Actress and writer Amber Tamblyn looked like an oracle late last year. Weeks before the #MeToo movement exploded in October, she penned a viral op-ed for the New York Times titled “I’m Done With Not Being Believed.”
In it, she criticized Hollywood for being complicit in the abuse of women and specifically called out James Woods, whom she claimed tried to pick her up when she was 16.
As #MeToo stories began pouring out, Tamblyn became involved in the Time’s Up initiative, which offers legal support for victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond.
In the midst of this, she finished her first novel, “Any Man,” which was released this week. The book focuses on sexual assault, though it does so in an unexpected way: The villain in the story is a woman who targets men, committing a string of sexual assaults so violent and troubling they could have been ripped from a horror movie. The male victims largely narrate their own stories, delving into the profound pain of dealing with the aftermath of such crimes.
Tamblyn, 35, knows this approach may ruffle feathers, given women — who are much more likely to be victims of sexual assault — are only just now feeling heard. But there is a method to Tamblyn’s approach. She spoke over the phone recently to discuss why she chose to tell this story and what she hopes will come of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: When I heard you were writing a book about sexual assault, I assumed — maybe unfairly — the victim would be a woman. Why did you decide to tell the story from the male perspective?
A: I started to think about ways to resensitize people and the world at large to the conversation. But the initial seed of the book actually had nothing to do with that as much as it had to do with: What would it be like to create a female antagonist who was truly ugly in the worst possible sense and who was predatory and had no consequences in the same way predatory men often do not experience consequences? That’s why the #MeToo movement is so revolutionary because it’s actually said, yes, there are consequences for your actions.
I was really interested in writing almost an apparition of a female character who couldn’t get caught or touched or even identified but who wasn’t doing what she was doing out of malice or revenge. She wasn’t getting back at someone. I think with stories like “Monster,” it always seems to be keeping women under the guise of nurturing and self-protection. And I wanted to create a female antagonist that threw all of those tropes out the window.
Q: She was almost a mythic creature, because no one has seen her, and the only evidence she leaves behind is a six-foot-long hair. Did you have a clear image of her?
A: Yes, I have a very clear image of what she looks like. But it also kind of shape-shifts in the way that she does in the book. And the ultimate intent of her character and her mythology in the book is that it aims to start feeling less like an actual person that has been assaulting people and more like a culture that’s been doing it.
Q: I'm interested in what you were saying about resensitizing people. With so many women coming forward, has the response become somewhat ho-hum?
A: Oh, I think it was like that way before this movement started. I started writing this book almost four years ago. This has been in the national zeitgeist and in our subconscious — deeply ingrained there like a dormant volcano for a long time, before I was born, before my grandmother was even born. This has been the experience of predominantly women and underrepresented communities since the beginning of time. This violence has been endemic and really sees no class, no gender, no age. It affects us all.
So our art needs to bring up more difficult conversations, and I have no doubt that this book is going to really upset a lot of people, and I’m okay with that. I understand, and they have every right to be upset. I know that for those that are upset by it, there will be other people who feel perhaps seen for the first time.
Q: Why do you think people will be most upset?
A: I think that some women might feel as if they’ve barely had a chance to tell their own story and hold space for that. And that this might feel like one of their own — one of the most vocal people supporting women’s rights to tell their stories publicly is now focusing on the feelings and the experiences of men. So I can understand if that might upset people, but I think we need to hold space for all difficult conversations about who is really affected by sexual assault. I think we’re ready for it. Without the eruption of the movement, this book would not have been able to be received in the way that I hope it will be, because people are ready to have those conversations.
After the first pass, I gave it to three men friends of mine, all straight white men. One of them was my husband [actor David Cross], who gave me the best notes possible, but then the other two men after reading it told me how difficult it was to process and opened up to me about being sexually assaulted by a woman, which blew my mind.
It sort of made me realize that I hope this just brings up a lot in a good way for people. It brings up a space for them to be able to speak about things they couldn’t before. And then also for the men who haven’t experienced that to ask, God, is it really this bad for women? And for women who have experienced it to point to the book as a reference and say, if you can’t understand as a man what it’s been like for us, read this. This is the best way for you to understand why sometimes we stay silent for over a decade.
Stephanie Merry is the editor of Book World.
By Amber Tamblyn
Harper Collins. 304 pp. $15.99