Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Abbott’s Grim Fairy Tales, Part II

When I got the opportunity recently to interview Megan Abbott about her career, I knew I wanted to discuss more than just her new book, The End of Everything. In addition to being a fantastic novelist, Abbott is a gifted short-story writer whose pieces have appeared in a number of collections, including the recent e-book exclusive, L.A. Noire. She’s also a scholar, having received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000.

The first part of our conversation can be found here. In today’s longer Part II, we discuss several of Abbott’s short stories, themes in her work, and the nuts-and-bolts of her fiction-writing process.

Brendan M. Leonard: Looking into your background, there’s definitely an interest in crime fiction, and obviously in James Ellroy, but there’s also a great scholarship in film noir. Which came first for you, the books or the movies?

Megan Abbott: For me it was absolutely the movies. I think because you sort of have permission to watch those movies long before ... my parents weren’t restrictive anyway, but I was not going to be reading James Ellroy at age 8, even if I could have. So the movies definitely came first, and I had a big movie household.

BML: What did your parents do?

MA: My father’s a professor of political theory, and my mom [Patti Abbott] is a writer, but at that time she wasn’t writing, though now she writes. They were just big movie people, and as a kid, that was my weekend’s entertainment--the local UHF channel, and I’d watch it all day. I like lots of different kinds of movies, but I don’t know why gangster movies in particular--those were the first ones I loved--really appealed to me. James Cagney was the big one; I was fascinated by him. The Public Enemy [1941]--I’d see again and again. So I think the 1930s in particular were my original fixation.

And then, I think as I got a little older, between 9 and 11, noir ... it’s a little bit more sophisticated, I was able to appreciate it more, beyond the beautiful gowns. So I came to the films--Double Indemnity [1944] and all that--but I was not reading crime fiction at that time. I was reading true crime a lot, and that, I think, was my way into late ’40s Los Angeles--because there was so much bizarre crime at that time and place, and because it touched on Hollywood, and I was so fascinated by Hollywood. It all sort of had this crucible there. I kept on going back to it.

And then in my early teens I found Ellroy, so it was the perfect example there. But I didn’t really read the classic hard-boiled noir fiction until I was in graduate school, much later.

BML: Where did you go to grad school?

MA: At NYU. I don’t know why it took me so long. Partially, I think it was because I was reading a lot of canonical fiction, which I love too, but you get bored with it. How many times can you talk about Virginia Woolf before you want to kill yourself?

I think finding the books was a way back into that childhood in some way. Not in a nostalgic way, or a kid way; but you know how you know something when you’re 5 or 6, and then you forget? Some of us forget it forever--I’m sure lots of us have forgotten it forever--but somehow those books reminded of the sort of primal stuff that makes us read fairy tales. That sort of primal stuff was reanimated when I found [James M.] Cain, and [Raymond] Chandler, and [Horace] McCoy, and Jim Thompson. And that led to me write my first novel [Die a Little].

BML: It’s interesting that you talk about the books as a gateway to your childhood, because a lot of your work deals with a narrator who’s looking back, including The End of Everything. But I’m also interested in your background with true crime. Was there a particular case you fixated on, or a book that you read?

MA: At first it was Hollywood Babylon, because it was so lurid, and there were pictures, and they were awful! And then, I especially focused on the Black Dahlia case, long before I found Ellroy, though [his 1987 novel, The Black Dahlia] certainly took it to a whole other level, when I read that. There were others, too--all those dying starlets. The murdered starlet narrative always appealed to me.

Some more recent ones ... I wrote recently in my blog about [Joe McGinniss’] Fatal Vision--that was huge for me, I read that many times, I was so fascinated by it. And then a lot of the Ann Rule books, in her heyday, especially the ones about murderous women. Either murderous women or women who were abused--I don’t know why I was fascinated by them, but I was.

BML: Were there any other fiction titles that meant a lot to you?

MA: I read a lot of classic literature, I was a big [F. Scott] Fitzgerald fan. I was very entranced by his personal [story]. I read a lot of biographies of writers, not at 8 or 9, but certainly at 10 or 11. A lot of biographies, in general. I was obsessed with the Kennedys, and the Kennedy assassination, and the Kennedys in general. Always a lot of non-fiction, too, probably because of my dad. All over the map, really. Because we were a big book household, it was just a matter of me pulling books off the shelf. I was a big [J.D.] Salinger/Franny and Zooey fan.

