Author One-on-One: Jennifer McMahon and Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott: As with your other books, The One I Left Behind is a character‐driven story, but it’s also extremely scary, chronicling a teen girl’s harrowing experience when a serial killer targets her town and eventually, her mother. How do you create suspense in your books?
Jennifer McMahon: When I sit down to write, I typically don’t know what’s going to happen next. I start with an idea and ask questions. Then I start writing to find out the answers. I think the fact that I don’t know, that I’m just kind of letting the story tell itself and show me where it wants to go helps me keep it suspenseful. If I’m on the edge of my seat, then I’m thinking that maybe the readers will be, too. When I wrote the first draft of this book, I didn’t know who the killer was, and the idea that it could be any of the characters kept me on edge.
MA: Reggie, the main character in the book, returns to her hometown after her mother—missing twenty‐five years has been found alive. The book shifts between Reggie’s life as a teenager in the 1980s and the present. What made you choose this structure?
JM: I think at their heart, my books are studies of the choices people make often really bad choices-and the way those choices, along with the secrets we keep, can shape our lives, even change the people we turn out to be. I wanted to show how Reggie became the person she is today; how the events that took place one summer shaped her forever, and how now, she’s got to go back to that summer and face it, whether she wants to or not.
MA: You depict Reggie’s adolescent experience so vividly-all the insecurities, romantic confusion and longing, the feverish intensity of friendships among young girls. Are you particularly drawn to writing about this age group?
JM: For whatever reason, writing these types of characters these quirky, imaginative, misfit girls somewhere between 6 and 15comes naturally to me. I think my own childhood and early adolescence was a particularly bizarre, difficult and yet magical time, so that period is still very vivid in my head, and thankfully, flows easily onto the page.
MA: Even though The One I Left Behind is a mystery, at its heart are a pair of relationships: Reggie and her best friend Tara, and Reggie and her mother, Vera, a former model with a complicated personal life. How do you balance relationships and plot?
JM: I think the two are interconnected: the relationships shape the plot and the plot shapes the way the characters behave toward one another. For me, they develop together. I often learn about my characters and their relationships to the people in their lives by making terrible things happen nothing like loved ones in jeopardy to put all your relationships to the test!
MA: It strikes me that suspense is a very “intimate” genre. The relationship between the author and the reader is so intense because the author tries to generate such powerful responses in the reader. Do you feel that way?
JM: I think you’re absolutely right! We’re taking people to some pretty dark places and showing them some scary stuff. I love hearing from people who tell me they had to sleep with the lights on after finishing one of my books – I feel connected to that person in some way, like I shared a piece of one of my nightmares with them and now it’s theirs as well. That is a pretty intimate thing.