By Leslie Lindsay
Set primarily in southern Iowa, ARROWOOD (August 9, Random House/Spiegel & Grau) is McHugh’s sophomore novel, but it’s certainly no slump. McHugh is an astute and observant writer weaving touches of Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri in the languid landscape (which I absolutely adored, having lived in most all of those states) in this psychological exploration of family and the stories our homes contain.
Arrowood is one of the most ornate and glorious homes lining the banks of the Mississippi River in a dying town where many of the old homes are boarded up and left to decay. The town simply cannot sustain themselves any longer. The humidity is high and one can nearly hear the frogs chorusing in trees. When Arden returns from her grad school program in Colorado, it’s mostly because she struggles with finishing her history thesis, but also to inherit her family home. Not only has her father recently passed, but Arden is haunted by the need to know what happened to her baby sisters, twins, who disappeared twenty years ago when they were just 21-months old.
Determined to find answers, Arden connects with various folks from her past, piecing the story together in a page-turning, powerful story examining how our lives are shaped by memory and the need to find truth in closure.
Join me as I welcome Laura back for a second time as we chat about ARROWOOD, old houses, our Missouri upbringing and so much more.
Leslie Lindsay: Laura, it’s great to have you back! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. I am enamored with this gorgeous cover. I know, I know…we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Did you have any say in the visual appearance?
Laura McHugh: Thank you for having me! I love the cover, too. I’m not involved in the design process, though they do ask my opinion once the cover has been designed. ARROWOOD actually had a very different cover at first, and it was beautiful, too, but I didn’t love it. There was a young woman with long, pretty hair, and she was gazing at some sort of boathouse on a lake. It was lovely and serene, and nothing about it resembled the mood or the protagonist or the house in the book. They were great about tweaking it—most importantly, switching the house out for one that more closely resembled Arrowood’s Second Empire style—but it still didn’t feel right. I wanted to get rid of the young woman, make the whole thing darker, moodier. Later on, after the first set of advance reader copies had been sent out with that first cover, they gave it a complete overhaul. I was thrilled. This version really feels like my book. I don’t even have a copy with the original cover anymore—my only one was auctioned off at a library benefit.
L.L.: I know you grew up in Missouri and the surrounding states, so I’m curious about “the little white house on South Fourteenth Street,” you mention in your dedication, but most of all, I’m interested in the first spark that became ARROWOOD. Can you speak to that, please?
Laura McHugh: Sure. The little white house is my grandparents’ house in Keokuk, which is nothing like the grand homes in the book. My family moved around a lot, and my grandparents’ house was the one place that always felt like home. It was a tiny one-bedroom, yet whenever the ten of us (I’m one of eight kids) came to visit, the house seemed to magically expand to make room for everyone. Years after my grandparents died, I went back to the house to find the door wide open, and I went inside. It was trashed. Squatters had been living there. I was scared. The entire neighborhood, which had once felt so safe, was menacing. I couldn’t reconcile my memories of this place with what it had become. In one sense, ARROWOOD is about that longing to return home, which in many ways is impossible. I also wanted to write about the decline and decay of a small town, and I combined all of that with a character who has been stuck in the past, haunted by a terrible crime. I wanted to see if she could solve the mystery and find a way forward despite everything crumbling around her.
L.L.: We absolutely have to talk homes! I am crazy about old houses, new houses, abandoned ones, and just about everything in between. In fact, I so related to young Arden with the ‘Guidebook to Area Homes’ tucked under her arm (that was me when I lived in Northfield, MN!) What is it about homes that we—and perhaps, especially writers—find so compelling? And do you have a favorite architectural style or time period?
Laura McHugh: I love the idea of a house having a history—that it’s full of stories you might never know. The first house I lived in had been abandoned for years before my parents bought it, and was said to be haunted. It was Carpenter Gothic, with cathedral windows and curved scrollwork and an ornate staircase that my mother had spent more than a year painstakingly refinishing before the house caught fire. The place was eventually rebuilt, minus the characteristic features that had made it so stunning. When we drive by it now, my mother bemoans the missing balcony, the shortened windows, the lack of trim.
