Resolutions, Revisited

I really went out on a limb with my 2011 resolutions. Let’s see how I did:

1. To do more of the things I don’t do enough.  Three times a week, in the name of cardio fitness, I now do something that involves loud, often terrible music, and is not karaoke.

2. To do less of the things I do too often.  I did less karaoke in 2011.

3. To master the tripod headstand.  If by “master,” I meant “do it a few times in a very slow and shaky way when nobody is within range of my falling body” – then MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

A Rich start to the New Year…pun intended!

We can’t imagine a better way to start the week, let alone a whole year, than a Shouts and Murmurs column by Simon Rich in the New Yorker. Especially when we’ve got Simon’s novel, What in God’s Name, coming in August.  But that’s not all! This week’s New Yorker piece is part of a collection of love stories, as only Simon could tell them, called The Last Girlfriend on Earth, out next January.  (It’s never too soon to start planning your Valentine’s Day 2013 reading list!)

Happy news, with a Twitter twist

Our new editor Laura Tisdel is so new – “How new is she?” Thank you, folks – her business cards still haven’t arrived. But that didn’t stop her from leaping into action last week, and buying a terrific debut novel at auction. We are all thrilled that Laura’s first acquisition brings Gabriel Roth to our list, with a novel called THE UNKNOWNS that is funny, sweet, and original, a heady delight from its first page to its last.

And here is where Twitter comes in: when Laura started reading THE UNKNOWNS, she emailed a copy to me, saying she was loving it so far. The author name rang a bell, and I realized that just the day before, I’d started following him on Twitter, after someone retweeted this:  @gabrielroth  There should be a German word meaning “something for which there should be a German word.” Which I thought was funny.  Who knew that a day later I’d be reading his novel, and two weeks after that, we’d be celebrating its future publication together. O, brave new, small world!

Ian Rankin: The Impossible Dead and the origin of an idea

Today is a very special day, and not only because our moms are getting the turkey ready to brine and preparing batches of Chex Mix, but because today Ian Rankin’s newest novel The Impossible Dead  goes on sale.  To celebrate, we’re featuring an excerpt from a special piece that Rankin wrote called “The Death of Willie McCrae” that will whet the appetite of the lucky readers encountering Rankin for the first time, and give all of you who already adore his work insight into his process.

The Death of Willie McRae

By Ian Rankin

On the morning of April 6th 1985, two Australian tourists were driving along a desolate stretch of the A87 in north-west Scotland.  They saw that a maroon-coloured Volvo had come off the road.  There was a man in the driving-seat, alive but in bad shape.  They flagged down another car, which happened to contain a doctor as well as a Scottish National Party councillor.  The councillor recognised the man in the Volvo as Willie McRae, a fervent Nationalist who had run for the SNP leadership in 1979.  An ambulance was summoned and McRae was taken to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, before being transferred to Aberdeen.  It was here that a nurse washed his head-wound and noticed something startling: a bullet-hole.  At this stage, McRae was still alive, but had suffered massive brain damage.  The following day, with his family’s consent, his life-support was turned off.  His car meantime seems to have been removed from the scene of the crash, only to be re-sited by police once they knew about the shooting.  A search was made, and a handgun eventually found some distance away.  The gun, a Smith and Wesson .22 revolver, belonged (albeit illegally) to McRae.  He had taken to carrying it with him.  Why?  Because he was afraid.

No Fatal Accident Inquiry (the Scottish equivalent of an inquest) was ever held.  McRae was deemed to have committed suicide, though not everyone was convinced.  When a journalist got access to the official paperwork in 1995, he noted that the death had been ruled ‘undetermined’ rather than ‘suicide’.

I first came across the case in a non-fiction book called ‘No Final Solution’ published in 1994 by the journalist Douglas Skelton.  It was only in November 2010, however, that I began to pay close attention to the story.  McRae was back in the news, due to calls by SNP councillor John Finnie for the death to be reinvestigated.  In December, there was a follow-up piece in ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper, but by then I had already re-read Skelton’s chapter on Willie McRae.  Skelton mentioned that McRae, a lawyer, had ties to the Scottish National Liberation Army, who throughout the 1980s had waged a campaign against the British state.  They had sent anthrax spores to Porton Down Biological Research Station and letter-bombs to the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, Michael Heseltine, Malcolm Rifkind and even the Queen.  Downing Street and Woolwich Arsenal were targeted, as was Glasgow’s Lord Provost  –  on a day when Princess Diana happened to be visiting.  According to Skelton, McRae was alleged to have been the SNLA’s ‘paymaster’, but was also (so friends said) writing a book on the nuclear industry and had found something important.  McRae’s death occurred only a year after that of anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murell, who had been found in woods near her ransacked home.  McRae had told friends that his home and office had been broken into and paperwork rifled.

