The Rumpus Book Club chats with Carmen Maria Machado about her debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, her favorite horror writers and movies, and writing the book(s) she’s always wanted to read.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Jon McGregor, Katia D. Ulysse, Jesse Ball, Melissa Broder, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Carmen Maria Machado!
Eva Woods: Hi everyone!
Carmen Maria Machado: Hello!
Marisa: Let’s get started! Carmen, thank you for joining us to talk about your amazing debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties.
Carmen Maria Machado: Of course! I’m so excited.
Eva Woods: Carmen, I loved this book so much.
Carmen Maria Machado: Thank you, Eva!
Marisa: I have been telling people it is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. (It is.) Can you tell us how long it took for the collection to come together, and a little about that process? I know some of the stories were published in literary magazines prior to the book…
Carmen Maria Machado: Sure! The total length of time between the oldest story (“Difficult at Parties”) and the newest (“Eight Bites”) was about five years. Three of the stories were written during my MFA program; five afterwards.
Marisa: It’s remarkable how cohesive the collection feels given that span of time!
Carmen Maria Machado: Yeah! But, also, the collection is super-lean and only represents a fraction of what I wrote over that period. There were stories I published in magazines that didn’t go into this collection because they didn’t fit.
Carmen Maria Machado: I did have to rewrite some of the older stories, prose-wise, because my writing style had changed, so that also probably helps with the sense of cohesion.
Eva Woods: “Difficult at Parties” made me cry so much. Wildly relatable narrator for a story that was so unusual and unusually told.
Eva Woods: Do you have a favorite from the collection?
Carmen Maria Machado: “Difficult at Parties” was actually the first story I wrote in my whole life that felt… real? It was the first time I felt like I had a voice, a style, something to say, a way to say it.
Carmen Maria Machado: My favorite is, I think, “Especially Heinous.”
Eva Woods: I LOVE THAT ONE. Marisa and I were talking about it the other day, and how it read almost like an epic poem.
Marisa: Ooh, I have questions about “Especially Heinous.” It’s being called a novella. Do you think of it that way?
Carmen Maria Machado: Length-wise, it’s a novella, for sure. And I feel like it does what a novella does—it’s balancing more threads than a short story but slightly fewer than a novel.
Marisa: As Eva just said, when I read it (and I should add the disclaimer that I’m a poet) I felt like I was reading a longform prose poem or an experimental poetry project.
Carmen Maria Machado: Oooooh I see. Hrm.
Marisa: You can totally disagree with us!
Carmen Maria Machado: I think you could make that case, but I don’t identify as a poet, so I don’t know!
Eva Woods: For sure! It was just told in such a unique way.
Carmen Maria Machado: I think of it as a scatterplot graph. With all the little microfictions adding up to larger and larger movements.
Marisa: Do you watch Law & Order: SVU? I read in an interview that you first thought of the piece after a marathon watching of the show while you had the flu?
Carmen Maria Machado: I do watch it, somewhat reluctantly at this point. More out of habit than anything else.
Carmen Maria Machado: But yeah, I once accidentally marathoned it while I burned up with fever from swine flu. And I like to think that was its spiritual origins.
Marisa: In some ways, this piece is so different than the rest of the book. But in other ways, it really isn’t—I think part of that is because SVU (the show, that is) touches on so many of the issues the book deals with around women’s bodies.
Marisa: I also really loved the imagery of the girls with the bells for eyes, and the doppelgänger characters.
Carmen Maria Machado: I feel like it’s thematically very in sync with the book, but the length and style is very different, yeah.
Eva Woods: I’m the resident horror fan in this club, and the stories in the collection felt scary, or maybe tense is better. Do you write horror or think of your writing that way?
Carmen Maria Machado: I do identify as a horror writer. It’s a genre that I absolutely love to read and write and watch.
Carmen Maria Machado: And I think it’s really subversive.
Eva Woods: TOTALLY AGREE.
Eva Woods: Who are your favorites in that genre?
