An Interview with Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the bestselling memoir In the Dream House and the short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of "The New Vanguard," one of "15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century." She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Michener-Copernicus Foundation, Elizabeth George Foundation, CINTAS Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.

Machado spoke with Advocate President Sabrina Li ‘20 by phone in early January. This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

SL: One of the main questions we’re asking in our themed issue “Feast” is what happens when desire is given an audience? What happens when individual hunger turns communal? Your work deals so much with desire––queer desire, female desire, an archival desire to represent the marginalized––and by nature you are expressing those desires publicly. I’m curious what thoughts you have about the expression of desire in your work?

CM: For me, desire is a kind of engine. It's the most interesting thing to me. And the fact that my desire is not met by so much art is definitely part of the engine of my creation. It's partially what brings me to the table––saying I feel this way about certain things, and I think other people do as well. And it's funny that you would talk about it in terms of a feast because I feel like the act of feeding someone else is one of the most human and basic kindnesses that we can do. And it feels connected to the desire to write for myself, and then also by extension for other people. It feels like the center of what I'm doing.

SL: One of the aspects of your work that I admire so much is how you play with the story’s relationship to the reader. For instance, in the chapter “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure” in your memoir and your short story “The Husband Stitch” you give playful and incisive directions to the reader––what voices to read your characters in, how they should feel when they haven’t followed your instructions and read a page they were never supposed to, what the sky should look like after they’ve read a scene. In these pieces of your writing, the work feels almost like a talk story, that it is meant to be spoken aloud. For you, how does the role of the reader operate in your writing, and how does it come up in your drafting process?

CM: Oh, that's such an interesting question. I feel like it really depends. I mean, generally speaking, the reader is actually at the very bottom of my list of people that I'm interested in writing for because I actually believe that I write for myself first. At least I feel that way about my fiction. I had the interesting observation that for this memoir, I feel I actually was writing with a larger audience than myself in mind, because I was thinking a lot about how the narratives that I wanted didn't exist. And so I needed to create them for myself, and then, by extension, for other people. So I feel like I was more aware when writing the second book of who my audience would be. But for my first book, I liked the idea of being playful––of being playful with the reader, whoever they might be, not assuming that I know who they are, but assuming that if they're reading my work that they're in a playful place, you know? I think that is definitely interesting to me and has become a part of my process.

SL: And how did you come to those forms that subvert the reader and playfully chide them? How did you discover those, and how did they emerge in your work?

CM: I mean I think I’ve always liked work that did that. I obviously did not invent that. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Monster at the End of This Book. It follows [the Sesame Street muppet] Grover, and Grover is telling a story where he's like, Don't get to the end of this book, there's a monster. And he's constantly trying to make the reader stop moving, so he tries to brick up the pages, and you turn the page and he's like, Oh, you broke through my bricks. And so the whole book, he's actively fighting you because he doesn't want you to get to the end of the book because there's a monster there. And the twist is that he is the monster at the end of the book. I remember being so enamored with that idea as a child, and so much of what I liked to read had metafictional qualities to it in which the reader was either a character or somebody who was being considered or talked to. I also really loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and that also had a lot of gestures to the reader. And I think just the idea that a writer could reach out of a book in that way was just super-interesting to me. And I feel like there's a lot of ways in which a reader, by reading, the author gets to engage with their brain, and you get to suggest to them things like their complicity in reading, or question their assumptions, or poke back at them, or tell them a joke, and I feel like that's really magical. I really love that.

SL: As I've been reading your work, I've seen that a lot of your writing borrows from fables and fairy tales. What does the world and mechanism of the fairytale open up for you in your writing? How do you negotiate the universalizing and flattening qualities fairytales tend to have?

CM: Fairy tales have that effect by design. The form of the fairy tale flattens, and that creates a depth of response in the reader, which is an idea that Kate Bernheimer has kicked around, and there’s actually a really lovely essay that I teach of hers called “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” So, there's just a lot of space for the reader to go when you have these “flattened” stories or these stories that are dealing in abstractions or a lack of more realistic characterization––this is a feature, not a bug. I've always found fairy tales to be very interesting and useful for my writing. Fairy tales show us that archetypes exist for a reason. And that human stories, while being incredibly diverse, actually have common elements, I think was very helpful and instructive for me, especially for the memoir. I found that actually quite comforting. Because I feel like I went through this weird phase writing that new book where I kept thinking I thought my experience was unique, and it's actually really common, and that's painful. But on the other hand, it's this way of saying like, you're not alone, you know, you exist. You, you human being at this very moment exist in a continuum, you exist in a context, in a space with other people, and I think that's actually kind of beautiful.

SL: An idea that really resonated with me that you talked about in In The Dreamhouse was the idea that trauma and pain, if not exercised to their physical extreme, feel less significant. For example, when you are talking about how you wish you had a mark on your body, a photo as proof of the trauma from your relationship. I was wondering if you could speak more about that––this olympics of trauma, hierarchies of pain.

CM: It's weird because I feel like I don't believe in it, and yet I still engage in it. You know, like, I don't believe me. There are lots of different kinds of pain, and they're not necessarily comparable, or they're not more valid than others. I feel like people right now get very invested in hierarchies of oppression and pain and trauma, and I don't exactly know why. I'm not sure I have a larger societal explanation for it, but I think we are very focused on it, and it really bugs me. And yet I understand it because I understand, you know, what it was like to say I had this experience, but I know that you're not going to give it as much credence as if I showed you a photo with a bruise. And that's sort of the reality that I've had to exist in and I have existed in ever since this experience that I had. So it strikes me as completely unuseful, and yet we sort of feel compelled to engage in it, and that makes me really sad.

