LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Tara Isabella Burton's debut novel "Social Creature" is a tale about obsession. It follows Louise. She's a failed writer working three jobs in New York City. Life for Louise is mundane. That's until she meets Lavinia. The rich socialite introduces Louise to a world of lavish parties and reckless abandon. It's all Louise ever wanted. But when her friendship with Lavinia is under threat, she will do whatever it takes to keep it from falling apart. Author Tara Isabella Burton joins me now from our NPR studios in New York City.
Welcome to the program.
TARA ISABELLA BURTON: Thank you so much it's a delight to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us what inspired this.
BURTON: I'm from New York City originally, but I moved to England for almost a decade for college and grad school. And I started coming back more and more in my mid-20s. And in that time, I fell in love with New York, and I fell in love with it both as a kind of homecoming and as a slight outsider having been gone so long. And I became sort of obsessed with going out and trying to live life as art and fell in with a wonderful, wild, mad group of people that wanted the same things and also trying to define ourselves against one another. Particularly, you know, in New York in your 20s in this cutthroat world became something I really wanted to write about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Break it down for our listeners. Lavinia is this sort of larger than life madcap figure, wealthy.
BURTON: Yes, Lavinia, I think, for me the defining characteristic is that she believes wholeheartedly in living life as art and having the most extraordinary kind of poetic experience possible, which on the face of it isn't necessarily a bad thing. But what she doesn't realize is that it takes so much privilege to be able to live for that and to be so carefree and reckless and to stay out all night. You can stay out all night, when you don't have to be somewhere the next morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Louise is not that. She comes from not affluence. And she is struggling to sort of keep her head above ground in New York City.
BURTON: Absolutely. She does not have an enormous degree of privilege. And she is making it on her own. In a sense, she is someone who would like all the things Lavinia has. And she and Lavinia, despite their surface differences, are very similar. They both don't have a strong sense of self. They both need to define themselves through other people, through accomplishments, through everything from social media to literary bylines to who they're dating to what they're wearing. Their relationship is characterized, I think, by this obsessive co-dependency. It's very easy to say because Lavinia has financial privilege and wields it as a tool over Louise offering her a free place to stay, offering her clothing, offering her tickets to the opera and parties that Lavinia has a lot of power. And of course she does. But Lavinia's also very needy. And what Louise has is the ability to say to Lavinia your writing is good. You look beautiful. You...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Give her validation.
BURTON: Yeah, exactly. And I think that Louise realizes that this is a way for her to wield power.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You cover religion as a beat as a journalist. Is it our new religion, you know, money and fame and social media and that kind of mix?
BURTON: I think that we all look for meaning, and we all want there to be a grand narrative in our lives. And I think certainly as a religion journalist covering everything from Catholicism and evangelicalism to new religious movements, that's certainly something I see. I think this book was very much informed by my work as a religion reporter. I was interested in characters in a pretty - I'd say - secular environment searching for meaning, searching for order and structure in their lives and finding it through these illusory forms of self-creation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, Louise says this in the book. I'm going to read it here. You can lose weight. You can dye your hair. You can learn to speak with a very charming mid-Atlantic accent. You can stay up until 4 in the morning missing your own deadlines just to read somebody's novel and tell them how great it is. But nothing, nothing you do will ever be enough. Is she saying something there about the holes that we have with us that can never be filled? This yearning for something that we can never quite get?
BURTON: I think, you know, everything from Lavinia's aesthetic existence longing for beauty and poetry to Louise's passionate hunger to be loved are all coming from the same place, which is the absence of something, some sense of order, some sense of meaning, some sense of goodness. There's a fundamental emptiness to all of the characters in the book. And because they're searching for something - and they're searching in the wrong places. And I think that's why, for me, these characters as unlikable as they are are not, I hope, impossible to empathize with because what they're fundamentally searching for is something very human and very, I believe, universal.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Tara Isabella Burton. Her debut novel is called "Social Creature," and it's out this Tuesday. Thank you.
BURTON: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL SONG, “IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN”)
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