This Dialogue, This Connection: An Interview with Megan Abbott

Along the same lines, as a novelist I’ve always operated from a place of character, and being true and consistent to characters. Even Abby feels it. NOVEMBER 3, 2017

MEGAN ABBOTT’S NOVELS — You Will Know Me, The Fever, Dare Me, The End of Everything, Die a Little, and the Edgar Award–winning Queenpin — explode every genre they appear to follow: noir, young adult, missing person. No,   I’ve been adapting my own work for both film and TV for the past five years. I wanted to talk to Abbott about her role as a writer for The Deuce in that process, and specifically about the episode that she penned (“Au Reservoir”). He and George were both looking for female crime novelists; George approached Lisa Lutz and David approached me. ¤  
KRISTOPHER MECHOLSKY: How did you get involved in this project? The title theme is just so perfect. We were encouraged to visit the set, too, to get a sense of the performances, and that really helped. Is that so? I’m thinking of people but also other shows that may have inspired and guided you. The Deuce is impressive in its ability to balance its social concern with the voices and trajectories of the individuals whose lives “carry” those social reflections. In a lot of ways, all of these journeys reminded me of the audience’s own journey into this Other-world/underworld of prostitution, porn, and the mafia — journeys that might be made for a wide variety of reasons, journeys that often lead to dark self-discovery. But, inevitably, some of one’s stuff ends up in other episodes and some of other writers’ stuff ends up in yours. And there’s Reggie, too. Reading many, many books about Times Square and a dozen memoirs. I did do a lot on my own because I love it. Can you tell me about the title of your episode (“Au Reservoir”)? And there’s also the corrupted fanciness of the expression, like Bobby’s parlor. And so it also reminded me of several of your novels — Lora in   Die a Little and   Lizzie in   The End of Everything, for instance. As a side question, will you be working on further seasons of the show? The way these women’s lives had become so conscripted, like factory workers, indentured servants, into smaller and smaller places. Darlene is different from Ashley who’s different from Candy and Ruby. Now, to my knowledge, this is the first time you’ve written for a non-print medium. I like that aspect of it so much; it just relieves the pressure. That it’s this transmission, this dialogue, this connection. That’s actually David’s title! In that commitment to realistic depictions of place and character, they have usually tightly framed social issues without sacrificing specifics and individuality for general moralizing. I’m already on board for season two and eager to see where it goes. David and George both like to work with novelists and they definitely knew they needed strong women’s voices in this room and they thought of us. And, practically speaking, we plot about the episodes in the room and it’s sort of the luck of the draw where certain plot elements land. That is, to whom and what did you look to for guidance the most? But I’ll always be a novelist first. When do we intervene? How do you see her balancing empowerment with the complicit mechanisms that channel it? You’ve mentioned before in interviews that songs tend to arise in your head as you write your books and that you often listen to period music as a kind of research. But there’s also the obvious “goodbye,” but far less sentimental. Based on your connections among crime novelists, my assumption is that George Pelecanos may have reached out to you. She’s making it work, and innovating. My friend, the writer Jack Pendarvis, who writes for Adventure Time, told me, “You give them the very best you can offer and then it’s out of your hands.” And what better hands to put it in? Why did you decide to do it? But I’d never worked in a writers’ room before, so that experience was brand new. I had a different one, so I can’t speak to it specifically (though it’s a great title). Once you consider any character’s complexities and ambiguities, the clichés go out the window. They all have different distances from it. They encouraged both Lisa and me to charge in. But she marks it, she studies it, she uses it to give her the jolt she needs to go, go, go. I see so much of the arc of the show shot through with how masculine identity and worldview shapes even just the possibilities of what happens for everyone. What other consultants were there? Well, wait! At least not this one. You can’t get precious about what’s yours and what’s someone else’s. I had forgotten the Laura Lippman connection! They all help, but in the end, by the time you write, you put all that down and remain true to the characters David and George created (or that we created in the room). But they also really try to let all our voices through, too. — have with the alien private and social worlds of characters they simultaneously desire and despise; the darkness undergirding and intersecting suburbia; the poetry of pop culture in daily life. On a similar note, did you find that you