The news stories, plus the chapter in Skelton’s book, whetted my appetite and sent me at first to the internet and then to Edinburgh’s Central Library, where I pored over newspapers from April 1985.  In 1985 I had been a student at Edinburgh University, but could recall little of the events I now read about.  Companies were being advised to protect sensitive electronic information from the effects of a nuclear detonation’s Electronic Magnetic Pulse.  Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev were preparing to meet at a ‘Star Wars’ summit.  Bombs were going off in Northern Ireland.  There were protests against acid rain and animal testing.  Teachers were warned not to wear CND badges in the classroom.  20,000 demonstrators had arrived at a proposed Cruise missile base at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.  There were ten arrests at a demo at Coulport on the Clyde (Coulport being the handling and maintenance depot for the UK’s Polaris fleet of warheads; nuclear warheads were taken by road from there to the Royal Ordnance factory near Reading every month).

By November 1985, many of us would be sitting down to watch the BBC drama ‘Edge of Darkness’, finding that it captured the febrile paranoia of the time.  So too did Peter Wright’s book ‘Spycatcher’, which he tried to publish in 1985 and which was leaking out due to the Scottish media being exempt from the injunction applied in England.

In all this reading, I saw scant mention of Willie McRae.  No journalist, it seemed, wished to linger over a suicide.  McRae was a heavy drinker who had taken his own life.  That was that.  But I could see something emerging from my reading, as is made clear in my notes to myself at the time: ‘Theme, I guess, is that we always live in an age of fear.  In the past we had the coming ice age, CFCs destroying the ozone layer, acid rain, the Cold War and the IRA.  Now we have climate chaos, North Korea, Islamic extremists and the possible collapse of capitalism.’  At around this time, I clipped and kept another news story about an explosion in woodland near Loch Lomond.  The press had speculated that it could be the work of al-Qaeda, testing ‘their deadly homemade bombs’.  I penned a further note to myself: ‘By focussing on a case from the 1980s, I can explore similarities and differences between Scotland then and now.  It becomes a story about where Scotland is and how it got here.’

The SNLA had come into being as a result of the ‘failed’ devolution referendum of 1979.  By 1981 it was collecting anthrax samples from the mainland near the west coast island of Gruinard.  Gruinard features on few maps.  During World War 2, anthrax was seeded there as an experiment, the thinking being that it might prove useful if dropped over Germany.  It was certainly useful to the SNLA.  There were arrests, however, and some SNLA members fled to Ireland.  But the campaign continued.  A letter-bomb was sent to John Nott, then Defence Secretary.  The Conservative and Labour HQs north of the border were damaged by fire, as was an Edinburgh army barracks.  An attempted arson attack on the Glasgow MP Roy Jenkins was botched.  Hoax threats disrupted government and commercial enterprises both in the UK and in the USA.  The SNLA then experimented with Ricin but found it wanting.  As late as 2002 they sent caustic soda (in the guise of massage oil) to Cherie Blair, having previously mailed a letter-bomb to her husband’s constituency home in Sedgefield.  They also carried out cyber-attacks, taking over the Scottish Parliament’s e-mail system in 2001, and they wrote ‘An Assassin’s Guide to St Andrews’, passing it on to the Real IRA in the hope of disrupting  –  fatally disrupting  –  Prince Andrew’s time as a student in the town.

Some of the above information comes from an unpublished book by journalist David Leslie.  The text of the book, ‘Inside a Terrorist Group: the Story of the SNLA’, can be found online.  Since the book was written with the cooperation of SNLA supporters, it is difficult to know how many incidents recorded by Leslie have been exaggerated in the telling.  He does say, however, that the SNLA sees the Scottish National Party as a sham and a hindrance to ‘genuine’ Scottish Nationalism.  The antipathy appears to be mutual, as Alex Salmond, current Scottish First Minister, is quoted as having told another journalist that the SNLA was ‘entirely publicity-driven, the work of one or perhaps two fantasists’.

Nevertheless, the SNLA came into existence when devolution looked a busted flush and SNP support was stuck at around fifteen percent in the polls.  This situation has changed, but it got me wondering: what happened to all those zealots who felt they had to resort to terrorism in order to be heard?  What might they be doing today?  We have seen in Northern Ireland how one-time proponents of domestic terror can be persuaded into the mainstream political process.  I am a writer of fiction, and I saw intriguing themes and plot-lines emerging from my research.

