An Interview with Maureen F. McHugh
from the Reading Group Guide (PDF Download) for Mothers & Other Monsters
Q. The title of the collection identifies the recurring motif of mothers, and their interactions with other family members, a motif central to many of these stories. Was this a conscious choice or a pattern that you recognized after writing and publishing the stories?
A. I started writing stories about mothers because of something the writer Karen Joy Fowler said at a workshop. In a story by another writer, the main character’s mom called, and Karen made the offhand comment that she was glad to see a mother in a story. At the time I was struggling mightily with the whole exercise of being a stepmother and one of the things I had trouble sorting out was the difference between issues that were ‘step’ issues and just the same stuff that comes up for every parent. In my eyes, everything was because I wasn’t my kid’s ‘real mom’. (We had full custody of my stepson.) Some of those things were just parent things. When something is important to me and I don’t understand it, I often write about it.
Mothers were just expected to be so perfect, you know?
Some of the pieces in the collection had already been written by this point, but I found that mothers had already started coming up in my fiction, and came up more and more. I had been thinking about a collection on and off for years and kicking around names, most of which were pretty stupid. Then Small Beer Press asked me to do a collection and I realized the name of the collection was Mothers & Other Monsters, and everything just sort of jelled around that.
Q. What is it that makes mothers such rich territory in fiction?
A. Nobody much writes about them. There are some great stories about mothers, but for the most part, motherhood is a very rigid role. A Hollywood actor observed recently that she had reached the point where she had two choices in roles, Good Mommy and Psycho Mommy. (Shirley MacLaine specializes in the grandmother version of these roles — but Psycho Grandmothers also Dispense Wisdom and Allow Children To Be Themselves.) I’m a different mother than any of my kid’s friend’s mothers. And they’re all different from each other in ways a good deal more complicated than Good Mother and Bad Mother.
There are some really good things written about motherhood. Tillie Olsen’s story, “I Stand Here Ironing” is one. Lorrie Moore’s harrowing “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is another wonderful short story. But for the most part, we can explore the relationships between lovers and between fathers and sons, but we’re nervous about talking about mothers and children.
Q. You are also able to focus closely on the experiences of children and teenagers in such stories as “Interview: On Any Given Day” and “Laika Comes Back Safe.” What are the difficulties involved in capturing the voices of these younger characters?
A. Language. My language for teenagers is inevitably a bit lame. My son helped me a bit. I told myself that even if their language was dead on, in five years it would sound preposterous, and just wrote it anyway. I’m also oddly protective of my teenagers. I work really hard not to embarrass them. My memories of being an adolescent usually involve one humiliating moral or social failure after another. I tend to shy away from doing that to them.
But I’m really comfortable with coming-of-age stories. I think my generation has never believed we were adults.
Q. It seems as if literary fiction is finally returning to a broader, more inclusive spectrum than the realism that has been predominant for so long. Your stories often work with speculative elements. How do you view the role of realism in fiction?
A. You know, I always get this question asked from the other direction — how do I view speculative elements. This is a great question. I was drawn to science fiction for the ways in which it allowed me to skip parts of real life I hated. I liked SF that made life more romantic. I liked Andre Norton’s protagonists finding out they weren’t ordinary. I wanted to be a mutant, an escapee from a different reality where I was special.
I studied writing for years. Some of that was formal — I have a masters degree from New York University that would be an MFA in creative writing if I got it today. Some of it was the more traditional way to become of writer. Write a lot, most of it bad, find people who can tell you it’s bad. Learn to get better. I found power in realism. I liked psychological realism when I read it. Those details — the moments we have all experienced but maybe never seen written down — work like a kind of electric jolt in a good story. In the Lorrie Moore story I mentioned, her two-year-old son has cancer. She describes being in the office of the pediatric oncologist and her son is doing that thing toddlers do so joyously, flicking on and off the light switch, while the pediatric oncologist explains what the cancer means and what they’ll do. How many times have I seen a toddler entranced with a switch — a flashlight, a vacuum cleaner, anything. And juxtaposed against the patient doctor explaining the moment is almost unbearable.
Q. How do you think working with fantastic or science fictional elements enriches your work?
A. It’s like a lens. It takes the story and throws the elements of relationship in high relief. In “Frankenstein’s Daughter,” the situation is not so uncommon. The daughter has chronic health problems that will potentially be fatal. The mother pays very little attention to her son because her daughter is so often in a life-or-death situation. The fact that the daughter is a clone of her dead daughter just heightens the situation. It justifies the very common feeling ‘this is my fault’ because she chose her daughter’s existence. And it startles the story in some way. I like that the daughter’s physiological problems come right out of the scientific literature on cloning. But I also like that, as I wrote the story, I found that the family was very much like a lot of other families.
Q. Your stories have been recognized both inside and outside the SF genre. Do you feel more at home as a writer in either field?
A. Both and neither, I guess. Science fiction has been really good to me, but I am conscious of having disappointed a lot of readers. People complain that I write boring stories. Depressing stories. That my stories could be about today if you took the speculative element out. Some of my stories, like “Laika Comes Back Safe,” may not even have a speculative element. (Although just because I think that doesn’t mean it’s true.)
