Maximum Shelf author interview: Laura McHugh

Following yesterday’s review of The Weight of Blood, here’s Laura McHugh.


Laura McHugh: On Dark and Light.

Laura McHugh grew up in small towns in Iowa and the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. She now lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband, two young daughters and one enormous dog. Her background includes computer science, software development and library science; The Weight of Blood is her first novel.

mchugh

Lucy’s voice is convincingly young adult. Did you find it difficult to write in her voice? What kind of preparation did you do?

That made me laugh, because I sometimes forget how far removed I am from being a young person. Lucy is the youngest of the narrators, but her voice came to me first. I didn’t do any formal preparation, though I think a few things in my everyday life gave me a foundation to work from. I kept a journal throughout my teens, and I still remember how I felt and acted at that age. I tried to channel my 17-year-old self to an extent, though only a few bits and pieces of me ended up in Lucy’s character. Some of my favorite books are adult novels with young adult narrators, and I kept those in mind as I was writing Lucy’s sections. And I’m not sure whether this really helped or not, but as the youngest of eight kids, I spent years observing (spying on) my teenage brothers and sisters.

Did the evil side of this novel get to you at all while you were writing? Give you nightmares?

I didn’t have nightmares, but I did spend an unhealthy amount of time worrying about the dangers that await my daughters out in the world. My oldest is in elementary school, and I won’t let her walk home from the bus stop by herself, because I keep a mental list of children who were kidnapped on the way to or from school. I always imagine the darkest possibilities in any situation, which isn’t good for my anxiety level, but serves me well as a writer.

Is this dark story based on truth?

Part of it, yes. I started the novel knowing that Lucy’s friend Cheri was dead, but I wasn’t sure what had happened to her. Then I came across a news article about a shocking crime involving a young woman in Lebanon, Missouri–the small town where I’d attended high school–and I knew that Cheri would suffer a similar experience.

Living in rural communities, it often seems like everyone knows everyone else’s business, and that it would be impossible to keep secrets, but then you see a horrific case like this one–multiple people involved, over several years, and no one said a word. I don’t want to give too much away, though I can tell you that the real-life victim survived her ordeal, unlike Cheri.

What about the Ozarks drew you to place your characters there?

The forbidding landscape and the remoteness of the Ozarks create a sense of foreboding that helps set the tone of the novel. And I’ve always been fascinated by the culture, which is steeped in folk wisdom, home remedies, and superstition. We were outsiders in our tiny town, yet at the same time, it became my home. Years after moving away, I was still haunted by the place, and the novel allowed me to explore the darker side of those tight-knit rural communities where outsiders aren’t welcome.

How did you decide to use a split narrative?

Lucy doesn’t know what happened to her mother, Lila, but I wanted the reader to know. And I didn’t want Lila’s story to be backstory, I wanted it to be as real and present as Lucy’s. The split narrative allowed me to do that, though I often cursed myself for that decision during revisions–I kept thinking how much easier it would have been to write a novel with one timeline and one narrator! In the end, weaving the two narratives together was the most satisfying part of the writing process.

And the secondary characters get perspectives as well, although not in first person. How did that strategy come to you? Was it especially challenging?

I hadn’t initially planned for more than two narrators, but as I worked on the first draft, the other characters kept telling their own versions of events. Each secondary character has secrets–pieces of the puzzle that are hidden from everyone else–and their perspectives were necessary to make the story whole. I wrote the secondary characters’ sections as they came to me, some in first person and some in third, and eventually changed them all to third for consistency. I wanted Lucy and Lila to stand out as the main characters, so I kept them in first person.

The hardest part was integrating the different perspectives and timelines. I clipped an index card to each chapter, with notes on the narrator, timeline, and key events. Then I spread them all out on the floor and moved them around, trying to get the order right and identify any gaps in the story. I was very methodical and possibly a bit crazed. The process took days, during which I fed my children a lot of chicken nuggets and let them watch too much TV. Everyone, including the dog, was relieved when I finished that part and let them back in the living room.

What do you have in mind next? Is there room for a sequel here?

Spiegel & Grau has purchased my second novel, Arrowood, which I’m working on now. A young woman returns to her childhood home in a decaying Iowa river town, where she witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago. A terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory.

I would love to write more books set in the Ozarks, though I’m not sure if Lucy will make an appearance. I was pretty hard on her in The Weight of Blood, and I think she deserves to rest for a while.


This interview originally ran on January 15, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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