'I Want to Be in a Dance with the Reader': An Interview with Megan Abbott

Talking to the author of The Turnout about why The Nutcracker is important for young girls, writing about the body, and the great noir trope of the insurance investigator.

Adam Nayman is the author of It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, published by ECW Press. He teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson...

Photo © Drew Reilly 2020

They were dancers,” begins Megan Abbott’s sure-footed new novel The Turnout (G.P. Putnam's Sons)describing adult siblings Dara and Marie Durant via their shared and lifelong vocation and obsession. Drilled as children by their maître de ballet mother, the sisters have long since taken over the family business, molding cycles of young girls as they had themselves been molded, exhorting their charges to literally follow in a lineage of bruised, bleeding, perilously equilibrious footsteps. Although it takes the outer shape of a thriller—a form of which Abbott remains a reigning adept some ten novels into her run—The Turnout is most compelling in its vision of dance as a kind of existential choreography. The narrative traces vicious circles like pirouettes around and through the wracked physiques and fragile psyches of its characters. Noir is in Abbott’s bones: there is, inevitably, a crime scene, a body, a bloody weapon, and a list of suspects. But these things are almost incidental to the effects that the writer is striving for this time out, and which she achieves. The central mystery here is primal: nothing more (or less) than the question of whether getting older and growing up are actually or at all the same thing.

Childhood looms large in The Turnout. We learn early on in the story that the Durants’ main meal ticket is their academy’s annual and elaborate production of The Nutcracker, a ballet whose status as a wholesome holiday perennial belies its unsettling origins and subtext. E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 19th-century fable concerns a young girl in thrall to a handsome military doll and brainwashed in her dreams by an evil rat king—a plot given a considerably more whimsical (and sanitized) spin as the show was revamped and commercialized in the 1950s. The show’s protagonist is named Marie, and Abbott isn’t mincing metaphors (or messing around) by having her own Marie fall under the spell of a malevolent, nocturnal creature—Derek, the shady, middle-aged contractor contacted to repair the school’s interior after a devastating (and ostensibly accidental) flash fire. That the thick-waisted, heavy-booted Derek ends up doing his own sexual renovations on Marie—much to the horror of Dara and her crippled childhood-sweetheart (and ex-dancer) husband Charlie—is in keeping with The Nutcracker’s barely submerged themes of innocence initiated swiftly into experience, while the gaggle of younger, tutu-clad girls infesting the premises are like sugar plum fairies, imps recklessly rubbernecking at the scandals and messes of the adult world.

At this point in her career, Abbott’s hard-boiled style has grown refined without becoming rarified; she writes precisely without making a fetish of precision (that kind of pathology is left to her characters). The Turnout unfolds in shapely clusters of subjectivity, informationally dense—i.e. everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the collateral damage of dancing ballet but were afraid to ask—yet emotionally transparent. The narrative is filtered through Dara, a watchful, controlling, but fundamentally passive woman whose horror at having her space—and the makeshift, quasi-incestuous three’s-company family unit she’s set up with Marie and Charlie—invaded by somebody whose business is remodelling is made palpable and contagious. The tension of Derek’s comings and goings evoke a sort of irrational B-movie horror (or maybe an episode of Property Brothers from Hell).

The Turnout is never better than in these early, Derek-heavy, scene-setting passages, which bristle with anxiety, embarrassment, and an illicit eroticism that seems to come as much from Dara’s subconscious as her newly oversexed sister’s breathless, increasingly guilt-free reports from the field. Skepticism, speculation, protectiveness, competitiveness—Abbott conveys furtive, squirrelly sensations in a way that gets under our skin. She also manages the plot’s machinery like a pro, perhaps not to the point of fully disguising its grind—one big twist is telegraphed politely in advance—but so that there’s pleasure in the gears themselves (the aforementioned bloody murder weapon is worthy of inclusion in Clue). It’s rare to encounter a work of genre fiction that doesn’t throw its back out trying to pluck a few thorny ideas here and there, and rarer still that those ideas actually draw blood; by the end, the splayed, weary, marrow-deep ache evoked by Abbott’s prose gets transferred onto the reader. It hurts so good, and when it’s over, you’ll still feel it tomorrow.

Adam Nayman: Do you remember the first time that you saw The Nutcracker?

