Tara Isabella Burton’s excellent debut, Social Creature (Doubleday, June), is a Patricia Highsmith–esque novel about the fluidity of identity in the age of social media.
What was your inspiration for this novel?
When I was about 19, I wrote a long and absolutely unpublishable novel about a toxic, overly involved female friendship inspired by a deeply unhealthy series of college relationships I’d had. Because I was 19, of course, the novel read like Daphne du Maurier fan fiction and I ended up putting it in a drawer. Then, one day, as I was brainstorming ideas for a novel I wanted to write set in contemporary New York, my agent casually made a comment about how there “weren’t any female (Tom) Ripley” characters in fiction, and jokingly asked if I’d ever considered one. Immediately a light bulb went off, I realized that these characters should be reborn in contemporary New York. I never even looked at the old manuscript. A couple months later, Social Creature was done.
So do you feel the book owes a debt to Patricia Highsmith, creator of Tom Ripley?
Absolutely. The thrillers I love do tend to be of the Highsmith and du Maurier ilk—intense, high-stakes, sensual, character-driven. For years my writing was probably too informed by that aesthetic. But with Social Creature, I wanted to take the epic feel and intense emotional melodrama of those classics and see if they could work organically into a modern story: one where the social media–driven setting could serve the characters, rather than the other way around.
There seems to be a trend of novels about cunning young women. How do you account for this?
I think in general characters are at their most interesting when they’re at their most transgressive, when elements of their personalities highlight and explore cultural anxieties and tensions. It’s why I love Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl so much—her sociopathy hits us in the gut because it ties into so many of our cultural ambiguities about what a woman “should” be. And I think at a time when gender politics are so heavily debated, and what it means to be a woman in the “right” way is in flux, we long to—and need to—read about women whose stories and personalities tie into and speak to those anxieties.
How do you think social media has transformed modern life?
Not that much, actually. I did my doctoral thesis on theology and the idea of self-creation and “life as art” in the 19th century dandies of Paris—basically, that self-creation is a form of making meaning and giving significance to one’s existence and one’s own story. Self-invention, and using whatever media tools were available, from art to newspapers to today’s social media, is a pretty consistent element of the human experience. That said, I think the pace and intensity of that experience on the internet may ramp up that tendency to a nightmarish degree.