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All Suspense Coverage

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Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel is a legal thriller set in an era with seemingly little in common with our own: the perilous world of 17th-century New England. But through a young Puritan woman’s attempts to divorce her abusive husband, Bohjalian explores how the sexism, shame and rampant gossip of the early American colonies are eerily persistent to this day.

What inspired you to write a novel of suspense set in 17th-century New England?
My work—at least my best work—is powered by dread. My books are slow burns. It’s not “action” in a conventional sense that keeps readers turning the pages, but rather a simmering anxiety.

And many of the Puritans lived with anxiety and dread: Satan was as real as your neighbor and they fretted constantly over whether they were saved or damned.

Now, when we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford, Connecticutt, in 1662—three full decades before Salem.

One thing many of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated and viewed as outsiders; sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism.

I was looking for a way into a novel of suspense set in the 17th century, but one that I hoped would chart new ground. I came across a reference in the records of Boston’s Court of Assistants from 1672: A woman named Nanny Naylor successfully sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. And I was off and running.

The way Mary and those around her think is very different when compared to a modern reader’s perspective. For example, Mary is always looking for signs from God or the devil. How did you get into the mindset of a 17th-century Puritan?
I’ve been interested in Puritan theology and the Puritan mind since college. I still have many of the books I read for classes then.

The Puritans kept diaries and ledgers, and those were important to me, because they used them to try and see if they were likely saved or damned.

Moreover, as stern and cruel and condescending as the Puritans could be, there were moments when they understood the inherent beauty of the world. They were not joyless. (They sure loved their beer.) My favorite example of this is the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet, along with Emily Dickinson, has been a muse for me since college, and her 17th-century legacy includes love poems to her husband, wrenching testimonies to loss and meditations on faith and doubt.

"When you spend your life wondering if you are damned or saved, you are constantly looking for signs."

One of the catalysts for the novel’s central conflict was, of all things, the importation of forks. Did the Puritans really consider them tools of the devil? How did you discover this?
I was preparing some short remarks years ago about the first Thanksgiving for my daughter’s elementary school, and I came across a passage in George Francis Dow’s Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that noted the Puritans did not use forks. They used knives and spoons and their fingers. When I embarked upon this novel, I recalled that tidbit and it led me down one of those great research rabbit holes.

By the mid-17th century, the three-tined fork was starting to gain favor in Europe. But it seems that the earliest “eating" forks found at New England archeological sites date from the early 1700s. The derivation of the word “fork,” of course, comes from “pitchfork,” and some scholars have argued that the implement had trouble gaining traction in New England because of its resemblance to the devil’s pitchfork. (The early forks were terrifying!)

Now, how many Puritans actually viewed them as the Devil’s Tines? I have no idea. But if you live in a world where Satan is an almost tangible presence? A three-tined fork is a great tool to make part of a spell.

I was struck by how, despite living more than 350 years ago, Mary’s struggle to escape an abusive marriage and her patriarchal upbringing still felt similar to stories we hear today. Do you think the power structures that kept Mary confined have changed that much?
In some ways, the Puritans were more progressive than we give them credit for. They viewed marriage as a civil ceremony and a wife who was granted a divorce from her husband was granted one-third of his estate. (I’m not saying one-third is fair, only that it is more than you might have expected.) At least 31 times, Puritan marriages ended in divorce.

But, of course, it was an inherently sexist culture. Exhibit A? It was a heck of a lot easier to get yourself hanged as a witch if you were female. In some ways, the culture defined toxic masculinity.

And just as today the burden of proof seems to fall unfairly on women so often that we actually need an #IBelieveHer movement, it was very difficult in the 17th century for a woman to win a dispute in a “he said/she said” confrontation. Of those 31 divorces, only one was for cruelty—what today we would call domestic abuse.

Yes, Hour of the Witch is set in 1662, but (by design) it is among the more timely novels I have written. I am confident most readers will get the reference when a member of Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, “a nasty woman.”

