Monday, August 15, 2011

Abbott’s Grim Fairy Tales, Part I

With Megan Abbott’s new novel, The End of Everything (reviewed here), receiving high praise from authors such as Tom Perrotta (Little Children) and earning prominent coverage in Time magazine and elsewhere, it seems as if the “mainstream” has finally discovered what fans of crime fiction have known for a while: Abbott is one of the brightest talents in this genre. And the delayed recognition of that is OK, because The End of Everything, her fourth novel, might be her best work yet--an excellent introduction to her distinctive brand of storytelling.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Abbott for a long, detailed conversation about her work, her literary influences, and her obsession not only with crime fiction, but with true crime. The results of our conversation will be posted in The Rap Sheet in two installments. In today’s first part, we discuss The End of Everything, including the hometown encounter that gave Abbott her inspiration for this dark fairy tale of teenage suburbia.

Brendan M. Leonard: With The End of Everything, was there ever any discussion of targeting it to a young adult audience? Because it does have a young adult narrator, and there’s a lot of talk about how novels that might not have been considered YA in the past would go in the YA section if they were published today, because the content’s gotten so extreme.

Megan Abbott: I’m not sure what the publisher has done, though ... I think they’ve been treating it rather fluidly. I mean, there’s things in the book that I would ... you always read a little bit up, so if the narrator’s 13, when you’re 10, you want to read a book about 13 year olds. And that would be--because of some of the things in the book--alarming to me.

But, that said, I was reading V.C. Andrews at that age, and those [books] are far more lurid than anything I could ever write. So I do think those lines are almost impossible to judge anymore, and YA’s just been blown wide open, and people are doing all kinds of things with it. I think the cheerleading book [Abbott’s next novel--to be discussed in Part II of this interview--will be about the relationship between a cheerleading coach and her students], similarly ... I wouldn’t have read about cheerleaders when I was in high school, but I do think all those lines are breaking apart, which is good, and especially exciting, because YA is such a big, booming industry right now. Who said young people don’t read?

BML: You now live in the New York City borough of Queens. But didn’t you grow up in the Detroit, Michigan, area? Were you born there?

MA: I was, yeah. I was born in Grosse Pointe, and especially The End of Everything is really based on my sense memory of my town--the lake, and being close to Canada, and this really Midwestern suburb. ... I just hated my hometown, I wanted to leave so badly, and all that stuff. But writing that story let me ... think of it in sort of a more romantic way, in that sort of yearning need way, and I think that definitely led to The End of Everything. I’m sure it did, because it let me recast it in a way that didn’t seem pedestrian.

It would be really hard for me to write about New York, or Queens. I cannot imagine doing it.

BML: You did write about Queens in “Hollywood Lanes,” a story you contributed to the collection Queens Noir [2008]. But even that seemed like it was a period piece.

MA: I did, yeah ... [That story] is set in the 1970s, and was sort of based on a combination of friends I had, who grew up there and their memory of it in the ’70s. So it was more about their story about this bowling alley.

BML: One of the things I really enjoyed about The End of Everything is I thought, even though your book is set a little bit earlier than the late 1980s and early ’90s, you captured the whole idea of “stranger danger,” or looking over your shoulder in the way that The Lovely Bones couldn’t get into, because this is set a little bit later. You evoke Polly Klass and things like that. Were those just things you remember growing up, that kind of fear being omnipresent?

MA: I do. I remember ... there was a post-traumatic change, starting with the Adam [Walsh] case in Florida. ... I remember there being a sudden panic about it, and I remember in my hometown, there was this crazy thing, where at school, they gave everyone these signs, and I don’t remember why it was the letter E--maybe it wasn’t the letter E, but that’s my memory--in red, and you’d put it in your front window, and that was supposed to tell children that this was a safe house. If someone was following you, you’d run to that house. Even then, I remember thinking it was the craziest thing in the world, because if I wanted to kidnap a child, what would I do? I’d put a big sign in my window!

But I remember this sort of palpable (even though I lived a half-block from my school) sense of danger, that didn’t feel natural, exactly, because there didn’t seem to be anything happening to anybody; but so much [was in] the zeitgeist.

And it wouldn’t be like now, with online predators--everything would be so different now. And with how careful we are, with AMBER alerts and everything. There was such a sense of ... if you grew up in the late ’70s/early ’80s, you were allowed to do whatever you wanted. It was a very permissive time for children. “Go ride your bike for five hours, and come back.” And then that suddenly ended, and so it was like, all of a sudden, all the cake had been taken away. And I remember being scared of things that I hadn’t been scared of before. You forget about those fears until you send yourself back in time this way.

