“ ‘You wait your whole life for something to happen,’ [Beth]’s saying, her face virtuous, princess-like, under the rimy fluorescents. ‘Then, suddenly, it’s all the terrors of the earth all at once. Is that how it feels to you, Addy?’ ”
When you’re a teenage girl, just about anything can feel like the terrors of the earth, and in Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, her band of cheerleaders face mysterious deaths, stubborn baby fat, statutory rape, squad excommunication, a bloodless coup, blackmail and a talent scout. To them, it all registers on the same level: terrifying. It all inspires the same response: attack.
Read Bookslut's interview with French author Mary NDiaye about her American debut, 'Three Strong Women.'
All of the drama is set off by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach who is 15 percent Coach Taylor, 85 percent Miss Jean Brodie. Beth, usurped from her position of power as head cheerleader, decides to take her position back no matter what the cost, and there is no one more ruthless than a wronged teenage girl.
I spoke to Abbott about her merry band of deviants and the particular challenges of writing about teenage girls.
The thing I found most remarkable about Dare Me was the physicality of it. As a former cheerleader and ballet dancer, I thought you got it exactly right—the way the pain of training can be almost clarifying, particularly for wayward teenage girls. How did you put yourself in the body of a teenage cheerleader?
I did a great deal of online eavesdropping to learn the ways the girls talked about their bodies, how it physically felt to do these stunts, to manipulate and even reshape their bodies. The exhilaration they felt struck me powerfully.
And though I was not an athlete at that age, I began to recall intensely the complicated relationship you have with your body at that age, and the desire to change it and the way it can surprise you. Those memories helped inform the more visceral parts of the book, that sense of your body always being under examination and the choice you can make to seize control over it, even if that means putting it at risk.
Beth was so interesting to me, as she wasn't just a straight sociopath. It seemed she herself wasn't quite sure why she was doing the things she was doing. Do you think Beth wanted to be hard and unfeeling, but couldn't quite get to that point?
I think that’s a great way to put it. I have to admit, I fell more than a little in love with Beth as I wrote the book. Originally, I intended her to be a much harder character, much more brittle. But my feelings for her shifted as the book developed. The throne has been taken from her with astonishing swiftness, and it feels unjust. She believes that she’s doing the right thing, always. So I wrote her as if she were in fact doing the right thing. I grew to admire her, her fervor, her protectiveness. There’s a battered heart at the center of her, and it rules everything.
Speaking of sociopaths, would a sociopath even make a good character in one of your novels? If there wasn't that pull of regret and conscience, would there be much of a story to tell? Other than a report on the body count?
I admit, I’ve never had an interest in writing a book about a “true” sociopath. For me, the sociopath works best in high satire or in highly stylized books where the pleasure derives from bravado, narrative cunning, black humor more than character. I love many of those books (maybe we’d put Highsmith’s Ripley novels in this category), but it’s never been the kind I could write. I've always been driven by tales where we still see a piece of us in the darkest of characters. Maybe we wouldn't do what these characters do, but we feel something for them, even if we can't explain it.
This is your second book in a row to dwell in this teenage girl world, and I'm wondering what it is you find compelling there, and what made you want to revisit after The End of Everything. I mean, besides the fact that obviously behind the facade of every teenage girl lies a murderous soul.
Well, that’s probably it, most of all!
But truly, I think female aggression, desire and rage among young girls still feels underexplored. For many of us, it remains an uncomfortable topic. We have a lot invested in believing in the idea of young girls being either innocent and pure, or shallow or silly or capricious. Anything but what they are (and we all secretly know this): cauldrons of complicated emotions and drives. And keen wielders of power: social, erotic, emotional, physical. It’s such a rich terrain.
What, then, are the particular challenges of writing teenage girls? I would imagine acquiring the language would be difficult, or shutting out the moralizing about how sexting is the end of the world for us all...
I think the hardest part was the kind of double consciousness you're cursed by as an adult. Writing from a teenage girl's head, I have to become, in part, a teenage girl again, with all its attendant frustrations and high emotions and sense of possibility.
But then there's the grownup woman in me who keeps wanting to tell her to stop herself, to avoid dangerous situations. It can become like watching a horror movie where you want to call out to the girl, "Don't go up the stairs." At the same time as you *are* that girl, poised on the first step, saying, "I must go up these stairs. Who knows what exciting things await me on the next floor?"
Jessa Crispin in the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.