In January, I interviewed Alison Gaylin, author of TRASHED, HEARTLESS, YOU KILL ME, and most recently, AND SHE WAS, about her work on an original graphic novel for the now-defunct Vertigo Crime imprint. During our chat, she mentioned that her collaborator on the script was Edgar-winning author Megan Abbott of The Street Was Mine, QUEENPIN, and THE END OF EVERYTHING. When I learned of Megan’s July-released book, the incredible DARE ME, I hoped I would get the chance to interview her about her work in novels, comics, and most recently, the screenplay adaptation of DARE ME. In this interview, Megan was kind enough to chat about her work, our shared love of THE MALTESE FALCON and SUNSET BOULEVARD, the challenges of writing comics and 1947.
Let’s start with DARE ME and the question that’s always the hardest to answer: what’s it about?
I was always interested in stories about powerful mentor figures and their protegés and this is a little bit in that realm. It’s set on a high school cheerleading squad, and cheerleading squads have become –– it’s become quite a dangerous sport and they’re very competitive right now. [In DARE ME] A new coach comes to town, and she’s very glamorous, very charismatic and she really upsets the power balance on the squad. She has a really complicated personal life that makes things go from dangerous to very dangerous. Things unfurl from there.
It was sort of unlikely to me –– though I am from the Midwest –– I was not the cheerleader type (laughs) and I knew very little about it and I had –– in my last book [THE END OF EVERYTHING] I had a character, a high school girl who played field hockey and I watched a lot of girls play field hockey and I saw how aggressive and terrifying they were, so I started looking into girl’s sports and I found that cheerleading was the most dangerous — second only to football! –– for all high school sports in terms of catastrophic injuries. I became fascinated by this “All-American” icon and how we think of these girls as pert and lovely and delicate in some way, sort of sunny, and yet they were participating in this increasingly frightening, death-defying sport. I thought it was really interesting, the sort of things we don’t like to talk about adolescent girls; they have a kind of nihilism, a sort of aggressive instinct and ambitions. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore that.
What works inspired you?
The thing I drew the most from — possibly — is LORD OF THE FLIES. It’s sort of always there for me. Also RICHARD III, the Shakespeare play, particularly the Ian McKellan film version of it. I really wanted to stage it as a story about power and manipulation. In cheerleading, the symbol of the pyramid and getting to the top of it is so perfect. I really wanted it to be about maneuvering and the dangerous advisor and manipulating to knock off your rivals and get to the top. So I drew a lot from that.
Now that you mention it, I can see that ––especially from the McKellan version –– now I really want to watch it again.
Yeah! It was great to see it again. I hadn’t seen it in years and I had forgotten how dynamic it was.
What is it then, about crime fiction, that’s endured and made it such a popular storytelling genre?
In many ways I think it’s the most essential or primitive –– in a good way, sort of fundamental –– storytelling we have. I always think of Adam and Eve as sort of a crime tale in many ways; crime tales are always about temptation and surrendering to weakness –– our reckonings with our dark sides. Surviving. I think those are all really such core –– we all identify when we read crime novels. Not necessarily with a serial killer or something like that. We all identify with regular people caught up in something that’s out of their control, where they give in to an impulse or an instinct or a weakness and things sort of spin out of control. I think we all identify with that. We all feel vulnerable. It hits all these pulse points –– it never gets old because it’s timeless.
Speaking of time, when I spoke with Alison [Gaylin] about the graphic novel, she said you were sort of the expert on time period and that you had set quite a few of your works in a different time period. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is DARE ME the first present-day set one?
It is! Yeah. My last novel was set in the eighties, and that’s the closest I’ve come –– other than a few short stories –– to present day. So yeah, my wheelhouse has always been sort of mid last century. Thirties, forties, and fifties. Writing something in the present day was a big shift. I’m sort of a lover of the past by nature.
What is it about setting stories in the past that appeals to you so much?
I think it’s mostly movie-driven –– Hollywood driven. They were my first, they were my fairy tales as a kid. And of course, the Golden Age of Hollywood was in the thirties, forties, and fifties, so I think it has that sort of magical aura to me ––that period –– and I always wanted to walk into that world. When I first started writing, writing was really –– and it still is –– a sort of fantasy exercise. It’s too hard to do otherwise –– as you probably know –– if it’s not some kind of escape. For me that time in the past, that Golden Age of Hollywood, was my escape.