But what of Willie McRae?  The facts are far from lucid, while there are plenty of conflicting theories and allegations.  According to one commentator, no fingerprints were found on the gun  –  perhaps not so surprising, as it was found in running water and had been there for some time.  But had police been tailing him, on one occasion all the way to his weekend retreat?  Was McRae’s briefcase missing from the Volvo, only to be returned to his family some time later?  As a chain-smoker, why were there no cigarettes in the car?  And how could his lucky hundred-pound note (the fee from his first job as a solicitor) have vanished?  Two shots had apparently been fired  –  so where was the second bullet?  Had the car been moved and was it then put back at a slightly different location?  Plenty for conspiracy theorists to chew on.

According to David Leslie’s source, McRae did indeed have close ties to the SNLA.  He had given a couple of members enough cash so that they could evade arrest and prosecution.  These men had almost certainly been under Special Branch surveillance, which means McRae could have been targeted, too.  Leslie’s source states that McRae’s office was the base for the attack on Glasgow’s Lord Provost.  In 2006 a private investigator came forward to say that he had been paid (anonymously) to keep tabs on McRae.  Yet on his last day alive, McRae came out of a Glasgow off-licence, seemingly light of heart.  He was about to drive to his weekend cottage near Dornie in the Highlands, and was carrying two bottles of whisky.  A policeman who knew him stopped on the pavement and made a joke about drink-driving, but then noticed two men watching.  A little later, when McRae drove off, two cars made off after him.

Having seemed happy in himself, and having made appointments for the following week, what could have made him commit suicide?  Well, if he suspected the surveillance, and felt that because he had aided the SNLA he might now face professional ruin and even jail, it could have triggered such thoughts.  Or did he stop on the road to confront his pursuers, firing once at them and another time at his own head?

A Channel 4 documentary about the mystery can be viewed on YouTube.  The internet can be trawled and libraries consulted.  Most probably there will never be closure, except in a speculative work of fiction.  The victim in my new novel ‘The Impossible Dead’ is not Willie McRae, but a married Edinburgh lawyer called Francis Vernal who dies on a lonely road in Fife.  There are ties to a long-disbanded terror group for whom he may have been paymaster.  Vernal does not die on April 7th, but on the 28th, just as many of us were tuned in to Dennis Taylor’s extraordinary World Snooker clash with Steve Davis.  And those mysterious explosions at Loch Lomond: they make it into the novel, too.

Authors are often asked: where do you get your ideas?  Mine come from many sources; some begin life as stories torn from newspapers and kept in my ideas file.  ‘Black and Blue’ features a real-life killer called Bible John who has yet to be identified (the latest name in the frame is that of convicted serial killer Peter Tobin).  ‘The Falls’ began when I saw an exhibit in a museum  –  seventeen tiny coffins found hidden on an Edinburgh hillside in the nineteenth century.  No one could explain them, and that was all the challenge I needed.

We may never know what really happened to Willie McRae, but his life has provided me with the inspiration for a work of fiction looking at the fears we had back then and the new set of threats we seem to face today.

Copyright John Rebus Limited, 2011

To buy The Impossible Dead visit an independent bookseller near you, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.

Learn more about Ian Rankin by following him on facebook, following him on twitter, or visiting our cousins at Mulholland Books.

Am I Tweetering now?

A couple of years ago I witnessed a particularly hilarious moment on the Today Show.  Without warning, the anchors wandered off the beaten path of over-blown news reports and segments on making a Thankgiving centerpiece out of leftover Ikea hardware and dental floss and veered into the territory of The Internet.  Specifically, Twitter.

Gem-like questions were unearthed including: How do I know if I’m Tweetering?  Who should I be friends with on the Tweeter?  And the instant classic: Am I Tweetering now?  I laughed at them from the safety of my hand-me-down couch in an area of Brooklyn that can only be reached via the F train.  Despite my jaded snickers, I must admit that I am not, in fact, a Twitter master (not like some, ahem, @reaganart).  It’s only 140 characters and yet the stakes—for resonance, wit, and zeitgeist-y momentum—are so high.  Let’s face it folks: I’m still learning the fine art of the Tweet.

