Archive for ‘End of Everything’

July 26, 2011

a stranger calls

by Megan Abbott

On book tour of late, I visited Michigan and, for the first time, talked about my novel, The End of Everything, in the world that inspired it—suburban Detroit.  It was a strange feeling, seeing many old friends stretching as far back as elementary school.

After the reading, a trio of these friends—three women, all looking incandescent despite the humid weather and the clambering hands of their downy headed children—came up to say hello and pointed out that I had in fact used the actual names of my high school chemistry teacher and middle school math teacher (both unusual names) in the novel.

I can’t account for the fact that I’d forgotten this entirely, can’t even say I was ever aware I’d done it.  It was an uncanny feeling, like being caught. Like a dream when someone says to you, “I was just on the third floor of your house” when you know you only have two floors.

This episode was followed by an after-party in which several folks, including Eric Peterson, asked if my novel was inspired by the Oakland County missing children cases of the late 1970s. I am, let it be said, a true-crime junkie, which is why I cannot rightly explain the blank face I gave in return. What missing children?

Because my novel is centered around a missing girl, I have spent the last several weeks talking about missing-children cases (with both tragic and happy endings) virtually everywhere I go. One of the reasons I set the novel in the early 1980s was because I remember distinctly the changes in my community in terms of child safety. After the Adam Walsh case (1981),  I remember a distinct feeling of hysteria over “stranger danger” and the way that made me feel as a kid. To me, everything felt like an enticing, half-hidden mystery. But to parents, teachers, everyone else but we kids, it felt quite intensely like a place of peril, especially to children.

So, as I’ve visited bookstores, others have shared similar tales of the Walsh case, and other ones. I know for Sara, the Etan Patz case in New York had a similar impact. And, amid all this, there was both the terrible Brooklyn case and the Caylee Anthony phenomenon (what do you do when the danger is within your own home, which, statistically, is usually the case?).

Amid all these conversations, though, I continually asserted it was the Adam Walsh case that I remember so vividly, in large part because everyone saw the TV movie and the graphic details of Adam’s death scattered through our school with abandon.

But an Oakland County case? I didn’t recall it one bit.

For some backstory, I grew up in Wayne County (Detroit lies at its heart and my town, Grosse Pointe, serves as its upturned chin), the direct neighbor to Oakland, where we might go, when I was a kid, to the movies, or their mall. From what I’ve since learned, over a 13-month period in 1976-1977, four children (ages 10-12) were abducted, held for several days, and murdered. In the grim way of media spectacle, the perpetrator was dubbed the “Baby Sitter” because he kept the children alive for as many as 19 days, feeding them and bathing them before killing them. No one was ever convicted, though there are strong beliefs in the identify of the perpetrator.

I would have been five or six at the time, which is probably why I don’t remember them as they were occurring. But not even in the intervening years?

At the after-party, when discussion of the case came up, I asked my dad if he remembered the case.

“Oh yes,” he said, “of course.”

I’s so interesting because clearly, as a child, I must have felt it—the sense of attenuated fear, anxiety, terror. The dread that must have stretched for years with no suspect found, no justice served. In fact, especially in light of new DNA analysis, there continue to be stories (and stories) about the case, as recently as two weeks ago.

But I have no conscious memory of the case at all. And yet how much it must have impacted all our lives.  Both my brother and I just five years younger than the Oakland County children, abducted in daylight, after buying candy at a pharmacy, coming back from the 7-11.

I am sure my parents shielded me from the specifics, and I do remember all the steps taken in my elementary school to alert parents to “stranger danger.” And I remember afer one such school assembly being particularly frightened to walk the single block home. But as much as I recall countless other missing child cases, I never, ever came upon the one in my own backyard.

It makes me wonder how much I did know about the case, in whatever ways a five or six year old can, but somehow I forgot it, the way we forget things we want to, need to.

I should add, The End of Everything bears no similarity to what happened in  Oakland Country, in facts large or small. I can’t say I even consider it to be a novel about a missing child precisely, but instead about an enchanted family and the power we invest such families with. But it is inspired by that feeling so specific to the late 70s-early 80s. The sense of the world changing, abruptly, even over night, because all the adults were suddenly terrified and that terror painted the entire world of my youth (many of our youth’s) with a powerful menace. The message was: You are not safe, and you never were.

But even adult fear couldn’t stop us. We still needed to discover, to push through to adulthood, to find, on our own, the peril and beauty of the world. We did.

And hat tip to Eric Peterson, who first suggested a connection between my book and the case and who provided great insight into the case that night.

June 27, 2011

the carousel

by Megan Abbott

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”

After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.

Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?

*                *                *

It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.

When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.

It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)

courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society

At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.

Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.

Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.

Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.

Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.

Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.

June 6, 2011

hurry up please it’s time

by Megan Abbott

Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting piece that speculated about why Hollywood seems to have so few (and even fewer successful) movies with preadolescent girls (roughly ages nine to 14) at the center. While the book market for this age group is booming, the carryover to film has been far less reliable. While movies like 13 certainly depict the perils (in a way that reminded me mostly of the best art-directed after-school special ever) of the age, this article focuses instead on movies targeting preadolescent girl viewers.

The author, Pamela Paul, speculates as one of the reasons these movies struggle is that  “The tween occupies a shifting space between the girl who has carefree adventures and the sexy teenager who angsts. It’s a phase that makes both parents and Hollywood executives uncomfortable.”

