Fiction School is so stoked to have Megan Abbott on the show this week. She’s one of the best writers of noir and crime fiction in the business today, and she’s also an awesome and nice person. (It’s good to chat with a nice person about, as she says, “people doing bad things.”)
On the show, Megan and the Fiction School hosts talk about what makes for good noir, how she fell into writing noir and tweaks the genre’s conventions, some great ways to do writing research, Megan’s experience writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation of her novel, and lots more. And “wet shower dreams,” too.
We hope you dig the show. It was such a great time talking with Megan–a big thanks again from Fiction School to her for coming on the show! Here’s her bio, then on to the show notes.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar®-winning author of the novels Queenpin, The Song Is You, Die a Little, Bury Me Deep, and The End of Everything. Her latest novel, Dare Me, was chosen by Entertainment Weekly and Amazon as one of the Best Books of 2012 and is soon to be a major motion picture.
Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Detroit Noir, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Storyglossia, Queens Noir and The Speed Chronicles.
- Jody’s brazen awesomeness was the reason we got Megan on the show, so we kick it off with a great question from Jody to Megan: “How do you describe your own novels?” (An important question for writers to ask themselves.)
- Megan’s answer: depends who’s asking. If it’s an older person, it’s “mysteries”; for others, she may say crime novels; or novels about people’s dark sides and people doing bad things, and the consequences; or novels about complicated women.
- How has Megan’s writing changed or progressed in her career? Her first four novels were all set in the midcentury, in the world of film noir, and the last two are present day and suburban, but the thematic elements are the same. It’s a lot about disillusionment, which often shows up in a difference between an older and younger character.
- Baker mentions how Megan’s noir writing is exciting because it doesn’t have the usual noir figure of the femme fatale as a seductress side character; instead, she makes a female the central character. Megan talks about that and describes how she fell into fiction writing only after being a big fan of noir and crime novels and movies and studying it at a high level.
- What about how writers research to make noir and crime novels feel authentic? “I”m sort of a compulsive researcher,” Megan says, to Tommy’s hooray. She mentions a few unique sources she used to capture the real social currency, voice, and daily concerns of the time period.
- But research is crucial even when writing in a present day setting, to get inside a character’s mentality and capture feelings and actions through solid description.
- Noir still works in the modern day, too. Megan’s new books are still about how power enacts itself.
- Megan says, “The suburbs are really a perfect setting for noir, in many ways better than the city. Because in the suburbs you’re always hiding something, everyone is always keeping secrets.” A bunch of great insights about how setting can be organic for writing noir.
- We dig deep into writing noir and what noir is–Baker mentions being from the South and his take on Southern Gothic writing as dark but with a weirdness and sense of humor about it. But in noir, the bad guy can get away with it and it’s still a satisfying ending.
- Megan says she doesn’t think about the genre as she writes.
- The humor and weirdness of Southern Gothic writing appeals to Megan. (Then Baker sheds a bourbon-infused tear.)
- Megan Abbott on genre: “People put the genre on the writing afterwards; but if you love it, and you set up the world where your capable of exploring it, it just kind of happens. So if you decided you wanted to set something in Alabama, and there’s a crime, I think that all the other parts will just come in naturally.”
- Megan recommends Brick, a high school noir movie.
- Back to writing research. If cheerleading wasn’t part of Megan’s experience, how’d she stumble upon it for the subject of her book, Dare Me? She saw some girls playing field hockey and noticed how terrifying and ferocious the girls were; which led her to wonder which high school sports for girls were the most dangerous. The answer? Cheerleading, second only to boys’ football in the number of catastrophic injuries.
- On her interest in cheerleading and taking it on as a book’s subject: “When the stakes are that high and girls are just loving putting themselves at risk that much, that just completely enthralled me and I just wanted to see what was going on with girls there. This was some outlet for them to experience aggression and rage and to put themselves at death’s door; and we don’t think of cheerleaders as those kinds of people, so that just interested me.”
- Megan has a story that accompanies the video game L.A. Noir. “By far the thing most people have read by me,” she says, and tells the story of writing that story. Influenced by James Ellroy and Robert Mitchum.
- Tommy gives us an exclusive rendition of his performances as a voiceover artist in video games like Grand Theft Auto. “You punks don’t belong in here!” and such.
- But it’s interesting to think about the noir genre and how it can overlap with video games. It says a lot about the genre that it can make that kind of leap between mediums. (For example, there doesn’t seem to be a huge assortment of romance video games–or are we missing something?)
- The advance in gaming is not in the fancy graphics; it’s the advance in the storytelling. That’s what pulls players in. Video games are taking the place of movies as the main way we get our stories. Video games make more money than movies nowadays anyway.
- Tommy has a dream that one day someone will ask him to make a movie out of his book. It’s Tommy’s “Wet Shower Dream.” He asks Megan to talk about the details of Dare Me getting made into a movie. She gives us a little behind-the-scenes info on that.
- Megan also wrote the screenplay for the movie. She talks about the process of adapting her own work, taking the novel she’d written and writing the screenplay from that. “Like having your ex move back in with you and he won’t leave the couch…”
- Writing a screenplay was a big dream for Megan, so it was a good experience for her to try. It was her Wet Shower Dream, in fact…
- For writers interested in learning more about the noir genre, Megan’s recommended reading list: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain. These writers can teach you so much about story structure. And if you read Chandler’s famous Philip Marlowe novels, you know the mystery part of it doesn’t ever quite make sense or lead you in any direction. So it’s very freeing that way. Chandler valued character, mood, and dialogue–those are the keys to good noir. Immerse yourself in those books and you’ll come out of it thinking like that in your head.
- Noir is a different kind of genre, where the world doesn’t have to give the appearance of being logical, as it does with mysteries or romance or YA coming-of-age epiphanies. The world can be dark and bad things happen, and characters experience them without a heroic triumph.
- On defining noir, Megan says, “Noir is heightened–all the emotions and feelings–and that’s how the world feels to a lot of us. Desire is intense, greed is overwhelming, the need for revenge… It’s how things feel on the inside before we modulate them in order to be a functioning, non-sociopathic person. When we read noir, we get to see our Id run free.”
- We end with Megan’s tips about writer’s block: remove the self-censors. Try changing perspectives. Write something disconnected with the current project. Use the old Hemingway trick and don’t leave the typewriter when things are going badly–only leave it when things are going well.
One last big thanks to Megan Abbott for coming on the Fiction School podcast and talking with us. Such a great time.
To be a fan of Megan on the web, find her here: