If you haven’t encountered Jessica McHugh online, then you’re missing out on a singular personality. Witty and offensive—to some—and brutally honest, she chronicles her daily life and her life as a writer constantly in search of inspirado.
She’s more than a horror writer: she’s written science fiction and YA series. A prolific short story writer, she spends her days and nights toiling away. Sometimes she writes at home, sometimes she writes in bars, she’s always producing something well worth reading.
Can you remember the first time a book gripped you?
One of my favorite books since I was ten or so, “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle” by Avi. It’s a historical fiction novel about thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle voyaging from England to America in the early 1800s. There are storms, mutinies, and some pretty harrowing incidents that require Charlotte to abandon her upper-class sensibilities and woman-up big time. I’d never read anything quite like it at the time.
Is writing something you fell back on over the years or have you doggedly and single-mindedly pursued it from as far back as you can remember?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I have an essay from 4th grade about how much I wanted to be a writer, and I composed a lot of shitty poetry in high school. I wrote a screenplay and several one-acts in high school, but I didn’t become obsessed with writing until I was nineteen, and I didn’t pursue publication until I was twenty-four. Since then I’ve been writing non-stop and even got to leave my job to write full-time in 2013. I have several part-time jobs now, but a lot of them involve storytelling, so I’ve carved out a nice little frugal writing life for myself over the years.
Give me a brief day in the life of Jessica McHugh. When do you start writing? Shortly after you wake up or do you get to work later in the day?
It’s changed a lot over the years. Recently I’ve been getting up at 8am and watching GMA with my husband over coffee. By 9am, I’m upstairs in my Writing Hut, which is just a second bedroom littered in my notebooks, and over the next several hours, I work on whichever projects I’ve deemed most important. I typically have three or four documents open at a time, which sucks because I loathe being at the computer. I’d much rather be curled up on a couch with a notebook, but…yeah, I basically live in front of the computer for hours, jumping back and forth as the inspirado strikes. But I also have dance breaks. Between noon and one, I break for exercise and food and/or start getting ready for one of my part-time jobs. If I don’t have to leave the house, I typically work until my husband gets home, or I go out to a bar to write for a couple hours. After dinner and conversation with my husband, I’ll often continue editing, though sluggishly, until bed. Oh, then I play Candy Crush Soda for waaaay too long.
Do you have any rituals you must perform when you’re writing?
You know, I get this question a lot, and I really don’t think I have any writing rituals except for taking a picture of myself wearing a cute hat when I finish a big project. I call it my Story Hat.
You often write in bars, usually while avoided curious drunks; are there advantages to running in those environments?
Beer and noise are huge advantages for me. Yes, I do encounter assholes, but I enjoy the happy hour bar scene for the most part. When I go out around 3pm it’s fairly quiet, but even when it gets busy, most people are jolly and fun. Interruptions can be annoying, but I try my best to use my annoyance as creative fuel, even if I have to change projects briefly.
You write across genres, from horror to sci-fi to YA. Does this cross-pollination, so to speak, say something about the real Jessica McHugh?
Perhaps so! I feel like I have eclectic tastes as a consumer, so the desire to explore multiple genres in my own work comes very naturally. I also write with my mood and real life inspirado, so I don’t always know what genre or voice is going to come out until I’ve finished. The first A Story A Week challenge I did in 2014 gave me the opportunity to dive into even more new genres, voices, and POVs, so if anyone’s interested in branching out I highly recommend that challenge.
Who are some writers and books—or even directors and films—that have influenced you?
I could go on for days about the incredible influence both author Roald Dahl and the film “True Romance” have had on my life. The latter, in particular, feels like my writing career with all the genre mashups, blood and heart. I would be remiss not to mention David Lynch as well. I am so inspired by all of his art. My novel “The Train Derails in Boston” wouldn’t have been as lovely if I hadn’t been watching Twin Peaks for the first time during the first draft. Anne Rice also influenced me in a huge way. I feel like a lot of my earlier work, before I found my own voice, sounded a lot like Anne Rice…except for the whole badass world-building talent thing.
You’re known for your colorful curse words. Can you spit out a string of McHugisms for me?
Jesusfuckballs. Are you sure your radtacular glitterclit followers want my smegwebbed nonsense gumming up their goggles with McHughniverse asspus and cuntshartery?
What initially drew you to horror?
The curse words.
Even today, horror is still male-dominated. We’re seeing some progress, I think, but not enough. What do think we can do to shatter the male dominance of the genre?
I really wish I had an answer. As a female writer with, like, 80% other female writers on my social media accounts, I feel like the luckiest reader in the world. I have the best of the best of the genre, a lot of them small press, at my fingertips. I’m surrounded by insanely talented women in horror all the time. But most people don’t have that. They stick to what they know. Usually that one white dude they’ve been reading since 7th grade. And hey, that one white dude is super great. I love that one white dude myself. But if you don’t seek out new authors, you’re really missing out. Reading anthologies is a great way to experience a bunch of different styles and voices without going all-in on a novel, and there are a lot of anthologies out there spotlighting women, but I don’t know many people who actually do that–except other writers. I think people need to make the effort to read new authors, and women need to be loud and proud about what they do. Most female horror authors I know are, though, so I don’t know. I wouldn’t want them to fuck me up in fiction, that’s for sure.
What can women bring to the genre that men can’t? Or is this question just a silly binary way of thinking?
Damn, I wish I were answering this question in person. It’s a tough one. I need my gestures and stupid joker smile.
I guess stories about women are what women can bring to the genre. Especially stories about women of color, trans women, handicapable women, ie real women. There’s no shortage of stories out there. Because I do believe there are some emotions and topics women are more naturally adept at conceptualizing in art. And there are things men are naturally better at conceptualizing in art. Of course, writers who immerse themselves in the culture/topic and really do their research can learn to write anything, but we do need more stories exploring the horrifying beauty of being female.
I did a keynote speech for the Scholastic Writing Awards about being a young girl writing horror, and I gave all the kids this advice, but I want to emphasize it for girls and women. If you want to be gory, be gory. Writing horror is such valuable tool for coping with the complicated and sometimes gruesome truths of humanity–other people’s and our own–and you should never censor yourself because it’s not “ladylike.” If you enjoy slitting fictional throats, I say splatter that page, dahling.