Abbott explains how she gets inside the minds of elite teenage gymnasts in her excellent new novel
With You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott (Dare Me, The Fever) revisits her sweet spot — the secret, sometimes dangerous desires of teen girls — and finds a thrilling new set of twists and turns in the world of gymnastics.
“I still feel like teenage girls are not taken seriously by the culture at large, especially not their darker or more complicated feelings—of aggression, desire, ambition,” Abbott told EW in November. “To me, these feelings and drives are so fundamental to girlhood and to womanhood, and I love exploring them. And trying to give voice to them as best I can. I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.”
We caught up with Abbott to chat about You Will Know Me, out now, and her extensive research into the fascinating subculture of elite gymnastics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the most curious aspects of the novel is how the main character, 15-year-old Devon, doesn’t really fit in anywhere.
MEGAN ABBOTT: All the things that give her value in the gym world don’t give her value in the high school world. A lot of the gymnasts I interviewed don’t feel connected to their high school at all. They have agreements to have abbreviated days, so it’s just a different experience of adolescence.
Do they regret losing out on part of their lives?
It’s an interesting question. They start so young, and they didn’t used to. It changed in ’72 with Olga Korbut, a Soviet gymnast. She could do these amazing stunts no one had done because she was so tiny, and she was competing with these 25-, 30-year-old women with breasts. That’s when the aging-down of gymnastics began.
Gymnastics is sexualized, but the women aren’t. They’re in a leotard with their hair and makeup done, but they don’t have any womanly curves.
It’s endlessly fascinating. They are both pixies—looking like small children—and muscular athletes, and neither seems to fit traditional notions of sexualized beings. When do these girls’ desires come in at all? What is their relationship to their bodies as part of that? Because their bodies are this sort of machine or weapon, not something that really gives them pleasure.
Is there something you do to get into the mindset of adolescent girls?
Instagram, certain celebrities that are followed by a lot of teenagers—those are gold. Sometimes I’ll spend time on Tumblr, which is great because it’s a window into the world of teenage girls. If I had had Tumblr when I was a teenager, I probably never would’ve done anything besides be on Tumblr.
You’re often inspired by real events. Are there any stories too dark for you to use?
Sometimes it’s a point-of-view issue—the point of view that would be the best way to tell the story is not one I want to live in, like the Slender Man case…. I know writers who’ve done this, and I’ve loved their books, but I don’t think I’d want to do the mom-killing-her-kids kind of thing.
Why did you write this book from the mom’s perspective?
The inspiration was Brooke Shields’ mom, Teri. I remember her as the stage mom of all time. There was a piece in the Times Magazine about her that was oddly sympathetic—it made you feel like she was this human, troubled person. That was interesting to me. How do you know when you’ve entered that territory? I thought if it was from the mom’s point of view, we’d see the nuance.
I heard you had a playlist when you were writing this novel.
Hull, Sleater-Kinney, the Savages. Angry girl music that mirrored Devon’s voice—so I would hear her screaming in the other room all the time!
This article originally appeared in the August 5, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on newsstands now, or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess/.