Laura McHugh speaks on the topic of Dark and Light, a topic she explores in her first novel The Weight of Blood, a gripping novel about two mysterious disappearances a generation apart
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.
Interview by Julia Jenkins. First published in Shelf Awareness Maximum Shelf, January 15, 2014. Reproduced with permission of Random House.
A Q&A With BookBrowse Book Clubbers
In March 2014, BookBrowse hosted a discussion of The Weight of Blood during which Laura kindly answered our questions.
The questions and answers are posted below but do contain plot spoilers!
Why did the town and Carl not stand up to Crete? Why create such a despicable character as Crete?
I felt that Carl would never completely turn against his brother. His judgment was clouded by the sense of loyalty he felt toward Crete, and he let himself be blind to some of his brother's actions. I think that would have changed had Carl known what Crete had done to Lila. Carl stands up to Crete, in a sense, when he places Cheri's body in the tree across from Dane's General Store. He refuses to play along and hide Cheri's body like Crete wants him to.
As for the townsfolk, they didn't want to get involved. They were intimidated by Crete, and I don't think anyone wanted to cross him, for fear of what he might do in return.
Why create such a despicable character? People like Crete (and worse) exist in the real world. And to do the things that his character does in this story, he has to be pretty despicable. Not every story needs a Crete, but this one did.
The Weight of Blood is your first published novel. Have you always been a writer? What made you decide to sit down & create this work? Is it something you'd contemplated for a while before you began it, or did something convince you to start putting this story on paper?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't start writing this book until I lost my longtime job as a software developer. I decided that I would take the opportunity to finally write a novel. I knew I wanted to set my story in the Ozarks, where I had lived for several years, but I did not have a plot before I began. Lucy's character came to me first, and then the twin mysteries of her mother's disappearance and her friend's murder. I didn't know where Cheri had been for the year she was missing until I saw a news article about a crime in a small Missouri town where I had lived. That crime changed the course of the story, and from there, everything began to fall into place.
How do you balance your time between being a writer and being a mother? Has life changed dramatically for you now that the novel has been published?
My life hasn't changed much, except that now I have deadlines, and I'm busy with all the extra work that goes along with promoting a novel - travel, interviews, social media. While writing this book, I quickly learned that I can't get much work done with my children present. They are still young, and constantly in need of attention. I wrote The Weight of Blood late at night while the kids slept, and during the day when they were at preschool a couple mornings a week. I didn't sleep much, but it was worth it.
In your interview you mention your daughters. Do you come from a large family? What does your family think about your writing career? Have they always been supportive, or were they skeptical, and what do they say now that it's clear your writing is very well-received?
I am one of eight kids, and I have two kids of my own. My family always thought I had a talent for writing, but we grew up poor, and none of us ever considered pursuing our creative interests full time. It was a huge leap of faith for me to write this book instead of going back to work, and I'm thankful that my husband encouraged me to do it. Now that the book is out, my family is very happy for memy mother was especially excited to see me in Southern Living.
Do you have a routine to keep your writing on track, or is it more of a compulsion - something you're eager to do every day?
I try to write every day. If I go too long without writing, I do crave it, but now that I am working toward a deadline on my second book, writing is my joband, as with any other job, I have to work whether I feel inspired or not. It's not always easy, but there's nothing else I'd rather do, and I feel lucky to have a job that I love.
Is there an author who inspires you? Someone whose writing you seek to emulate?
I have a long list of favorite authors, but one who has really inspired me in terms of craft is Charles Frazier. He's a fantastic storyteller, and each sentence is beautifully crafted. I read his latest, Nightwoods, while revising The Weight of Blood, and it occurred to me that I either needed to try harder or give up writing altogether. I don't try to emulate his style, but I do pay attention to each sentence and try to make it better.
In The Weight of Blood, I'm curious about Crete 's feelings toward Lucy. Would he have hurt her, do you think, if Birdie hadn't intervened?
In my mind, he would not have hurt Lucy, though I purposely left it open to the reader's interpretation. I thought that his love for her was genuine, and it stemmed, at least in part, from his belief that Lucy might be his daughter. I think it's possible for people to commit evil acts against others and still feel love for their own families.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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