Megan Abbott is comfortable holding court in a bar. The acclaimed crime fiction writer is from the Midwest, after all; being able to drink while shooting the shit about subjects like old noir films and how Stephen King can really churn ‘em out is sort of a necessity when you’re so often snowed in.
“I like bars even more than I like a cocktail,” she admits as she orders a Brooklyn Beauty (gin, St-Germain, lemon and club soda) from the corner booth at Williamsburg’s Hotel Delmano as the afternoon sun dies over her shoulder. Abbott’s slight with a welcoming smile and wavy auburn hair. She talks with her hands, casting shadows that dance along the table. “I just like to hang out at bars,” she continues. “I think that’s the crime writer in me.”
Abbott, whose forthcoming novel, Give Me Your Hand, will be her ninth, is known for her complex, literary approach to the classic thriller. “I don’t think they’re about obsession,” she says. “Occasionally they are. But, I think there’s a kind of intensity. That’s the thing that keeps me engaged in a book. I really do try to keep it sharp and to the point.”
Abbott’s evolution as a writer is easy to spot. Her early books were influenced by, and often set in, the 1930s and ‘40s—homages to old-school noir and pulp fiction with glamorous ladies and tough fellas with shady ties to the underworld, but with more of a psychological twist. Since 2011’s The End of Everything, she’s found a new formula, but there’s nothing formulaic about it. People, mostly young women, disappear in her novels; they have secrets; they die. While Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins have rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists with books that have “Girl” somewhere in the title, Abbott does something else entirely. Not content with being labeled as one kind of writer, she’s obsessed with intrigue and plot enough to satisfy mystery fans, but consumed by crafting the perfect sentence in such a way that any George Saunders or Donna Tartt-clutching MFA grad will appreciate. Give Me Your Hand is the latest in a string of great novels, and one that lands while Abbott has acquired another job title: television writer.
Her 2013 novel, Dare Me—which could appeal to anybody who likes either the films of David Lynch, 19th century Gothic novels or Heathers—is destined for the screen: director Steph Green, who has been behind the camera for shows like Billions and The Americans has signed on to turn the book into a pilot. In addition to that, Abbott works with David Simon on the gritty period drama The Deuce. Even though she grew up far away in the suburbs of Detroit, there was something about the show—which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco in 1970s Manhattan flush with pimps, sex workers and drug dealers—that Abbott could relate to: the bars. More specifically, the “old man bars” her father talked about when she was a kid: dimly lit, smoke-filled establishments filled with retired cops and shady figures, a cigarette machine in the corner, dusty bottles behind the bar, maybe a jar of pickled eggs and a horse race on the television.
“Those are my favorite because they’re harder to find, in New York at least,” she says. “They’re all over Michigan.”
When she moved to New York City in the second half of the 1990s, she, like any good NYU grad student, dreamed of attending fancy literary parties and stumbling upon a modern-day version the gambling club in the 1945 film version of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. But it didn’t take long for her to miss the bars that reminded her of home. Before moving to New York, she worked on Michigan State Senator John F. Kelly’s failed 1994 bid for the Senate, and spent a lot of time in “whatever the Irish bar was in that part of town—and there was always one,” she says. “There’d be $3 beers, so finding those would always be our goal.” The beer of choice? “We drank Stroh’s through that entire campaign.”
Of course, people grow up and move on; regional beer staples change hands. Stroh’s, Detroit’s iconic pilsner, is now owned by Pabst, while Abbott has another drink of choice: the Gimlet. “It was because of Raymond Chandler. Literally. I had never had one before. I read him, and it sounded so good,” she says. “He describes it really beautifully. In that case with gin and with Rose’s. But I do prefer fresh lime, too.” The server comes to check on us, apologizing for interrupting. I put in my order: a Negroni. Abbott, still savoring her drink, doesn’t miss a beat. “He has that great thing, it’s in The Long Goodbye, about coming to a bar when it’s opening for the day. And the bar’s just been polished and it’s this great sort of study, and he orders a Gimlet,” she says, as I consider running after the server to change my order.
Abbott nears the bottom of her drink and glances at the menu to decide if she wants another. She orders a Gimlet while wracking her brain to remember the name of a bar she used to like in the Upper West Side area once known as Needle Park. It had a connection to the crime novel and film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which is what got her in the door in the first place. “I always kind of liked how you could sometimes find a skeleton in it,” she says, letting the ambiguity of the statement hang in the air.