— From the pages of FLL#35
Megan Abbott may feature young women as the protagonists in many of her novels, but in no way does she let that teenage focus limit her reading audience. Her books are smart and fascinating, exploring the psychology—often twisted and dark—of adolescence in an honest way that readers of all ages can appreciate. Abbott’s most recent novel, The Fever, (2014) delves into the sexually-charged hysteria that can so easily overcome even the quietest of suburban towns and high schools. And she writes it in a way that leaves the reader breathlessly turning the page. Fine Living Lancaster magazine spoke with Abbott about writing methods, noir fiction, and the future.
Fine Living Lancaster: Many of your novels feature adolescent women as the protagonists. Is there something about that time in a person’s life that you really connect with or that you are drawn to as a writer?
Megan Abbott: Everything is in such high relief at that age. All the big emotions of life seem to storm through us everyday. When I remember myself at that age, it was like my nerve endings were all exposed. The most thrilling and most awful period in one’s life, at the same time. It’s when you’re at your most curious (and, potentially, risk-taking) and also at your most vulnerable point—especially to disillusionment. All the great stuff of fiction, of course.
FLL: The Fever is currently being adapted as a series for MTV. What has that process been like for you? What else can you tell us about the upcoming series?
MA: I’m in the very early stages of writing the pilot script, so there’s not much to report yet, but I’m working with producer Karen Rosenfelt (Devil Wears Prada, The Book Thief) and Pretty Matches Productions, Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company, so I feel in good hands. I’ve adapted my work before (my prior novel, Dare Me), so I’ve been through some of the weirdness of it, but it’s exciting, for sure.
FLL: Who are some of your literary influences?
MA: Boy, there are so many, from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca to Wuthering Heights, from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely to Donna Tartt’s Secret History. Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor. I’ve always been a voracious reader across genres, and it’s hard to tell which writers have snuck their way into my writing and who haven’t. Probably they all have.
MA: Movies are a major influence on me. I grew up watching classic Hollywood cinema—Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, film noir, the great 50s melodramas. And, in more recent years, television—certainly Mad Men, The Wire, and Deadwood. I’m particularly inspired by shows or movies with an emphasis on psychology and with how power works, especially powerful women. I think they’ve all shaped my idea of the world as a complicated, emotionally rich place.
FLL: Your recent novels examine the role that a young woman’s developing sexuality can play in her life. As a topic that so many shy away from discussing in an honest way, why do you think this is such an important piece of your work?
MA: Probably for just that reason. It’s such a critical time in every woman’s life, and it has such a powerful impact on what’s to come—yet somehow, as a culture, we still seem eager to deny young women their sexual feelings. In some ways, exploring female teen sexuality from the inside (rather than, obsessively, the outside) is one of our last taboos. Both as a “former adolescent” and as an adult woman, I’m always looking for books that dramatize it with honesty, respect, nuance, and candor.
FLL: Teenage girls are often portrayed as frivolous or flighty, while you more often portray them as darker and more intense. Where does this come from in your writing? Why do you think it is an important characterization of young women in literature?
MA: I think it probably fits in with your last question. To a large degree, we’re also resistant to acknowledge and explore feelings of aggression, sadness, and anxiety in young women. It doesn’t suit this outdatedeven- before-it-began notion of the All-American Girl: perky, happy, easygoing. Not all young women have dark feelings, of course, but I’d bet nearly all do sometimes (it’s an inevitable part of adolescence, after all). And all of them have complicated, uncomfortable feelings, which are part of being human. And if we don’t talk about these feelings, we send the message that it’s shameful to have them.
This idea of teenage girls as silly, frivolous things just drives me to distraction. I think if we look at the popularity of YA fiction—which deals with quite a light-to-dark emotional and experiential terrain— that stereotype goes out the window!
FLL: You began your career by writing noir fiction. Have you always been interested in noir? How does your early work inform your more recent novels?
MA: Yes—in some ways my first love, since seeing Sunset Boulevard and The Big Sleep and all the other greats as a kid, and later finding Chandler, James M. Cain, Hammett. And it still plays a big part in my writing. Noir tales are always just brimming over with feeling, hunger, desire, guilt, shame. My last few books (The End of Everything, Dare Me and The Fever), which deal with adolescence, but also with the intricacies of family, turn out to fit right in with those feelings.
FLL: There has been a great deal of discussion on feminism in the media recently. Where do you think your work fits in?
MA: I think it’s an exciting time. Gender roles that seemed so entrenched even a decade ago seem to be breaking loose. The expectations (or limitations) of being a woman are changing. I don’t think in political or ideological terms when I write fiction—I think that makes for bad fiction, at least for me. But I’m really glad for how “complicated” or even “traditionally unlikeable” female characters are having a big moment in fiction and film. We all benefit from a richer palette.
FLL: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
MA: Still writing. Still banging my head on the keyboard. The rest, I can’t control, but that part I can.