Carmen Maria Machado lives on the first floor of an old Victorian building in West Philadelphia. When I arrive—I live in the same neighborhood full of cracked sidewalks and leafy oaks—Carmen greets me wearing a fuchsia satin turban and shows me into the kitchen. “I’m thinking about drawing,” she says, running her fingers over a notebook of crisp, heavy stock and a package of new drawing pencils. “I think there is something that happens with drawing that I’d like to explore. Some way of mapping a feeling or bringing intensity.” On the table, beside the drawing supplies and her wife’s several tarot decks, lies a copy of Emily Carroll’s graphic novel Through the Woods. “Look,” Carmen says, opening the glossy pages to an image of a girl and an enormously frightening tentacle. “Look how scary! It gives me bad dreams.” I empathize. Everyone we know seems to be having bad dreams right now.
Her apartment is a welcoming vintage chic and her fashion is inspired as ever (part girly, part goth), but to sit and be with Carmen is chiefly to be in relationship with a voice. She is storyteller above all else. Hum goes the tea kettle, clank goes the spoon, and you are propped on your elbow listening, as if around a campfire. “However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page,” wrote Mary Karr. It turns out that “charm” derives from the Latin “carmen”—a poem or song. And sing, or perhaps vibrate, is a good verb for what Carmen’s stories do. They are unmistakably active and alive. “You’ll need both sides of yourself—the beautiful and the beastly—to hold a reader’s attention,” Karr continued. Carmen Maria Machado’s work offers us both.
In her acclaimed book of short stories Her Body and Other Parties: Stories (a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award)—but also in her work as an essayist, observer, critic, thinker—Carmen maps the contours and limits of the choices we make in order to live in a world of contradictions, yet somehow also manages to carve out pockets where the rules do not apply, where the sum is always greater than zero. In this collection, a woman at a residency betters her art while slowly going mad. A woman whose only private possession is the green ribbon she wears around her neck finds that her hot, perfect husband simply cannot let her have this one thing to herself. A woman working retail comes to suspect that the dresses on her racks are becoming inhabited, as she comes into her own sexuality. Some critics have attributed Machado’s impact to her subject matter: the moments where magic, horror, and science fiction crop up in her work. I reckon the force of her work has more to do with something closer to this world: language.
“In the beginning, before the city, there was a creature,” she writes in “Especially Heinous,” a story that riffs supernaturally on the TV series Law & Order: SVU. “Genderless, ageless. The city flies on its back. We hear it, all of us, in one way or another. It demands sacrifices. But it can only eat what we give it.” Even in this story, which unravels the logic of a crime show that consumes women’s bodies like candy, Carmen ekes out moments of joy. Throughout all of her work, there is delight. And there is desire, for its own sake, just because it’s fun. “I took a guy home after a date and made him beg me to take my clothes off, just to see if I could do it,” she writes in her essay “The Trash Heap Has Spoken.” “I could.”
Over two hours in her house, as the light waned, we moved from the kitchen to the living room and discussed everything from our historical fiction passion projects to Carmen’s upcoming memoir about same-sex abusive relationships to the difference between a book that rearranges your DNA and one that doesn’t. For most of our conversation, Carmen lay reclined on a velvet settee, covered by a dark blue fuzzy blanket that she pulled ever closer to her face—so that with each passing moment, it came more and more to resemble a hooded riding cloak.
—Emma Copley Eisenberg for Guernica
Guernica: I’ve seen so many beautiful and intense reactions to Her Body and Other Parties. There were women tweeting at you that they were wearing green ribbons around their necks for Halloween, a reference to the first story in the collection. What surprised you most about how the book was received?
Carmen Maria Machado: That was so cool and amazing and weird, those women. I guess the intensity of people’s feelings about my book—I did not expect that. On my book tour, there were a lot of readers who took the quick moment at the signing to tell me that I had written them, or the story just for them, and they loved it so much. Especially baby queers, so many baby queers. Bring on the baby queers. And I know you’re not supposed to do this, but I do read what people write about the book on Amazon and Goodreads. People there would get so angry at the book, or at me! A lot of people! It was amazing, the intensity of feeling people had about my choices, or about the way I handled things, especially the genre elements.
Guernica: It seems like you really touched something deep in people with these stories—whether provoking baby queer love or dude vitriol, or both. It makes me think that you are probably giving people something they have been needing or wanting for a long time.
Carmen Maria Machado: I also got the sense that a lot of people who don’t normally read short stories were reading my book, either because it had been recommended to them or because they saw it on a list. And so I was hearing from a lot of readers who don’t necessarily feel super comfortable with the vocabulary of short stories, and who were wanting something that a short story isn’t necessarily trying to deliver.