We didn’t have a sense of genre in my household, everybody read everything. It wasn’t until I got to college that I sort of felt certain books were “literature” and certain ones not.

BML: A lot of your work really reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates. Was she a great influence on you?

MA: Yeah, I should have mentioned her ... but I read her more as a teenager. I read her obsessively though my teens and early 20s. I still read her. My first book I started right after I read Blonde [2000], which had a huge impact on me. And there’s something about, you know, My Heart Laid Bare [1998]--there’s something so emotional about it. I think for a while, studying canonical literature, especially high-modernism or post-modernism, there’s a sense that you can’t write emotional stuff, and it was just a relief to see that you could. I read a lot of John Irving at the time for the same reason, and Richard Ford. There’s a freedom to kind of gut spilling ...

[Oates] is a huge influence, and it was a big thrill to be in the same anthology as her [L.A. Noire].

BML: What are you reading now? Who in the genre--or outside of it--do you really like? Who do you think is going to do great things?

MA: I really like Gillian Flynn [Dark Places] ... she has the same true-crime book obsession. We’ve been swapping books, and she and I were also talking about the “stranger danger” stuff, and I love her. And obviously Sara Gran [Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead]; I was a fan of hers before I was her friend. ... I’m really excited about her. Tana French [Faithful Place] is obviously huge, but she does write big books, meaty books, male characters, female characters. She doesn’t follow any “this you can do, this you can’t do.” ...

I love a lot of Southern fiction. I love William Gay, Jack Penn Darvis, and he’s more crime, but Ace Atkins ... I’m a big fan of William Kennedy and Ace ... really that blend of crime and historical fiction.

BML: What’s your process like? Do you get up and write every morning, or do you prefer working at night?

MA: I write in the morning best, I have to write first thing. I work three days a week at my office, and four days a week I write, so I’m part-time. On those days, I have to do nothing but write, because I’m a really slow writer and I write in bursts, and then I have to take a break. I’m a really inefficient writer. I have to get in the head of it--so if I have anything I could be doing, if I had like a meeting at noon, I will not be writing then. So I sort of have to have a trance-like state.

BML: When you write in bursts, how much do you write at a time?

MA: Five or 10 pages would be good. Honestly, when I think how slow it is, it’s amazing I finish anything. But this one that’s coming out next summer [about the relationship between a cheerleading coach and her students], I wrote mostly in a year. ...

BML: Once you have a first draft, what’s your rewrite process like? You said you do it line-by-line; is that line-by-line at the same time as you move forward?

MA: I do it as I go, and at the end I read through it all. And then my agent--he was an editor for many years, and he was a brutal, brutal, Max Perkins-style editor--I do a really, really hard rewrite for him. ... So it goes through many versions, and each time I think that ... it’s in danger of rigidifying. ... It’s always scary to me, I hate revising. I’m not a natural reviser. I very much concede that it needs to be revised, but I’m very scared to revise.

BML: Your work, especially a lot of your short stories, deal with celebrity and things like that, but usually people on the periphery of celebrity, like in The Song Is You (2007). How do you decide what interests you? Is it about the particular celebrity? For example, what was it about the 1978 murder of actor Bob Crane--the focus of your story in Phoenix Noir (2009)--that made you go, “I’d like to write a story about that”?

MA: There’s a particular kind of book [that attracts me]--and Ellroy does this too, and Robert Graysmith [who wrote Auto Focus: The Murder of Bob Crane] ... It’s not really procedural, but it feels procedural, because there are cops driving around endlessly ... What it is, is you see them interviewing all these sort of what the cops would call “bottom feeders,” people that were on the fringes, that want in, but you can totally see that they’re not in, or they were in and they’re never going to get back in. And the sort of way that their lives dissolve and fragment, and the way they sort of drift through life and they’ve been wrecked by their past. ... I found this [same sense] in Graysmith’s Zodiac, which I also became fixated with. ...

I did not read the book [Zodiac] until after I saw the movie, and I loved the movie. Then I read Graysmith’s book about [Northern California’s Zodiac Killer] ... [And] there’s this sense when you read Ellroy or Graysmith that it doesn’t matter who did it, because any one of these people could have done it. Not because they’re all terrible, but because their lives are so sad. They’ve been so forgotten and the women are so abused, the men have such rage, etc. And these narratives sort of open up within the [principal] narrative ... It’s like reading a hundred narratives in another narrative. And with both Ellroy and Graysmith, you’re not reading about these people, but about their fixation with these people. And it’s that double lens that I’ve always loved.

