The Mask and the Mask Slipping




MEGAN ABBOTT KNOWS something about teenage girls, something that goes far beyond the way they are traditionally represented in pop culture, either with candy-colored shine or overt and adult sexuality. She understands their power, the danger they are in, and the danger they possess. To read any of Abbott’s last three novels — The End of Everything, Dare Me, or The Fever — is to be confronted with a confounding paradox of teenagers who are as delicate as they are deadly. In her latest, You Will Know Me, set in the glittery and ferocious world of elite gymnastics, Abbott once again perfectly navigates the perilous, liminal period between childhood and adulthood, teasing out the transformative moment when a familiar child is replaced by someone, not simply inscrutable and dangerously determined, but a stranger to those who’ve known her for her entire life. This is the power of Abbott’s recent fiction — her understanding that it is one thing to fear strangers, but a far more terrifying thing to fear those close to us whom we only thought we knew. With the Rio Olympics fast approaching and the US gymnastics team poised for an impressive medal haul, I could think of no better time to talk to Abbott about her new book.

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IVY POCHODA: Competitive gymnastics so perfectly embodies the fragility and fierceness of teenage girls — something your last two books addressed extensively. What is it about this age in girls’ lives that makes it such a compelling subject? What did gymnastics add?

MEGAN ABBOTT: I think it’s because everything is in such high relief. The big emotions of life are storming through us every day, and we feel every shock and tremor. When I was that age, it was like my nerve endings were all exposed. The most thrilling and most awful period in one’s life, at the same time. And I think most women spend a lot of time reflecting on themselves at that age, the mistakes, the pleasures. It’s when we decide who we’re going to be.

And once I rolled gymnastics into the mix, well, it intensified everything further. It’s a sport requiring such relentless discipline and focus. And, if adolescence is when we have our first big reckonings with our bodies, then never more so than if one is a gymnast too. If the physical changes of adolescence are complicated for all of us, they are a thousand times more so if you’re a gymnast, and getting breasts and hips changes everything, or threatens to. So, I guess, with You Will Know Me, I’m trying to take a world in high relief and set it in even higher relief.

About your title — I really kept jumping back and forth on how to read it, which is terrific. Sometimes I put the emphasis on the Will as an imperative, like all these factors and people and events are devoted to making the world know Devon. But then I landed on the notion of irony because, really, at the end of day, Devon is unknowable. Can I have it both ways?

I think so! And you’re identifying something fundamental about the book and the title that I never would have seen myself — also the razor’s edge of both “you” and “know” (well, and “me”). I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the masks women wear without even thinking, that, as you hear so much in gender theory, maybe womanhood itself is a masquerade. The title comes from Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast, a book that just rocked me. It’s a memoir written as a direct address to an imaginary gymnast asking Comaneci for advice — essentially asking for her secrets. At one point, Comaneci says, “I do not know you,” to the anonymous gymnast, “but you will know me.” And it’s both true, and a complete lie. We get a Nadia in the memoir, or more than one, but she always holds something back. You can feel it. And that went into Devon.

There’s a remarkable moment about three quarters of the way through the book when Katie watches Devon in her high school class, among her peers, and she (and we) can finally see how “freakish” her daughter is and how deformed her own life has become. I, as a reader, thought that this might be a turning point for Katie, a revelation. Can you talk about that moment?

I thought it was really important for us to see Devon, the star of her gym and the center of not only her family’s lives, but also the lives of all of the other gym families’ lives, from the outside. I read a lot of gymnast memoirs and there often was a big separation for gymnasts — between their status and role in the gym and at school. For many, they were stars at the gym, but at school, they were there, but not there. Until that moment in the novel, we only see her from her mother Katie’s viewpoint, which is quite specific. But when she views Devon in her own sphere, everything is different and awful and Katie never knew at all. Which was something that kept coming into my mind while writing the book — that inevitable moment for all parents when they realize they don’t know everything about their child’s life, or even close. Parenting requires a kind of blindness (and adolescence depends on it), but for Katie, whose life revolves around her daughter, it’s sort of like the scales falling from her eyes. It’s rough — awful even. Like it always is for parents to have to see their children not being loved and accepted by everyone.

This is a book about adults more than it is about the gymnasts themselves. I know your initial moment of inspiration was seeing the tortured faces of the parents of US gymnast Aly Raisman as they watched her compete. Did you ever consider writing from Devon’s point of view? Or was this always the parents’ book?

It was always the parents for me. I’ve always been interested in the parents of prodigies or near-prodigies — the oddness of it, the different ways people handle it. And I was especially fascinated in those cases when both parents hoist their whole lives into their child’s endeavors. I toyed with splitting the point of view between Katie and her husband Eric, but in the end, I was so fascinated by how complicated the marriages are in these cases, I went with Katie. I wanted the challenge of taking a stereotype — the “stage mom” — and approaching her with sympathy, and ambiguity.

