Author profile: Alissa Nutting

Photo by Sara Wood

Photo by Sara Wood

When author Alissa Nutting was going through a divorce after twelve years of marriage, she found an unusual catharsis: stand-up comedy. 

“Probably the healthiest coping mechanism I have is comedy,” Nutting, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Grinnell College, explained in a recent phone interview.

While working on her latest novel, Nutting found herself driving a nine hour commute between Grinnell and her ex-husband‘s home in Cleveland for visitation. 

“As anyone who’s been through a divorce knows, when you’re going to hand your child off to someone you really feel like you want to die.”

So during the drive she started listening to stand-up comedy channels on XM radio, which proved to be a much healthier option that her previous distraction.

“I used to buy three packs of cigarettes the moment I dropped off my child. I hadn’t smoked in ten years and during the nine hour drive I would smoke every single one of them. When I’d get home my current husband couldn’t even touch me. He’d say, “Go take five showers.”

Comedy pulled Nutting away from the nicotine and towards a hyperbolic, fabulist writing style that helps her process the absurdities in life. Her third book, Made For Love, is about a woman, Hazel, who is trying to leave her evil billionaire tech husband, but he implanted microchip in her brain.

“When writing Made For Love, I certainly was thinking about how leaving [my first husband] felt impossible. The microchip that allows Hazel’s husband to see everything that she does is definitely a metaphorical way to acknowledge that even if I do leave this marriage, he will always have a window into my life – we have a child together, we have social media. That’s a very hard thing to accept at the end of a relationship.”

But Nutting didn’t always see how her personal life came through in her writing. 

“As an author that’s very much a suspension of disbelief that I tell myself: I can write this book that has nothing to do me.”

Nutting recalled sitting down to write a short story and thinking, “I am not going to write a story about the existential panic of death, I’m not going to do it.” I wrote this story about mannequins and painkillers and geriatric caretaking, and I thought: “I did it!”

The editor of BOMB magazine, who took the story for publication, called Nutting to praise her for writing “a wonderful musing on the panic of death.”

“I ended up titling the story “Dying Is All I Think About.” I’m beginning to realize that you kind of just have to give in.”

 “Writing is very much like a fingerprint: that these identifying markers will find their way no matter what.”

And while there are plenty of ways Made For Love is decidedly not about Nutting – she is not hiding out in a retirement community, attracted to dolphins, or driving cross-country in the company of a dead body and two very realistic sex dolls – the exaggeration and dark humor of the narrative highlights poignant truths about ending a long-term relationship.

"Comedy is so much about sadness and coping. A lot of people who feel a lot of pain are really drawn to comedy. It is that brief catharsis and also, I think, the closest you get to acknowledging the sadness without going so far into a depressive space that it’s untenable.”

Writing in such a far-out style is gutsy, but taking risks in art is nothing new for Nutting, whose first novel, Tampa, drew both praise and ire for its explicitness.  

“Extremes are what I gravitate towards,” Nutting says.  “If I’m going to do something, I’m just really, really going to try and do it.”

Made For Love also went through “seven big revisions” before publication. The original manuscript alternated between two story lines – Hazel leaving her husband and con artist Jasper beginning his life anew after a freak accident. “As revisions went forward it became clearer that while Jasper was important and served as an important compliment, the novel was Hazel’s story. So I cut his chapters down.”

Taking such risks in writing and revision can be daring even for established authors. But through her fiction and her teaching, Nutting strives to inspire her students to go “all in” when it comes to narrative construction.

“Part of my job is to really push them to find which way they want to go all in. I think that “all in” can look very, very different in different works. You can go “all in” with content, with dialogue, with commitment to certain styles. That’s actually the way to describe good writing: To identify the particular strain of “all in-ness” that that story or that book is achieving.”

“It goes back to commitment. At the end to the day when you’re looking at success in any form, we can draw back to relentless commitment.”