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Daughters of Daughters of Eve: An Interview with Megan Abbott

Laura Lippman: One thing that struck me about DARE ME is that it’s told by an insider, someone inside the group, not an outsider who’s infiltrating it (Mean Girls) or an outsider (pretty much every book I read as a teen). And it struck me that was a bit new for you, too, especially when compared to THE END OF EVERYTHING or even BURY ME DEEP. If history is written by the winners, isn’t fiction usually written by the outsiders? 

Meagan Abbott: Absolutely. And since most writers are introverts, at least in part, one of the hardest parts for me was writing from the point of view of someone whose position in the world of social power was so different from mine at that age. I’ve written male protagonists, female gangsters, women whose lives were circumscribed by conditions (the Great Depression, pre-feminism) I’ve never experienced, even women who have to commit gruesome acts to save themselves. But somehow it was harder, at first, to imagine myself as a member of the high school elite (and an athlete, but that’s another story).

Of course most writers are voyeurs too, and I certainly am, so the more I dug my feet into those trenches, I saw the same power machinations occurring within the elite group of girls as I’d experienced from the outside. Someone always seems to have what you want and there’s always a moment when you realize: ah, this is how I could get it? Would I do this to get it?

LL: I wrote to you about my fascination with names, once I glommed onto Tacy and we joked about the very small cohort of people on the planet who would recognize a Wire reference and a Betsy-Tacy reference. (Us.) As it happens — awful moment of self-reference coming up — I wrote To the Power of Three from the point of Tib, the third friend in the Betsy-Tacy books who can never catch up; Betsy and Tacy will always have been friends longer. But while this is a book from the inner circle, it’s also a book from the POV of a Tacy, a #2, right? 

MA: Oh, that’s so right about Tacy, though I can’t say it was conscious. And that makes so much sense about the Tib connection in TO THE POWER OF THREE (a book which spoke with such intensity to me, having occupied each of the triangle corners in different friendships in my life).

Interestingly, I have always had a complicated relationship to Tacy. As a girl, I identified with Betsy as the aspiring writer, though I think Tacy’s shyness and reserve was far more my own. In the later books, when they’re in high school, I remember feeling disappointed with how Tacy becomes even less ambitious, even more of a homebody, lacked Betsy’s Jo March-verve.

So it’s particularly compelling to consider how Tacy’s presence might be felt in DARE ME. Because doesn’t the Number 2 (to reintroduce THE WIRE) always harbor their own ambitions?

LL: DARE ME dares (sorry) to traffic in some archetypes/tropes that come close to male fantasies. But I have to think that’s deliberate. And the men in the book — they’re all rather sad, aren’t they? I sense that you have a lot of empathy for modern men.

MA: It reminds me of that famous exchange in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  Lovestruck Katharine Hepburn says, “I think men are wonderful,” and Ruth Hussey replies wryly, “The little dears.” But yes, somehow in the female jungle of the boo—where all power resides almost wholly in the alpha female characters, who decide how and when to grant it—it felt like the men couldn’t possibly compete. Instead, they yearn and tend to their private miseries. In writing it, I wanted to create this internecine girl-world, like we see with the male worlds of gangster tales or war movies. Men are outsiders here. So I guess it goes back to your first question: sympathy for the outsider.

LL: Did you read Lois Duncan? I think, per Lizzie Skurnick, she may be one of the most influential writers among women. She sort of did everything first. 

MA: Gosh, yes. I read her voraciously as a kid. Along with FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, her books helped form the spine of my early reading life. And, last year, I had the good fortune to interview her, for which I re-read most of her books that had the biggest stamp on me: DAUGHTERS OF EVE, STRANGER WITH MY FACE and SUMMER OF FEAR.

In re-reading them, I marveled at the influence they continue to have on me. Probably DAUGHTERS most of all, which certainly made its mark on DARE ME as another tale of a charismatic mentor and her young protégées. And that book in particular—a scene towards the end involving (spoiler) coming a young girl, a frying pan and her abusive father—made me realize how dark fiction could be. V.C. Andrews’s books are strange through and through, but what made Duncan so different, I think, is how the girls in her book felt like girls like you. And then they end up in the darkest of places.