If you’re brand-new to the game or if you’ve got a handle but are unsure where to go from there, let us make things easy for you.  Follow authors.  And here is a list of great ones, which we say without any bias whatsoever:

@pelecanos1 George Pelecanos

@elinhilderbrand Elin Hilderbrand

@emmarathbone Emma Rathbone

@tednotedward Ted Thompson

@jameshynes James Hynes

@elenamshapiro Elena Mauli Shapiro

@jezebelannan Anna North

@mmitchmoore Meg Mitchell Moore

@meganeabbott Megan Abbott

@Beathhigh Ian Rankin

@patrickerville Patrick Somerville

@natashasolomons Natasha Solomons

@stuartnadler Stuart Nadler

@elizmccracken Elizabeth McCracken

@kathleenkent214 Kathleen Kent

@Sherman_Alexie Sherman Alexie

@EowynIvey Eowyn Ivey

@annezouroudi Anne Zouroudi

@JacksonBrodie Jackson Brodie (okay, so he’s not real but his twitter feed is)

Here is a small selection of other entertaining writer/tweeters who deserve a special shout-out for conquering the medium:

@HalfPintIngalls

@leverus

@aswinn

@mary_roach

@tejucole

And finally, follow us!

@reaganart

@ltisdel

@SJMurphy

@lenabitts

Get Excited: Laura Tisdel’s Debut Post

Ever since I received the exhilarating news that I got the job working as an editor with Reagan, Sarah, and Marlena over here in midtown, I’ve been worried about this blog.  You don’t know me, dear reader, but I am chatty.  I am gregarious.  My high school Geometry teacher used to do this turning-down-a-dial motion in the air that meant, Laura, BE QUIET.  And yet, imagining my first blog post was a bit terrifying.  Was I scared of starting at a new place, of the big responsibilities that come with a big promotion,  of impressing my boss?  No.  But the blog.  Oh, the wakeful nights spent worrying about the blog!  And I had a fair amount of time to pace around noodling my predicament: I managed to squeeze in a break between saying good-bye to lovely Penguin Books and starting here.  What did I do with that precious time, you ask?  Well, lucky for you, that’s what I’ve decided to blog about!  The thing I did for fun was, as we called it in elementary school, free read.  I read for pleasure.  I sat quietly on a Tuesday afternoon in an armchair with some celery sticks (or Cheetos, whatever) and read novels for hours at a time.  It was like Christmas every day.  Mind you, I did other things too—I moved apartments, I traveled home to Michigan, I played bridesmaid at my brother’s wedding in Colorado—but whenever there was a break in the action I could sink into that lovely space that so characterized my childhood and lose myself in a good book.  It was a treat.

And here’s what I devoured:

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I should’ve read this one before.  Like, when it came out.  I may have even fibbed about reading it, nodding knowingly during some cocktail party convo.  I should’ve read it before I edited Lev Grossman’s brilliant novel The Magician King because I know that Lev adores this book and I know that Clarke’s achievements here pushed him to keep going down the rabbit hole into Quentin Coldwater’s world.  I should’ve read it because I love magic.  Because I read The Lives of Christopher Chant eleven times during my eleventh year because that somehow made sense to me in fifth grade.  But look people, I didn’t.  And boy was I missing out.  Clarke’s prose reads like found history—and it’s not just the footnotes!  There is a Nathaniel Hawthorne-like formality and scope to the terrain she covers.  Like Golden Compass meets Wolf Hall.  More British pomp or less quirk (it’s perfectly illustrated), and you’d feel like you’d seen the novel before.  But Clarke finds a masterful balance between all the elements at play and creates a deep, involving, utterly original novel that I treasure as I should have long ago.

Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

This year, I have gotten caught up on this whole Emily Giffin business.  When she first began publishing books, I was just starting out in bookworld and couldn’t escape the slush pile to indulge myself.  The good friend who urged me to get on the band wagon told me she loved Heart of the Matter best, and so I’ve been saving it to read last.  And it was worth the wait.  Giffin’s books are a great way to lose track of the time—you wouldn’t go wrong taking this in your bag on a plane, to a doctor’s office, even to a boring dinner where there will be big, linen napkins under which a paperback could be artfully concealed.  I’ve heard Giffin called “this century’s Jane Austen” and I give that description two thumbs up!  Her characters feel real: not unrecognizably neurotic, and not complete confections either. Heart of the Matter pulls off the ambitious task of telling two sides of the same story in two alternating voices.  And the heroine here isn’t exactly the girl you think you’d root for.   These books go down easily because they are so perfectly executed.  Ms. Giffin, color me impressed.

