I’ve read Her Body and Other Parties thrice now, assigned it to my students, recommended it to friends and cousins and strangers on the internet. Carmen Maria Machado’s haunting, playful writing burrows inside you in that way—months later a Machado image will surface seemingly out of nowhere, as stark and clear as the day I read it. Ghosts of women with bells for eyes, the mysterious interiorities of porn actors, a relationship like a labyrinthine house of horrors. Perhaps that haunted quality is because Machado’s prose is both familiar and defamiliarized at once, faithful to genre and unafraid to invent, sticky and unsettling—known tropes in startling contexts. In her memoir, In the Dream House, the self splits into “I” and “you”—Machado helps us see who we once were and how we might become someone else. An accomplished risk taker, Machado has written stories, a memoir, criticism and essays, a graphic novel, even erotica. Yet her work also has mainstream appeal, a testament to its fierce loyalty to the experiences of women and queer communities. In this wide-ranging conversation, we covered everything from book banning to coal mining to Disney.
Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the bestselling memoir In the Dream House and the award-winning 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 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, 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.”
Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Vogue, This American Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She lives in Philadelphia and is the Abrams Artist-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania.
Urvi Kumbhat (UK): Let’s start with the obvious. Congratulations on your new book—
Carmen Maria Machado (CMM): Thank you!
UK: A Brief and Fearful Star, which will be out in 2023.
CMM: Oh, no, I doubt it. I don’t know when it will be out, it’s not done yet. [laughs]
UK: [laughs] I know the stories are written around a celestial object called Solo-9, and I’m just wondering if you can tell the readers a bit more about the project.
CMM: I mean, I can only say so much—not because I’m being coy, because I literally don’t know. It’s still a work-in-progress. The stories take place over a series of historical time periods. There’s some stories set in the present and the near future, and there’s some stories set in the deep past. The story that I read last night [Editor’s note: a reading at the University of Michigan on February 17th] was obviously more or less contemporary. But there are a bunch of historical stories as well that take place in various time periods and pasts—so it covers a wide range.
Solo-9 is a comet—it’s weird how it sounds a little bit like COVID-19—but I came up with that name before COVID started, and I have just stuck with it. So yeah, I don’t know. I can’t really say much more, just because I’m still trying to figure out precisely the mechanics of it. But the comet has some mysterious properties and is creating a lot of chaos and breaking certain things apart in weird ways. For one story, I had to consult my brother-in-law, who’s a physicist, to ask questions about parallel time, string theory and things like that. It’s sort of science fiction, but loosely. I don’t know, it’s unclear to me what it is precisely still.
UK: It sounds really exciting—I’m looking forward to reading it. And it’s interesting that you said there are stories set firmly in the past, but it seems like there might also be play with the linearity of time in the collection.
CMM: I’m interested in time—it’s hard to say—but I’m imagining that the comet exists everywhere all at once. So it exists all throughout time.
UK: I love that. And this is a collection of linked short stories, right? That’s really interesting because for all the genre and form hopping that you do, you haven’t published a novel yet. That’s striking especially because it seems like the publishing world insists that novels have a wider audience. I wonder if you could talk about the decision to write another collection. Or is this book more novelistic in scope?
CMM: If I said it was a novel, I’d be lying. It’s not, it’s a linked collection. I mean, it’s this thing of stories, conceptualizing them individually, and then thinking about them as a larger whole, which is just how you think about short story collections, right? Basically the same process, with the exception that these all take place in a shared universe. But no, it doesn’t have the same sort of structure as a novel. I love novels, but I don’t think of myself as a novelist. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. And I’m lucky in that my first collection did well enough—there’s no pressure to do a novel, or maybe there was pressure, and I just don’t know. If people ask me if I’m going to do that, I’m like, maybe I don’t know. It’s not clear to me yet. I guess I’ll figure it out. To me, a novel is a beautiful art form that maybe I’m not even really particularly good at—that’s just not a thing that I do, or maybe not yet. And I’m really interested in short stories as a structural thing.
