A Thriller Rooted in Personal Experience
Sometimes you pick up a book so beautifully written and resonant that you want to savor every word and swirl it around in your mouth like fine wine. Laura McHugh’s third novel, THE WOLF WANTS IN, is such a book. The combination of McHugh’s lyrical yet vivid writing and her honest, insightful portrayal of grief results in a haunting story.
Perhaps the book’s emotional power stems from its roots in the author’s personal life. While her other novels were inspired by true crimes and curiosity, this one was partly inspired by the unexplained death of her brother. She says, “Crafting a fictional story about a similar loss allowed me to find resolution that I don’t have in real life.”
An award-winning and internationally bestselling author, McHugh calls herself a Midwesterner writing atmospheric, character-driven mystery/suspense novels—“dark stories of crime and family bonds set in small towns in rural America.” In THE WOLF WANTS IN, she explores the questions of loyalty to and influence of family, even as she tackles one of the most crippling problems in modern society. “The opioid epidemic burning through rural America can devastate not only families but entire communities,” McHugh says. “Addiction does not discriminate, and affects more than just the addict.”
Asked what her writing day looks like, she says she tries to work every day, though with two children, life sometimes gets in the way. She tries to get her non-writing tasks out of the way early so she has the rest of the day to focus on actual writing. Sometimes she works at home, “assisted” by two cats and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, but when she needs a change of scenery (or when her pets are being too needy), she’ll go to a coffee shop, where she sips on a chai latte while she works. She adds, “I do my best work late at night, and will sometimes stay up all night to take advantage of the uninterrupted time.”
She has degrees in English, computer science, and library science, and worked as a software developer for 10 years before losing her job and deciding to write her first novel. “Now,” she says, “I write full-time and do some speaking, teaching, and consulting on the side. I enjoy visiting libraries and book clubs in person or via Skype, and I love to help authors write agent query letters and polish their manuscripts for submission.”
McHugh agreed to talk to The Big Thrill today and answer a few questions about her books.
Let’s start with a little bit about your writing journey. How did you come to be a writer, and specifically, a writer of crime fiction?
I always loved to write dark stories, but it wasn’t until I lost my job as a software developer that I decided to write a novel. While I was writing The Weight of Blood, I didn’t label it crime fiction in my mind, even though I was a huge fan of the genre and my story clearly centered around a terrible crime. I just wanted to write a book that I would like to read–something that would be hard to put down.
What’s your writing process? Pantser? Plotter? Something in-between?
I am a pantser who has tried to be more of a plotter but mostly failed. Each time I start a new book, I think this time will be different. I’ll be more efficient. I’ll avoid the familiar pitfalls. Inevitably, I encounter new and different problems that I didn’t anticipate. I ride the rollercoaster of self-doubt. I tell myself I can make it to the end if I just keep going, and eventually I get there.
You’ve been called “The Queen of the Haunted Heartland.” What does the “haunted heartland” mean to you, and why do you think it’s such a perfect setting for your books, which have been characterized as “rural noir”?
I grew up in rural areas in the Midwest and the Ozarks, and I’ve always been fascinated by the small-town dynamic, how everyone is connected by blood or marriage or lifelong acquaintance. “Heartland” evokes a bucolic place full of churches and farms and down-to-earth folks, and that’s true to some extent, but today many small towns are in decay, stricken by job loss, poverty, and rising crime from the meth and opioid epidemics. Some people are stuck and long to escape; others can’t imagine leaving the land where their families have lived for generations. The heartland is haunted by what it used to be and what it’s becoming. These are the stories that interest me, the struggle to survive in the broken places we call home.
THE WOLF WANTS IN alternates between two point-of-view characters. One is Sadie, the sister of the murder victim. The other is Henley, a younger woman from the wrong side of the tracks who is related to the murdered man’s wife. What made you decide on this braided narrative structure?
I wanted to show these two women on opposite sides of a crime. They both know Sadie’s brother, Shane, but occupy different spheres of his life and see him in different ways. I was drawing upon something that arose from my brother’s death, the idea that no matter how close you are to someone, you can never truly know everything about them. There are always pieces, maybe small, maybe large, that are private, interior, that you never see. The picture looks whole to you, but it’s incomplete. Sadie and Henley each know things that the other doesn’t, and as the story builds, we know that, inevitably, their worlds will somehow collide.
Your writing is consistently praised with such phrases as “stunning, lyrical prose,” “both gritty and poetic,” “taut, yet evocative prose,” and “the hopeful beauty of her writing.” How do you ensure that level of quality in the writing? Does it just come out that way, or do you have a technique for crafting such exquisite language?
I read and wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, so maybe that leaked into my prose. I hate to leave an ugly sentence on the page, even when I know I might end up cutting it later. It can slow me down when I’m writing and revising—I spend a lot of time trying to get the phrasing just right or obsessing over word choice. I have to be careful that the language doesn’t slow down the story. If the pretty sentences aren’t serving the story and moving it forward, no one’s going to read them.
It can be a difficult balance, for sure. Okay, one final question. What’s the most unusual or interesting thing you’ve ever done or learned when researching a book?
I accepted a stranger’s invitation to go into his house for a tour. Normally I wouldn’t do that, because I think any stranger inviting you into his home might be a serial killer. But the house was for sale, and I figured he wouldn’t want to clean up a crime scene when the realtor might be calling to show the house. I got to see a parlor with enormous fireplaces where Civil War generals had met, and a creepy basement with stone walls two feet thick, and most importantly, I made it out alive.