Interview: Maureen F. McHugh

By Pat Stansberry

Nekropolis cover

Maureen F. McHugh often delves into the world of the outsider, from society, from politics, even gender. She has published four novels and numerous short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, won the James Tiptree Award, the Locus Best First Novel Award, and a Lambda Award, and was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula. "The Lincoln Train" won a Hugo for best short story in 1996. Her latest novel, Nekropolis, will be published in trade paperback in Nov. 2002.

The New York Times Book Review observes that "McHugh writes science fiction from the inside out, with the focus on character." Karen Joy Fowler writes, "I know of no writer who is more deft, more dazzling, or more dangerous to read. You pick up one of Maureen McHugh's books and whole days pass before you remember to put it down again." She has been compared to Ursula K. Le Guin.

This discussion took place at Café Tandoor in Cleveland, in the torpid afterglow of Jhinga Biryani, lightly spiced rice and shrimp, Baigan Bharta, rich and pungent roasted eggplant, Palak Raita, a spinach and yogurt condiment that cools the palate, and the wondrous Indian bread naan. "Food is the center of my existence," says McHugh.

Pat Stansberry: When writers talk about writing, it's fun to start with our embarrassing youths. Do you remember your earliest speculative fiction story?

Maureen F. McHugh: Well, I was going to tell you what the first thing I wrote was, but it occurred to me that it really started before that. My family thought I was going to be an artist. I read a lot, but I drew constantly. I think that I was in fifth grade when I found Andre Norton, stories about people who thought they were ugly ducklings who had mutant powers. I just loved those books and I did a series of post-apocalyptic drawings of a girl who could communicate with animals, and they are long gone, thank goodness. There was, I'm sure, an implied narrative. In my head she was going through a series of adventures. They were probably pretty clumsy. I was a reasonable draftsman for a fifth grader, but not brilliant, and I remember being more fascinated with drawing the animals. All of them were her friends. And this post-apocalyptic landscape didn't have very many people.

PS: Animals were easier to draw?

MFM: Oh, much easier to draw. It was pretty pastoral, I'm sure.

PS: How long after that did you put pen to paper?

MFM: My best friend for years was forever writing novels that never got very far, so we were writing novels together. She was writing one and I was writing another one and it was a really, really bad space opera.

PS: Yeah, I did that. It was a collaboration called Adapted Commandoes. Don't ask.

MFM: (laughs) Mine owed a pretty big debt to Star Trek.

PS: Was that one of your early science fiction influences?

MFM: I wanted to grow up to be Spock. I remember coming home from school to watch Star Trek.

PS: Early literary influences?

MFM: Andre Norton was probably the first really big one. The library had a big portion of a shelf devoted to Andre Norton because, of course, she was prolific, and I read everything on that shelf. Then I read Heinlein, Asimov's Lucky Starr novels. Anything I could find. And then I discovered the adult science fiction of the library. I was in sixth grade and I asked my mother if I could read adult fiction and she said there were a lot of kid's books I hadn't read. When I started checking out adult science fiction I just stuck them in the stack of library books. I read Poul Anderson's Brain Wave and I remember it as really astonishing. I reread it recently and it hasn't held up well. There was a rack of paperbacks that were on the honor system -- you took them and you brought them back -- and there were some Ace doubles in there.

PS: I remember those. They had two books, back to back, front covers on both sides and you flipped them over.

MFM: Yeah. Then I found out that in one section of the library there were anthologies of short stories, and those included some Nebula and Orbit collections. I sat in the library and read Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight. The Martian Chronicles confused the living daylights out of me.

PS: Was it the most literary book you had read at that point?

MFM: That wasn't why it confused me. It was presented as a novel, but there were discontinuities between the stories, which I thought were chapters, and I remember thinking, "Oh, you're not supposed to worry about that, just go with it."

PS: So that's influenced you to this day?

China Mountain Zhang cover

MFM: Probably. Probably. People refer to China Mountain Zhang as a fix-up novel, which is how I read The Martian Chronicles, not recognizing that it was a collection of short stories. So maybe that's why I worry less about structure than I probably should.

PS: One of the hallmarks of your novels is their utter realism. Where does that come from?

