The conjurer himself ... casts his spell not with the starry lure of titillation nor, in the manner of many noir masters, a scene of such keen violence that we are stunned into submission. No, no. [He] does it with language. And not in the form of well-chosen words, the music of a fine sentence, the harmony of a paragraph crafted to draw you close to the book's beating heart. No. The thing [he] does to words is the stuff of dark alchemy.
Megan Abbott: the conjurer herself. Although she wrote the preceding in her foreword to the 2012 re-release of Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red, the description applies equally well to her and the "dark alchemy" she performs in her new novel, Dare Me (Reagan Arthur).
Dare Me is the tale of a Machiavellian struggle for power within a high-school cheerleading squad. And if cheerleading seems like an unlikely milieu for practitioners of Niccolò Machiavelli's brand of cunning and duplicity, listen to how a sampling of the many enthusiastic reviewers have characterized this book. The Wall Street Journal said it "turns the frothy world of high-school cheerleading into something truly menacing"; The New York Times calls it "unsentimental ... [It] reveals something very true about the consuming, sometimes ugly, nature of female friendships"; and to quote Entertainment Weekly, "It feels groundbreaking when Abbott takes noir conventions--loss of innocence, paranoia, the manipulative sexuality of newly independent women--and suggests that they're rooted in high school, deep in the hearts of all-American girls."
And critics aren't the only ones taking an interest in the book. Publishers Weekly announced that Fox 2000 Pictures has optioned Dare Me for producer Karen Rosenfelt, who boasts The Devil Wears Prada and the Twilight series among her credits. Abbott will adapt the book to screen herself.
As I suggested by quoting Abbott's Tomato Red preface at the outset of this post, I think a great deal of the power and appeal of Dare Me comes from the language and voice of the novel's teenage narrator, Addy Hanlon. I recently sat down with Abbott to talk about that, as well as a range of other topics, including her inspirations for the tale and her literary influences.
Mark Coggins: Give us some insight into the choices you made for telling this story: in the present tense, narrated in the first person by a sort of Nick Carraway-like character who (at least initially) doesn't seem to have a direct stake in the central conflict.
Megan Abbott: I've always been interested in the lieutenant/second in command figure--whether it's a war movie, a gangster tale, a Shakespeare play. What is their stake? Do they hold their own ambitions? What is it like being the always-beta girl? Also, since most of us are not "alphas," it seemed like a useful perch from which to tell the story. I had, however, initially intended her to be more of a fly-on-the-wall narrator. But, like Lizzie in The End of Everything, she just kept inserting herself.
MC: "Cheer," a short story you wrote prior to Dare Me, has some similar characters and themes, but is actually quite different. What were your goals for the novel versus the short story?
MA: That story was meant to be a nasty little slice of noir, but I couldn't picture living with those characters for the duration of the book. I have to love all my characters in a novel, and so they all transformed. I always think of that line from the movie The Rules of the Game: "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons." And as the novel unfurled for me, I found the heart of all the characters. I felt for all of them, even when they did bad things.
MC: I read an interview you did for your previous book, The End of Everything, in which you said that part of the idea behind writing Dare Me was to set Shakespeare's Richard III in the world of high-school cheerleaders. I can see the power struggle for leadership of the cheerleading squad being like Richard's struggle for the throne, but I'm not sure I could say which character in Dare Me would be Richard, especially by the end. In your mind, is there a Richard, or are all of the central characters tainted or corrupted in some way by the struggle?
MA: Originally, I suspect I had a clearer match-up in mind, but it fell apart quickly. Mostly, I wanted to absorb the atmosphere of the play, the feeling of drive, desperation, treachery. And the way Richard, despite his bad behavior, draws us in. He is our guide, our vantage point and we are his confidantes, so as much as his actions alarm us, we find ourselves linked to him.
MC: When I went to high school, cheerleaders were more like "cheerlebrities," to borrow a term used by Addy. They were all about looking good and rallying support for the school's (male) athletes at high-school games and matches. The cheerleaders in Dare Me, on the other hand, pretty much view the high-school games as a venue for their performances. They don't talk or think about the athletes on the school teams, and are not even concerned whether the team wins or loses. Why is it so different for them?
MA: This is, foremost, a change in cheerleading in the last 20 years. It's now a competitive sport (even if can't quite garner that particular designation) that girls train from a young age to take part in. Shaping their bodies, taking tumbling and gymnastics classes, going to cheer camp. Their focus is tournaments, beating other squads. In many ways, it would be like expecting gymnasts to rally for football players. But our long-burnished image of the cheerleader as the peppy rally girl for her team persists. I recently wrote a piece about this--I think it's hard for us to let that [image] go. There's a nostalgia for it. For the America that originated it.
MC: Having characterized the cheerleaders of my generation as cheerlebrities, as I did, I will also mention that the head cheerleader, homecoming queen, and girl voted most-respected in our class later joined the Marines. It strikes me that there is something almost martial about the squad in Dare Me. Coach Colette French could be viewed as a drill sergeant come to whip her recruits into shape, and the girls' performances the "battle" they do against other schools' squads. There's also the requirement to have each other's backs in the stunts they perform, like soldiers have to protect their buddies. Is that taking things too far?
