Tara Isabella Burton has followed a female hermit into the remote Caucasus, gotten love amulets from Turkish Islamic shamans, and held signs with the street preachers of Las Vegas. She is also the author of “Social Creature,” forthcoming from Doubleday (US) and Bloomsbury/Raven (UK) in June 2018, and will be translated into nine more languages, including Italian, French, and Russian.
“Louise has nothing. Lavinia has everything. After a chance encounter, the two spiral into an intimate, intense, and possibly toxic friendship. A ‘Talented Mr. Ripley’ for the digital age, this seductive story takes a classic tale of obsession and makes it irresistibly new.”
I absolutely tore through “Social Creature” the same week I received it. To say I loved it would be an understatement. As a gay AF woman obsessed with f*cked up-ness, darkness, fashion, NYC queer nightlife, and fashion, I diiiiiied for “Social Creature.” Burton is an incredibly talented writer with a gift for understanding and portraying human complexities. Not only that, she described all my favorite haunts to a tee – the McKittrick and The Box. It was so visceral to read.
In grad school, I had a professor that was like don’t write about your iPhone and I thought it was the stupidest advice ever. Burton continually intersperses our hypermodern world in her gorgeous prose. Her use of modern communication as simple as emojis juxtaposed with serious topics like female friendships and obsession, was both haunting and hilarious, and always relevant. To me, she dealt with human nature, our world, and New York in such a real way that it became surreal.
AND her two sexy AF women leads have sex with each other at the opera (a la Bette and Alice) – we’ll get to that part in the interview, don’t you worry, my darling lezzies. Get to know the social creature behind the devious, sexy, and thrilling “Social Creature.”
GO Magazine: What inspired “Social Creature”?
Tara Isabella Burton: I’ve had so many intense, insane, obsessive friendships and relationships with women over the years – toxic or not. Women against whom I’ve defended myself, for whom I’ve felt a mixture of the desire to possess and the desire to be them. Some were just friends, some I’ve dated or had relationships with, and some were something in between, never quite articulated. Especially in NYC, when you’re comparing yourself to other women all the time (and where class and money differences are such a factor), those lines are blurred. I wanted to explore some of the more toxic relationships I’ve had with people I was obsessed with – or people with whom I was obsessed with “measuring up” to.
GO: I am obsessed with your visceral description of NYC nightlife – especially of The Box. Can you talk about your own experience with NYC nightlife?
TIB: I started going to the Sleep No More parties in 2012, and from there got involved in the whole vintage-club-kid crossover world – events like Dances of Vice or Shanghai Mermaid (or the McKittrick parties) that were sort of a hybrid of traditional nightlife and this kind of atavistic “living in the past” aesthetic. What I find funny is that a couple of reviewers have described it as a “Gossip Girl” world. I promise it’s not. I grew up on the Upper East Side, very much in that private girls’ school socialite aesthetic, and that world (slash-style-slash-fashion) couldn’t be more different. Although, of course, all of these groups do tend to be relatively privileged and relatively homogenous. God, I wish the girls I went to Chapin with had wanted to go to weird Ballet Russes parties at East Village queer museums! The subculture I created for “Social Creature” was something of a mash-up of different “sets” in the city: Brooklyn lit kids and UES socialites and weird club kids – who’d probably never actually intersect, but I choose to believe Lavinia is sufficiently magnetic (in a moth-to-the-flame way) that she brings all these disparate types into her orbit.
GO: We’ve talked privately about the queerness of “Social Creature” a bit. You told me about the two leads’ inability to identify/vocalize their queerness. Can you elaborate? It was truly one of the best books I’ve read in years, but for me, I didn’t quite see Lavinia and Louise’s sex scene as explicitly queer, since it was done in the context of the male gaze. They both admit that they’re straight and it seemed that Lavinia did it to get her ex’s attention. Can you explain how you came to write that scene?
TIB: So, I was toying with how explicit to make the queerness of that scene, in part because I was terrified of falling unwittingly into the “evil bisexual” or “depraved bisexual” trope. In the end, I realized that repressing the characters’ erotic attraction to each other actually brought out that trope – whereas by making the subtext text (a pretty late-stage development, actually), I was able to use the sexual relationship between the characters to explore other elements of their relationship (power dynamic, Lavinia’s relationship with her ex, etc), insted of making all their other interactions “about” their attraction.
