Congratulations Talking Pointes Podcast, awarded bronze medal for Best Arts & Culture Podcast! Listen here
Meg Howrey. Photograph by Mark Hanauer

The Dancer and her Writing Life

Meg Howrey’s engaging new novel, They’re Going to Love You—her fourth—immerses readers in the ballet world. As a former ballerina, this is a place with which Howrey is intimately familiar. The plot revolves around a 40-something choreographer/erstwhile dancer, Carlisle, and her estranged father and his partner, James, both of whom are also in the dance world.

Carlisle grows up in Ohio with her mother and depends on James for her cultural education. Her visits from her mother’s place thrust Carlisle into the urbane geography of her father and James’s life in New York City, informing and shaping her literary, cultural, and dance life.

Howrey sets the novel around 2017, when the dance world was rife with articles asking where were the female choreographers. Howrey thought the better question was “Where is the recognition and support and programming for the female ballet choreographers who are already out there working?” They’re Going to Love You shines a bright light on this problem.

They’re Going to Love You, by Meg Howrey. Published by Penguin Random House

Howrey herself grew up in rural Illinois and started dancing when she was three or four. The local studio “was run by a former Chicago showgirl, who loved ballet, a very kind woman” who took young Howrey to conventions and competitions. Howrey started lessons at the High School Conservatory, about an hour from her home, when she was 10 and got increasingly serious, attending summers at the school of the Boston Ballet, and the School of the American Ballet. Howrey joined Joffrey II, performed as a guest artist with other companies, and in her mid-twenties, began acting and dancing in theaters.

Howrey came to writing organically; she grew up a reader. She describes her reader-self as “undiscriminating and constant.” “I liked poetry, the Oz books, my mother’s Danielle Steele romances, Noel Streatfield, Agatha Christie, science fiction, my Dad’s MAD Magazine, fairy tales. I liked re-reading. I liked having sentences in my head. Before I was able to read, I memorized pages and pretended to read . . . In my teens I discovered Elizabeth Bowen, E.M. Forster, Ford Maddox Ford, Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Iris Murdoch. And realized this is art.”

This wide-ranging passion for reading must be a key to Howrey’s writing. Howrey’s words flow with the naturalness and beauty of a mountain stream. Her language is at once simple and revelatory. Here is protagonist Carlisle’s description of dancing on pointe. It provides both a specific description and breathtaking insight:

“I wrap the tips of my toes in gel pads and slide them on the shoes. Back in the day, I loved pointe shoes, and not because they were pretty objects and a sign of maturity, though they were. Girls start pointe work around eleven or twelve, an introduction to controlling and overcoming pain at just the right time. It’s not torture. The pain gives a return that I can’t imagine torture does. Dancing on pointe weaponizes ballet for girls. We get taller, and our turns gain speed. Everything becomes more dangerous and more direct, literally more pointed. Our legs become swords. We become older; the shoes make a heavier tapping noise than ballet slippers. The technique involved accentuates our femininity at the same time it produces larger, stronger muscles. The sense of our power, our primacy grows.”

Howrey refers to her formal schooling as “impressionistic.” She skipped eighth grade so that she could attend a performing arts high school, and like many dancers, went professional right after high school. She has no formal writing training but plunged in after she had completed a Broadway run. She thought, “Maybe I’ll start writing down that story in my head.” She wrote a novel until she “figured out how to write a novel.” That process rings true and is surely the case with most novelists.

As Howrey describes it—the central entanglement at the heart of They’re Going to Love You, “a choice that becomes a betrayal and leads to a separation” was in her “head for years.” Part of the delay in writing was that Howrey’s second novel, The Cranes Dance, is also set in the dance world. Howrey did not want to repeat herself (No danger of that! Her new novel is wholly original), and she was concerned that it had been a long time since she’d worked as a dancer.

Enter the pandemic. Howrey was furloughed from her day job. The world was imploding, but the solitude in which Howrey found herself created ideal conditions for tackling a new novel. She watched dancers online giving themselves class in their kitchens (I confess to the same), considered her collection of ballet books, and began to think, “that maybe this plot I had been mulling about betrayal, and survival, and forgiveness, had something to do with dance, with art, with making art in America.” As her thoughts evolved, she discovered a “different kind of love for ballet. It felt both old and new and I didn’t totally understand it, and not understanding is a good place to start writing.”

Howrey was onto something. Uncertainty grounds novels that provoke and inspire. They’re Going to Love You presents complex, layered relationships, that insist readers stop and think. As the plot unfolds, the reader’s alliances toward the characters shift and readjust to new disclosures.

Every book gets written in its own way. Flash floods, drips, steady pressure. Sometimes I make up rules or strategies to get me through the hard parts—when my confidence is low or I’m struggling with a difficult section—but at a certain point the novel is inevitable.

Howrey started her novel “not from the standpoint of an imaginary lauded figure in the ballet world, or a former star, but someone who was having to do what a lot of working artists need to do—hustle, take jobs because you need to make rent and car payments, or keep your health insurance. Carlisle came of age in a ballet world where nearly all the ballet choreographers and directors were men. And of course, there was the dominance of Balanchine, and the idea that the female role in ballet being that of ‘muse’ not ‘creator.’

I just read Darryl Pinckney’s excellent essay on Elizabeth Hardwick, that Hardwick told his class there were ‘really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge,’ For myself, I don’t know that it’s necessary to maintain desperation and revenge, but as a kick galvanic? I think Carlisle needed both desperation and revenge to propel her forward as a choreographer and I love exploring female ambition form many angles in my work. What it looks like, how it is received and perceived, the obstacles, what is sacrificed and gained.”

In Howrey’s view, dance is a private art, even though it is performed publicly. Dance “creates this very private, deep communion with your body, with the music, with choreography. It was, at its best, a place where I could briefly be so much better than the mess that is me.” Her ability to render the world of dance to the page is a big reason to read this book.

Howrey has a marvelous way of communicating; she’s totally direct. Her description of creating a novel strikes me as worth an M.F.A. When asked how she organizes her writing life, she says:

“Every book gets written in its own way. Flash floods, drips, steady pressure. Sometimes I make up rules or strategies to get me through the hard parts—when my confidence is low or I’m struggling with a difficult section—but at a certain point the novel is inevitable. It’s going to get written and the strategies are mostly about getting out of my own way. I don’t think of writing as my ‘job.’ It’s more like a condition. It’s work, but not a clock in, clock out situation. It’s a life’s work.”

Howrey’s advice to young or new writers is unassailable—“Don’t wait for validation! If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Publishing is a separate issue and validation is a mythical beast. Even if you find it, validation will slip away with a super annoying ‘catch me’ attitude. Celebrate the good writing day. Celebrate getting down that sentence you know is right.”

Readers will be especially pleased to hear that Howrey is recording the audio version of They’re Going to Love You. She finds it “a gift to be able to return for one last moment with these people, and this world, that gave me so much.”

Up next? Perhaps the short stories that Howrey is working on now. She’s also in the “mulling, notetaking stage of a new novel, which is now ripening toward actual drafting. Exciting!”

If it’s exciting for Howrey, it is even more so for us, her current and future readers.