Megan Abbott's Latest Novel: 'You Will Know Me'
ELISE HU, HOST:
Megan Abbott is the queen of teenage noir, crime novels that center in the worlds of girls and their parents and extreme sports. Her latest, called "You Will Know Me," takes place in the glittery and mysterious world of competitive gymnastics, where a 13-year-old star and her family are pursuing Olympic dreams.
MEGAN ABBOTT: It's a tight-knit gymnastics community and everyone sort of has hitched themselves to Devon, the central gymnast star. And she's about to go to the next stage of being elite gymnastics when the coach - his niece's boyfriend is - dies in a hit-and-run accident. And it sort of rocks the community and sort of speculation abounds. And like in any insular community, there's theories and rumors, and it shakes everyone up just at this moment before this rather important competition.
HU: And insular is key. Gymnastics when we think of that world, we think insular. We think intense, cutthroat. Is this a natural for a mystery? What got you into this?
ABBOTT: I think it is. I mean, I'm always interested in sort of closed societies because, in some ways, it's like the classic crime story of the mob, right. It's the family that keeps everybody's secrets, and they protect one another. And they may harm one another, but they, you know, when there's an outsider they kind of close ranks. You know, it's true with a lot of different communities, not just the mob and gymnastics (laughter). But it's definitely true in this one. They all are focused on one goal, which is for their team to achieve and to advance. So, you know - and they all share this similar obsession. They're just - they live and breathe gymnastics because it is so consuming, as you say.
HU: How did you make an atmosphere of doom really - or dread - out of one of the cheerier Olympic sports, when we think about it?
ABBOTT: Yes, I've ruined it.
ABBOTT: No. I think I was very interested in how it's a team sport essentially, as we all see when we watch the Olympics. But it's also a very individual sport. Everyone wants to be the star in some way and to achieve on their own. And I think that, you know, creates an aura of suspicion automatically. And then you have the situation now where a lot of girls begin gymnastics at age 2, 3, 4, 5, so their parents become a part of it - very early age. There's a lot of inherent pressure on this sort of notion that parents are always watching. And then there's this a little bit of a power pull between the coach and the parents and the gymnasts and among the gymnasts. So I think it just becomes a natural pressure cooker.
HU: Let's talk about the child. Let's talk about the central gymnast here, Devon. She's a young gymnastics prodigy. But it's hard to come away from the book feeling like we understand who she is.
HU: The few details that we get seem to be as she appears to other people, right. So was that distance intentional for you?
ABBOTT: Yes. I wanted her to be the enigma, the sort of, you know, the mask. Even when we watch, you know, these fabulous Olympic gymnasts this year, there is a mask that they have to wear. There's sort of an expectation of the gleaming smile of the gymnast. And that really interested me, and I think there's something about the gymnast and the prodigy, in this case, the gymnast prodigy, where so much of it is interior. So much of it is a mind game.
I've read a number of gymnasts' memoirs and talked to a few gymnasts who talk so much about how they have to literally will themselves to believe that they can do this thing that really, by the law of physics, they should not be able to do. So they figure out really early on how to kind of trick themselves. And I think that that's pretty mysterious to the rest of us. And I think that's particularly confusing when it's your own child, you know. And there's that moment that all parents have when you realize that you used to sort of recognize every facial expression, every gesture on your child. And then there's a certain age, you don't know what they're thinking at all. And I was really interested in that moment.
HU: Right. On some level, everyone in this book is sort of unknowable to one another, right. The parents, it is revealed, don't seem to know everything about one another. The parents don't feel like they know their children.
ABBOTT: Yes, right. Its sort of paranoia is rather intense because I think, you know, when everyone is invested in one goal, when all activities and all, you know - in this case with these parents, you know, there's two mortgages. And, you know, all their finances are all sort of hoisted into this effort. And I think when it's called into question, I mean, it does become this moment almost of paralysis, the sort of stepping back and sort of saying, you know, what have we become moment?
HU: To turn to the crime novel part of this, there are lots of mysteries that are real procedurals - you know, a body, blood, a lot of law enforcement involved. This mystery actually feels highly domestic and self-contained, like we talked about. So I wonder if writing something that feels this way, that feels smaller is harder in some ways, but maybe also more relatable.
ABBOTT: Yeah, it does seem to be what they're calling now domestic suspense, is having a moment. And I love procedurals. But most of us aren't cops or detectives, you know. So they're often remote from our lives. And I think it's really both challenging and fascinating to write about a world that is closer to the world that most of us live in. It's about marriage. It's about parenting. It's about how power operates in a family. And I think we all identify with that in some way. So it gets stickier, you know. And I think that those books - I know I find as a reader they linger with me much longer for that reason.
HU: And this isn't the first book you've written in this closed society, like you talk about in the world of extremely competitive sports. What draws you to it?
ABBOTT: Were I to psychoanalyze myself, I would say it's because I lack any athletic ability at all (laughter). I could never even jump over the hurdle in track, you know. I was so sure that I would fall, and my brother was a supreme athlete. So for me, it was always rather exotic. And so maybe there's some kind of wish fulfillment in imagining what it's like to feel like you have control over your body and can make it do these powerful things. I guess that's how I sort of - vicariously imagining what that must be like.
HU: Megan Abbott is the author of "You Will Know Me." Megan, thanks.
ABBOTT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.