MysteryPeople Q&A with Megan Abbott

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Megan Abbott’s latest beautifully dark novel, You Will Know Me, explores the tale of the Knox’s, a family with a gymnastics protege daughter, and how their relationship with their community and their family dynamic are both tested when a hit and run murder occurs. As expected, it is rich in psychology and emotion.

You Will Know Me is MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month for August. Megan joins us Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on emerging voices in crime fiction, along with fellow crime writers Bill Loehfelm, Alison Gaylin, and William Boyle. Megan was kind enough to take some questions from us. 

MysteryPeople Scott: What made you want to explore the dynamics of a family with a prodigy?

Megan Abbott: Families. I mean, families are complicated to begin with, but I’ve always been curious about how it plays out when a child is exceptional in some way. How power and responsibility and agency are affected. What happens in a marriage when so much effort and energy is put into the child’s endeavors? What’s it like to be the sibling of a prodigy? What are the unique pressures and yet also power that a prodigy has?

As I was working on the idea, I read two things. First, Susan Dominus’s New York Times magazine piece on Teri Shields, Brooke Shields’ mother, a famous “stage mom.” Second, I read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree and its chapter on prodigies. They were both such rich, generously written pieces. I knew then that I wanted to write from the viewpoint of Katie, the mother of Devon, the gymnastics prodigy. It’s very easy to judge some of these parents, to accuse them of using their children to fulfill their own dreams, but I think the truth is always more complicated than that. I wanted to explore it through Katie.

MPS: Why gymnastics for a backdrop?

MA: I changed my mind a lot when I began. Should Devon be a musical prodigy? Dance? Iceskating? But I keep returning to gymnastics because of its unique demands on a growing girl’s body. If started very young, it can (though doesn’t always) halt puberty, or alter it. That seemed fascinating to me. Katie and Eric are so engaged, so involved and by the sport’s very nature so they’re helping both support their daughter’s dreams, but in some ways they’re also invested in arresting their daughter’s development. Also, what happens when, as a fifteen year old girl, your body and your head might be in such different places? You’re stalling physical puberty, but can you stall the desires that come with it?

MPS:  On the surface that world appears to have a lot in common with the cheer world. What are the main differences when writing about it?

MA: You Will Know Me is fundamentally about family, the way power and love operate in a family of a prodigy. But, for me, though gymnasts are part of a gym, a team, it’s still so much more about individual, not group, excellence and success. And, of course, the Olympic dream sets gymnastics apart from cheer. That impossible, gleaming goal that drives Devon and Katie and Eric.

MPS:  What was the biggest surprise in your research?

MA: How there are never easy answers with prodigies, their families. I read so many memoirs, foremost the brilliant Letters to a Young Gymnast by Nadia Comaneci, and figuring out where a child’s ambition and hunger—versus those of a parent, a coach, etc.—begin and end is a tricky operation. But in that ambiguity lies so much.

MPS:  Lately you’ve been drawn to the noir look ambition instead of sexual lust or greed. What has made it good theme to pursue?

MA: Desire and greed are a pretty big part of this book, so I guess I can’t get away from them! But for me all these things are interlocked. They’re all primal urges and all about power, about wanting, about drive. To me, that’s the beauty of noir—it’s the essentials.

MPS: You’re sharing your event with Alison Gaylin, Bill Loehfelm, and William Boyle. Could you mention what each author has contributed to crime fiction?

MA: Extraordinary books, all of them. They are, in many ways, very different writers. Alison’s books have this kaleidoscopic feel, interweaving the media, notions of fame, public perception, into very intimate stories about women. There’s no one out there quite writing anything like that, and with such a keen eye and understanding. Bill Loehfelm is reinvigorating and pushing forward the grand tradition of the hardboiled police novel, and with one of the best female protagonists that tradition has ever seen. And Bill Boyle—well, he’s utterly one of a kind. As gritty as they come, but with an emotional heft and an idiosyncratic eye for detail—the odd turn of phrase, an unexpected burst of feeling—that are like no other writer I can think of. You read his work and you know he’s a star ascending.

Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, Bill Loehfelm and William Boyle. You can find copies of You Will Know Me on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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