MFM: When I got into high school my reading shifted. I read a lot of Southern Gothic, like Faulkner and All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, and what I understood of them I liked. I read The Sound and the Fury and I was three-fourths of the way through the first section, the Benjy section, and because we'd studied the soliloquy from Macbeth -- "It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury" -- I realized that they were talking about sending Benjy to a home because he was retarded, and that this was a tale told by an idiot, and I had to go back and start again. Before that I thought it was some sort of weird literary experiment. Then I understood that the perceptions of the narrator were not like mine.

When I was in college I got fascinated with people like Joan Didion. I liked that spare, minimalist style utterly grounded in reality. I grew up in the era when we all worshipped Raymond Carver in grad school. I guess what I've always done is mooshed those two things together, that exoticism I loved as a kid with acute psychological realism. Keep the exotic while writing what I think of as real, adult fiction.

Michael Kandel (writer of Panda Ray and Captain Jack Zodiac, editor at Harcourt Brace, and translator of numerous Stanislaw Lem novels) remarked one time that if somebody in my books loses a job, it's probably a real problem in their lives. I don't know where that comes from, this feeling that everyday life is important.

When I was a kid, I would tell stories in my head before going to sleep at night -- I've never been a person who could just nod off to sleep, so I always had to kill some time -- and I used to fantasize, and a lot of women do, by the way. When you talk to women who read science fiction, a lot of them mention this phenomenon. I used to imagine myself as a boy, or no gender at all.

PS: That's something you've explored in your novels. Janna in Mission Child comes to mind.

MFM: Yeah, once I realized that this was a phenomenon.

PS: That it wasn't peculiar to you, so you might delve into it?

MFM: Exactly. At that point I came to feel excluded. It seemed to me that I wasn't in the books. That meant one of two things. Either I was incredibly boring and I wasn't worth writing about, or somebody just hadn't written those stories. And out of perhaps ego, perhaps terror that I was really a very boring person, I tried to write stories that I could see myself in.

Karen Joy Fowler remarked one time, when we were at Sycamore Hill critiquing "Bicycle Repair Man," by Bruce Sterling, that she was so pleased that at one point the main character talks to his mother on the phone. She was pleased to see a mother in fiction. That struck me because I was dealing with parenting issues at the time, and they were the most important things in my life. I realized that I had seen lots of father-son stories, lots of children-relating-to-their-parents stories, and nothing about the experience of being a mom. When I looked further, I found there are some, Tillie Olson's I Stand Here Ironing and others, but they're few and far between.

I don't think the experiences of being a mother are mundane. I think they are profound, although I don't know how to convey that profundity because there are no real conventions for it. We have conventions for conveying the profundity of falling in love, we have father-son, daughter-mother, but we don't have much mother stuff. As I've written some of that, I've found some interesting things happen when you write from the point of view of a mom, [for instance] that people get really upset if she's not perfect. A mother who has any flaws is thumped on. If I take a story to a writers' group, the reactions to the mother range from "she's competent" to "she's bulldozed" to everything. Speculative fiction allows that sort of thing to be explored in a guerrilla attack. You think the story is about cloning, but I'm actually writing about motherhood.

PS: Maybe we should identify what we're talking about. Do you want to take your stab at defining the genre?

MFM: No.

PS: Okay, we'll edit that out.

MFM: Don't. Leave that in. I don't want to define science fiction because there's a basic assumption when you ask somebody to define a genre. The word genre in French means species, and you can define a species, for example, by the fact that cats can't interbreed with dogs.

PS: Species are also defined by their characteristics.

MFM: And those characteristics are pretty mixed. It's hard to imagine that a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are the same species and they can interbreed, but they can't breed with a fox. You can identify certain characteristics. That's not true of genres in literature. They aren't definable because they aren't fixed in the same way. Nonetheless, if you say science fiction to me, you and I can have a conversation in which we have a basic understanding. I'm not saying that genres don't exist. I'm just saying that they don't have defined edges.

PS: They're amorphous blobs.

MFM: Exactly.

PS: Do you think one of the functions of this genre is as a kind of stealth cloak for the themes being explored?

MFM: There are cases where it is, though so much science fiction is actually rather conservative. Joanna Russ is a guerrilla writer, but most of the time science fiction has this way of reestablishing our expectations, and our expectations are often hidden. For example, whenever we meet with an alien race they are often smarter than we are, or faster, or stronger, but we are adaptable and they are slaves to their biology. Oh, us clever monkeys. Science fiction reestablishes that norm again and again and again and again, which is human-centric and species-centric and touts us as special and I'm not sure we are, even on Earth. So I tend to think of science fiction as a fairly conservative genre.

