This year, we’ve seen a lot of books that seem to just raise the bar on what we can expect from literature in terms of mesmerizing plots, spellbinding characters and twists no one ever saw coming. But debut novel Social Creature, with its eye-catching cover that stops you in your tracks may just have raised the bar above all the others.
Equally hypnotic and provocative, the novel focuses on the friendship between two women: Louise living on her own, barely making rent with no real relationships with anyone, not even her own family; and Lavinia, living in an apartment on the Upper East Side, funded by her parents, and taking part in everything the high life in New York has to offer. Their relationship spirals closer together, becoming more intertwined, seductively intense, and toxic, until everything fractures, making a deadly thriller that’s dark and addictive.
Author Tara Isabella Burton may be a debut novelist, but she’s an experienced writer, having written for publications such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, National Geographic, and others. Her work focuses on culture, religion, and travel – which she’s studied, lived or immersed herself in – which in part explains why her writing is so evocative and vivid (the other part is just pure talent). Effortlessly capturing the essence of every great psychological thriller and combining it with the glamour and grit that Manhattan has to offer, and a friendship so close and tightly wound as to be claustrophobically intimate, and you have every reason why Social Creature is a book that’s been included on almost every “must-read” list this year.
BookTrib got to talk with Tara Isabella Burton on social media, toxic relationships, characters and what made her want to write a novel.
BookTrib: You’re written pieces on religion and culture for The Atlantic, Salon, Vox, and National Geographic, as well as The New Yorker, and The Spectator, just to name a few. What made you want to write a novel?
Tara Isabella Burton: Novels were always my first love. I love getting to know characters, and I love the sprawling, messy tapestry of a world that only a novel-length work can provide. For me, travel writing and reporting were ways to hone my craft: to learn powers of observation, of capturing character through dialogue and detail. I’d written many novels in my early twenties before Social Creature — not, I confess, very good ones. But my career as a full-time freelance writer made me a better novelist, because it taught me the concrete skills of both observation and storytelling I needed to write a book that could hold up all the way through.
BookTrib: You’ve written Social Creature in such a way that we, the audience, know that we’re the audience; at moments, you actually address us directly. What made you want to write the book in this format?
TIB: As an adult, I’m always trying to reconcile being a functional, mature, critical adult, with being the overgrown teenager who really did believe in MORE POETRY!!! tattoos and reciting Tennyson and running off to Paris to drink absinthe in Montmartre, and other things we more generally as adults think of as “trite.” And in this book, I wanted to capture both the literary pretentiousness of some of these characters, but also the very real beauty of that dream — a beauty that, I think, it’s all too easy to dismiss as, like, an adolescent fantasy. I wanted to tell the audience, “Okay, you know better, Tennyson’s not that great, but just go with me on this.” And, so, I did. I wanted to play with the idea of received knowledge — that the audience is complicit in this cynicism and this “you know how it really is” that makes them, somehow, “better-informed” or more “sophisticated” than Louise is at the start of the novel. And I wanted to challenge readers to wonder whether that cynicism, that worldliness, was really warranted. We know “better” than Louise. But what does that make us.
BookTrib: Social media features heavily throughout the novel – was this something that you knew you wanted to write on before you wrote the book?
TIB: Yes and no! My doctorate is in the theology of self-creation in 19th century Paris — the fin de siècle, the era of the dandy and the French decadents and the Moulin Rouge! So, academically, I’ve been interested in self-invention as a concept for years. But in terms of writing about social media specifically, I was at first quite wary. The novels I love to read in my free time are 19th century doorstops and early and mid-20th century works — stylistically I respond to, say, Dostoevsky, or Henry James, or Lawrence Durrell, or Daphne Du Maurier. And in a lot of earlier (and not as good) stuff I wrote, I was afraid to have social media or even, hell, phones in there at all, because it seemed less “literary” (and I promise you, my old stuff sounded super dated and old-fashioned as a result!).
But ultimately I became interested in how I could use the language of the Internet and social media — Likes, texts, filters, apps, you name it — and make it poetic. I was inspired a lot by Walt Whitman — his melding of old and new and development of an “American” voice. I started to wonder how one could write a literary, lyrical novel, and yet capture the beauty and the poetry in the rhythms of social media. And thus the frenetic “voice” of Social Creature was born.
BookTrib: Louise is her own person, but she’s also something of a blank slate, capable of becoming anyone, it seems – we see this both with Lavinia, and towards the end of the book. What gave you the idea to write her like this? Did her narrative evolve how you expected it to?
TIB: In earlier drafts, Louise was much craftier, and much more of a striver: a con artist more explicitly in Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley mode. But it wasn’t working. If she didn’t genuinely love Lavinia, if she wasn’t genuinely terrified of losing her love, the book wouldn’t work. And as I redrafted, I started to conceive of Louise’s goal, in any given action, of preserving people’s impressions of her in that point in time. All of Louise’s decisions, particularly involving the crimes she commits, are spur-of-the-moment, panic-driven, survival-decisions — she’s not thinking ahead so much as putting off the inevitable. She’s so afraid of people not liking her that she’ll do anything to forestall that eventuality. And she takes it to extremes, but she does so out of a (I think) fundamentally relatable desire not to have people see the worst in her. I’ve seen reviews describe her as a sociopath — I don’t think that’s true at all. What’s more human and relatable than the desire to be liked and loved, and the fear that our “true” selves make us unloveable? Louise just takes it to extremes.
BookTrib: The relationship between Louise and Lavinia is so unstable, yet startlingly intimate and claustrophobic. What do you think the key is to writing a relationship between two people that is so vivid, magnetic, but also toxic in certain ways?
