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Montana author Beth McHugh’s ‘The Actor’ explores struggles of accepting your ‘true self’

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Montana author Beth McHugh’s debut novel “The Actor, at it’s heart, is a book about the challenges people can face when it comes to being open about who you actually are or hiding it away, especially when that decision can impact your family in huge ways.

McHugh last week gave a reading at Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls. She’s also doing several readings elsewhere across the state to help promote it.

McHugh said the idea for the book came from a family story, but said it’s not an autobiographical tale. There were parts that actually happened, but a lot of it is fictional, as well.

The story is set in the late 1960s in a fictional Montana town. It follows 13-year-old Grace, her younger sister Franny, their ‘beautiful’ mother and their beloved father, and a secret that could cause their family to crumble.

McHugh said she set the novel in Montana because it’s the setting she knew the best, and because a rural Montana town could best help highlight the book’s theme.

“I wasn’t sure I could capture the nuances of some other place as well,” she said. “A small-town, somewhat rural setting also seemed important since ‘hiding vs. truth’ is a theme throughout the story and in my mind a rural, 1960s-era town would contain that kind of mystery or secrecy more than a 1960s-era big city might.”

Beth McHugh won the inaugural Meadowlark Award for women writers with her debut novel "The Actor."
Beth McHugh won the inaugural Meadowlark Award for women writers with her debut novel “The Actor.”

The book, which you can purchase online or at Cassiopeia in Great Falls, won McHugh the inaugural Meadowlark Award, which was created by Riverbend Publishing and the Sterry family. The annual award is given out to women writers who had never published a book before and submitted a manuscript about Montana and set somewhere in the state.

“The Actor” is set in Montana, but McHugh said she didn’t want to write about our state in ways that have done so many times before already.

“I love Montana, but because so many beautiful odes to Montana exist, it can feel trite to attempt that again,” she said. “I wanted the setting to be Montana, but not obviously so.”

The book shines in its descriptions and the vivid pictures those create. McHugh said she feels that way of setting a scene is one of the strong parts of the book that help it make a reader get lost in the moments.

“I’ve always had to work at dialogue, but I feel I’m better at internal monologues and descriptive writing,” she said. “Like anything I write there’s certain strengths and weaknesses that maybe only I might notice, but I feel really good about how this book turned out.”

McHugh said while she didn’t write the book with a particular “message” in mind, she said if people find one while reading it, she hopes that they come to see Grace’s father David’s struggle as a metaphor for bigger issues.

“Above all, I hope that people won’t come away from the book thinking that the father (David) is somehow the ‘bad’ guy in this situation,” she said. “Rather he is like all of us in the sense that he struggles with his true self and with the choice to either hide or embrace that true self. I think you could say that this is a story about confronting truth … about reality vs. pretending.”

When she’s not writing, McHugh is an English teacher at Hamilton High School. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana in 2009 and a Master’s of Education in 2015.

For more on McHugh, or to purchase her book online, check out her page at Riverbend Publishing.

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