UK: I think that’s refreshing, honestly, because everyone seems to be obsessed with novels. So maybe we stay on the subject of genre for a moment. You’ve written fiction, obviously you wrote the very powerful memoir In the Dream House, a graphic novel series, and even erotica under a pen name. I’m curious how your writing process differs based on what genre you’re working on.
CMM: The graphic novel, obviously, is a totally different animal because like I was talking about last night, it’s collaborative. It requires a different kind of pitch. It’s like writing a script. There’s an artist. This is true also of any kind of visual media—it’s really different because it is collaborative. Whereas prose, fiction or nonfiction, is a little more straightforward. You sort of just do it. You’re not waiting on other people. You’re not necessarily bouncing off of them, unless I’m doing a commission or something. I think all those forms I find very exciting. I’m very much a chameleon.
I’m really good at picking up other voices—that’s how I learn how to write. It’s just, you know, reading a thing, and then being like, oh, I want to try that, and picking things up and returning to them. I just find new forms—new ways of writing— really exciting. So if you say to me, this is how graphic novels are written, I was like, oh, that sounds really fun. Oh, I’ll try that.
UK: Is there a new form you’re excited about working on right now?
CMM: I’m doing a bunch of stuff right now. Some script writing, which is really fun. With A Brief and Fearful Star, doing historical fiction is new to me. My first book (Her Body and Other Parties, 2017) didn’t really have any research in it. There was none of that. And then for In The Dream House I had to do a ton of research. There’s all these historical and analytical pieces. And I was learning on the fly how to convert research into readable prose, which was actually really hard. I was like, oh, man, this is a real challenge.
Then I gave myself a new challenge, which was like, I wonder how I could do historical fiction. I’ve always been very allergic to it—I was very afraid of having to read a bunch of stuff and turn it into a thing that feels organic and good. And so that was a skill that I was trying to teach myself. And so my story in this new collection—which I’ve published already in Granta two years ago? One year ago? Time, who fucking knows.
But there’s a story called “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror.” [Editor’s note: Granta published the story in 2020] And that was my first story where I was like, I’m interested in this time period, the Grand Guignol in France in the 20s and 30s, and I want to write about it, and I want to do a bunch of research and then I did it, you know, and began this process of trying to figure out how to learn how to do that.
UK: That sounds really cool. I really admire your chameleon-like ability—
UK:—from genre to genre. And speaking of The Low, Low Woods—I’ve been reading it recently and greatly enjoying it. And I love the sense of place in it and the sense of hauntedness, but also the grit and queerness of the protagonists, which is true across most of your work. And I know that the graphic novel is inspired by the ghost town of Centralia. Elsewhere, you use the term “Pennsylvania Gothic” to describe it, which I think is really interesting. I wonder if you could say a bit more about what Pennsylvania Gothic means to you and how it shows up in your work?
CMM: I’m not normally a very place-based writer. I think some writers are—some writers are clearly writing about the South or the Midwest or the East Coast—you can feel the sense of place in their writing. My personal thing was no place—very few place markers, very few senses of geography. And I don’t think there’s a good reason for that. It’s just not a thing that particularly interested me. “The Resident” technically takes place in a kind of nowhere, almost at the point of literary redaction. But I was imagining the Pocono Mountains—I grew up going to Girl Scouts camp there. It’s a place that I’m familiar with as a landscape. But Centralia is this town that has been on fire for many, many decades because of a coal seam underneath the ground. And now there’s nothing—it’s one of those towns with nobody there—for a while there were still some holdouts but I’m pretty sure they’ve all died at this point. And I’ve always been really interested in that story.
When I was a teen it was cool to go to Centralia and take pictures, cause it’s a few hours away from where I grew up—it was a haunted place that you’d go to that you weren’t really supposed to be in, that was deeply weird. And as I got older, I became really interested in that space of environmental disaster—this thing had happened that affected the landscape and the people and that eventually killed the small town. And so when I was thinking about this story in terms of where I wanted to set it, I borrowed a lot of details from Centralia, though in the book it’s called Shudder-to-Think. But it’s Centralia in some senses.
