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Interview: Maureen McHugh on “Under the Hill”

Tell us a bit about “Under the Hill.”

“Under the Hill” is a fantasy and although I’ve written some I mostly write extrapolation stuff.  Which is a fancy way of describing the particular subgenre of fantasy that we usually call science fiction.  But I love fantasy and read it.  I had been invited to a writer’s workshop run by Walter Jon Williams.  It’s up in Taos, New Mexico and we all sit around and read each other’s stories, workshop them, cook, and gossip.  Some people hike at 9,000 feet.  I admire them.  I love the workshop, do I had to come up with a story.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I surf tumblr and someone had posted a comic about what it would be like at college if there were elves.  You know, any bands for any functions have to be approved by the university because, well, elves and music.  I have floated around the edge of academia for forty some odd years and I loved the idea of a diverse, liberal arts institution dealing with elves.  I had been thinking about second tense (you do this and you do that) which is usually just a disguised ‘I’.  I mean people use it that way all the time.  ‘You know, when you’ve got no food in the apartment and you need to go to the grocery but you just say screw that and order pizza.’  When someone says that, they aren’t accusing the other person in the conversation of being lazy, they mean themselves.  But it changes the way everything feels.


Was “Under the Hill” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Everything is this story is autobiographical except that none of it really happened except the roast beef sandwiches and the gallery show.  I never went to a small private college, I never had a roommate who played lacrosse, and my university didn’t have a elves living under a hill.  I thought the story would be kind of dryly funny.  I don’t do comedy.  I would love to, but comedy is very hard to write.  It’s not just funny lines, it’s a way of structuring and thinking that I’m just not good at.  So it started full of dry observations about the absolutely absurdity of college and then got angsty.  Luckily, the whole elf thing gives me plausible deniability.  I don’t have to admit what’s biographical because, elves!


What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

I’m not an idea person.  I struggle to come up with ideas and plots.  I wrote this story by kind of flailing around in the idea until I got some traction.  Of course, when I go into writing with no real plan then it’s way too easy to fall back on the students I’ve taught and my own college experiences.  I get really interested in a writing technique and then it’s like a 13-year-old who has figured out sarcasm.  I just use that technique over and over and over.  I mean it’s like all I have is one tool, a hammer, and I treat whole effing word like a nail.  It used to be point of view.  Lately, it’s dramatic tension.  I’m looking at Thomas the Rhymer and it’s about kidnapping.  In retrospect, it would be interesting to think of it in terms of colonization; the elves are using humans as a resource.  They’re powerful and magical.  Colonial powers are powerful and technological in a similar way.  But I wasn’t really thinking (I don’t usually think that way when I write.)  I thought about disappearing/kidnapping and decided that would underlie the story.  That would give it forward momentum.

I live in LA and have worked on the fringes of Hollywood for awhile now and I found myself thinking about the pleasures of procedurals.  Procedurals, if you don’t know, are what Hollywood calls hour long dramas like House or Mind Hunters.  I know at the beginning of the episode or the season that the protagonist is going to cure the sick person or catch the serial killer.  I don’t watch wondering what will happen, but how.  So at the beginning of my story I establish that people have disappeared and that the elves are dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.  At least one editor found it too predictable but the majority of readers have found it effective.  A lot of readers have told me how it felt like their own journey, including a guy who was an athlete who realized in college that he was not going to be professional and that he had to rethink his life.  I hope there are readers for whom this coming of age story is in some metaphorical way enough like their own growing up to resonate.


What are you working on now?

I’m at work on a novel called Hinge, an AU set in 13th Century England.  Well, Wessex, because England didn’t exist in the 13th century.  It’s a pain.  I have access to scholarly journals through my university and it’s so much more fun to plug chunks of some article on medieval veterinary practice into google translate to come to dubious conclusions than it is to actually write.  Next book, I’m making everything up.


“Under the Hill” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

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