HorrorTree Interview with Jessica McHugh
Nosy Person: Ken MacGregor
I first encountered Jessica’s work in an anthology we were both in. It was called VIGNETTES FROM THE END OF THE WORLD (Apokrupha 2014; edited by the extremely selective Jacob Haddon). It was a touching and moving SF story that had a lot of feels in just a few paragraphs. Since then, I’ve read a few of her books (she has a bunch!) and enjoyed them all. Jess has a broad range, tackling middle-grade, young adult, and (some very sexy) horror. She’s a writer with guts, a unique voice, who is unapologetically herself, both in her fiction and in real life. I’ve only met her once, at a con, but I’ll never forget how her boisterous personality filled the room. She’s one of a kind, and I wish her runaway success in her writing career; few people deserve it as much as she does. All right. Let’s get on with the interview.
Hey, Jess. First of all, thanks for being willing to do this…again. Last time I interviewed you, I worked from a template of questions. This time, I’m making it up as I go, so it may get weird. I’ll start off simple. Do you have a favorite character, or moment, or scene, from one of your stories? A bit of dialogue that cracks you up on a reread? You know. That stuff.
Thanks so much for hosting me on Horror Tree, Ken! It’s always nice to get into the nitty gritty of writing with one of my favorite inky cohorts.
As for your question, I absolutely love Perry Samson from “The Green Kangaroos.” Despite Perry being a pretty sleazy fella with lots of unappealing issues, writing/embodying him was so much fun. His observations and conversations with other characters in the barn-house chapters still crack me up, especially his interactions with Benito. Oh, and in case readers weren’t aware, the name “Benito” is a play on my maiden name, “Bonito,” because this is the most personal novel I’ve ever written. When people ask which book in the McHughniverse they should start with, I usually say “The Green Kangaroos.”
You have, what? Four jobs? I know I would love to support myself writing someday (that’s still a ways off, for sure—Yay, day job!), and I imagine you would too. Do you have a plan of attack? A projected date for autonomous author status? What still needs to happen to get there?
I was working as a production associate in a GMP biotech firm in Frederick when I dropped everything to try my hand at writing full-time. It went pretty well for about two years–actually paid bills with story sales and royalties–but as time went on, it became clear that it didn’t make enough financial sense to continue on. That’s when I started collecting my beloved part-time jobs. It’s actually been a wonderful experience working as a creative writing and science instructor, a tour guide, and an escape room gamemaster because I’ve discovered skills and sources of inspirado I wasn’t aware of before. I now feel like so much more than an author, which is why I have no current aspirations to return to full-time writing. In the beginning I thought all the writing time in the world would be worth the financial struggle. Well, I’m here to tell ya, friendos: it’s super duper not. I’ve found I’m much happier working a handful of jobs that don’t eat up all my writing time but also take the financial pressure off my creativity.
You’re outspoken about, well, everything. (I respect the hell out of that, by the way.) On social media, you boldly proclaim your position on politics, sexuality, body image, and whatever else is important to you. Has this ever negatively impacted you? Have you had blowback from fans? Friends? Family?
I’m certain there are family members who’d prefer I didn’t speak so frankly about these issues, but no one’s ever confronted me about it. If I’ve lost friends or fans, I haven’t noticed. And I’m not sure I’d kick up much of a fuss if I had. The fact is it’s taken me over 30 years to find the confidence and power to be myself, unapologetically and joyfully, and I refuse to let anyone derail what I hope will be a continuous evolution of myself and my work.
When you were a stripper, you got naked for money. Is writing really that much different? Other than the first one pays a fuck of a lot better, I mean.
Ha! You’re right, stripping pays a LOT better. But you have a point about the professional similarities, especially when it comes to bearing it all. It takes a long time to get there though. When I was dancing nude, I emulated the other dancers until I found that confidence to be myself, just as I did when I started writing. I copied a lot of my favorite authors’ styles in the beginning until I felt comfortable and courageous enough to strip down and expose the stories secreted inside. By the end of my stripping career and now in my writing career, there’s little need to copy or cover up. I might still be slathered in makeup and glitter, but I’m also strong enough to climb and spin and slide down the pole, and fearless enough to bend right over and risk my tampon string glowing in the blacklight.
😉 Of course I’m kidding.
I use a Diva Cup.
I know you sometimes write for themed anthologies, and that you also come up with wildly original material. Do have a preference for what you like to work on? Is it helpful for you to have a prompt? Do you split your time equally between writing for yourself and others? (I’m not good at asking just one question at a time. Sorry.)
