The nine short stories in Hugo-winner McHugh’s new collection, After the Apocalypse, emphasize the human ability to survive and even thrive in the face of global disaster.
Each of your stories has its own apocalypse: zombies, plague, drought, and so on. How did you select these particular catastrophes?
Zombies came from someone else’s dream, but the others come out of my own life. I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma six years ago and spent a lot of time thinking about cells, both the kind of cells that were beneficial to me, like my own immune system, and the ones that weren’t. I wanted to be a biologist or a doctor when I was a teenager. I watch those medical shows on cable where they do autopsies or documentaries on rare medical conditions. And I’ve spent some time in the Southwest, which made me appreciate water. These were mostly things that I could imagine going wrong, like a wonky economy or a stray protein misfolded.
Did you start writing these stories and realize they had a common theme, or did you set out to write an apocalyptic collection?
Honestly, I didn’t even realize I was writing an apocalyptic collection. I wrote “The Naturalist” because my kid had a dream and asked me to make it into a story. I wrote another about a woman who makes dolls (“Useless Things”) because I’m a middle-aged woman and with many exceptions, fiction tends to be about lots of things other than middle-aged women. But writing about things going wrong is a good way to write a story and once I realized that I had written several kinds of apocalyptic stories I indulged.
Technically speaking, of course, the stories aren’t really about an apocalypse. Nothing comes after an apocalypse. That’s the point of them, really. But when I see those scenes where the band trashes the hotel room or the hero and the bad guy engage in a huge battle where cars crash and buildings fall down, I keep imagining the people who will later come along and clean up. Usually working people. Women with buckets of soapy water. Guys in coveralls and work boots.
Apocalypse is pretty hot right now. How does it feel to be part of a zeitgeist?
Fun, actually! Although when isn’t an apocalypse in the zeitgeist? I think we’re always pretty fascinated by the idea that not only will we die, but everything we know will disappear. Like all those civilizations that we try to reconstruct from bits of pottery. We are trying to decode their civilization based on the equivalent of inscriptions on statues in New York City. I would love to see the graduate student thesis on what the lions in front of the New York City library mean.