TIB: Experience? No — but seriously. I’ve had so many powerful, passionate relationships with women, both platonic and romantic, that were incredibly magnetic and incredibly toxic. In purely romantic relationships I’ve had with men, I have experienced desire and admiration. But with women, it’s so difficult to separate out in my own mind “I want to be around you” and “I want to be you” and “I am angry at you because I like you better than I like myself” and “I’m projecting all my issues about myself onto you!” Louise and Lavinia are two sides of the same coin. Hell, in some parallel interpretation of the novel, they’ve probably got a Tyler Durden Fight Club thing going on. They’re billed as being opposites, but I think Lavinia and Louise are quite similar. If their positions of privilege had been reversed, and a penniless Lavinia came across a parent-funded Louise, the exact same scenario would have played out.
BookTrib: The feeling of insecurity can be seen in every character, and we see how it shapes their perception of events, or their perception of what people are saying to them. Can you tell us a little of why you wanted to have this pervade throughout the book?
TIB: This is a book about anxiety, plain and simple! I’d been writing a lot about anxiety before starting Social Creature — I was working on a since-abandoned collection of re-worked 19th century Gothic tales, set in contemporary New York, that used anxiety as a sort of parallel to the Gothic “neurasthenia” or consumption you find in 19th century stories ( one of them was a feminist reworking of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, but in which the character’s “mysterious wasting illness” was clearly anxiety). But I needed the right story, the right structure, to convey that theme. And so the “Talented Mr. Ripley” plot line — the obsessive, toxic female friendship — was the perfect vehicle to explore an “impostor syndrome” made quite literal indeed.
BookTrib: Lavinia is an incredibly interesting character, from worrying about being “too much,” to the power dynamics that seem to be in play in every relationship she has. Did you know from the beginning how she was going to be as a person?
TIB: Lavinia is an extremely unflattering self-portrait. I think I write characters that resemble me often, and I’m much harder on them than I am on characters based on other people. I like to think I’m a generally likable person, but I know my flaws. I can be needy. I’m extremely performative; I cover up my insecurities by, like, reciting Tennyson (I have actually recited “Ulysses” on Coney Island with a friend and, you know what? It WAS beautiful and poetic and transformative), and throwing enormous parties, and dressing like it’s the 1920’s. I, too, share Lavinia’s sort of puppyish need to be loved — I crave validation and approval! And I definitely have a social media persona. It’s how I cope with my own anxieties and fear of not being good enough — I double down on the performative elements of my characters. I’m more self-aware than Lavinia (I hope), and work to correct my flaws, far more than she does, but writing Lavinia made me extremely critical of the worst parts of my personality, and made me want to take them to extremes in order to explore them.
I’ve been writing versions of Lavinia since I was 19, when she was a much more elemental character, and a much less unflattering self-portrait. Earlier versions of Lavinia (including in stories without a Louise), she was eccentric and obsessive, but not so toxic. But the more I wrote Lavinia, the more the toxic parts of her neediness — and her willingness to use her financial or social power to get the feelings of validation she craves like a drug — came out. (Probably, the more I wrote Lavinia, the less like Lavinia I became, although I’m still protective of her).
I’m always aware of, and afraid of, being “too much” for people. And Lavinia is “too much”, even as her fear of being too much becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She is convinced people will turn on her, so she preemptively hurts and manipulates them in order to sabotage the very real intimacy she craves. There’s a scene where she gets physically and sexually intimate with Louise. We only see it from Louise’s perspective — fear that Lavinia is doing it to get attention from an ex, that she’s doing it as part of a game. But we don’t know Lavinia’s perspective. In my mind, Lavinia is very much in love with Louise, and very much not in love with herself, and is using sex as a tool to get the affirmation she feels she needs to be whole. When Louise (in her mind) rejects her, she immediately turns on her — because Louise has validated Lavinia’s fear that she is, in fact “too much.” It’s a bit of a Greek tragedy, really. Lavinia’s tragic flaw is her inability to trust other people to truly love her. And so she inadvertently engineers her own destruction.
BookTrib: What do you want people to really take away from this novel?
TIB: George Eliot has a wonderful phrase in one of her letters: “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, nothing does.” I want readers of Social Creature to come away not only feeling less lonely in their anxiety, and their imposter syndrome, but more conscious of the fear of others of being “too much”, and how widespread that anxiety really is. I want people to realize just how human and fragile and broken we all are.
BookTrib: Do you plan on writing any more novels?
I plan to have the first draft of my next novel done by this summer. It’s another literary thriller: a coming-of-age story meets noir set in a New England boarding school, involving these two students who murder a teacher and disappear on this Bonnie & Clyde-style rampage, and the sensitive underclassmen who tries to investigate why they’ve done what they did. I’m pitching it as Blue Velvet meets A Separate Peace, by way of Veronica Mars.
BookTrib: Do you have any advice for other writers, or aspiring writers?
TIB: It’s a cliche, but keep writing. Literally start over from scratch as many times as you have to. Think of writing like theatre — you have many rehearsals, and you play around with your material, and you don’t expect to have the “final” product until you’ve tried everything and messed around with it a few times. There’s a sense of play and experiment in theatre that writers, myself included, can really learn from.
ABOUT TARA ISABELLA BURTON
TARA ISABELLA BURTON is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for Travel Writing, she completed her doctorate in 19th century French literature and theology at the University of Oxford and is a prodigious travel writer, short story writer and essayist for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist’s 1843 and more. She currently works for Vox as their Religion Correspondent, lives in New York, and divides her time between the Upper East Side and Tbilisi, Georgia.