'It's become so violent, with so many catastrophic injuries and occasionally deaths associated with it," laughs Megan Abbott, "that it's actually the most dangerous high school sport for girls." The first thing you need to know is that Abbott is one of the most dainty, porcelain-fine people you'll ever meet.
IT'S something of a shock, then, to realise that she writes some of the most powerful, visceral crime novels currently being published.
Born in Detroit, now a full-time New Yorker, the 41-year-old began her career with no intention of writing fiction. The Street Was Mine was originally written as a college thesis on masculinity in film noir, but was published as a non-fiction title in 2002.
Having read many of the classic noir novels to research her thesis, however, Abbott fell in love with the genre, and couldn't resist writing her own. Her debut, Die A Little, was published in 2005.
Last year's The End Of Everything, a gut-wrenching account of a 13-year-old's abduction, found its way on to many end-of-year 'Best Of' lists. Fox have already snapped up the rights to her latest novel, Dare Me, which concerns itself with that 'most dangerous high-school sport for girls'.
Is it American football? Ice hockey? Have American high schools started playing the Hunger Games for real?
Erm, no. The sport is, in fact, cheerleading.
"The stunts these girls do," explains Megan, "when they're jumping they're usually 15 or 20 or more feet in the air, and if they don't land properly the spinal and head injuries can be pretty intense. But they're just so into it, the girls, they love the risk, and that attitude I loved. 'Gladiators' is the word that kept coming into my mind when I was writing this book."
Dare Me centres on two cheerleaders, Beth and her best friend Addy.
Their close friendship is complicated by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach, who starts out by challenging and provoking her girls to perform better and winds up dragging them into a sordid murder.
"A lot of women have been involved in friendships like Beth and Addy," says Megan, "these really intense friendships that are freighted with the alpha girl and beta girl structure. Looking at it from the outside it would have been far more likely for me to have the cheerleader as the victim of the crime.
But these girls are such Lord Of The Flies characters. Once I realised that I 'got' Addy's point of view, I could see things through her squinty little mean girl eyes.
"I've always liked the idea of stories about mentor-student relationships," she adds, "in this case, sort of conflicting mentors, because Addy really has these two powers in her life.
"There's a lot of true crime cases involving cheerleaders in America and I think in part it's the American fascination with the cheerleader," Megan says.
Darkness "This all-American, perfect and wholesome girl. If there's ever a crime that involves someone who also happens to be on the cheerleading squad, that's how she's described in all the headlines. 'Cheerleader Missing!' 'Cheerleader Accused of Murder!' There's weird darkness associated with all the lightness."
Megan followed Die A Little with The Song is You in 2007, and the Edgar-winning Queenpin followed late the same year.
All three of her early novels were written in the hardboiled noir style of the classic American crime novel, and earned Abbott praise that compared her to some of the genre's greats, such as Raymond Chandler and James M Cain.
Did she find it odd that as a woman she was being compared to male writers rather than her female predecessors, such as Dorothy Hughes or Margaret Millar?
"Writers like Dorothy Hughes or Margaret Millar -- people are shocked when they read these women, at how powerful they are. It's very rare still that I'm ever compared to other women writers and I don't know why that is, because there are so many who have always been writing in this field.
"Maybe in some ways it's just easy to pull out the names that I've obviously ripped off (laughs), because my first few books are so influenced by Chandler and [James] Ellroy -- Ellroy not in style, but in thematics."
obsession The reference to James Ellroy concerns Ellroy's fascination with real crime, an obsession sparked by the murder of Ellroy's own mother in 1958, a murder very similar to that of Elizabeth Short in 1947, a case nicknamed 'the Black Dahlia' by the media. Abbott's Bury Me Deep and The Song Is You are both rooted in the real-life murders of women.
"True crime was certainly my first fascination and it remains so," says Abbott. "I'm pretty sure that there are some specific cases that probably influence my books, even if it's just in theme. I'm always pulling together pieces from true crime. I believe the fiction needs some kind of grounding in reality to start and I think that that is always going to be true. I would love one day to write a true-crime book
"I'm always surprised that anybody wants to buy these strange little books," she laughs. "Whenever I describe them -- 'Oh, it's a cheerleading murder novel!' -- I feel ridiculous. But I really don't know what I'm doing when I'm not writing. It's the only place I feel comfortable. I wouldn't know what to fill my day with if I stopped writing."
Dare Me is published by Picador (€10.99)