By Leslie Lindsay
Abducted as a teenager, a woman must confront her dark and tangled past as another case closely linked to hers comes to the surface.
WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK
Laura McHugh & Leslie Lindsay in conversation
Laura McHugh’s novels are often inspired by true crimes, but at the heart of each story, she writes about families: their secrets, their tragedies, and the powerful, complicated bonds of blood. All of her work is set in the Midwest and the Ozarks, where she was raised. Plus, she’s won–and has been nominated–for numerous awards, including International Thriller Writers Award and the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel and the Missouri Author Award for Fiction, among others.
Laura McHugh’s rural thrillers are always a summertime treat. They are so evocative and atmospheric, drawing such breadth and emotion from the landscape; you can nearly feel the thick humidity and hear the chirp of the cicadas. There’s a murkiness here, too, a gauzy underworld of darker things brewing.
⭑ One of 2021’s Best Beach Reads—OPRAH DAILY
⭑ An Amazon Editors’ Choice for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
ABOUT WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS:
WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS (Random House, June 22) is so psychologically astute, but also quietly spine-chilling. Sarabeth–now Sarah–was abducted at age 17, when she refused to participate an an arranged marriage right out of high school. Her body was found mangled on the side of the road after weeks of being held captive in a dark place.
Now, she’s mostly recovered from that trauma and lives independently working for an animal shelter when a detective approaches her with a new investigation, one that sounds shockingly similar to hers. She’s reluctant at first, but soon is ensnared in the mystery; mostly because her 16 year-old estranged sister is engaged to be married and has asked her to come home to be in the wedding.
Told in alternating time periods of ‘then’ and ‘now,’ Sarah recaptures the pain and confusion of her early upbringing in the Ozark Mountains at the Missouri-Arkansas border. Here, she must confront the past of the first half of her life: ‘typical’ before her father had that affair and moved the family to remote farm where the children were expected to wear dresses, be homeschooled, and have no Internet (and more).
WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS is a dark, atmospheric mystery with some police procedural investigation, with a fairly satisfying ending; mostly I was intrigued with the community and human behavior. The writing is crystal clear, fast-paced and very unsettling; it’s a bit like WINTER’S BONE meets FOOTLOOSE (movie) with a touch of GONE GIRL.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Laura McHugh back to the author interview series:
Laura, I cannot believe it’s been four books that we’ve been chatting! Each one is so dark, so gritty, and I’m always excited to talk with you. We share a connection with Missouri and that’s what I want to start with. They say setting becomes a character, and with your work, it’s absolutely true. The Ozarks absolutely belong to you. Can you talk about your geographical influences and inspiration, please?
I’m so happy to be chatting with you again, Leslie! I’ve lived in the Midwest nearly my entire life, starting in southern Iowa and then moving deep into the Ozarks on the Missouri/Arkansas border. I live in a mid-size college town now, but I grew up in a series of small, rural communities, one especially tiny and quite isolated (our address was simply “Box 6” in Tecumseh—good luck finding it on a map!). The Ozarks are beautiful, though ruggedly, menacingly so. I love to incorporate the foreboding and sometimes treacherous elements of the landscape in my work, from the abundant spiders, snakes, and insects to the caves and cliffs and rivers to the impossibly twisted roads and isolated dwellings. For me, the sense of being in the middle of nowhere, with the constant buzzing of insects and the humidity closing in, those elements put me (and hopefully the reader) a bit on edge. You can’t help but wonder what’s out there, what terrible things you might encounter in these hidden places.
Since WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS is set in Missouri and you’re writing from Missouri, and I know so much fiction is ‘borrowed from real life,’ I couldn’t help but wonder if some of this was autobiographical. It probably isn’t…but one makes suppositions. Fiction and nonfiction often blur. Can you talk about that, please?
I often start with small seeds of truth, but they grow into something unrecognizable. I’ll give a character a quirk of mine, or add little details drawn from personal experience, or take inspiration from real-life crimes, but usually those bits of truth are distorted and repurposed in the writing process to best serve the story. There are some pieces of my real life in this novel, though for some reason, they are mostly drawn from traumatic experiences with spiders! I was horrified the first time I saw a horde of tarantulas in the Ozarks. I’ve always wanted to put that in a novel, and I finally did. I also stayed in a river cabin populated by venomous brown recluse spiders while writing this book, and that made it in, too (I did actually sleep in my car one night, like Sarah does). The piece of this book closest to real life was inspired by the murder of a teenage girl on a remote farm not many miles from my home in Tecumseh.
“Laura McHugh is already on everyone’s short list of crime writers to watch for, someone who just goes from strength to strength. WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS is timely, but more importantly, it’s a deeply empathetic look at a community and place that are all too easy to stereotype. Compulsively, propulsively readable, it never loses sight of what’s really at stake for its characters — or its readers.”
—Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of Lady in the Lake
I was talking with my (Missouri born and bred) husband about WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS and he said, “When is this book supposed to take place?” And I said, “Present-day!” He was shocked. So much of what you describe about Sarabeth’s life in the Ozarks rings of old-timey ways. Long skirts, man as head of household, women who sew, can, bake; no internet, homeschool. But it happens still. What more can you tell us about this aspect of the story? What research did you do to get this ‘right?’ Did you have sensitivity readers?
