JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Thrillers are books involving two-fisted he-men saving the world (and a few women at the same time) right? Well, sure, if you're Clive Cussler. Not to diss Dirk, but here on Jungle Red Writers, we like smart, subtle crime fiction that keeps us awake at night while slicing us with human insight and razor-fine writing. In other words, we like Megan Abbott.
Megan is an Edgar-Award-winning (and everything-else-nominated) author whose fiction routinely makes it onto Best Book of the Year Lists. Whether she's writing neo-noir novels like Die A Little and Bury Me Deep, or intensely literary psychological thrillers, like The End of Everything or the upcoming Dare Me, Megan puts women's lives and their relationships with one another at the center of her work. Today, she's going to shed some personal light on the relationship between mentor and protegee; teacher and student.
When I was in eighth grade, I was obsessed with the movie The Breakfast Club, which seemed to speak to my life in deep, resonant ways. I must have conveyed these feelings with great intensity to my beloved Advanced English teacher, Mrs. B, because somehow it came to pass that she spent one of her Sunday afternoons taking me to see the movie with her—a first viewing for her, a second for me. (It was rated R, so this was a particular coup).
I remember the experience powerfully, remember feeling so flattered by all of it. I guess I’ll never know what made her suggest it. It was not something I’d ever heard of any other teacher doing for a student. It stuck with me. It felt like I had been singled out, was special.
A few years later, while absorbed in all the mysteries and terrors of high school (far more harrowing than The Breakfast Club had warned), I learned that Mrs. B had died from breast cancer. It turned out she had been sick for several years, including when I was in her class, when we went to the movies that day. It seemed impossible—she was very young (my mom tells me now that she was only in her late thirties)—and unspeakably sad.
I vividly remember my parents telling me the news because it was during that same conversation that my dad confided that Mrs. B’s husband had died a few years before. “She’d been unhappy,” he said, probably trying to make me feel better, “for a long time.”
The surprise I felt was acute. Mrs. B was unhappy? I’d never really thought about teachers being unhappy. About grown women’s unhappiness. And I certainly never imagined any of their private struggles. Mrs. B was cool, lively, loved books and paid attention to me. That was all I’d cared about, apparently. What an awful feeling, to realize how self-absorbed you were, or are.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mrs. B. My novel, Dare Me, is in large part about the complexities of female mentor-protégée relationship and I guess I’ve been trying to figure out why that subject has always interested me so much, even as far back as age eleven, when I was enraptured by Lois Duncan’s Daughters of Eve (a book whose twisty attitudes towards feminism you could spend a lifetime unraveling), and leading up to Dare Me, which centers on a high school cheerleading squad and their charismatic new coach
All the girls in Dare Me are fascinated by Coach, especially the main character, Addy, who idolizes her. “She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life,” says Addy. “Did I ever feel anything at all until she showed me what feeling meant? Pushing at the corners of her cramped world with curled fists, the fists of a little girl, she showed me what it meant to live.”
To Addy, Coach, who is young and pretty but also demanding and aloof, is a mystery she wants to unlock. She wants to be like her, wants to be her. It’s a powerful yearning, almost like a crush—maybe stronger because it’s safer. You never think you’ll get your heart broken. And you never, ever really know her life.
At age 12 or 13, I was too young (at least in the ways that matter) to think of Mrs. B as anything other than this person who gave me books, who encouraged me, who took me to see The Breakfast Club that time. There’s an inherent selfishness, greediness of the protégée, which is, I guess, about being young. Everything is about you: she’s taking me to the movies, she’s interested in me, me, me. And I never thought twice about what her life might really be like, her pains and sorrows and heartache.
But these mentors, they matter so much, don’t they? It’s the way we figure out ourselves, by imagining their lives, imagining ourselves in their lives. And then, eventually, realizing that their lives are not what we pictured, that life isn’t.
A painful revelation, usually. Because it’s one of the moments you first realize how complicated life is, how hard. But we need those moments, like we need these women (and they need us, they need to see us believing in them). It’s how we become ourselves.
Tell us about your mentor-protegee relationship, and you may be one of two lucky commenters to win an Advance Readers Copy of Dare Me!
You can find out more about Megan Abbott and read excerpts of her books at her website. She also blogs with Sara Gran at the Abbott Gran Old Tyme Medicine Show. You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @MeganEAbbott.