had to work to maintain distance from certain genre or narrative conventions (e.g., the hooker with the heart of gold or the conventions of pornography itself)? What was your title?! I’m glad you brought up white American masculinity since your first book (the nonfiction The Street Was Mine) explored how midcentury popular fiction depicted what I think we might now recognize as the beginning of the modern toxicity of straight white masculinity that fermented under apparent threats to power and identity. What kind of research was brought to the writer’s room, and what did writers bring in outside of that? No, I’m a novelist at heart, and luckily I’ve been able to do both. And it was all there, and so perfectly orchestrated, and very much in the spirit of the era (the real era, and with specificity, rather than some broad-strokes, kitschy notion of the ’70s). David Simon’s HBO shows (The Wire, Treme, and now The Deuce) are concept shows about big social issues (drugs, disaster recovery, sex work) oriented around (and originating from) particular places (Baltimore, New Orleans, New York) and the particular people who populate them. Did you or the other writers find that you had to remind yourself not to get too allegorical with or, on the other hand, too personally attached to (or detached from) the characters? And I found I cared a lot about the world and experience the show was committed to bringing to life. And David and George shape all the scripts so they have the same tone and feel. What have been some of the challenges and pressures for you adapting your writing to the conventions of television, particularly an HBO “prestige” show? What does it mean if we gain from it? And that was always the way we worked in the writers’ room. After you see James Franco and Maggie   Gyllenhaal and Dominique Fishback and Chris Bauer and Jamie Neumann and David Krumholtz (and on and on) embody these characters, then they are even more alive to you, which makes the writing that much more enjoyable. I’d met David a few times through Laura Lippman, a writing hero of mine and a friend. Since we’re already at work on it, I can’t reveal anything about the characters, but it’s been exciting to begin to map it out. What kind of cross-collaboration was there? What does it mean to witness or be a party to the commodification or humiliation or domination of others? By the time I got to the room, I’d read the pilot and watched it, so I had a strong sense of what they were going for, and because it was a world and a style I loved, it was a thrill to try to help bring it to life for the duration of the season. As a writer, how did you work to strike that balance? So, perhaps related to the title, can you tell us what you personally are hoping viewers take away from this episode and the show at large? David and George always encouraged us to go against the grain, to fight the obvious, the overworked trope — and by example, they show the rewards gained from that. But you can’t turn an idea into a character, and characters can’t be stand-ins for ideas. I’ve learned so much from them, and from Richard Price, also an executive producer on the show. Do the sojourns in episode seven at all reflect your own depictions of journeys? But I don’t write with these ideas in mind. I was drawn to the way so many of the characters’ trajectories (Abby, Sandra and Alston, Ashley) came to a point in this episode that reflected some prevalent motifs in your writing: the obsession characters — and readers! And I am, as the show is, very interested in the collision between the public and private self, the selves we fashion for ourselves to face the world. Digging through The   New York Times   and   New York Magazine   from that era. How did you go about making sure you were fair to the reality of those characters, particularly when you may have felt so far from them? Funny, moving, offbeat, with a kind of emotional heft that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise. I think it’s better that they come organically, and they do, given the structure and ethos that David and George have set up. And that’s how you avoid convention or cliché. There’s no hanging back in writers’ rooms! In the end, even as we sympathize with Vincent’s dilemma or warm to Harvey’s kindnesses, and even as we enjoy the humor and style of the pimps (who also face their own kind of conscription), we can’t ignore their complicity. So speaking of specifics and character, I want to talk about the structure of “Au Reservoir” and the parallel “Other-world” journeys a number of the characters take. What were some of the difficulties with that? And David and George are very good at creating an open atmosphere. The time depicted is such a monumental moment in American cultural and economic history, and the general shape of that story and its cultural echoes is inherently fascinating on its own. In terms of style, that really comes from David and George, who set the tone and feel from the pilot episode. That’s the great joy of it all. I have a project   in development with HBO now [an adaptation of her 2012 novel, Dare Me], so that definitely helped   me in