Megan Abbott's new novel The Fever tells the story of the close-knit the Nash family, whose seeming stability is thrown into chaos when girls at their school become violently ill, and rumours of a dangerous outbreak sweep through the whole community. As hysteria swells and as more girls succumb, tightly held secrets emerge that threaten to unravel the world Tom has built for his kids, and destroy friendships, families, and the town’s fragile idea of security. We asked Megan where the idea first came from.
What was your inspiration for The Fever?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials and events like it. The way all these deep-seated fears and anxieties and nightmares of a community are laid bare. Then, in January 2012, I read about this mysterious outbreak of severe tics and twitches among female students at Le Roy high school in upstate New York. In the weeks that followed, a (justifiable) panic set in among the Le Roy residents and the national and even international media began to descend on the town – even Erin Brockovich became involved.Tthere was something about watching these girls on camera, their bodies out of control. A former cheerleader, barely able to speak. Distraught parents. It was utterly compelling and very upsetting. And all the theories and speculation about its cause (was it a vaccine? Was it an environmental toxin? Were the girls faking it?) led me down other research paths, into hysteria, the HPV vaccine controversy, the potentially dangerous power of social media.
While Le Roy and cases like it were the initial impetus, books always take their own shape, find their own dark corners. The novel became a story about a family, a group of friends – the way an outbreak ends up exposing all their vulnerabilities, opening up all these doors they want to keep shut tight.
Why are teenage girls, their relationships and their communities of particular interest to you?
It’s always been hard to be a teenage girl, but now it’s harder than ever. There are still such rigid expectations in terms of how young women are supposed to behave, what they’re supposed to want and not want. Teenage boys are expected to be sex-obsessed, assertive, physical, raw; girls are not. And those expectations don’t accommodate recent, massive changes in everyday life, social media most of all. And they don’t accommodate the true experience of being a girl, which is that you do have desires, you can feel aggression and anger, and that life can feel pretty rough. When girls don’t behave as they should, there can be this feeling of cultural panic. We certainly saw it in the case of Le Roy (the girls were frequently viewed with suspicion) but we also see it in some of widely covered cases of young women humiliated on social media, and we see it on the level of celebrity too, I think.
If the epidemic in The Fever had affected boys instead of girls, do you think the community would have responded differently? If so, how and why?
I do. Just as, historically, hysteria was believed to be a “female malady”, the idea of females, especially young females, acting out with their body seems to trouble and fascinate us. We react with a particular sexual anxiety when we see girls contorting their bodies or when their bodies seem to be under siege. Consider all the horror films and TV shows that exploit this fear, from The Exorcist to The Last Exorcism to American Horror Story.
Most of all, though, there’s the notion in our culture that teenage girls are always melodramatic, that they seek attention, that they’ll do anything to draw the eye. In the Le Roy case, and in others, the afflicted girls were accused of making up their symptoms, performing for the camera, craving the spotlight. Even when doctors went on TV and spoke about how they had no control over these tics, they were still doubted. Had it been boys who were afflicted, I wonder if those questions would have been raised at all.
How does the internet and social media play into The Fever and the life of teenage girls in general?
It’s the thing that gives and the thing that takes away, isn’t it? Social media enables so many teenagers to connect with others, to find the like-minded, to have a sense of community. To express themselves. But we have gone, in a generation, from the days when a rumour passed in school could hurt a girl’s reputation over the course of a day to a time when a text, picture or video can be disseminated, potentially, across the globe and remain “out there” forever. A ticking time bomb. It very much changes what the phrase “permanent record” means.
What’s next for you?
A new book called You Will Know Me. It’s about the parents of a prodigy, and a crime.
Start reading The Fever