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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

An Interview w/ Maureen McHugh (Author of After the Apocalypse)

You can check out my review of After the Apocalypse here.

Now for the interview:

First things first:  What initially drew you to writing, and why genre fiction in particular? I was drawn to writing because I loved to read, and when I was reading a story I really really loved, I hated for it to end.  So to find the stuff I really really loved to read, I started thinking about writing it myself. 

It turned out that writing didn’t necessarily lead to making the stuff that I loved to read, because my best writing seems to be about the things I am most uncertain about.  I write to find out what I think.  It turns out that a lot of what I love to read and a lot of what I think about falls best into genre.

A question I often ask myself, and others, is what drives people towards post-apocalyptic (or apocalyptic) fiction.  Your collection is perhaps on the cusp between "a world crumbling" and "a world crumbled."  What do you think accounts for our fascination with catastrophe in its various forms?  What about your fascination?

I think there are a lot of reasons to be drawn to the apocalyptic. We are all headed towards a personal apocalypse in that we are all going to die.  That’s a terrible thing to truly comprehend, and apocalyptic fiction is a way to rehearse our existential dread, so to speak.

There’s the playground fun of destroying everything.  There’s also the idea that if all the clutter was swept away us (insert ideology here) could rebuild it right.  There is often something Utopian about the catastrophic.

For me, there were a couple of stories, particularly “Useless Things” that were ways to explore my own fears.  What if the infrastructure is buckling under the pressures of climate change?  What if the poor are getting poorer?  I have a strong sense that I may not behave well under that kind of stress.  I don’t think of myself as very noble.
Did you always have a sense that these stories, which were published in multiple magazines between 2007 and 2010, were going to revolve around the same theme, or did each story come into existence out of its own individual context?  In other words, were you thinking these stories would deal with a semi-shared world when you wrote them, or was it an accident?

No, not at all.  I realized at some point that there was this metaphorical connection, and then I wrote a story (the title story, “After the Apocalypse”) to reflect that.  But of course, many of the stories are not apocalyptic in the general sense at all.

I don’t really believe in the sudden end of things.  Not that it couldn’t happen.  One big asteroid and there we are.  But at an emotional level I am so much more familiar with the decline of things, the gradual slide into some different state.  So even though I know that the world could end with a bang, my feeling is that most endings are like old age, the gradual loss of options, abilities, and choices.

In an interview/conversation with David Moles at Small Beer Press, you said that "all of my apocalyptic stories are not of the people who become Mad Max, but they’re of the rest of us, you know."  It might be fair to say that the characters found in so much apocalyptic fiction are larger-than-life heroes, villains, or anti-heroes -- people who exceed the realities of their situation in ways that almost seem unrealistic or too-perfectly-designed-for-the-screen.  But you are, as you say, concerned with "the rest of us."  Who are "the rest of us?"  Why write about them and not, say, the other kinds (Mad Max, etc.)?  

I guess because I have never felt that I was going to be able to hold my own in a battle between heroes.  I have always been the person picked second-to-last for the team.  I’m near-sighted.  I like to read.  None of my salient characteristics exactly suggest that I will be great at converting cars into stripped down dune buggies, building stills, lethally defending myself.  I am really well adapted to be what I am—a middle class woman who sits at a desk.

So what happens to me when the apocalypse comes?  There’s a good chance, based on my life experience, that I’ll end up washing the dishes or something.  Right before something eats me.

Another aspect of that conversation I found illuminating was your acknowledgment of your weakness in the field of plot.  Particularly, you mention that many of your stories which have plots are about things getting worse, rather than better.  Do you think your admitted faults as a writer influenced how you approached the stories in this collection?  Or did it evolve organically as you developed your characters?

Most plots involve things getting worse, when you strip them to their barest essence.  Each solution to a problem leads to a worse problem.  I work best when I have a character and I think of an unstable situation—they react, I have a story.  There are writers who are better at situations and the intricate construction of a series of interlocking events that move the characters through ever more complex situations.

Me, I have to resist the impulse to have my characters just think about how bad things might get.

One of the compelling aspects of your collection is the honest exploration of the indifference human beings sometimes show to one another, or to the situations surrounding them.  In the case of After the Apocalypse, each story shows people surviving in a world where civilization has already unraveled, though without the absolute end-of-the-world-ness typified by the genre.  An example of this indifference would be the protagonist of "The Naturalist," who traps his fellow inmates in a kind of makeshift scientific experiment to do with the zombies who inhabit the city-prison.  Could you talk about why you decided to approach this theme, perhaps in particular to "The Naturalist"?