Guernica: You’ve said that every story in the collection has at some point been described as both the best and worst story in the book. And Lydia Yuknavitch has said that she thinks you maybe broke the mold for short story collections. What do you make of that?
Carmen Maria Machado: Maybe she’s pointing to the way my work exists outside some of the categories people use a lot—like literary fiction or horror, realist or speculative, queer or mainstream, short story? I think these are slightly different ideas, though. I suspect people disagree about which stories work better than others because they’re so different from each other, and offer different pleasures and different problems—for lack of a better term—for the reader. Like, I can see how someone who loves “Especially Heinous” would feel less enthusiastic about “The Husband Stitch,” and vice versa. There are thematic overlaps but radically different approaches in structure and sensibility. It makes sense that certain stories appeal to certain folks and not others.
Guernica: How much of your DNA as a writer feels wrapped up in the speculative or genre elements of this book?
Carmen Maria Machado: The world of my short fiction does pretty much feel like the world to me. I don’t set out to insert speculative elements, they just happen if it seems right for that particular story. I’ve written lots of stories without speculative elements; the book I’m working on now—not the memoir, but the one after that—is essentially about memory and the way it works.
Guernica: Is queerness a part of it, too? In another interview, you said that when you’re queer you can see things that other people can’t see, and it can feel like you are living in some other dimension or that you’re crazy.
Carmen Maria Machado: I definitely think so—and I also don’t know, because that is the way I have always seen and felt. Queerness is so baked into my identity and my work that it’s impossible to separate it from the other elements. I just try to write for me; I don’t worry about audience because I think that is a recipe for disaster, and for never writing anything. I get happy when baby queers tell me that my book is meaningful to them, though, because it means I’ve written the book I would have wanted to read when I was a young queer kid. I do worry about being ghettoized as “just” a queer writer, even though a lot of my work is about stuff that has nothing to do with queerness. But at the same time, I don’t understand why people don’t want to be described as queer writers. I’m queer as fuck and so are my stories, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
Guernica: In your story “The Resident,” and in your use of unconventional forms, I sometimes smell a critique of the literary establishment. Did you struggle in your MFA?
Carmen Maria Machado: In my MFA program, I found most of my classmates and teachers to be generally very encouraging and down for whatever I was doing. Other writers struggled before me to establish certain genres in literary spheres—Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Kevin Brockmeier, Helen Oyeyemi, Angela Carter. I’m just stepping into the space they created.
To clarify: The narrative that “literary fiction” is universally hostile to genre fiction and experimentation is real, but dated. I get asked about this all the time, even though it’s never been my personal experience. It certainly happens sometimes—you get pockets of conservative thinking in every genre and every art form, including genre fiction!—but I also think people are hungry for interesting, boundary-pushing work right now, and the conversation about genre has become, for me, pretty reductive and boring. Write what you want to write, and don’t worry about the rest.
Guernica: You seem to be attracted to the historical, and looking to the past for interesting characters, particularly ones who are femme and queer. Where does that impulse come from?
Carmen Maria Machado: I’m always reading, I’m always researching, I’m always on the lookout. Especially now, when it’s a really busy time but not necessarily one with a huge production of new words, research is great. I’m also a little bit of a novice at it; it’s a little scary, I don’t want to get things wrong. I’m really excited about a story I’m working on about queer BDSM relationships and weird power dynamics in the Grand Guignol, this horror theater in Paris that was open from 1897 to 1962 and was all about the spectacle of pain and pleasure.
Guernica: I’m thinking about your style, your clothes, and the ways those things are meaningful to you. I know you’re active in the fatshion community. Have you always been into style?
Carmen Maria Machado: Nope, definitely not. As a teen, I was always fat, or fat-ish, and I spent a lot of years not knowing how to dress myself, not knowing what looked good on me. I wore a lot of jeans and t-shirts. Just after college, I started reading a lot of fatshion blogs on LiveJournal, and then my friend and I flip-flopped sizes and decided to exchange wardrobes, so suddenly I had this whole new closet of clothes and I realized how important clothes are to making a self that you can recognize and that reflects your aesthetic and your voice and where you come from. Suddenly, I was having all this fun with clothes! And I didn’t want it to stop. I take fashion inspiration from my grandmother, whom I wrote about in my essay “The Trash Heap Has Spoken”—her jewels and broaches and perfumes. One day, I’m going to have a whole dressing area for all my stuff; that’s my dream. But now for the first time I have a little bit of disposable income so I can really experiment. I’m getting really into dresses and clothes that have unconventional shapes, like batwing dresses.
Guernica: That’s so wonderful, and it makes me think about how fat women are always told they “can’t” wear certain things or that they should only wear things that are “flattering.”
Carmen Maria Machado: It’s like in the article you wrote about Frump for Bust, right? Suddenly women and femmes are starting to say, “I want to wear that just because I like it, or just because it’s interesting.”
