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An Interview with Carmen Maria Machado

‘Love is Not a Magic Force’
This story is included in these collections

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is as strong, and strange, a short story collection as any you’ll read this year. From story to story, often from paragraph to paragraph, Machado mixes and matches genres—a fairy tale here and a post-apocalyptic vision there, a little science fiction sprinkled with a little body horror—reconfiguring old tropes and helping us to see what is at stake in them. In one story, a husband urges his wife to remove the “green and glossy” ribbon that she wraps around her neck—and that might be keeping her head on her shoulders. In another, scary things happen in the wilderness around a writer’s retreat. In others, women fade into nothingness, or hear the thoughts of others, or have impossible children.

If you had to identify a literary antecedent, Angela Carter might be the one, especially in Machado’s persistent attention to the pleasures and dangers of female embodiment. (There’s a lot of sex here, but there’s also a lot of violence, and the book argues that our imaginations find it hard to separate the two.) But it’s a truly original work, especially and paradoxically when it’s reworking our most familiar figures: ghosts and monsters and haunted spaces.

In “Especially Heinous,” one of the best stories in the collection, Machado offers a novella-length reimagining of 12 seasons, and 272 episodes, of Law & Order: SUV, all in the form of episode recaps. Some of these recaps are funny, drawing attention to the clichés of the police procedural. The summary of the episode “Bad Blood,” for example, reads in its entirety: “Stabler and Benson will never forget the case where solving the crime was so much worse than the crime itself.” Others are as dark as dark can be: “The ghost of one of the murdered, misburied underaged models begins to haunt Benson.” Still others, the best, blend the dark and the comic in delightfully disturbing ways: “A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.” All are profoundly weird and, despite the rigid formal constraints, continually surprising.  

I spoke with Machado recently by e-mail.

Anthony Domestico: This isn’t just a collection of stories but a collection about stories—about why we tell stories to ourselves and to others, about how storytelling can be both a pleasure and a compulsion. When did you first recognize yourself as a teller of stories? Are there particular stories from your childhood that made you think, “Ah, I want to do that, too?”

Carmen Maria Machado: All children have the instinct for storytelling. Kids are constantly working out their growing perception of the world around them through toy analogues—dolls, action figures, stuffed animals. At some point, some people—maybe most of them—lose this instinct. The playfulness, the sense of approaching the world as full of potential stories, it just vanishes.

But it didn’t for me. I think this is for a few reasons. Everybody read to me as a kid—my great-grandmother, my grandparents, my parents. None of those people are particularly voracious readers, but reading was an intellectual priority in my house growing up. That’s a bit of luck and a lot of privilege in action. So I was able to grow up being read to, and eventually reading on my own, alongside this natural sense of play. Pretty soon I was writing “books” on my father’s stationery and writing poems for my teachers. Everyone encouraged the hell out of me. Again—a bit of luck, a lot of privilege. At the same time, storytelling as an oral tradition was also very alive in my family. My grandfather was indefatigable storyteller, and his stories about Cuba and coming to the United States were some of my earliest exposures to constructing narrative, complete with red herrings, tension, dramatic irony. My father is the same way.

It never occurred to me not to be a writer. That’s weird, right? Like, I never just said, “Okay, I’d like to do this thing.” I just transitioned seamlessly from “playing a lot and being read to a lot” to “reading everything in sight and writing my own stories.” I handwrote stories on loose-leaf paper, and then when my father got our first computer (in 1993; it ran Windows 3.1) I took to typing up everything. I wrote chapters of “novels” and then neatly printed cover letters on the personalized jungle-themed stationery I’d received from my godmother, in which I detailed my plans for the rest of my novel, and sent them to the addresses of publishers I found on the copyright pages of the Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club books. When my fifth grade teacher taught us how to write letters to authors I got very excited and wrote letters to every author of every book I read, including quite a few who were (decades) dead. One of them wrote back, many months later—Livia Bitton-Jackson, author of I Have Lived a Thousand Years. (I was really into children’s Holocaust books for a while.) My mother came inside very confused with a letter postmarked from Israel, and I started jumping up and down when I realized who it was from.

I asked Livia if she’d ever gotten her poems back from the Nazis, and she’d written to tell me no, she hadn’t. (I was very fixated on the Little Women storyline about Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, which I considered unbelievably horrifying.) She asked me about my own writing. It was the first time someone had reached back, and it was a real watershed moment. I don’t think I wouldn’t have been a writer without it, but still, it reinforced the idea that the limbs of art stretched wide—across time, across experiences. She was a girl before I was born, living half a world away from where I would one day live, and then when I was a girl I got to read about her being a girl and ask her questions about her art, which then led her to ask me about mine, which had started so late in her life, even though she lived a (different) half a world away. And she was a real-life writer and she wrote to me. It was really magical. It’s also the reason that I do my absolute best to respond to people who write to me about my own work.

Anyway, when I hit my teen years, I started keeping a Livejournal, and that was honestly one of my best educations in writing for an audience. I learned to shape my experience for the page. For a while, I got this crazy idea that I’d be a doctor—I read one too many Lurlene McDaniel novels—but even then I reasoned I could write “on the side.” Then I nearly failed chemistry and realized that being a doctor probably wasn’t in the cards, and at least if I did badly as a writer, no one would die. 

I think style is actually critically important; it’s not just cosmetic.

