Scrabbling a Hole Under Reality’s Fence: An Interview With Carmen Maria Machado

“I believe in a world where impossible things happen.” This admission comes from the narrator of “Mothers,” one of the stories from Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties. In Machado’s fiction—queer, expansive, and formally daring—impossible things do happen: one by one, women turn transparent and insubstantial; girls-with-bells-for-eyes haunt a detective named Olivia Benson (yes, that one); and one character discovers, while working through a devastating trauma, that she can read the minds of actors in pornographic films. If Machado is adept at showing us these alternate worlds, her book also reminds us, in some of its most terrifying moments, of the things that can and do happen in our own.

Machado’s fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications, as well as the anthologies Best American Science Fiction & FantasyBest Horror of the YearYear’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the Artist in Residence. We corresponded in the month leading up to the publication of Her Body and Other Parties, a finalist for both the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award. 


YLM: One of the first things we hear from the narrator of “The Husband Stitch,” the opening story, is, “This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them.” How conscious are you of the way your writing “breaks the rules”? Do you ever feel compelled to defend the choices you make, or offer your critics, as the narrator of “The Husband Stitch” does, a defiant “deal with it”? 

CMM: It’s strange, because as a teacher of writing I’m constantly making my students defend their choices. That’s my job. You can’t break a rule until you know what the rule is, right? But as a writer I don’t have to defend what I do—the work (should) speak for itself.

YLM: Later on in “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator confides, “I have always been a teller of stories.” She goes on to remember a moment when, as a child, she saw toes in the produce aisle of a grocery store. Her mother scolds her, and her father works to convince her she was mistaken. “As a grown woman,” the narrator says, “I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account of the story.”  What is the relationship between being “a teller of stories” and a liar? And is it different for women?

CMM: That sentence is supposed to be a double entendre of sorts. Colloquially, “stories” can mean falsehoods, but it can also mean reality in narrative form. So here, she’s both referencing what people tell her she’s telling (lies) and what she is telling (the truth). I think not being believed is a pretty familiar experience to most women.

(I should add: whenever I hear a writer say something to the effect of, “I’m a professional liar!” I always shudder. People think it’s funny, but it’s such a weird way to think about fiction, which of course is all about truth, regardless of the vehicle it’s delivered in.)

YLM: You’ve been compared to writers like Karen Russell and Kelly Link, both of whom are prominent writers of short fiction (though Russell is maybe best known for the novel Swamplandia!). Why do you think it is that stories involving elements of science fiction or horror so often take on a shorter form? 

CMM: Both novels and short stories have their own unique features. A short story permits you to deal with an idea in a more crystalized way, while a novel allows you to roam. Certain SF&F concepts have the scaffolding to hold up an entire novel—ideas that are complex and multi-faceted. But others are… I don’t know. They burn hotter and brighter and faster. They’re hard to sustain for 200 pages. I’m better at the latter. Some people are better at the former. I also think that a lot of science fiction/fantasy writers experiment with concepts in short stories, because it’s like a tiny laboratory to help you find your way around a particular world or idea before you commit to a larger-scale project.

YLM: In the story “Mothers” there’s a section in which the narrator describes the life that she once dreamed of sharing with her abusive partner Bad. What we get is a sort of queer utopian retreat, an isolated old chapel where Patricia Highsmith is exalted and “the age of men” is a distant memory. Why spend so much time laying out the details of this vision, and how should we interpret the gap between this scenario and the story’s actual circumstances?

CMM: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been capable of elaborate, heady daydreams. Those motherfuckers went deep—they had rooms and closets and basements, like a house, and dimensions of time. A diorama into my subconscious. There’s something very telling about fantasies, obviously, and I think the baroque quality of my own isn’t just about imagination—it’s about the intensity of the desire to escape, like I’m scrabbling a hole under reality’s fence and I can’t stop.

The protagonist of “Mothers”—well, it’s not that she’s me, precisely, but she’s drawn from my own experience and filtered through my consciousness. The scenario she concocts is meant to reflect the pleasure of fantasy and its ultimate pain—that not only is the fantasy lofty and idyllic and unattainable, but the disintegrating real-life situation is pulling further and further away from it. And the more it does, the more deep and terrible the chasm between.

YLM: The narrator of “The Resident” finds herself defending her fiction to another resident of the artists’ colony, Lydia: “Men are permitted to write concealed autobiography, but I cannot do the same? It’s ego if I do it?” The story is, of course, playing with the blurry edge between author and narrator (this one’s initials are C.M.). Have you faced criticism for writing autobiographically? What form does your life take in your work?

CMM: Weirdly, the most criticism I’ve ever faced about using elements of my life in my work came from a very terrible ex, a fellow writer who chastised me for relying so heavily on my own life and not my imagination. I don’t really know what to say about that, except it’s stupid and anyone who says something similar doesn’t have a great grasp of what writing really is.