I read this book about Centralia, and there’s a detail about how, when it snowed, you could see where the seams of coal were, because the snow would melt on top of them. So there’s a detail in the graphic novel of snow hitting the ground and just melting immediately.
Pennsylvania is such a specific place—I grew up there—it’s a really specific vibe, because it is this place of dying industries that are struggling to hold on, and a lot of poverty and a sense of loss and really beautiful, isolated spaces, like the mountains and these towns, and there’s a feeling to it that I’ve always found very interesting and provocative. What does it mean to be from a town like that? I grew up in Allentown, which is not quite the same— it’s a bigger city, there’s not the same vibe as Centralia. So it’s not like I grew up in a town like that, but I know people who did. It seemed like a really natural setting. And I was thinking about Southern Gothic, and almost like Appalachian but not quite, but that sort of feeling. And Pennsylvania just was singular to me in that way.
UK: I’m interested in what you said about it being a place of dying industry and poverty, and maybe that being one of the frightening elements that animates your work. And in that there’s an element of critique, obviously, of corporate greed and environmental destruction. That strand of critique is present in a lot of your work—in In the Dream House especially. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about this project of critique, if you think of your writing that way?
CMM: I think it just depends. I am just absorbing stuff as I’m existing. For example, if you drive through Pennsylvania—I remember driving through Pennsylvania to go to the Midwest, when I was in grad school—and we passed a billboard. And it was an anti-wind and solar power billboard. It said: the sun sets, the wind dies down, but coal never stops. And I was like, that’s so weird. Because that is actually the opposite of what it is. It was literally just a pro-coal billboard, which you see a lot of in that area. And I was just like, what? I don’t think I set out to be like, I have a critique of that situation. It’s more that I was like, well, who’s the bad guy in the story, you know, and there’s a couple of bad guys. One is masculinity, and men, but one is also the corporations—like I said, the Centralian story.
And also I should add, this thing that happened in Centralia has happened all over the world. I actually found this really horrifying article in The New York Times that was about this exact type of disaster—coal seams lighting on fire, happening literally everywhere. And companies just don’t give a shit. You just end up with these environmentally ravaged communities that these companies completely destroyed, and obviously that happens in other ways too. Yeah, that’s the world we live in—that sense of just taking what you can and leaving behind the rest is so specific and singular. Whenever I think critically about something, it appears in my writing in some form or another.
UK: Relatedly, you’ve talked before about wanting to write a hostile text, in relation to the choose-your-own-adventure section of In the Dream House. I’m really interested in that idea, especially because maybe a lot of your work is interested in hostility, the way that I read it, at least—the world’s hostility to women, or our bodies’ hostility to us. There’s also always an inherent hostility in a magical realist or speculative story, because the writer refuses to reveal or explain everything. Could you say a bit more about your relation to hostility in your work?
CMM: That’s such an interesting question. It’s interesting that you think of a withheld piece of information from the reader as hostile, that’s really interesting.
UK: I mean, this is just my reading of it, which you’re free to disagree with!
CMM: No no, it’s really fascinating. I never thought of it in those terms exactly. In terms of In the Dream House I did want that, because so much of writing that I find interesting is when a formal device is able to create a response in the reader that feels true to whatever the thing is. In the case of Dream House, I wanted there to be a part of the text that did feel unfriendly to the reader, or hostile to the reader in a way that a bad relationship would, or an abusive relationship.
I use the choose-your-own-adventure to create that sense of the text working against you. Like, you’re not really safe no matter what you do. And so that’s a very literal, obvious way of doing that. But, generally speaking, work that keeps me off kilter or pulls the rug out from under me is what I like to read the most— work that feels hostile to me. I mean, not always, but often. That experience of having that happen to you as a reader is to me just devastating and wonderful. Wonderful is a strong word, but just an experience that really works. It’s a thing I returned to over and over as a reader and then as a writer interested in creating that effect for my readers as well. Sometimes.
