Ever wonder what’s behind an Olympic gymnast’s steely, focused glare? So does Megan Abbott, the author of one of summer's must-read thrillers, You Will Know Me . The crime novel, Abbott's latest, is particularly timely as it's set inside the world of elite women’s gymnastics.
“It’s the one Olympics event I’ve always watched,” she tells Bustle during a phone interview. “Figure skating, too—but especially gymnastics, because it’s so much about girlhood to me.”
Girlhood — more specifically, middle-class, suburban American girlhood — is Abbott’s current obsession, and never has it felt more dangerous or subversive than in You Will Know Me. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox has been a gymnastics prodigy since a foot injury at the age of three first sent her to the gym for rehab, and the Knoxes—mother Katie, father Eric, and long-suffering little brother Drew—have been laser-focused on sending her to the Olympics ever since. When a sinister crime shakes Devon’s gym at a critical juncture in her career, it’s more than one girl’s dream that’s threatened; soon cracks begin to show in her family, and then the community itself.
Told from stage-mom Katie’s point of view, the novel is as much about the parents’ world of maxed-out credit cards, booster-club politics, and fundraiser flirtations as it is about the punishing routine of training itself. Devon’s powerful body is a miracle, but it’s also a battleground, crisscrossed with scar tissue and callouses and doomed from the start by the vague threat of impending puberty. Ultimately, Abbott is fascinated not only with the psychology of ambition within girls themselves, but with the way families and communities function—and malfunction—around them, freeing or imprisoning them, vaulting them to glory or shattering them to pieces. Still, Abbott never loses track of Devon’s agency. At the heart of the novel is a young girl’s throbbing, if unknowable, desire.
You Will Know Me rounds out a quartet of novels since 2011 exploring the dark currents pulsing behind a Disney-channel-esque world of charm bracelets and cheerleading practices. But before she moved to the suburbs, Abbott was already an Edgar-award-winning writer of sizzling, midcentury-inspired noir. Abbott’s early work paid homage to the pulp greats she studied at NYU—Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain—with the significant difference that women were her protagonists, and, more often than not, her villains.
I talked with Abbott about her evolution as a novelist, the changing expectations for girls and women over her lifetime, and why she hated Mary Lou Retton as a child.
Bustle: You’ve been called the “queen of teenage noir” and even, I think I saw somewhere, the poet laureate of American girlhood. What is it about girls’ lives that attracts you in this genre?
Megan Abbott: I sort of fell into it without knowing how much there was to find there, and it still feels like this oddly under-explored territory to me. I mean, many people have written about it, in YA alone. But still, there’s something about teenage girls, that they still aren’t taken seriously by the culture. Any sort of darker feeling that teenage girls have makes people so uncomfortable, which suggests to me a kind of power, a subversive power. Especially in America, this notion of the “all-American girl” really persists—the girl-next-door, happy and bouncy and vapid, all these awful stereotypes. That’s still really powerful and hard to let go of. Books about their darker impulses or feelings, or even their richer impulses or feelings, feel like good terrain.
"But still, there’s something about teenage girls, that they still aren’t taken seriously by the culture. Any sort of darker feeling that teenage girls have makes people so uncomfortable, which suggests to me a kind of power, a subversive power."
You’ve written about cheerleaders [in Dare Me ], and now gymnasts. Is there something in particular about girls’ athletics that draws you? Did you have personal experience with that world as a girl?
Boy, no. [Laughs.] I think there are two answers here. The first is that with teenage girls, their bodies are so much on display all the time. Even though this notion is kind of creepy, the ideal body is still the 16- or 17-year-old girl—that’s the fantasy. So the idea of turning that on its head, that the body in cheerleading and gymnastics could become this source of power, and a weapon—a way of owning oneself and taking that back—really intrigues me.