I’d say my work is about 60% autobiographical. By that I mean about 60% of the scenes that I write have some origins in my own experience, though of course it’s always being filtered through the lens of the story and the story’s world and characters. I don’t think this is a particularly high percentage, or that this is a very weird way of writing. I think most writers draw from their own lives to some degree. Our brains are a huge slurry of experiences and ideas and fantasies and books we’ve read and theories and conversations and observations, and stories come out of that mix because where else the hell would they come from? So of course people’s lives are echoed in their writing.

I also don’t have anything to say about how we fetishize male writers who write autobiographically and punish female writers who do the same that hasn’t been said before by smarter people. But of course male writers are lauded for it, and women are labelled self-indulgent or lacking in imagination. We live in a terrible world.

YLM: “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites” both deal, in very different ways, with women becoming smaller. In “Eight Bites” it’s a choice, a weight loss surgery taken to the extreme; in “Real Women…” it’s something that happens against each woman’s will. Did these stories develop as alternate takes on similar questions? How do you see them in conversation?

CMM: I think society wants women to be small, and so I think women have learned to want to be small.

YLM: In your essay “How to Suppress Women’s Criticism,” you quote Brit Mandelo’s point that that “feminist history is in a state of perpetual erasure,” and that it’s important, in criticism, to document extensively the “networks of talented women writing.” This got me thinking about classic horror stories, and how we don’t often know where they come from. I remember most of the tales retold in “The Husband Stitch” from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but I know he didn’t invent them. It’s different from, say, Law and Order: SVU. Does it change things—politically, aesthetically—when you’re writing with/against source material of mysterious origin versus material with a more concrete history?

CMM: When you’re dealing with work that has arisen from history, or culture’s collective consciousness, or is sufficiently old that it’s been retold a million times, it’s a little easier to fuck around with it. People are (slightly) less invested in telling women or queer folks or people of color what they can and can’t “do” with it. When you’re using material with more definite authorship—even if it’s in the realm of parody/satire and legally defensible on fair use grounds—there’s such defensiveness and angst and fan ownership. Aesthetically, it’s very satisfying to take a piece of contemporary culture to task because there’s potential for reflection, change. Less so if you’re reinterpreting a two-hundred-year-old fairy tale, for example.

YLM: Your memoir House in Indiana is set to come out in the Fall of 2019. Can you talk at all about this project? Do you see it as related to this book and/or your other fiction? Do you tend to work on multiple projects simultaneously?

CMM: I’ve been trying to write about a particular experience of mine, and a larger history/analysis of abuse in same-sex relationships, for years now. I wrote a few fictional stories that grappled with it that I liked—including “Mothers” in Her Body and Other Parties, and another one called “Blur” in this past summer’s Tin House—but all of the nonfiction fell flat.

Then I came up with the idea to use genre tropes as lenses through which I could view and consider my experience. It gave me a kind of fictional distance I needed, to help cut the melodrama off at the knees. So I started keeping notes about genre tropes that seemed to speak to my memories—haunted houses, ghost stories, space operas, murder mysteries. Eventually, those notes became a draft of House in Indiana. I was slowly chipping away at it last year when I was editing Her Body and Other Parties at my residencies. When Graywolf asked me for another book, I realized I had one, and I wanted to work on it with them.

I always have, like, eight things going at once. I have notes for half-a-dozen novels, and an essay collection in-progress, and other things besides. When I get bored or frustrated, I switch to something else.

YLM: In an interview you mention that you consider “Difficult at Parties” the story “that started the way I write now.” Why did you choose to close the collection with it?

CMM: For years, when I submitted this book to agents and editors and contests, “Difficult at Parties” was actually the first story in the collection. For a long time, I considered it my best, so it seemed wise to open with it. When Ethan and I were discussing the collection’s order, he felt very strongly about opening with “The Husband Stitch,” and I agreed. When I stood back and looked at the stories, I realized that, despite its subject matter, “Difficult at Parties” was actually the most optimistic one in the whole book. It ends on a note of openness, of potential renewal. I realized that I wanted a reader to leave my book feeling shaken up but, ultimately, hopeful.

YLM: Last, I saw that the book’s title got hilariously garbled in a fall preview listicle, becoming “Her Physique and Different Events,” by—you joked—your doppelgänger Cameron Marie MacAdoo. In the spirit of “Especially Heinous”: if your doppelgänger had written an alternate version of the book, what would it be like?

CMM: Oh wow. I don’t know! I suppose it’s like mine, but more obscure. It probably references Heidegger and Žižek. I bet there’s some folks who would like it a lot more.

—Introduction and interview by Tom Cusano