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Shop Talk: Megan Abbott Drinks Two Diet Cokes, Makes Weird Choices, and Keeps on Writing

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Nobody does sports-themed crime better than Megan Abbott. Three of her last six novels (You Will Know Me, Dare Me, and The Turnout, coming out on August 3rd, 2021) have all centered on athletics in some shape or form.

As a former coach and player, I can’t help but be a Megan Abbott fan. She nails these particular subcultures with an eye for the gray areas, the blurry spot between the stereotypical cheerleader and what lies behind her ice-blue eyes.

Megan is also a prolific author who splits time between writing novels and scripts. Considering her production level, I always assumed Megan’s writing process was akin to that of an Olympic gymnast. Come to find out, I wasn’t too far off the mark.

Eli Cranor: Do you feel like there’s a connection to be made between athletics and writing, especially when it comes to process?

Megan Abbott: There are so many superstitions in both worlds. Having written about sports a lot, I find such synchronicity with the feeling of needing to do things a certain way to make things go a certain way… getting yourself in the headspace, and the mental games—it all seems very connected to me.

EC: Do you have a background in athletics?

MA: I have no athletic ability at all. If I were my therapist, I would say the reason I write about sports must be some sort of longing I have. My brother was a really good athlete. I grew up in a household where I would get dragged along to the Little League games and everything. But no, I never had any capacity to control my body, so I find it all really exotic. I like subcultures of any kind. I think physical ones are more suited to writing because you get to paint a whole world.

EC: Tell me about your world, your office in particular. Where do you write? Do you have any superstitions or trinkets that fuel your process?

MA: I work in this small office in my apartment overlooking the Long Island Railroad, which you will hear if it goes by. I do have a lot of tchotchkes. I have to look at things. They are just a lot of little objects I’ve collected over the years. I have a tiny plastic ballerina I purchased before I started The Turnout. I have some evil eyes. A writer friend of mine, Jimmy Cajoles, is always buying me evil eyes. I have a lot of crystals, even though I don’t really understand crystals. And then I just have some strange stuff, like this mannequin hand.

Click to view slideshow.

EC: I see it’s missing most of the fingers, and even has some wires exposed?

MA: Yeah, it’s really creepy. I sort of swap all this stuff out and change things up every now and then. I like to have things colorful. That helps create the energy I need in the room. It’s a chaotic-looking room in general. I have all my pulp paperbacks on the walls because they’re so colorful. I like a little bit of chaos, and then every once in a while, I just need to clear it all out.

EC: Do you redecorate for each book?

MA: No, but there can be some things that are connected to a book, and then once that book is done I’ll sort of rotate them out. It’s really just more of a space for creativity. The last few years I’ve been juggling scripts with novels, so I don’t want anything to feel too connected to one particular thing.

EC: Speaking of how you split your work time, I read somewhere once that you like having more than one project going. Can you explain that?

MA: Like most of us, I had a full-time job when I first started publishing. Learning to split that time was the only way I wrote my first novel. You have to use your time when you don’t have much of it. For ten years I was a grant writer and I’d only write on the weekends. Then I slowly shifted to writing fiction part time. But I liked having the two things, two different brains, two different kinds of writing. After I left the grant-writing job, I started writing scripts. For me, if I’m just writing a novel, I can go kind of crazy. I don’t have kids. I have nothing to distract me. So it’s nice to have something else, especially when I hit a wall on the novel. I can move to the other thing, and when I come back I have fresh eyes. As someone who needs to be writing all the time—and I mean writing in the “general” sense, which includes thinking about writing—two projects are better than one.

EC: How do you switch between the projects?

MA: I can’t move from a script to a novel in the same day. I can’t move between two active scripts on the same day, either. But I can move from working on a script to, say, a series bible, or something that’s not as intense in the same day. The novel is so immersive, it just doesn’t work that way for me. It requires several days of re-emersion when I go back to it. I feel like I’m going down a mine, you know?

EC: Totally. I always compare my writing to athletics, or working out. If I don’t get my writing “workout” in for the day, I just don’t feel right.

MA: That’s it exactly. This is a way to keep being creative. When you get stuck on one project, you move to the other one.

EC: When does your writing “workout” start?

MA: It used to be early morning. I don’t know when that went away, but it did. Maybe it was the quarantine. I run in the morning, and then I spend like two or three hours trying to psyche myself up to sit down and write. Usually it’s me trying to find a place of excitement to enter into it from. I do this thing on Twitter that’s like a birthday or a daily “inspiration” post.

EC: I’m a huge fan of those! The pictures you feature are always such candid shots. I’m guessing you don’t just do an image search for those?