It’s funny, the films that I look to as inspiration, the ones that I’m drawn to in my own storytelling, they’re all the Golden Age of Hollywood. Much like you, I was raised on those movies.
What are some of your favorites?
My big two are SUNSET BOULEVARD and THE MALTESE FALCON.
Oh my gosh, we clearly come from the same dynamic!
My grandfather would rent movies he thought I should see from the time I was five.
What a gift!
Absolutely. It gets me to thinking though, all of those movies that you and I love and that we look at as the Golden Age of Hollywood were all –– at the time –– contemporary stories. But yet, we still set our things in the past. The next thing I have coming is set in 1947 ––
Yeah? It’s a really good year to pick! But yeah, they were contemporary, and were not bound to the past. And for us to go into that world, you know… sometimes I think writing in a contemporary setting with DARE ME was sort of like “I should be able to do this for my time!” I should be able to find what’s mysterious and fascinating in my time too. That was my goal.
One of things I enjoyed –– among other things –– about DARE ME was your use of cell phones and texting. I know for me, part of my – the appeal of doing stuff written in the past is that no one has a cell phone to get themselves out of trouble. In DARE ME, it got them into trouble, which I enjoyed.
Right! That was sort of my revelation –– how treacherous they could be. Especially for -– well, for anyone really –– but especially for high schoolers. I had been talking to some teenagers, the kids of people I know, and how rumors can feel so life-threatening and perilous in high school. In my day, it took a long time for a rumor to get spread, where today, with cell phones, it’s instantaneous! What must that feel like?
Let’s talk about your work in comics. Had you always been interested in them, or was it something you just kind of fell into?
Well, I’m always a little embarrassed to say this: Archie was what I was raised on. I read ARCHIE, and little bit in that ARCHIE arena, RICHIE RICH and all that. I loved those Andy Hardy movies and ARCHIE felt like those. And they were set in the time – I had a lot of the old ones that were set in the fifties. So yeah, ARCHIE. That was my thing as a kid. And then I really did leave it behind and fell out of the comics scene until maybe five or six years ago — other than some graphic novels. It wasn’t until somebody showed me some of the Ed Brubaker stuff, the way that noir had been used in comics, that brought me back around, made me really interested.
You did a piece in the back pages of Criminal, right?
Yeah – about IN SEARCH OF. That was really fun.
CRIMINAL blew me away when I first saw it.
Oh gosh, yeah.
Coming from writing novels, what challenges did comics present you?
I had –– especially in my earlier novels –– because they were set in the past, a wealth of atmosphere and detail that in comics, the artist provides so much of. I really had to think about it differently. I was always trying to set the scene and in comics, an artist can do that so much better and so beautifully and so succinctly. What I had to do was think of it like a screenplay.
Like a blueprint? A communications tool?
Exactly. This great opportunity – the artist I worked with for THE PUNISHER [[Matteo Buffagni]], I sort of dropped visual references — that he could take or leave — that I had in my head. That was so much fun, to sort of draw from old films noir, drop an image in there… “in my head, this scene looks a little like this…” so that he could sort of riff on it as he wanted to.
A chapter of the book talks about collaboration, and I’m curious as to how you and Alison found –– as novelists, used to wiling away your wares alone ––- collaborating together on a script for the graphic novel?
It was really exciting. It could have been awful! But we turned out to be really simpatico and brought different strengths. We also really liked the same movies. That was set in the seventies. We’re both lovers of seventies movies; conspiracy movies like PARALLAX VIEW and TAXI DRIVER, Paul Schrader, Brian De Palma. We sort agreed on how it would feel. Alison is a wonderful plotter. She would develop this great spiderweb of a plot that I could never have conceived! I could bring some of this twistier character stuff. It turned out to be really exciting. Neither of us were really precious about what we had contributed, perhaps because both of us hadn’t done it before. That really helped.
Let’s talk a bit about The Punisher. You did… UNTOLD TALES OF THE PUNISHER MAX?
Yeah, that’s right.
What was the curve for you in working on a character owned by another company?
Well, it was not the way I should have done it! I knew very little about the character. But, when they asked me to do it, they said they wanted someone who was fresh, and didn’t know the whole story of the character. I did some research, but there was a really tight timeline, so I just kind of threw myself in. But he’s so iconic, there’s so much connection to noir and even to pre-noir, American outlaw, frontier figures; older than that, kind of biblical qualities to him. That really helped. It felt very epic and eternal which sort of suits doing what I tried to do, which was a kind of bare-bones classic noir tale. He just seemed to fit.