As a queer woman who has had intimate relationships with both men and women, it was important for me to write a book with toxic queer characters where their queerness wasn’t the cause of that toxicity, but at the same time also recognize that some relationships I’ve had were more ambiguous or confusing than straight-forwardly romantic or sexual. I wanted to be honest about the liminality of those feelings: about how, sometimes, erotic desire is rooted in more than just sexual attraction, but in confusing and complex identities.
With the big sex scene, I wanted to explore a sexual encounter where the lines are blurred in all senses. Is the scene – in part at least – a sexual assault: to the extent that Louise doesn’t really have the power to say no to Lavinia, upon whom she is economically dependent? Does Lavinia actually know Rex is watching them (and is she doing it for Rex’s benefit) as he doesn’t actually realize what’s going on?
Louise thinks she does, but we don’t know for sure. While Louise jumps to the conclusion that this was just an act (and is devastated by this), we don’t hear this from Lavinia directly. We don’t know whether Lavinia is doing this as a show or because she’s lonely and trying to make herself feel desirable, or because she is lonely and trying to foster a connection with a woman she is emotionally dependent on. (And we do know that Lavinia and Mimi did have a lot more sex, and not just in public). We know that Lavinia is devastated by Louise running out on her afterward – is that because she feels she’s lost control, or because she’s just been sexually rejected by a woman she wanted? Sex is about a lot of things – desire, but also power, but also self-creation. And sex between two fucked up, flawed people like Louise and Lavinia is going to be fucked up and flawed, too.
But for my money, there’s not a doubt in my mind that both women are in love with and desire each other, and the encounter they share is sex (albeit sex defined by their already fucked-up relationship). But they’re gonna need a lot of therapy to ever articulate that.
GO: Mimi does identify as queer. (And she is my absolute favorite character. I LOVE when she sings “New York, New York” in the bar. What an amazing, beautifully written scene.) Can you talk about Mimi’s queerness and how you came to form her character?
TIB: Thank you! Mimi’s one of my favorite characters. It was important for me to have one character who comfortably articulates her queer identity, since so many other characters in the book don’t. The “toxic bisexual” trope is a real and noxious one, and given that pretty much everyone in the book is toxic, I didn’t want to risk looking like I was using queerness as shorthand for “evil” or “bad.”
But Mimi is my favorite character in the book! She’s inspired by a mixture of people I knew or ran into at parties, particularly in her more awkward earlier scenes. But the part of Mimi that develops into a remarkable, talented, and self-possessed woman, a woman who is not afraid to love even though it makes her vulnerable, a woman who is not afraid to be emotionally intimate with others – that Mimi was inspired, in part, by a woman I briefly dated, and whom I consider a close friend now. I was struck by how bravely she was able to express her emotions (something I personally have a lot of trouble doing). She had this, like, almost saint-like purity that comes from loving without fear. And my admiration of her inspired me to create Mimi as a Dostoevskian “holy fool.” When we meet her through Lavinia’s eyes, she seems like she’s “too much” – the embodiment of Louise’s fears about herself. But once a hardened, cynical Louise gets to know her better, she realizes that Mimi is basically the purest, best character in the book. Louise should be more like Mimi!
Oh, and it’s my personal head-canon that Mimi takes over NYC at the end of the novel and turns the social scene into a much nicer, richer, more meaningful place.
GO: Why should GO readers check out “Social Creature”?
TIB: If you want a fucked-up book about fucked-up people trying to figure out how they relate to each other in a fucked-up world. None of the characters is “likeable” by design, except maybe Cordelia (and she’s kind of a little snot too), but I hope that they’re all human beings. If you want a book about women figuring out their identity outside of easy boundaries or categorizations.
GO: What can we expect next from you?
TIB: I’m working on a noir mystery – more of a “why-done-it” than a “who-done-it” set in a New England boarding school. It’s about a sensitive young girl who investigates the murder of her favorite teacher and the disappearance of two of her classmates who claim responsibility for his death.
GO: Who are your queer lady role models?
TIB: Anais Nin! Edna St. Vincent Millay! Susan Sontag! Colette! Basically any 19th century French chainsmoking lesbian!
GO: Describe your style in three words.
TIB: Rich old lady.
GO: What advice would you give to your young writer self?
TIB: Not to be afraid of being “too much,” and to savor the pain that comes with emotional intensity.
GO: How can GO readers find you?