Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Interview with Megan Abbott

I'm doing a piece on great American crime writer Megan Abbott for the magazine of the Finnish Whodunit Society. Here's an interview I made with Megan via e-mail. It starts without any introduction, so you better check Megan's website. She's a wonderful writer. I do hope someone in Finland picks her up (no pun intended). 

You've written five novels that could all be labeled as noir. What draws you to noir?

With the exception of Queenpin, I don’t really think about ”noir” or even genre when I set out to write a book. What draws me to a story idea is a character under pressure. What will he or she do, in the face of circumstances out of their control? Or faced with a desires they cannot restrain? Or to keep a secret they fear escaping? Those situations always fascinate me. I guess human nature, its lightness, darkness and murkiness will always be my draw.
How do you define noir? How do your novels fit your own description?
I don’t think I’ve ever found a definition that works for more than one person. It’s so subjective. I’m happy to have anyone consider any of my novels ”noir,” or not, but those are terms that feel constricting when I’m actually writing. If I thought like that, I think the process would feel artificial, formulaic”this is what should happen next”rather than organic, springing from the characters.

Did you start writing at early age?
No, but I was a booklover my whole life, from a family of booklovers. I think the writing eventually became the natural outgrowth of that, of wanting to write myself into the world of the books I loved.
Your crime novels are at times without crime, there are only few murders in them. Especially THE END OF EVERYTHING was interesting in this aspect. Are you moving away from being a crime novelist? Will there someday be a mainstream novel from you? Or is this definition something you're not interested in?
I think if there’s a throughline in my books it’s that a crime occurs (a character under pressure seems to lead to crime) and the story beats are driven by that crime. Crime fiction is about as ”mainstream” as one can get in the U.S., if you’re talking about popularity/readership, but I’ve never thought of my career  in those terms. I guess I just write the story that comes next. Usually the seed for the next one lies in the prior one.
Your doctoral thesis was about men in original film noirs, but your novels are almost exclusively about women. Why do you find men interesting, but don't write about them? (Or does this question belong to the category "male writers are never asked this question"?)
I admit, I’ve never heard a male writer asked that question! To me, I write about men in all my books and I can’t imagine otherwise! Foremost in The Song Is You and The End of Everything and in my next novel, but I consider them just as central to the story as the women.  Gender and power and desire interest me very much.
Your first crime novels were set in the past, mainly in the era of the original film noirs. The books never felt they were only pastiche, how did you manage this?
I’m glad I did! I guess it’s two things. Pastiche means you risk writing character ”types” rather than characters so I’ve  always tried very hard to make all my characters feel authentic. Second, growing up with a love for midcentury America, research is key for me. When I’m doing research, I’m really looking for the odd piece…the piece of slang you’ve never heard. The phrase you never see anymore. I’m more fixated on the idiosyncratic.I want to build out the worlds in which my books take place so they feel both authentic and unfamiliar. I want the reader to feel they have slipped into the past and can feel, taste, smell it.

What's especially interesting to you about the fifties' and sixties' Hollywood and its seedy underlife? And why?
I grew up on movies from the 30s-50s, so they were my fairy tales. And I think we always return to our foundational fairy tales. They are the stories that form us, in some way. I never tire of reading about that world. 
THE SONG IS YOU deals with similar matters as Ellroy's THE BLACK DAHLIA and is also based on a true story. How did you approach the story?
Several years ago, I saw a reference to Jean Spangler as one of Hollywood’s unsolved missing person cases and there was just so much there: An aspiring actress, gone missing. Rumors of gangster boyfriends and dates with movie stars. Then, one day, just vanished. I tracked down one of her movies: The Miracle of the Bells. She’s on screen for just a few seconds. She’s witnessing the “miracle” of the title and she has this terrified look on her face. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Utterly haunting. I began to imagine her life. And that made me think about how a missing person becomes this empty vessel for everyone else to fill with their own desires, fears, anger, guilt. The characters in the noel turn her into this blank slate on which all they can etch anything, everything. And precisely what they etch tells us so much about them, their disappointments and dreams, the way they view love, romance, death, themselves.

One point I noticed in QUEENPIN is that you don't use the usual trademarks of a historical novel, the music, the books, the trademarks etc. of the era. You described the whole era only through the language and style. How did you manage this and was it deliberate on your account?
It was deliberate. I wanted that book to take place not in any real world but the world of the B-movies I loved, particularly the crime films of 1950s and early 60s, films like The Killing and Kiss Me Deadly, when it’s less romantic, when it’s harder, tougher, leaner. And because they were B movies, the sets were spare, everything was spare. For me, it was all about human drives.
Even though DARE ME is set in the present day, it still seems as it's set in the past, i.e. in the teenager years of these girls? Is this something you've set out to do and not only my imagination? [This was my bad, I meant THE END OF EVERYTHING, not DARE ME, which obviously is set in the present day.]
Mmm. No, it ’s meant to be set in the present day. It’s a world of Facebook, texting, YouTubevery much the world of now. Though I think the particular experience the novel recounts is over for Addy, so perhaps that’s why it feels that way to you?
You seem to find youth fascinating - the time between being innocent and the time being experienced and knowing. What draws you to youth?
I think it's the bigness of it. It’s all sex and terror and longing and chaos. Everything feels urgent and frightening and thrilling. The stakes feel unbearably high and everything feels precarious—it’s a time of heightened everything. And a time when you can't control yourself, stop yourself.

And, while I. don’t think that’s solely an experience of youth, the passage from innocence to experience is an abiding fascination for meAnd I think we go through it again and again. It’s what makes us human, the desire to believe in something, someone, again and again. Our hearts may close temporarily, or thicken with scars, but ultimately we open them again.

And what about the fascination that young girls feel toward dangerous situations and dangerous men, someone might say it's something female writers don't normally touch upon?  
I think that comes with the crime fiction terrain. You could argue all crime fiction is about our attraction to danger, its lure, including the dangers in our own desires. It’s primal and goes across genders. All desire is dangerous in some way. You make yourself vulnerable.
How did you end up writing a novel about cheerleaders? How did you do the research? Have you ever done any cheerleading yourself?
No, I was never a cheerleader, but in my last book, The End of Everything, one of the characters was a high school field hockey star. I started watching girls play and was struck by their ferocity on the field. Their aggression but also the wild abandon they brought to it. That led me to cheerleading, which is the most dangerous sport for girls in the U.S.. Watching squads compete, I was fascinated by the girls’ willingness not only push themselves but to take tremendous, terrifying risks. I started thinking about it as this terrain to explore friendship, rivalries, power, ambition. Adolescent girls feel things so powerfully and when the stakes are raised, as they are in this kind of sport, the possibilities for trouble are pretty immense.

I recall reading on Facebook that you were negotiating a movie deal on DARE ME. What's the status on that?
It’s been optioned by Fox, with me ”attached” to write the screenplay. Pretty excitingfngers crossed!
What are you working on now?
I’m tackling the screenplay for Dare Me. It’s a weird process, like taking a chainsaw to your home and building something from the ground-up. And also at work on my next novel. It’s called The Fever and it’s about a s about a family reckoning with a mysterious outbreak in small town.
Who are you reading at the moment?
A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley by Neal Thompson.

Who are the writers that have influenced you most?
A pretty wide rangea lot of voices in my head at any given moment. From Chandler and Cain and Ellroy to Fitzgerald, Plath, Joyce Carol Oates. In more recent years, Daniel Woodrell would probably be tops for me.
It would be nice to have you visit Finland and get your books published in here, have you had any requests from here?
I don’t know, but I hope to be one dayI’d love to visit!

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