Why do you think the Puritans were so obsessed with witchcraft?
Because Satan and Hell and predestination were fixtures in their worldview. When you spend your life wondering if you are damned or saved, you are constantly looking for signs.

Moreover, how do you explain the tragedies that were part of their daily existence? The death and the disease and the accidents that left you disabled? Part of their answer was the devil and his human acolytes.

Mary’s concept of good and evil shifts dramatically throughout the novel. Is this born of necessity or of her world expanding or both?
My novels are character studies. It is character that interests me.

The great teacher of writing (and novelist and short story writer) John Gardner taught us that among the points that matter most in fiction is character transformation. And so I hope my characters change in the course of a story. And Mary Deerfield’s journey is certainly a tale of growth.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Hour of the Witch.


Part of this novel is a legal thriller. How did you research the complex legal system Mary finds herself tangled up in?
The Puritans didn’t have court stenographers, but they were avid record-keepers.

I hope the trial proceedings and the way a trial would have been conducted is fundamentally accurate. I had the great good fortune of becoming friends with L. Kinvin Wroth, professor emeritus of law at Vermont Law School. We first had lunch in the summer of 2001—20 years ago—when I reached out to him to discuss the novel I was contemplating about a Puritan woman’s attempt to divorce her husband. He pointed out to me the articles it was critical I read about 17th-century law and the first New England courts. He read a draft of the novel and patiently corrected my most egregious mistakes. I will always recall fondly our lunches over the decades in South Royalton, Vermont.

The power of gossip is very different in Mary’s life than it would be in the present day. How did the closeness of her community present a threat to her while still enabling the colony to survive?
The Puritans didn’t have Twitter, but they did have the whipping post and the stocks. They sure as heck weren’t slackers when it came to public shaming. And they depended to a large degree on people’s fear of shame to moderate their behavior (as if the fires of hell weren’t enough) and to keep order.

I find it interesting that both witchcraft and adultery were capital crimes, but no was ever executed for adultery.

 

Author photo © Victoria Blewe.

Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel is a legal thriller set in an era seemingly foreign to our own: the perilous world of 17th-century New England.

When I tell Megan Miranda, “I was in the woods yesterday and I thought of you,” the bestselling author laughs (rather than being creeped out) and says, “I love it!”

That’s because, as her millions of fans know, Miranda likes to have her characters spend quality time among the trees. From her New York Times bestseller The Last House Guest and 2020’s The Girl From Widow Hills to her newest book, Such a Quiet Place, the liminal beauty of the forest—quiet and light-dappled by day, shadowy and ominous by night—helps set the tone for Miranda’s tense psychological thrillers. As she explains in a call to the North Carolina home she shares with her husband and two children, “I’m so inspired by settings in the woods, near water, in the mountains. There’s so much atmosphere in those types of places.” 

In a wonderful 2016 Medium essay titled “Writing the Woods,” Miranda described the woods as “a place where it’s possible to believe in magic. In the myths. In monsters. Even if, all along, there was only you.” That sentiment, with its appreciation for the unknowability of nature and its parallels to the human soul, is a key element of Such a Quiet Place, which is set at the edge of a forested lake in a lovely upper-middle-class community called Hollow’s Edge.

A map at the beginning of the book offers an aerial view of one particular crescent-shaped street dotted with 10 close-set homes and a community pool. Looking at the map, it’s easy to imagine residents gathering poolside for hangouts or parties, dragging a kayak through the woods and down to the sparkling water, or strolling along the street chatting to one another in the evening air.

All of those things do happen in Hollow’s Edge, to be sure, but not nearly as much as they used to. Fourteen months ago, 25-year-old Ruby Fletcher left the neighborhood to begin her 20-year prison sentence for murdering married couple Brandon and Fiona Truett, a conviction aided by speculation and testimony from her neighbors. From their perspectives, Ruby never really fit in (she was younger, a renter rather than an owner, comfortable with being disliked), so the notion of her criminality didn’t completely surprise them.