MA: I’m always looking at photographs. So I’ll come across this great candid of Marlon Brando, and I’ll save it. There’s also certain search words you can do. You can actually use, “candid,” or “on set,” or “behind the scenes.” So, yeah. Maybe Google just knows me well enough now, but it will produce the deep cut. Everyone thinks I do the daily inspiration because I’m “trying to be on social media.” But I’m actually only doing that for myself. I want to look at beautiful pictures and think about Sterling Hayden or Bette Davis or maybe Raymond Carver then read a little bit and post a quote. What I’m really trying to do is get myself in that creative headspace so that I can start right. It all tends to come together around midmorning. I usually close up shop by late afternoon.

EC: Do you do any work at night?

MA: I’m often watching something in the evening that has some connection to what I’m working on. Something that keeps my mind in that same space, especially when it comes to scripts.

EC: Do you ever just watch things without studying them?

MA: There’s definitely a part of me that watches to learn, like if I’m writing a book set in the 1970s, I’ll watch shows set in the 70s. But then there’s a set of things I like to watch that just get me excited creatively. I’m just trying to keep my juices going with stuff I know I love. The other day I re-watched The Third Man, which I’ve seen like ten times but I knew it would get me excited. I might do a deep dive into a director I really like. The hope is that even when I go to sleep this will keep my brain going so that I might dream up a solution to some story problem.

EC: From the pictures you post on Twitter to the movies for inspiration, it seems like images are a huge part of your creative process. Do you find these pictures as you’re writing, or is it something you do at a separate time?

MA: In the early stages, I’m always finding images that center me in the world of the book. I don’t do anything with them, really. Like for The Turnout I had a lot of pictures I’d collected. Very few had to do with dance. They were more about the mood, the feel of the book. They put me in that place.

EC: Do you save them all in a file on your computer, or do you print them out?

MA: I’ve heard of authors making visual collages. Faulkner famously outlined A Fable on his walls. Kubrick is famous for his archives. He has like five buildings in England packed full of stuff he’d collect for each movie. What you’re doing is you’re trying to cast a spell on yourself. Whatever it takes to get there. And for me it’s often visual. Sometimes it’s songs. I create a playlist for each book, but then I also have music I always listen to when I write. And that’s mainly soundtracks and scores from movies. All the Paul Thomas Anderson stuff is great. Stuff like Max Richter is good too. Mica Levi is another. They did the soundtrack to Under the Skin and Jackie. It’s all kind of psychotic and strange, but I tend to go to it a lot. I can’t have lyrics when I write.

EC: All of this initial research comes at the beginning of a project, right? Like you start the manuscript at the same time you start the research?

MA: It’s a pretty close proximity. If I don’t have the voice, there’s not going to be a book. So I’ll be writing pretty early on. Often these scenes won’t even make the final cut. But I don’t ever want to go too far without knowing the voice, though I have before, many times.

EC: Do you have anything that fuels you throughout a day of writing?

MA: Before the pandemic, I would have two Diet Cokes a day. Now I have three. I would have ten if I didn’t fear what I was doing to my brain and body. I constantly chew Orbit peppermint gum. Like a whole pack a day, which is really the only thing that stops me from smoking. I’ve never smoked, by the way. But if I had been born thirty years before, I would definitely have a serious, four-pack-a-day habit. Something about the gum just helps me think. I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything without a piece of gum in my mouth.

EC: Wait. You’ve never smoked?

MA: Maybe in high school. Maybe one or two cigarettes. Maybe a clove cigarette…

EC: So you’ve got your Diet Coke and your Orbit gum, now let’s get to the real technical part of how you work. Do you write on a laptop?

MA: I have a PC. When I’m traveling I will work on a laptop, or if I need a change of scenery I’ll go in my bedroom to write because I can’t stand to be in my office anymore. Generally, I can’t write any place other than home. I used to go to coffee shops or a designated writing space, but I stopped doing that when the deadlines started piling up. I don’t have time to get to those places anymore.

EC: Do you do any of your work longhand?

MA: Sometimes, yeah, in the early stages. I censor myself a lot less when I’m writing longhand. When I’m trying to get a voice—or if I come up with an idea on the fly—then I’ll write longhand. Often it’s the best stuff. I wish I could do everything there, but it’s just too slow. I get to more of an unconscious place when I’m writing longhand. It’s a little riskier. I don’t cross much out, or start to search for synonyms.

EC: Elmore Leonard is one of my writing heroes, and he swore by writing longhand. He once said he could tell if a book had been written on a computer. What do you make of that?

