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Master Class With Megan Abbott

The author of just-released You Will Know Me talks about the importance of setting a mood in her writing. 

youwillknowmeOut from Little, Brown and Co. today, You Will Know Me is Megan Abbott‘s fourth novel that gets into the sinister minds of teenaged girls. After examining the harsh realities of cheerleading with Dare Me and then a hazardous outbreak of seizures in The Fever, she turns to gymnastics in her latest story.

In You Will Know Me, Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their 15-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gym community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate.

During the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in March, Abbott presented a master class on “Setting Mood.” Using a passage from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as an example, she explored how mood, atmosphere and style in crime fiction can be used to heighten emotion, create suspense and draw the reader into the story’s snares.

While Abbott has chosen to write about teenaged girls as of late, she’s no stranger to crime fiction. She started out as a noir writer first, with titles like Queenpin and Die A Little. She says that in crime fiction, “there’s a commitment to pace, to moving forward.”

She first fell in love with James M. Caine’s novels (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce), but the passage of Chandler’s she chose for her class is the one where Philip Marlowe enters a greenhouse to meet the General. The atmosphere is oppressive, decaying and exotic, drawing the reader and Marlowe in through a series of vestibules.

The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” – The Big Sleep

meganabbotttwfest“Mood is creating a feeling in the reader,” Abbott says. “You can destabilize or unsettle the reader with shifts in mood.”  She adds that making decisions about what the reader sees is key, because this vital weapon in your arsenal can transport the reader to a dark place.

Taking on the role of teacher, Abbott didn’t give away too many of her own writing tricks during the class, but she did say that she gives herself permission to take time with “things I want to have an effect,” using words as cues. She also follows Hemingway’s advice to not stop when things are going badly but to stop when they are going well. A gin and tonic at the end of the day helps too.

Ultimately, Abbott had this to say about the topic of the class: “You might not remember who did it, but the mood lingers with you.”

That’s certainly true for her last book The Fever. I don’t really remember what happened at the end, but I won’t soon forget that eerie, green pool of water lurking at the edge of town. And I don’t expect she’ll disappoint with You Will Know Me.

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