The Jackson Brodie novels—Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog—by Kate Atkinson

I promised myself that during this break I wouldn’t reread anything.  Rereading books is a trap I fall into too often.  As my buddy Joe Queenan pointed out in a particularly memorable piece he did for the Times some years back, our time on earth is finite.  And thus our time to READ is finite.  I took this as a personal directive to STOP REREADING.  But I broke my own rule when it came to Kate Atkinson.  I really wanted to delve into Started Early, but I figured I should read When Will There Be Good News first since I hadn’t read that yet.  And by the time I did finish Started Early (I managed to stretch the read out over 48 hours—and that showed restraint, I swear!) I couldn’t really bear to let Jackson Brodie go so I threw caution to the wind and went back and reread Case Histories and One Good Turn again just for the hell of it.  I really let my hair down.  Atkinson is funny and astute; she’s the sort of writer I feel like I’m friends with just because I’ve read her work.  I have a habit of dog-earring pages with particularly good lines as I read and then, when I’m finished, copying those key lines down in a journal.  It took me FOREVER to get through copying down the lines from Started Early.  There are too many wonderful moments when Atkinson hits on just the right phrasing.  Today, as I type this, Started Early is my favorite.  Detective Jackson Brodie is ever delightful, and Tracy Waterhouse nearly matches him with her sardonic humor and pure moral compass.  She reminds me a bit of Olive Kitteridge.  Started Early also validates my long-held and oft trumpeted belief that malls are devoid of culture and spirit-draining.  I win again.

So, if you’ve got some free time I recommend tackling one of these puppies.  Me?  Well, my free-reading time is over for now.  I’m off to discover the next brilliant, engrossing thing that you’ll add to your list.

–Laura Tisdel

If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home

Megan Abbott shares what she learned about her new novel, The End of Everything, and herself as a writer while on her recent book tour.  Abbott will be appearing with authors Michele Carlo and Kio Stark at Sunny’s Reading Series in Red Hook on Sunday, September 11th at 3pm.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been on book tour for my novel, The End of Everything. Tours are funny things—marathons of sorts, running from city to city, hopping time zones, talking endlessly about yourself and your book until you want to plug your ears and hide under the table. And then punctuated by moments of sustaining bliss: the reminder that you are spending at least an hour every day in a new and special bookstore with passionate staff and ardent readers.

On tour, you end up having intimate (in the way book lovers always are with each other) conversations over warped wooden stacks, talking about things like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the early days of Cinemax and why I need to read George Simenon immediately. Thanks to Jeff at City Lights I came home with a book by David Markson, thanks to Corey Mesler at Burke’s Books, one by Charles McCarry. Sometimes, you even have once-in-a-lifetime I’m-Really-An-Author moments, like my visit to Murder by the Book in Houston when a wonderful man named Ed Wey had me sign his leg with a Sharpie so he could make my signature part of his elaborate Maltese Falcon tattoo, which now stretches up his entire leg.

But the part I always forget: Your book transforms when you’re on tour. The story you thought you were telling only turns out to be half the story. The more you meet with readers, the more you hear the things to which they responded and why, you realize all books are really mirrors, for readers and writers. For me, the mirror held up to my face revealed, more than ever, how much my own suburban adolescence suffuses the book.

The End of Everything is set in an unnamed suburb and, writing it, I purposely tried to keep its locale vague. But I wasn’t aware until the last few months how closely I had duplicated my sense memory of my hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan—a serene, trapped-in-time ‘burb that arches, luxuriantly, over its struggling center: Detroit. A town I had spent twenty years itching to escape.

In the days following publication, culminating in a book signing in Michigan, I had a series of surprising exchanges with people I haven’t seen since grade school, including many who had lived on my childhood block. There were Facebook exchanges steeped in nostalgia, with one former Grosse Pointer even pinpointing, based on having read my book, which precise block on which I grew up.

Then there was the book signing itself when a trio of women whom I knew in grade school or high school—all terrifically lovely with downy-headed children seemingly up and down each leg—came up to get their books signed.

“I can’t believe you used our teachers’ real names,” one laughed, noting she’d already read the book.

“I did?” I asked, but in saying it I suddenly knew I had.

And these were not common names. No, they were Mr. Moskaluk, our high school chemistry teacher (with the handsome beard and Alan Rickman-as-good-guy aura) and Mr. Silverston, our genial but challenging middle school math teacher and one of the kindest men I ever knew. There is no way I could have failed to realize I had used their real names. In some way, I must have wanted them there. Maybe because I liked them both so much. (And here I am, using them both again.)

The most uncanny moment, though, was the moment when my own brother, a year older, came up to me after the reading. He had just finished reading the book the night before. Grinning, he said, “You put our raft in there. The Hawaiian punch raft.”

I stared at him dumbly until he reminded me that we shared the same inflatable raft all through childhood, its yellow fading, the faint splotches of the Hawaiian Punch mascot scattered across it. And the raft occupies a prominent place in the novel. For him, reading it, it must have been like a tap on the shoulder. A wink. There it is, remember that? I must have wanted it there.

And then there was Meg. In The End of Everything, the narrator, 13-year-old Lizzie, spends all her time at the house of her best friend, Evie Verver. For her, the Ververs are one those “golden families” (didn’t we all know one?) who seem more glamorous, more perfect, more everything than our own. In interviews, I kept finding myself talking about the family that enchanted me, the family of my best friend Meg, who lived three doors down.

