Photo: Drew Reilly.
“Ballet was full of dark fairy tales,” Megan Abbott observes in her new novel, The Turnout, noting that “how a dancer prepared her pointe shoes was a ritual as mysterious and private as how she might pleasure herself.” These mysterious and private rituals of young women—these “dark fairy tales”—are at the heart of Abbott’s work. Over the course of ten novels, she’s explored the violence and crime that pervade American girlhood. In Dare Me, competitive cheerleaders become suspects in a murder case. In The Fever, an outbreak of illness is tied to the “enigmatic beauty, erotic and strange” of a small-town high school. While undoubtedly one of our best crime novelists, Abbott has also always struck me as akin to an anthropologist; she not only explores the hidden subcultures of teenage girls but reveals the coded language and shared ethos of their cliques and sects, the way their secrets are not merely secrets but a means of expressing forbidden eroticism, dreams, and rage. In The Turnout, Abbott delves into the rarified world of ballerinas, astutely noting the symbols and signals underlying the romantic image. “There was such a boldness to this girl, a barbarism to her,” she notes. “This pink waif, her tidy bun.”
While she may have the gaze of an anthropologist, Abbott, in fact, began as a Ph.D. student studying film noir at NYU. Her first book, published in 2002, was a prescient work of critical theory, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. Reading Chandler and Hammett, she’d often wondered, What would happen if the femme fatale told the story? She wrote her first novels, including Bury Me Deep and Queenpin, as sly, meta takes on pulp fiction, with alluring, often menacing women as protagonists. With 2011’s The End of Everything, Abbott began to write about the violence of seemingly all-American girls in seemingly all-American suburbs, gaining not only a wider audience but numerous Edgar Awards and admirers among crime writers. The Wire’s David Simon invited her to be a staff writer on The Deuce, alongside Richard Price and George Pelecanos. More recently, she wrote and coproduced a television adaptation of her novel Dare Me and is now doing the same for The Turnout, while also working on a television series with The Queen’s Gambit’s Scott Frank.
I caught up with Abbott over email during a sultry, tense summer, a summer that felt increasingly Abbott-esque. Boldness and barbarism were everywhere. Heat waves and wildfires seared and scarred. A mysterious illness continued to cause infection and fear, a former America’s sweetheart vowed revenge against her father, angrily confessing a desire to “send him to jail,” while in the music video for the song of the summer, an eighteen-year-old singer posed as a cheerleader easily turns a boyfriend’s bedroom into a sea of flames.
What drew you to write about ballerinas in The Turnout?
When I was seven or eight, I took ballet classes at this strip mall dance studio where two sisters—twins, actually—were the main teachers. They were so beautiful, in that classically ballet way, and seemed to contain mysteries. I was fascinated by them, their bodies, their rigor, their coolness and elegance. And their wordless exchanges with each other. I wondered what they were like out of the studio. Did the coolness ever slip? Did they have grand romances? Were they close? Growing up in suburban Detroit, I was always yearning for a glamour that felt just beyond, and they seemed to embody everything I longed for—mystery, exoticism, self-containment. And they looked like they held secrets. They became the spark. Read More