Welcome back! Today, I’m excited to feature author Jessica McHugh. Jessica is a prolific speculative fiction writer of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. Her work includes Rabbits in the Garden, The Darla Decker Diaries, and The Train Derails in Boston, among many others.
Recently, Jessica and I discussed her evolution as a storyteller as well as what she has planned for the future.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
I’ve always loved telling stories and entertaining people. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I wrote short stories, poetry, and songs—I even wrote a terrible screenplay—but I didn’t start taking it seriously until I was almost twenty. I read a lot while working eleven hours a day in a mall perfume kiosk, but it was collections by HP Lovecraft and my favorite author, Roald Dahl, that kicked my writing into high gear. Once I picked up that pen to write a Dahl-esque story, I was pleasantly doomed. After that, I was writing a new short story every day, and after reading “The Silmarillion,” I was inspired to write a fantasy novel called “Maladrid.” I spent entire shifts at this perfume kiosk building the world of Dominhydor, where I would set four novels. Over the next few years I wrote obsessively, anything I could, trying to find my style, and without any thought of publication. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four and met my husband that I decided to start submitting my work. His love and support made me feel invincible. Still does.
As for my other favorite authors, I adore Bret Easton Ellis, Anne Rice, Damien Angelica Walters, Danger Slater, Michael Arnzen, and still love reading Beverly Clearly.
You’re a prolific writer with numerous short stories, poetry, plays, novellas and novels to your name. Do you have a preferred medium that is your favorite, or do you find that it depends more on the story itself to help you determine which medium to use (or possibly a bit of both)?
I try to let the story determine the medium, but I’ve gotten it wrong a few times. A few years ago, I wrote an entire mixed-media stage play before realizing it worked better as a novel, and I’m still in the process of converting it. For the most part I’m sticking to short stories and novels these days because of deadlines, but I would love to write a full length play again. Publication is fantastic, but it’s difficult to top the joy of watching people bring your characters to life. The Colne Egname Performing Theatre in the UK had their opening night of my play “Fools Call it Fate” last week, and I wish I could’ve been there.
Still, I think novels are my toast and jam. I love getting into the nitty gritty in a way that other mediums don’t always allow.
Do you have a specific routine as a writer? For example, do you write for a certain number of hours per day or have a daily word count that you like to reach? Are you a work in silence kind of writer, or do you prefer music while you write (and if so, what kind)?
Deadlines and inspirado influence my routine. I work on multiple projects at once, so I jump around a lot during the day, but unless I’m doing NaNoWriMo, I don’t aim for a word count; I aim to make my words count. Writing is hard enough that it seems overkill to punish myself if I have an off day and don’t hit a goal. I also consider inactive things like plotting, yoga, daydreaming, and recharging after work/emotion-heavy days to be part of the writing process, so having a word count goal wouldn’t serve me much.
I spend most of the morning and afternoon in my Writing Hut, editing, typing up handwritten work, and grooving to Spotify. I have several playlists tailored for certain stages of writing. My TypeyTypey list is a mix of all my favorite songs and genres for listening (and dancing!) while typing. INKstrumental is for first-drafting, and it’s the playlist I use for creative writing workshops. I also have lists built for an extra nudge of novel inspirado, like pop hits and new releases for the Darla Decker Diaries and 70’s bands for “Hares in the Hedgerow.”
If you follow me online, you also know that bars are a big part of my process. After hours of being in the Hut, I sometimes need to escape, and I love writing during Happy Hour. Well, except for when people bug me, which happens more than I’d like. Still, I love catching sparks of inspirado from strangers’ emotions and conversations, and I’ve written “The End” on several novels while sitting at a downtown bar.
I’d like to say that my workday ends there, but after I greet my husband after work and we have dinner, I often return to a project until bedtime.
You’ve been working in the publishing industry for an enviable number of years now. What advice do you have for authors who are just starting out? In particular, any tips on time management or how best to deal with rejection?
Authenticity is key—unless you’re an authentic asshole, I guess. 😉 In all seriousness, you need to be genuine, hardworking, humble, and grateful in this business. I’ve been fortunate to befriend writers and publishers who’ve supported and helped me on this journey, and I believe it’s partly because of my personality. I want to learn and grow as a writer, and I’m thankful for every opportunity I’m given in that regard. I’m awed each and every day that this is my life. I’m poor as hell, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t finish college, and I still make and teach art for a living.
However, I don’t want new writers to emulate my life. It took me a lot of years to work up to tackling multiple projects, and I’ll be the first to admit that my artistic obsessions border on unhealthy. So many writers have so many different methods, that you really need to sample everything to see what works for you. And that takes time. Don’t be in a rush to publish. Experiment and explore and discover what kind of writer you are and what’s going to give you the most joy. In a business that’s fraught with rejection, you’re gonna need that joy as much as possible.
In your vast bibliography, what was the hardest piece to write? Conversely, was there one that was the easiest?
My very first novel “Maladrid” was the hardest to write because I could never edit out 19-year-old Jess. No matter how many times I rewrote it, the writing always came off immature and stilted. I found my footing in the following novels of the Dominhydor series, but “Maladrid” remained a mess.
“The Green Kangaroos” was the easiest, which is funny because it was my first attempt at writing a novel in 30 days for NaNoWriMo. I gave myself plenty of opportunity to crash and burn. But because it’s the most personal of my novels and I plotted every single detail before starting, I flew through it with way too much excitement for a book about shooting drugs into your nethers.
Out of your published work, do you have a personal favorite?
Again, “The Green Kangaroos.” First drafting was so much fun, and I really got into the character. Every part of the process was a delight, and though I chickened out sending it to the intended publisher, I was so excited it was the one that allowed me to be part of the Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing family. The special edition of “Rabbits in the Garden” from Post Mortem Press with illustrations from Philip R. Rogers is a close second.
What projects are you currently working on?
Oh dear, so much. I’m still editing “Hares in the Hedgerow,” the sequel to “Rabbits in the Garden,” and I’m about to start a YA horror novella called “Who Died in the House Next Door.” I’m also doing the A Story A Week challenge again (previously defeated in 2014), but this time I’m writing flash stories that comprise a sort-of composite novel called “Webworm.” It’s been really interesting because I didn’t do any outlining, there are no character names, and with every new story I’m discovering new Lynchian subplots. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m only twenty-two stories into it.
Where can we find you online?
I’m on FB at www.facebook.com/author.
Big thanks to Jessica McHugh for being this week’s featured author!