An Interview with carmen maria machado
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Carmen Maria Machado, a Shirley Jackson and Nebula Award nominee, is the author of 2017 National Book Award finalist Her Body and Other Parties. Her fiction and essays can be found in Tin House, Granta, Lightspeed Magazine, Guernica, Vice, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @carmenmmachado and Facebook at @carmenmariamachadoauthor. More information can be found at carmenmariamachado.com.
TMR: During an interview with The Millions, you state that you think fairy tales have "this way of showing us what we already know to be true," and you want your narratives to reflect that fact. Can you expand on that?
CMM: The interesting thing about fairytales and urban legends and folktales, anything that comes out of an oral tradition—it's like a collective consciousness. Stories get passed down, they get modified, they get changed person to person. They're living entities that reflect a common set of ideas or themes or anxieties or worries. It's only natural that they sort of take on that quality, like a rorschach blot. We look at them and we can see our fingerprints all over those stories.
Even hand games, that's its own oral tradition. Those are interesting because there are whole histories of how those stories move, and how there are regional adaptations. Various generations of kids have different ways of saying them. Stories that are in that tradition reflect us and what we're preoccupied with. I think that's why when we really look at them, we think, "Oh, it's saying this thing," and it's not always good. You can see some fucked up quality of our culture in what this story is assuming to be true, or to be good or right. It's a really rich and useful place to think about when you're writing.
TMR: In an interview with The Atlantic, you state that "the world finds ways to weigh on you, to take away that free time, to tell you that you don't deserve your cup of stars." When did you first realize that you deserve to be ambitious?
CMM: I had this weird experience where I went to grad school and I was beginning to think about writing as a profession. I was dating somebody at the time who was pretty terrible and would say things to me like, "You're such an egomaniac, you have so much ambition, you just want all these things," and was portraying it as this bad thing. I got really stressed out about it, because I was having thoughts like, "What if I published a book? What if I could teach at a program like Iowa?" I got self-conscious about my ambition, only to realize that's a fucked-up thing.
I got self-conscious about my ambition, only to realize that's a fucked-up thing.
I began to submit aggressively. I decided, "I'm just gonna do this. I'm gonna try my hand at this thing professionally." It took a little bit, resources like me being in grad school where I had the time to be working on my craft, and also seeing other professional writers and how people were starting to make their careers—which was entirely new to me as an idea. I think it's that, and also shaking people who would have feelings about my own ambition. After that, I thought, "I can actually do this. This is a thing I can do with my life."
TMR: Once you started submitting aggressively, did you encounter any obstacles that you had to overcome, or was it a seamless transition from "I want to do this" into "I'm doing this now"?
CMM: There's a weird phase of one's writing career where you're accomplishing things and doing things, but you're still really broke and you still need letters of recommendation from people and you're applying to everything. It's this weird middle ground, and trying to get out of that was really hard.
I left Iowa City, I was adjuncting and making no money and also working retail—which was terrible for me creatively. I just lucked out. If I hadn't gotten into the Millay Colony, I probably would have just kept working at Lush because I didn't know what I was doing with myself. As it was, I quit, went to the residency, got a lot of work done, came back, and began to really aggressively freelance, and that's how I filled the financial gap. Money was an obstacle, student loans, getting my book put together—I had this obstacle of having a weird genre-bending experimental short story collection for sale, with no novel attached to it. That was rough. It's a lot, and it's still a lot, but I feel like things have obviously, with the book out, gotten a lot better, and changed, and become a little easier. Just a little.
TMR: In your interview with The Paris Review, you said that you don't want to be sentimental in your work. Why? What downfalls do you find that sentimentality offers?
CMM: I am already working against the assumption that I am sentimental and emotional—because I'm a woman. I very intensely do not want to be read that way.
Growing up, the narrative in my family was, "Oh Carmen, she's so melodramatic, she's so emotional, that's just the way she is," and it's funny because I can be very cold. It's like if I'm a woman and I have feelings about things, it's that assumption. So I struggle because I'm writing about things that I feel very strongly about, but I have to be careful because if I write about them in a way that's too emotional, then I'm going to end up getting pegged as that.
A lot of times, I'm doing things to try to cut that off at the knees. It doesn't always work. A lot of my work is sentimental; there's certain work that I literally cannot read out loud without crying. If I were a white dude, people would say I could inhabit any space. I'm already working against that assumption.
I'm not saying this is good. This is a thing I think about a lot. In Claire Vaye Watkins' Tin House essay "On Pandering" she discusses how for a long time she was writing for men, because men rule everything. And people said, "That's so straight," but I'm a queer woman and I feel the same way. I'm really fighting against this instinct that has to do with gender: how I'm being perceived and who's taking me seriously, and it's not good. It's part of my struggle with my work.
TMR: When speaking with The Paris Review about the origins of "Especially Heinous" you reference a rough time in your life and that you coped by writing, and that's how the piece was put together. What does coping through writing look like for you?