Guernica: I sometimes shy away from including pop culture in my writing, because I worry it might be seen as not serious or literary. How did references to film, television, and online culture make their way into your work?
Carmen Maria Machado: I’ve never had a fear that pop culture references will be seen as un-serious or un-literary. Everyone in the world now engages with all kinds of very specific avenues of pop culture—weird little puzzle games! police and medical procedurals! zit-popping videos on YouTube! early aughts LiveJournal drama! really dark picture books! interactive fiction!—and it never occurred to me to leave them out. And then sometimes, they become the core of the story.
Guernica: Like with the Law and Order story, “Especially Heinous”?
Carmen Maria Machado: Yes, definitely. That was another story people seemed to have a lot of feelings about. A lot of folks were like, “It’s too long! It’s too weird!” I had some folks suggest to me in early workshop days, “Well, couldn’t you just trim it?” I didn’t want to; I liked the formality of its structure and strict adherence to its conceit. Plus, that’s the whole point of SVU, right? Its weird excess. These days we can open up a computer and binge-watch almost two decades’ worth of this bizarre show about rape. I wanted the story to feel like that.
Guernica: So what are you afraid of?
Carmen Maria Machado: I’m afraid of writing about race, actually. Even though I’m a woman of color, I’m more or less white-passing. With this historical story, I’m really trying to stretch myself past my comfort zone. The character is mixed-race, and she is in that place that I have been in a lot where people are like, “What are you, exactly?” I really want to do justice to how violent that question is. But it’s a very scary and vulnerable place to be in.
Also, I’m afraid of this memoir! With memoir, there is no place to hide; the screen of fiction is gone and it feels really naked, really vulnerable. I’m afraid people are going to ask me all kinds of overly personal questions when it comes out. But really, I’m afraid that I’m going to get it wrong. Because so little has been written about abuse in same-sex relationships, I couldn’t really read and immerse myself in what already exists—there isn’t much at all. So I had to try my hardest to remember my experience and what felt terrifying and contradictory about it. I’m really afraid that someone who has been through a same-sex abusive relationship is going to read my book and throw it down and be like, “Ugh, that wasn’t my experience at all, she got it totally wrong.”
Guernica: That reminds me of the Roxane Gay essay where she essentially argues that whenever someone shows up to create media that doesn’t suck—whether it doesn’t suck in terms of race or gender or fatness or whatever—everyone who has been starving for that thing comes out of the woodwork either to adore it or criticize it. In that essay, she basically says that Girls is not the show about girlhood she would want, it doesn’t represent her experience. But she is glad it exists. People want the show to be everything to everyone, but it can’t, it can only be everything to some people. What we need is not for Girls to go away; what we need is more shows that don’t suck.
Carmen Maria Machado: Yeah. Look, I want to make good art. Every story or book or project is a problem the author is trying to solve. I want to solve the problem of my memoir with grace and aplomb and intelligence. I need that for me. If I can do that, I think everything else will sort itself out. That’s what I’m trying to tell myself, anyway.
Guernica: A writer from The Paris Review observed, about your book, that “it’s rare to encounter an articulation of feminist themes that isn’t self-conscious of them.” What do you think the reviewer meant by that, and does that resonate for you?
Carmen Maria Machado: That does resonate. Obviously I am a feminist and was excited about making a book that was unabashedly feminist, but I think I’m more motivated by things like pleasure and experience and the shows I like and why I like them. I wanted to show a woman enjoying sex, like really enjoying sex. Because why is it that sex in literary books is either really badly done or is, like, really sad and depressing and no one is having any fun? Plus, it’s usually from a man’s perspective. No! Why can’t literary sex also be good sex? That isn’t my life, and it’s not the reality of most women I know. Sex is so interesting from a craft point of view. It’s action, and it reveals more about a character than most anything else. It’s completely embodied. People have really wanted to talk about the sex in Her Body and Other Parties and I’m happy to talk about it, but it surprises me that it’s such a thing. My story “Inventory” started because I thought it would be interesting if I wrote a story made up of sex scenes.
I remember reading Kelly Link’s book Magic for Beginners and being like, “You can do that in a story?” So I started to do it. After reading that book, I was not the same person I was when I started. That was a book that totally rearranged my DNA.
Guernica: I felt that way after reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
Carmen Maria Machado: Me too! She has totally changed what I knew you could with nonfiction. But it’s also cool to remember that not every book does that—change your idea about what a genre can do—and that’s okay. There are books you read and think, This is just a really good version of what it is. There’s pleasure in that too—a Platonic example of a specific type of novel or story.
Guernica: Totally. But I wonder if that’s again why people responded so intensely to your book. Like maybe you re-arranged their DNA a little bit.
Carmen Maria Machado: Maybe so. I would love that.