This Dialogue, This Connection: An Interview with Megan Abbott
By Kristopher MecholskyNovember 3, 2017
David Simon’s HBO shows (The Wire, Treme, and now The Deuce) are concept shows about big social issues (drugs, disaster recovery, sex work) oriented around (and originating from) particular places (Baltimore, New Orleans, New York) and the particular people who populate them. In that commitment to realistic depictions of place and character, they have usually tightly framed social issues without sacrificing specifics and individuality for general moralizing. I wanted to talk to Abbott about her role as a writer for The Deuce in that process, and specifically about the episode that she penned (“Au Reservoir”). We discussed over email how her own background (as academic and novelist) informed her work on a show of such conflicting politics.
KRISTOPHER MECHOLSKY: How did you get involved in this project? Based on your connections among crime novelists, my assumption is that George Pelecanos may have reached out to you. If so, why do you think you came to mind for this show? Why did you decide to do it?
MEGAN ABBOTT: It was actually David Simon who reached out to me. He and George were both looking for female crime novelists; George approached Lisa Lutz and David approached me. I’d met David a few times through Laura Lippman, a writing hero of mine and a friend. This was three or four years ago when the project was still in development. David and George both like to work with novelists and they definitely knew they needed strong women’s voices in this room and they thought of us. It was, of course, quite thrilling to be asked. And more than a little terrifying.
I had forgotten the Laura Lippman connection! Now, to my knowledge, this is the first time you've written for a non-print medium. Is that so? What have been some of the challenges and pressures for you adapting your writing to the conventions of television, particularly an HBO “prestige” show?
No, I’ve been adapting my own work for both film and TV for the past five years. I have a project in development with HBO now [an adaptation of her 2012 novel, Dare Me], so that definitely helped me in terms of jumping in. But I’d never worked in a writers’ room before, so that experience was brand new. The intensity of it, the energy of collaboration — it’s all so different, fundamentally opposed even, to the novelist’s solitary life. It’s been a big shock to my system. At first, I planned to hang back, to give myself permission to be on the sidelines a bit. But within a few hours that first day, I was in it. There’s no hanging back in writers’ rooms! At least not this one. And I found I cared a lot about the world and experience the show was committed to bringing to life. And David and George are very good at creating an open atmosphere. They encouraged both Lisa and me to charge in. I’ve learned so much from them, and from Richard Price, also an executive producer on the show. It’s been a master class.
Tell me a little bit about your role as a writer on the show and how you fit in with the other writers and creative directors. What kind of cross-collaboration was there?
Yeah, we all develop the story together in the room, first mapping out the season, then breaking it down into episodes. Every script contains bits and pieces that everyone in the room contributed. Each script is formulated in the room, beat by beat, and then one writer is tasked with doing the first two drafts. For me, that was the seventh episode. But, inevitably, some of one’s stuff ends up in other episodes and some of other writers’ stuff ends up in yours. You can’t get precious about what’s yours and what’s someone else’s. I like that aspect of it so much; it just relieves the pressure. My friend, the writer Jack Pendarvis, who writes for Adventure Time, told me, “You give them the very best you can offer and then it’s out of your hands.” And what better hands to put it in? And David and George shape all the scripts so they have the same tone and feel. But they also really try to let all our voices through, too. Lisa Lutz’s episode (#4) really felt like Lisa to me. Funny, moving, offbeat, with a kind of emotional heft that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise.
The Deuce is impressive in its ability to balance its social concern with the voices and trajectories of the individuals whose lives “carry” those social reflections. The time depicted is such a monumental moment in American cultural and economic history, and the general shape of that story and its cultural echoes is inherently fascinating on its own. Yet as often as I’m prompted to identify almost allegorical portrayals of history (the evolution of capitalism, most notably), I’m jerked back to the reality of each moment and character and their agency within these larger historical trends.
