Laura McHugh started writing her debut novel knowing that her main character Lucy’s friend was dead, but wasn’t sure what had happened to her. Then she came across a news article about a shocking crime involving a young woman in Lebanon, Missouri—the small town where McHugh had attended high school—and she knew that Lucy’s friend would suffer a similar experience. SLJTeen caught up with McHugh to talk more about the origins of the novel, the writing experience, and what’s next.
Congratulations on the publication of your first novel, The Weight of Blood (Spiegel & Grau). One of the many striking elements of the book is your depiction of life in the rural Ozark region. Do you have a personal connection to that location?
Thank you! I do have a personal connection to the Ozarks—I moved there as a child and lived there for several years. The area has such a rich culture, and I was fascinated by it, especially all the bits of folk wisdom and superstition. I was haunted by the place long after I left, and I knew I wanted to set my novel there. The dramatic landscape, the remoteness of the area, and the deep-rooted suspicion of outsiders make it perfect for a dark mystery. It’s a place where you’re not terribly surprised that someone could disappear.
From the first sentence, “That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body,” you hint at a menace so intense that could overshadow people’s reaction to a young woman’s mutilated body. Can you speak a bit on that?
People in Henbane are aware that bad things happen, but there’s almost an unspoken etiquette involved. They do things a certain way—crimes are committed quietly and kept secret. With so many places to hide a body, why would someone put a mutilated girl on display? They’re more frightened by the fact that someone would so boldly disregard the unspoken rules of the community. In their small, insular town, anyone who doesn’t play by the rules is a threat.
This is so much a coming-of-age story for our main protagonist, Lucy. I can easily see this as a crossover title for teens. Did you have any thoughts of your potential audience as you wrote?
I thought early on that this might be a young adult book, mostly because it centers around 17-year-old Lucy. As the story unfolded, though, I realized I wasn’t specifically targeting that age group. Some of my favorite adult books have young adult protagonists ([Alice Sebold’s]The Lovely Bones, [Jesmyn Ward’s] Salvage the Bones…apparently I am fond of bones!) and I kept those in mind as I wrote.
The narration of the story is shared between the first-person viewpoint of Lucy in the present day and her mother, Lila, who came to Henbane as a young woman. Yet some chapters are related by other characters narrating in third person. It all flows beautifully. How did you decide who would tell which parts of the story?
Each character has secrets and motivations that are hidden from the other characters, and at times those insights can drastically alter our understanding of the story. I let the other characters speak when they possessed a piece of the puzzle that the main characters were missing. It allowed me to connect everything together in a very satisfying way, and it also gave me the opportunity to flesh out the more minor characters, which was so much fun to do.
I love the title, The Weight of Blood. I’m sure there are many ways to interpret it, but for me, it refers to the burden of relationship, which is nonetheless essential to life. How did you choose the title? What does it mean to you?
I had various titles as I worked on the manuscript, none of them fitting. When I finished the novel, I listed the important elements of the story, and the one that stood out to me was family. The title comes from something Birdie tells Lucy, about how we grow up “feeling the weight of blood, of kin.” Lucy struggles with that weight throughout the book. How tightly are we bound by our blood ties? What do they require of us? Should we hold them sacred above all else? Above the law? Lucy has to decide for herself what family means to her.
How did you come to sit down and write a novel? Have you always wanted to be an author?
I always loved to write, but I didn’t know how to go about becoming a writer. Most of the people I knew worked in factories or fast food, and I never thought of writing as something you could do for a living. I earned degrees in English, computer science, and library science, and worked as a software developer for ten years, until I lost my job. I decided that I would take my unemployment as an opportunity to finally write a novel. I had an infant and a toddler at the time, so I wrote whenever and wherever I could—at the public library, on the mornings the kids had preschool, in the middle of the night when everyone else was sleeping.
Any hints about your upcoming work?
My second novel is set in the decaying grandeur of a Mississippi River town. A young woman has returned to her family home 20 years after witnessing the kidnapping of her sisters. A jarring discovery makes her question everything about her past, including her own memory.
To learn more about Laura McHugh and for a discussion guide for The Weight of Blood, visit the book’s website.
Diane Colson is a Library Associate at Nashville Public Library.
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