MA: I think it’s generational. James Ellroy always talks about never touching a computer. I get it for them. I get why they would assume that anything that comes from a computer is going to be work. They associate those machines with offices, and we don’t. I mean, I wouldn’t say I have an intimate relationship with my computer—I really don’t—but I don’t associate it with work. I actually like to change the font and the color of the page as I’m writing to help liven things up.

EC: Do you set a daily word count while drafting?

MA: Often by the last third, I’m really sick of the book. It’s like the Hitchcock thing where he never wanted to shoot the movie because he’d already storyboarded it in his head. And if you write a crime novel, you’ve had to figure out most of the plot by the end, even if you’re not an outliner, which I’m not. So during that stage of the game, I oftentimes will give myself a word or page count. When I was first starting out, I gave myself a weekly word count. I never would’ve written a book without that. I just don’t need that as much anymore. One thing that’s worked well for me lately is setting twenty minute intervals on my phone, where I won’t look at anything except the page, which one should not need, but it’s getting harder and harder. This was exactly how I started jogging, doing intervals where I ran then walked then ran again.

EC: You don’t outline?

MA: I usually have three very broad acts in my head. I’m writing about criminals. I’ve never written from the perspective of the police or a reporter or anything. There I think you do have to figure out more ahead of time. But when it’s just people committing a crime, the plot creates itself. As I go, I’ll keep adding ideas to a list. Bullet points of things that need to happen. It keeps me honest. I have to outline for scripts. I hate it, but I know it helps. I’ve cut so much from my books because I started writing before I was ready. Lately, I’ve tried to do more thinking beforehand. I learned this from writing articles. I’d write a review and it would end up four times the length it needed to be. I think a lot can be gained by doing more thinking. I’ve thrown away—or abandoned, I should say—so many books because I hadn’t worked it out enough. In the end, I don’t think any of it’s wasted. It all yields results. I always consider that “thinking” stage sort of a place of play, before you get down into the mechanics of it.

EC: After you’ve finished your first draft, what do you do next?

MA: That’s changed over the years. These days, my agent gets it pretty early. I mean, I’ve reworked it a bunch at that point, especially the first seventy-five pages. I work those over hundreds of times. The deeper I go into a book, the less I rework. So I don’t really have a pure first draft. I’ll oftentimes give it to my agent before I ever type, “The End,” because I’m not sure if it’s working. I’ve worked with him for ten years now. He’s a former editor. He can really figure out if something’s not working right away, and that’s so helpful. I don’t share my stuff early with anyone else, though. I don’t do any of those things other people do that works so well, like giving their friends drafts or joining a writers’ group. I just don’t want any other voices in my head. And I only really bring my agent in when I have to. But I do set the manuscript aside at that point. I actually count on him taking a while to get back to me. It would be disastrous if I went right back in.

EC: In the first “Shop Talk,” William Boyle referenced this line he’d heard you say during a presentation: “Make weird choices.” How does that thought impact your process?

MA: As a reader, the weird stuff is always what I’m looking for. Someone like Daniel Woodrell can take something as simple as a phrase, or a character thought—it can be very small—but when it happens, it’s just like—(makes buzzing sound)—you’ve gone off into some other place. To me, those are the best moments in books I read. So I try to let myself be weird when I write. There’s nothing to lose by it. You can always take it out. I’ve taken out plenty of my weird stuff. Usually it’s a good sign. There’s something in you that makes you want to make a character do this thing you didn’t think they’d do, and that something is usually right. Most of the time, it’s not a big plot thing—sometimes it is—but it’s usually a smaller thing. It could be a character trait you follow that really makes a character weird. That’s good because weird is specific. And that’s the main thing with writing, specificity. I think there’s this notion with writing that some of us might get from writing classes that everything should be universal, but it’s the exact opposite. The specific is the only universal.

EC: Should this idea of making weird choices also bleed over into a writer’s life? Is it necessary to also live weird if you’re going to write weird?

MA: Oh, boy. Flaubert, or somebody, said something like you must be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. I don’t think that’s true for everyone. There have been some writers who’ve lived pretty wild lives. Writers I love, like Tennessee Williams or Hemingway. Honestly, I think most of what we do makes people think we’re pretty weird already. I mean, when I look at all the tchotchkes above my desk—it’s all weird. Writing is weird. You have to trust that you’re going to create this mental path so that readers can tunnel into your brain and experience this thing. So, for me, that’s really weird on its own. Deep down, though, I know I need discipline in order to produce. My routine really doesn’t enable me much room to be weird.  

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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