Megan Abbott talks about her new book The Fever, growing up with Southern literature and what she’ll take away from her year as John Grisham writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.
The panel was “Death and Desire,” the place Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the participants Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Gwen Florio and Bill Loehfelm. I was able to sit down with Abbott in the dining room of Muriel’s Restaurant before the panel, which was appropriately taking place upstairs next to the Seance Room. For someone who writes crime fiction, Abbott is tiny in size and has an infectious laugh, more resembling the teenaged girls that she’s taken to writing about more recently in books like Dare Me and The End of Everything.
She’s also the first non-Southern writer to be asked to serve as writer-in-residence at University of Mississippi in Oxford, a program started by crime master John Grisham and his wife Renee in 1993. Abbott wrapped up her term in May amid news of her book Dare Me being made into a movie and her latest book The Fever, based on the real-life unexplained outbreak of seizures among teenaged girls in upstate New York, about to hit shelves. She also ended up with a cameo on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” episode in the Mississippi Delta.
“It’s been great to be immersed in a place that’s so different,” says Abbott. She first visited Oxford for Faulkner’s home of Rowan Oak but then kept coming back to visit friends and do events at Square Books. “I knew that I would love it, but I didn’t quite know that I would love it so much. I feel unduly lucky, a little bit like an imposter,” she says about her writer-in-residence post, “but I was raised on Southern writing so it’s always been a big influence on me.”
She remembers reading Grisham’s The Firm when it came out and says it was one of the first crime stories she’d ever read. Her own novels started out inspired by film noir, but once she realized the themes of passion, aggression, ambition and revenge also translated perfectly to the lives of teenaged girls, she hasn’t looked back.
“I think teenaged girls often aren’t treated seriously in literature,” she says. “There’s so many cliches and stereotypes about teenaged girls. It’s been really interesting for me to see the sorority girls at Ole Miss and that whole culture. Everyone keeps saying there’s a book in that.”
Is there? Abbott says it’s too soon to tell how her time in Oxford might translate to the page, but she can’t help but have been inspired. “It’ll take a few years, but I grew up in Michigan and I’ve been in New York for 20 years, so everything is different in the best and most invigorating way as a writer,” she says about the city. “The trees are different and then there’s the kudzu, but there’s more subtle things that once you’re there a while you start to pick up on. Even the language works differently here, so the rhythms and cadences of speech have been really interesting for me to hear.”
She read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in high school, but says it was The Sound and the Fury in college that really blew her mind. It was the first time she finished a book and then immediately went right back to the beginning and read the whole thing over again. Flannery O’Connor was also an influence, along with Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. Abbott says she’ll always be partial to Streetcar Named Desire, because it introduced her to Williams.
“Much like noir, it was death and desire, those themes, the darkness, sort of the weird family dynamics, the way longing works, strong women, madness, all that stuff that’s big in noir for me was there,” she says, “and the language felt much in the way that a lot of other Southern writers I discovered at that time felt —erotic and beautiful and just like nothing I’d ever read before.”
As for her own desires, Abbott has high hopes for Dare Me, her book about ruthless high school cheerleaders and their coach, making it to the big screen. She’s written the script and Director Michael Sucsy (known for “The Vow “and HBO’s “Grey Gardens”) has signed on to the project. She admits she’s buried her desires when it comes to casting so as not to be disappointed, but Natalie Portman is currently rumored to star. “It seems like the moment for young women in movies with ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Divergent’ and ‘The Fault in Our Stars,'” she adds. “There’s this sort of flood of them so hopefully I can ride that.”
The Fever released on the June 17, and the real-life story it’s based on sounds like a movie in itself. About a dozen girls from the same high school in upstate New York suddenly develop a condition that resembles Tourette’s syndrome with uncontrollable verbal outbursts and facial tics. The cause is thought to be a chemical toxin, but none can be found. Doctors come up with a diagnosis of psychogenic illness, which translates to mass hysteria.
Abbott first read about the occurrence in the New York Daily News and thought it would make a great book. Daily news reports and appearances by the young girls on The Today Show and Good Morning America were exciting to her at first, but she eventually had to make the story her own and detach from the actual case. The Fever centers on fictional family the Nashes whose stability is thrown into chaos when daughter Deenie’s best friend Lise is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure during class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread throughout the community and as hysteria swells, a series of tightly held secrets emerge.
Tom Perrotta, whose series “The Leftovers” debuted on HBO last week, has said, “Megan Abbott writes with total authority and an almost desperate intensity; [she] grabs hold of you and won’t let go.” During the “Death and Desire” panel, Abbott revealed her technique for hooking readers: “Confidences pull the reader close. It’s like your saying ‘let me tell you this …'”