MA: Not too far at all. The book sprang from a sense that these girls were, in many ways, like hardcore Marines, bad-ass warriors. Squads, after all, are martial by nature. And the book was framed around these captain and lieutenant characters. It quickly spilled over into the language the girls use (which is only a slight exaggeration, if that, of the language in use among the more serious squads I observed). I found myself riffing on famous military speeches (MacArthur, Patton) for Coach. It was a huge influence on the way I wrote the book. And one of its pleasures writing it; I really got to explore the power of military rhetoric.
MC: I made the mistake of installing the Facebook Messenger application on my cell phone, and during the early morning hours of my birthday not long ago, was subjected to an almost constant barrage of notification buzzes and beeps as friends waking up around the world left birthday wishes on my wall. I was too sleepy/lazy to get up and shut the phone off, but for the first time I realized how connected I had become to other people via my phone. It also made me think about how much worse it must be for today's teenagers, given the volume of texts and phone calls they are constantly exchanging. Can you talk about the electronic "connectedness" of the characters in Dare Me and how it informs the plot?
MA: It felt to me that texts, Facebook, and Twitter are the contemporary equivalent of notes passed in class in my day. Except in my day, your reputation could be ruined by the end of the day, as the note passed from hand to hand, period after period. Today, it only takes an instant. It struck me as very powerful, both intimate and treacherous.
Also in my teen years, you could, as long as you didn't pick up the family phone, leave the terrors and heartache of the school day behind when you got home. Now, that's very hard. Your experience with your birthday wishes--that's the part I mean. I feel that in my life too. My phone has become this virtual appendage, a live thing buzzing in my hand. All of this felt like exciting tools for suspense.
MC: For a 50-something male, reading Dare Me is probably as close as I will ever get to experiencing life as a teenage girl. A lot of that comes from the verisimilitude of Addy's voice, and the language you choose to narrate the story. Her interior dialogue feels a lot like a fever dream at points--so body conscious, so tied to real time, with little emotional distancing. Is that an effect you consciously sought?
MA: I'm so glad it reads that way. I can't say I sought it out consciously. It seemed to come once I found her voice, which took a while. At first, she was a far more tentative and distant narrator. It was on the advice of my first reader, Dan Conaway, that I gave her more breathing room, more room to feel things. As soon as he said that I knew she wanted something. Once I knew that, she become very strong in my head and grew to surprise me.
MC: Without giving away any key plot points, can you say which character you have the most empathy for, and why? Do you expect the reader will share that empathy?
MA: Beth [Cassidy, the "alpha" girl on the squad]. I had an idea about her when the book began and it changed dramatically. She is the putative troublemaker here, but I grew to love her. Her bruised and dented heart. The more I fell for her, the more space I gave her, the more I granted her. I definitely get that she can come across as a "mean girl," or as a villain (she behaves very badly in the book), but I don't see her that way myself. She's my girl.
MC: In past interviews, you've expressed admiration for the writing of Raymond Chandler. To your credit, your admiration hasn't assumed the form of forced mimicry. If you think he's had any direct influence on you, how would you characterize it?
MA: I think he will always be my biggest influence in terms of style. The way, to him, mood mattered above all. Sights, scents, colors, pressures in the air, the way sound can travel. The way it can feel like everything around you is part of you, part of your own longing or fear or trepidation. That if you can strike a mood, it's far more than a mood. It's a world you've given your reader.
MC: In your non-fiction study of hard-boiled fiction, The Street Was Mine, you point out that Dashiell Hammett's protagonists, as opposed to Chandler's and James M. Cain's, are less introspective and more self-contained. Does that make them less interesting to you? Are you less influenced by Hammett's writing as a result?
MA: Boy, I don't remember writing that (ha!), but it feels true. I am a Hammett lover, but I do have a weakness for damaged, unreliable narrators whose neurosis can't help but peek through. Hammett's are harder nuts to crack. He feels more removed from his protagonists. Which is one of the gifts of his books. They are less constricted by [point of view], for one thing. And that distance makes the books whip-smart, so incisive. But Chandler and Cain can't help but love their protagonists/narrators and that leads to a certain messiness I love. They identify with them and want to protect them, which makes their books much crazier than Hammett's (and not as jewel-perfect) but so open-hearted.
MC: Can you give us any details about your next novel?
MA: It's called The Fever and it's about a mysterious outbreak in a small town.
MC: And will you confirm for Huffington Post readers that the red-lipsticked lips on the cover of Dare Me are yours?
MA: As someone who has admitted a predilection for unreliable narrators, I can wholeheartedly say: Of course.
(Author photo by Drew Reilly. Cheerleader photo by Scott Gould. This article was edited by J. Kingston Pierce and originally appeared in The Rap Sheet.)