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.”
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.