UK: In your fiction, you’re always adapting and refashioning and reclaiming other forms and tropes and myths and fables. Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU is a prominent example of that. You said in another interview that you wrote it to explore sexual violence, that you were “really interested in exploring what it means that our only currently running Law and Order franchise is the rape one.” And it strikes me that your writing is a kind of rewriting in some ways—there’s something really permissive and powerful about that. And maybe another way to think about it is queering a text—I’m just throwing that out there for you to agree or disagree with. How do you conceive of that reclaiming and borrowing mechanism, or rewriting, or refashioning?
CMM: Sure, I guess you could call it a queering. I honestly don’t have enough of a lit background to even say if that’s what I’m doing—I leave that up to the academics. So many of our aims and traditions of literature are this sort of appropriation and borrowing and reconceiving and turning things over and retelling. And I’m interested in myths and fairy tales and urban legends specifically because they are explicitly doing that—there are versions of the same fairy tale across time, across nations, across languages. We have variations on similar types of stories and I think there’s something beautifully human about that. No matter what separates us we all begin to arrive at similar veins of storytelling because we are ultimately human beings. And so, in the same way, I’m really fascinated by taking the stories that I’m familiar with and trying to figure out what they’re trying to say to me and almost making that explicit, or turning that over.
Law & Order SVU— I’ve seen it a million times, it’s a very problematic and kind of fucked up show. But I also find it comforting. And I was like, that’s interesting. Why do I find this horrible show comforting? What is it about this show that has captured my imagination for so long? It’s been on for most of my life, you know? Well, not most, but maybe 23 seasons now, and I’m 35. It’s been on since I was a child. I’ve seen every episode, some of them a dozen times. And so what does it mean to have a narrative like that floating around in your brain? Why is a procedural interesting? A story that kind of repeats— like a Monster of the Week episode, you know, what is it about that? What is it about rape narratives that I find so interesting, the way that show conceives of sexual violence, the way it talks about power, the way it talks about the police? There are all kinds of things that I find riveting about it. It’s not even about how good it is, or bad it is, or whatever. It’s just, what does it mean that we get this—that this is a fairy tale that we have right now? That just happens over and over again. And I’m always interested in asking why is it that I’m so drawn to the story. Why is it that this thing is speaking to me and what does that mean? How can I think about it in different way?
UK: It’s almost like you’re interested in articulating and flipping the cultural significance of a text, if that makes sense.
CMM: Sometimes, or drawing it to the surface. And I should add that I often am not thinking about this quite so literally. I was talking about this last night, but I’m not sitting down and saying how can I flip the cultural script—it’s more that I just want to begin to do it. So much of what I do is unknown to me.
UK: Speaking of last night, there’s something you said that I was really interested in—you said part of why you wrote “The Husband Stitch” is because you wanted to write about a housewife who loves sex, which is such a great motivation for writing a story. Could you elaborate on that and the role of sex in your work?
CMM: Americans are deeply prudish about sex. Something kind of broke inside of me, growing up in the culture that I grew up in. To me, sex is really normal—most people have sex. It’s a very important part of their lives. It’s a thing we do—it’s like eating, it’s a human thing that people do. And treating it like this taboo thing we can’t talk about, can’t write about, or can only bring up in certain ways or only certain people can write about just strikes me as the stupidest thing I can possibly imagine. Like, why? Sex is just really interesting. It’s a way of accessing character. It feels like a worthy subject for literature. And so, I find myself returning to it in various ways, sometimes more explicitly than others. And this new book, especially, has so much sex in it. [laughs] So we’ll see what people say about that. But, yeah, sex is really important. Queer sex is really important, sex that women are having is really important, and I am really interested in just talking about that. And writing about that and writing into that, and people have really strong reactions to it. It’s probably the question I get asked the most, and it’s really interesting to me.
UK: Maybe it’s because of what you said—the prudishness of American culture.
CMM: Yeah, that’s a big part of it.
UK: Because I also know that your book was banned at a school in—
CMM: Texas. The State of Texas is currently losing its collective mind. It’s just complete hysteria. It’s not just my book, it’s lots of books. It’s books by people of color, books by queer people, genderqueer people. It’s very specific—non-white narratives, queer narratives, genderqueer narratives are being purged. The parents are really fighting it—religious parents. Again, because it’s easy for them, it’s an easy target. And it’s truly weird and depressing as hell.