terms of jumping in. And more than a little terrifying. I know they and director Michelle MacLaren were very focused, in terms of the look, on keeping in the spirit of those rough-and-tumble NYC movies from that era — Klute,   The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,   Mean Streets,   The French Connection — movies that have been tattooed on my brain since I was a kid. There are broad issues that are always going to be a part of the show — the human cost of unrepentent, uncontrolled capitalism. But within a few hours that first day, I was   in   it. Indeed, to do so, her psychologically astute, lyrical writing explores and gives voice to unexamined subcultures (e.g., competitive gymnastics in You Will Know Me, cheerleading in Dare Me) and silenced perspectives (e.g., the “good girl arm candy” in noir, as in Die a Little) from traditional readerships. Gosh, I’d like to imagine it worked that way (and I love your interpretation), but I’m probably the last person to speculate about this. Lisa Lutz’s episode (#4) really felt like Lisa to me. I know a number of the creative forces on the show have expressed a commitment to getting the voices, characters, and stories of the era and world right. Was there some music that took hold while you were writing for   The Deuce? It’s where I’m most myself. It’s a fantasy that’s nearly impossible for women, especially women like Ashley. It felt like a prison, because in a way it was. Yet as often as I’m prompted to identify almost allegorical portrayals of history (the evolution of capitalism, most notably), I’m jerked back to the reality of each moment and character and their agency within these larger historical trends. All of our characters who are sex workers, for instance — they’re all different. The intensity of it, the energy of collaboration — it’s all so different, fundamentally opposed even, to the novelist’s solitary life. I guess I don’t think in terms of allegory when it comes to writing. Do you have any plans to take a longer detour into television or film? Tell me a little bit about your role as a writer on the show and how you fit in with the other writers and creative directors. As someone who grew up with a true love of Hollywood and the power of film/TV, it’s been great to dip my toe in. At first, I planned to hang back, to give myself permission to be on the sidelines a bit. Would you want to, or would you consider, creating your own show? Visiting the parlor set, I was struck by its cramped bleakness. You see them in another guise, and they inadvertently reveal themselves to you. It’s been a big shock to my system. But at what cost? The grimness of the stalls. And that’s where the fun starts. Blake Leyh, the brilliant music supervisor on The Deuce, made a Spotify playlist that I listened to every second I wrote the script. “Girl with the Twirl,” but I had to cut the bit it referred to, so new title! If so, whose stories are you most looking forward to exploring and why? And yes, we had an array of smart, generous consultants to help guide us in terms of the various worlds the show inhabited. Working in those circumstances. And I’m especially glad to participate in anything that might push new stories and new perspectives onto the air, that might upturn old conventions and foreground characters and worlds (particularly in relation to women) that are underrepresented. I wonder what that means for Candy’s difficult climb into a position of greater power through the industry of pornography instead of the lonely, precarious, and dangerous freedom she had as a pimp-less prostitute. It’s funny — as I’ve said, I try not to think about the bigger ideas when I’m writing. It’s part of her family’s world, too. At first, I was drawn to the “reserve” aspect of it, noticing the way the industrialization of sex work spawned a growing reserve army of the unemployed (particularly evidenced by the pimps talking about   Fantasia   in the diner — one of my absolute favorite scenes) and left others increasingly exploited (the prostitutes who have moved in, as well as those who have to work far more on the street, like Ashley). The way people operate within and without corrupt or compromised systems to survive and make meaning. Each script is formulated in the room, beat by beat, and then one writer is tasked with doing the first two drafts. MEGAN ABBOTT: It was actually David Simon who reached out to me. What did you listen to? Oh, yes! The extent to which women in particular must always wear a mask, and be able to fashion many different masks, to operate in our world. And, alternately, Candy is finding her way out, to broader horizons. I’ve been doing a great deal of self-reflection, and I think we all are. I love your interpretation. But now, watching the show with an audience at this particular moment in the culture, it really feels part of this much larger conversation about complicity — male and female — in sexual violence, intimidation, and disempowerment. I try not to think thematically or analytically when I write fiction — that can be deadly! That’s when the characters become real. And when I say “take away,” I mean it as broadly