As a writer, how did you work to strike that balance? What were some of the difficulties with that? Did you or the other writers find that you had to remind yourself not to get too allegorical with or, on the other hand, too personally attached to (or detached from) the characters? On a similar note, did you find that you had to work to maintain distance from certain genre or narrative conventions (e.g., the hooker with the heart of gold or the conventions of pornography itself)?
I guess I don’t think in terms of allegory when it comes to writing. There are broad issues that are always going to be a part of the show — the human cost of unrepentent, uncontrolled capitalism. The way people operate within and without corrupt or compromised systems to survive and make meaning. But you can’t turn an idea into a character, and characters can’t be stand-ins for ideas. We never forget in the room that we’re talking about people, not concepts. We’re talking about this complicated and rather beautiful set of people, this Damon Runyon world of high-and-low, gallows humor and a kind of gritty beauty and emotional heft.
Along the same lines, as a novelist I’ve always operated from a place of character, and being true and consistent to characters. And that’s how you avoid convention or cliché. Once you consider any character’s complexities and ambiguities, the clichés go out the window. And that was always the way we worked in the writers’ room. David and George always encouraged us to go against the grain, to fight the obvious, the overworked trope — and by example, they show the rewards gained from that. All of our characters who are sex workers, for instance — they’re all different. Darlene is different from Ashley who’s different from Candy and Ruby. They all experience their work differently. They all have different distances from it. Once you get into specifics, you’re no longer operating in clichés. And that’s where the fun starts. That’s when the characters become real.
So speaking of specifics and character, I want to talk about the structure of “Au Reservoir” and the parallel “Other-world” journeys a number of the characters take. Ashley escapes C. C.’s grip and begins living a very different life by way of Frankie and Abby; Frankie journeys with Ashley to Fire Island and Paul and Todd’s gay community (a subplot which itself skirts us closer to mainstream knowledge about the era of “porno chic”); Abby takes Vincent to scandalize her upper-class home in Connecticut; Bobby, utterly cut from domestic suburbia and the legal workplace, falls into the daily headaches of brothel domesticity and its workplace dynamics; and so many more.
In a lot of ways, all of these journeys reminded me of the audience’s own journey into this Other-world/underworld of prostitution, porn, and the mafia — journeys that might be made for a wide variety of reasons, journeys that often lead to dark self-discovery. And so it also reminded me of several of your novels — Lora in Die a Little and Lizzie in The End of Everything, for instance. I was drawn to the way so many of the characters’ trajectories (Abby, Sandra and Alston, Ashley) came to a point in this episode that reflected some prevalent motifs in your writing: the obsession characters — and readers! — have with the alien private and social worlds of characters they simultaneously desire and despise; the darkness undergirding and intersecting suburbia; the poetry of pop culture in daily life. Do the sojourns in episode seven at all reflect your own depictions of journeys?
Gosh, I’d like to imagine it worked that way (and I love your interpretation), but I’m probably the last person to speculate about this. I try not to think thematically or analytically when I write fiction — that can be deadly!
And, practically speaking, we plot about the episodes in the room and it’s sort of the luck of the draw where certain plot elements land. But the journey is such a classic structure, a classical structure in fact, and perhaps the oldest storytelling conceit of all time, and it always yields meaning. And I am, as the show is, very interested in the collision between the public and private self, the selves we fashion for ourselves to face the world. The extent to which women in particular must always wear a mask, and be able to fashion many different masks, to operate in our world. I’m not sure the journeys are precisely about self-discovery, but The Deuce explores a very insular world and once you push its characters into other places, you, as the viewer, inevitably learn more about them. You see them in another guise, and they inadvertently reveal themselves to you.
But I don’t write with these ideas in mind. I just try to focus on the characters. For me, the heart of the episode was Ashley, and I was very interested in her in relation to Frankie, who in some way lives out the fantasy of a quintessential white American male freedom. It’s a fantasy that’s nearly impossible for women, especially women like Ashley. But she marks it, she studies it, she uses it to give her the jolt she needs to go, go, go. To escape her prison.
