The Books Interview: Megan Abbott

Your new novel, The End of Everything, is set in the Midwest in the 1980s. In doing the research for it, you were investigating your own adolescence, weren't you?
Yes, it was almost archaeological. There were things I thought I had no memory of at all, and then I suddenly remembered them. When I was eight or nine, there was a very scary case of a guy who murdered four children in my community. I had no conscious memory of it, but now I'm sure that we all must have felt for these kids. We must have felt it, but no one was saying anything. I wonder now how much that impacted on me without my knowing it. The past is never really past.

In this book, the Midwest is seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. Why did you choose to write from her perspective?
At first it felt as if it chose me. It just seemed to me the age that I'm most aware of having been. It's such a monumental age, especially for girls. I think it was Freud who said that we're all arrested at a certain age. For me, it was always 13.

Why is that such a significant age for girls?
It's the moment girls develop desire. It's very humorous and funny to talk about boys at that age, looking at dirty pictures and things like that. But I think we're still really uncomfortable about girls of the same age.

One of the reasons I set the novel in the 1980s - other than that I was 13 in the 1980s - is that girls now have so much more access to media, and consequently there's a much more intense pressure on them. Back then, there was something still very mysterious about womanhood, especially in the suburbs, in a way that you don't get now because it's in your face all the time.

Even now, when I go back to my childhood home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, everything is a bit hidden, a little bit tucked away, shoved under the bed.

Is saving the American suburbs from condescension one of the things you're trying to do in this novel?
Yes. And it's so funny, because I spent my first 18 years dying to leave the suburbs, but now I feel like I'm their greatest defender. I think there are two prevailing views of the suburbs in the States: either they're this sort of tedious place, where everyone is the same, buys the same food and drives around in their little minivans, or the view is that the suburbs are extremely perverse in a humorous way.

Did Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides influence the way you write about the suburbs?
Yes. Until I read that book I had never read anything set somewhere I recognised. It's weird when something is situated in your home town - at least if you weren't brought up in New York. But Eugenides lived in an entirely different Grosse Pointe from the one where I did. He went to a private school, and it's such a class-divided community.

You're regarded in the US as a crime writer. Are you happy with that label?
It's funny - when I wrote my first book, I didn't consider it a crime novel at all, even though there are crimes in it. I never thought in terms of genre, but my publisher called it a crime novel, and so that was how I was branded. That was fine with me, because I read a lot of crime novels and my books tend to have crimes in them. But The Great Gatsby is about a gangster and a murder, yet we don't call it a crime novel.

I wrote my graduate thesis at New York University on hard-boiled fiction from the 1930s and 1940s, so, for about two years, I read nothing but Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Chester Himes. I developed such a love for this kind of writing. I became so intoxicated with the way the books appear very simple, but are not simple at all.

What will your next book be about?
If The End of Everything is about teenage-girl desire, the next one's about teenage-girl aggression. It's about a cheerleading squad. I was reading Richard III, and the idea of setting the play among cheerleaders came to me. A cheerleading squad is a sort of power struggle. Cheerleading is now an extremely dangerous sport. It speaks to the aggressive instincts in girls that we don't like to think about. It's an outlet for feelings of rage and helplessness that they don't know what to do with.

“The End of Everything" is published by Picador (£7.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires