An Interview with Playwright and Novelist Jessica McHugh by Teresa McCormick Ertel

Teresa: You and I met just before the opening of your first play, Fools Call It Fate, which is a psychological drama about destiny and choices. How did seeing your work live on stage impact you personally and impact your writing?

Jessica: It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far. I had never written a script before, except for a terrible screenplay I wrote in high school, so it was a wonderful way to introduce myself to that medium. I learned that my brain had to think differently when writing a script as opposed to a novel. There are lots of events and scenes that happen in my novels that just won’t work onstage. Plus, I had to be mindful of scene order and what works for the actors as far as costumes and sets. But the greatest impact was the realization that I actually can write for the stage! Since I enjoy writing dialogue and have receive praise in that area, the transition from novels to plays was a natural one, even though it took me years to realize it.

Jessica McHugh. Photo by Maggie Picard Photography.

Have you written any other plays or plan to?

I’ve written another full length drama called The Dangerous Life of Darian McCloud and a few one act plays. I also started writing a full length comedy called The Haunting of Harrow Manor, but thanks to novels, short stories, and a boatload of other projects, I’ve had to put it on the back burner. But I plan on finishing it later this year and crafting as many works for the stage that I possibly can.

Given the amount of books you have published, I’m guessing you consider yourself a novelist first?

Absolutely. I will write in any form that inspires me, but I enjoy writing novels most. It allows me the freedom to develop my characters and the story without the constraints of word count or running time. For me, it’s easier to go crazy on a novel and then trim the fat, rather than write everything I want in a short story and have to trim the meat in order to hit a word count.

How would you describe your growing fan base and what kind of feedback are you getting?

I love my fans and followers so much. From reading what I post on social media sites, I think they know that I’m not shy when it comes to displaying my work or my personality. So, they don’t need to be shy with me. I absolutely love hearing that someone is reading one of my books or they’ve finished one they enjoyed. If I ever get tired of hearing that feedback, I think it’s time for me to pack up my pens and bid the writing world “goodbye” because it obviously isn’t fun anymore. But I doubt that will ever happen. It’s hard to imagine a time when I wouldn’t have fun while writing. It’s an absolute blast for me and I hope my fans have just as much fun reading my work as I do writing it.

Which of your books have received the most attention?

Rabbits in the Garden has definitely garnered the most reviews and buzz, but I think my forthcoming novel PINS will gain a lot of attention based on the subject matter: murder in a strip club. I’ve been posting about it for a while now and people have really responded to the humorous, horrifying, and often steamy selections. Rabbits in the Garden as a suspense novel probably has a wider appeal though. There is horror, but it isn’t as graphic as the scenes in PINS”. Plus, the sweet childhood romance adds a certain softness to an otherwise dark, and often dangerous, story.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently writing Darla Decker Hates to Wait, the first book in a Young Adult series. The series follows Darla Decker from 6th grade through high school and includes a lot of the more risqué events that happen to pre-teens and teenagers that many other YA books don’t mention. For instance, the book starts out with Darla’s first French kiss. That pretty much sets the stage.

I’m also revising Telinhe, the last book in my The Tales of Dominhydor epic fantasy series, writing a bunch of short stories, and penning poetry. I have several other projects in the works, some of which I shouldn’t mention just yet, but trust me, 2012 is going to be a busy and exciting year for the Jess.

Tell us about the genres you move between, and how you are led into your projects.

I don’t really think about genre too much unless I’m writing a story specifically for an anthology. For instance, I heard about an anthology seeking horror stories set in the Old West, so I’m currently writing my first western. Other than that, I get a story idea and start writing. The genre is coincidental. Because of that, my books are a healthy blend of several genres and sometimes difficult to define, which I dig. Life is a blend of genres and also difficult to define at times. There is no doubt that I lean toward the dark side with my novels, but there are exceptions: Song of Eidolons, The Sky: The World, and my forthcoming historical fiction Verses of Villainy. I touch on so many different genres, I believe there is at least one Jessica McHugh book for everyone to enjoy.

Jessica McHugh. Photo by Maggie Picard Photography.

Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, what approach do you take to get through?

I tend to get the opposite of writer’s block. I get so many ideas, I end up working on several projects simultaneously, which is extremely exhausting. Exhausting and oddly fun, actually. It’s amazing that I don’t get stories confused, but I do find myself working on certain stories when I really should be working on others with deadlines. It’s really hard to prioritize, especially when I’m more excited about a certain book. Maybe one day the constant stream of ideas will stop, but I have plots planned up to 2015 now.

Are some of your characters based on people you know?

Not really. The characters may represent some people I knew, but they aren’t really anything like those people; just a few traits here and there. Usually, my characters become who they are through dialogue. They reveal their personalities to me as naturally in the writing as they do to the reader. It is very rare for me to sit down and create a dossier for a character before I start writing, but I have done that once I’ve already gotten to know the character a bit. That’s why I love writing dialogue so much. It happens so organically, I really feel like I’m reading a story while I’m writing it.

What is the best advice you have gotten as a writer?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any writing advisers in the flesh when I started out, nor did I have the vast online groups I have today, so I just had to trust my own ambition and education when it came to writing. But there is a quote by Neil Gaiman that I love:

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”

Jessica McHugh. Photo by Maggie Picard Photography.

I think I’ve followed that advice pretty well, even before I heard it. These days there are dozens of tales about girls and boys falling in love with this creature or that creature or a learning magic to save the world. They will sell because they’re good enough, but they’re a dime a dozen. Those are not the books I write. With each novel, I strive to be as original as possible, to tell new stories about new characters in new worlds in the hopes that readers will look a literature in a new way.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I see myself on the patio of my Writing Hut with a tall frosty beer and my 25th novel under my pen; I’ll probably hit 13 published novels by the end of this year, so I think 25 is a fair estimate. I also like to imagine I’m living sans day job, but that might be wishful thinking. Then again, it was wishful thinking that I’d ever have a published novel or a produced play or have a story in the same anthology as Clive Barker, but all of those things have happened and more. When wishful thinking is combined with hard work, dreams can come true. Maybe I will be sans day job after all.


Jessica McHugh’s website.


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