The PEN Ten is PEN America’s new biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

It’s a natural progression from my sense of identity as a reader, which I had as early on as I could remember—I was a somewhat cantankerous child who preferred a book to anything else around me. I read to the exclusivity of all else. I have a memory of sneaking into the kitchen at a wedding reception, finding a corner and sitting down to read. One of my aunts who was helping prepare food saw me and exclaimed, “What are you doing! Go out and have fun! Dance! Eat some cake!” I scowled at her, looked back down at my book and continued reading. Writing was the butterfly that emerged from my cocoon of living in books, a sort of puberty I hit after growing up as a constant reader.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

While there’s nothing I’d like to pass off as my own—credit due is so important in art, so often the only form of payment some artists ever get—I would love to simply steal SO MUCH without going to jail. Sculptural artists who work with the body and the grotesque—human or animal or fantasy—captivate and delight me. I’d love to sneak some of Patricia Piccinini’s otherworldly beauties home, wrap up with them on my couch in an oversized Snuggie, watch cartoons together.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Anywhere quiet. Sometimes I have this odd fantasy of living in a country that’s under the rule of this bizarre parental dictator who insists upon structure and rest for all: that we all wake up and brush our teeth together as a nation. That the hours of 9pm to 9am are HUSH silent hours, like in a hospital (Help Us Support Healing!) That we have to get ten hours of sleep each night or else we will be taken off to prison, which is a really comfortable bed where we are then supervised to make sure we get ten hours of sleep.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I haven’t—all my prisons are mental! Self-imposed.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours? 

The inevitability of change and death. The seeming futility of love in the face of greed. The urge to resist boundaries, censors, to go beyond society-imposed limits, particularly since natural limits like death and aging are so fixed.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

My novel Tampa, where I document the sexual fantasies and encounters of a woman whose libido for fourteen-year-old boys is all encompassing.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

I think writing should be a sacrifice, and feel like one—how else could the act of constructing narratives, stories, lies, deceptions, ever be kept honest, if not through demanding so much of its participants that the disingenuous cannot afford the price? The price, the sacrifice, is our own edifications: our ego, our image, our pride. We have to scream forth humiliations. I know I’m working on something important when I’m blushing and sweating as I write. When I’m editing my work and I wonder about legality and decency. When I read a sentence and fear it being traced back to me. When I wish I had a pen name. When I know that some will misunderstand me to the point of hatred. When I feel unclean, unloved, and unrepentant.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

I believe that we are a front-line defense against everything that matters being taken from us. I believe all artists are.

What message would you send to an imprisoned writer?

On behalf of my child and the world that needs to one day be, thank you. I am heartsick that you have had to make this unfair sacrifice; I am raw anger. The artistic community is paying attention, and we are thinking, working, and hoping as fast as we can to get you out of this place of danger. You and your art deserve the utmost safety. You deserve the freedom your writing is helping to achieve.

What book would you send to the leader of his or her government?

Yoko Ono’s book of exercises, Grapefruit. They are a way to activate new thought combinations, to feel different parts of your brain trading roles. I could only hope they might cause this leader’s thoughts to reboot or refresh—that he might come back online to find his mind running within the operating system of true humanity that is our essential design.


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