Suspense writer Megan Abbott has been busy lately. She's been writing for HBO's The Deuce, and adapting two of her own books for television.
This week, her most recent novel, Give Me Your Hand is out — it's the story of two young, brilliant, female scientists named Kit and Diane. The two women were friends in high school, but when Diane shares a dark secret, the friendship is torn apart.
They're later reunited as they compete for a prestigous spot on a scientific research team studying Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, or PMDD. It's an extreme form of PMS that scientists estimate affects between 5 and 8 percent of women.
Abbott says she chose to make it a major part of her new book because "an ongoing fascination for me is this sort of idea that the female body is monstrous, and that women aren't in control of their emotions, and all of that. But the fact is, there is a real thing, and it's not uncommon, and like so many women's health issues, it's just been very under-researched and stigmatized. It's also been used in a few cases as a criminal defense," she adds, "which is how I first began reading about it."
On what motivates women to kill
It's so much of course about what has been projected upon women throughout time — you know, we're always sort of the victim of hundreds of legends and stereotypes and archetypes. And I think that women commit murder far less frequently, and when they do, it's so much more shocking to people, somehow. So I think there is a desire to somehow make it seem monstrous. And also make it seem extraordinary, because why would women ever be violent? They should be happy!
On the line between friendship and rivalry
It is really tricky — there's that phrase that gets bandied around, "frenemy," for those women in our lives who we are very close to, but there is that competitive instinct. And I think part of it is that still as a culture, women are not supposed to be ambitious or competitive in the same way, and when they are, it's frightening. So it gets sort of subverted, or pushed down or suppressed, and when it does emerge, it can emerge in odd ways. And I'll confess, while I was writing this, it was during the presidential campaign so the fear of female ambition was very much on my mind.
On being a TV writer in the age of #MeToo
I think there is a great desire for change, and I do see that. When I was working on The Deuce, in the past they had been primarily all men in the writers' room, and this time there were three women, and of course it changed the conversation. And I think that I have noticed they're more conscious of it. The pilot I'm working on ... we have a female director, a female DP, two female writers that wrote the pilot. So I do think that before ... you might have had to justify that and make the case, but at least in this moment, you don't have make that case anymore, it's clear.
You do worry about backlash — I guess we're just so, as women, we've seen these windows before, and then we've seen them close on our fingers. So I think this time a lot more of use have wedged our bodies underneath that window, so to speak, to make sure it doesn't close again. And many men, too.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
By and large, women have had a rough time of it in mystery novels, mostly appearing as beautiful corpses, appendages to the detectives and cops and lawyers saving the day. But writers like Megan Abbott write female characters who go way beyond dead bodies. In fact, they're often killers.
Abbott's latest thriller is called "Give Me Your Hand," and it's the story of two female scientists named Kit and Diane. They were friends in high school. But when Diane shares a dark secret, the friendship is torn apart. They're later reunited as they compete for a prestigious spot on a scientific research team. That team is studying premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD, an extreme form of PMS. It's the kind of thing that's often used against women. So I asked Megan Abbott why she chose to make it a major part of her new book.
MEGAN ABBOTT: An ongoing fascination for me is this sort of idea that the female body is monstrous and that women aren't in control of their emotions and all of that. But the fact is there is a real thing and is not uncommon. And like so many women's health issues, it's just been very under-researched and stigmatized. It's also been used in a few cases as a criminal defense, which is how I first sort of began reading about it - not successfully, by the way. But it does really wreak havoc on the women who suffer from it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're not going to talk about the central mystery of the book, but I do want to talk about this idea of what motivates women to kill. Dr. Severin, who runs the lab where these two scientists work, muses that maybe there's something violent and sort of essentially scary about women. And this is, in essence, what you've made your career about, right?
ABBOTT: Yes. And it's so much, of course, about the - what has been projected upon women throughout time, you know? We're always sort of, you know, sort of the victim of, you know, hundreds of sort of legends and stereotypes and archetypes. And I think that women do commit murder far less frequently. And when they do, it's so much more shocking to people, somehow. So I think there is a desire to somehow make it seem monstrous and also make it seem extraordinary because, you know, why would women ever be violent? They should be happy.
ABBOTT: Everything should be great.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And men have a monopoly - yes - on violence, right...
ABBOTT: (Laughter) Yes. Still do (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still do. You've set mysteries in gymnastics clubs and cheerleading teams and now the oh-so-brutally competitive science academic community. But your work focuses on this fine line between friendship and rivalry, and you do this so well. How do you explore what's almost a trope about women without making it a trope?