Stylistically it's also conservative. When you think of experimental writers in science fiction, they're not doing anything more experimental than Ulysses, by James Joyce, and that was [published] in 1922. Dos Passos used the same techniques that John Brunner would use fifty years later in what we thought of as experimental works, like The Sheep Look Up or Stand on Zanzibar. Right now, are there postmodern works in genre fiction? Is anybody doing the kind of self-reflexive stuff we see in cutting-edge literary fiction? Philip K. Dick did. I'm sure there are others.

PS: So here are writers who are forward-lookers, but they aren't experimental in their literary style.

MFM: Science fiction is pretty narrow in the things in which it looks forward. Those tend to be science, specific sciences in which it's forward. There's a hierarchy of which sciences are important and which aren't. In hard science fiction it's physics, astronomy, chemistry. In what they used to call soft or social science fiction, it's sociology, psychology, anthropology.

PS: Which is, without putting labels on you, more the direction you go.

MFM: Oh yeah. I can read all of the abstracts in science magazines. I just can't read the articles. And I do read the abstracts. But when I say science fiction is conservative, well, I'm pretty conservative too. I'm not an experimental writer and I'm not an earth-shattering thinker. I'm the kind of person who works on technique a lot. I try to learn to be better at a handful of things.

PS: Such as?

MFM: Most have to do with psychological realism, the accurate depiction of people as they are.

PS: Which takes us all the way back to the fundamental realism of your fiction.

MFM: Right. That's Raymond Carver and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce when you strip away stream-of-consciousness.

PS: You're pointing out, though, a number of so-called mainstream writers. That seems to be a dichotomy in science fiction, that there is a style that focuses on character and psychology and then a style that is more plot-driven, idea-based. I don't want to say that they never meet, but they tend to be separate.

MFM: I recently wrote a story about cloning, a near-future story in which a woman has a dead child cloned, and the clone has a lot of developmental defects. Two people who are pretty hard SF in their ways, Geoff Landis (Mars Crossing) and Ted Chiang, who I didn't think of as a hard SF writer until I was at a writers' conference with him and he calculated on the back of a napkin roughly how much energy somebody would get if they were photosynthetic, and the geek factor just went up--

PS: Do you remember that number?

MFM: No, but it wasn't much, by the way. If you were photosynthetic you'd still have to eat, unless you had really broad leaves. But Geoff and Ted both thought the story was very hard SF. Geoff Landis felt that it was the most rigorous and accurate depiction he had ever read of what cloning would really be like, which, of course, flattered me to no end. To please Geoff Landis in hard SF is something I never, ever, ever even thought I would do. But the funny thing about that is the people who are not likely to calculate the photosynthetic potential of human skin tend to see the story as not hard SF, and since the majority of us are not likely to calculate photosynthesis on a napkin, for the majority of us it's a character story.

PS: So here we get into postmodernism. The nature of the genre depends on the observer.

MFM: Absolutely. That's why the borders are so amorphous.

PS: Why don't we get into your latest novel, Nekropolis. I know talking about plot is--

MFM: It's hard.

PS: Yes, it's hard, and I don't think it covers what's important in your novels. Certainly plot is important, but yours aren't plot-driven novels.

MFM: Oh no, and I get beaten up for that a lot. Okay, the main character, Hariba, is jessed, and that means she's given up her self-will to her employer. She's a house manager. She falls in love with a biologically constructed human, Akhmim. They run away to the Nekropolis. The nekropolis I know of is in Egypt, but I moved it to Morocco because I didn't want to write about Egypt because then you have to deal with the Pyramids and I didn't want to deal with the Pyramids.

PS: This is the future so you can do what you want.

MFM: Who knows? Any day now they're going to start building them in Morocco. So, Hariba turns to her family for help. She's a wanted criminal because Akhmim is worth a lot of money and she's basically stolen him. The story is how they try to make a life.

PS: Akhmim has almost no free will.

MFM: He's designed to not have free will. He's designed to please, and that's what he wants to do, please. When I originally wrote the story, I tell people, I wrote a story of a woman who finds the perfect man and it works on her and her family like crack cocaine addiction, and I really wanted to pull family into it because it doesn't affect just her life. It affects the lives of her family and friends. They have to make decisions about loyalty.

PS: Something you've explored in all of your novels, the effect of the principal character's actions on family and friends.

MFM: Sometimes. In Mission Child I just kill off the whole family and that solves that.

PS: Yes, true, but Janna creates new family and friends, and it's the absence of her original family and friends that drives much of the story. So it isn't only the presence of family, but the absence of family as well.

MFM: Which is another science fiction convention. Much science fiction works hard to get the protagonist completely divorced of consequences to family and friends. I mean, like in Neuromancer, does Case have a family? Does Molly have a family? We don't know. And that doesn't seem to reflect my basic experience in any way, in a way far more fundamental to me than whether or not we have warp drive.

PS: Is that a consequence of the genre being male-dominated for so long?

MFM: No. I just think it's easy. Children's literature does that a lot, too. First thing you do is ditch the parents. Otherwise you can't have an adventure. If you go off on a quest, it's really hard to take a toddler with you, so when you have groups going off on quests, they tend not to take children. Mystery novels do the same thing. Their detectives tend to be divorced of human ties, though they often have a divorce in their background, literally.

PS: Which further accentuates the fact that they have no ties. I used to have ties, now I don't.

MFM: Exactly. I'm not capable of ties. She divorced me because I deserved it. And those are neat stories, and those are stories I like.

PS: But you wanted to do something where family was important.

MFM: I don't know that you pick what you want to do. As I write the stories, these are the things that unfold for me.

PS: So you don't set out to explore an idea or theme? It often seems the case that science fiction writers are exploring themes or exploring some sort of technical idea, and the story derives from there. We bring characters in then, but it seems like the main impetus is, wow, isn't that a cool idea? And I'm not criticizing. I love those stories.

MFM: Yeah, me too. I used to think a lot about Le Carré and his spy novels, which did a really good job of scratching the spy itch for me. You learn more spy lore in a Le Carré novel than you do anywhere else, scalp hunters and the guys who do phone taps and all that sort of thing. But his novels are all about the moral implications of choices. When you're a spy, do the means justify the ends?

PS: Which is what you do in Nekropolis. We want to believe that their love is worth something, that Hariba should be free, that Akhmim should be free because he is essentially human, and yet there are consequences.

MFM: Right, and everybody pays. Some of the causes are good ones, and some of them are bad ones. I never want my consequences to be black and white because if I start them black and white they feel fake to me. They feel more interesting when they're more muddy.

PS: We're left with a lot of ambiguity in everything you write.

MFM: I'm not good at endings. At least that's part of it. There's also the old theater song that every exit is an entrance somewhere else.

PS: In science fiction, that would be construed as the promise of a sequel.

MFM: No. I just think that stories don't end. I think you can satisfy without being pat, though I'm not sure I always satisfy.

PS: You're being self-deprecating, but something we've discussed before is what it's like to critique your own work, which is a brave thing to do. You're really putting yourself out there.

MFM: Well, that's something I'd like to improve on. I don't do well with endings.

PS: You don't feel that they're typical of ambiguous modern endings that leave the reader with various ways to interpret the outcome?

MFM: They're that, and that I don't have any trouble with, but at the end of Ulysses, Penelope's "yes, yes" is an incredibly satisfying ending, maybe because I've been taught that it's a satisfying ending. I don't know. But you can get to the end of a book and feel very satisfied, or you can get to the end and feel exasperated. I got to the end of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and was truly exasperated, even though I think it's a pretty good book.

PS: What exasperated you?

MFM: I'd have to critique the whole book. It's a very postmodern ending. It ends in medias res and you never actually know what's going on. Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren has a very solid ending, a circular ending, because it ends with the first line, and even though you get a sense that you don't know what happens to the people in it, you know this is the end. You're signaled. Ta da! You've reached the end of this very interesting experiment.

PS: And the people are going to go on. That's what people do.

MFM: That's what people do. So the ambiguity of the ending is part of it, but it's still more satisfying.

PS: What do you like about your writing?

MFM: Oh, there's lots of things I hate about my writing, but what do I like about it? I think there are real nice moments in it. There are times I knew stuff that I'm really surprised that I knew. Insights into humanity.

PS: Are those conscious decisions?

MFM: No, I find them in the process of writing. I come to something and I say, "Oh I know," and I write that. At the beginning of the first section of Nekropolis, the first line from the mother is, "All of my children are taller than I am." I like that moment because it suggests a certain kind of pride. I have physically done well by my children, I have made sure they had enough to eat, that they grew strong. I liked finding that in her. It feels to me to ring true to an experience different from mine.

I really fought putting a mother into Nekropolis. I wasn't going to because I was going to work with mothers in the next book. It's a good thing I did because the next book didn't pan out, so the fact that there's a mother in the center of Nekropolis is not a bad thing at all. And she is in the very middle of that, she's the exact middle, and I think she is a character who is more important than you first feel when you read the book. But that's the kind of thing I like in my stories, those moments of what I think are psychological acuity, although I could be deluding myself.

PS: You often explore the idea of class, and notably those who are marginalized by the system, whether it be because of class, economic status, or gender identity.

MFM: Science fiction and historical novels have this common problem. When you're writing a contemporary novel you don't have to explain how the gas pump works, which means that when you read Madame Bovary, unless you've been pretty educated you find a lot of it perplexing.

PS: Which is why Norton annotates it.

MFM: Yes, but they never annotate what I don't know. I want to know what they ate. But historical and science fiction have to create an understanding of the surroundings for the reader. Things that most fiction assumes, you can't. And one way to do that is to put an outsider in, so it's as strange for them as it is for the reader. They can naively describe.

PS: That's a classic science fiction ploy.

MFM: Absolutely. It's an old, old, old, old, old ploy. It's harder and harder to do without being cliché, so the kind of outside you pick has to get stranger and stranger.

PS: It can no longer be the football quarterback on the rocketship with the professor and his daughter. "Gee, professor, what does this strange knob do?"

MFM: Right, so now you can have a character who is pretending to be a boy, who notices all of the things the boys do, interacting with everyday stuff. Then I can describe the everyday stuff the boys are interacting with as well -- the tents, the water pump, the way food is handed out in the refugee camp.

PS: Do you have a more overtly political motive behind using the outsider?

MFM: No. I think it's a cultural thing, and not just specific to science fiction. Our symbol of the Vietnam War is the P.O.W. Imagine that being the symbol of World War II. The P.O.W. is the guy who got captured. He's the victim. We equate victimhood with sainthood, and it occurred to me that victims were not necessarily saints, that they were just victims. In Nekropolis, I didn't want Hariba to be a good person as a result of being in restrictive circumstances. I wanted to show how restrictive circumstances can simply restrict you. I write about outsiders because I live in a culture that tends to think about outsiders as privileged, morally. The worst thing to be, in certain circumstances, is a straight, white male.

PS: Could you say this about a gay character, though? Does a gay person have privilege in America? Certainly not the same way a veteran does.

MFM: Oh no. No. But if you watch how gays are presented in the media, unless you watch Jerry Springer, they tend to be witty, wise, or they die. When we marginalize characters, we often make them into either martyrs or Yodas. But I don't think picking outsiders is a conscious choice on my part. It's partly from being influenced by the idea that outsiders are somehow interesting.

PS: Do you want to riff on where the genre is and where it's going?

MFM: I don't know any trends, exactly, but it seems to me we're losing control of the genre. If you think about when I was growing up, science fiction wasn't on television. Star Trek and Lost in Space were it. There were Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, but when I was a kid people believed those were horror. Now you have Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files and Terminator 2.

PS: I agree with you. People don't think of Terminator 2 as science fiction. Many people who go to that movie would never go see a science fiction film.

MFM: At all. It's an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. And there's some high literature that is science fiction influenced. I mentioned David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow sold as non-genre literature. And they go to another planet! So I think there might be developing a split between our science fiction and SF of the world. But I do think that science fiction is in the culture in a way that it wasn't forty years ago.

PS: And what will science fiction be like forty years from now? In most visions of the future, we don't see what they think of as science fiction. Will it be science based, or sociological, or something we can't imagine?

MFM: And what is a science fiction geek doing fifty years from now. What do they think will be the important future developments?

PS: What do you think will be the consequence of mainstreaming science fiction?

MFM: I think it might harden our conventions. You hear people say that mainstream writers reinvent the wheel when they write science fiction. People gripe about The Handmaid's Tale. I think that's a reaction to the fact that there's their stuff and there's our stuff. But I don't know. I have no clue. It's going to be an interesting ride.

 

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Pat Stansberry would like to call himself a writer, but he spends most of his time grading English essays. He teaches at Cleveland State University, edited Whiskey Island, the university's literary journal, co-directed the 2000 Imagination Conference, and teaches Imagination/2: Workshops for Beginning Writers, none of which helped him finish his long-uncompleted novel.

Visit Maureen F. McHugh's Web site.