Inside Columbia


Laura McHugh Publishes Fifth Novel, Reflects on Career

By Jordan Durham
bookshelf laura mchugh

safeandsound wquoteIt’s been 10 years since Laura McHugh’s first book, The Weight of Blood, became a best seller, international award winner and seen in magazines such as Vogue and Entertainment Weekly. Not only has the publishing landscape changed in this time, but so too has the mystery and thriller genre, as well as society’s appetite for true crime.

Now, McHugh has published her much anticipated fifth work of fiction, Safe and Sound, which debuted on April 23. In its pages, young sisters, Amelia and Kylee, are asleep in their beds one night in small-town Beaumont, Missouri while their cousin, Grace, is babysitting. They wake up to find she has vanished from the house, leaving a horrifying scene in her wake. Six years later, the girls are nearing the end of high school and envisioning the nearly unobtainable dream of life outside of Beaumont when human remains are found.

“I’m always writing about families at the heart of my stories,” McHugh says. “This book is the small-town girls wanting to get out but feeling like it’s a dead end, like how I grew up. But family is there and life and history, and that’s hard.”

With a penchant for disappearances and crimes in small towns, as well as strong female characters, McHugh still finds story ideas not hard to come by. Yet, there’s a fine line between sensationalism and interest in a story. With this in mind, McHugh finds it important to honor her characters, as inevitably there is someone’s true story likely at its foundation, whether she’s heard about it or not.

“The victim’s point of view is very important,” she says. “When they’re a fleshed out human being and not just the victim.” And when it comes to women who find themselves drawn to true crime podcasts, such as the successful “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered,” novels and news stories, McHugh sees some of the motives behind the interest. “So many women are murdered, assaulted, stalked. These things happen in real life, and people aren’t talking about it. So, it’s totally understandable that a lot of women follow true crime.”

The nature of digital media has changed readership, and in turn, the publishing industry. Rather than fully relying on a publishing team with marketing, now authors are expected to continuously promote their books, which ends up being easier said than done.

“What worked before might not work now,” McHugh says. “Now, if a TikTok influencer talks about your book then it might hit the best seller list, but you can’t plan for that. Publishers are always trying to figure that out in this new landscape and all the attention for books, just trying to capture that attention in new ways.”

To say that bringing awareness to how frequently women go missing is important to McHugh would be an understatement. Her novels tell fictitious stories with elements of real cases, her social media is where those elements can be discussed and fleshed out. Her TikTok, for instance, may only have four videos, but combined they have a total of almost 2.5 million views.

The videos discuss the case of Cassidy Rainwater, a woman who went missing in the Ozarks in 2021. She was reported missing six weeks after she was last seen. The FBI received a tip in the case with photos of her in a cage on property outside of Lebanon, Missouri. Ultimately, her remains were found on that same property in a deep freezer. Additional photos obtained showed Rainwater dismembered and disemboweled.

“The sheriff down there got really angry,” McHugh says in reference to the videos. “He released a statement about people trying to become TikTok famous talking about this. That’s something that really bothers me because these horrible things are happening to women. Women are being put in cages, women are being hung up on cranes and eviscerated. On one hand, I understand they don’t want people interfering with them doing their job. I respect that, but don’t tell people they can’t (talk about it). Not talking about crimes never helped anybody.”

Returning home safe and sound is the best outcome any of these cases can end in, which is why the title of McHugh’s novel, Safe and Sound, resonates with the book’s contents, but also the broader nature of crimes committed on women. The impact when it’s not just that the women don’t return home, but when they don’t return home under the most gruesome circumstances.

“I feel like there’s always an audience for thrillers and mystery novels. There’s room for all different types. I don’t think they’re going to go away. I think there’s always going to be an appetite.”

Luckily readers won’t need to wait long to whet their appetites after Safe and Sound, as her sixth book is already under contract. It is tentatively titled The Way through the Woods.

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