Megan Abbott’s much-praised novel THE END OF EVERYTHING (Reagan Arthur Books) which Gillian Flynn calls “a freight train of a mystery…bold, unnerving, poignant, and full of yearning” is in bookstores now. Here, we present an interview between Sara Gran, author of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Dope and Come Closer, and Megan, “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation” (Laura Lippman).
(Read this post on the Reagan Arthur Books blog here.)
Sara: The End of Everything shares common themes with your previous four novels, yet stands out as a departure—it takes place in the 1980s (your other novels took place before you were born), the narrator is 13 years old (your previous narrators were adult women), and it takes place in the suburbs (as opposed to the urban settings of your other books). How is The End of Everything the same? How is it different?
Megan: I wanted to try something new, to shake things up for myself. To move out of the world of nightclubs, racetracks, movie studios and, most of all, to move out of the past, worlds I never knew. When I first started writing, though, everything felt foreign, puzzling. I didn’t know if I could adapt my style to this new setting and time period. My past books were so influenced by Golden Age Hollywood movies and that heightened style. And I’d done this foolish thing, giving myself a 13-year-old girl as my narrator. But as I wrote, I just had this revelation that, for most 13-year-old girls, life is dramatic and the stakes feel dramatically high. It’s all desire and fear and longing and disillusion. Everything feels big and terrifying and thrilling. And my past books, I see now, are so much about women feeling trapped and seeking a way out, at any cost. And feeling trapped, and wanting out, is very much the state of being 13.
Sara: What were the body of influences you drew from in creating this character and this story? Lizzie, your narrator, is a bit of a girl detective, uncovering secrets about her placid suburban town—were you a Nancy Drew fan?
Megan: I never intended Lizzie to be such an active agent in the book. My original thought was she would be a somewhat passive observer. But, as she grew in my head, she began to want things, and then she sort of took over. While I don’t think I precisely had Nancy Drew in my head, I was a voracious reader of mysteries as a kid and I do think there’s a natural affinity between writers and detectives (and I don’t have to tell you this, in light of all the magic you cast with your detective in Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead). To me, that link is a desire to look in places you’re not supposed to. To be a voyeur. And, as with many voyeurs (and detectives), you can only peek so long before you want “in.” Which is the life of most 13 year olds anyway, isn’t it? I see the adult world. I want “in.”
Sara: How did you get back into the mind of a 13-year-old girl? Or is there a part of we adult women that has never left?
Megan: I’m alarmed at how natural it felt. I’ve heard it said that we’re all arrested at a certain age, and for me it’s 13, which is probably why I landed at that age. But I think it’s an especially powerful age for girls. It’s the moment you peer with widest eyes into womanhood, or are flung there. It’s an age of constant push-pull, wanting to leap forward and yet often retreating in the face of real adulthood, and the price of it. I think many women look back on that age as the moment of great anticipation and often painful revelation.
Sara: To what degree, especially compared to you other books, is The End of Everything autobiographical?
Megan: In terms of time and place, it’s definitely lifted straight from my growing-up years in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the early 1980s. Before, I always wrote as an escape, a fantasy exercise to enter these shimmering, foreign worlds. My own world felt pretty mundane, not worthy of such an adventure. But somehow, maybe it was the flush of nostalgia, I was able to crawl my way back into some long-lost feeling from my childhood. That feeling of possibility, mystery, risk that suffuses all your surroundings. Also, I’m now at the age where the 1980s seems like a lost era. And I’m a sentimentalist, of course!
Sara: Tell me a little about the suburbs, especially the suburbs where this book takes place, a fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe? What is it that we love and hate so much about these liminal spaces (not urban, not rural)? Why do some of us have something like a fear of the suburbs (as I do!)?
Megan: I love that you, a Brooklyn girl, could feel that way! I do think of suburbs as “halfway” places because it suggests a sense of complication and mystery when I think the rap they get is that they are places of conformity or hypocrisy or tedium. I think they occupy this strangely contradictory place between utter hidden-ness and this sense of vivid exposure. In the Midwest, at least, it’s impolite to poke your nose in your neighbor’s business. At the same time, there’s something unbearably intimate about them. Because of the way many suburbs of my era were designed, as kids you would end up running through each other’s backyards, hiding out in the basement, hearing all the sounds in the upper floors, uncovering secrets. So there’s this tug of war, the instinct to protect oneself, to hide one’s desires or sorrows and the simultaneous desire to reach out, to pry, to touch each other, to connect. That tension is palpable, fascinating.
All that easy mockery of the suburbs drives me crazy. To me, they’re places of yearning, which is maybe true of all places.
Sara: Throughout the course of The End of Everything, Lizzie uncovers secret after secret about her placid town. What role do secrets, in general, play in our lives? Are they gifts, treasures, curses, or burdens?
Megan: I think that being 13 is in many ways like an endless process of revelation, and disillusionment. You carry all these ideas of the world, and yourself, and in many ways they all get punctured, one by one. But then somehow you manage to build new ones up. And you start to carry your own secrets, which I guess Lizzie will too.
Sara: You’re known for, among other things, pushing the boundaries of genre definitions. While your previous books fit well into the “crime” genre, they also contain elements of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mystery. Where does this new book fit in, both in terms of genre in general and in terms of your own list? Is genre relevant to you as a writer—does thinking about these categories help or hinder you as you work?
Megan: My impulse is to say I don’t believe in genre distinctions. But I guess I’ve come to think that all novels are mysteries. Reading them, you are always that detective/voyeur, peering in, sifting through its secrets, sometimes wanting to enter the story itself, to sink yourself into those worlds. I admit, I love that John Gardner quote: all stories have one of two plots: someone goes on a journey; or a stranger comes to town. Sometimes both. Usually both.
Sara: I find that for me, every book I write leads naturally into the next on—every book is almost like a bus or a train that takes me right where you need to go to catch the next bus—i.e., to write the next book. So what have you been working on since The End of Everything? How did The End of Everything lead you to the next book?
Megan: I love that bus analogy. That’s exactly how it feels, like the seed of the new book is sown at the very end of the last one, though I never know how it got there. My next book, Dare Me, comes directly from writing about girls’ field hockey in The End of Everything. It’s set in the world of high school cheerleading. The ferocity of that sport, the way it unleashes this inner rage, fascinated me. I see something similar lurking in cheerleading. It’s no longer dancing and pompom shaking. It’s rather dazzling and frequently death defying and it speaks to the dark and bold nature of girls, aspects of themselves that too often remain hidden. In cheerleading, it’s given full reign. Which is something to see.
MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar-winning author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep, which was nominated for six awards: the 2010 Edgar Award, Hammett Prize, the Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Become a fan of The End of Everything on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, visit her website and her blog.
SARA GRAN is the author of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, (“Recombines all the elements of good, solid story-telling and lifts something original from a well-loved form”–Sue Grafton), Come Closer, a psychological thriller hailed as “hypnotic, disturbing . . . Genuinely scary” (Bret Easton Ellis), and Dope, a noir homage. A former bookseller and native of Brooklyn, she now lives in Northern California. Visit her at www.SaraGran.com