(Photo courtesy of Jennifer May)
Meet Erin McHugh
Bookseller/Author, witty and fun!
Isn’t it nice to have a few good friends? It makes me feel happy in many ways, that the people I care for in my life, remind me that there is value for the effort it takes to keep in touch. Even as the years pass, a lot of us remain pretty much unchanged and even if we don't see each other that often, we appreciate our time together more and more. Erin is one of those unchanged people. We met in college, waaaay back when, at Skidmore.
Skidmore College is filled with cool, smart people - she is one of them – an upbeat woman, full of wit and humor. I’m lucky she lives quite close to me here in NYC now and works a few streets away, at Barnes and Noble. Erin says she is a bookseller, but really that’s just a cover for her real job: Author. For the years I have known her since college, she is constantly at work: Book by book. Who would have thought that this former party partaker - par excellence - would become so focused on writing the most entertaining of books? Throughout the years, I would see her at alumni gatherings or fundraising events, unfailingly cheerful. The conversation usually started this way:
Me: -“So, what are you up to Erin?”- Her: -“Working on my next book, selling books...same thing.”- Ha! Same thing? Ever so humble, she'll speak in general terms about “the next book” but quickly pass on to other subjects. Soon enough though, I will receive an email announcement for a reading by the author: Erin McHugh, at our neighborhood Barnes and Noble. I try to make it every time. There are always a lot of Erin’s friends, more and more people I don’t know and get to know while waiting. Friends brag about the length of time they have known her, others gush about the books they read and loved. Erin enters the room like she owns the place, greeting people and joking around, but as soon as she props the book on the lectern, people quiet down. Thanks to her natural stage presence, she reads as if she were telling a story. She stops frequently, laughs at herself, includes funny asides and before she is finished, the crowd is warmed up, visibly entertained and loving this magnetic performance. Best of all, the room is most always full. That proves her popularity, even at 6:30 PM on a weekday night, people come to see and meet Erin.
One of her latest books, SECOND CHANCES is a compilation of inspiring do-overs. On the evening of the launch reading, Erin selected a story about a woman who, in the same week, lost her job followed by a fire that burned down her home of forty years. The magnitude of grief took its toll on the family, and almost tore apart her marriage with the stress of multiple moves and makeshift housing. After the shock of those events passed, she came to appreciate something most people take for granted. She watched the sunrise one morning and reminded herself that on every beautiful day, it always would. It made her suddenly thankful she did not lose one family member in that fire and that all her things were just that: things, and could eventually be replaced. Soon after that realization, the job she applied for came through followed by a new place to live, together as a family. More than what she lost, she regained with peace and stability. After Erin finished reading this story, silence ensued. That very woman was sitting in the audience and was moved to tears, as we were. There were many other touching stories from that book; also some funny, some sad; but it was the thread of profound optimism that wove these "second chances" into a common theme. Under "Acknowledgments" in the book, Erin summed it up with eloquence: "And mostly thank-you to my Dad; even now, many years after he's been gone, those who loved him laugh at what a relentless optimist he was. I am very lucky that he passed that trait on to me, and I treasure it. For me, there's always another chance, another bit of excitement, just around the bend".
I wasn't certain of how our interview would turn out. It's one thing to go to a reading or listen to her describe her books. Now it was up to me to bring out the Erin I knew. Luckily, I had a chance to ask her some questions before I filmed, and I hope you will watch. True to herself and to her unique style of colorful clothing, she came to the interview relaxed, fit and tanned. “I just came back from New England and I had a great time!”, she was pleased to tell me. Well, the enthusiasm was contagious and after we had time to catch up, both of us were ready for some fun. How could I have doubted for a second that she would be nothing short of wonderful? She really was - I am happy to say- a natural, like always!
Here are some of the questions below she answered on camera and off. She has style and panache, and makes a fabulous iconic woman for this month of October!
Please make sure to watch the clip.
Janine: Where are you from and how did you come to settle in New York?
Erin: I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the town of Moby-Dick, and the former whaling capital of the world. I came to New York to start my life in the publishing industry, a happy decision, as it turns out. I’ve done one thing or another in the business for 40 years.
Janine: At which point did you decide to become a writer? What helped shape that decision and what helped you hold on to it?
Erin: When I was in 4th grade, I had written a homework essay that I thought was really good. It had a beginning, middle and an ending, even! The teacher asked me to read it in front of the class, and when I was finished, everyone clapped. I thought, “ This is for me”. Storytelling. For much of my career I was a copywriter and creative director, so I was always writing.
Janine: What helps keep your inspiration alive?
Erin: Well, I think it’s always looking at new things. Moving forward and seeing what’s next.
Janine: What encumbrances do you see writers face today?
Erin: The publishing industry gets harder and harder to break into, both for kids trying to break into the business, and for authors to sell books.
Publishers buy lots of celebrity and big name books that don’t make them money, which means the first novelist suffers.
Janine: Do you feel literature in general, has been sacrificed by electronic forms of “burst style” communication? By this, I also mean the absence of any detailed form of communication?
Erin: Absolutely. People read short takes now on the internet, and there’s lots of concern that millennials aren’t reading books. That said, even though folks love to say “People don’t read books anymore,” there are more independent bookstores making it than there have been in years. And as for spelling and style, emoji and acronyms, it’s a slippery slope, and I find myself sliding down it more and more. I had my annual fight with a friend about the use of the Oxford comma recently, so I feel my ship has righted again.
Janine: Do you have mentors or people you admire who have been a source of admiration for you?
Erin: Certainly along the way I’ve had bosses and editors and other publishing folk who have helped me enormously. But for me, whenever I start to write something new, I go reread lots of Nora Ephron. Her ability to write like you’re sitting next to her at a dinner party is enormously charming.
Janine: Tell us some of the books you most enjoyed writing?
Erin: I loved writing my recent history book, POLITICAL SUICIDE, about American politicians from the past. It took me down rabbit holes I didn’t know existed, and the stories were just too crazy to even imagine. Also my book ONE GOOD DEED, where I tried – not always successfully! –to do a good deed every day for a year. A great experience.
Janine: What are some things you enjoy doing outside of work?
Erin: Reading and writing take up a lot of my free time, and I just love exploring New York City. Even though I’ve been here forty years now, it keeps changing, and I keep chasing after it! Also, I have a little house in Massachusetts that I bought last year, and I’ve been enjoying fixing that up. It’s where I grew up, and I’m lucky enough to have most of my family.