You'll never think of small-town life the same way again after reading Laura McHugh's chilling debut, The Weight of Blood. Part "Twin Peaks," part Tana French, the novel opens just after the body of 18-year-old Cheri has been found stuffed into a tree trunk. Lucy Dane may have been the troubled Cheri's only friend, and after turning up some disturbing evidence she becomes determined to track down Cheri's killer—especially since her own mother's disappearance some 15 years before has still never been solved. As Lucy's quest proceeds, she begins to unearth some of the town's darkest secrets, some of which involve her own family.
We asked McHugh, who lives in Missouri with her family, a few questions about her new book.
As a former software developer, you took an unconventional path to becoming a writer! Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
I wanted to be a writer all along, but I had no mental roadmap of how to make that happen. I was a first generation college student—my dad was a shoe repairman, my mom worked at Waffle House—and I had never heard of an MFA. We viewed higher education in a very practical way, as a ticket out of poverty. I studied creative writing as an undergrad, but for grad school I chose more technical degrees, ones that I thought would result in steady employment. I was a software developer for 10 years, and then suddenly lost my job. That’s when I completely re-evaluated my life. I’d been writing short stories, had published a couple, and dreamed of writing a novel. I didn’t want to regret that I never tried. I feel incredibly lucky that things worked out the way they did.
"I wanted to capture what it was like to grow up in such an insular place, and also to show it from an outsider’s viewpoint."
How did you come to write this particular story?
My family moved to the Ozarks when I was a kid. The community was close-knit and wary of outsiders, and the surrounding area was home to groups that wanted to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. We lived down the road from the East Wind commune (a woman would sometimes jog topless past our school bus stop), and not far from the compound of a militia group called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. I was haunted by the place long after we left and I wanted to capture what it was like to grow up in such an insular place, and also to show it from an outsider’s viewpoint.
In the midst of writing the novel, I came across a news article from the small, rural town where I’d attended high school. A local teen had been victimized in a shocking crime, and the people involved had kept it secret for years. That crime was the inspiration for Cheri’s story.
Small towns are usually associated with words like “peaceful,” “idyllic” or “friendly.” Henbane is none of the above. Why were you drawn to depicting the darker side of rural life?
For one thing, it’s in my nature—show me a seemingly idyllic town, and I’ll instantly wonder what’s hidden in the shadows. I grew up in a series of small, rural towns, and they’re grittier than people might imagine. I’m also fascinated by the way crime plays out in these tight-knit communities where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else. No one wants to speak out against their neighbor or their kin, or maybe they’d rather not involve the law. A good example is the murder of Ken McElroy in tiny Skidmore, Missouri. He was a bully, and had gotten away with some serious crimes. The townspeople were fed up and decided to take action. McElroy was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of town, in front of nearly 50 witnesses, and not a single person would rat out the killers. (Also, no one called an ambulance.)
"Show me a seemingly idyllic town, and I’ll instantly wonder what’s hidden in the shadows."
On a similar note, thrillers are often very black-and-white—your book definitely deals in shades of grey. Does that present challenges when writing suspense?
I didn’t find it problematic while writing this book. Maybe it helped that I didn’t set out to write a thriller. I wanted to tell Lucy’s story, and I wanted the reader to keep turning the pages, and the story naturally became more suspenseful as it developed. I enjoy books with those murky shades of grey, but I’m not biased one way or the other—I like all sorts of thrillers, and I’ll read anything that grabs my attention and won’t let go.
Without giving too much away, Lucy makes some dark discoveries about the adults in her life—people who care deeply for her might be capable of bad things. The novel is also a coming-of-age story, though, and these revelations mirror one of the rites of passage growing up: learning that adults are people, too.
You’re right, that’s an important part of growing up. I clearly remember having that revelation as a kid. It’s scary to realize that the grownups in charge are not necessarily making good decisions. For Lucy, as for most people, it’s difficult to process and accept the idea that a loved one might be capable of grave wrongdoing.
"It’s scary to realize that the grownups in charge are not necessarily making good decisions."
You tell this story from several different perspectives. Which character was your favorite to write? Which was the hardest?
Jamie Petree, the drug-dealer who was obsessed with Lila, was my favorite. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I have always loved to write creepy characters—they come naturally to me. I liked being able to show Jamie from two different perspectives. We know how Lucy views him, and we also get to go inside his head and get a sense of who he really is.
Lucy’s mother, Lila, was the hardest. She started out a bit more innocent and naive, but that wasn’t working. I had to let go and let her be a bit more troubled and troublesome.
"I have always loved to write creepy characters—they come naturally to me."
Although the violence is not at all sensationalized, bad things happen to girls and women in this book. As the mother of two young daughters, I assume that’s something you thought about. Do you think there are lines that fiction writers should not cross in this area?
Truth is always stranger and more disturbing than fiction, and the things that happen to Cheri in this book don’t compare to what happened to the real-life victim who inspired her character. I did not want to portray violence against women in a way that was titillating or sensational, and I was careful about how I approached it in the book. That said, I wouldn’t put any limitations on fiction writers. Real life is so much more dangerous than a book that you can close and put away.
What are you working on next?
I am finishing up my second novel, Arrowood, which will also be published by Spiegel & Grau. A young woman witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago, and now a terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory. Arrowood is set in a decaying Iowa river town—I do love small towns and their secrets.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.
author photo by Taisia Gordon