Then, the same day as publication, I received a message from Meg herself, the first time in decades.

Wending through the Dallas airport at the time, I could barely look at the email message. My heart skittering, I felt suddenly ashamed of myself. Joan Didion famously said “writers are always selling someone out,” and while my novel isn’t about Meg or her family, I had to admit that friendship, the intensity of my feeling towards the family, had found its way into the book, and I hadn’t considered the impact of my talking about that on Meg herself.

I think I sat in the plastic airport chair a good five minutes before I clicked open that email. But it turned out to be a gift. “Isn’t it funny,” she wrote, with all the wisdom of someone who has known life, “how all the things we thought were so drab in our simple lives growing up there were anything but?”

Sitting there, I felt relief. Inwardly, I had feared she would resent my intrusion, my carelessness in talking about her family, our suburban block, its private miseries and wonders. But she didn’t.  And now I see it wasn’t Meg whom I had laid bare but myself. Reading my interviews, she had figured out something it had taken me an entire novel, and a book tour, to figure out. About how significant my town, my childhood, my friendship with her was to me, how it still lingers with me. How it can still make my heart speed up. How it matters.Megan Abbott

MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar-winning author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep, which was nominated for six awards: the 2010 Edgar Award, Hammett Prize, the Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Become a fan of The End of Everything on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, visit her website and her blog.

Megan Abbott Interviewed by Sara Gran

Megan Abbott’s highly-praised novel The End of Everything, which Gillian Flynn calls “a freight train of a mystery…bold, unnerving, poignant, and full of yearning,” is in bookstores now. Here, we present an interview between Sara Gran, author of Dope and Come Closer, and Megan, “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation” (Laura Lippman).

Sara: The End of Everything shares common themes with your previous four novels, yet stands out as a departure—it takes place in the 1980s (your other novels took place before you were born), the narrator is 13 years old (your previous narrators were adult women), and it takes place in the suburbs (as opposed to the urban settings of your other books). How is The End of Everything the same? How is it different?

Megan: I wanted to try something new, to shake things up for myself. To move out of the world of nightclubs, racetracks, movie studios and, most of all, to move out of the past, worlds I never knew. When I first started writing, though, everything felt foreign, puzzling. I didn’t know if I could adapt my style to this new setting and time period. My past books were so influenced by Golden Age Hollywood movies and that heightened style. And I’d done this foolish thing, giving myself a 13-year-old girl as my narrator. But as I wrote, I just had this revelation that, for most 13-year-old girls, life is dramatic and the stakes feel dramatically high. It’s all desire and fear and longing and disillusion. Everything feels big and terrifying and thrilling. And my past books, I see now, are so much about women feeling trapped and seeking a way out, at any cost. And feeling trapped, and wanting out, is very much the state of being 13.

Sara: What were the body of influences you drew from in creating this character and this story? Lizzie, your narrator, is a bit of a girl detective, uncovering secrets about her placid suburban town—were you a Nancy Drew fan?

Megan:  I never intended Lizzie to be such an active agent in the book. My original thought was she would be a somewhat passive observer. But, as she grew in my head, she began to want things, and then she sort of took over. While I don’t think I precisely had Nancy Drew in my head, I was a voracious reader of mysteries as a kid and I do think there’s a natural affinity between writers and detectives (and I don’t have to tell you this, in light of all the magic you cast with your detective in Claire De Witt and the City of the Dead). To me, that link is a desire to look in places you’re not supposed to. To be a voyeur. And, as with many voyeurs (and detectives), you can only peek so long before you want “in.” Which is the life of most 13 year olds anyway, isn’t it? I see the adult world. I want “in.”

Sara: How did you get back into the mind of a 13-year-old girl? Or is there a part of we adult women that has never left?

Megan:  I’m alarmed at how natural it felt. I’ve heard it said that we’re all arrested at a certain age, and for me it’s 13, which is probably why I landed at that age. But I think it’s an especially powerful age for girls. It’s the moment you peer with widest eyes into womanhood, or are flung there. It’s an age of constant push-pull, wanting to leap forward and yet often retreating in the face of real adulthood, and the price of it. I think many women look back on that age as the moment of great anticipation and often painful revelation.

Sara: To what degree, especially compared to you other books, is The End of Everything autobiographical?