Marisa: Yes! What’s your go-to horror movie? Favorite horror writer?
Eva Woods: I kept thinking of my favorite Joyce Carol Oates short story, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye,” while I read your book.
Carmen Maria Machado: I’m teaching a horror class right now and I’ve taught, like, four Joyce Carol Oates stories. I usually try only one or two stories per author, but she’s so good and it’s very easy to teach techniques from her stories.
Eva Woods: OMG I want to take your class.
Marisa: I’m kind of a wimp about horror movies, but I love it on the page.
Carmen Maria Machado: Eva, I haven’t, but I’ll check that book out!
Marisa: How did you decide to order the collection?
Eva Woods: Yes, Marisa! The order was so perfect. How was that decided?
Carmen Maria Machado: In terms of order, my editor and I talked about it quite a bit. I wanted “Especially Heinous” to be the centerpiece, the hinge of the collection. My editor really wanted to open with “The Husband Stitch,” which surprised me
Eva Woods: Leading with “The Husband Stitch” was so strong. That story wrecked me.
Carmen Maria Machado: He was basically like “I want to go in guns a-blazing” and I agreed. And I ended with “Difficult at Parties” because it ends on a note of hope. It only seemed fair, after such an intense book, to end on a note of hope.
Eva Woods: I love that. The one that was set at the artists’ retreat felt like a short film to me. The imagery was intense. What inspired that setting?
Carmen Maria Machado: Weirdly, I started writing “The Resident” before I ever went to a residency. Since then I’ve been to several. But I basically wanted to isolate a character of mine in the wilderness, so I decided to try to make her a writer and put her at a residency where her own weirdness is magnified and amplified.
Marisa: I was so curious as to whether it was based on a residency experience! Residencies can sometimes feel claustrophobic, I think, and this felt that way to me. I loved this story, too, because of the ways it talks about anxiety and mental stability and gender without being obtuse or on the nose about it.
Eva Woods: I liked how I could keep rooting for her even when she was acting poorly. The setting being so isolated and creepy made me feel like, well it could happen to anybody under those circumstances.
Eva Woods: Were any of the stories harder to write than others?
Carmen Maria Machado: “The Resident” was so hard. It required extensive revisions and almost didn’t make the book.
Marisa: Yes, I read in an interview that you almost didn’t include it, and it was the last piece finished. I’m so glad it made it in!
Carmen Maria Machado: I mean, I was lucky this time in that I had an incredible, incredible editor who helped me figure out what my own story was about. Without him I likely would have just given up. Or had a way worse version out in the world.
Eva Woods: How did you start working with him?
Carmen Maria Machado: He’s my editor at Graywolf! He’s the one who bought my book.
Eva Woods: Wow, that’s lucky he turned out to be so good!
Carmen Maria Machado: Totally! I mean, that was part of the process of deciding to go with Graywolf. Before he bought the book, he called me and we had a long conversation about his vision for the collection, and it was totally in sync with my own. That’s basically the dream scenario for any writer right there.
Eva Woods: Would you talk a little bit about the sexuality in the book? I’m bi, and it seems like lately bi characters are starting to show up and DAMN it’s nice, but it’s been a looooong time with next to none.
Carmen Maria Machado: Heh, yeah.
Eva Woods: Especially in horror, where women are kind of treated like special effects.
Carmen Maria Machado: I wanted every main character to be queer or at least queer-ish. I wanted their sexuality to inform their lives while also not defining their lives. I wanted them to Have Sex, and mostly enjoy it/want it.
Eva Woods: You flipping nailed that.
Carmen Maria Machado: Thank you! I always say I wanted to write the book I didn’t see, and queer women having sex and lots of horror was what I wanted, so…
Marisa: How does it feel to have the collection about to come out, and be in the hands of readers?
Carmen Maria Machado: It feels really weird! Because, like, before this, even with stories published in magazines, it was always under my control. But now, it’s out. And it’s just in the world and people are reading it and responding to it. And that’s great! That’s art. I did my part—I made the thing. But I can’t recall it anymore. Can’t revise it.
