Laura McHugh is the author of The Weight of Blood, which won both the 2015 International Thriller Writers award and a Silver Falchion award for best first novel.
She’s back with a second novel, Arrowood, a gothic mystery complete with ghosts, eerie houses, and silent secrets. McHugh took some time out of her busy book tour schedule to answer a few questions for us about her writing routine, literary influences, and more.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?
Laura McHugh: I work best late at night, when there are no interruptions. When I’m finishing a draft, I’ll sometimes stay up all night. I used to do a lot of writing at the public library while my daughters were in preschool nearby, but one day I left my carefully annotated manuscript spread out on a table, and returned a few minutes later to find a woman walking off with it. She said she thought it was a pile of scrap paper! Now I do most of my writing on a laptop at home, at the kitchen table or on the couch, but I recently bought myself a desk so that I can keep all my notes and papers organized. I don’t do much outlining—it’s more fun for me if I let the story develop as I go.
PRH: What writers have influenced you most?
LM: Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood. I grew up reading a lot of science fiction, horror, and Southern Gothic.
PRH: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?
LM: On a small scale, I sometimes insert details from my own life into my fiction. For example, I have an unwieldy inbox with more than ten thousand unread emails, and so does my character Arden Arrowood. On a larger scale, much of my work contains themes about home, which echoes my own life story—my family moved frequently throughout my childhood, and that had a huge impact on me. I play that out in various ways in my novels; my characters often in search of home in one form or another.
PRH: Do you actively search for your next book subject, or does the subject “choose” you?
LM: I think the brain does a lot of that work in the background while I’m doing mundane things like grocery shopping or brushing my teeth. There are always vague book concepts ghosting around in my head, and at some point, one will begin to take shape—a narrator’s voice or a plotline will emerge—and I get a little surge of excitement, that this could be the next book.
PRH: What book (fiction or nonfiction) helped you see the world in a different light?
LM: I used to read the books my older brother brought home from his high school English classes. I read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 back to back, and was blown away. It was my first experience with dystopian literature, my first time viewing the world through that lens.
PRH: Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, rely on one over another, or toss out that framework altogether?
LM: I use all three, definitely, but I would place observation above experience, with imagination most important of all—it can make up for a lack of most anything else.
PRH: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?
LM: You have to decide how important this is to you. If it’s important enough, you won’t have any excuses. You’ll sit in the chair as long as it takes, you’ll write as many drafts as you need to, you’ll open yourself up to critique, you’ll work to improve your craft, you’ll persevere in the face of rejection. The best thing I did when I became serious about writing was to join a writing group. It’s important to find one where the members are dedicated to helping each other improve, rather than tearing each other down. I would advise any aspiring writer to join a supportive writing group, either online or in their community—and if you can’t find one, start one.