Laura McHugh, with the recent publication of her debut novel The Weight of Blood, has hit the writers’ scene with a vengeance. Her short fiction has appeared in Confrontation and Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley. And although she has always loved writing, Laura instead chose a more stable career path in software development – until that came to a sudden end and she was forced to start anew. With encouragement from her husband, she began to write her first novel. Vividly set in the foreboding Ozark Mountains, The Weight of Blood explores the mysteries and secrets of small town families. It has since been nominated for a 2015 Alex Award and has been published in many languages. Laura is currently working on her next novel, Arrowood. She lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband, two daughters, and dog.
I had the pleasure of receiving Laura’s book as an impromptu gift from my roommate, which I read over the Christmas holidays in a single sitting. I was giddy with writer-crush excitement over the chance to communicate with her. We corresponded via email.
What does a day in the life of Laura McHugh look like?
I get the kids off to school by 7 a.m. (which is way too early–none of us are morning people) and once I’m feeling coherent enough, I start going through emails and social media posts. I spend part of each day fielding requests for book club visits, book donations, interviews, and speaking engagements, answering questions from aspiring writers, and responding to emails and posts from readers. Once I’ve caught up on that, I get to work writing and revising. I usually eat a quick, terrible lunch, like potato chips or cereal, because the kids are out of school by 2:30, and I have to make the most of my quiet time. After school it’s homework, kids’ activities, dinner, baths, whatever minimal housework I have to do to get by. Some nights I have book club or a book talk. If I’m working toward a deadline or trying to finish a chapter or scene, I’ll get back to work once my family has gone to bed. I do my best work when it’s quiet and no one is interrupting me, so if I’m making good progress, I sometimes stay up until three or four in the morning. You studied creative writing as an undergraduate, but chose to sway away from writing when pursuing a Masters and later employment. What factors affected your decision? Was being an author professionally ever in your sights?
I think my upbringing and environment played a large part. I saw an interview with Chang-Rae Lee a while back, where he was explaining how he came to be a writer. He talked about how Gore Vidal and other famous writers came to visit Exeter, where he went to school, and I wondered, if I had grown up like that, with those opportunities and experiences—would becoming a writer have seemed like a real possibility? As it was, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. I grew up in poor, rural areas and I didn’t know anyone who did anything creative for a living. My mom worked at Waffle House, and my dad was a shoe-repairman. I was a first-generation college student, the youngest of eight kids, and had never heard of an MFA. I had been led to believe that a college degree would boost you out of poverty, but when my English degree didn’t get me any farther than a secretary’s desk, I quickly returned to grad school to pursue more technical fields. By then, I was aware of the MFA, but it was too big of a risk. Bottom line, I did not want to be poor any longer, and I didn’t have a safety net. I had to make practical choices. I became a software developer, and didn’t worry too much about whether or not I enjoyed it.
After working for 10 years in software development, you lost your job. The last line of your book reads “I let myself get lost in the moment, looking neither forward nor back, seeking nothing absent but embracing what was right in front of me.” I think this probably speaks a great deal to your own situation, which in a way may have been a blessing in disguise. Can you talk a bit about the process of going from sudden unemployment to deciding to write a novel?
I was devastated when I lost my job. I was pregnant, Christmas only a few weeks away, and I immediately started applying for jobs and setting up interviews. I came home from an interview at a company that sells shooting and hunting supplies and was telling my husband that all the employees kept rifles and shotguns in their cubicles, and that I had probably failed the portion of the interview where I had to detail my (limited) hunting experience. He knew I didn’t want that job, or any of the others I’d applied for, and he suggested that I stay home with the kids and try to write a novel like I’d always wanted. I thought he was crazy—I had no idea how to write a book, or how I’d find time while caring for an infant and a toddler—but I said yes. At the time, I didn’t have any ideas that I thought were big enough for a novel (I had only written short stories up until that point), but I wanted my husband to see that I was working, so I just started typing. I didn’t have a plot or characters. I started with the setting, and as I wrote about the Ozarks, Lucy came to me, and her story grew. I didn’t know if anything would come of this novel I was trying to write while my children slept, but I was determined to finish it.
You’ve said that your own upbringing in a small community in the Ozark Mountains largely inspired the setting of The Weight of Blood. How much of yourself do you put into your writing, and into your characters? Are you ever tempted to base characters on real people?
There are little pieces of me in a couple of the characters in TWOB, and several bits of my own life in the story. There were so many experiences from my time in the Ozarks that I wanted to squeeze into the book, though ultimately it was Lucy’s story, not mine, and anything that did not fit was cut away. People sometimes think I am Lucy, but the main thing we have in common is the journal-keeping and list-making. Parts of my childhood leaked into Gabby’s story. For example, I cared for a litter of baby possums (like Gabby does in the book) after my dad shot their mother. My second novel (working title: Arrowood) borrows from my own experiences as well, though I find that as I move through drafts, the same as with TWOB, I cut out any parts of myself that don’t belong to the story and the characters.