More personally, I have no athletic ability, or even control over my basic body movements. I never could do anything. I could never jump the hurtle in gym class. I had no confidence that I could make my body do things. So I’m always so dazzled by people who seem to have utter mastery over it. Athletes of any variety seem very foreign and exotic and awesome to me... And then there’s the way, in the last 10 or 20 years, the gymnast body has become this incredible thing. It’s now considered beautiful in a way it wasn’t before. In other sports too, like the Williams sisters in tennis, this different version of the female body is finally considered beautiful.
I remember, growing up with Mary Lou Retton, it always felt like [women’s] gymnastics was the centerpiece of Olympics season. Why is that?
It’s interesting. We watch it every four years, so it’s sort of a check-in, for girls and women, for your notions of femininity, of what a girl or woman is supposed to be. I particularly remember Mary Lou Retton, because I was just about to enter adolescence when she had her big year, and I really didn’t like her. She was so perky. I was sort of a surly 12-year-old, and that was everything I was supposed to be and didn’t want to be. I was not seeing, at that age, the athleticism; I was seeing the brand. But then, four years later, you’re a different person—you’re 16. It kind of marks our lives, those of us who watch it. And it shows the cultural side of what a girl should be, too. When you look at Simone Biles this year, it’s a really different model, which is thrilling. Not that there’s anything wrong with Mary Lou Retton! But she was also this big Reagan supporter… and it was “go-go, rah-rah America” time…
"We watch it every four years, so it’s sort of a check-in, for girls and women, for your notions of femininity, of what a girl or woman is supposed to be."
The Cold War…
…which is not the time we’re in now!
How did you decide to explore this world through the eyes of Katie, the mom, rather than Devon, the daughter?
In part it’s the writer decision: I’ve done this, so let me try this. But then I became fascinated with this moment that parents have, especially parents who are as involved with their child as Katie is. I was reading about the father of a golf prodigy, and he said that when he watched her—I think I used this in the book—every gesture she made, every twitch of her eye, he knew what it meant. I was interested in this notion of a parent, when you go from that to not knowing anything, or seeing something you’ve never seen before. I think it happens in all parent-child relationships; it has to happen. But I became entranced by that notion when it’s such a tight relationship, such a physical relationship, what that would be like.
Was there something about motherhood in particular that made you want to choose Katie rather than Eric as the focal point?
I hadn’t done much with mother-daughter relationships, so again, part of it was trying something different. But girls’ relationships with their mothers, and mothers’ with their daughters—it’s perhaps the most fraught territory of all, because the idea of what womanhood’s supposed to be is so tricky. And I’ve always been interested in families [like the Knoxes] where the daughter is closer to the father, or the son is closer to the mother. In some ways we’re not used to seeing it, even though it’s fairly common. I know a lot of women who are closer to their dads, because in some ways it’s easier. It’s so tricky with mothers.
"But girls’ relationships with their mothers, and mothers’ with their daughters—it’s perhaps the most fraught territory of all, because the idea of what womanhood’s supposed to be is so tricky."
Your writing style is often described as dreamlike or breathless. There’s an intensity to it, but, as Sophie Hannah recently mentioned in her glowing New York Times review, there’s also a lot intentionally left out. I wonder how that style developed for you—does it have to do with your appreciation of noir? And was it there from the beginning?
That’s interesting to think about right at this moment, because I got this really mean email to my website yesterday by someone who was so annoyed with my style for just that reason! [Laughs.] The reader was talking about sentence fragments and all this stuff. I did understand why it bothered him, because if you don’t like it, it’s like a tic. But there is something very rhythmic about it to me. That’s why I cut a lot, to keep the rhythm going. I overwrite—maybe 20,000 words, an enormous amount—and then I start cutting back, to leave more room for the reader to enter the book. I always liked books like that, where you’re invited in. You have to figure stuff out, and you’re allowed to enter the conversation in some way, because you’re deciding stuff. I’ve always liked that. It is also meant to be like voices in your head, not a proper narrator, not a Jane Austen narrator. I always liked those books where it feels—and this does come from noir—like a whisper in your ear. So many noir novels are structured like confessions. I’ve always liked that.
You got a PhD [in English] at NYU, and you’ve written a nonfiction book on noir and hardboiled. Is that what you studied in grad school?