as possible (i.e., not just ideas or messages but empathy and action and enjoying a story and so on). Once you get into specifics, you’re no longer operating in clichés. I’m not sure the journeys are precisely about self-discovery, but The Deuce explores a very insular world and once you push its characters into other places, you, as the viewer, inevitably learn more about them. For me, the heart of the episode was Ashley, and I was very interested in her in relation to Frankie, who in some way lives out the fantasy of a quintessential white American male freedom. For me, that was the seventh episode. To escape her prison. Do you maybe plan to continue to write print fiction alongside television or film work? But the journey is such a classic structure, a classical structure in fact, and perhaps the oldest storytelling conceit of all time, and it always yields meaning. Ashley’s leaving of course, but a lot of people are starting to say “goodbye” to previous worlds and previous notions of themselves, which I think we’ll continue to see. The show also suggests how that toxic masculinity saturates the very machinery of the mass production and consumption of sex work. Consequently, her involvement with David Simon’s celebrated new HBO show, The Deuce — about sex work around early 1970s Times Square — not only makes sense, but feels fated. Choice. For all the women, their status as a commodity is unavoidable. This was three or four years ago when the project was still in development. If so, why do you think you came to mind for this show? I feel as I do with my own books: the writer delivers the story and the rest is up to the reader/viewer. We’re talking about this complicated and rather beautiful set of people, this Damon Runyon world of high-and-low, gallows humor and a kind of gritty beauty and emotional heft. I just try to focus on the characters. We have a truly superior researcher, Stephani DeLuca, who’s in the room with us and is invaluable. But in the end, I only hope viewers enjoy this and all the episodes. We discussed over email how her own background (as academic and novelist) informed her work on a show of such conflicting politics. Ashley escapes C. As you point out, Frankie epitomizes a reckless freedom that Vincent, Bobby, and essentially every john also wield without thought. C.’s grip and begins living a very different life by way of Frankie and Abby; Frankie journeys with Ashley to Fire Island and Paul and Todd’s gay community (a subplot which itself skirts us closer to mainstream knowledge about the era of “porno chic”); Abby takes Vincent to scandalize her upper-class home in Connecticut; Bobby, utterly cut from domestic suburbia and the legal workplace, falls into the daily headaches of brothel domesticity and its workplace dynamics; and so many more. If I make time for   The Deuce   on Sunday night, what do you hope that will mean for me in my life? It’s been a master class. For instance, I know Annie Sprinkle was a consultant on the show. They all experience their work differently. In just your own episode, you have conversations among a group of pimps, conversations among mobsters, conversations among members of New York’s gay community, conversations among relatively underground pornographers. It was, of course, quite thrilling to be asked. You have to let everything else go and surrender to them, and to the stories we’re trying to tell. Every script contains bits and pieces that everyone in the room contributed. Yeah, we all develop the story together in the room, first mapping out the season, then breaking it down into episodes. It included everything from the Fuzz to the Stylistics, the Trammps, Love Unlimited, Gloria Gaynor’s “Casanova Brown.” The minute the music started, I’d be right back in the High Hat. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the show is on during such a charged moment in the culture, but maybe not. For me, the experiences of the women in parlor, especially the dynamic between Darlene and Bernice, are central to the episode. ¤
Kristopher Mecholsky is a scholar of crime narrative and adaptation with publications in venues such as   The   Faulkner Journal,   The   Baker Street Journal,   South Atlantic Review,   and UT-Austin’s   Flow. We never forget in the room that we’re talking about people, not concepts. I think “Nice Guy” Vincent particularly resonates now, in the current Weinstein/Trump moment, since he seems to need desperately to see himself as above and separate from the violent, demeaning pimps and johns who patronize his bar while he benefits from and perpetuates the freedom that enables them. From where would you say you drew most of your inspiration and style for your writing on   The Deuce? These are women with few choices who, in an era of supposed revolutionary new freedoms and a hoisting-off of Puritan strictures, are going to have to fight their way out to get what many of these men wear so easily: freedom. What other kinds of research did you do for the show? That’s the blueprint when you’re a staff writer. Watching the loops and the hardcore movies, of course (even when it was sometimes, er, challenging).