But outside the field, I think I’m seen as a little precious. I write science fictional stories about moms. Kind of a niche. The way feminist writing is seen as a niche. I feel that for years my stories weren’t read outside the field. So inside the field I was seen as not science fictional enough and outside the field I was too science fictional.
This is a little like stepparenting/parenting issues. The non-genre writers I know also have difficulties with the ways in which their work is visibly shaped for the market. Any time a book or story is in the world, it’s in some place in a book store, in some specific magazine that means some people see it and others don’t. Often there are people who don’t see it who might very much like it, and people who do see it who feel misled by the packaging.
Q. Your stories often deal with the domestic, although usually in bold, original settings. Do you feel fiction that focuses on older women or domestic life is treated differently?
A. Sometimes. For one thing, I get asked about the fathers a lot. Where are the fathers? But mostly no. I’ve been really well received, and I’ve gotten extraordinary attention from my peers. I’d say that my fiction has been treated very well by people from workshops like Sycamore Hill and Rio Hondo, and by the East Side Writers and the local SF writer’s group. They grappled directly with it, called me to account on it, and in large part let me become the writer I am today. Editors have always published my work, they haven’t marginalized it.
Q. Several of the stories in the collection — most notably “Oversite” and “Presence” — feature characters dealing with the fallout of Alzheimer’s or dementia in their lives. What are you exploring in these stories?
A. Alzheimer’s, like other brain disorders, calls into question the very nature of self. What is self? Who are we? I think we are our physical selves, particularly our brains. I have a particular fear of dementia and of loss of self. More so, I would say, than a fear of death. The irony of that is that now my mother has dementia, so for the past few years I have been privy to a close-up look of the way in which her ‘self’ is dissolving. The ‘self,’ I must say, is very persistent. Even as my mother loses aspects of language and some of her personality changes, there is a stubborn core of something that, at this point at least, is still recognizably connected to the historic ‘her.’
Q. Consciousness and identity emerge as two strong themes within the collection. What did you want to say in dealing with these?
A. I don’t know that I wanted to say anything. I think I don’t understand consciousness or identity. There’s a saying in fiction, ‘Write what you know.’ I think better fiction comes out of writing about the things that are important to me, but that I’m fundamentally uncertain about. That doesn’t mean I sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a story about identity.’ I always think I’m writing a story about a girl who thinks her best friend is a werewolf. It just happens that I circle back to those issues of identity.
As a writer, I have a couple of itches that I scratch, things I return to again and again. I tend to be drawn to motherhood because I’m trying to find a way to convince myself that I wasn’t a monster. I’ll get an idea for a story and think, I know, I’ll make the mother have Alzheimer’s. Not thinking about the connection between a teenager finding her way and an old woman losing her way and a mother helpless in the middle to ease either passage. I find out about all those things years later. I put them there, because those things are by default interesting to me. But it’s not conscious.
Q. Did you learn anything new about these stories in the process of choosing and ordering them for the book?
A. I find it difficult to reread my own fiction. It was nice to see that a lot of it had held up. And I was surprised at how much the same things kept coming up, again and again. The mother in “The Lincoln Train,” for example, has some form of dementia.
Q. How are these stories different from your novels, if at all? How does your writing process differ between the two?
A. I often write short stories to a deadline. Often, anymore, a workshop. They are more likely to be ideas that I’m not at all sure will work out. I can take more risks because most of the time I know that in a couple of months I’ll at least have a draft.
Two of my novels have come out of short stories, so at some level, there is some overlap. But when I intentionally start a novel, I’m thinking it will have more ingredients than a short story. More loose ends. More questions and more stuff.
Q. You’ve talked in the past about workshopping with other writers being an important part of your writing life. What do you take from those experiences?
A. As I get older, I think I get better at reading and understanding stories, and some of that is from workshopping.
Mostly it’s been very rare for someone not to tell me something that didn’t show me a way to read the story I’d written. A lot of times it wasn’t the way I wanted the story read. And a lot of times it said stuff about the story and about my writing that I wasn’t very good at hearing.
But it’s the only way I know to get better.
Q. Who are some writers you admire or who have influenced your work?
A. At any given time, anyone I’m reading who strikes me is going to have a pretty strong affect on me.
When I was in my twenties I was really taken by the work of Samuel R. Delany and the novels of Joan Didion. I think I was drawn to the romanticism of Delany. I was also really taken with the way so much of Didion’s stories happened off the page. I was also strongly drawn to a little book by Marguerite Yourcenar called Coup de Grâce. I reread it a couple of years ago and saw all sorts of aspects of it that distress me now that I’m in my forties but it affected me powerfully when I was younger.
A few years ago I found myself utterly charmed by the sheer artificialness of Raymond Carver’s stories. I had always thought of them as very psychologically realistic. Minimal. All that. But what I like about them now is how artificial they are. Perfect little setups that spring shut at conclusion. Lately I’ve been reading the short fiction of Joy Williams. It’s really astonishing.
I like the work of Kelly Link a lot.
I like the Harry Potter novels. Great escapism.
When I was younger, I expected what I thought of as a rigorous kind of lack of sentimentality in novels. Anything else struck me as cheating. Lately I have been drawn more and more to certain kinds of sentiment. Books like I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
Q. What can we expect to see from you next?
A. I’m working on a novel. I’ve been working on it for six or seven years. But this time, I swear I’m going to finish it.
Interview by Gwenda Bond.