I favor the various styles of the 1800’s, including Second Empire, Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Victorian, and I love to see different styles on the same block, the way you do in old towns like Keokuk. So many subdivisions now are homogenous—rows of nearly identical houses. We incorporated architectural salvage when we built our house, including an arched church window and doors from old houses that had been torn down—small pieces of history in a house with no past.
L.L.: While Arden is in a sense “haunted” by the disappearance of her twin sisters, ARROWOOD is not exactly a ghost story, though there are definitely creepy things at play; a slight menacing effect. Was this your intention all along, or did it sort of grow organically as the manuscript progressed?
Laura McHugh: Both, I think. I knew that Arden would be “haunted,” but I like the space in between, where you wonder, is there something going on here, or is this in her head? The details came together as the story progressed.
L.L.: In that vein, do you write to plot points, or do you let your characters tell the story?
Laura McHugh: I’ve tried it both ways. THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD was written without any upfront planning (though I certainly did a lot of organizational work in revisions). I tried to do more of an outline for ARROWOOD, but I found that it took a lot of the pleasure out of writing when I was working toward predetermined points. I do best when I let the story grow from the characters’ desires and motivations and then clean things up as needed afterwards.
L.L.: There’s this wonderful melding of memory with truth in ARROWOOD, something that is often present in fiction, but in real-life, too. We simply don’t always remember events as we once imagined. Can you talk about how your theme, memory and truth, often become muddled?
Laura McHugh: I’ve read a lot of interesting material about the unreliability of memory in eyewitness accounts, and I was especially interested in the way such accounts could influence an investigation—possibly moving it in the wrong direction. I suspect part of my interest in memory stems from my own past—I’m the youngest of eight children, and while we have many shared childhood memories, there are plenty of things I can’t possibly remember as clearly as they do. I have memories of certain details and events from houses and towns where we lived when I was very small, but I can’t be sure how much of that is actual memory and how much was woven together from my siblings’ retelling of these things. Is it ever possible to separate true memory from created memory? Is it possible to go back to a case that’s been cold for nearly twenty years and find the truth? These were things that I wanted to explore in Arrowood.
L.L.: For slightly selfish reasons, I’m a little curious about the second-book process for a published author. I would imagine there would be a good deal of anxiety involved. What’s the overall process like?
Laura McHugh: There was definitely more anxiety with the second book than the first. With the first, no one was waiting for it. I could meander and make all sorts of missteps and then fix them in subsequent drafts, and no one would ever know. With the second book, there are expectations, and other voices in your head. Plus, the first book hasn’t gone away. You want to be fully focused on the new book, but you’re still spending time promoting the old one. It’s hard to ignore all of that and just let yourself write the story you want to write. I learned a lot about what works for me and what doesn’t while I was writing this second book, and hopefully that will help me going forward.
L.L.: Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on next?
Laura McHugh: The next novel is set mainly in rural Missouri and Kansas. The protagonist is still reeling from her brother’s unexpected death when she’s sent to investigate a deadly accident that has torn apart a rural community. She soon realizes that nothing is as it seems.
L.L.: What’s inspiring you nowadays? What gets your creativity flowing?
Laura McHugh: Being still and observant. That sounds terribly dull, but that’s how it works for me. I’m a people-watcher, and I’m always making up backstories for strangers I see at the library, or I’ll walk by an interesting house and start piecing together what kind of family might live inside. And, of course, I always read the Crime Section of the news.
L.L.: What should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Laura McHugh: Nothing! You always have great questions. Thank you, Leslie!
L.L.: Laura, it was such a pleasure chatting once again. Enjoy the rest of your summer!
Laura McHugh: You, too!
***For more information, or to connect with Laura via social media, please see***
Bio: Laura McHugh is the author of The Weight of Blood, which won both the 2015 International Thriller Writers award and a Silver Falchion award for the best first novel, and was nominated for a Barry award, an Alex award, and a Goodreads Choice award. She spent part of her childhood in Keokuk, Iowa, where Arrowood is set, and now lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband and two young children.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay via:
[Special thanks to A. Lord and M. Braeckel. Cover and author image provided by Random House and used with permission. Author photo credit: Taisia Gordon. Carpenter Gothic house retrieved from Wikipedia on 8.10.16 and does not represent author’s home, WEIGHT OF BLOOD cover retrieved from the author’s website]