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Interview: Megan Abbott, author of The End of Everything

July 1, 2011

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott‘s first four novels — Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin, and Bury Me Deep — established her as a noir master. Her debut, Die a Little, earned an Edgar Award nomination, and her third novel,Queenpin, took home the prize for Best Paperback Original. Bury Me Deep — inspired by the notorious “Trunk Murderess” scandal of 1931 — was nominated for a slew of honors, including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry Awards, the Hammett Prize, and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Set from from the 1930s through the ’60s and mostly in Los Angeles, these books revisited familiar times, territory and themes (they’re fully steeped in sin), but Abbott also reinvigorated some standard tropes, particularly because of her focus on female protagonists and perspectives. (It’s perhaps worth noting  that before publishing her first novel, Abbott turned her PhD dissertation into a provocative book-length study of gender stereotypes within the genre: The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir.)

With her new book, however, Abbott has made a seemingly sharp turn. The End of Everything shifts to a more recent era — the 1980s — and a suburban Midwestern milieu, and the book’s narrator, Lizzie Hood, is only 13 years old. But darkness waits on the edges of her young life, and when her neighbor and best friend, Evie Verver, disappears, Lizzie becomes a key component of the investigation — and ultimately finds herself at the heart of mysteries even more profound than simply discovering where Evie went.

On the eve of the book’s publication, Abbott indulged a few questions about The End of Everything.

Art Taylor: After your first four novels, what were the challenges you faced — or the benefits you found — in setting this new book in a more recent time and in a suburban setting?

Megan Abbott: It was very scary at first. I didn’t know if I could adapt my style — which is so influenced by crime fiction and film noir from the midcentury, that heightened style, that glamorous milieu — to this new setting and time period. But I felt I had to try it, to knock myself out of possible ruts. And this particular story had been knocking around my head for more than ten years.

A big help in the transition was the fact that my narrator is 13 years old. As I wrote, I just had this revelation that, for most 13-year-old girls, life is “noir.” It’s all sex and terror and longing and confusion. Everything feels big and frightening and thrilling. The stakes feel dramatically high and everything feels precarious — it’s a time of heightened everything. That enabled me to see the suburbs too — a place I grew up, thus rendering it mundane to me for so many years — as a much more exotic place, a place of secrets, mystery, enchantment, darkness. And to draw on my own experience for the first time, which I hadn’t really done before.

Your blog, The Abbott Gran Medicine Show, recently hosted a series of posts about Young Adult authors from the past, and you specifically talked about Lois Duncan and (more briefly) V.C. Andrews. Where specifically did you feel the influence of these or other such writers on your book here? And would you, in fact, call The End of Everything a YA book yourself, given the narrator’s age and then her coming of age here?

Discovering those books as a young girl was like permission to like dark things, complications, to uncover what felt like the big secrets of life. Those books depicted worlds that felt like the worlds in my head. V.C. Andrews’s books were like a license to stir up your own deepest obsessions and fixations and writ them large. By contrast, Lois Duncan’s showed “regular girls,” suburban girls, but the stories that unfolded felt so bold and seemed to speak volumes to the dual nature of American girls, required to be dutiful, respectful, “good,” and yet dying to be willful, express rage, desire things. I don’t really know what defines a YA book and I guess I try not to think in those terms — genre and market divisions. Stories are stories and you can’t guess who will respond to what and why. That said, the book is written in retrospect so it’s also both told from a 13 year old’s viewpoint but also from the viewpoint of the same character years later, her memory of being 13. Sort of telescopic that way. Which I think is sort of always the case when we read — we’re always reading so many ways at once.

The disappearance of a child — particularly a young girl — has made for gripping (and far too frequent) headlines, and that storyline also played a significant role in quite a few great books, including Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, Laura Lippman’s What The Dead Know, and Tana French’s In the Woods, among others. But in the Washington Post recently, critic Maureen Corrigan wrote that she personally dreaded reading “yet another suspense story about vanished children. If it’s possible for a subject to be, at once, horrifying and humdrum, this is the one. Why this ongoing obsession in fiction with disappearing children?” Were you at all apprehensive about embarking on what some might call “yet another story” on this subject? And what specific steps did you take to add something new and different to this subject?

I guess I don’t consider The End of Everything to be a book about a missing child. Nor would I say that of the other books (Lehane, Lippman, French) you mention. I know sometimes I get tired of certain premises when I’ve read too many in a row that I didn’t connect with. You feel instead like you’re seeing only the old ropes and pulleys because there’s noting else reaching out to you. The goal always to reach across the page. Once upon a time, you might say you’re of reading about private investigators, then you read one of Reed Farrel Coleman’s mournful, atmospheric Moe Praeger novels and you realize it’s not the PI novels you were weary of, it’s stories that don’t seize you, or that you feel didn’t seize the writer. Because whether it’s a PI tale, or a novel about a heist, the saga of a doomed marriage — those are all just circumstances. The novel lives and breathes on character, voice, the connection to the reader.  Our connection to it.

Of course, I don’t think about any of that when I’m writing! It’s very unthoughtful. To me, the inspiration for The End of Everything was this longing most of us have at one point to gain entry into another family, one that seems to offer everything ours lacks, and the intoxicating power these families can have, from the outside. And about early adolescent yearning, being on the cusp, being so eager to push yourself into a world but then having to deal with the dark matter that comes with it. And too the intense nature of pre-adolescent female friendships, which I think are fascinating, complicated and can have a lifelong impact. You never have friendships quite like that again. Their intensity is the intensity of that age, that moment, caught.

It’s been said that one of the differences in genre fiction and literary fiction is that that in the former, the action takes place in the story, while in the latter, the action takes place in the language. I don’t want to get into that genre vs. literary discussion (I really don’t), but at the same time, The End of Everything seems to strike a very nice balance between a forward-moving plot (and a couple of fine twists!) and a rich style, with an attention to words and phrases and rhythms and an emphasis on imagery, all of it capturing moments, memories, emotional states and just that sense of being a 13-year-old girl. As you write, do you find yourself more interested in plotting and action or in the language itself? Or consciously do you work to achieve that balance — of immersing the reader in the experience of a moment while keeping the plot pushing ahead?

Thank you! Plot is especially important to me because it doesn’t come as naturally to me. But as a reader, I like an arc, I like direction. I like a propulsive quality, even if the propulsion is emotional more than event focused. So I try to remember that when I write, to keep me away from my bad habits.

And my favorite kinds of books tend to be “whispers in the ear” and rather urgent, so that helps me push the plot forward. But it’s hard for me to separate out these elements because I don’t think too much about them when I’m writing. It sounds crazy to say so, but it’s almost like a “possession” once I get (or feel like I get!) the main character. She tells me how she wants to speak, feel, act. The rhythms are hers. The rest comes in revision, of course! And it’s a tricky process for me — I always feel dangerously close to sinking too far back into the center of the book and not being able to do some of that more surgical work. It’s during these edits that I have to work on achieving the balance — especially pace — which is not nearly as much fun as being possessed, alas!

— Interviewed by Art Taylor

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