Writing of Rage and the Teenage Girl

A conversation with Megan Abbott, whose new novel, The Fever, chronicles a hysteria outbreak at a modern high school.

Little, Brown and Company

The Fever, by Megan Abbott, explores of the intensity of female adolescence and the often-unsettling dynamics of life in suburban America. The novel follows Deenie, a high school sophomore; her older brother, Eli; and her father, who teaches at her school. When Deenie’s best friend suffers a mysterious seizure, rumors and speculation spread as to the cause. Photographs proliferate instantly by text message, amplifying anxieties, and soon, when other teenage girls experience the same symptoms, the high school is beset by what seems to be a full-blown epidemic. The community begins to uncouple as paranoid, desperate parents demand answers.

Abbott threads The Fever with fear: that first loves are ephemeral, that friendships are frail, that the integrity of family and community are questionable at best. She is perhaps best known for her early period noir fiction, and here draws upon the hardboiled tradition in style and pacing, starting multiple fires throughout the novel—a mysterious ritual, sexual awakenings, parental strife, internecine high school social quarrels—each to be dealt with in turn. Meanwhile, Abbott strategically deploys such lush, almost operatic lines as, “He felt a stirring in his chest, and looking at Deenie, her slight neck arched up, he wanted to put his hands on her shoulders and promise her something.” The result is a compelling, suspenseful, and unnerving novel by an author who is redefining the literary thriller.

Megan and I spoke by telephone about The Fever and her writing career. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Fever is loosely based on the 2012 mass hysteria outbreak in Le Roy, New York. What is it about that story that inspired you to write this novel?

It kind of came out of nowhere. I had always wanted to do a novel that addressed some of the same issues connected to the Salem Witch trials, but set in the modern day. So that was in the back of my head. When the [outbreak] story first broke in downstate New York in January 2012, I turned on the Today Show and saw two of the girls on camera. They had developed these tics—motor and vocal tics—and they were completely mystified by what was happening, and they looked so frightened and upset, as did their parents who were with them. It was really unsettling. And then I immediately started writing. The case was in the background as I started.

This is not the first time you’ve drawn from true events to craft a novel. An earlier novel of yours, The Song Is You was inspired by a true crime, as was Bury Me Deep. What sorts of stories tend to catch your attention and stick with you?

In some ways I guess they all are based on real life events; it is only the degree to which they change when I start writing. Sometimes they diverge wildly. For some reason I seem to need the real-life hook. I grew up reading true crime and that is probably the biggest reason, but there are lots of stories that I know won’t be a book. They might be too upsetting or dark to spend a whole year or two working on, and I don’t want to be there for that long. So those end up talking to me but don’t catch fire. Usually the ones that do, there’s a corner of the story that’s still behind a veil—there’s a part that hasn’t been explored. There is some psychological nuance or something that I’m trying to figure out, and that’s usually when the novel starts to catch fire.

In 2011, your novel The End of Everything marked a big shift in the stories you were telling. The narrator is a young teenager; the story is set in modern times—well, the ‘80s. Modern for us. How did it come about?

It was the first novel that I started writing in my early 20s, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I didn’t know how to plot. So it has always been in the background. After doing four period noir stories in a row, I was looking for something fresh to sort of challenge me. So I returned to this book that I had put down, I think at that point, 10 years before. And it just kind of caught fire. I thought that I could deal with a lot of the same themes that I’d dealt with in the first four books, but with a different setting and time period and point of view. That it would make me try to do new stuff, figure something else out. I felt like it was going to be a challenge. And it was, especially trying to nail the voice and trying to write about the time.

Was there resistance from your editors to move from your established place in period crime fiction?

No. It coincided with a change in publisher and a lot of people assumed there was a strategy behind it. Well, not a lot of people—people in publishing! [laughter] I made the move as I switched from one publisher to the other, so it was seamless and it seemed to work out. You always wonder what kind of big turns you can do when you’re writing, but I think the fact that all of the books deal with a crime and they tend to deal with—this shouldn’t be a feature; it should be common—but deal with women and girls. They had that common bond, and I hoped that I could carry any readers that I had gained, that they would maybe follow me to this new place.

I read in an interview that Dare Me was a direct result of themes you explored in The End of Everything.

Yes. I had a character in The End of Everything—a girl who plays field hockey—and I was watching girls play field hockey and they were such badasses. They were barreling down the field and they looked like Lord of the Flies. Watching them, I was so impressed. And I thought that’s where it all goes for some girls. They get all that rage of being a teenage girl out on the field, and that led me to look at other girl sports and I found that the most dangerous for girls with the most catastrophic injuries was cheerleading, which really surprised me. It changed a lot from my day. And it turned out to be this fascinating excursion. It’s a journey from which I never emerged. I still follow that world a bit. They just felt like warriors to me, and it was a really exciting way to think about the anger of girls that age, and the aggression, and the ambition perhaps most of all.

