It's the summer of scammers, and there's no more fitting literary companion than Tara Isabella Burton's debut novel, Social Creature, out 14th June. Somewhere in Rikers Island, Anna Delvey, the Soho Grifter, awaits her sentence for six counts of grand larceny and attempted grand larceny. Elsewhere, Yvonne Bannigan, the Vogue grifter, thinks of the $50,000 worth of goods she charged to her boss' credit card. And in Social Creature, 29-year-old Louise Wilson cons her way into the life of Lavinia Williams, the 23-year-old starry-eyed heiress who has a ticket to the New York society Louise wants so desperately to be a part of.
Two years ago, Burton's agent challenged her to write a Talented Mr. Ripley for the Instagram age. What emerged is a tantalising thriller about a friendship poised between New York's glitzy upper echelons and its most desperate corners. Earlier this week, we spoke to Burton about Social Creature's fascinating origin story, the enduring pull of the con artist, and whether the New York described in her book actually exists. Spoiler: It does, but you might have to hang out with Burton to find it.
Refinery29: In Social Creature, you create a glamorous New York that seems to exist only in the imagination. What do you have to say to a reader who reads this book and wonders whether this New York actually exists?
Tara Isabella Burton: "Every single party or incident I describe is absolutely something I went to personally and have done. Nothing is exaggerated in that way, or made up. I fictionalised its intensity, and I put it all together on one page. The random defrocked monk would probably not meet all the Chapin girls, who would probably never meet all the people who go to all-night Weimar Berlin parties. Totally different worlds. But what if I [created] a social scene in New York that’s a composite of all those totally separate worlds I’ve encountered?
I wanted the whole book to feel a bit like when someone’s telling you about their night and you say, 'Uh huh, sure'. And they respond, 'No, really! A guy came out of nowhere! It happened'. I wanted to create an imaginary, fantastical New York that’s still rooted in personal experience."
Do you think this book could be set anywhere but New York?
"Absolutely not. I lived outside of London for almost a decade. London’s lovely, but people are not earnest enough in London for there to be that contrast between being super earnest and starry eyed and then also super artificial. Social Creature is about those two extremes."
Your book has ridiculously good timing. It was released at nearly the same time that two stories about women navigating New York's web of privilege in cunning and illegal ways — the Vogue grifter and Anna Delvey — came out.
"Yes, it was actually all done by my marketing team. Completely a viral marketing campaign."
Having written a book about a character that tries her hand at grifting, can you speak to why we find these stories of people gaming the system so compelling?
"I wish Louise were as cunning as any of these grifters. She’s completely incompetent. Her very thoughts make no sense. She’s just trying to be a few steps ahead of whatever disaster is coming her way and constantly making shortcuts. She’s not as good a grifter as Anna Delvey.
"I think something that we love about grifter stories, and something that we love about con artist stories, is that they shine a light on how stupid people are — particularly how stupid they can be when it comes to wanting to trade social capital. It’s a social capital Ponzi scheme. You can convince someone, 'This is a person to know'. This person’s artificial social value is inflated. Let me invite them to the party, let me stand next to them in the photo. The fact that we think so transactionally about other people is horrific and spiritually corrosive and should be condemned. When someone’s social capital is artificially and maliciously inflated, it’s satisfying because we see that everyone who participates in the nature of late capitalism gets a degree of comeuppance. With a good grifter story, you’re rooting for the society to fail, rather than the grifter to succeed."
The book is very much of this era in the way it incorporates social media. Louise wants to absorb Lavinia’s life; she wants to be Lavinia. I think that’s a very relatable feeling for someone who’s scrolling through Instagram and seeing this very perfect life. Can you speak to how social media works in the book, and how it makes aspiring grifters of us all?
"On the one hand, Lavinia portrays herself as this woman who wants to live in the past, in 19th century France, in some madcap poetic era, but at the same time she’s using modern technology to do that. It's the great irony of Lavinia. She doesn’t actually have a lot of real friends; she has a lot of people who are vaguely invested in the story of her life. She wants to live life as art. She probably read a lot of Oscar Wilde when she was 16 and never grew beyond it. Now, suddenly we have this technology that allows us to live our lives as art.
"I don’t want to be 100% down on it. I’m always wary of saying, 'This is a new blight on our society'. Everything Lavinia does — from the poetry she quotes to the clothing she wears —are modes of self-creation. It’s just that she’s able to crank it up to 11 because of her use of social media. Louise falls as much for Lavinia’s persona — does Louise love the real Lavinia? That’s a question that’s not 100% resolved in the book. I think these two women ultimately are in love with each other. If they only had therapy, they might be able to become intimate with each other in the way both seem to want but their friendship is so mediated by these layers of artificiality, both in terms of Lavinia’s constructed persona and in terms of Louise constructing the persona that she thinks Lavinia wants."
You mean romantically in love?
"Yeah. In my mind they are very much in love with each other romantically, sexually. I don’t think either woman has the self-knowledge to say, 'I’m queer. I want to have sex with you', though they do have some form of physical intimacy at various points. These two women, neither of whom has a strong sense of self, neither of whom is in a place to be in any form of a relationship with anybody, have difficulty navigating this. Their relationship is complicated, ambiguous, toxic — not because of their feelings towards each other, but because neither has the capacity to love as bravely as one would hope."
Walk me through your journey to Social Creature.
"It’s a long story. I was 18 and in college when I started the very first draft of a novel about four people. It was a Highsmith meets Du Maurier about the relationship of a newly married woman to her husband’s ex-partner. They were on a Mediterranean cruise ship, and every scene was among the ruins. It was not very good, but it was just good enough for me to get an agent. We tried to sell but it did not sell, as it should not have sold because I was like, 22. I put it in a drawer. I forgot about it.
“I used to ghost-write romance novels in college. I’ve written about 40 or 50 YA paranormal and erotic novels. Whatever was popular, I’d write the knockoff ebook version of it. My agent, knowing that I’d done this, said, 'Tara, write a thriller. We need a modern day Talented Mr. Ripley. Can’t you just do that?' She said it offhand. I said, 'That’s crazy. I’d never do that. My days of writing things with plot are behind me'. I was always writing this lush, dated literary fiction from 1953 which, surprise, doesn’t sell.
"It was a beautiful spring day. I decided to walk home. As I was walking, I thought, 'Wait a minute'. I realised this book that I’d written when I was 19 was the prefect way to tell this story. Two months later, I had a first draft. A couple months later, I had a polished draft to send them. It sold in March. It took 10 years to be able to write a book in two months. Bizarrely, even though the original versions of those characters were from when I was 19, I needed my entire 20s in New York to flesh them out."