Unlikeable Characters: An Interview With Jessica McHugh

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing yet another accomplished, talent writer: Jessica McHugh. No additional introduction is needed, so let’s jump right in!

-Austin James

Jessica McHugh Pic2

“I never realized how quickly children want to put visually unappealing things into their mouths.” -Jessica McHugh

Austin James: So, I’ll start off with a generic question that might make you wonder why you agreed to this interview: what drives you to create through writing?

Jessica McHugh: Art has always been very important to me, but I didn’t always know writing would be my creative outlet. When I was younger, I tried all sorts of artistic expression to nail down what allowed me to convey my emotions best, and writing was the one that (1) allowed me to let go and truly become absorbed by creation, and (2) I enjoyed enough that I didn’t mind working to become better. Both have lasted to this day.

James: Wow, that’s a great explanation. As an interviewer I sometimes think about how I would answer my own questions – I’m jealous of this answer. You mentioned trying “all sorts of artistic expression” … care to talk about some of the other things you’ve dabbled in?

McHugh: My parents were pretty cool about allowing me to explore different types of art, and we already had a bunch of art kits since I’m the youngest of three, so it was pretty easy for my parents to find something to occupy me for a few hours. I love drawing and painting, but I wasn’t very good at it. I played with fashion design for a few years. I spent a significant portion of my adolescence dancing and singing, and I basically lived in the theater during High School. Anyone who follows me on social media knows I still sing and dance to this day, but it’s solely for joy whereas writing is for joy, release, entertainment, education, and (I hope) connection.

James: I have indeed seen you post a couple FB videos where you sing and dance and frolic and such—looks like fun! So, when did you first start to realize you were getting “good” as a writer?

McHugh: It was probably during my fifth novel, Song of Eidolons. I hadn’t quite found my voice yet, but writing that story made me believe that I truly had a kind of magic other people didn’t. Many of my stories felt somewhat derivative at that point, but Song of Eidolons could only have been written by me. It was the first time I was 100% satisfied with the world and characters I created and with my progression as an author. It is unfortunately out of print and needs to be updated before I’m able to submit it for possible publication again, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

James: It’s crazy to me as a relevantly new author to hear “my fifth novel”… haha. I hope that Eidolons comes back to life in the future, hopefully with a big “homecoming” party. Other than Eidolons, which of your piece(s) are you most proud of?

Green Kangeroos Coverart

McHugh: I’m extremely proud of The Green Kangaroos, which I wrote during my first year of NaNoWriMo and was published the following year by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. I feel like my voice truly shines in that story, maybe because it was so personal. It’s also where I discovered just how much I enjoy writing unlikable characters. To be frank, I think it’s because most real people would be considered unlikable characters if you lived in their heads for more than a day. But I loved playing the part of Perry Samson. Addiction and depression have been knotted up in my life for a long time now, so writing that story felt somewhat therapeutic. I’d been wanting to tackle the middle child/addiction story for a while at that point, and I’m glad something like NaNoWriMo exists because it forced me to get it out.

I’m also really proud of my first ever short story collection, The Maiden Voyage & Other Departures. It explores my weird alternate history beepunk world, starting with a story on the Titanic. It really pushed me to my limits and forced me to stretch my creativity. It wasn’t quite as fun to create as The Green Kangaroos, but I learned a lot about myself and my writing during the process.

James: You’ve got quite a library of published works. It’s an honor to be speaking with you (by the way). Who all have you published with? Have you ever self-published?

McHugh: Thank you! I’ve worked with several small presses over the last ten years, some of which have folded and others that have flourished. Post Mortem Press was the first one I worked with that became a real family to me. That publishing house has three of my works and likely another by the end of the year. Then there’s Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, whom I’ve worked with on two novels and a few short stories, and Unnerving Magazine who I also work with on short stories, including my first collection. Raw Dog Screaming Press released my latest novel and since I’ve known those folks almost as long as Post Mortem Press, I’m jazzed to be a part of their amazing family now.

I self-published one book: a humorous illustrated collection called Virtuoso at Masturbation & Other McHughmorous Musings, and while it wasn’t a bad experience exactly, I prefer the working relationship I build and nurture with my publishers.

James: I know this can be a touchy subject, one that most of us can absolutely relate to (especially those of us that must CREATE in order to stay alive), but I really like how you phrased “addiction and depression have been knotted up in my life for a long time now, so writing that story felt somewhat therapeutic.” Are you comfortable expanding in that a little bit?

McHugh: Absolutely. My brother is a recovering heroin addict, as well as the middle child, so I’d be remiss not to acknowledge how much he inspired the character of Perry Samson in The Green Kangaroos. And I had my own struggles with self-medicating with alcohol during periods of depression in my 20s. I didn’t know I was experiencing depression, however. I didn’t realize how bad it was getting until I start to see my various relationships crumbling around me. Again, I would remiss not to acknowledge how much that version of me inspired the character of Rebecca Malone in The Train Derails in Boston.

It took me a long time to realize I’d been experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety pretty much my entire life, and I think the unwillingness to see those symptoms is apparent in the characters and relationships I built in both of those novels. At the time I wrote both, I still was not on medication, nor did I think I’d ever need to be.

I couldn’t be happier that I finally woke up to my problems and that I’m able to get treatment. I believe a lot of addictions begin because people don’t have access to adequate mental health treatment.