I’m glad you brought up white American masculinity since your first book (the nonfiction The Street Was Mine) explored how midcentury popular fiction depicted what I think we might now recognize as the beginning of the modern toxicity of straight white masculinity that fermented under apparent threats to power and identity. I see so much of the arc of the show shot through with how masculine identity and worldview shapes even just the possibilities of what happens for everyone. As you point out, Frankie epitomizes a reckless freedom that Vincent, Bobby, and essentially every john also wield without thought. I think “Nice Guy” Vincent particularly resonates now, in the current Weinstein/Trump moment, since he seems to need desperately to see himself as above and separate from the violent, demeaning pimps and johns who patronize his bar while he benefits from and perpetuates the freedom that enables them. The show also suggests how that toxic masculinity saturates the very machinery of the mass production and consumption of sex work. I wonder what that means for Candy’s difficult climb into a position of greater power through the industry of pornography instead of the lonely, precarious, and dangerous freedom she had as a pimp-less prostitute. How do you see her balancing empowerment with the complicit mechanisms that channel it? As a side question, will you be working on further seasons of the show? If so, whose stories are you most looking forward to exploring and why?
I’m already on board for season two and eager to see where it goes. Since we’re already at work on it, I can’t reveal anything about the characters, but it’s been exciting to begin to map it out.
It’s funny — as I’ve said, I try not to think about the bigger ideas when I’m writing. I think it’s better that they come organically, and they do, given the structure and ethos that David and George have set up. But now, watching the show with an audience at this particular moment in the culture, it really feels part of this much larger conversation about complicity — male and female — in sexual violence, intimidation, and disempowerment. What does it mean to witness or be a party to the commodification or humiliation or domination of others? What does it mean if we gain from it? When do we intervene? I’ve been doing a great deal of self-reflection, and I think we all are. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the show is on during such a charged moment in the culture, but maybe not.
Can you tell me about the title of your episode (“Au Reservoir”)? At first, I was drawn to the “reserve” aspect of it, noticing the way the industrialization of sex work spawned a growing reserve army of the unemployed (particularly evidenced by the pimps talking about Fantasia in the diner — one of my absolute favorite scenes) and left others increasingly exploited (the prostitutes who have moved in, as well as those who have to work far more on the street, like Ashley). But there’s also the obvious “goodbye,” but far less sentimental. Ashley’s leaving of course, but a lot of people are starting to say “goodbye” to previous worlds and previous notions of themselves, which I think we’ll continue to see. And there’s Reggie, too. And there’s also the corrupted fanciness of the expression, like Bobby’s parlor.
So, perhaps related to the title, can you tell us what you personally are hoping viewers take away from this episode and the show at large? And when I say “take away,” I mean it as broadly as possible (i.e., not just ideas or messages but empathy and action and enjoying a story and so on). If I make time for The Deuce on Sunday night, what do you hope that will mean for me in my life?
That’s actually David’s title! I had a different one, so I can’t speak to it specifically (though it’s a great title).
Well, wait! What was your title?!
“Girl with the Twirl,” but I had to cut the bit it referred to, so new title!
I love your interpretation. For me, the experiences of the women in parlor, especially the dynamic between Darlene and Bernice, are central to the episode. Visiting the parlor set, I was struck by its cramped bleakness. It felt like a prison, because in a way it was. Working in those circumstances. The grimness of the stalls. The way these women’s lives had become so conscripted, like factory workers, indentured servants, into smaller and smaller places. And, alternately, Candy is finding her way out, to broader horizons. She’s making it work, and innovating. But at what cost?
For all the women, their status as a commodity is unavoidable. Even Abby feels it. It’s part of her family’s world, too.
