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Sci-Fi Needs More Mothers

Maureen McHugh is the author of six books, including the award-winning science fiction novel China Mountain Zhang. Her two most recent books, the short story collections After the Apocalypse and Mothers and Other Monsters, focus heavily on the lives of female characters.

“I thought, ‘You know, I’m not a guy, so maybe I should write some books about women,’” McHugh says in Episode 508 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It was a really conscious decision to not try to write in a tradition—in a voice—that wasn’t mine, and to write more in a voice that came from my own experience.”

Many of the stories explore the relationship between mothers and their children, an element that’s often sidelined in fantasy and science fiction. “Mothers usually live in support of other characters,” McHugh says. “And yet it’s probably the most essential relationship in most people’s lives. It’s the first major relationship. It’s a relationship I think we can never actually look at because it’s almost too close to us.”

McHugh credits fantasy author Karen Joy Fowler with inspiring her to write more about mothers. “Bruce Sterling had written a story called ‘Bicycle Repairman,’” McHugh says, “and in that story the protagonist—who is a 20-something bicycle repairman in a cyberpunk world—talks to his mother on the phone. And Karen said offhandedly, ‘I always like to see mothers in stories,’ and I started thinking about that a lot.”

For years McHugh only wrote stories about mothers who are beleaguered and nice. She reversed that to chilling effect in her 2011 story “After the Apocalypse,” about a mother and daughter struggling to survive in the wake of a dirty bomb attack. “Eventually Kelly Link said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a story about a bad mother?’” McHugh says. “It took me a long time to wrap my head around it and be able to write it.”

Listen to the complete interview with Maureen McHugh in Episode 508 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Maureen McHugh on Austin:

It’s a great writing town, weirdly enough. Everybody knows it for music, but there’s a small but highly active little writing community that I just adore in Austin … My husband and I had been there for only a couple days when we went for breakfast at a little place downtown—by accident, we just picked it at random—and my husband Bob, who has never met him, said, “Is that Howard Waldrop?” Because Howard is a very distinctive person, even if you’ve only seen his pictures. And a bunch of people—Bradley Denton, Warren Spector, Caroline Spector—were all sitting around eating breakfast. So I went over and said hello to Howard, and then they immediately said, “Oh you’re here? Well, now you’re part of the family.”

Maureen McHugh on Small Beer Press:

An awful lot of the time in traditional publishing, a collection of short stories is a gift the publisher gives the writer, because they don’t make any money. So you’ll sell two novels and a collection of short stories, and then the two novels pay enough that the loss on the collection of short stories is not drastic. I’m really lucky because Gavin and Kelly [of Small Beer Press] are geniuses at getting people to look at the work that they’re putting out, that they think is interesting. They went to the ABA one year, and they were promoting a book by a guy named Ben Parzybok called Couch, which is a delightful little book. So in front of their booth they had a translucent blow-up couch that you could carry around—people carried it all around the ABA. They got people to pay attention.

Maureen McHugh on description:

What I like to talk about is the “why” of technique. Vladimir Nabokov had a rule that you should only use about two colors in a paragraph of description. Since then there’s been research in psychology, unrelated to Nabokov—he didn’t know about it; they didn’t know about him—that said that’s about how much we carry in our memory. What happens is the more colors you put in that description—of your sunset or your room or whatever—the muddier it becomes in people’s heads, and the less visual it becomes for them … When I’m describing, my job is not to make the reader see exactly what’s in my head, my job is to evoke a very strong image in the reader’s head, and I can do that better with a little less rather than a little more.

Maureen McHugh on jobs:

It amazes me how often in fiction people lose or quit their job and it’s not even a big deal. Because in my life, if I lose or quit my job, it’s a huge deal. I don’t know about getting another job. It’s just hard. There’s another writer, a guy named Nathan Ballingrud, who I really recommend—North American Lake Monsters is his collection of short stories. He and I have bonded over the fact that we write about jobs, and we often write about blue-collar jobs. I can’t tell you where that comes from. Just that I didn’t see it very often, I guess, and it was such a huge part of my own life. But now I’ve discovered that if you really want to know what a profession is like, you just go on Reddit and you find the subreddit in which the people who do that job are bitching about it. You can learn so much.

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