Gabriel Roth & Megan Abbott exchange letters

Prepare to be entertained as authors Gabriel Roth and Megan Abbott exchange emails about their novelsThe UnknownsandDare Me

Get exclusive insight into the minds of two authors – Gabriel Roth and Megan Abbott – in their email exchange over their two novels, The Unknowns and Dare Me.

Gabriel Roth
May 14, 2013, 10:54 AM

Greetings from Brooklyn! It's nice of Picador to give us an opportunity to chat. Hopefully our British readers will be able to get the gist of our conversation, despite the language barrier. For instance, will they understand what I mean when I say that our first real-world conversation took place in an elevator? (Note to UK readers: it's what you call a “lorry.”)

So here's what I want to know. I know that your recent books have been “inspired by true events,” as they say in Hollywood. But unlike many of those “ripped from the headlines” books, they have this ripe, emotional intensity that comes from being filtered through some of the darker parts of your mind. What makes a news story take root in your unconscious, and what do you do to make it your own?

Megan Abbott
May 14, 2013, 2:54 PM

An elevator it was. And the first thing I said was, I believe, “I didn't recognize you from Twitter.” Just as Edith Wharton said upon first meeting Henry James, I'm told.

What a great question. Maybe because my novels tend to reside in the fevered head of the narrator—and are in fact a lot about feeling—I require the cold, hard concrete of “the real” to start. It's often just one detail that speaks to me in ways I can't always understand. With Dare Me, it was a line in an article about a scandal erupting on a high school cheerleading squad, a young coach (and new mother) accused of taking her cheerleaders to a wild hotel party, trying to relive some barely-gone youth. A friend was quoted as saying, “She feels like a bomb went off inside her.” I started to imagine myself in the coach's place. To have made this mistake—out of vanity, longing, loneliness—and have your whole life go off the rails. Once I had that, the novel started to take all kinds of turns. It became mine.

Speaking of real life, they say (not sure if I agree) all first novels are autobiographical. Does that hold true for your wonderful novel, The Unknowns? Is it a strange feeling to know that readers may wonder if its intelligent, misguided young hero is a version of you?

(Do you hate me for asking that question? Especially since you did NOT ask me if I had been a cheerleader …)

Gabriel Roth
May 14, 2013, 8:31 PM

Yes, although at the time Henry James still had an egg for his avatar, which gave Ms. Wharton the opportunity for some good-natured fun at his expense (cf. the preface to the New York edition of Wings of the Dove).
The Unknowns definitely has that distinctive first-novel flavor—it's about a lonely, articulate young man looking for love, for God's sake—which naturally leads people to wonder to what extent and in what ways it's autobiographical. In the narrowest sense the answer is “very little”: none of the events of the book, none of the scrapes and messes Eric Muller gets himself into, have occurred in my life, fortunately. (Although I also haven't made millions of dollars from an Internet startup, so, swings and roundabouts, as the readers of no doubt say.)

But in another sense, as you know, every character is part of the author, and the more deeply you inhabit the character, the closer the connection. Addy Hanlon, the narrator of Dare Me, is surely some aspect of yourself, incarnated as a 16-year-old cheerleader. And although Eric is a gentile computer geek from suburban Colorado and I'm a Jewish American writer who grew up in north London, he embodies the anxious, self-conscious parts of my brain that I can keep under control, most of the time.

I've written just this one novel, whereas you've done six (plus another in the works). What have you learned about writing that you wish you'd known when you started out? Save me years of struggle!

Megan Abbott
May 15, 2013, 8:45 AM

Well, Mr. Roth, let me tell you ... (feeling distinctly like Bette Davis, leaning, gravely-voiced, over her martini), if I were to offer one pearl, it would be to do your best to keep as much of it unconscious as you can. The more your writing's out there in the world, the more you talk about your writing, read other people's reactions to your writing, the more cerebral (or, at worst, strategic) it can become. With so many voices in your head, most of all your own (and mine is very loud), it can be harder to access that murky, mossy center of your brain, the part that generates the most surprises when you're writing. I try to keep as much of it as possible mysterious even to me. Because that's the best part of writing, isn't? Surprising yourself? And it means you surprise your readers.

