Classically trained dancer to novelist isn’t a standard career trajectory, but Meg Howrey isn’t your typical author. Her absorbing second novel The Cranes Dance draws from her years as a New York-based professional ballerina, but her first novel – Blind Sight, now available in paperback – was a sensitive coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy. Like a performer, Howrey likes to reinvent herself with each project, which bodes well for a fascinating, unpredictable body of work. (Case in point: Her third novel, coming out in November, is a euro thriller called City of Dark Magic under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte). Howrey took a moment to talk about writing, dance, and the hit-or-miss quality of ballet movies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going from dancer to author isn’t exactly a natural progression. How did you get into writing?
MEG HOWREY: It is a bit unorthodox, I guess. Dancing and writing have really nothing in common. In fact, they’re sort of antithetical to each other. I came to writing through reading. If there’s one thing that never dissatisfied me in my life, it was reading. I had gotten to a point in my dance career where I was ready to move on, and I started writing almost by accident. Then, about halfway through, I realized, “Oh, this is a book, I think.” I was very shy about telling anyone that I was writing. I thought everyone would think this was just a ridiculous thing to do, and I sort of struggled through the book teaching myself how to write just by writing. My first book – which was actually an early version of The Cranes Dance – was a total mess, but it did teach me a lot.
On the surface it seems that Cranes Dance has more to do with your life than Blind Sight, so it makes sense that Cranes Dance would be the first novel you wrote.
Sure, write what you know. Except that I didn’t really know what I was doing. [Laughs] That early manuscript was interesting enough that it got me an agent and a little bit of encouragement from editors. Nobody bought the book, but a lot of people said they liked it. At a certain point, I put it aside and wrote something completely different, and that’s when I started working on Blind Sight.
It’s amazing how convincingly you wrote from the point of view of a teenage boy in Blind Sight. How did the idea for that novel come to you?
I had just moved to Los Angeles when I started working on it. I moved from New York to Los Angeles because I felt like, “Okay, I really am going to write.” I felt like I needed to be in a totally different town because my identity in New York was so wrapped up in being a performer and I just wanted to leave that all behind. So I was really thinking a lot about identity at the time, and that’s where the ideas for Blind Sight got started — thinking about identity and these journeys that we go on and I was thinking about coming of age stories, and was there anything new to be said about that.
I love Luke as a narrator.
I miss him from time to time. [Laughs] I feel very touched when people say they like Luke — it’s like people liking my own brother. “You get it. You get how great he is.” I don’t really know where the voice came from. I guess I wanted to find a perspective that seemed new to me. As a performer, I loved the day you got your costume. I never really knew who I was until I got my costume. Luke’s voice just felt like a costume that showed up one day, and once I had it on, I knew where I was. I can’t really explain it any more than that except that I miss that costume.
The Cranes Dance is so interesting in that it really gets into the nitty-gritty of backstage life of world-class ballerinas. Did you set out to write a roman a clef, in a sense, or did you just start with the characters?
I started with the characters, with Kate Crane in particular. You should never put the onus on yourself to portray anything realistically because you’re going to fail. There’s no universal reality, you know? There would be commonalities, but everybody’s experience is just so different. I started with the voices — her voice came out, and the costume with Kate was just this really sarcastic girl who was really fighting what was going on in her life. Sort of unwrapping the layers of her became sort of unwrapping the layers of ballet itself. It’s definitely her personal perspective on the world of ballet, but there are other things to be said about that world.
Did anyone from the ballet world take issue with anything you wrote?
It’s funny. I think ballet dancers tend to be very protective of their world. It’s sort of that thing that they can make fun of it but no one else can. You have to earn the right to make fun of it. I’ve heard from dancers who have granted me that right because they weren’t annoyed by the book and actually found it really funny and related to it. Certain people have written to me saying, “Is so-and-so so-and-so?” They’re seeing all these actual people in my characters that I’ve actually never met or worked with, so I guess I did land some reality or universality of at least some of the characters of that world.
There are some obvious parallels between Cranes Dance and Black Swan. What did you think when Black Swan came out?
After I finished Blind Sight, my editor – she’d read the first version of Cranes Dance – said I should go back to that book. I decided to toss the whole thing out and start afresh. I was about half-way through it when Black Swan came out. My first thought was, “Crap!” [Laughs] It was about ballet dancers, and I saw the trailers and the main character looked crazy. “Shoot! People are going to think I’m copying or something.” Then I went to see the movie and I didn’t think the two were alike at all. But you can make that comparison. And there are not a lot of things to compare dance stories to. It seems like once in a generation you get a ballet movie, so it is an easy comparison to make. I can see it and not see it, and of course I think my book is very different. The funny thing is, I’d actually written a chapter where Kate was saying how dance movies suck and kind of trashes the actor who portrays the dancer in a movie, and I thought, “Oh, if the movie is really good I’m going to have to change that chapter, and I really don’t want to change it.” In the end, I just left it.
I have to admit, though – I have a soft spot for Center Stage.
I always allow people their soft spots. I always say I don’t care if high school football is nothing like Friday Night Lights. Don’t tell me because I love that TV show.
Blind Sight and Cranes Dance are so different. Do you see yourself as an author who’ll reinvent herself from book to book?
I would be thrilled if no one could ever recognize me from one book to the other. I prefer if it happens that way. Again, it’s the performer in me that prefers to disappear or the actor who is complimented when people don’t recognize him, you know?
You said about dance and writing being antithetical – why do you think that is?
Well, dance is so physical. Some dance is narrative, and you’re telling a story. But a lot of dance isn’t. It’s about interpreting the music, so your whole goal is to find ways to express something in form, so dancers use words when they talk to each other but they use gestures so much more. It becomes this physical shorthand that you use in rehearsal and class. With writing, I’ve always been in love with sentences, so that to me has become to me the new music that I’m trying to find. And really, daily life is so difficult as a dancer physically. You get used to it and the pressures of that and suddenly I find myself sitting in a chair all day and not having to worry about things that I worried about. My knees don’t hurt.
And you don’t have to wear costumes!
Well, sometimes I do anyway. But no one sees them.
What are some books you’d recommend?
I was really knocked over by Arthur Phillip’s The Tragedy of Arthur. And the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I’m also reading books about astronauts and space exploration.
What are you working on now?
I’m circling this new book. I’ve gotten really interested in this whole idea of Mars, and I had an idea … I wanted to write about an older woman, so I’m working on this idea of an older astronaut. Which is taking a lot of research but is quite fun to do.