Megan Abbott: It was definitely a big part of my childhood. I mean, I was a terrible dancer. I did not last more than two years in ballet before I attempted tap instead, and you could imagine how successful that was. But every year we would go to see The Nutcracker in downtown Detroit, and it was just so magical. It's such a strange fairy-tale and so transfixing; as kids you like weird things, you like dark things, and you specially like it when it's supposed to be for you and it has all that dark stuff in it.

It's also one of the two go-to titles you'd use if you were trying to convey an archetype of popular, enduring ballet. The other one is Swan Lake, which is more grown up, at least superficially. As you say, The Nutcracker seems innocuous, but one thing that The Turnout deals with is how kinky and sexualized it is under the surface, and the charge that it is.

I looked a little into the history because apparently it was not a big deal until [George] Balanchine mounted a new version of it in the early 1950s and it became a Christmas special. He sort of turned it into this annual Christmas pageant for the whole family, and [did] not present it as a super-creepy story, but of course all the other things still get smuggled in. That's a phrase I love; Martin Scorsese uses it in his documentary My Personal Journey Through American Cinema, where he talks about B-movie directors smuggling things into their movies—subversive ideas, coded implications of sex, darker views of American institutions. Anyway, weirdly I feel like Swan Lake would actually be less damaging to give to young girls in childhood because it doesn't encourage you to become friends with your paedophilic uncle. (Can I add something here to indicate that I was kidding? E.g., “That’s a joke! I actually think The Nutcracker is important for young girls because they get to be the hero in that ballet, and also that children do like dark things. It’s a way of figuring out the world and its mysteries.”)

Dara's understanding of The Nutcracker is very sophisticated: she understands it as narrative and as metaphor; she knows how to dance the parts and how to teach others to dance them; she directs the show and makes money from it. But she's still very much inside the story, unconsciously in her own life. Knowing how to do the magic trick doesn't mean you can't fall for it; it's like she's still the little girl watching The Nutcracker for the first time, still hypnotized by itall those years later.

Yes! You kind of fall into these things when you're writing, whether it's conscious or not. It's true, though, for Dara that The Nutcracker became the template for her life without her knowing it, in that classic Freudian way where you have to keep repeating and repeating until you can break the cycle and release yourself. She's not able to do that, and so it becomes a trap. She's a very controlling person, and somewhat difficult, or at least that’s what some early readers told me. But I find her very moving because while all the characters in this book are trapped, she's the only one who doesn't know it, which seems like a greater tragedy.

Ballet strikes me as a form where being trapped is part of the process, because there isn't necessarily freedom of expression. It's all very to the millimetre. It's restrictive, and whatever comes out isn't coming out of you. It's more about hitting your marks.

The precision is so intense, and many dancers I read about have a lot of mental tricks of the trade to help them get past certain, very legitimate fears. I wrote a book about gymnasts, and it's a very similar discipline because they know you risk your life if you're a millimetre off. But I get why ballet dancers don't really like any cultural representations of their art form, because it tends to emphasize the pain of it above everything else. But it's also true that, historically, ballet requires you to transform your body in these very “unnatural” ways, and that torture is built into it. There’s been a strong push in recent years to move away from that, saying it doesn't have to be that way, and there's more talk now about different body types for male and female dancers, but that's not how it's been for most of the last century. Instead, the deal was you had to make your body do things it wasn't built to do: you have these children who aren't developed yet risking permanent changes to their body—things they can't undo. They're doing it for the art, and as lovers of art, this is what we love—to see people throw themselves into it like that, so fully. But, of course, we’re seeing it from a distance, bearing none of the risk ourselves.

In both gymnastics and ballet, the masochism is inescapable but it also has to be disguised or denied, at least to the observer. I think about Swan Lake and the old metaphor of the swan who's beautiful and perfect above the surface but churning away furiously below. Nobody is supposed to see that part.

As with anything that requires that kind of complete devotion, you have to believe that it's worth it. Because otherwise, what is it all for? With ballet, more than gymnastics, it's tied to notions of femininity and what we consider “female”—you know, girls aren't really supposed to sweat. Historically, the female ballet dancer is meant to be nearly doll-like, a performance of femininity.

