Interview with Maureen McHugh7 min read
Maureen McHugh is a Hugo-winning short story author and award-winning novelist. She has published four novels, of which her novel China Mountain Zhang won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and numerous Year’s Best anthologies. She has also released two collections of short fiction, most recently After the Apocalypse from Small Beer Press in 2011.
APEX MAGAZINE: In “Useless Things” the narrator herself is never given a name, even in places—I’m thinking of her exchange, first by email and then by phone, with Rachel Mazer—where a name could have been slipped in. Why did you choose to leave the narrator nameless?
MAUREEN McHUGH: I’d say ‘choose’ is a pretty strong word in this case. I don’t remember thinking that I would make the main character nameless. It’s an easy thing to have happen in a first person story and I believe I just let it happen.
Names are hard. The narrator in “Useless Things” is a stand in for myself. I have written a handful of stories where I think of the narrator as very close to me, although the circumstances in the narrator’s life are not mine. (I am really too boring for a story.) The women in those stories are often called Amelia, because I like that name. But in this case, I didn’t feel as if the name Amelia was right—perhaps because I associate Amelia with flying.
AM: Secondary characters play a big part in “Useless Things” and certainly enhance the sensation of isolation the narrator feels. They’re no cardboard stand-ins, for sure. They feel as if they have whole, real lives playing out just beyond the view of the story. Were Sherie, Ed, Nick, Ethan, Brenda, and Tony all in the initial draft of the story, or were some added later during the revision process?
MM: They were. It was a strange story to write. I kept thinking about one-and-a-half steps ahead and when I finished I wasn’t sure that the story would hang together for anyone else. I was trying out some things from Alice Munro—her way of shifting back and forth through time in a couple of paragraphs, using the narrator’s memory to orient the reader—and trying to keep from just navel gazing. If I let myself, nothing ever happens in my stories, my characters just sit around and angst. So I would think—okay, her dog has to disappear—and then write that.
AM: “Useless Things” revolves so much around the main character’s slight shifts in her living situation—from the dolls to the dildos, from a cat-sign lady to a triangle-sign gun owner—the power’s in the subtlety. What draws you to the subtle in an apocalyptic setting?
MM: Apocalypse actually means ‘the end of the world’ after which there isn’t supposed to be any more, although of course, the current Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian end times take years. Long enough for the Left Behind series to be four volumes. I don’t personally believe that anything is that neat or clean. That’s why I titled the collection After the Apocalypse.
After the cataclysm, I figure some woman will be gamely trying to clean up. That the way things go bad is a series of things, a layoff followed by a lousy job, followed by losing your house and moving into an apartment, followed by your back going out and losing the lousy job, and then you and the cat are living in your car. There are people for whom things go wrong suddenly. I know that. It just isn’t my experience, and hence, not my mental model of the world.
(I am not living in the car with my cat—oddly enough, my husband, my dog, and I are all quite happy and doing very well, despite what the economy has done to so many people.)
AM: How do you approach composing a short story?
MM: It depends, honestly. The one consistent thing about how I approach a short story is that I start writing at a very detailed level. I am not very good at starting at a high level—a concept, a structure, or a theme. For “Useless Things” I started with the idea of a woman who made these hyper-realistic dolls. I thought New Mexico would be a good place to live because it’s cheap, unless you’re in Santa Fe. But the problem with New Mexico is water. If you don’t live in a city, you either have to have a well or you have water delivered by truck.
That’s really the way I start.
AM: Everyone always asks about the initial writing process, but what is your editing process like? Do you tend to write many drafts, or only a few?
MM: I write a slow, careful first draft. The longest that process has ever taken was eight years. (I worked on it every couple of years, and that was an exception.) Usually a story takes me three or four weeks to draft although I can sometimes draft a story in a week.
Then I futz with it a little. Then I workshop it. After I workshop it, I have completely re-written a piece, but usually I make some changes, delete a thousand words or add a scene, polish a little, and call it done.
AM: When you workshop a piece of fiction, do you have a select group of people you turn to, or do you participate in any online critique groups?
MM: I usually turn to people I’ve workshopped with in the past, especially now that I have so little time. I’ll send a story out to three or four people. In the past I’ve workshopped with the Cajun Sushi Hamsters, a stellar group out of Cleveland, my beloved group in Austin, the Rio Hondo workshop in Taos, and the Sycamore Hill workshop in North Carolina.
AM: Of all the stories and novels you’ve written, is there any one specifically that you’d consider your personal favorite?
MM: I can’t even stand to go back and read what I’ve written. My work and I have a ‘you go live your life, I’ll live mine’ relationship. I like doing readings because I like the performative aspect, but no, I don’t have a favorite.
AM: What (if you can say!) are you working on currently?
MM: Oh God help me, I’m currently working on a screenplay. On spec. I should just go buy a lottery ticket and be done with it.
AM: Have you found working on a screenplay to be easier/harder than prose fiction, or are there certain things about writing a screenplay that you’ve found more or less enjoyable?
MM: It’s utterly different. For one thing, I am experimenting with planning my screenplays a lot more than I plan my short stories and novels. For another, I’m beginning all over again. And there is so much to learn. For example, with a few exceptions, most TV dramas rarely have scenes more than 14 lines long. And most scenes are shorter! When I’m writing a script I’m forever counting the lines, sighing, and trying to figure out how to do the same thing, but shorter.
AM: Some authors are convinced that only the writer can truly tell what works and what doesn’t in any given story and that outside perspectives only muddle the creative process; but there are also a lot of authors who regularly utilize the critiques of others, be they other writers or friends and family. How do you go about determining which critical comments are worth utilizing, and which are better left alone?
MM: That’s really hard. In fiction, after thirty years, I kind of know what kind of thing works in my story, and sometimes comments seem to be about some other story very much like mine. But I’ve started a screenwriting group and I’m so new to the writing of screenplays that I really don’t have any sense of what stuff works and what doesn’t. I find I have no critical sense of what people are saying that is right for me and what is not.
It doesn’t help that getting a screenplay produced does not mean it’s a good screenplay. Or that a movie is made three times, once when it’s written, a second time when it’s shot, and a third time when it’s edited, and any of those steps can either make or destroy a movie.
AM: What is your typical writing routine? Do you write every day, some days, only when inspired?
MM: I don’t write every day but I sure don’t wait to be inspired. I am almost never inspired. Or if I am inspired, inspiration comes well after the writing has started. Right now I have a day job that requires me to write for a living so I am writing a great deal.
The more I write, the better I get at it. I think of writing as a little like running, the more I do it the farther I can go. But I’ve been writing at this point for over 30 years and so I have a great deal of writing technique built up. I can count on myself to write competent prose.
If only competent was enough.
AM: What piece of writing advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you first started writing fiction?
MM: I don’t know, I seem to have gotten to a pretty good place. If I gave myself advice, wouldn’t I mess myself up? It’s the time in the middle of my career I’d like to give myself advice for, and that would be, ‘worry less about whatever you think is your reputation and write more.’
AM: Thank you so much Ms. McHugh for this interview and for letting us to share your story “Useless Things” in this issue!