Linda: Before we officially start, could you tell me a little bit about the cover?
Alissa: I knew I wanted sort of a surreal image for the cover, and I knew that I wanted it to be a woman, a girl. So I was doing some art research, and I came across Catrin’s image and was just taken away by it–the artist is Catrin Welz-Stein. She’s fantastic. I emailed her, and said I really, really want to use it for the cover, and my heart was just set on it. I was so afraid she’d say no. She was so nice, and she wrote me back, and said yes.
Buffalo Books: This is one of the most unusual books I have picked up in a long time. I read the first story, Dinner, which I found absolutely spooky. I don’t know whether the cover reminded you of it as the first story, but it does remind me.
A.N. : A little. She is in water. She is clutching a very edible creature.
Buffalo Books: In the story, of course, she is the edible!
A.N.: Yes! The water, of course, has something to do with that.
Buffalo Books: Let’s go for a moment from the sublime to the, well, maybe not the ridiculous—the Buffalo connection. Your Buffalo connection is Starcherone Press.
A.N.: Absolutely. They offer the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, which is an annual prize, and I won in 2009. I knew some of the work of the press, and I liked it. I knew some of Ben Marcus’ work. He was the judge this year for the prize. The prize has been awarded for seven years now. They have a guest judge every year, so it’s never just one static person. His work is well-established.
Buffalo Books: What were some of the influences in your life that propelled you to this point?
A.N.: I think just being lonely. When I was growing up, my brother and sister were much older than me, 16 years. So I was kind of an only child that way, and my parents are older. I spent a lot of time just alone in my room! Books and stories and writing were a pretty big comfort. And then just later as an adolescent, just feeling like I didn’t fit in or was a part of anything. Writing continued to be sort of a coping mechanism– a nice habit, a safe space for me.
Buffalo Books: I often wondered if writing comes out of loneliness or if loneliness comes from being a writer. Which comes first? I mean, writing is necessarily a solitary profession.
A.N.: It is, and you know, now I have quite a lot of friends whose company I want to enjoy, and you just can’t do as much! You can’t go to as many parties or go out at night so much because you have a writing schedule. It makes you more a hermetic person.
I’m working at the University of Nevada in what has become a premier cultural hot spot, bringing in literary figures to Las Vegas–a lot of panelists, fiction writers, poets, national and international figures. I’m the fiction editor at their literary magazine, and then I do whatever the visiting writers need.
Buffalo Books: Let me ask you about your title, because when people look at it, they might say, how bizarre! The titles of your stories look so ordinary when you look at the title page, and of course, they are not at all ordinary. What about the rather strange word, “unclean,” in your title?
A.N.: Well, I was raised Catholic. That is part of the push-pull in my brain. I was raised in an extremely conservative household and all of my interests in life have always been extremely unconservative. I tend to frame things in religious terminology. So this is about women who society would sort of push away, whether it is because they are not attractive, because they don’t stick up for themselves, and I really wanted to champion or give a voice to the more lonely, struggling women. There already are a lot of books about lonely, struggling men. I wanted to give a voice to female characters in modern America.
Even though there are fantastic settings, there is an emotional truth to the book. They find themselves in that position, some job they are not aware of—jobs like “teenager”—not really jobs in the sense of how they make their money, although sometimes it is. It is more “job” in the sense of “role” or “position.”
Buffalo Books: The first story, “Dinner”– I have a feeling that food is a metaphor for an awful lot of things. How did those people end up in that soup? Literally in the soup.
A.N.: It couldn’t have been a pleasant process so I won’t dwell on it! I have a great fear of death and dying. So I really wanted to set out a situation in which all of the characters know or are aware that their death is imminent and they can’t do anything to control it. I wanted to explore those dynamics, but I wanted to do it in a unique way. I didn’t want them to be in any kind of real-life scenario, like on a plane or something like that.
Buffalo Books: Because it’s been done so often? Or because you like the imaginary?
A. N.: I do. I kind of feel that the more unrealistic the story is, the more realistic the emotions are. These have to be weighted. I felt here I had put them in a situation that couldn’t happen, and so I would be able to amplify the emotional responses.
Buffalo Books: And the particularization of the situation to each character—the woman who is chosen because she is more meaty–her feelings about herself and where she is. I was wondering if these people hadn’t already died. I wondered if it was some kind of purgatory. Not quite hell, but not quite anyplace else. What was your intent?
A.N.: It’s kind of ambiguous. I like it that way. I kind of like to leave things so readers can think about what is most meaningful to them.
Buffalo Books: But certainly in a pickle (laughter). Besides the dinner metaphor, are there other metaphors in the book that you especially like to use?
A.N.: I really like to use the trope of the outsider or the person that others might think is pathetic or naïve or self-absorbed. I like to look at damaged people—those who haven’t become self-actualized. I find something kind of beautiful and tender about people who are living their lives the best way they know how. I really like to make those characters likeable for all their unlikeableness.
Buffalo Books: If you were speaking to a group of aspiring writers, what would be your best advice to them?
A.N.: My best advice would be, “Don’t let other people tell you when your writing is art and when it isn’t.” Your writing is art the moment you put it out into the world. And you can take feedback, you know, criticism—but don’t let others tell you it is or is not art.
Buffalo Books: Does that fact that you created it make it art?
A.N.: I think so. The fact that it is your creative expression makes it successful art. So I would say not to gauge writing by the usual indications of success. It is what you are figuring out about yourself, figuring out about the world, so value writing on those terms, as opposed to book sales or critics.
Buffalo Books: And yet, you won a prize. Isn’t that nice?!
A.N.: Yes, it is nice, and it certainly is nice when someone gives you positive feedback! I tend to at least consider feedback, positive or negative. It’s made me a much better writer. But I don’t think you internalize it and say this person didn’t like it, so I shouldn’t be a writer. Or maybe I’m not good enough. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it.
Alissa Nutting’s book, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, will be released October 1, 2010, by Starcherone Press . It is available for preorder on amazon.com, and will be available also at Talking Leaves in Buffalo.
Buffalo Books is published on Sundays. To qualify, a book must have an author who is a Buffalonian, a Buffalo-area publisher, or a Buffalo setting or plot.
Contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org to suggest a book.