It’s funny you say that about approaching Katie with sympathy, because the entire novel I vacillated between sympathizing with her and being horrified by how myopic she is. You toe this line so well, making us almost want what Katie wants until we come to our senses. But, I’m wondering: How do you see her?

I tend to suffer from Stockholm syndrome with my characters. I struggled at first getting into Katie’s head, but once I was in there, that was it. I love them all and can’t judge them at all. Apart from satire, I’ve always hated the feeling when you sense the writer’s distaste for his or her characters. That said, I want the reader to have all kinds of mixed feelings for my characters, and for Katie. In the case of “stage moms,” I knew seeing the problematic aspects would be easy, but I worried that seeing the love and generosity would be harder, so I worked hard on that. And the myopia! But, then, to be a parent is to be myopic or you’d never make it, right? Some degree of blindness is required, and so maybe the reader would be able to see how easily one might slip from one degree to another.

One of my favorite scenes has nothing to do with gymnastics but with adults behaving badly: the party scene. Having been a competitive athlete and a coach to elite athletes myself, I can say that you nailed this aspect of children’s sports. What do you think gives sports parents license to misbehave in so many different ways?

That was one of my favorite scenes to write. When I was little, my brother played baseball and our whole lives were structured around Little League and, later, the Babe Ruth League. As the random sibling, I had such a vantage point on the doings of seeming authority figures — all these parents. I’d see them at parties, celebrations, reveling in it all. It stripped away a lot of the facade of adulthood for me. Of course now, as an adult, I’m more sympathetic. Especially for these parents, who have thrown their whole lives and often a small fortune into something. For them, a gym celebration is also their celebration. They feel they earned a piece. But, at the same time, they work so hard and are sacrificing so much for their child, and often spend so much time being a parent (rather than a man or a woman), and then, at these parties, they finally get to let loose.

Well, you perfectly led into another question. I think in some ways the heart, soul, and head of this book come to rest on the shoulders of Devon’s little brother, Drew. He’s the normal kid, the one who keeps everything in the Knox life in some sort of check. But he’s also kind of spooky. Now I see that you were a “Drew” vis-à-vis your brother’s baseball. I’m completely fascinated by his point of view, especially now that I know that there might be some overlap with your personal experience. How important is Drew to this book?

I’m so glad you see him that way. He was meant to be a much smaller character, but as I wrote him, I liked him so much, his role kept getting larger. It really wasn’t until the last few weeks that I came to see aspects of myself in him, but I was aware of how much I was drawing on my nephew Kevin (my brother’s son) for his personality. He’s such a smart, dear kid, and his mind goes all kinds of places. I began to think of how it would be for a brilliant and special kid in a family whose attentions have already been foresworn to a sibling with showier, more conspicuous talents. I read recently that sibling relationships might be the great neglected impact on our personality, and I thought about that a lot. Drew will be shaped forever by Devon, but Devon will not even be touched by Drew.

I know you just watched the US Olympic gymnastic trials. I have to ask — which of those gymnasts most closely resembles Devon? I have an idea of my own.

Dying to hear your idea. For me, it’s Aly Raisman — and not just because she and her parents were a big part in the germination of this book. To me, she seems like a worrier, an over-thinker, an analyzer. The form that takes when she’s competing is this grave, earnest face. You don’t see the joy you see when you watch Simone Biles, for instance. Though, of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were a beautiful mask, too. We project so much on gymnast faces, don’t we? There’s something so thrilling about seeing female ambition and drive in bare form, and masterfully concealed.

Well, I had two other theories, and one of them sprung from how open-ended you leave the book. I’m not entirely convinced of Devon’s success. And I like that about You Will Know Me and about gymnastics in general. Simone Biles aside, really, anything might happen. So I was thinking that Devon was Ragan Smith — there’s something falsely cheerful about her, like she has to be perky despite things slipping from her grasp. But in terms of physicality, I’d say Devon is straight up Madison Kocian. I know it’s horrible to talk about girls’ bodies, but gymnastics really does invite that. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much unadorned muscle in my life on someone so young. There’s an interesting plainness — asexuality — about Madison that really gelled with my conception of Devon. But I might be off base here.

This is fascinating. I hadn’t thought of Ragan in part because when I started the book she was still so young, but I have thought about Madison Kocian a lot lately. When I watched her at the trials a few weeks ago, I had an almost uncanny feeling. In part, my idea of her is shaped by thinking about her from the inside, whereas for the reader, it’s through Katie’s eyes. Another gymnast I’d thought about was Jordyn Wieber, her earnest, almost grave presence. I spent so much time looking at her face. It seemed to bear the weight of so much pressure. I kept a particular pensive photo of her on my desktop. So in some ways it was the face, the mask and the mask slipping, that resonated most with me.

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Ivy Pochoda is the author, most recently, of Visitation Street.



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