BML: One of the things I like about your work is you can read it and every once in a while come across a phrase that seems like the perfect description. Does that come naturally, or do you do a lot of line-by-line rewriting to match the right adjective with the right noun?

MA: A lot of that is just getting in a rhythm. ... [T]o me it’s a sound thing with words, and sometimes I drive editors crazy because I’m making words up, because I’m really basing them on sound, not what it means--or it isn’t a word at all, or it’s a noun and you can’t really turn that into an adverb. But it’s really sonic to me. And the same with character names ... usually I’ll change the character’s name, especially the main character, four or five times. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through the book, because it’s a sound thing somehow. There’s a cadence or something. Maybe that’s why I write in bursts, because I can’t save it. Usually that’s so, and if I lose that, I feel like I’m torturing the words. [Then] I’ll usually read a writer that I love, to knock myself out.

BML: Who would you read in that case?

MA: For End of Everything it was a lot of Daniel Woodrell. First off, because there’s no actual connection to what I was writing ... but he plays with language so much, that he would sort of free me, and I’d think, “Wow, I’d like to do that.” [Joyce Carol Oates’] My Heart Laid Bare [1998] is good because it’d make me hear the language. ... Often, when I revise, I’m trying to rein that in, because I’ll still have word repetitions, which are often unbelievably annoying, because I realize I repeat things. Again, the sound thing, or OCD or something; I have to cut out the excessive repetition.

BML: I also noticed that with your style, especially with the pieces you’ve written about young women, you’ve used a lot of run-on sentences. Does there come a part when writing those that you know where to stop? Do you have to tell yourself to stop and create a new sentence, or can it just all come out, as you’ve said, in a burst?

MA: They will come out in a burst, and sometimes, I’ll realize that I need to fix that because there’ll be too many in a row--[that was true] with the young girls, especially. Sort of the way young girls think, at least how I thought as a young girl ... there’s this sort of propulsive quality, that things are out of control. So that will sort of get in my head and I’ll actually have to scale that back too ... it’ll become hard to read and untangle, and you can never diagram it.

BML: It’s interesting to look at your work as a whole, and see the threads appear and reappear. For instance, you wrote the short story “Policy,” which became [2007’s] Queenpin, and now you’re doing another cheerleading story. Would you say that “Our Eyes Never Stopped Moving” [from 2007’s Detroit Noir] was the genesis for The End of Everything, even though you came up with the idea for End of Everything before [your 2005 novel, Die a Little]?

MA: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. That probably fed into End of Everything a lot, and a little bit the cheerleading one, because that was the first time I wrote about my hometown. And both The End of Everything and the cheerleading book are versions of my hometown.

BML: So what’s your process for coming up with the idea for a story? Do you get the idea and then let it germinate for a while? Do you outline? Do you break down what’s going to happen, step by step?

MA: I don’t outline or break anything down. It usually comes from ... almost always a real-life story that sticks with me, and it’s usually just a piece of the story. Like Bury Me Deep [2009]--this true crime always did interest me, but there was a particular element that did, the idea of these three desperate ... tubercular women stuck in this apartment together with all of this sexual energy, and something was going to happen. And somehow the picture of those three women in that room captivated me somehow, and I couldn’t let it go.

The End of Everything is unusual in that it wasn’t based on a true story, but was based on this weird experience I had. A few years ago, I was back in Grosse Pointe, and I went into this bar, and there was this man at the bar, you know, an older man, maybe 20 years older than me. And he said, “You ... you danced in my basement once.” And suddenly I felt like I was in a David Lynch movie!

But he was really warm, and I realized who he was: he was the father of one of my friends. And he was the greatest dad, and we loved him, and he was really handsome--he still was handsome. He once judged the talent contest that we had when I was 9 or 10, in the basement at a slumber party. And he had picked me to win, and I had never won anything, and I was not one of the girls that won talent contests. ...

And it was such a gift to me, because of course I remembered it--but he remembered it, too. You know, the sweetest thing. It was a very nice exchange, and it sort of made me think of the power of young girls who go wrestling with boys their own age, and this man that sort of represents a man to them, and how powerful that person could be.

And that’s the only thing I’ve ever written that came from my life, the only original kernel that came from my life.

(Part II of this interview is here.)

Author photo © 2009 by Mark Coggins. Used with permission.

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