I’m sure this is true. My new book, The End of Everything, is from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl and I guess I picked that age because there is hardly a time of more “cuspiness.” It’s a time when the world still seems (at least, in my generation) mysterious. Even when your days are mostly filled with the tedium of school and killing time and searching desperately for moments of unsupervised anything, you are old enough to peer into a world infinitely more exotic, substantial and intoxicating than your own. To get a taste of it. It’s such an eye to the key-hole age. But, of course, you usually don’t know what to do once those doors creak—or fling—open.

One of the films mentioned in the piece as a rare positive example is The Man in the Moon (1991), which I remember getting it pretty right. The main character, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), is 14 and develops a crush on her 17-year-old neighbor.  The two begin a flirtation but once the neighbor meets Dani’s more age appropriate sister, everything feels taken from her.  There are some dark plot turns, but they are not sordid ones. And they feel very real.

The Man in the Moon is set in the 50s, and, thinking too of 14-year-old Matty Ross in True Grit, I wonder if period films manage this better, or we manage them better. They feel less close to us. Less close to home. And the social mores, more conservative, seem to assure us we won’t be confronted with what we face today. Because we always feel everything is more dangerous now, and young girls—we still invest so much in their purity, their goodness.

When I was nine the “teen sex comedy” Little Darlings came out. I still remember the tagline distinctly: “Don’t Let the Title Fool You.” The stars were Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, who my favorite child actress as a kid (Bad News Bears, now that’s a preadolescent girl character you can write home about).

With its summer camp-virginity-loss-bet, I was too young to see it, but I remember being so tantalized and so terrified of it at the same time. I think I was fairly fascinated by it and when I eventually did see it, years later, I was surprised. For all its trying-too-hard raunch, at heart it’s a movie eager to, intermittently, show something real—about the thorny relationships girls can have with each other (including as complicated by class issues) and most of all about the ways curiosity and competition can push you into some pretty hard corners.  Kristy McNichol in particular gives her part so much subtlety, digging into the rawest parts of the story. And the outcome of the “bet” felt utterly, painfully real.

The girls in the movie are 15, and I think most girls like movies/books where the female leads are a couple of years older. And had I seen it as young girl, I think it would have been a complicated gift, but a gift nonetheless.

April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



March 15, 2011

the half-closed box

by Megan Abbott

vc andrews

sketch by v.c. andrews (via simon & schuster)

Recently, I did something I probably haven’t done since I first signed up for Facebook: I actually looked at my profile. I’m guessing it was about two years old and the list of books I’d cited as my favorites so surprised me. Not because I don’t love all those books still but many of them seemed so remote to me now.

It struck me how “favorite books” are frequently a snapshot of yourself at a particular moment. Oh, right, that was when all I wanted to read about were gangsters and heists gone wrong. Or, Oh, yes, it had to be obscure British crime novels from just before the war. Or, ah, only stories about the struggles for meaning in midwestern towns.

Just returning now from a bookstore, scouring the shelves searching for compulsive airplane reading for an upcoming trip, I thought about this all some more. How returning to past books we loved are like tunnels into old selves, or parts of our selves that may be neglected (sometimes rightly so) or dormant, that may be gone forever. And sometimes, by returning to these books, we can return to those selves.

For instance, when I first fled–catapulted?–myself from the Michigan suburbs to move to my dream town, New York City, all I wanted to read was tales of suburban malaise–Rick Moody’s Ice Storm, A.M. Homes, Revolutionary Road. Now, more than 15 years free from the grosgrained handcuffs of my hometown ‘burb, Grosse Pointe, I no longer feel such a burning need to burn down that particular house.

Grosse Pointe

(My new book, The End of Everything, is my first set in the suburbs–one much like Grosse Pointe–and writing it let me recapture some of the magic and longing that had been there all along, but I had missed, or forgotten.)

Walking the aisles, I wondered about the me, age 27, who tore through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, all 15,000 pages of it, and was enraptured. Often, I pull that book off the shelf and want to dip back in but something in me worries I couldn’t find myself in it, like wandering through an abandoned house.

But maybe I could. Two years ago, Sara and I wrote a piece about V.C. Andrews for The Believer, and returning to her dark, epicly perverse world after so many years, I could find pieces of myself spring back into place in alarming and exciting ways.

enchanted-castleThen, a few days ago, I saw some writer mention Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a favorite book as a child. Now that I think of it, it’s like the gilt-edged, proper sister to Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’ gothic tale of a pair of brothers and sisters locked in the family attic. Here’s Gore Vidal on the book:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B.Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive… Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room … It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know I remembered the book until suddenly I did. Like opening an old box (a locked room) and finding a childhood toy that was once your whole world and it slipped entirely from you. It made me want to read it again, with an awful longing.

February 6, 2011

secret sharer

by Megan Abbott

I just received copies of the Polish version of my upcoming book, The End of Everything.

The cover is not dramatically different in content, though somehow the feel is distinctly … rawer (the lost Black Swan poster?).

And yet another variation, the U.K. cover, another young girl scene, but this one feeling almost like a canny twist on a 1970s young adult cover:

I’m thinking here of Sara’s post a few weeks back  about the UK cover for her upcoming and brilliant Claire De Witt & the City of the Dead, the different feel it has than her U.S. one. And how both covers seem to speak to the book rather deeply, but to different qualities of the book, the UK cover shot through with murky urban glamor and the U.S. somehow more enigmatic, mythic, oracular… like peeling back old labels on an ancient shipping crate and finding each more mysterious and potentially revelatory than the last.

A funny note: The End of Everything doesn’t come out here until July, but it’s already out in Poland, which is such a strange feeling. Like having a secret double out there.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 113 other followers