'The Fever' spreads for best-selling author with Michigan ties


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Watching “Bill Kennedy at the Movies” – a 1969-83 Detroit staple, where the well-known local TV personality hosted a show that played old movies and would take on-air calls from viewers – had a profound impact on New York Times best-selling novelist Megan Abbott.    

“I remember the gangster movies he used to air and then later film noir. Every Saturday morning, I was always planted in front of the TV watching him and getting sort of an education. For some reason, the gangster movies appealed to me, especially the Jimmy Cagney ones. I found it very glamorous and just sort of the opposite of my suburban life,” said Abbott, who grew up in Grosse Pointe, with a laugh. “I was hooked from that point on and that later led me to the books that inspired the films. I went on a wayward path from there.”

Originally, Abbott, a 1989 Grosse Pointe North High School alumna, planned on becoming a professor. She earned undergraduate and doctorate degrees in American and British literature from the University of Michigan and New York University, respectively. She even did her dissertation on hardboiled crime fiction and film noir of the 1930s and 1940s. This led to her writing her first novel, 2005’s “Dare A Little,” which she called a “fantasy exercise.” It was hardboiled crime fiction told from a female perspective.

“It’s really hard to write in the hardboiled vein without turning into cliché or kitsch because the tropes are so familiar: the bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, etc. I think it’s harder to write a straight hardboiled P.I. novel. There are not many female characters in these books, especially regular women who are not strippers or hookers,” Abbott said, laughing. “It opened up this whole new terrain for me. It felt like I could go into this well-trod area with a fresh perspective. So that did make it much easier. I try to be true to the time-period for the ones set in the past – I don’t have a female P.I. and, at the time, there probably wouldn’t have been one. My protagonists tend to be more criminals than detectives anyway.”

Her latest novel, “The Fever” ($15 Little, Brown and Company) – which won Best Hardcover of the Year at ThrillerFest in July in New York City – was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials and a mysterious outbreak of severe tics among female students at a high school in upstate New York in early 2012.

“A few of the young women appeared on ‘The Today Show’ and there was something about watching them on camera, their bodies out of control, frightened and angry, barely able to speak. Their distraught parents. It was utterly compelling and very upsetting,” explained Abbott.

The plot of “The Fever” centers around the Nash family. Tom is a popular teacher respected by his peers and beloved by his students. He has two teen-age children: Eli and Deenie. Eli is a hockey star and Deenie is an honors student. Their idyllic lifestyle is destroyed when Deenie’s best friend Lise has – without warning – some kind of horrific seizure in the middle of class.

Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread throughout the family, the school, and the community like wildfire. As more girls fall victim to this mysterious plague, dark secrets emerge, which unravels friendships, tears apart families, and shatters the town’s fragile idea of security.

“While the real-life case was the initial impetus, books always take their own shape, find their own dark corners. The novel became a story about a family, a group of friends – the way an outbreak ends up exposing all their vulnerabilities, opening up all these doors they want to keep shut tight,” said Abbott. “I’ve always been interested in different ways of exploring themes of desire, guilt, betrayal, aggression, longing – the beats of the human heart we all know so well. It’s all there, every time; I can’t seem to help myself.”

“The Fever” is different from Abbott’s other books in that it’s told from multiple perspectives: Tom, Eli, and Deenie. According to Abbott, this gives all kinds of readers different ways into the story.

“I think we all understand that fear of the unknown, the fear that something could come out of nowhere and upturn our lives,” she said. “And everyone who’s a parent understands the particular extreme of that fear when you feel your children may be at risk.”

“The Fever” also won the Strand Critics Award for Best Novel, tying with Laura Lippman’s “Hush Hush.”

“Tying with (Lippman) was very exciting. She’s one of the writers I admire most,” said Abbott.

“As one of Megan Abbott’s biggest fans, I was happily, hopefully expecting her to (win)… We had joked about it much of the day, via Twitter, while one of our mutual friends staunchly predicted a tie,” Lippman said in a statement. “When it actually happened, I truly wondered if it were a dream. Crime fiction is so varied today, wonderfully so, that a tie reflects how hard it is to say what best represents the genre. Sharing an award with a friend I consider one of the shining lights of crime fiction was truly special.”

Abbott confessed she was surprised that she won at ThrillerFest.

“It was a big surprise and if I’d been imbibing, I might not have managed to do a proper speech and get all the thanks out there I wanted to,” she said. “Writing is pretty solitary, but publishing is such a team effort.”

In addition to winning awards, “The Fever” has been optioned by Pretty Matches, the production company headed by “Sex in the City” alumna Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s been sold to MTV and will be developed into a TV series.

“I’m writing the pilot script now. It’s still a long road, but it’s been exciting so far,” said Abbott. “I’m at the same stage with my previous book, ‘Dare Me,’ which I’m also developing for TV with Karen Rosenfelt (producer of the “Twilight” movies and “The Devil Wears Prada”) and the producers of ‘Friday Night Lights.’”

Her next book, “You Will Know Me,” is slated for a 2016 release.

Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, enjoys Abbott’s work.

“She’s the queen of modern noir – one of the few writers that can make neo noir convincing,” said Agnew.