Ellroy Queen: Megan Abbott’s Writing Life

Megan Abbott is the female James Ellroy. When I read her Edgar-award-winning “Queenpin,” I immediately was put in mind of everyone’s favorite noirmeister. Dig it. Even more I loved “The Song is You,” in which Abbott took a real-life missing persons case from 1949 and plumbed her Hollywood characters for real debauchery and dirt like Ellroy at his best. Dr. Abbott (she has a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from New York University) has a great new one that’s a US Independent Booksellers pick for August. As for how she does it, read on, checking out her particularly intriguing writing exercise. As someone might write: Off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush, hush.

How long did it take you to get published?
I wrote for years without finishing anything or knowing what to do with it. Once I finished a novel, it took about a year or so to get an agent and sell it. I was both stupid and lucky. Stupid because I had no idea how hard it would be, and lucky because I found an agent and an editor willing to take a chance.

Would you recommend any books on writing?
I’m sure there are good ones, but, for me, reading novels all the time is much more helpful. I once had a teacher who had us do this exercise I always remember because I use it to this day. He had us pick a favorite passage by an author and rewrite the passage by replacing every word. A noun for a noun, a verb for a verb, and so forth. I took a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was staggering how much it forced my writing out of an old rhythm and into a new one. I did it a lot with Raymond Chandler novels once I discovered them. It breaks you out of ruts and you pick up this range of cadences

What’s a typical writing day?
I start about eight in the morning and then waste many, many hours—much time lost on thesaurus.com, on following endless research trails—I collect a lot of things: old menus from the 1920s, photos of friars’ roasts from the turn of the century, abandoned diaries. I get lost in them and it can, easily, take me four hours to produce a page, and when I do, it’s usually in a mad rush inspired by guilt for all that procrastinating.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

It’s a strange little tabloid tale loosely based on a famous real-life crime from the 1930s—the Winnie Ruth Judd “Trunk Murderess” case. It’s called Bury Me Deep and it follows Marion Seeley, a young woman left by her husband in Phoenix at the height of the Great Depression. Very naïve, very lonely, she falls in with two of the town’s single gals, gals with reputations: Soon enough, she’s swept up in their freewheeling lifestyle, the “thrill parties” they throw. At one of these parties, she meets and falls hard for charming Joe Lanigan, a rising town leader who proves her downfall.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

I am a genre lover—so much so that I like to knock them together. For Bury Me Deep, for instance, the idea was to merge a very traditional melodrama—a woman who faces this almost Edith-Wharton-style dilemma (follow society’s rules or one’s own heart) with a down-and-dirty pulp story of drugs, sin and murder. I think it’s probably true in all my novels—with the possible exception of Queenpin, which I tried to make as close as possible to classic pulp fiction. I think all genres are in many ways one genre, with different accessories. In the end, we’re all fighting social rules, society itself, or all fighting ourselves—which is kind of the same thing.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
Did you ever have a sister, from Faulker’s The Sound and the Fury. In a book swollen with words, twisting and curling on themselves, pounding and thundering—it can still be gathered into in that simple line. And, when that line comes—which it does, more than once—it’s a heartbreaker.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
Humbert Humbert describing Lolita’s feet, or Raymond Chandler describing almost anything.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Daniel Woodrell.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
I guess I don’t really read for plot. In fact, many of my favorite books have rambling, meandering plots.

How much research is involved in each of your books?
For the historical ones—set in the 1930s-60s—a lot, but not in any coordinated way. For Bury Me Deep, I read a lot about TB hospitals and morphine addiction. Then, after a few months, I stop researching and start writing—it’s hardest for me to both at the same time.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
She’s modeled on her real-life counterpart, Winnie Ruth Judd, but Marion ends up veering pretty wildly. There was only so much I could find out about what went on in Winnie Ruth’s head, so I ended up making up the rest and soon enough Marion was all her own.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
Only boredom. I had a wonderful childhood with great, creative parents and brother, but it was old-school suburbia and I wasn’t imaginative enough to find the magic in it. I felt like I was just killing time.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Golly, I have no idea. You tell me.

What’s your experience with being translated?
It’s fun to see the editions and see if/how they package it differently. I have no idea if those pages correspond to what I wrote, which is kind of a neat feeling.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
No. I work at a nonprofit four days a week and it keeps me honest and “in the world.” I have trouble being at home all day, living in my head. I think that requires a mental strength I don’t have.

How many books did you write before you were published?
No finished ones. But dozens of false starts and embarrassments.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
I arrived in Scottsdale, Arizona with Vicki Hendricks, famous for her wonderful and very sexually explicit noir novels. It was over 100 degrees and we had a little time before our signing so we strolled into a nearby, nearly empty bar for a soda. Within ten minutes, a very drunk young man at the bar (it was only noon) kept talking to us and he confessed he was going to jail the following day. Then, he pulled down his pants to show us the tattoo on his bare bottom—the one he was sure was going to doom him in jail. It was a big beating heart and, of course, it said, “Mom.”

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
I never think any of my book ideas will lead to publication!

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