You’ve mentioned that one of the characters in the novel, Cheri, is based on a teen girl from the town where you grew up. Was this what inspired you to include the topic of injustices against women and aspects of the sex trade? Was it always your goal to explore these issues?
I knew a very sweet girl who became pregnant when we were in the eighth grade. Given her challenges, it didn’t seem that she could have given consent or fully grasped what was happening, though she was happy to be having a baby. I always wondered about her home life, and what became of her and her child. She was the original inspiration for Cheri’s character. Later, when I was partway through the novel, I came across an article about a girl in another small town where I’d lived. This girl had been held captive and abused for years, and I knew that something similar had happened to Cheri. While I didn’t set out to write about trafficking specifically, I’m grateful for any attention the book brings to the plight of victims. I was horrified to discover how prevalent such crimes are in my state and throughout the U.S. I’ve encountered plenty of people who don’t believe it really happens, or don’t think I should be writing about it, and I think it’s important for everyone to realize that it can, and does, happen everywhere.
The Weight of Blood is told from multiple narrators and I really enjoyed reading the story through so many different eyes. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing this way? Was it difficult to find unique voices for each of them?
Lucy’s voice came to me first. Once I had her mother’s story in mind, I needed to find a way to make it as immediate and important as Lucy’s. Lila’s story takes place in the past, and I didn’t want it to be told in flashbacks. My solution was to have Lila narrate her own story in her own time, and move back in forth between Lila and Lucy’s timelines. The other narrators fill in all the secrets and shadows of the story that Lucy and Lila, as first-person narrators, are not aware of. It was fun to write all the different voices, especially the creepy ones. Most of them came to me easily, except for Lila. She changed with each draft until I was finally able to figure her out. The book I’m writing now has one narrator, and sometimes I miss the freedom of slipping into the other characters’ heads to tell their side of things, though it is definitely easier, come revision time, to have only one character’s story to keep straight.
You now have two professions: a mother and an author, which must keep you very busy. How does it feel to go from a 9-5 job (assuming those were your work hours) to this self-motivated way of living? Do you have any other aspirations?
I’m still the same as any working mom, trying to balance work and family and usually feeling like I’m failing at one or the other, though I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that I don’t have a 9-5 job in addition to writing full-time and mothering. I have found that it is so much easier and more enjoyable to be a workaholic when you are working on something you truly care about. I was often miserable when I was working long hours in a basement cubicle writing insurance software. While I enjoyed some aspects of programming, I was hardly passionate about it. I love the flexibility I have now—I can write all night and be with my kids when they need me and not worry about all the time-wasting, brain-numbing meetings and reports I dealt with at the office. If writing doesn’t work out long-term, I would probably put my master’s degree to use and try to get a job at a library (I have always wanted to work on the bookmobile!). I would be happiest, though, if I could continue to write.
The Weight of Blood is your first published novel, which must be very exciting for you and your family. Can you tell me a bit about the process of getting it published?
I spent months researching agents and learning how to write a query letter. My first round of queries received little response, so I rewrote the letter and tried again. That time, the response was quick and overwhelming. I signed with an agent and within 48 hours, she told me the book would be going to auction. I was in shock for a while. All along, I had known there was a good chance that no one would ever see the novel I had poured so much time and energy into. I was an unemployed, stay-at-home mom from the Midwest with no credentials or qualifications, and I never expected things to unfold as they did—I felt impossibly lucky. My publisher flew me around to promotional events prior to publication, and I will always remember walking into the Random House office in New York and feeling like I had finally achieved a lifelong dream.
Do you have any tips, tricks, or advice for other aspiring novelists?
I have met many talented aspiring novelists, and the main thing keeping them from being published novelists is that they haven’t finished a manuscript yet. Some haven’t even started. That was me, too, not very long ago. We all have things that get in the way of our writing, but if you really want to be a novelist, you have to first make that effort to complete a draft. In my experience, you learn by doing, and then you work to improve upon what you’ve learned. Finish that draft, get feedback, and revise the hell out of it, as many times as it takes. Even if that novel does not work out, you will have learned from the process, and the next one will be better. When I got started, I read lots of books about writing, and I reached out to other writers online and in my community. One of the best things I did was to join a writing group (if you can’t find one in your area, there are plenty online). Feedback and support from fellow writers is invaluable, and those writing friendships will keep you going when you feel like giving up.
Keyanna Burgher is in her final semester of the UBC Creative Writing Program, with a focus in fiction and playwriting. She has had three award-winning plays produced in Saskatchewan Drama Festivals and hopes to continue writing in her soon-to-be home amidst the orchards of Vernon, BC.