blue Velvet meets A Separate Peace.
Rumpus: What books do you keep coming back to? And what’s new on your bookshelf that you are most excited about?
Burton: I love gigantic Russian nineteenth-century novels! And classic writers like Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence and Henry James. In terms of modern literature, I love Gone Girl, especially how it handles these huge societal taboos about what it means to be female. It’s something I think Social Creature deals with too, as all these female characters are just pouring their emotional hearts out. That’s what I think is so interesting about our use of social media today. How each of us is Lavinia on the outside and Louise on the inside, but how hard it is for us to really see that.