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Today in the Writer Spotlight: Jessica McHugh!

Tell me about yourself! How old are you, and where are you from? What is something interesting about the area where you grew up?

Hello! My name’s Jessica McHugh, and I’m a 39-year-old novelist, poet, and playwright living in beautiful Frederick, MD. I grew up about 40 miles from where I live now, in Hampstead, MD where nothing much happened. But I still had a pretty good time growing up playing sports, doing theatre, and hanging out with awesome people I still call friends to this day.

Of course, in towns where nothing much happens, there’s usually a lot happening behind the scenes, and a lot of it isn’t pretty. But instead of getting into the addiction and bigotry that still runs rampant in Hampstead and Carroll County, I'll tell this little tale:

When I was in high school, and swing music was having its resurgence, our theatre department wanted to put on a stage production of the Disney movie, “Swing Kids.” So we wrote to Disney asking for permission. They didn’t answer, so we just got to work. Lots of money was spent procuring era-appropriate sets and costumes, and everything was going pretty well. But the week of the opening, Disney finally got back to us...with a Cease & Desist letter. Our tiny school in the middle of nowhere was going to be in big trouble if we didn’t change the character names, the play title, alter the lines, and take NO MONEY for the show. After months of hard work, the cast was allowed to perform at the dress rehearsal, and the rest of the run was canceled. I’m sure Disney was relieved we didn’t pick their pockets for allllllll those profits we would’ve made.

Give us a summary of your poetry book and the type of poems you write.

Strange Nests is a collection of horror blackout poetry made from the pages of the classic novel, The Secret Garden. For those who aren’t familiar with blackout poetry, it’s made by searching an existing page of prose for a hidden poem, then using visual art to “blackout” the rest of the words. But you can also remove the superfluous words by using tape to rip them off the page. Or you can cut the words out of the poem and use them in a collage. With Strange Nests, I did quite a bit of experimentation with collage and illustration to convey the somber and sometimes horrifying themes conveyed in these poems.

Sometimes I’m still shocked that this book exists, as I never expected to do a follow-up of my Bram Stoker Award-nominated poetry collection A Complex Accident of Life so soon. But I didn’t expect my brother to die in January either. Strange Nests started as something to distract me from my grief, but it ended up being a chronicle of my grief. Using The Secret Garden, which is rife with themes of death and rebirth itself, the blackout poems in this collection tell a heartbreaking and sometimes gruesome story of loss, family, and transformation that is extremely personal, yet universal.

How does poetry inspire you to express yourself? Have you ever performed your work?

Poetry allows me to connect with people on a visceral level quicker than when I’m layering and building characters and plots in longer works, which I absolutely love, but blackout poetry in particular gives me the opportunity to use more than words. I’ve been a writer all my life, but I always wanted to be a visual artist too. My mom bought me all kinds of supplies so I could find my niche--charcoal, watercolors, clay, etc--and I had a bit of talent in each area, but sometime in my adolescence, when my brother’s bullying was getting really bad, I stopped entirely. He and his friends teased me so horribly about my art they actually convinced me I was terrible at it. It wasn’t until Strange Nests that I dove back into illustration; I even used a set of watercolor crayons I’ve had since childhood to create a few pieces, and it felt wonderful. A little sad too, I guess, since I lost so much time because of bullying. But most of the time, I’m just so grateful to have found blackout poetry, to marry writing and visual art in a way I’ve been longing for my entire life--and, maybe most importantly, to reclaim my power.

And yes, I do perform my work when possible! I used to participate in poetry nights at local cafe years back, and I’m recording an as yet unpublished poem in a couple of days to be shared as part of the Worcester Public Library’s Dial-A-Story program. It’s nerve wracking, of course, but I love reading my work in public. I feel so giddy afterward.

If you could pick one song to describe this collection, what would it be?

Wow, that’s a tough one! There are definitely a bunch that fit the bill, but the first one to pop into my mind was “Trouble Child” by Joni Mitchell. Of course, Joni Mitchell lives rent-free in my mind 24/7, so maybe that’s not a huge surprise.

It’s the holiday season! Write a haiku about Christmas! (or whichever you celebrate.)

The lights never last.

Each year a new string twinkles

Then dwindles like snow.

(I guess the fact that I have to buy more Christmas lights was in the forefront of my mind today.)

You’ve written fiction as well, tell us about the kind of fictional stories you write about!

Most of my stories fall under a horror umbrella, though I’m something of a genre-masher as well. I’m a firm believer in real life being a big ol’ goulash of genres, and my stories reflect that belief in a huge way. My YA series, the Darla Decker Diaries, is a good example of how I incorporate horror and fantasy into stories that are intended to be grounded in reality. There aren’t any monsters or murderers in the Darla Decker Diaries, but there are first periods and humiliating viral videos. Readers experience Darla’s fantasies about how a situation might go, then they experience the reality of it, which is usually far more unpleasant. There’s flashlight tag and first loves, but there’s also death, divorce, and D minuses.

On the whole, however, I most enjoy writing dark and often disturbing fiction with characters that aren’t afraid to show the ugly and destructive parts of themselves, like my addiction-horror novel The Green Kangaroos published by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Or my forthcoming 70s cult horror novel, Hares in the Hedgerow.

What are two of your favorite books? Least favorite?

Two of my absolute favorites are The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi and Skin & Other Stories by Roald Dahl. As for my least favorite...I honestly can’t think of any. If I don’t like a book I just set it down and kinda forget about it, so nothing’s coming to mind.

Do you have any other hobbies or businesses that you would like to share?

Not really. I just want to urge everyone out there to shop local and/or small businesses this holiday and support your favorite artists and makers!

Do you have any upcoming book specials/giveaways or events?

I’m selling books and blackout poetry at my favorite hometown brewery, Idiom Brewing Co, this Sunday, and once I finish the books I’m currently working on, I’ll be reopening poetry commissions on my website.

How can readers keep up with you? Post your social media usernames!

I’m most active on Instagram at @thejessmchugh, which is also my Twitter and TikTok handle. Come say HI! But be prepared for lots of cute cats, wacky writing, and dorky dancing. I also sell pre-made and commissioned blackout poetry on my website,, and run a patreon at with a tier that includes receiving a one-of-a-kind blackout poem monthly by snail mail.

Where can readers buy your book? Share a link or two!

Strange Nests is available on Amazon and direct from Apokrupha Publishing, where it’s available in ebook and an absolutely stunning print edition. By the way, that gorgeous cover was created by Lynne Hansen, who also did the cover for my Frankenstein-inspired collection A Complex Accident of Life. She’s a truly spectacular artist I’ve been so lucky to work with.

Anything else you would like to share?

I just want to thank everyone for the support and the inspirado you give me every day. I’m so grateful to be able to share my art and grow as an artist in a diverse community full of amazing and talented humans. Thank you!!

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