Themed anthologies are definitely my toast and jam these days, mostly because I feel like I can conceive of and write a story faster if I have that constant inspirado screaming in my ear. Whether it’s a theme, a word or phrase, or a piece of art, I always find a prompt helpful. I do enjoy developing stories and characters from scratch, but I haven’t been doing that much lately. I’ve been trying to cut back on writing short stories to focus on novels–a task at which I consistently fail, as I went from 1 story due by March to 5 stories due by June in just the last few weeks. However, I am very close to finishing my first novel in over 3 years…though it’s felt like much longer. I’ve talked a lot about how hard it’s been for me to rewrite and revise “Hares in the Hedgerow,” as it was originally written during a time of stress and grief for me, but this long-awaited sequel to one of my bestselling books, “Rabbits in the Garden,” will be out later this year from Post Mortem Press. Once that’s out in the world, I feel like I’ll be able to breathe enough to really tackle “A Motherfucking Heist Novel.”
A lot of writers complain about how awful the business is, and what a struggle being a writer is. There’s a perception of writing as being painful, a struggle. Personally, I don’t see it that way. If it was horrible, I’d stop. I’m curious about your take on this. (To make up for the last multiple-question question, I made this one a statement.)
I agree that writing is kinda pointless if you’re not enjoying it. Even if it’s just a hobby, you should be getting something out of it besides frustration. That said, I think it’s extremely hard work, and a lot of new writers come to the table thinking it’s going to be a breeze. Even if you’re enjoying something you’re writing, or if it comes easy, there’s still the business side, which requires a lot of promo and hustle that introverted folks simply aren’t comfortable with. And jesusfuck, we haven’t even gotten into the rejection side. It’s tough to set aside your ego and accept that you might not be as good as you think. I’ve been a published author for almost 11 years and I believe I still have a lot of growing to do. I try to learn from every rejection and bad review (though sometimes you have to take the latter with a grain of salt), and I strive for every story I write to be better than the last. It doesn’t get easier. If anything, it gets more difficult to write an entertaining and poignant piece of fiction and stand out in a crowd of authors you admire. And what if you don’t stand out? What if there’s no financial reward or critical praise? You need to have that personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, or it gets a little rough to maintain the creative flow.
What are some of the challenges of being a woman in the writing field? Particularly in horror? Do you believe we’re anywhere close to breaking out of the pointlessly misogynistic attitudes?
I don’t encounter many misogynistic attitudes in the writing community anymore, but that’s probably because I’ve either blocked those good ol’ boys or they simply slither under my radar like the slimy smegsharts they are. I’m actually shocked I haven’t had more vitriolic encounters with these types of dudes, but that might be because they know the strength of my presence and the sheer magnitude of inky cohorts who’d rally behind me as I’ve rallied behind others. For me, dudes who say women can’t write horror or bizarro or get peeved at the notion of publications dedicated to female-identifying authors and LGBTQIA authors aren’t worth discussing longer than it takes to turn a page. They have nothing to offer artistically or professionally. In the words of Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next.”
Pimp your shit here. Tell us about what just came out. What’s about to come out. What books should people be buying from you to get a feel for your style? Personally, I haven’t read anything from you I haven’t liked. And, let me tell you, that’s not something I can say for too many writers.
Thank you, Ken! My recent short stories releases are in anthologies chock-full of some of the best writers working today. My story “Ghosts of Hyperia” appears in Adrenaline Press’s Lee Murray-edited subterranean horror anthology, and “Amity in Bloom” explores a unique brothel in late 1800s NYC in Nightscapes Press’s “Ashes and Entropy” anthology. My work also appeared in Perpetual Motion Machine’s “Lost Films” anthology and will soon cook up some trouble in their forthcoming pizza horror anthology. I’ve also had some icky flash pieces published by Forbidden Futures recently.
As mentioned before, “Hares in the Hedgerow” will be out in 2019, and though you don’t absolutely have to read “Rabbits in the Garden” to understand it, I highly recommend picking it up. If for no other reason than the beautifully horrific illustrations by Philip R. Rogers.
And speaking of horrific, there are good reasons I include an apology in inscriptions to readers who’ve purchased print copies of my Raw Dog Screaming Press novel, “Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven.” A rewrite and rerelease of a novel I started writing at 19, “Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven” is perfect for people who like a heavy grimdark revenge story.
Thank you so much for having me, Ken & Horror Tree. And thank you for continuing to support women in horror all year round.
Thanks for your time, Jess. Hope to run into you again someday. You’re one of the cool ones. -Ken MacGregor