In the end, even as we sympathize with Vincent’s dilemma or warm to Harvey’s kindnesses, and even as we enjoy the humor and style of the pimps (who also face their own kind of conscription), we can’t ignore their complicity. These are women with few choices who, in an era of supposed revolutionary new freedoms and a hoisting-off of Puritan strictures, are going to have to fight their way out to get what many of these men wear so easily: freedom. Choice.
But in the end, I only hope viewers enjoy this and all the episodes. I feel as I do with my own books: the writer delivers the story and the rest is up to the reader/viewer. That’s the great joy of it all. That it’s this transmission, this dialogue, this connection.
Do you have any plans to take a longer detour into television or film? Do you maybe plan to continue to write print fiction alongside television or film work? Would you want to, or would you consider, creating your own show?
No, I’m a novelist at heart, and luckily I’ve been able to do both. As someone who grew up with a true love of Hollywood and the power of film/TV, it’s been great to dip my toe in. And I’m especially glad to participate in anything that might push new stories and new perspectives onto the air, that might upturn old conventions and foreground characters and worlds (particularly in relation to women) that are underrepresented. But I’ll always be a novelist first. It’s where I’m most myself.
From where would you say you drew most of your inspiration and style for your writing on The Deuce? That is, to whom and what did you look to for guidance the most? I’m thinking of people but also other shows that may have inspired and guided you.
In terms of style, that really comes from David and George, who set the tone and feel from the pilot episode. That’s the blueprint when you’re a staff writer. And it was all there, and so perfectly orchestrated, and very much in the spirit of the era (the real era, and with specificity, rather than some broad-strokes, kitschy notion of the ’70s). I know they and director Michelle MacLaren were very focused, in terms of the look, on keeping in the spirit of those rough-and-tumble NYC movies from that era — Klute, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Mean Streets, The French Connection — movies that have been tattooed on my brain since I was a kid. By the time I got to the room, I’d read the pilot and watched it, so I had a strong sense of what they were going for, and because it was a world and a style I loved, it was a thrill to try to help bring it to life for the duration of the season. We were encouraged to visit the set, too, to get a sense of the performances, and that really helped. After you see James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dominique Fishback and Chris Bauer and Jamie Neumann and David Krumholtz (and on and on) embody these characters, then they are even more alive to you, which makes the writing that much more enjoyable.
You’ve mentioned before in interviews that songs tend to arise in your head as you write your books and that you often listen to period music as a kind of research. Was there some music that took hold while you were writing for The Deuce? What did you listen to? The title theme is just so perfect.
Oh, yes! Blake Leyh, the brilliant music supervisor on The Deuce, made a Spotify playlist that I listened to every second I wrote the script. It included everything from the Fuzz to the Stylistics, the Trammps, Love Unlimited, Gloria Gaynor’s “Casanova Brown.” The minute the music started, I’d be right back in the High Hat.
What other kinds of research did you do for the show? I know a number of the creative forces on the show have expressed a commitment to getting the voices, characters, and stories of the era and world right. In just your own episode, you have conversations among a group of pimps, conversations among mobsters, conversations among members of New York’s gay community, conversations among relatively underground pornographers. How did you go about making sure you were fair to the reality of those characters, particularly when you may have felt so far from them? For instance, I know Annie Sprinkle was a consultant on the show. What other consultants were there? What kind of research was brought to the writer’s room, and what did writers bring in outside of that?
We have a truly superior researcher, Stephani DeLuca, who’s in the room with us and is invaluable. And yes, we had an array of smart, generous consultants to help guide us in terms of the various worlds the show inhabited. I did do a lot on my own because I love it. Digging through The New York Times and New York Magazine from that era. Watching the loops and the hardcore movies, of course (even when it was sometimes, er, challenging). Reading many, many books about Times Square and a dozen memoirs. They all help, but in the end, by the time you write, you put all that down and remain true to the characters David and George created (or that we created in the room). You have to let everything else go and surrender to them, and to the stories we’re trying to tell.
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