Q&A with Megan Abbott


When was your first book published and what were you doing before you were a writer?
It was 2005, and I was teaching literature at a university at the time. My whole world has always been books, so I’d talk with students about books all day and try to write my way into that world during the evening. I told myself it was a hobby, but eventually it took over everything.

Who or what has influenced your style of writing?
My first books derived from an abiding love for film noir of the 1940s and 50s and the books that inspired them: Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Place, The Big Sleep. Another big inspiration is my love of gothic fiction (Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, all the way up to Donna Tartt) and the Southern gothic tradition is also a big influence. Mood, heightened feeling, intensity—those qualities just draw me in hopelessly.

How do you get yourself started on a book?
For me, it always starts with a character voice. Often, I have a premise, even a plot, but if I can’t find the voice of my main character, it never comes to life. And I can never guess what will set a character to life for me. For Dare Me, it was a picture of a girl, her face streaked with glitter, a ferocious look in her eye. I kept my eye on that image the whole time.

How much research do you have to do, which are the most difficult types of scenes to research and have you ever had to go to extreme or unusual lengths to research a scene?
I’m a compulsive researcher. With Dare Me, I knew nothing about the sport of cheerleading so I needed to study the mechanics of the stunts, the rigors, the bodily risk. And it turned out that, far better than observing cheerleading in person, where stunts unfold so quickly, I relied most heavily on YouTube, which enabled me to see cheerleaders during practice where you get a closer view not only of the sport but also the squad dynamics, the intensity. But the most important research I did was going online to ‘eavesdrop’ in cheerleader chatrooms and message boards. There, I found cheerleaders talking to each other in ways they would never talk to an ‘outsider’ like me. It was there that I learned their almost warrior-like devotion to their sport, which drove the book.

What do you do when you are not writing?
I’m a movie lover and probably always will be. Apparently, I require “story” all the time. On the TV show Mad Men, the main character, Don Draper, always sneaks off to matinees when he’s blocked creatively. Seeing that gave me permission to do so and now it’s a secret vice.

Who’s your favourite literary character (or antihero) and why?
Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Philip Marlowe—for his humour, his sense of honour and for his battered heart.

Are you a keen reader of crime fiction? Who is your favourite crime author?
Yes, indeed, and I have a hundred favorites. To name a few of the ones whose books I absolutely must buy the first day it comes out, include James Ellroy, Kate Atkinson, Daniel Woodrell.

If you were recommending your book to a friend – how would you describe it?
I think I’d probably steal from one of the first lines of the book: “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”

Which of your characters did you most enjoy writing?
Usually the ‘baddies’. I don’t really think of any of my characters as villains, but often when I have an antagonist (let’s call it that), like Beth in Dare Me, I usually end up falling in love with him or her. As a result, the character changes and, hopefully, becomes more complex and sympathetic.

What would you like readers to take away from the experience of reading your novel?
As a reader, I respond most strongly to books that feel like a ‘whisper in the ear,’ that draw you close and hold on. That kind of special narrator-reader intimacy. So if a reader of my book comes away with that feeling, I’d be thrilled.

What’s the most outlandish idea you’ve ever had for a storyline and has it made it into one of your books?
To marry the plot machinations of Richard III to a high school cheerleading squad. And one way or another it became Dare Me. I threw myself in blindly, which is the only way.

What are you currently working on?
I just finished my next book, The Fever, about a mysterious outbreak among young women in a small town and the screenplay for Dare Me.

Author photo: Drew Reilly