But since Ruby’s departure, the residents have felt trapped. Tainted by the specter of the terrible murders, they’re unable to sell their houses or avoid the empty Truett house, which is a looming reminder that evil lurks among them despite their security cameras, neighborhood watch program and the popular Hollow’s Edge Owners Association Message Board. 

"The crime is done, the person is convicted, what happens next?”

Miranda cleverly punctuates her story with excerpts from this forum, dispatches that range from informative to petty to provocative. “I thought it would be a really interesting way to show the undercurrents of each character, the things they’re not saying face-to-face but that are still apparent,” she says. 

This is a hallmark of Miranda’s thrillers: exploring the positive and negative aspects of something, then pushing the negative to its extreme. For the residents of Hollow’s Edge, the message board was a helpful resource—until it became a key force in Ruby’s false conviction. 

Ruby has only served 14 months of her sentence when the courts determine that her “trials had been tainted, the investigation deemed unfair, the verdict thrown out,” says the novel’s narrator, Ruby’s former frenemy and housemate, Harper Nash. Just as this news has begun to circulate, Ruby suddenly materializes in Hollow’s Edge, moving back into the house with Harper, charmingly insouciant as ever and bent on, well, nobody’s really sure what. 

“The whole story of Such a Quiet Place begins as aftermath: The crime is done, the person is convicted, what happens next?” Miranda says of this deliciously nerve-fraying premise. “When Ruby pulls up on the street again, there’s no illusion of safety anymore. . . . I was struck with the idea of [Ruby] knowing that the neighborhood had contributed to her conviction. She chooses, of all places, to come back [to Hollow’s Edge]. It creates a really tense dynamic throughout the entire neighborhood.”

Ruby’s return also spurs an important question: Is she the victim, or is she the perpetrator? There are two possible answers, and neither one is good. “If she’s guilty, there’s a killer still in the neighborhood, and if she’s not, the killer has always been there in the neighborhood,” Miranda says. “[The residents] have to reevaluate all the steps that got them there, their relationship with her and their interpretation of events.”

This is, of course, the opposite of relaxing at a time of year usually beloved in Hollow’s Edge: summer break from the College of Lake Hollow, where nearly everyone in town is employed. “Even though you’re at home, these are people who know you from a professional setting,” Miranda says. “There’s really no hiding from each other.” And when the neighborhood’s insider versus outsider designation can turn on a change of mood or a perceived slight, socializing becomes an even stickier proposition. 

As Such a Quiet Place unfolds bit by unsettling bit over the course of just 11 pivotal days—June 29 through July 9, with a much-anticipated Fourth of July celebration smack-dab in the middle—the neighborhood’s convivial closeness that was once a source of pride curdles into something much darker. It’s a whodunit with lots of plausible suspects simmering away in a pressure cooker of summer heat and increasing paranoia. 

Harper realizes that, in the wake of Ruby’s surprise return, she’s being excluded from gatherings, and side-eyed by her neighbors. But she’s afraid to insist that Ruby move out—just in case she really is a dangerous murderer. Anonymous threatening notes with frustratingly cryptic messages only compound her distress. Who’s been watching her, and what do they want?

As the neighbors grow increasingly anxious and indignant about the prospect of encountering Ruby on the street or even at the big Fourth of July party (something that queen-bee HOA leader Charlotte Brock does not want to happen), their polite masks begin to slip, and their true essences begin to peek through. Nature, too, erodes in parallel. “The hidden edges of the shore had slowly been revealed, the roots and mud and dirt and debris,” Harper observes.

Harper’s tendency toward timidity and self-doubt makes her an especially interesting unreliable narrator in an insidiously unstable environment. Often, characters like Ruby take the lead in thrillers, their unrepentant and unpredictable natures placing them front and center. Here, though, people-pleasing Harper filters the goings-on through her lived experience and complicated feelings about the neighborhood. 