You’re writing the screenplay for a Dare Me feature film, is that correct?

Yes. I’ve written it. It’s in development now, as they say, in Hollywoodland. But yes that was very challenging. I’d never written a script and to adapt your own book, it’s—it’s like when I finish a book I don’t want to look at it again. I don’t want to open it; I don’t want to read it. In this case I had to basically spend four months eviscerating it and it did feel a little bit like having an ex-boyfriend come to town, lie on my couch, and want to talk about our relationship and why it failed. But the script eventually turned into something else, and that’s when it got exciting and I realized it was not about returning to something but about making something new.

The Fever is about hysteria, which isn’t necessarily new ground for you. At least peripherally you touch on hysteria in your first book, The Street Was Mine. You describe the “forgotten man” figure of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the mass cultural anxieties about the nature of manhood itself. A result of this is the tough guy and hardboiled fiction. You note a pattern in which “notions of male agency are thrown into doubt, and male subjectivity constantly threatens to unravel. Masculinity is situated as weak, changeable, even hysterical ...”

I hadn’t even made that connection, but that is a huge part of what that book is about. In some ways I guess hysteria is always about a reaction to a cultural crisis or event or pressure. I think there are forces around us—certainly the tough guy figure emerges to work through how to fix, or express, troubled masculinity during the Depression. To make the connection, the pressures—they’re not supposed to say anything about it, they’re not supposed to talk about it, and they’re not supposed to express it. Girls are supposed to be pretty and perfect and happy and men are supposed to be silent and strong and good and sometimes the world makes it really hard to be those things. In the end, in the case of mass hysteria, there is a desire for connection. There’s a theory that it’s more common with females because they’re culturally bred to empathize. I’m not sure if that’s true. Nobody knows if that’s true. It’s very much tied to gender in both cases.

The Street Was Mine came from your Ph.D. work, is that right?

Yes. It’s essentially a version of my dissertation.

How did that work lead to your bibliography of crime fiction?

It’s so strange in some ways. It’s like there are two sides of my brain, and really in The Street Was Mine I was taking apart and dissecting the genre. I never thought about that when I was writing, and I still don’t. I’m not trying to do anything, even for women. Some have said that I’m trying to make a place for women in the genre, but that was never my intent. I just wrote about the world I wanted to be in. There are two sides of my brain that are never in communication, and it is a kind of schizophrenia for me because if the side of my brain that wants to interrogate systems and the burdens of the culture—that is not a way to write a book, or a novel. So I think it’s important to keep them separate, so that when I sit down to write fiction I’m not trying to solve big issues or to make points. I’m trying to tell stories. Not that people can’t do both. I just can’t do both.

You were recently the John Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. How was that experience?

So great. I miss it so much. I loved it. Oxford, Mississippi is such a literary town, a writer’s town, a book-loving town, and it just was a wonderful place to work, and to work with students, and to—people sit around there drinking and talking about books and ideas and movies and that’s—it was so creatively inspiring. And it was such a different place to live. I’ve lived in New York for close to 20 years and living down there amidst ancient Faulknerian lore was just an enchantment for me.

The release of The Fever is, it seems, caught in the wash of Amazon’s assault on publishing and Hachette in particular. What are your thoughts on that and how is it affecting the way Hachette gets this book out there?

I don’t know—it’s changing by the day, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better by the day. It’s alarming and upsetting. I’d been aware that things were going on for a month with the costs, and Hachette authors, but then somebody told me that they’d gone to my Amazon page to get the book and that the links were gone. And the experience of going to that page with the buttons gone was very upsetting. Amazon is so big, and looking at that page it was like they had erased me. And it was a visceral, potent feeling. There are so many bigger issues at play here and it’s not about me and my little pre-order button, but that’s how it felt. I’m really hoping it’s resolved soon in the best way for authors and especially for readers.

It’s been enlightening about how much we tend to rely on certain large corporations. They’re our go-to places and if a book is not there, it’s not anywhere. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about my own habits this past week as a result. I think the ripple effect is still coming over me. But my fingers are crossed that whatever happens, people get these books, all of them coming out, and that indie bookstores will reap some of the rewards for however long this lasts. Those are my hopeful, optimistic thoughts.

What’s next?

What’s next, my God. I’m working on this book and it’s killing me. It will be released, I believe, next year and it’s called You Will Know Me and it’s about a family with a child prodigy and a bad thing happens. I was really interested in families with prodigies and how they operate, with the parents and child and siblings. It’s a powder keg.