Megan:  In terms of time and place, it’s definitely lifted straight from my growing-up years in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the early 1980s. Before, I always wrote as an escape, a fantasy exercise to enter these shimmering, foreign worlds. My own world felt pretty mundane, not worthy of such an adventure. But somehow, maybe it was the flush of nostalgia, I was able to crawl my way back into some long-lost feeling from my childhood. That feeling of possibility, mystery, risk that suffuses all your surroundings. Also, I’m now at the age where the 1980s seems like a lost era. And I’m a sentimentalist, of course!

Sara: Tell me a little about the suburbs, especially the suburbs where this book takes place, a fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe? What is it that we love and hate so much about these liminal spaces (not urban, not rural)? Why do some of us have something like a fear of the suburbs (as I do!)?

Megan: I love that you, a Brooklyn girl, could feel that way! I do think of suburbs as “halfway” places because it suggests a sense of complication and mystery when I think the rap they get is that they are places of conformity or hypocrisy or tedium. I think they occupy this strangely contradictory place between utter hidden-ness and this sense of vivid exposure. In the Midwest, at least, it’s impolite to poke your nose in your neighbor’s business. At the same time, there’s something unbearably intimate about them. Because of the way many suburbs of my era were designed, as kids you would end up running through each other’s backyards, hiding out in the basement, hearing all the sounds in the upper floors, uncovering secrets. So there’s this tug of war, the instinct to protect oneself, to hide one’s desires or sorrows and the simultaneous desire to reach out, to pry, to touch each other, to connect. That tension is palpable, fascinating.

All that easy mockery of the suburbs drives me crazy. To me, they’re places of yearning, which is maybe true of all places.

Sara: Throughout the course of The End of Everything, Lizzie uncovers secret after secret about her placid town. What role do secrets, in general, play in our lives? Are they gifts, treasures, curses, or burdens?

Megan: I think that being 13 is in many ways like an endless process of revelation, and disillusionment. You carry all these ideas of the world, and yourself, and in many ways they all get punctured, one by one. But then somehow you manage to build new ones up. And you start to carry your own secrets, which I guess Lizzie will too.

Sara: You’re known for, among other things, pushing the boundaries of genre definitions. While your previous books fit well into the “crime” genre, they also contain elements of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mystery. Where does this new book fit in, both in terms of genre in general and in terms of your own list? Is genre relevant to you as a writer—does thinking about these categories help or hinder you as you work?

Megan:  My impulse is to say I don’t believe in genre distinctions. But I guess I’ve come to think that all novels are mysteries. Reading them, you are always that detective/voyeur, peering in, sifting through its secrets, sometimes wanting to enter the story itself, to sink yourself into those worlds. I admit, I love that John Gardner quote: all stories have one of two plots: someone goes on a journey; or a stranger comes to town. Sometimes both. Usually both.

Sara: I find that for me, every book I write leads naturally into the next on—every book is almost like a bus or a train that takes me right where you need to go to catch the next bus—i.e., to write the next book. So what have you been working on since The End of Everything? How did The End of Everything lead you to the next book?

Megan: I love that bus analogy. That’s exactly how it feels, like the seed of the new book is sown at the very end of the last one, though I never know how it got there. My next book, Dare Me, comes directly from writing about girls’ field hockey in The End of Everything. It’s set in the world of high school cheerleading. The ferocity of that sport, the way it unleashes this inner rage, fascinated me. I see something similar lurking in cheerleading. It’s no longer dancing and pompom shaking. It’s rather dazzling and frequently death defying and it speaks to the dark and bold nature of girls, aspects of themselves that too often remain hidden. In cheerleading, it’s given full reign. Which is something to see.

Turn, turn, turn

Publishing has its seasons, marked by catalogs and sales conferences and holiday tie-ins, and less predictably by the coming and going of the people behind the scenes.  Today, when the calendar and thermometer leave no doubt that we are in the dead middle of summer, I feel a tinge of autumnal melancholy as I say goodbye to our wonderful friend and colleague, Andrea Walker, who is leaving RAB/Little, Brown to join Penguin Press next month.  Two years was about twenty years too short, if you ask me, but still Andrea planted seeds that will bear fruit for all of us in the years ahead.  For one thing, if you’re reading this blog post, it’s thanks to Andrea, who overhauled and oversaw our website.  And more significantly, in the months and years to come, you will be introduced to the four brilliant debut authors she brought to us: Stuart Nadler, Eowyn Ivey, Charlotte Rogan, and Poppy Gee.  Once you’ve had a chance to read any (all!) of these writers’ wonderful books, you’ll agree with me: it’s quite a legacy.

You Will Have to Know Life

Today we’re celebrating the publication of Megan Abbott’s acclaimed novel The End of Everything, which takes place over the course of a summer in the suburbs, where a teenage girl goes missing.  Here Megan writes about her own childhood in the suburbs, and how that has inspired her work. 