Marisa: Yes, there must be almost like a separation anxiety, like when a parent sends her kid off to college.
Eva Woods: I would be hiding under the couch. Everyone I know who’s read it loved it. Is the buzz exciting?
Marisa: And you’ve been longlisted for the National Book Award! How did that feel? [Her Body and Other Parties has since been named a finalist for the National Book Award. –Ed.]
Carmen Maria Machado: It’s very exciting but also terrifying and paralyzing.
Eva Woods: You can hide under the couch; I won’t tell anybody.
Marisa: I’m thinking Her Body and Other Parties needs to win ALL the awards, and I hope it’s only the beginning.
Eva Woods: The buzz is so good one of my friends who works at a publishing company hadn’t been able to get a copy, and when she saw mine was like, “CAN I HAVE IT WHEN YOU’RE DONE?!”
Carmen Maria Machado: I’m thrilled but I also feel very seen, which is so intense. And there’s just more scrutiny, more stuff to do… I kind of just want to play video games in my PJs and do nothing else. And when people talk to me about it—it’s hard to express how honored I am? But I’m so honored, and I want people to know.
Marisa: Does it raise the stakes for the next book, for you? You have a memoir coming out in 2019, right?
Carmen Maria Machado: I do! In some ways the stakes are raised, but it’s a very, very, very different type of book in many ways. It’s a very vulnerable and risky project, so I’m sort of freaked out.
Eva Woods: What was the impetus for writing a memoir?
Carmen Maria Machado: It’s another example of wanting to write a book that I needed to read. I was really struggling to find writing about abuse in same-sex relationships. There’s just not much of it out there.
Carmen Maria Machado: So… I’m making The Thing.
Eva Woods: Girl yes. I can’t wait to read that.
Marisa: Oh, wow. That is going to be phenomenal. Make The Thing!
Eva Woods: I’m sorry you went through that though. But you’re right, there’s no narrative for it culturally and it makes it hard to know what to do.
Carmen Maria Machado: Yeah. I mean, my book isn’t instructive, exactly. It’s just me trying to turn an experience around and around to give it shape and context and meaning and maybe help other folks do the same.
Eva Woods: Of course not. But I feel like personal experiences add up to a way to talk about things, all taken together. If that makes sense.
Marisa: In “An Inventory,” you use lists to tell a story. Are you a list-maker?
Carmen Maria Machado: I am! I love lists.
Eva Woods: Same so much.
Marisa: Me, too! And while there is totally precedence for using lists as a form, this was (as all the stories in the collection are) so new and unique.
Eva Woods: That’s another thing Marisa and I were talking about—you move between ways of telling stories so deftly.
Marisa: In all the stories, you give enough detail that we are grounded but leave enough unanswered that the ground isn’t solid, exactly.
Eva Woods: It seems like it would be hard to switch between structures like that. How do you experience that?
Carmen Maria Machado: I think it’s easier because I write so much and these stories are just a fraction of my output. I am conscious of not wanting too many formal conceits in one book, though—of permitting myself range.
Carmen Maria Machado: Marisa—yes! But also, that’s how I experience the world. I feel like the ground isn’t quite stable under anyone’s feet.
Marisa: Do you write every day? (And hell yes. Especially right now. The ground is shaking ALL THE TIME.)
Carmen Maria Machado: I don’t write every day. I find it very hard to write when I’m teaching or have anything else going on. I need long stretches of time in front of me. Like at a residency, or just a free day with no other commitments.
Marisa: I hear that. Since I began editing full-time and had my son three years ago, I’ve barely written anything. Both of those endeavors take a lot of my brain away from writing.
Carmen Maria Machado: Yeah, I’m just easily distracted, I guess? I’m always tracking/keeping lists of ideas, though.
Eva Woods: What residencies have you done? And which one was the best and which one was completely haunted?