Graysmith has no control over his own book. You get the sense that he sets out with a plan, and then his obsession just takes hold. And that’s certainly true of Ellroy as well.

BML: Which is one of the great things about the movie [Zodiac].

MA: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And that sort of refusal to resolve. I think it is the best film noir in the last 50 years--the essence of it, and the way that noir doesn’t have to be trapped in time. One of the reasons I think ... Bob Crane is interesting is that I think the ’70s are great noir terrain--the sense of things falling apart, and all the rules changing, and the sexual revolution, and everyone’s so adrift. ... It’s so sad.

BML: It is. And there’s a real sadness to your strories that just breaks my heart. I’d say you have two tracks running through your work: The period pieces from the ’40s onward, and then stories a lot like The End of Everything--a narrator reflecting back on something that happened in his or her childhood, like “Hollywood Lanes,” which appeared in the collection Queens Noir [2008], or “Cheer,” which I thought was a real departure for you. How did that latter story come about?

MA: There was this true-crime case; this is funny, and I’ll tell you at the end, you’ll be surprised. I think it was in North Carolina and South Carolina, [the case] of this cheerleading coach who was having an affair with a National Guard recruiter at the school, and so she was bringing these cheerleaders to these parties, and they got in a lot of trouble. There was no crime or anything--it just fascinated me because of her abuse of her power. And [the coach is] obviously unhappy in her marriage, with her kid, and testing limits; and teenagers are always testing limits, how dark is dark, where am I gonna go?

I just found ... God, you know that demented teacher-student relationship, like Queenpin, [it] just always interested me. So the story came from that, but is by far the most unusual to me. ... It’s a really nasty story.

The funny part is, [“Cheers”] was the first contemporary story I’ve written, and one of the characters the least like me I’ve written--I was not a cheerleader--but my next book is based on that story. Though it’s completely different, it’s about cheerleaders and a coach. The tone is entirely different, but there was some element of that I thought, “Well, if you told this a different way, the story would be really sad and complicated.” And then it changed quite a bit through the writing of it.

But sometimes, you get these ideas, and you think you’re done with them, and then they come back. You get a “do-over” or something. I’ve always loved authors that like all their characters. I always wanted to be that kind of author. There are a lot of authors where you feel like they don’t like anybody, and I’ve always loved the ones where they kind of like everybody, and it’s really hard for them, even if they’re doing terrible things. So I started to think about “What if I liked this girl? What if I liked this coach?”

BML: One of the things I think makes you unique is that there are a lot of male writers writing about women or interesting women, or there are great female noir writers, many of whom appeared in the collection that you edited, 2007’s A Hell of a Woman. I think what sets you apart is that you’re not afraid to go to some of the darker places that, say, an Ellroy would go to. Has there ever been a time when you’ve written something that you thought was too dark, or too edgy?

MA: Yeah, occasionally I’ll scale it back.

BML: The story you wrote for L.A. Noire--I was quite surprised at how intense it was and the kind of places it went to.

MA: I had the same issue, the same thing with that, that I had with The Song Is You, where they’re sort of like these fairy tales ... you build it up so much that you realize ... you’ve sort of committed to something and there’s no turning back. So you have to have something, like in the fairy tales or the journey tales, where the destination, the thing at the end, has to match the terrors along the way, and even more than that. So sometimes I write myself into a corner.

I think the only time I’ve ever scaled back was for a different reason, which is in my book Bury Me Deep [2009]. There are some sex scenes, and the main character is so prim, and so prissy--she’s not really, but she fancies herself to be that way. But I realized [that] even though it’s not first-person, it’s really her consciousness, [and] she would never actually tell us this, so I ... was not being true to her. She would be more covert in the way ... [the story was] conveyed, and I think the scenes work better for [my changing their presentation], because it’s much more suggestive. I don’t mean that suggestive is always better, but in that case, it suited the character.

So I guess in something like the L.A. Noire story or The Song Is You, these are very jaded characters, and so I feel like I have to be true to their jadedness. And they both wish they could be better people, which is always a character I’m drawn to. So I guess it’s trying to match the characters to the places they would go.

