Meet Your Heroes: Megan Abbott

I met Megan Abbott last year just after her book, THE FEVER, had won Best Hardcover Novel from the International Thriller Writers. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like, “Hi my name’s Ed Aymar although I write under the name E.A. Aymar, for some reason, that’s stupid, I’m stupid, and anyway I sent you an e-mail once about a Noir at the Bar in D.C. and you couldn’t make it and that’s okay anyway I’m a big fan and congratulations.”

I said all that in under three seconds.

But Abbott couldn’t have been nicer. She was warm and chatty, and all this despite the fact that she’d just won a gigantic award. If I ever win an ITW award, I’m going to walk into the banquet carrying the award like Moses holding one of the stone tablets. And I would absolutely refuse to acknowledge someone like me. Also I’m going to enter the banquet on a horse.

I’m glad Abbott sees the world differently.

If you’ve read one of her books, you know that worldview comes through. Abbott has the literary eye for small details that readers always remember (and writers envy), and an understanding of timing and pace that fans of crime fiction covet. Her characters are rarely on sturdy ground, never easily understood, and disquietingly realistic. Her next novel, YOU WILL KNOW ME, comes out on July 26, and early reviews have called it her best work to date. She’s absolutely one of my favorite writers (and likely your favorite writer’s favorite writer), and I’m excited to share the interview below:

Given that The Thrill Begins is a site primarily targeted to aspiring and debut writers, can you share the story of how you first got published? Aspiring writers, in particular, always find those stories so encouraging.

I sort of backed into writing a novel. I was trying to finish my dissertation on hardboiled fiction and film noir and began writing something that became my first novel as a way of having something else to rattle around in my head. But then I had no idea what to do with it when I had a completed draft. So I bought the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and just started querying. I got very lucky in that one of my first queries landed in the hands of a young agent looking for new authors. He didn’t take me on right away, but said if I revised and kept working on it, he’d be happy to look at it again. So I dove back in and spent a lot of time revising and he signed me and sold it—not right away and there were more revisions and some knuckle-biting moments, but it happened. I got lucky—nothing after that in my publishing life has been such a straight line!

What’s a typical day like for you?

I have to start in the morning, as early as possible. I write off and on until late afternoon. I have to be rigorous about it. I can’t meet anyone for lunch or have any mid-day distractions or I’ll never get back into it. It’s ridiculous, but if I break the spell, it’s just plain broken until the next day. It’s so much about being alone in one’s own head.

This is going to sound like one of those questions people ask just to sound smart, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you. Nelson Algren was one of the first crime fiction writers I read and enjoyed, and I’ve always thought your approach to writing shared a similarity to his. Algren’s prose was dense with slang, and I feel like there’s a similar quality in your work. But not with slang; more like a steady sense of darkness that, in a lovely way, never overtakes the story. Do you think that comparison to Algren is apt? As a follow-up, did I sound smart just now?

Oh, what a lovely question and comparison. It does make sense in terms of the books that have influenced me. William Kennedy’s novels, for instance, have had a tremendous impact and they are just as you’re describing—slang-thick, a lurking but not overwhelming darkness. That’s what I’m drawn to as a reader, so it’s probably what I’m trying to capture when I’m writing. (And yes, you sure did. Now, I must read Algren!)

What brought on the move to your focus on teenage women as characters in your recent books? And why does it seem that elements of noir fits so well with those young women? I know you addressed this in regards to high school, but I’m curious about the particular application to females.

If I’m honest, it’s never been strategic. It’s more about following my interests and also trying to avoid well-trod terrain, to stake out newer territory within noir. For instance, my new book, YOU WILL KNOW ME, is about a woman whose daughter is a prodigy. It’s a lot about how a marriage functions when both the husband and wife are so deeply invested in their child. The families of prodigies are very compelling. How power operates in families in general fascinates me. And how it works among women, how it’s similar to, and different from, men. Noir is always about power and desire and to me they’re the engines of story. I guess it’s because I first learned story from film noir and it’s stuck with me.

This may play into the previous question concerning “a typical day,” but are you concerned about balancing time between writing for TV (Abbott’s DARE ME is being produced for HBO, and THE FEVER for MTV) and your novels?

Boy, “concerned” might be too quiet a word for it! The short answer is yes. The longer answer involves large quantities of caffeine and the occasional sedative.

It was recently announced that you’ll also be part of the writing team for the new HBO drama, “The Deuce,” along with Lisa Lutz, George Pelecanos, David Simon, and Richard Price. First, shit! I’d watch a show if just ONE of those writers was involved. Second, do you have any worries about collaborating?

It’s hard not to pinch myself every minute. I’ve collaborated before (with Alison Gaylin on a graphic novel, Normandy Gold) and it’s been energizing. It pushes your brain out of its familiar grooves. But in this case, I’m coming into something that David Simon and George Pelecanos and Richard Price have been developing meticulously for years. These are my writing heroes and I’m just going to try to learn everything I can.

As I mentioned earlier, your recent books have focused on younger characters. Do you have any thoughts about the next “demographic” you might explore?

I guess I don’t think about it that way. All my books have had characters of a wide range of ages and I just try to follow the story, you know?

I know this is a few years past, but I have to ask you about your work on the Punisher graphic novel, because I love the Punisher. I have a skull shirt and everything. How did you research the character? Did Marvel send you a pack of old comics? Can I have it?

Ha! That was sheer luck. Jeanine Schaefer from Marvel contacted me about doing a one-off and I had to try it. Mine is sort of a Jim Thompson-esque tale, but (I think!) it suited the character. It’s pretty dark and was so much fun to do.

Is there another comic book character you’d like to write?

Betty and Veronica on a crimespree. That’s what I want.

So you’ve written short stories, novels, comics, non-fiction, edited anthologies, and worked in film and TV. Is there another area of writing, or even a different artistic field, you want to explore? Given your reverence for certain actors, would you consider appearing on the other side of the camera?

The other side of the camera is one place I will never be! I think I love performers so much because it’s so foreign to me. But I would love to write true-crime book. There are a lot of those stories I’d like to explore and find a way to tell.

E.A. Aymar is managing editor of The Thrill Begins, and the author of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2013) and You’re As Good As Dead (2015). He writes a monthly column with the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his fiction and nonfiction have been featured in a number of respected publications. He holds a Masters degree in Literature and lives outside of Washington, D.C.

To learn more about E.A. Aymar’s most recent novel, click on the cover below.


Previously: Jenny Milchman interviewed Lee Child.

Next: J.J. Hensley interviews Barry Eisler.

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