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M A U R E E N   F.  M c H U G H : Family Matters
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, October 1999)

Maureen F. McHugh
    Photo by Beth Gwinn
 

Maureen F. McHugh was born February 13, 1959. She grew up in Loveland OH (a town near Cincinnati), and received a B.A. from Ohio University in 1981, where she took a creative writing course from Daniel Keyes in her senior year. After a year of grad school there, she went on to get a master's degree in English Literature at New York University in 1984. After several years as a part-time college instructor and miscellaneous jobs in clerking, technical writing, etc., she spent a year teaching in Shijiazhuang, China. It was during this period she sold her first story under a male pseudonym. ''All in a Day's Work'' appeared as a Twilight Zone First by one Michael Galloglach in August 1988, with a photo of McHugh posing as a man!

She married Bob Yeager in 1992, the same year as her first novel, China Mountain Zhang appeared; it was a Hugo and Nebula nominee, and won the Tiptree Award. Half the Day Is Night came out in 1994, and Mission Child in 1998.


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Mission Child

 

 

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''Since we last talked in 1993, I became a stepmother. My stepson is now 14. He was seven when I got him. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done in my whole life! The result was that Mission Child started with the loss of family and eventually worked toward attempting to find place and family; the novel I'm working on now, Nekropolis, is about the effect of one person's decisions on family.

''Before I finally started to write Mission Child, I had written a short story, 'The Missionary's Child', about a woman who masquerades as a man. I had also written about gay matters and transgender issues, and known my share of such people in New York, but I found, when I went to write the novel, I couldn't write this woman out of the context of where she came from. And that meant starting in her family. Even though they're gone 50 pages into the story, nonetheless that informs who she is through the whole book.

''She becomes this amalgam of her mother and her father. She takes on both their identities, tempered through her own experience in the course of the book. Her relationship with the young girl in the third section is not a step-relationship, because she doesn't have a lot of the resentments that go with becoming a parent, but it is a step-family, not biologically related, trying to become kin. I think I was trying to work out an awful lot of what I'd experienced, of what family means and what kinship means, how we make bonds to each other. There are moments, when you are raising children, where the situation you are in seems intolerable, and there's nothing you can do but grit your teeth.

''Nekropolis started out not about family at all, but has become very much a novel about family. In the original story, a girl falls in love with an inscrutable boy who happens to be a biological construct. In this novelette, they run away. In Nekropolis, once they run away, where do they go? She goes back to the bad side of town where she's from, and slowly her family is entangled in the decisions she's made, because that's what happens. Your kids come up with these things, and suddenly you're raising your grandchild. You don't get to stop your feelings for people when they become inconsistent.

''I had always written science fiction in the classic mode the loner, the one who goes off exploring on their own. Mission Child begins with the conventional thing, 'Let's get rid of the family,' just like Star Wars, which brings family back but not in any of the ways of real life. Darth Vader is an annoying father to have, but it's not the same as if you have to live with him. In the course of Nekropolis, it becomes clear that the heroine's decision is not necessarily a responsible one for the rest of her family. She's done something illegal: she's run out on a contract, and she has basically stolen something. That's fine for her if she chooses to make that decision, but what about her mother, who wants her to be all right? What about her sister? Her friends? What about the people who know where she is? How are they complicit, and how is she entangling them in this decision?

''So Nekropolis, when I first started writing it lo those many years ago, was meant to be about a woman who got the perfect lover, and how it destroyed her character. I was on page sixty-something of the manuscript when I realized that I had not yet gotten to the point where she got the lover, and I had to put an ending on it. So I did, and got back to the other novel I was working on. But I felt really guilty that the novelette version of Nekropolis appears to substantiate the very myth that distressed me, so now I've gone back to try to write the rest of the novel, about what really happens when a woman gets her 'heart's desire.' There's an old curse: 'May you be born in interesting times, may you come to the attention of people in high places, and may you get your heart's desire.' Two of those things 'interesting times' and 'your heart's desire' come true in my novel, with disastrous results for everyone.

''I've spent more time in the last couple of years, thanks to the Internet, talking to other science fiction writers, and that dialog has been a really good thing for me. The one thing I don't want to do is become self-referential. You can get so absorbed in science fiction that it becomes your entire horizon. But I had started to drift away from science fiction and fantasy, so having contact with a bunch of people who are interested in different parts of science fiction and fantasy than I am has really been fun. Wil McCarthy and Linda Nagata are interested in more hard-science issues than I am. And then to have in the same group someone like Bruce Holland Rogers, who is almost literary he clings to the field by the very thinnest median. And Sean Stewart, who writes basically contemporary magic realism when he wants to. A lot of us don't have a whole lot of patience with what the others write, but we're in this group together, so you have to make yourself be patient with that. And for me that's been a really good experience.

''I don't know that I completely agree with the 'Men are from Mars, women are from Venus' theory, but there are degrees of truth in it, whether they're cultural or biological or both. Cinderella is in some ways the women's equivalent of Horatio Alger. If relationships are important to women (and they are), the Cinderella myth, the Pretty Woman myth, the Silver Metal Lover myth, is the perfect myth for somebody for whom relationships are paramount, just as Horatio Alger, the gifted outsider who succeeds, the boy who is the heir to the throne and doesn't know it, is the myth for the competitive male. I think those myths are nearly hardwired into us, as is story.

''I believe intellectually that all events are basically meaningless, but emotionally we make meaning out of every single one of them. Evolutionarily, the point of every story is, 'I was successfully passing on my genes.' So for me to raise my child successfully is the hard-wired result of that, and the narrative I construct of it is the narrative of 'How did my child become a successful adult?' I'm going to make that into a story, even if cosmically life is a collection of things that happened some related to others, some connected to things I'm not interested in.

''And in science fiction we argue, we synthesize, we theorize. We never trust the way we've cast the world, never trust our own center. Patrick Nielsen Hayden once said about me, 'You like to be shaken up, Maureen,' and I think that sums up my fiction. We're always looking for the paradigm shift. I feel a rush, I get a buzz from that. Bestsellers are really good at finding the unspoken beliefs. Science fiction writers are not good at finding the unspoken beliefs we're good at distressing them!''


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