At times the book reads like an inventory of injuries; all these welts and cuts and bruises. It's like body horror.

I tend to write about bodies a lot, maybe because I've never had the ability to be artful or successful with my body. And I'm fascinated by the toll, by injuries. Somebody told me I have scars in all my books, so I guess it's a fixation, and I'm drawn to subjects that let me pursue it. I'm writing something now about a pregnant woman, so more body horror to come.

The Turnout observes Dara and Marie's ballet academy as a kind of ecosystem, with all these different levels and stratifications. There's a definite pecking order or food chain amongst the girls. All of the practice and preparation creates these obsessive relationships and rivalries, these needs to please and to be validated. It's a very pressurized environment.

For me, it's at the ages of eleven and twelve that girls are at the most vicious, and that viciousness gets channelled in this space. For me and everybody I knew, [dance] was very cutthroat, and we all fed off that energy. Everybody wants to be Clara in The Nutcracker, and to be at the centre of the story, even though she doesn't actually do anything in the second half of the show; the Sugar Plum Fairy is the star, if there is any “star.” It's hard not to see these rituals as a metaphor for things that are yet to come in life.

I feel like for Dara and Marie, there's something punitive about teaching ballet to these kids, almost like they're inflicting it on them. Or because they went through this grinder once upon a time now there's a catharsis in seeing others broken down. Like, “this is going to hurt, this is going to tear, this is going to bruise, and that's the way it is.”

That experience of pain sets Marie up to embark on a pretty self-destructive relationship. She's used to being knocked around, in one way or another; that's been life for her and her sister from the beginning. Knocked around by ballet, knocked around by their mother; Marie is knocked around by a sister who bosses her around. And then that gets tied to her experience of sexuality and her notions of pleasure, and that's where it gets really complicated.

There are a lot of dichotomies in The Turnabout. Pain and pleasure is one for sure, but it's also there in terms of character types. Dara's husband Charlie is this very beautiful, smooth, frail and fragile man-child—he's broken—and Derek, Marie's lover, is not only physically solid and powerful but, as described by Dara, he's this dripping, Rabelaisian figure. He's masculine in a slovenly, erotic way, totally undisciplined, this big, swinging-dick guy, and his appearances, especially at first, are totally startling.

I was having a fun conversation with myself about this very thing a little while ago because I'm adapting the book for TV, and it's very true that on the page we're not supposed to know if Derek really is that disgusting, as disgusting as Dara describes him. He’s not, probably, but you still have to figure out how to do it in terms of point of view, which is a benefit that the novel has. For Dara, he represents everything that's chaotic, and so he has to be repulsive in every way, like a symphony of horror. She's restricted herself from wanting or getting anything outside of her small world, and here comes a guy who takes, takes, takes. That taking is why Marie is drawn to him, because he's so opposite to the life she's been leading. For Dara, that makes this guy the Devil.

You're billed as a crime writer, and The Turnabout does have a crime in it, but it's buried pretty far into the narrative, and a lot of what's interesting in the themes and characters exists totally outside of a genre framework. I wonder how self-conscious those delay tactics are for you at this point.

I want to be in a dance with the reader; that's the pleasure of it for me. I love those sorts of books, where you feel like you're being let in on something, like a whisper over the shoulder or peeking into the keyhole. But it's also a question of how long you can do that until it starts becoming annoying. In a crime novel, it can be frustrating where things are written like everybody is a suspect, and while there's certain value in those kinds of mysteries and they're really fun, they're not the kind I write. In my books, I want it to almost be like I'm talking with someone about two people we know and about what happened to them, and I want it to draw them closer and closer.

But you didn't just want to write a novel about these strange people who do ballet for a living. You also wanted there to be violence and a crime scene.

I can only really conceive of a story if it's around a crime! Sometimes they happen sooner, sometimes they happen later, but usually it's well into the story because I want you to care about everybody and understand them first. I've been asked if I'll ever write a novel without a crime in it—some people really want that—but I'm like, “it gives you your plot engine!” Everybody can relate to situations where your back is against the wall, or when your defences are down and your unconscious just spills forth. It's in the midst of sex and death that that stuff comes out. As a very lapsed Catholic, those are the only two things [I’m] interested in anyway, so it all fits with the presence of crime.