This creates an immersive reading experience that sometimes gets frustrating when Harper doesn’t stand up for herself—and extremely tense when she decides to try out some sneaky, possibly ill-advised detective-like maneuvers. Harper’s various calculations and adventures inevitably and messily overlap with those of the other characters, offering lots of plot trails for readers to follow and theorize about. 

To keep track of these myriad threads, Miranda uses spreadsheets, mapping out plots and keeping track of clues. “It’s my methodical approach to writing thrillers,” she says. This penchant for columns and rows may hark back to her past experiences in the sciences. After graduating from MIT, Miranda worked in a laboratory setting at several biotech companies and taught high school science for a few years, too.

Despite this background, Miranda doesn’t consider her transition to fiction writing to be a sharp turn but rather “a completely natural progression, a continuation of things I’ve loved my entire life,” she says. “I’ve always loved reading mysteries and thrillers and consuming stories in all their formats. . . . I also love science and never felt those were opposing parts of me.” 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Such a Quiet Place.


Miranda’s first published books were YA novels, some of which (like Soulprint and Come Find Me) included scientific aspects “inspired by what-if scenarios.” That what-if inquisitiveness has proven indispensable to writing adult thrillers, as well. An experiment is a step-by-step process with many variables, Miranda explains, just like “steps in the process of telling a story. That mindset definitely helps with my [writing] process.”

Miranda also maintains a bright-line boundary between work and the rest of her life to ensure that she’s able to fully inhabit the minds of her narrators. “It lets me get really deep into a story, which is important to my writing in first person,” she says. “I dive in with a character and build up the premise and discover things as I write. . . . I do surprise myself sometimes.”

Certainly, there are surprises in Such a Quiet Place from start to finish—from seemingly minor to decidedly deadly. “I love those little shifts of perspective!” Miranda says. “I try to [include] them in my books throughout the story, those elements that change the way you see things.” 

It’s just that sort of unsteady ground, destabilized by trepidation and doubt, that moves beneath the Hollow’s Edge community as its story comes to a shocking conclusion. Miranda says she likes to “channel [my characters’] uncertainty,” and she does that to fine effect while challenging readers to cast a more critical eye on their own neighborhoods. Perhaps that’s a good way to pass the time until her next thriller, which is sure to have plenty of trees for characters to appreciate (and maybe even lurk behind).

 

Author photo by Magen Marie Photography.

A cookie-cutter suburb’s illusion of safety melts away in Megan Miranda’s new thriller.

S.A. Cosby has taken the literary world by storm. His first release from a major publisher, 2020’s Blacktop Wasteland, proved his ability to scale the professional heights without compromising his identity as a Black man raised in rural Virginia, even in an industry marred by severe inequities. Buttressed by its antiheroic protagonist, Beauregard, the car chase-strewn Southern noir made 22 best of the year lists, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery and was swiftly optioned for film, bringing Cosby a level of attention that he hadn’t yet seen in his 20-plus-year career. 

“The response to Blacktop Wasteland has been beyond my wildest dreams,” Cosby says from his home in Virginia. “I’ve been amazed by the fact that people are willing to take a walk through the shoes of someone like Beauregard.” 

Now Cosby returns with Razorblade Tears, which centers on the unlikely partnership between two ex-convicts: Ike, who is African American, and Buddy Lee, who is white. They pair up to avenge the untimely murders of their two sons, who were married and living seemingly harmless lives. As they investigate this mysterious tragedy, which seems to be connected to both a white supremacist biker gang and a furtive young woman named Tangerine, Ike and Buddy Lee go on a thrilling journey of self-discovery and social interrogation across the book’s 336 pages. 

Razorblade Tears is a mission-driven novel that finds Cosby directly deconstructing the cultural plague of homophobia, both in larger society and in the Black community. Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest for vengeance is partly fueled by the guilt they feel over their rejection of their queer-identifying sons while they were still alive. The genesis of the book was a conversation Cosby had with a Black gay friend who was struggling to decide whether to come out to his parents. 