There are a few places now where you could make that your concentration, but very few. I was doing straight American literature, with a focus on mid-twentieth century. That was sort of the entree. I’d always loved crime novels, and I’d always loved film noir, but it wasn’t until I was scouting for a dissertation topic, and there were just so many dissertations on Faulkner, whom I adore, so many dissertations on Hemingway. I wanted to do something that was a little less-trod territory. Then I found Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, all those books, and it just felt really intoxicating. It felt like they were dealing with all the same issues as Hemingway and Faulkner, of masculinity, of race, of class, and certainly of gender, but they were doing it from a different angle. That really intrigued me.
What was your earliest infatuation with crime or noir?
When I was a really little kid, my parents took me to a lot of old movies, and we watched old movies on TV. It makes sense to me now, loving gangster movies, because they’re so easy to understand when you’re a kid. Machine guns, cars pulling off, sexy ladies! There’s an access point that can work at age seven or eight. They just felt thrilling to me. I think that was probably the beginning. And then I always liked mysteries, even as far back as Encyclopedia Brown.
"I always liked mysteries, even as far back as Encyclopedia Brown."
Oh man, Encyclopedia Brown!
I want to revisit those books. I’ve been thinking about him lately. I love them! I remember tearing through them. All those great titles, too, “The Case of the Wandering…” They were just so evocative.
Let’s talk about the ending of You Will Know Me, without spoilers of course. There’s a way in which you can read the ending as extremely grim, but there’s another way in which you can read it as perversely hopeful.
I’m glad you said the latter, because that is how I think of it. But I’m getting so many different responses to it, which is what you want. I sometimes feel like it’s this fascinating litmus test of people. I kind of love the Knoxes! Of course, “perverse” is the exact right word, but in the world they live in, [within] the rules of that world, their love is immense. It’s unstoppable. To me, that’s kind of beautiful. So to me, it was a buoyant ending. But I just had a conversation with someone last night, where they were shuddering with horror at it. I just had to nod, because you feel like you kind of out yourself as a morally questionable person! [Laughs.] But the best crime fiction does that, I think… I do think the crime novel is the social novel right now, and all these issues in the culture, we’re working out in crime novels. All this helicopter parenting, and female ambition stuff, it’s a lightning rod. So I have to go with the fact that some people think the Knoxes are monsters, but I don’t.
"I do think the crime novel is the social novel right now, and all these issues in the culture, we’re working out in crime novels."
Do you identify with Devon?
I do! Not with her choices, but definitely. I think it’s always hard for women to have drive and ambition. And in this case, it’s so problematized, to use one of my old academic words, by her relationship with the family. The marriage exists, the whole family exists, because of this thing she can do. So they need her. Which is not the case in my family—but I think most of us, as women, can identify with the feeling of there being this burden on one’s role in the family. A lot depends on it. I really loved her, and I’m so surprised when I see people so—I get it, I get it. But I certainly identify with her. I couldn’t have written the book if I didn’t.
I wonder if people who’ve read the book watch the Olympics differently afterward.
I got so many tweets and Instagrams last night about it! It was so funny, it was like I had infected their entire viewing experience. A lot of people enjoyed it more, but some people were alarmed. The book was originally inspired by Aly Raisman’s parents, and right now there’s this viral video of them watching her, and they’re so into her, they’re so nervous watching her. Everyone that had seen that I was inspired by that was watching them with extra attention... It has certainly affected the way I watch. For a lot of people who read the book, I think [the gymnasts’] intensity has a particular resonance now. And I think the gymnasts this time and last time feel more comfortable not having to do the Mary Lou Retton routine, but just being their intense self, which I like.
That’s something to cheer for, I think.
Yeah—why hide it! Why put on the sunny face when the whole world is watching you? Why not just be who you are?
Amy Gentry is a book reviewer for the Chicago Tribune whose work has also appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Best Food Writing of 2014. She lives in Austin, where she volunteered for several years with victims of sexual and domestic violence. Her first novel, Good As Gone, is out now.
Images: Matt Valentine