Social Creature is one of those broodingly beautiful pieces that catches you and keeps you till the very bitter end. The characters of Lavinia and Louise represent the dark glitz, glamour and destitution of New York City and their tangled friendship will keep readers enthralled. This decadent debut thriller is a refreshing take on the dark side of obsession. We recently had a moment to speak with Tara Isabella Burton to find out more about her writing process, background and upcoming works.
I feel like almost everyone knows a person like Lavinia – carefree, reckless and self-absorbed. Did you model her character after someone you know in real life?
Yes and no. I modeled Lavinia after a few different people I’d known in NYC – some that I knew well, some that I’d only met in passing. But I also very much wrote an autobiographical character. In real life, I tend to cover up a lot of my own anxieties by embracing performativity – whether it’s on social media, or dressing in an eye-catching vintage style, or being highly emotionally effusive. I wanted to explore a character that had a really big chasm between her external and internal self. I hope I’m less self-absorbed than Lavinia, certainly, but I think I share her (probably unhealthy!) coping methods of dealing with insecurity – and probably many of us do, to some extent.
There’s been a lot of talk that this book is The Talented Mr. Ripley for the digital age. Are you a fan of Patricia Highsmith and her work?
Absolutely! I love those lush midcentury thrillers – Patricia Highsmith, Daphne Du Maurier – that create a heightened atmosphere through both setting and equally intense, complicated characters.
You have captured both the socialite and slum living in New York City so well in Social Creature. Do you currently live in New York? Did it influence your writing of the book at all?
I do! I was born and raised in New York, but left for university and grad school in England, so I was away for nine years. I wrote Social Creature toward the end of my time at grad school, when I’d started coming back part-time to NYC (and spending more and more time there every visit), and it was absolutely influenced by real life. I grew up on the Upper East Side, so that’s definitely a part of the story’s background, but the social circle I tried to create in Social Creature is really a mash-up of so many different New York “worlds”: from UES socialites to intense literary people to burlesque performers and vintage-punks – people who probably, in NYC, don’t actually overlap or intersect very much.
I absolutely love the scene in the book that takes place in a secret bookstore. Is this based on a real place or just wishful thinking?
It is based on a real (and very wonderful) place – a speakeasy bookstore that ran for many years out of the owner’s rent-controlled spare apartment before closing down a few years ago. It’s since re-opened on a smaller scale, but I very much had the original – crowded, chaotic, smoky – venue in mind when I wrote it.
I am fascinated by your very robust and diverse writing career – everything from travel writing, short story writing and writing essays for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist’s 1843, as well as currently being the Religion Correspondent for Vox. Tell me about your journey – how did you get from writing all these different pieces to writing a thriller novel?
It almost started by accident! I was living part-time in Tbilisi during college, funding my way as a ghostwriter of (very formulaic) romance novels, when I won a British competition – the Shiva Naipaul Prize – with an essay about life in Tbilisi. So I started out writing about Tbilisi, fell into travel writing more broadly through that. And while sometimes travel writing gets a bad rap – or is seen as “unserious” – I think it made me a much better writer. Travel writing is all about noticing things – how people talk, how people speak, their mannerisms, the energy of a bazaar or a city street – and honing in on illustrative details, skills I’ve used in both fiction and nonfiction. The travel writing also gave me a bit of a cushion to allow me to pitch other stories – I could take a travel story about the Aegean Coast in Turkey, for example, as I did in 2014, then branch off to report stories about, say, Syriac Christian refugees, or male belly-dancers in Istanbul.
But my academic background was always in religion – my doctorate was in theology – and I really wanted to go back to that. Just as I was finishing my doctorate, the Vox job came up – and it’s been a perfect fit. It’s been challenging working on my second novel while having a full-time day job, but I think being forced to write in a few different genres every day keeps me constantly challenged, and mentally switching gears keeps things fresh.
I love to hear about different writers’ process of writing. Do you have any rituals or anything special that you do before or while writing pieces?
My big one is that I rewrite every draft from scratch. I print out a draft, start a new Word document, then literally retype, making changes as I go. I figure that way, if a sentence isn’t good enough to retype, it’s not good enough to be in the book. It’s harsh, but freeing, since it gives me permission to experiment in each draft, knowing I’m not stuck with anything that doesn’t work.
Can you tell us what are you working on next?
Yes! Another novel – a campus noir set in a New England boarding school, like the one I attended. I think I’d pitch it as A Separate Peace meets Blue Velvet. I hope to finish in a couple months!
Tara Isabella Burton recently completed a doctorate in theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford. Her work on religion, culture and place can be found in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is currently a staff writer on the religion beat at Vox. Social Creature is her darkly addictive debut thriller. You can find her on Twitter @NotoriousTIB. Her debut novel Social Creature is available in Half Price Books stores and online at HPB.com while supplies last.