AD: A lot of “literary fiction” fetishizes style over story—the perfect sentence over the compelling plot. Critics (including me) are guilty of this fetishization, too. Obviously style and story don’t have to be at odds with one another; they’re not in your own work. So why do you think so many continue to equate literary value with style? What’s at stake here? And how do you think about the relation between story and style in your own work? Do you focus more on story at the drafting stage and style when it’s time to revise?

CMM: I once was at a panel about writing nonfiction about trauma, and the moderator asked us, “What does it mean to write literary nonfiction?” The woman to my left leaned into the mic and said, “I think it means writing truth down to the word.” I felt like she’d smacked her palm straight into my forehead. She’d articulated something I’ve long intuited but never put to words. I think style is actually critically important; it’s not just cosmetic. Even though fiction isn’t nonfiction, it’s still truth, and that truth should be honored down to the sentence level. I feel like people are afraid to talk about holding writers accountable for their sentences, but we should! Obviously styles vary, and every style is not to ever reader’s taste, but even still a lazy or vague or unexamined sentence, word, or image is a tragedy, a wasted opportunity. For me, sentence style is a way to infuse uncanniness, psychological state, atmosphere, narrative energy, and beauty right into the marrow of the prose, which can only help me do whatever I want to do with the story. Why would you not use that tool?

Once I’m at the point of my writing process where I’m writing sentences (as opposed to bracketed plot beats, ex. “[She needs to get to the dentist’s office]”), they tend to come out pretty much as you see them in the final versions. I don’t know. I just think like that.

AD: This is a book that works in various genres—fairy tale and horror and weird fiction—and it’s a book that’s explicitly aware of its use of many generic tropes. Are the specific kinds of pleasure you get from reading genre fiction distinct from the kinds of pleasure you get from reading works of more traditional realism?

CMM: Done correctly, it’s actually not that different. Well-executed realism should reconfigure my brain and fill me with as much wonder as well-executed SFF. But genre has its own pleasures—the ability to see a present-day situation extended to its natural conclusion, for example. Or the ability to push a finger through my world and into Somewhere Else. But—regarding your earlier question—whatever genre I’m reading, I need the author to be paying attention to her language. Nothing sends me away from a story faster than dead sentences.  

AD: Does reading or writing in genre offer something particular to marginalized groups? Do you think there is an elective affinity between being queer (or being a writer of color, or being a female writer) and the desire to work in genre?

CMM: I think women, queer folks, and people of color understand liminality better than most—existing between worlds, or being in precarious, dystopian places. So it makes sense that we’d be attracted to the genres that explore those boundaries.

AD: Can you walk me through the genesis of “Especially Heinous”? What did you find appealing about re-making the first twelve seasons of Law & Order: SVU? Was it primarily a formal attraction (the serial format)? Or was it more thematic (the chance to think through violence against women and the culture’s voyeuristic pleasure in it)?

CMM: It was a little bit of both. The form was what initially caught my attention; I had this thought that I could rewrite SVU’s IMDB’s episode capsule summaries with an eye toward surrealism. But a few episodes in, I abandoned the idea—it felt too restrictive. Then I decided to just try and muck around a little, using only the actual episode titles as my guides and using microfiction to build a larger narrative—a sort of “monster of the week”-type scenario. A few days later, I had an early draft of “Especially Heinous.”

Of course, once I was in the story, I found myself exploring and playing with all of the show’s pleasures and problems, and realized that I had a lot of latent thoughts about SVU—a show I’d watched a whole lot of—that I’d never really written about. A lot of that came out in revision.

I think women, queer folks, and people of color understand liminality better than most—existing between worlds, or being in precarious, dystopian places.

AD: Every story in this collection in one way or another circles around desire; most also circle around sex. Who do you think are our best writers about sex and desire?

CMM: Nicholson Baker (Vox), Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children), Garth Greenwell (What Belongs to You), Jeanette Winterson (everything).

AD: You’ve written movingly about your own experiences with Christianity—about growing up in the United Methodist church, about the guilt you felt surrounding your sexuality, about eventually leaving the church and any belief in God. I’m wondering how, if at all, your religious experience continues to shape your imagination—the kinds of stories you want to tell, the touching of the sacred and the profane that happens in so many of your stories?

CMM: I hesitate to truly call myself an atheist, because I’ve always felt like there was something other around me; I still do. As a kid, it manifested as a “vivid imagination,” a belief in ghosts or monsters. As a young woman, it translated into religious faith. As an adult, I recognize it for what it is: being highly attuned to the details and atmosphere of the world; having experiences come at you in high-definition, being very interested in how events organize themselves into narrative. (Which is not to be confused with “a higher power organizing a narrative.”) I concede that I have a sense of… I don’t know. A thrumming beneath all of this. Maybe some people call that God. I think it’s just the organism of the universe twitching its flanks to discourage cosmic flies. Either way, the result is the same, and I must live my life as I did before.

AD: In “Mothers,” the narrator declares, “I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful.” Without making the mistake of confusing creator with creation, do yourself have this belief—that love can win out? How does love play into your own sense of what it means to be an artist?

CMM: The protagonist of “Mothers” is a broken woman—someone who has been abused to the point where words don’t mean anything anymore. Love is not a magic force—it’s hard work, sustained effort, risk. With hard work and sustained effort and risk, yes, we can illuminate certain dark corners of the world. And yes, art can contribute to that process. But again, it’s not magic. Art is hard work, sustained effort, risk. This world is ugly and brutal and cruel. It is unfair and terrifying and monstrous. But we have to try to make it better. Otherwise, what good are we? What fucking good are we?

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