UK: It’s terrifying. Sort of on that note, it seems to me that Her Body and Other Parties and In the Dream House have both been really formative for younger writers and readers, which I noticed at the reading yesterday too. I wonder if you have thoughts about having an audience of younger readers and what that means to you? It seems like you have a maybe unusually wide audience.
CMM: I guess I have no idea—if you literally sat down and counted, what is the demographic of my readership? I’ve met readers across all ages, but no, it’s true that a lot of readers of mine are younger than I am, which is interesting to me. I don’t really know what that means. A lot of people will say to me, like, oh, you know, your work has really inspired me in this way. And it just reminds me of when I was in my early 20s, I was reading writers like Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi and feeling super inspired by them, and they’re older than I am. I think that’s also part of how literature works. You write, and you just become, if you’re lucky, a touch point for a younger audience and younger writers, people who are just coming into themselves as artists. That’s kind of the cycle. [laughs] That’s just how it works, you know what I mean? I love meeting readers—it makes me really happy—especially young, queer people, young women. There’s something really lovely about getting to have that experience.
UK: Which is why banning the books is so terrifying, because it tries to prevent that—
CMM: Totally. Also, the students that are reading my book are seniors in high school, right, 17, 18. Either adults or almost adults.
UK: It’s strange. It’s definitely unjustifiable. On another note, I’m thinking about one of the critical strands of In the Dream House—one of the strands deals with the question of representation. I’m thinking here of the chapter about queer villainy, in particular. Increasingly, there’s disillusionment with the idea of representation as a meaningful political goal. I’d love to hear you talk more about the idea of queer representation and its importance and how maybe your opinions have changed or not.
CMM: I think that representation is both incredibly important and way less important than we think it is. The thesis or one of the arguments in the book is that when you don’t see narratives about your life, or about the life that you’re leading, then you feel very alone, and you don’t have a way of contextualizing your own experiences. And in that sense, representation is incredibly important. There’s that quote about the danger of the single story—you want there to be multiple variations of stories, because this way people can access truth and reality and have a sense of a shared experience. So that’s incredibly important. I would never say it doesn’t matter.
But I also feel like people have become super fixated on representation to the exclusion of all else in a way that feels like it’s missing the point. A good example is people get fixated on which actors are being cast in, I don’t know, a Marvel movie or what the cultural makeup is of the newest Disney films. Disney is a huge corporation that doesn’t give a fuck about you. This is literally the most shallow form of representation that could possibly exist. It means nothing—it’s so stupid to be arguing over, well, this actor is this, you know, whatever. This is all just nonsense. [laughs] Truly, does that matter? Does Disney give a fuck about you? There’s almost a queer character, or a queer-coded character—it doesn’t even mean anything—there are queer writers and artists making all kinds of weird stuff. And you don’t need to, you know, fellate Disney because they almost have a kind of sort of gay character. That’s just so stupid.
Also a good example of this is Kamala Harris—Kamala Harris is as right wing as you could possibly get within the Democratic Party. There’s nothing beneficial about her happening to be a woman of color in office—it doesn’t do anything for anybody. To focus on just the literal—literally, she’s a woman of color, so that’s great—but look at her politics, at what she does with it. It doesn’t really mean anything. So, it is both incredibly important, and also, if that’s your only metric—the demographics of a person, or the hint or suggestion of a certain demographic, you truly are missing the forest for the trees. It’s just focusing on the wrong things. And it really drives me crazy. I don’t know what to do about it, except just to keep doing what I’m doing. But I find it quite bad, actually, in case you can’t tell. [laughs]
UK: I was actually thinking about Harris when I asked. Since we’re on the subject of representation and identity, I thought something you said to Guernica previously was really interesting—that you’re afraid of approaching race directly in your writing or you don’t know how to do that subject justice. I still think, though, that it appears in other ways in your work. The story “The Resident,” for example, is one of my favorites in the collection and it talks about the term “artists’ colony,” and by extension, the history of America as a violent colony. And then the Girl Scouts movement has problematic and colonial origins, and that’s a site of haunting and trauma in this story. Do you still feel that way about writing about race, or are there other ways you’re thinking about it?