“The Naturalist” is pretty atypical for me.  My son (who is in his mid-twenties) had a vivid dream and told me about it and asked me to write a story based on it.  I don’t usually write about convicts or zombies.  But I grew up in a small blue collar town, and my family is a mix of middle class and working class.  I don’t have anyone like the protagonist in my family but I know a little about the world he comes from.

Zombies, like other predatory creatures, aren’t malicious.  If you take away the demonic aspect what you are left with is a creature trying to survive.  The question becomes, do they deserve to any more or less than we do.  I think my ethical calculus would be different than the main character of “The Naturalist,” but it’s an interesting question.

Incidentally, for whatever reason I really found writing the “The Naturalist” to be a lot of fun.  I don’t necessarily have fun writing a story (although usually at some point there is some fun and some flow if the story is going to work.)  But I could have written about Cahill, the main character, forever.  He was the one character I’ve ever written who it was easy to find in situations where stuff just happened.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing of your stories, however, isn't "The Naturalist," but "After the Apocalypse," which follows a mother and her daughter as they struggle their way to a safer haven through dangerous roads and crumbling cities.  Did you want to show how apocalypse might lead us to break ties between our loved ones?  What might it mean to sever those ties or to see family, in this new landscape, as a chaining mechanism?

Elie Wiesel said (and I’m paraphrasing) that suffering does not ennoble us, it debases us.  There is a persistent sense that if a person perpetrating a wrong is bad, the victim is somehow good.  We talk about how victims learn from their experience, but never how perpetrators learn from their experience.  I was raised Catholic and taught in catechism that suffering is good for the soul, but suffering makes us hurt, frightened, pained.

I’m not saying that we can’t rise above it.  But to expect terrible circumstances to make us better people is to not understand what it is like to be in terrible circumstances.  This is something that frightens me.  So I ended up writing about it.

One of my favorite stories from the collection, "Useless Things," seems to play in a different kind of wasteland:  the intersecting worlds of economic recessions and illegal immigration.  Both are obviously major issues politically, but you've taken us out of that context to put us on the front lines, which is hardly the black and white world our political universe wants us to think.  When you initially wrote "Useless Things" (originally published in 2009), were you trying to respond to that political situation, or was there another impetus behind it (the story clearly deals with many issues and is, in my opinion, one of the best in the collection)?

Although I am married and economically comfortable, and I don’t live in New Mexico, there are ways in which “Useless Things” is an autobiographical story.  Not in terms of the events.  Not one of the events in the story has ever happened to me.  But the feelings of helplessness, the fear of things slipping away, and the sense that fear makes me smaller and meaner, those are all real issues in my life.  I started that story because of a television show I watched about the lifelike dolls, called ‘reborns’, that the narrator of the story makes.  And from there I just explored slowly, finding out where she lived, what the stakes were, and how she felt.  I didn’t chose the political themes in any conscious way, they just arose out of the setting and the story.

Similarly, there are political themes -- dirty bombs and terrorism -- in "The Lost Boy:  A Reporter at Large," the only story that stands out because of its journalistic form.  What was the impetus behind this format and do you think there is something specific to journalism that opens up new ways of seeing things (in this case, questions of identity and terrorism/apocalypse) within fiction?

Actually, I always wanted to write for The New Yorker.  I don’t write the kind of journalism that this story pretends to be.  It’s difficult.  But I got interested in amnesia and did some research and then made up a story to go with it.  The rest—the journalistic form—is just a funny kind of self-indulgence.

There are funny ways that journalism can explain, and that it feels as if it is informing, that I like.

What should folks expect from you in the next year (convention appearances, new stories, etc.)?

I have a full time job writing for a transmedia studio in Los Angeles called Fourth Wall Studios.  It’s great, but it has cut into my writing time a lot.  Basically, after writing forty hours a week for someone else, it’s difficult to write more for myself.  So for now, I’m not working on much.  And I only get two weeks vacation, during which I really don’t want to think or talk about writing, so no conventions this year.  Although I doubt I’ll be able to stand it.

And now for a random, but slightly amusing question:  If the world economy crumbled and you ended up having to live precariously on the fringes of civilization, what would you like to do to make a living if you couldn't be a writer?

I think about this a lot, of course.  But I have no real idea.  Maybe open a boarding house?  Assuming that it’s more like a depression than a true apocalypse.  If the whole thing goes ka-plooey, all I can say is I’m not much of a farmer, or hunter.  My husband, however, is an engineer, so I’d hope that he could help us keep going by making things that did things.  Maybe we’d be scavengers, hunting through the ruined subdivisions for scraps to make machines.

But I’m hoping to never find out.


If you'd like to learn more about Maureen McHugh, you can check out her website.  After the Apocalypse is available from Small Beer Press or practically anywhere else that books are sold.

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