The End of Everything--that was an issue too. Less so than with the Evie story than with Lizzie--there was an issue with that, with young girls ... You have to be true to what they would understand and actually do.

Violence-wise, I know in Queenpin I have a really violent scene, but to me, that book is sort of--I wouldn’t say pastiche ... but it’s a book about noir. So I felt like, it’s not supposed to be realistic. I don’t say when it’s set, so I felt freer to be a little more baroque.

BML: Has there ever been any criticism of your work for being too explicit or too graphic? I think that again, with Ellroy, one of the hallmarks of his early stuff is that he’s got this really intense collision between the psychological and the sexual, which especially in something like Queenpin or The Song Is You is something that you see as a theme. I guess what I’m asking is, as a woman, has anyone said, “You shouldn’t be writing this?” Do you feel like, in general, in the industry, men can kind of get away with that but women can’t?

MA: I think there are probably a couple of answers to that. I think in publishing I haven’t experienced that, and among people who read crime I’ve not experienced that. But ... Christa [Faust] [Choke Hold] and I are always stuck on these [convention] panels ... that start with: “Why do you write such dark stuff?” And no one ever has asked a man that ever, I guarantee it. And we have had to answer it a thousand times. Really, the implication is “What’s wrong with you?”

The other issue, a little bit, might be packaging. Because I’ve had some arguments with people about this. I think sometimes, and I know this as a woman reader, I see a book packaged a certain way, and I don’t understand that it could be for me. I’m told by the cover it’s not for me, whereas if I were not to see the cover, and read it ...

I think that can be a problem. It’s hard to have a noir cover that works for men and women who don’t just read noir. There’s something about it ... Many women at libraries, you know, these great older women [say]: “I didn’t think I’d read your book, it looked like Mickey Spillane or something” ... and they’d be surprised the book was actually about a woman, and they liked the book. But they didn’t think it was for them, based on the cover.

BML: I love those Richie Fahey covers for your first four novels, but I can see how if you spotted them in the store, they wouldn’t be quite as accessible.

MA: I would be like “give me all of them,” because I love those covers! But for so many years, those covers meant “these are books for men,” and that’s been hard to leave behind. One of the concerns with my first novel [Die a Little] is that I was worried, because at that time, every woman who wrote a book, they were putting a pink shoe on the cover. Thankfully, that was never an issue for me, but I thought, “Oh no, what if I get one of those pink shoe covers? No man will ever pick up this book.” So I think that covers are surprisingly important.

BML: Would you consider yourself a feminist writer? A lot of your work deals with themes about what it means to be a woman, like Queenpin or Die a Little. Would you say it’s a fair assessment that you want to continue to write about women, or themes like that?

MA: I am a feminist, but I don’t consider myself a “feminist writer.” Only because I don’t think in those terms: “There need to be more female gangsters.” Especially with something like Queenpin, I thought, “Whoa, this is exciting, I haven’t seen this before, wouldn’t it be fun to do this?” I don’t think strategically.

I actually almost think I could be offended as a feminist by some of the stuff in my books. It’s a different part of my head, and I don’t always practice what I preach. I think the women in my books are more complicit than I’d like to believe as a feminist, or something.

BML: You mentioned that you had an obsession with the Kennedys, and that Ellroy has been a big influence on you. And he’s written this epic “Underworld USA Trilogy,” while you’re known for these shorter, get in/get out novels that leave an impact. Do you ever think you could write something large and sprawling at any point in your career?

MA: I would love to, but I honestly have no idea how. ... It’s mystifying how one does that. ... I wish I had masculine bravado that said, “I can make a canvas this large.” ... I have no world in my head large enough for that, and I also get tired of things quickly.

But more than that--and maybe this will change someday--but to me the quality, the reason I like to write, are confessionals, and it feels by nature like it has to be urgent. You need urgency, and you can’t stretch an urgent thing out that long.

But it would be great to try. You know, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish a whole book set in the present, and I just did--the cheerleading one is actually set now. It even has text messages! It’s good to try, but [Ellroy’s] books are to me, I think, staggering ... to have characters recur across decades ... I don’t think my books have taken place over more than three weeks!

(Part I of this interview can be found here. The author would like to thank Miriam Parker at Mulholland Books for helping to arrange his conversation with Megan Abbott.)

1 comment:

Óscar Palmer said...

Great interview! Megan Abbott deserves a much broader audience. Here's hoping she gets it at last with The End of Everything. Cheers.