I have always been drawn to “suburban novels,” the tortured domesticity of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and the sophisticated roundelays of John Updike. But the dominant pop cultural narrative of the suburbs mostly falls under one of two categories. First, there are those broad satires of conformity and complacency, where suburbs are little more than bland cul de sacs, the dull thump of SUVs over poured concrete, whole communities ruled by carpooling and quiet dread. And, more recently, we have seen a string of irony-leaded tales of suburban misery curdled into degeneracy—drug-dealing soccer moms, murderous housewives, satanic cults. Consuming these narratives, it seems hard to imagine the suburbs as places where real people live, with their own histories, their own still-potent dreams.

As a result, one of my pleasures in reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 The Virgin Suicides was because it cast true magic over the suburbs. And it meant all the more to me because it’s set in my own home town (and Eugenides’s), Grosse Pointe, Michigan. With its placid, Tudor-lined streets, boats clanking on Lake St. Clair, block after block of canopying red maples and pin oaks, it is place for which the term “balmy suburb” seems to be invented. When I was growing up, my parents, both East Coast transplants, always joked that Grosse Pointe feels, in many ways, perennially 1954. Changeless, pristine, inert. When I first read Eugenides’s novel at age 22, I couldn’t imagine how he could find so much dreamy sorrow in the place I had been so eager to flee for the tumult of New York City. I assured myself that it was in fact the dreamy sorrow of adolescence he had captured. That the book could in fact be set in anywhere.

We are the least reliable narrators of the places we grew up and it’s taken me nearly 20 years to write about my hometown. But now, all these years later, I can finally access Grosse Pointe in a different way. My new novel, The End of Everything, the story of a 13-year-old girl whose best friend disappears, is set in a Grosse Pointe facsimile. Writing it, I came to feel that the stillness I’d once thought of as stasis was precisely the quality that made the big moments of life, when they come, seem larger, bigger, more shocking and more moving. The more I wrote, the more I was able to telescope back, prior to my teen years of bored frustration with the suburbs, back when it was a wooded place of inscrutability and wonder.

 When I was eight, nine, ten, my suburban block was as mysterious as any in the world, as filled with secrets and revelation. I knew all this once and forgot it and then somehow in writing about it remembered again. Sure, some of it is was your standard Peyton Place scandal: a teen pregnancy, a lurid divorce, a “gypsy-ish” hippie family on the corner rumored to lure young teens inside for “parties.” But it was equally a place of loneliness and longing. Last year I read, for the first time, Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s famous and haunting evocation of Midwestern small town life, each story a glowing window into a resident’s—clerk, minister, school teacher, lawyer, stenographer—isolation, thwarted desire, shame, and powerful aspiration.

Reading it made me think of things I hadn’t thought of in a decade or more. The retired couple next door whose son lived in the basement with his new wife and new baby, the blaring flights they’d have in the driveway, shrieking into the night before passionate reconciliations of equal squall. The handsome brother of my best friend who died in an accident on a slick dock by the lake. The boy in school whose mother was killed when a drunk driver plowed through the front window of a Pizza Hut. And, just as powerfully, the clamorous joy of block parties, the streamers trailing all our bikes on Independence Day.

Telescoping further, peering inside the grid of houses on the block on which I grew up, I recalled suddenly a dozen tales, half-remembered, woozily understood. Four doors down, the elderly Mrs. Beaufait, who lived with her severely disabled son, Jay Paul, a grown man in his 40s who spent all day every day seated on the front porch barking mournfully, his hair swooped 1950s style and a tweed overcoat he wore year round. He always seemed to be crying and no one knew why. We heard it happened when he contracted scarlet fever as a child and it did things to his brain. As often as I heard it, his cries always frightened me, made of think of the dark world in his head, and what hurt so very much in there. But too there was Mr. and Mrs. L., the first divorce on our block, who, a decade afterward, ran into each other at the snack bar of Grosse Pointe Woods Park and remarried four months later. We always knew they loved each other, and when they found each other again, it was like the promise of something finally coming true.

This suburb, all suburbs, are neither placid nor unimaginative. And neither rational nor mundane. Each house, within its solid girders, may blend seamlessly into the next but, inside, each one holds its own miseries and shocks of beauty. These are places of darkness and grayness and blinding lightness, playing in the sprinkler on the front lawn. Sliding through the cherry blossoms on Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Yearning for things and thinking, in the dark husk of a late summer, yes, yes, yes.—Megan Abbott

MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar-winning author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep, which was nominated for six awards: the 2010 Edgar Award, Hammett Prize, the Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Become a fan of The End of Everything on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, visit her website and her blog.