I can't remember the last crime novel that's also partially about contracting and construction. It's so perfect because you have two sets of professionals in one space, big guys clomping in dirty boots through pristine spaces populated by delicate little girls in tutus, and everybody is getting on everybody else's nerves. Lots of moments where space is being invaded.

I'm trying to think of a few movies that have played with that. There's Pacific Heights!

Sure, there's Pacific Heights.

It's a situation where you have a stranger coming into your space. If you're someone who's very controlling about those things—like if you're running a dance studio, which is already an arena focused on control, and which is the source of your economic survival—it creates a pressure cooker. The other appeal of making the intruder a contractor was it meant I could bring insurance issues into it all. It’s a great noir trope. One of the main reasons I first started writing crime fiction was because of Double Indemnity: I love any time there's an insurance angle within a story, and in the novel of Double Indemnity there's a great bit about insurance salesmen and this great big roulette wheel, and that they are the ones who know that when you gamble, the house [is] going to win, and you're going to lose. There's something I love about that. It's so noir.

The insurance investigator is a great archetype because it's hard to make them into heroes. You can do it with cops, or even with crooks or sociopaths, but insurance adjusters are like the reality principle in noir. They're the ones asking the banal, boring, potentially destabilizing questions. You have a wonderful insurance agent character in The Turnout, who seems to have wandered in from some other novel, maybe the hardboiled novel in her head where she takes this old-school idea of what her job should be about.

Absolutely. She's deeply committed to her job, just like Edward G. Robinson is in Double Indemnity. I wanted her to really care, to be a seeker of truth. My brother is a prosecutor, so I know about all the different realities that go into police investigation, and whether there will be the time or budget to prosecute. But an insurance agent doesn't need to prove anything to a jury. They just want to stop you from gaming the system. It’s about the payout, the money, and there's something unstoppable about the power of money in America. It always sort of pushes forward. The police may lose interest in a case and decide there's nothing to chase even if things look suspect, but if there's an insurance payout to be had...

Speaking of the link between violence and money in America, I love the cheque stabber that Dara and Charlie use to spear their bills. It's so out of time, and so funny—each bill from the contractor gets impaled on this gleaming sharp edge.

Yeah, it's definitely symbolic, but even if you know it's symbolic, you don't necessarily see that it's a bit of foreshadowing as well. I had a letter opener in another one of my books as well. That's where my noir side comes into play; these objects are sort of archaic. They don't really belong in our time. In my books I guess I try to avoid things like texting and social media use, not because I think people should avoid them in writing, but I want a timeless quality. And it works here because the sisters are in this old, falling-apart house and of course there are old things in it, things that somebody forgot to throw out, anything their mother touched, their whole family history told through forgotten objects.

Recursiveness is a big thing in this book; you talked about Dara being trapped in The Nutcracker, and reliving all these old performances and productions while time moves forwards. Backstage dramas are all about this tension, about people trying to make each performance feel new for an audience even though the only way to do that is to know it all to the point of redundancy. It's exhausting.

There is always a relentless quality when you say, “the show must go on.” It means, “this is going to happen.” It's sort of fatalistic, in a way. It's not going to stop, this is never going to stop.

The other thing that feels eternal is the idea of children rubbernecking at the adult world, whether it's the students getting these little hints that untoward things are happening just out of sight in the studio space or the sisters' memories of seeing their parents fighting. There's other, even more intense flashback stuff that of course I won't spoil here, but I kept thinking of the line from Into the Woods, which plays with some of the same archetypes as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in a different form: “children will listen.”

There are moments where you see how complicated the adult world can be, how somebody can be crying but they're actually laughing and vice versa. The ability of kids to understand and access what's really going on is very real, and they're always getting lessons on how or how not to behave. Those first encounters with grown-up things, with ideas about masculinity and femininity, they never go away. And because Dara and Marie are in the same space as when they were kids, it keeps replaying, in this very Grey Gardens or Flowers in the Attic sort of way. With Marie, it's like she tries to fuck her way out of it, while Dara keeps doing the same things she did before. We're all stuck with ourselves, and again that's very noir. You can only change yourself so much.

Adam Nayman is the author of It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, published by ECW Press. He teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson and is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope and a staff writer for Reverse Shot.