LL: We were both fortunate enough to be included in a lovely article by Sarah Weinman, in which she recommended books for people who fell in love with Gillian Flynn’s Gone, Girl. But taking us out of the equation — isn’t it kind of a golden time for crime fiction written by women? Sarah cited Kate Atkinson, Tana French, Sara Gran, Sophie Hannah and I’d throw in Lisa Lutz, whose last Spellman book is one of the most beautifully melancholic crime novels/meditation on family and relationships that I’ve read in a long time. Which writers excite you? 

MA: Agreed on all counts (and Lisa Lutz is the perfect addition). These are writers whose work inspires me, and the grouping of them together, the sense that something is happening, makes it doubly exciting. In keeping with dark female fiction, I’ll add a writer whose nonfiction book I keep returning to: Rebecca Godfrey’s troubling, luminous UNDER THE BRIDGE, an account of the “Schoolgirl Murder” in British Columbia. It’s written like a novel (and Godfrey is also a novelist), dreamy, mysterious and ultimately terrifying, and speaks volumes to the complexities of adolescence, class and fractured families. I don’t often return to nonfiction, but this one I keep coming back to. It does something to you.

LL: To paraphrase Lionel Shriver: We need to talk about Jack Pendarvis. I discovered Jack’s work, then Jack, because he’s good friends with Tom Franklin. But how did you find each other? 

MA: Jack. I feel (and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this) that Jack is my long-lost best friend from age six, the one I used to scavenge through the woods with, build tree houses and discover hidden treasures. (None of which, by the way, are things I did or attempted to do at age six; I was lying on a shag carpet, reading Betsy-Tacy books)

We became friends when he emailed me about five years ago, having read one of my books. We did the thing that is the best part of being a writer: the Book Exchange. We each sent each other all our books and I read his and fell utterly in love with them—the whole buoyant, strange, funny, mysterious, sly and sad world he creates in them. I’d never read anything like it.

And then it turned out we shared an insatiable love of old movies of all varieties, and the beauty of Jack is that he finds something valuable (and weird, and delightful) in nearly every one. He’s the friend that, when I see his name in my email inbox, I jump up in my seat giddily.

LL: And one more question: I just can’t get on the Mad Men bandwagon. But, per the recent discussion on that silly article decrying Stephen King, I don’t feel a need to tear it down and would like to hear from you why you watch and what you like. 

MA: In the moments in the series when it has worked less for me, I feel myself feeling what some of its critics do: it can feel too glib, too on-the nose, too in love with itself. But those moments are rare. I can think of few shows that excavate more of the mysteries of the relationships between men and women (and among men, among women). I watch it and I think: I didn’t know that and now I’m seeing that and not only is it true, it’s true about my life (not always a good feeling, but that’s part of its power).

Something happened to me during the fourth episode of the first season. Until then, I was on the fence, kept thinking, “This is too pretty, too slick, too easy.” I can pinpoint the exact moment it turned: Betty Draper, beautiful-miserable wife of Don, is babysitting her neighbor’s nine-year-old son, Glen. He deliberately walks in on her while she’s using the bathroom, and she scolds him firmly. But later, after he apologizes, he asks for a lock of her hair and she takes a pair of scissors and gives it to him. Each of these beats was utterly surprising to me. I’d never seen anything quite like it on TV. Not just Glen’s intense crush, his inappropriate behavior, but Betty’s embrace of it. How flattered she is, and the 100 reasons why she might be, both obvious and more subterranean. The great unholy weirdness of all of it felt so true.

Laura Lippman  is the author of eleven novels featuring Baltimore private detective Tess Monaghan, seven stand-alone novels, and a short story collection. Her six most recent books have all been New York Times bestsellers. Lippman has won numerous literary prizes for her work, including the Edgar®, Anthony, Nero Wolfe, Agatha, Gumshoe, Barry, and Macavity Awards. A recent recipient of the first-ever Mayor’s Prize, she lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband, David Simon; their daughter; and her stepson.

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of five previous novels. She received her Ph.D. in literature from New York University and has taught literature, writing, and film at NYU, the New School, and SUNY-Oswego. She lives in New York City.

DARE ME, an O Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Newsday and Wall Street Journal Summer Reading pick, is now available in bookstores everywhere.