This week we’re very proud to publish Maureen F. McHugh’s second collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse.
To celebrate, we asked another of our favorite writers, David Moles, to interview Maureen. The two of them sat down recently in LA and then sent us the results of their chat:
David Moles: So, we’re sitting here in sunny Culver City—
Maureen McHugh: Sunny Culver City. In my little apartment, which I love.
Where should we start? I think we should talk about the book.
At some point.
Let me see, I’ve got a copy—hold on.
Oh, that’s gorgeous.
Isn’t it gorgeous?
That’s really nice.
It’s a thin book, it’s thinner than Mothers and Other Monsters. I think it’s got about the same number of stories, but a couple of the stories were much longer in Mothers and Other Monsters.
So how did this come about?
After I finished Mothers and Other Monsters, I had stories I wrote—primarily for Taos—and several of them I didn’t even particularly try to publish, so there are four unpublished stories in there. Four, maybe five. And Gavin said to me, if you’d ever like to do another collection, we’d be interested.
So I realized at a certain point that I’d written four stories, or five stories, that were basically some version of apocalypse stories. And that it was really fun to write these, in this sort of depressing way.
End-of-the-world scenarios are always strangely satisfying for a lot of writers.
And libertarians. Survivalists.
But these are definitely not the … satisfying libertarian apocalyptic stories.
No. They do tend not to go well for anybody, because…
I live in LA. Right now. And on and off, I’m confronted with all sorts of LA stuff. And a few years ago, one of the big LA things was people like Shirley MacLaine, who thought they were reincarnated. And people who think they are reincarnated are always convinced that they were Napoleon, or…
Cleopatra. Yeah. I’m pretty sure that if I’m reincarnated, that I come from life after life of ‘peasant’. And After the Apocalypse—all of my apocalyptic stories are not of the people who become Mad Max, but they’re of the rest of us, you know. So, yeah. Things tend not to go really well for my people after the apocalypse.
I remember you—years ago—saying that you really didn’t know how to plot, so your plotting method was that things get worse.
And this looks like kind of taking that to its logical extreme.
Yes. Exactly. Yes. I have become a little bit better at plotting but still that’s basically my theory, things get worse. Yes. And this is about as ‘worse’ as they can get.
For years and years and years, I also had this hard and fast belief—it’s not a rule, but a belief—that hopeful endings are harder than not-hopeful endings.
Harder to write?
Harder to write, harder to conceive.
I think for a lot of beginning writers especially, tragedy seems so compelling. So for years and years and years and years I’ve fought to make sure that my endings were not tragic. They may not be exactly happy, but they weren’t tragic. They were often complicated—but not tragic.
So in writing apocalyptic stories, I can give free rein to be absolutely as depressing as I want.
But not all the stories in here are like that. Reading “Special Economics,” things were getting worse, before … Not to spoil anything, but eventually they do stop getting worse.
And maybe that’s more of a pre-apocalyptic Maureen McHugh ending. The characters’ lives are not going to go the way they thought they were going, but they’ve found a way to make their lives work.
Yes. What I think actually happens a lot in real life is that we find a way, most of the time, to make our lives work. And it’s rarely the way we thought.
Most science fiction is about people who fix the world. And I’m more interested in people like me, who thought their life would go this way, and of course life kept on being life, and went its own way.
And so, yes, a good ending for a Maureen McHugh story is, “Whoa, I’ve figured out a way to have a life, and it’s a pretty decent life!” And, yeah, there are a number of those stories in here.
But for the first time, I think, there are also a number of stories where I get to … I’m an anxious person by nature. And I can figure out everything that’s going to go wrong, in no time at all. And I really indulge that in this. Everything goes wrong.
When I got to somewhere, probably halfway through the title story—I won’t say I had a full-blown anxiety attack? But my breath was getting short? And reading that story made me want to buy a couple of guns, and learn to cook roadkill, and learn to identify edible plants, and boil water, and, you know—I don’t believe that there’s a refugee camp on the Canadian border, or that I’d be able to get into it!
That was the story I wrote after I thought, well, I could do a collection of stories about the Apocalypse.
And of course, I’m a middle-aged woman, looking at my 401(k) and all the rest of that. ‘What would happen if the economy collapsed?’ is kind of in the air right now.
I also don’t actually believe in the kind of … survivalist collapse of civilization that I actually portray in this story. I don’t believe that’s the way things tend to fail. When they were looking for the Mayans, they found all these huge cities that had been abandoned. And for a long time, one of the popular questions was, ‘What happened to the Mayans?’ Well, nothing happened to them! They were living around those cities! They lost the ability to read and write their language, but they’re not gone. Things don’t collapse in nearly as satisfying and violent a way as we would like.
I remember my parents saying once that they hadn’t saved money in their twenties and thirties, because they had grown up expecting a nuclear war at any moment.
Yeah. Exactly. Bob comes from that generation. My husband. I, actually—because my parents were much older when I was born, my parents were forty-four when I was born, in 1959—I’m actually the child of Depression-era parents. So I saved neurotically, once I got into my thirties. Because I expected the Great Depression. Which, now—
—lots of people seem to agree with me is coming.
Rose Fox asked me for Publishers Weekly, why did you choose the apocalypses you chose? Well, I didn’t, you know, I didn’t think about it. These are just the things I’m interested in writing. I’m not as interested in alien invasions.
Although it might be kind of fun to write about a supervolcano. Because what happens with a supervolcano is: A supervolcano rises up in Yellowstone! And there’s ash everywhere! And, oh my God, I’m still so annoyed with my sister! That seems to me to be right down my alley.
It’s the, you know, Gregor Samsa awoke one morning and found he’d been transformed into a giant cockroach, and— ‘How am I going to get to work?’ That’s his obsession.
Yes. Yes. And yes, that, to me, seems to be very human.
Maureen F. McHugh has lived in New York; Shijiazhuang, China; Ohio; Austin, Texas; and now lives in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of a Story Prize finalist collection, Mothers & Other Monsters, and four novels, including Tiptree Award-winner China Mountain Zhang and New York Times editor’s choice Nekropolis. McHugh has also worked on alternate reality games for Halo 2, The Watchmen, and Nine Inch Nails, among others.