This part of the story is drawn from personal observation, from reading about these types of communities, and from pop culture (many people are likely familiar with the Duggar family from their reality TV show). The religious community in the novel is fictional, and more extreme than what you might encounter in real life, but the patriarchal culture—and what might seem to some an “old fashioned” way of life—is real. I grew up in the Bible Belt and live in a deeply religious area. I know a family that embraced much of this lifestyle, though on the surface, they wouldn’t stand out aside from some telling details (the long dresses and hair). You would have to get to know them to get a deeper sense of their beliefs and behaviors at home. A friend of mine who grew up in a fundamentalist church read the book, and she told me stories about her pastor not allowing her to see Smurfs on Ice with her Girl Scout troop because ice skating costumes are “too carnal” and not allowing her family to get a Christmas tree. He had so much power over what was acceptable. When he finally relented and allowed a tree, it had to be a certain size, with homemade ornaments—nothing sparkly. And, as you might expect, that made her deeply want sparkles and glitter and everything he denied. The fictional church in the novel might seem outlandish to some and too close to reality for others, but I wanted to examine a patriarchal community like this through the lenses of different women—those who embrace it, those who exploit it, and those who long to escape it.
I’m working on a series of interlinked stories about my own ancestral roots; I can trace them the Missouri Ozarks and Arkansas (and also the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee). I think Sarah mentions that when she goes back ‘home,’ it’s instantly recognizable. She feels the swell of the hills, the winding lanes. It’s visceral, almost. Do you think we’re rooted to the earth?
In some ways, yes. When I returned to Tecumseh a couple of years ago to teach at a nearby writing retreat, I definitely had a visceral reaction. I think our experiences in a particular environment are inextricably linked to the place itself. For Sarah, the familiar landscape gives her a sense of claustrophobia and panic; she was desperate to escape, and returning makes her feel trapped. While I appreciate many things about the Ozarks, going back to my old home hollowed out my stomach with a feeling of desolation and anxiety. My body automatically remembered how I’d felt in that place, in my childhood, and the feeling returned without me consciously thinking about it. In contrast, when I visit the area I’m originally from in Iowa, and the town where my grandparents lived, the river and cornfields and the old houses are deeply comforting. My characters often struggle to reconcile the meaning of home. There’s always so much more to it than a spot on a map, but there’s a certain draw—sometimes good, sometimes not—to the places of our past.
I know you’ve been a lifelong reader. I think most writers are. What—whom—were some of your formative influences?
Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. I liked horror, Southern Gothic, dark humor, science fiction. For several years when I was growing up, we lived in an area with no library, so I would read whatever I could get my hands on—discarded school books from my seven older siblings, yard sale finds, boxes of musty old paperbacks of unknown origin in our basement. That’s how I came across Jackson and O’Connor and other favorites I might not have sought on my own.
Laura, as always, it’s been a treat. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten, or perhaps something you’d like to ask me?
I would love to know how you juggle your various projects! You have multiple writing projects and still find time for a full schedule of reading and reviewing. I know that’s not easy when you also have kids at home. Thank you for taking the time to visit with me—it’s always a pleasure!
Ask me on a different day and I may have a very different answer! Most days I juggle multiple and unrelated tasks: kids’ dental appointments, a demanding basset hound (the phrase, ‘dogged determination’ is the life of a basset), social media/platform building, yoga practice and cardio, home renovations, and a very active reading/review schedule. My two writing projects are not related at all. There’s one about childhood speech issues and another about mothers and mental illness and grief. It’s a bit exhausting–mentally–to shift gears so frequently. Aside from all of that, I am writing and submitting articles and essays. Here’s a little secret: sometimes, I want to quit. Here’s another: I thrive with busyness and variety. A happy medium is ideal, but sometimes, even dynamos need a break.
For more information, to connect with Laura McHugh, or to purchase a copy of WHAT’S DONTE IN DARKNESS, please visit:
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YOU MIGHT LIKE:
I found some similarities between WHAT HAPPENS IN DARKNESS and Julia Heaberlin’s work, particularly WE ARE ALL THE SAME IN THE DARK, but also some of Gillian Flynn’s earlier work, SHARP OBJECTS comes to mind, but also there’s a touch of Jodi Picoult here, as well as Karin Slaughter.
Next week, Hanna Halperin talks about her debut fiction, SOMETHING WILD.
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Learn more about Leslie Lindsay|Always with a Book HERE
Up Next Week:
Hanna Halperin talks about her debut, SOMETHING WILD about domestic violence, going home, more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Laura McHugh is the internationally bestselling author of The Weight of Blood, winner of an International Thriller Writers Award and a Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for best first novel; Arrowood, an International Thriller Writers Award finalist for best novel; and The Wolf Wants In. McHugh lives in Missouri with her husband and their daughters.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online.
She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to become an audiobook from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
You can learn more about HERE.