My fellow midwesterner Laura McHugh just published her debut novel, a wickedly dark murder novel called The Weight of Blood. I thought she was a perfect person to invite on the Reverse Blog Tour to talk about something I think about all the time: how to reconcile the writing side of one’s life with the parenting side. Because you do, if you’re a dad or a mom and also a writer—especially a mystery writer—then you’ve got these two parts, the part that imagines bloody scenarios and broods over complicated crimes, and the part that changes diapers and carefully applies sunscreen.
I didn’t tell many people that I was writing a book. I had recently lost my longtime job as a software developer and given birth to my second daughter, and I dreaded the pitying looks people would give me if I admitted that I spent every spare moment working on a novel that would probably never be published
At that point in my life, everyone saw me as a stay-at-home mom. Some of the other stay-at-home moms did not even know I’d had a full-time career writing software, and I was hesitant to tell them that my children were not my sole focus—that the moment my daughters fell asleep each night, I opened a seemingly innocuous Word document that began with the discovery of a girl’s dismembered body in a tree.
Once I let people in on my secret writing life, they almost always assumed that I was writing a children’s book. Oh, that’s great! Have you read it to your kids? (No, they’re not quite old enough for stories about backwoods human traffickers.)
I was surprised that everyone expected me to write stories for children. I wondered if I should be insulted that no one assumed I wrote werewolf erotica or biographies or hardboiled crime fiction. I mean, I did have children, and I read lots of kiddie books, but just because I spent every waking minute immersed in diapers and sippy cups and Barney songs didn’t mean that was all I thought about. Perhaps, on the surface, I didn’t appear to be the type of person who would write something so dark. What many of my acquaintances didn’t know was that I’ve always had a penchant for twisted tales. I grew up reading Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. Even when it comes to kids’ books, I tend to favor stories about monsters and ghosts and witches. I’ve read Goodnight Goon to my kids more times than Goodnight Moon.
To my amazement, the book that I wrote while my children slept was published. It went out into the world, where anyone could read it. People saw that I hadn’t written a picture book. They knew that The Weight of Blood was dark, and unsettling, and that these dark, unsettling things had come out of me, the mother of two sweet little girls. There were a few awkward moments, like when you realize that your in-laws, your kids’ teachers and babysitters, and the priest at your church have all read a sex scene you wrote. I had to own it. Yes, this is me, this is the sort of thing that lurks in my head and demands to be put down on paper.
I can write about horrible crimes and still chat about potty training and playdates with all the other mommies.
I actually think this is a pretty gendered aspect of our profession; as cheerful and goofy a dad as I am, I doubt anyone is shocked, exactly, to discover that I write very dark stories—I think women, and especially moms, are just assumed by society to be cheerful and nurturing, inside and out.
Interestingly, women have ALWAYS been notably proficient and successful at this business—I’m not an expert, but I bet there are more famous female names in mystery and crime fiction than other literary forms. (From Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to PD James and Patricia Highsmith to Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, right on down to Gillian Flynn.)
I’d love thoughts on this from my fellow writers and parents, of all genders—meanwhile, get to know Laura McHugh, and come meet me on tour, starting in Indianapolis on July 12.