CMM: With that in particular, that was a very bad year in my life. I was mostly writing to avoid, because a lot of what was going on I was pushing into my subconscious. I was writing like a maniac; I went up for workshop six times in one semester. I was in this very weird headspace.
Once I had kind of squared away my feelings a little more, I started writing work that actually engaged what I had been going through. That also was helpful, but hard, because usually when working through a problem with fiction, often the fiction is pretty terrible; a lot of work that was directly dealing with it was bad, and I've never published it anywhere. But I needed to work through it. It's definitely a thing that I do. I remember last year I was at a residency during the election, at Yaddo for six weeks, and the entire residency was having a freakout about the election. I was incredibly productive—I was tearing through project to project; I wrote a memoir that's my next book coming out from Graywolf, I wrote a bunch of brand-new stories and they were really dark and fucked up. I think my brain was just trying to say, "Don't think about it too much! Keep dancing!"
that was a very bad year in my life. I was mostly writing to avoid, because a lot of what was going on I was pushing into my subconscious.
I also discovered that when I write about a thing in fiction, it actually frees up my brain to write about it in non-fiction. For example, I've been trying to write an essay about fatness for literal years. Nothing ever seemed right. Then I wrote "Eight Bites," which is my way of dealing with one of these questions, and then I found myself able to write an essay. I wrote the essay that was in Guernica last February, "The Trash Heap Has Spoken," which is about weight and fatness and bodies and taking up space. I wrote a couple of stories about abuse in same-sex relationships, and then I managed to get a draft of my memoir done, which I've been trying to write for a long time too. I feel like my brain has this process of having this fiction barrier, and once I've figured that out, then I can approach it from a non-fiction space. Obviously everybody has their own system, but for me that's been really working.
TMR: What is your upcoming memoir House in Indiana about? What inspired you to write it?
CMM: It is an experimentally structured, sort of fragmented memoir, about abuse in same-sex relationships. It covers a lot of ground. It's still in progress, it's really hard to explain. I'm glad that Graywolf bought it and I didn't have to explain it to any other editors.
I experienced domestic abuse at the hands of a same-sex partner. It fucked me up in a lot of ways that were both true of abusive relationships in general, and also in very weirdly specific ways. When I went looking for writing about this topic, I could not find it. There was nothing. And so I was like, "Okay, well that's a sign. Right? Maybe I should be writing this thing that I wanna see in the world." That's a thing I usually tell people anyway—if you want to see a kind of story, make it. Not only do I want to see it, but straight-up I cannot find anything. That's what I'm working on now. I did a draft of it, it's still very much in progress.
TMR: Has it been difficult exploring that topic, emotionally?
CMM: I think part of the problem is when I tried to write about it at first, I was just too close to it. When I would open up a vein, all that would come out is pain. Pain is very boring, and I felt like I needed to figure out the way in that was useful or relevant.
Pain is very boring, and I felt like I needed to figure out the way in that was useful or relevant.
I'm also thinking a lot about experimentation in non-fiction, which is also something that I really needed to find. The thing about abuse is, in a way, it's very boring because abusers generally follow very similar patterns. When you look at it, it's all basically the same. So it becomes hard. Memoirs about abuse can't just be about abuse. That was a thing I had to figure out, which was probably one of the hardest parts.
TMR: Do you find that writing on women's same-sex relationships is less than men's?
CMM: My wife is actually a YA writer, and this is a thing that she's talked about a lot. There is obviously a growing body of gay YA literature, but a lot of it is gay boys. There isn't enough space for queer girls. There's exactly one YA book that I can think of that is about a gay abusive relationship, and I have a copy of it, because I wanted to consult it. This is a thing that people just don't write about.
A lot of the books I found when I was looking for resources were academic texts that were written in the eighties and nineties. At the time they called it "lesbian battery." Lesbians would get very hostile about this: "Don't talk about our community this way, don't put that out there." It's basically a form of respectability politics. That's why when I was in my own abusive relationship, I was in this really weird place where I had this really homophobic extended family, I was dating this person who was my first girlfriend, who they'd all met, and we were in the middle of the whole marriage equality debate in this country. There was anxiety. "Oh my god, I can't even talk about this being a thing that's happening because I have to pretend like this is perfect, even though this is really bad."
TMR: You've spoken about having teachers whose support helped you become the writer you are. What advice would you give to budding writers?
CMM: Write the stories you want to see in the world. Look for things that don't exist and make them because other people might need it as much as you do.
I also read all the time. I feel like a lot of prospective writers don't read that much, which is very strange to me. Also, people will read the one genre that they're in, and it's like, no, I read poetry and I read non-fiction. I try to read outside of my normal genre because I feel like that's going to help me become a better thinker. Seeing what else is out there in the world is really important.
Read expansively and generously, write the stories you want to see in the world, figure out your system. It's a matter of figuring out when you work best. I know that I work best in bursts when I'm out of my house and I have lots of time ahead of me and it's early in the morning. That's my ideal writing time. That's certain people. Then other people work best at night, or best when they sit down a half an hour every day and write. People have different systems, and you need to figure out what your system is. That's also a process, and how you work in the best way possible.