“When I was a kid, someone calling you the N-word and somebody calling you a derogatory term for someone in the LGBTQ community would cause you to fight on sight,” Cosby says. “And in some instances, it was almost like people felt like it was worse to be called a derogatory name for an LGBTQ member than it was to be called the N-word. We really need to confront the issue of homophobia in our community, and as a crime writer, I decided to look at it through the prism of the genre that I love.”

"I love my hometown . . . I love the people there. But that doesn’t absolve myself or them from the truth."

Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest for vengeance forces them to question their complicated ideas about manhood, which have caused harm to themselves and others throughout their lives. Masculinity is a subject that Cosby has never shied away from in either his personal and creative life. “I think there’s such a convoluted sense of masculinity in the South and in rural towns and small towns,” he says. “I think that we have to expand our definition of what we consider masculine. That’s definitely an issue I’m exploring in Razorblade Tears.”

The rural South is not just a backdrop but also a generative force in Cosby’s writing. Through the lens of crime fiction, the author explores the contradictory nature of Southern living. Cosby grew up in Mathews County, a rural area a couple of hours away from Virginia’s largest city, Virginia Beach, and home to some 8,000 residents. “I love my hometown, and every book I write is basically [about] my hometown in disguise. I love the people there. But that doesn’t absolve myself or them from the truth,” he says. 

“Living in a rural environment, you have a sense of community and belonging that I don’t know you get anywhere else,” he continues. “At the same time, I live in a small town where there’s a gigantic Confederate statue right in front of the courthouse. I’m fully aware and cognizant of these diametrically opposed ideas. I have Black love, a Black family and a sense of belonging while living in a town where some of the inhabitants still idealize racist traitors.”

Cosby’s writing career reflects the same type of resolve that his characters display as they navigate their arduous lives. “It was a long and circuitous route to getting published,” he notes. Cosby fell in love with the craft when he first published a letter to Santa in the local newspaper at 7 years old. He studied English in college but was forced to drop out after his mother became ill. Since then, life has taken Cosby through a variety of spaces and occupations, but he always remained committed to writing. “I never gave up, I just kept plugging away at it,” Cosby, who is now 47, says. 

In 2011, he published a short story in a small quarterly called Thug Lit. “That was the beginning of my career as a crime writer,” he says. “I wrote more short stories that got published. I ended up publishing a short novel called My Darkest Prayer through an independent publishing firm. And then from that, I took the leap and wrote Blacktop Wasteland.”

Like Blacktop Wasteland, which won acclaim for its potent mix of social commentary and white-knuckle thrills, Razorblade Tears also offers understated yet powerful commentary about America’s racial problem. Many people, from all points on the political spectrum, reduce racism to moments of interpersonal conflict and unequal access. But as Cosby demonstrates throughout the book, racism also festers in the nuances and subtexts. This can especially be seen through the adroit and well-voiced conversations between Ike and Buddy Lee, who don’t like each other but are forced to work together. 

“There are scenes where Buddy Lee says casually racist things to Ike, and literally in the midst of them trying to find vengeance for their children, Ike has to break it down to explain his experience,” Cosby says. “There is a scene where Buddy Lee is looking at Ike’s lawn care truck and is like, ‘Hey man, you talk so much about racism, but you got this nice truck, and you got a business.’ And Ike is like, ‘Yeah, I got this nice truck, but I get pulled over like once a month. I’m doing all right, but when I go in the store, people don’t respect me.’ So, they’re having conversations about race and what race means. They’re growing in respect to their appreciation for their sons and their sons’ love, but they’re also growing and changing in respect to each other.”

In addition to homophobia, masculinity and race, Razorblade Tears examines poverty, classism and rural/urban divides. Cosby admits that grappling with such serious issues caused anxiety during the writing process. “It was terrifying, but as a writer you’ve got to challenge yourself,” he says. “I don’t think any of us are free or valued until everybody is free or valued. So I wanted to push myself and see if I could talk about those issues in a voice that was true to me.”