ABBOTT: Yeah. It is really tricky. I mean, there's that phrase that sort of gets bandied around - frenemy, you know? - for those women in our lives who we are very close to. But there is that competitive instinct. And I think part of it is that - is still, as a culture, women are not supposed to be ambitious or competitive in the same way. And when they are, it's frightening. So it gets sort of subverted or pushed down or suppressed. And then, when it does emerge, it can emerge in odd ways. And I'll confess while I was writing this that it was during the presidential campaign, so sort of the fear of female ambition was very much on my mind.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was wondering, actually, when this was written because the talking about menstruation - I mean, I'm reminded of the moment when then-candidate Trump said about Megyn Kelly, you know, blood coming out of her eyes or whatever, this idea of women's bodies and how they're used in public discourse.
ABBOTT: Right. And that moment - it worked both ways, right? It both thought - it was incredible that he was saying this to so many of us. But it was also incredible how shocked everyone was, which I think speaks to the idea that women's bodies and their natural functions are still very stigmatized. There - you know, people don't want to talk about periods, you know? Tampons. When you buy it at the drugstore, they double bag it so you won't be seen on the street with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's still shame attached to it...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is it, though, that allows you to sort of subvert that idea and be like, you know, women can be rivals and still not have catfights?
ABBOTT: Right. Yeah, because that's always the sort of - the version you don't want to do when you're writing this. You want to indulge in this stereotype. But I do, you know, in Kit and Diane's relationship in particular - it's very complicated. And I don't think it ever lands in one court or another. There's an emotional connection they feel in part because they do fire the other one up and hang, you know? And Kit owes Diane a lot for, you know, sort of encouraging her and getting her to sort of embrace her brain so to speak. So I think, you know, the way to avoid the stereotype is just to really go in deep and acknowledge that there's lots of murky stuff there and lots of wonderful stuff, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. But I guess one of the things that it does acknowledge is that there are only a few spots for women because most of those spots are filled by men.
ABBOTT: Yes. And that - I mean, we - there are so many workplaces and fields that that's still the case. And when - in all the research I did in the sciences, it was quite extreme. And so there is that notion. But I think women feel in many professions that, you know, there's that one spot. And if a woman gets it, then that's it. There's no place for you, you know? And I think, you know, when those are the stakes, things are going to get a little ugly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Female killers are having a cultural moment. Is there something about female anger and the #MeToo movement that has given us things like, you know, these two brilliant TV series that are out now - "Killing Eve" and "Sharp Objects"? And now, two of your own novels, this one and "Dare Me" have been optioned for television, as well.
ABBOTT: Yes, I do think so. I mean, I think it was always there, you know? It was bubbling just barely beneath the surface the last many years, I mean, last centuries, one could say. But I've just found a lot of the books coming out now, for instance - or the things that are being made now that were written years ago are because of not just the #MeToo movement but the campaign and the election and sort of all - these are gender wars that sort of came to the surface, you know? It's sort of like the return of the repressed. And, now, we're sort of seeing the fruits of it everywhere, culturally.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am curious, you know? You've written for TV a lot on David Simon's "The Deuce," and I believe you're writing your own pilot, right?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you talk a little bit about the writers' rooms you've been in and the conversations you've had as the #MeToo movement has developed? Do you see anything really changing and moving in Hollywood?
ABBOTT: I think there is a great desire for change. And I do see that, you know, when I was working on "The Deuce," you know? The - you know, in the past, they had been primarily all men in the writers' room, and this time, there were three women. And, of course, it changed the conversation. And I think that - I have noticed there is, you know, more conscious of it. The pilot I'm working on for "Dare Me" - we have a female director, a female DP, two female writers that wrote the pilot, you know? So I do think that before, you may have had to justify that and make the case. But I think, at least in this moment, you don't have to make that case anymore. It's clear.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You're saying at least in this moment. That, to me, sounds like there's a little bit of skepticism about the longevity of this moment.
ABBOTT: Well, you do worry about backlash. And, you know, I mean, that's - I guess we're just so - I mean, as women, we've sort of seen these windows before. And then, we've seen them, you know, close on our fingers (laughter). So I think this time, there - a lot more of us are - you know, have wedged our bodies underneath that window so to speak to make sure it doesn't close again and many men, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suspense writer Megan Abbott. Her latest book is "Give Me Your Hand." Thank you very much.
ABBOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.