James: Do you think you’d be an unlikable character if we were in your head for more than a day? (Also, so you don’t have to ask, any of my friends will tell you that I’m an unlikable character after spending twenty minutes with me).

Jessica McHugh Pic1

McHugh: I’m not sure it would take an entire day to reach that conclusion. It’s like Wackyland from Tiny Toons in there.

James: Which is not important: Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic menu or Van Gough’s pallet?

McHugh: Both are very important, but personally…ehhh…Van Gogh has been less influential. I don’t know who I’d be if not for Tarantino’s True Romance script.

James: (writes “you’re so cool” on a napkin…) What does a typical day look like in your life, currently?

McHugh: Summer looks really different than the rest of the year because it’s the busy season for most of my part-time jobs. But on an average weekday, I start out my day with coffee, news, emails, and spending as much time with my husband as I can before he leaves for work. Once I’m alone, I either jump straight into writing and editing or I do my Just Dance workout. I plug away at various projects until it’s time to leave for my creative writing workshops, and after those, I typically come home and do some more writing if my brain isn’t mush. I used to attack projects much harder in the evening, but I’ve cooled off in recent years with mush-brain becoming more frequent. Oh, and if I teach workshops in the morning, there tends to be a bar visit in there somewhere. I really enjoy writing at happy hours.

James: You teach creative writing workshops?

McHugh: I work for a nonprofit called Writopia Lab that runs workshops for kids 8-18.

James: Dude, that’s so cool.

McHugh: It’s a lot of fun! I also teach after school science labs occasionally!

James: Got any cool stories to tell from teaching children creative writing skills?

McHugh: Nothing specific comes to mind, but it’s always wonderful seeing kids venture into genres they’ve never written before. Writopia Lab encourages exploration and frowns on censorship, so there’s a lot more opportunity for young writers to experiment in a safe, judgement-free environment.

James: Any cool stories from the science workshops? Blow up anything good?

McHugh: It’s just really crazy teaching those. I never realized how quickly children want to put visually unappealing things into their mouths.

James: It’s the most basic of instincts, at least, according to my children.

McHugh: It’s a good thing I’m not a parent. I definitely don’t have the patience for that eternal full-time job.

James: I think the goal is to keep your offspring alive without punching them. That’s what I do.

McHugh: A noble goal indeed!

James: What are you working on now, any projects or books you want to talk about?

McHugh: I’m currently working on the sequel to Rabbits in the Garden, which I’ve admittedly been editing off and on for quite a while. I’ve been writing, submitting, and releasing short stories almost exclusively for over a year now, so I’m really excited to be focusing on a novel again. I did just have a novel released last month though! Raw Dog Screaming Press published my Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven, a dystopian fantasy about a vigilante facing off against a corrupt government.

Also, Carrion Blue 555 recently released a flash fiction anthology, in which I and the other authors have fifty-five 55-word stories.

Nightly Owl Coverart

James: Oh, sweet! Was it a challenge to write a compelling 55-word story?

McHugh: Oh absolutely! But so much fun! 14 of them chronicle my stages of grief over four months, because I started the project a few days after my cat/best friend died.

James: Sorry to hear about your loss. As a fellow cat person, I understand. It’s fun when you can put constraints in a story specifically to force creative generation. And I’m glad you had that outlet to exercise your mourning

McHugh: Thank you. He was a cool dude. I truly loved being part of that project. And needed it.

James: So now you’ve got to tell us a crazy cat story!

McHugh: Oh man, Tyler would legitimately play hide-and-seek with me. We’d take turns and try to scare each other. It was hilarious. And my husband was pretty stunned the first time he witnessed it.

James: Haha, that’s so cool. So back to writerly stuff: being that this interview is going to push you farther into super-stardom (right?), which of your works would you recommend to first time readers?

McHugh: The Green Kangaroos. It has everything: horror, humor, love, science fiction, action, people who sells chunks of their flesh for drugs… what else could you want? Or if you want some a liiiittle less gory, Rabbits in the Garden.

James: What are your favorite current TV shows?

McHugh: I love Black Mirror on Netflix, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon, and Game of Thrones on HBO. I’ve also been a loyal fan of America’s Next Top Model for yeeeeears.

James: Why do you think Black Mirror chose that specific S1:E1 as its series premiere?

McHugh: Because it dances that fine line between humor, morbid curiosity, and psychological horror. We can easily picture ourselves in a world where something like that could happen, so it makes a great intro to a series where horror seems all too real.

James: I know a few people who never watched beyond that point until I insisted. I kinda like the “fuck it” edge of starting off such an iconic series in that fashion.

McHugh: I agree. It’s pretty up front about what kind of show it is.

James: Do you have any upcoming readings or anything along those lines we can look forward to?

McHugh: I have a Patreon page with work in progress stories from a forthcoming collection, singing vids, and more.

James: Very cool. Any questions, comments, concerns, shameless plugs you wanna drop before we wrap up this interview?

McHugh: To all my reader friendos out there, please support small presses and indie authors, especially those who boost women in horror, LGBT writers, and POCs in every genre ever. There are so many rad voices out there now, and if can be a tiny speck in your diverse catalog of authors, that’s good enough for me.

Please hit me up on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

And thanks so much for the interview, Austin!

James: Awesome, thank you! This was fun!
Austin James writes obscure and uncomfortable fiction.