SL: Writers are now more and more on social media. Publishers are encouraging writers to craft a public persona. For you, being on Twitter, how does this rise of social media and the public writer interact with the very private, introspective act of writing? How have you reckoned with these tensions as both a fiction writer and a memoirist?

CM: I'm lucky in that I don't feel like I've been pressured to do anything. I think the pressure that comes on writers from social media happens a little more with commercial genres. My publisher would not really care if I was or was not on Twitter. They've never said anything to me about it. I like Twitter, and I'm on it because I like it. And if I ever start really hating it––and I honestly feel like I'm getting to that point because it's become really shitty in the last like six months––I might just leave it because I find it annoying. But I do it because I enjoy it. I like taking photos, and I like talking about stuff that interests me with a large group of people. And as soon as it becomes not interesting, I'll stop doing it. I used to keep a LiveJournal for years in the early aughts, and I did that very actively and was very public, and a lot of people read what I had to say when I was very young, and I really liked it. So I feel like Twitter right now for me is just like LiveJournal. And maybe at some point I'll move on from it. But for now, it's sating a pleasure, a desire. It's a kind of pleasure that I enjoy.

SL: Do you ever find that readers conflate what you say in your tweets with your fiction or memoir writing? Like I now have a version of Carmen's thoughts from what she says on Twitter, and now I think I have an idea of what Carmen’s like, and this is the lens through which I’ll now read her writing.

CM: That's so interesting. I mean, yeah, maybe a little. I mean, I do think it's funny. I don't know if it's actually about Twitter necessarily, but people do say to me that I'm funnier and nicer than they expect me to be when I do events, and I'm always like, What's that mean? I think I'm relatively nice, and I do think I'm funny, but I guess the work does not suggest that, and I don't know how to process that. But what I say on Twitter is real in the sense that it's my thoughts and feelings. But just like any kind of forward-facing platform, it's curated, and it’s specific to a certain persona, and I'm obviously not sharing every single fucking thought I have on Twitter, thank God. So you know, it is me and it is not me at the same time.

SL: Are the truths that you're writing in your fiction different than in your nonfiction? With nonfiction, obviously, the things that you're writing on the page are supposed to be read assuming they've happened in real life. Does that change your writing process at all? Does it make you feel freer in certain ways or more limited in others?

CM: It's a formally really different process, because when you're writing nonfiction, you're stuck with the things that happened. It's different than writing fiction because if you're like, That is inconvenient to me, I will simply change it because that is fiction and I can do whatever I want. And that's obviously really fun. And I miss that. And I feel like that level of liberation is helpful to me as a writer. But also, doing research for a nonfiction book and writing from experience is a kind of challenge that's really pleasurable. And I think it is actually very interesting.

SL: On a technical level, is your process for writing short stories different from the way you wrote your memoir?

CM: Oh, yeah, I mean, it couldn't be more different. Short stories are thematic-based. They come to me as What if I did this? or What would this look like? And I feel like I write them in bursts. And with the memoir, I had a weird, skeletal draft, and then I added all the research, and then I had to mix it all together. I almost can't even explain it because they're so different, like the processes were as different as it possibly could be. Also it's the issue of writing short stories versus writing a single book, you know, one full book. That is one thing which is also just structurally really different.

SL: A theme that In The Dreamhouse looks at a lot is the archival silence surrounding queer domestic abuse and violence. How do you go about writing a history that doesn’t exist, and how do you grapple with your own personal history interacting with this nebulous one?

CM: I mean, how do you do it? I don't know. I guess one has to decide if I did an okay job. And if I did, then I say, well, I just looked for as much stuff as I could, and then I tried to put it in order. And then the more I wrote about it, the more it made sense to me. I'm not a historian by trade, which for me was the hardest part about working on this book. I felt like I was really outside of my level of expertise. If you asked me to write a short story, I'm on it. But to sort of go at this as a historian was quite difficult. And I worried that I wouldn't do it correctly. And by the end of the process, I had sort of done enough research that I was like, well, I don't know much of anything, but I do know about this one topic from these dates to these dates in this country. I can speak to queer domestic violence in lesbian relationships in the United States between 1980 and 2010. That is a thing that I can speak to. And that's very specific. So, I had to sort of pull it together when it made sense to me, and I had to also be comfortable with the fact that I might not be right, in that I might do something wrong, which is also its own challenge.

SL: How did you reconcile with that latter part, knowing that your work is a part of this canon that at the moment has very few works in it, unfortunately, but something might go wrong. How did you deal with that?

CM: I had to just accept that it was a possibility. I had to be forward-thinking about it. I had to just know that I'm doing my best. I'm doing my utmost, and that is what I can do.

SL: To return to the theme of this issue, I am curious what thoughts or images the notion of “feast” conjures for you?

CM: Pleasure. Things we don't allow ourselves. Feast is a very interesting topic because I feel like we live in this time where the idea of a thing being a feast is so unthinkable. We've changed the language about it. We're no longer talking about low-calorie diets, but we're talking about wellness. But it's all the same kind of, like, eating disorders and body dysmorphia and body policing that we've always had, and fatphobia and things like that. So I find the fact that the theme is feast to be actually quite lovely.