Would you ever want to try your hand at doing a series?
Yeah, I would. I really ended up liking it. It was exciting working with the artist, Matteo, who was so wonderful. When you write a novel, you know, you’re all in your head. The collaborative aspect and seeing it come to life was really exciting. If I could imagine a world big enough, I would love to try. I’m doing a screenplay now, and I’m similarly engaged by the same idea; getting to imagine a world that could come to life in a way that. With novels, you are very intimate with the reader, but you have to kind of hope that they imagine it in a way that’s intoxicating to them. But the more collaborative work, like with comics, with film or TV –– it feels exciting to be part of a team making that come to life.
DARE ME FILM
You’re adapting DARE ME for the screen now. One of my favorite stories is the one of Raymond Chandler being asked about the adaptations of his books. He points to his books on the shelf and says, “well I’ve still got these.” But you’re adapting your own book… how do you figure where to cut up your baby, so to speak?
That’s what it’s felt like! I just turned in the first draft. I had to decide early on –– I did think exactly about that Chandler line –– every time it was hard to cut something, I had to think “I’m not cutting from my novel. The novel’s still there. This is a different thing.” You have to will yourself into this other state where “this is a separate thing and you just need to leave it work on its own.” It was hard. I made the decision early on: an early bloodbath and never look back. Once I made the scene breakdowns, I didn’t look at the book again –– except to pull some dialogue. I didn’t look at what I had left out and just pushed through. I think that’s the only way — they’re just such different mediums. They don’t –– it felt to me like an ocean beach into a thimble. (laughs) The novel is so big. It only works if you can be ruthless. So I tried to force myself –– not relying too much on novelistic stuff. Not to do a heavy handed voice-over, long dialogue scenes. I really tried to conceive of it visually.
That was going to be my next question. Were there scenes from the book that you had, that you found especially difficult to translate into film?
I guess the hardest part was that the narrator is a somewhat unreliable narrator, which in film is tricky because it’s so internal. That’s the thing people always say with adaptation –– novels are very internal by nature (most of them at least). I had to find different ways of getting that across. That was challenging. But then there were all these opportunities to visually convey things with so much power that would take you pages in a novel to get across. Some of these dangerous stunts the girls do, they’re really –– they’re very challenging to describe, to get across the sense of spectacle; the girls with their “war paint” and all that sort of stuff. In a movie, that can be right there immediately. That was an opportunity.
I didn’t realize you had written a short story for L.A. NOIRE [THE GIRL]…
Oh yes! Yeah. That was a fascinating experience.
Could you talk about that a little bit? I didn’t even know – I hate to say it – I didn’t even know the anthology existed. I was a fan of the game, but —
Yeah, you know… it was a weird experience and yet fascinating. We didn’t get to see the game before we wrote the stories, but the stories were supposed to be in the world of the game. So they brought some of us that were able to go to see a sort of prototype version. You know, with these releases, they’re so protective. They had someone play the game for us, but they didn’t want to reveal — it was a mystery game. But it’s set in 1947 Los Angeles. And so we had to write a story set in 1947 Los Angeles that was — that sort of fit. It was fascinating to watch, because they replicated the city at that time perfectly – and it was in color! We’re so not used to seeing ’47 Los Angeles in color. They had every building — they had done meticulous research. So watching it, it was almost like being there. It was a really powerful experience, and it made it really exciting to write the story.
My story is — the game is — a little Black Dahlia influence. It was an unusual writing experience. It had to sort of fit, but I didn’t really know what I was trying to fit into.
Right, so just fitting into the world that they had ––
Right. The mood, the spirit, the sense of place. It was really fun.
I’m working on a new novel. I’m towards the end of the first draft. It’s –– I don’t know if you know this story, it’s sort of loosely based on a series of strange events in upstate New York earlier this year, about these girls who develop these strange tics.
I do remember hearing about that.
Yeah! It’s based on that. There’s this sort of mysterious outbreak in a high school and it’s from the point of view of this family, a father, a daughter, and a son. It has a little bit of a Salem Witch Trial quality to it. I became fascinated by that case — you talked about becoming sort of obsessed with something — the minute I read it, I knew I was going to write something about it. It just sort of took over.