Megan Abbott first made a name for herself in the world of noir fiction, where hard-drinking girls call one another “buttercup,” don silk stockings, and someone is always wearing a trench coat. Within the genre there are few female writers, and Abbott’s fresh perspective, delicious language, and rich, historical details garnered immediate attention.
After publishing four noir novels in rapid succession, Abbott broke out in 2011 with The End of Everything. Set in a 1980s suburban Midwest, the novel unfolds from the perspective of 13-year-old Lizzie, whose best friend Evie disappears one day after field hockey practice. While the despairing community assumes Evie’s been abducted, Lizzie’s realization that Evie might have chosen to leave forces Lizzie (and the reader) to confront what everyone wants to avoid: the burgeoning sexuality and self-destructive tendencies that can drive adolescent girls to do extreme and horrifying things.
This book marked a departure for Abbott, in part, as she explains, because it was personal. “In my previous books, the choices women make are generally economic or because they simply can’t control themselves—not just the dangerous whimsy of the bored, suburban teenager, which is what I know. I remember that kind of intensity.”
Dare Me, Abbott’s newest novel (Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur), also grapples with female desire, and the consequences of intimidation and power. To explore these inclinations, Abbott chose the fierce, alluring, and wildly cutthroat world of high school cheerleading.
In the novel, 16-year-old Addy watches her best “frenemy” Beth seethe at the arrival of their new coach, whose beauty, appeal, and palpable indifference to Beth’s reign results in the violent upheaval of everything the girls thought they had control over. As the girls’ volatility increases, the more daring and defined their cheerleading athleticism becomes. These are not girls who shake pom-poms and chase after the quarterback. These are girls who lift, flip, and throw one another; these are girls who fly. This physical interdependence they develop—literally holding each other up—is what allows them to destroy one another when not in pyramid formation.
“When I was figuring out the plot for Dare Me,” Abbott says, “I kept reading Richard III. It’s that kind of story: who is in my way and how can I get what I want?”
Abbott was also compelled by the iconic role that cheerleaders have in American culture—at once the girl next door (“safe, happy, and there to support the team”) and an object of desire. Abbott also wanted to consider the ways that “cheer” has grown more physically rigorous. The more of a sport it becomes, the more these girls pursue it for themselves, which, Abbott says, “disrupts” the traditional stereotype.
In her noir books, the 1930s- and 1940s-era language is as striking as the mundane details of the characters’ lives; what they eat for dinner and how they pin their hair become as crucial to creating a world as what they do. For Dare Me, Abbott watched cheer tournaments online, read posts on cheer message boards, and even e-mailed cheerleaders. Abbott was struck by the seriousness with which cheerleaders discussed their stunts, training, and physical strength. “They never talk about boys,” Abbott says. This intensity holds her novel together. For the girls in Dare Me, cheer is everything, and it’s not to be mocked.
Abbott’s versatility as a writer reflects a history of navigating her way among different genres—sometimes all at once. She holds a Ph.D. from NYU, and it was as a student of mid-20th-century American literature that Abbott initially delved into noir. She started reading Raymond Chandler and looking at pulp novels like Double Indemnity that had been adapted to film. She recalled loving those movies as a kid and went back to the books with a deeper curiosity about “what drove” the stories. The books, she found, were also much darker and more explicit than the films. Abbott began writing her own pulp fiction.
“I don’t really consider any of my novels ‘crime’ novels,” Abbott says. “They’re not mysteries, exactly; there aren’t clues to pick up along the way. I didn’t know exactly what I was writing [with her first novel, Die a Little]. But eventually I reached the end and felt like I had something.”