I think there's a connection here to your novel. In some ways, it's a book about the (notoriously straightforward, uncomplicated) subject of love. But it's also a book about the challenges posed when the cerebral meets the emotional. Eric's hyper-intelligence can't abide by the mysteries of intimacy. But I think you also show how the two are always connected. Even our rational minds can be hijacked by love. Do you see it that way?

Gabriel Roth
May 15, 2013, 2:06 PM

I do see it that way, kind of. The distinction between the rational and the emotional is a fundamental binary of our culture, as the structuralists would say, and as is the way with these things, the closer you look at it, the less sense it makes. None of us is really Mr. Spock, even for an instant; our careful calculations are informed by the same drives and desires as our wildest feelings. Eric is smart—he's good at rational thought—but it's a skill he uses to try to make a difficult emotional life a bit more tolerable. And as such it has its limitations.
Thanks for the advice. It's a shame we know each other a bit, because I feel like that has helped you come up with advice that's applicable and potentially useful to my specific case, which is the most difficult kind of advice to take. I was hoping you were going to recommend a new piece of software or something.
I think we've got time for one more round. The paperback of Dare Me is just coming out, and I know you've turned in a screenplay adaptation. What did you learn working on the script that you want to take with you to the next thing? And what are you dying to get away from for a while?

Megan Abbott
May 15, 2013, 8:10 PM

Alas, that was advice for myself most of all! Besides, if you just nail this Microsoft Word thing, I promise you will face no obstacles down the road. It's a silver bullet.

Adapting Dare Me was quite a challenge, most of all returning to a book I'd already written. It's like a surprise visit from an ex-boyfriend you thought you were done with. There can be no vanity. I had to take the book (not the ex-boyfriend) and burn it to ashes and and try to build something new with its sooty essence.
What I'll take away is a bit of screenwriting advice I read while working on it. Screenwriter-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) said that, with each scene, you should “come in late and get out early.” It sounds so easy, but it was so useful. Because you have so little space with a script, everything has to be doing ten things at once. You can't waste a sentence, a gesture. It's made me be more rigorous with myself. Everything matters.

What I'm dying to get away from? I'd like to say dangerous teenage girls, but I admit, I haven't been able to yet. They stalk me like a pack of wild dogs!

So, a two-part final question for you, so you can punt the second if you're not ready to talk about it. How will you celebrate on publication of The Unknowns? And what comes next?

Gabriel Roth
May 16, 2013, 3:12 PM

I'll be in London for the publication of the Picador edition, which comes out three weeks before the U.S. version. So I'll be seeing family, meeting some of the Picador folks, and doing a couple of events at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

Then for the American one, Little, Brown (the book's U.S. publisher; you already know that, obviously, since they're your U.S. publisher too; look at me, parenthetically exploding the contrived illusion that this is a private exchange) is planning something for me to do on Twitter, which is great because it will give me an excuse to be on Twitter for an extended period, not that I've ever needed an excuse. And then there will be some kind of celebratory drinking event in the evening, to which you'll receive an invitation soon.

After that I'm doing various promotional events in a few different cities, which I hope will burn off some of the mania, and then I'm going on vacation with my wife and kid.

What comes next is another novel.

Good talking to you! I'm excited for a bunch of new readers to discover the sexy/creepy pleasures of Dare Me.

The Unknowns

by Gabriel Roth

Welcome to the hilarious, neurotic, and peculiarly perceptive world of The Unknowns.

It’s not easy to pursue the most alluring woman in North America when you’re a misfiring circuit of over-analytical self-doubt and she has a way with a killer line and a perfectly raised eyebrow. Even, that is, when you’ve survived your teen years as an outcast in the school computer room to become a dot com millionaire. But as Eric Muller refines his email technique, his date patter, and his ability to shut up after sex, he finds there’s more to Maya Marcom than meets the eye.

Dare Me

by Megan Abbott

This dark, thrilling novel is a gripping exploration of what it is like to be a teenage girl. Collette French arrives at school and takes charge of the cheerleading squad, upsetting friendships and fuelling rivalries. Friends Addy and Beth find that they are keeping secrets from each other for the first time, while Coach French has secrets of her own . . .