Charles Tan interviews Maureen F. McHugh

Maureen F. McHugh is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated short story collection AFTER THE APOCALYPSE.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Choosing a title for a collection is tricky. How did you settle on After the Apocalypse and what was the genesis of the short fiction piece?

Like a lot of writers, I have a lot of funny rules.  I don’t write stories about writers, because I think I’m being lazy if I do.  When I write something set in the future, no one smokes because I would like to think that smoking has pretty much disappeared from culture in the future.  I think depressing endings are easier to write than non-tragic endings but that non-tragic endings are often more true.  But my writing life changed drastically in the last couple of years and I started getting paid to write other people’s stories (quite a bit more than I was ever paid to write my own, honestly) and more people are seeing those stories than buy my books.  It gave me a curious sense of freedom.  I had written the first story of the book, “The Naturalist” and it was about zombies in Cleveland.  Then I wrote the story called “Useless Things” which is set in a near future wracked by climate change.  There’s something self-indulgent about the whole world is going to end story.  Culturally in the West we’ve been believing the world was about to end for about two thousand years.  And it keeps stubbornly not ending.

Like the stock market, past performance is not a predictor of future profitability but it’s hard not to notice that apocalyptic stories keep getting it wrong.  For me, it’s a chance to wallow in my own anxieties.  I’m really more interested in how people deal with stuff than I am with the stuff that is happening.  It always felt to me that catastrophe, like technology, is unevenly distributed.  That some random sample of the lucky and capable (but mostly the lucky) will be sitting around at the end, and that someone will be desperately attempting to maintain some semblance of order.  Hence the title After the Apocalypse.

I actually wrote the story “After the Apocalypse” after I’d already talked to Gavin Grant at Small Beer Press about doing the collection.  So I had the title first and then the story.  But the genesis of the piece came from several conversations over many years.  Karen Joy Fowler has been talking about the absence/portrayal of mothers in stories for years.  I got interested in writing about mothers.  Then Kelly Link asked me to write about a bad mother.  That was terribly hard for me.  I many ways the title story took me fifteen years to get to the point where I could write it.

What’s the appeal of the short story format for you?

Well, it’s short.  If the story doesn’t work, it’s not as if I’ve invested two years in the project pretty much exclusively, as I would for a novel.  Also, I’ve been able to write more of them than I have novels, so I’ve had more practice.  Lastly, and this is very important, I’m lucky to have editors willing to publish them and people willing to read them.

In terms of genre, your fiction strikes me as going beyond boundaries. How would you describe your fiction?

I very much like a lot of literary short fiction.  (And like any other genre, there’s a lot of literary short fiction that I don’t like.)  I like the specificity of it, the particularity of certain kinds of craft, and its emphasis on the personal.  I like the springtrap artifice of a Raymond Carver story where the ending just snaps shut on you.  I like the way Alice Munro moves through time.  I like the way Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri make familiar places freshly alien.

But I keep wanting to write about plagues, and zombies, and artificial intelligence because I think our lives are constantly being torqued by this future I’m living in.  I may not have a jet pack but I carry an amazingly powerful computer barely larger than a cigarette pack wherever I go.  It’s hard to describe how strange our lives have become because they’re not strange, they’re ordinary as we live them day to day.  I’m a little obsessed with our stubborn, admirable desire to keep living our vital and animal lives while miracles, both wonderful and terrible, keep happening all around us.  In a funny, old-fashioned Victorian way, I am forever trying to write the sublime.

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