Cosby handles such material with great care. He conducted serious research to ensure that he could address these issues without causing further harm. “I think research is 30% to 40% of your writing if you’re trying to do it well,” he explains. “If you’re tackling something that is outside your purview, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. And I think not only doing my own research but also having authenticity readers or sensitivity readers is an important part of the process.” 

Razorblade Tears’ commitment to addressing serious social issues is balanced by temperate pacing and a consistent rhythmic pulse that reflect the energy of rural Southern life. It’s like the blues, with Cosby as a contemporary manifestation of legendary bluesmen like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, whom he cites as influences. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Razorblade Tears.


In further accordance with the bluesman aesthetic, Cosby’s work is also creative ethnography, pulling from the everyday oral traditions of African Americans. “I grew up around a lot of backyard orators and barbecue philosophers. So I listened to my uncles and them trash talk over a spades or dominoes game. Or I would ride my bike down to the basketball court and listen to them trash talk,” he says. “Listening to the way people talk is a huge influence on me.”

Cosby’s investment in realistic dialogue and detailed characterization is never clearer than in Razorblade Tears incredibly rich and nuanced portraits of Black criminals, those who orbit them and others on the periphery of the law. Ike is a formidable character, a natural leader who commands respect in every space he enters. His temperament has been shaped, at least in part, by blood battles on the streets and in prison. Throughout the book, Ike manages his violent disposition as though it’s a chronic illness: It’s kept mostly at bay, but there’s always risk of a flare-up.

Some may question why Cosby, a man of such immense talents, would spend his time writing about Black criminals, especially considering the way Black people have been both symbolically and physically criminalized in this country. He is fearless and candid in response. “I think the value in exploring this particular aspect of our lives is to show that people can make mistakes, and still ultimately find redemption,” he says. “I have family members who have rightly and wrongly been convicted of crime, and they’ve come out and pulled themselves together and got second chances. If we try to hide that, then we’re no better than someone who says they see no color. We have to explore the full width and breadth of the Black experience.” 

As a Black writer at a time of great social and political division, Cosby feels a deep sense of responsibility. “As an African American writer, your first charge is to tell the truth about your experience,” says Cosby. He hopes that his own truth-telling will inspire others to do the same. “I would love for a little Black boy or girl to pick up my book and be like, ‘Wow, man, this dude is doing this. If he is publishing, then I can do it, too.’” 

 

Author photo by Sam Sauter Photography.

S.A. Cosby writes the blues with a rhythmic, energetic thriller that addresses social issues within the richly detailed setting of the rural South.

Interview by

Despite the dance studio-setting of her new thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up.

“My dancing background is restricted to two years at a strip mall dance studio in Michigan,” Abbott says with a laugh. But that didn’t stop her from developing a lifelong fixation with ballet. “Like a lot of young women, because it’s so tied to femininity, I had a fascination with it at a young age. I read all the ballet memoirs. I loved all the stuff about ballet and about young women dying or contracting terrible diseases.”

Abbott famously writes intense, often noirish books. Her breakout 2012 thriller, Dare Me, was an unflinching look at the cutthroat world of high school cheerleading, and some of her 11 other novels are inspired by famous crimes from decades past. So talking to her on the phone from her home in the Queens borough of New York City is surprising; she is effusive and lighthearted as she talks about the inspiration for her haunting new book, The Turnout

It’s a beautifully written look at a musty ballet studio run by sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband, Charlie, who came to live with Dara and Marie when they were teens. All three grapple with the trauma of their deeply troubled childhoods and the toll ballet has taken on their bodies. Once the most promising dancer of the three, Charlie has endured four surgeries and lives with ongoing chronic pain. “His body, still as lean and marble-cut as the day their mother brought him home, was a living reminder of how quickly things could turn,” Abbott writes, “how beautiful things could all be broken inside.”