CMM: It’s complicated because I’m not white, but I more or less look white—well it depends on who’s looking at me, which is what makes it so complicated. Race in the United States is so specific and very strange. I guess it’s like that everywhere—race as a concept is so weird. I don’t fully know to do with that information, because, well I’m going to write about what’s interesting to me, and what I can think about. I’ve tried to write many essays about race—I have tens of thousands of words written about it, and I’ve never sent it anywhere because I truly don’t know where to arrive. I don’t know where the endpoint of that conversation is for me, personally.
I will say that “The Last Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror,” which was in Granta, is a story which does talk about race. I didn’t realize until halfway through writing it, where I was like oh, this character is not white—that makes a lot of sense. She is mixed race, she isn’t quite sure who her father is, she doesn’t know what her exact racial makeup is, but she’s not white. Her mother is sort of coy about that and so, that made the story click into place. There were a lot of things that all came together, and I was like oh interesting, I was writing without realizing it. There is something kind of happening in there and—I don’t speak Spanish—my alienation from parts of my family, the fact that I have a white mom and have a lot of white family members who are fucking racist. There’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of all mixed together. How my family talks about race or doesn’t talk about race—all of these things mean that I’m still, as an artist, trying to like pick my way through those feelings through fiction as best as I can. And I have done so in this one story which again, was kind of a surprise halfway through.
I’ve had people who have studied my work say to me “Oh, I can see it in this thing,” and “I can see it kind of appearing in certain places,” which is interesting to me but I’m also like, yeah, I didn’t do that on purpose. [laughs] So much of writing is unknown to you as a writer and other people are going to be able to tell you more about what you’re doing or what traditions you’re operating in than you can, which is really interesting to me. But it’s a thing that, I don’t know, maybe I will write about more explicitly, maybe I won’t—I’m not sure.
UK: Thank you for that answer. You’ve said before that you’re very drawn to pandemic and disaster narratives, because “plague can be a metaphor for all sorts of things.” Are you still drawn to these pandemic narratives, now that we’re living through one?
CMM: I mean, yeah. It’s funny because I keep thinking to myself, oh man, if I were to rewrite “Inventory,” there’s a few things I would change now that I’ve literally lived through a pandemic—a couple of details that I would adjust or shift around or add. But no, I’m still interested in those narratives. It’s weird—I’ve been watching a lot of disaster movies through covid.
UK: Actually, my last question was about “Inventory.” In that story, you see the protagonist becoming more and more isolated and it’s all the more sad because she’s had these experiences of love and desire and touch—it’s a very bleak future on the horizon for her. And maybe this is a crazy, big question, but what do you think the future looks like for us? Another way to put that is: how does futurity factor into your work? Does it play a role at all in the way you write fiction?
CMM: [long silence] I don’t know what I think about it. I feel pretty bleak about the future—I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the future to be quite honest. So, I don’t really know what to say about that.
UK: That’s totally fair. I think it’s hard right now.
CMM: Yeah, it’s hard! Truthfully, I just don’t really think about it. And I wrote “Inventory,” at this point, ten years ago. So the ten-years-ago-me clearly also felt a little bleak about the future. And now I feel more bleakly about it—really, truly what can be done? I have to make it through the end. My own end. What else can I do? [laughs] It’s just a bad situation and people want to be optimistic about it and that’s fine. I want to be wrong; I want to believe that we are going to make it through, but I think about Covid, and I think about climate change, and every new thing that happens shows me that humanity is incapable of the project of sustaining itself and helping other people you know, on a large scale. And that’s really sad to me. That’s tough—that’s a tough realization to come to. I don’t know, yeah.
UK: It strikes me that the idea of making it to the end is somewhat hopeful, but also bleak—it’s all you can do really. Well that’s a sad note to end on.
CMM: No, it’s okay, it’s okay.
UK: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful talking to you.
CMM: Thank you!