Interview: Maureen F. McHugh, author of “After the Apocalypse”

Maureen F. McHugh was born in what was then a sleepy, blue-collar town in Ohio called Loveland. She went to college in Ohio, and then graduate school at New York University. She lived for a year in Shijiazhuang, China. Her first book, Tiptree Award winner China Mountain Zhang, was published in 1991. Since then she has written three novels and a well-received collection of short stories, Story Prize finalist Mothers & Other Monsters. McHugh has also worked on alternate reality games for Halo 2, The Watchmen, and Nine Inch Nails. She lives in Los Angeles, where she has attempted to sell her soul to Hollywood.

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about a time the day after tomorrow when a cascade of events has caused society to break down. Jane and her daughter Franny are walking north on the interstate towards Canada where they have heard that there is a camp for refugees. I guess you could say it’s about my own worst fears about how people behave when things go wrong. Although there are no cannibals in it.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I wrote a collection of short stories called Mothers & Other Monsters. Karen Joy Fowler remarked one time that mothers are under represented in fiction and it’s true. When we are in a story we tend to either be saints or monsters. Motherhood is just not seen as a subject for stories. I was struggling with stepmotherhood at the time, and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of representations of motherhood or stepmotherhood (this was before the day of the ubiquitous mommy blog, which still has its limitations.) I wrote all these stories about trying and failing to be a good mother.

Kelly Link (she and Gavin Grant run Small Beer Press which published Mothers & Other Monsters) said she’d really like to see me write a story about a bad mother. I couldn’t do it for about ten years. I was too afraid of being a bad mother myself. I finally did it for this story.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I am nothing like Jane. I never ran away when I was a teenager. I was never street smart. The last thing anyone has ever suggested to me was that I might party too hard or wear too much make-up. Still, there’s an awful lot of me in Jane. Jane is my worst self in many of her thoughts. Every impatient, exasperated parenting moment.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I spent some time looking at maps of the interstates. Really, this story owes more to a Doris Lessing novel I read in the ‘80’s called Memoirs of a Survivor. That book is very different. It’s concerned with consciousness and the mind, which was a preoccupation of Lessing’s. I was also reacting to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

What is the appeal of apocalypse fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

There are several reasons that writers love a good apocalypse. I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about how political writers can use it as a way to have their agenda play out: all those bad (everyone other than people who believe what they believe) die out, and their belief, being the practical belief, is able to survive.

There are other reasons to do it. I’m in my mid-fifties. Both of my parents are dead. When someone I know has a medical crisis, it’s no longer the exception to believe that they might die. I lie awake at night and worry and then I write stories in the day. I write my fear of death onto the world.

What are some of your favorite examples of apocalypse fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

That’s difficult because there are so many of them. I grew up in the sixties and seventies when the apocalypse was atomic, so I grew up on a steady diet of them.

I love Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang because it’s so lyrical. It’s a beautiful book.

A Canticle For Leibowitz showed me early not to trust history. I was raised Catholic and loved the idea of a Jewish saint and an illuminated grocery list, including bagels. I learned eventually that believing that history is circular (or at least helical) is a very capitalist thing to believe, and that the Marxist view of history is progressive, that history is moving towards a communist state. This led to my own suspicion that there are aspects of Marxism that are religious. (I don’t believe history is cyclical or progressive, I believe it is sensitive dependent on initial conditions, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl, because even though it gets called apocalyptic fiction, it’s really not, it’s about struggling on, not about the end of the world at all.

I was really impressed with John Brunner’s novels Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, but I haven’t read them in years and I don’t have any idea how they hold up.

There are so many! The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Some of them are flawed, but they all had something that spoke to me.