“It seems the impulse is still there, despite everything, of women judging other women.”

The physically and emotionally grueling world of ballet was a subject Abbott had considered for years before finally sitting down to write The Turnout. “I was interested in the smells and the sort of fixations with the repetitions and discipline required,” she says. “The mind games dancers will do to get in that space.”

The relationship dynamics between women—how they both support and undermine each other—is a prominent theme in many of Abbott’s books. “When I started, there were a vanishingly few crime novels that had female characters,” she says. “I realized, oh, people haven’t really talked about [female relationships] so much in this world. . . . We know this [competitive dynamic] goes on and the way women talk to each other and are passive aggressive with each other. We know the casual comments that women know are a veiled insult—this secret language of women. [After] seeing how rich a mine it was, I just kept going back.”

One perhaps unexpected inspiration for The Turnout was the hit true crime podcast “Dirty John,” which tells the story of John Michael Meehan, a charmer who conned a successful California businesswoman into marriage with disastrous results for her and her family. 

“The listener comments would be almost entirely women commenting and basically trashing the [victims], these women who had been conned and brutalized,” Abbott says. “It seems the impulse is still there, despite everything, of women judging other women, particularly for their romantic choices. It’s obviously a really defensive posture, a fear that this could happen to you.”

When writing her suspense novels, Abbott starts out with a story and perspective in mind, but she remains open to her characters making choices, too, and she speaks of them as if they are co-authors. “We’re complex and complicated and ambivalent and change over time,” she says. “It does feel like they’re telling you what you want to do in the moment. I follow the breadcrumbs, so to speak.”

Constant change is an unavoidable part of another of Abbott’s passions: the “love story of her life,” New York City. She’s been a New Yorker since the early 1990s and has watched the city go through several iterations and waves of gentrification. “It was still a little rough around the edges when I moved here, then there was this Disneyfication and the slow ‘everyone is moving to the outer boroughs,’” she says. “Manhattan was becoming empty condos of wealthy internationalists, and now it’s coming back to life. I’ve seen many versions of it. I’ll never leave it.”

Despite this, Abbott does not set her books there. In fact, several of her novels are fairly vague on their exact locations, and that includes The Turnout, where the studio is set on the top two floors of a squat, rusty brick office building downtown—though downtown where is not readily apparent. 

“New York is home, so to me, it’s not exotic,” she says. “I do tend to want to write places where I don’t specify too many regional signifiers, so you can picture it and relate to it. I don’t want them to be quite that grounded.”

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic in the city was not easy for Abbott, but having consistent projects in TV and movie writing (including adapting The Turnout into a limited series) forced her to stay productive and focused. “Luckily I needed to basically write all the time during the pandemic,” she says. “With TV and film scripts, you literally don’t get paid until you finish it, and people are waiting! It gave me a rigor. Script work also kept me connected to people in a strange time. As a novelist, it’s a solitary life, but now I couldn’t even leave my apartment, so it was an umbilical cord to the rest of the world.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Turnout.


One of Abbott’s favorite recent TV projects was writing for the HBO series “The Deuce,” set in the seedy Times Square of the late 1970s. Abbott said it was thrilling, if daunting, to write about this period in the city’s storied history.

“I was so terrified that it really made me obsessively research,” she says. She describes most of her stories as being “very small . . . set in hothouses,” whereas the stories in “The Deuce” are “very expansive, with multiple characters and worlds like the police and pimps.”

Now that vaccines are available in the U.S. and the country appears to be opening up again, Abbott knows exactly how she’s going to reclaim her beloved city. “What I really missed, maybe the most, is a sweaty, loud, noisy bar with friends and the music throbbing and the sensate experience of that,” she says. “That experience of having to strain your voice to talk to your friends about some book you just read or movie you just saw.”

 

Author photo by Drew Reilly.

Despite the dance studio-setting of her new thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up.

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