Carmen Maria Machado: Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Playa, Headlands Center, Millay Colony. They were all lovely. The Millay Colony is definitely haunted.
Marisa: A very good friend of mine stayed at Millay and said the same thing.
Marisa: I think things like editing and teaching touch on the same areas of our brains, maybe? So, we’re thinking about words and writing, but then we’ve used up that brain space.
Eva Woods: I have a recurring anxiety daydream that you only get a certain number of words in your life and once you’ve used them you’re done. I have the same problem where if I’m doing too many words in one place I can’t anywhere else.
Carmen Maria Machado: Oh totally. After I teach I can barely write emails—my brain is just done.
Marisa: Well, if I could have written only one book in my whole life, Her Body and Other Parties would be a really great choice.
Carmen Maria Machado: Hahaha.
Eva Woods: Dude for real.
Eva Woods: My Twitter review of it was something like, “This book is a spy and I let it sleep in my bed.” It is just so much what I wanted to read.
Carmen Maria Machado: You know what’s funny—when I got my first copy I also slept with it in MY bed. (I was at a residency and my wife was not there, so it didn’t get crushed.)
Eva Woods: Have you read William Trevor? He did similar short horror-but-about-life things.
Carmen Maria Machado: Ooooh, no. What book of his do you recommend?
Eva Woods: The Day We Got Drunk on Cake: And Other Stories. There’s a story about a kidnapping in there that still sticks with me.
Eva Woods: How did you and your wife meet? Is she a word person, too?
Carmen Maria Machado: She is also a writer—an incredible one. And she works in publishing.
Carmen Maria Machado: We, uh, met through a mutual ex.
Eva Woods: LOL
Carmen Maria Machado: —gayest meetcute ever!
Eva Woods: It is! Do you two read each other’s drafts? (If yes that’s so cute and my dream relationship.)
Carmen Maria Machado: We do! We’re each other’s first readers.
Eva Woods: Omgggg
Carmen Maria Machado: It’s so nice because it’s like a prize for myself: “If I finish this draft tonight I can read it to Val!”
Marisa: Yes, I read that in the acknowledgments. I loved yours, by the way. I have a thing for “Acknowledgments” sections; they make me weepy and inspired.
Carmen Maria Machado: (We also read them out loud.)
Eva Woods: I would be scared to give notes and hurt someone’s feelings.
Carmen Maria Machado: I mean, I think it helps that we both genuinely love each other’s work. And the feedback is always smart and comes from a place of love.
Carmen Maria Machado: Marisa: that acknowledgements section was a beast. So long.
Eva Woods: Oooh the acknowledgements! I got to the part about your grandfather teaching you how to tell stories and cried (I’m a ridiculous crier) and put it down.
Carmen Maria Machado: I was so worried I was going to miss someone! Or not give them their due or something.
Marisa: Eh, I feel like the short ones are probably not thanking enough people. You said something in your acknowledgements, I think, about how many people it takes to make a book. It’s true. Especially over five years. And the whole life leading up to those years.
Eva Woods: How do you plan to handle living people who appear in your memoir? That seems like a tightrope.
Marisa: Good question!
Carmen Maria Machado: Oooof.
Eva Woods: Sorry!
Carmen Maria Machado: I mean, I’m still figuring it out.
Carmen Maria Machado: No, it’s okay! It’s just hard. Memoir is so much thornier, logistically and artistically.
Eva Woods: No doubt.
Eva Woods: Will you be working with the same editor?
Carmen Maria Machado: Yes! I’m so glad. He’s amazing.
Eva Woods: Oh, that’s good. He’ll help there a lot, I imagine. What’s his name? (I gave my book away or I’d just look.)
Carmen Maria Machado: Totally. Ethan Nosowsky.
Marisa: Are you writing a traditional memoir? It’s hard to imagine you not breaking the format in some way.
Carmen Maria Machado: Haha, no. It’s fragmented and told through genre lenses. Very weird.
Eva Woods: Can you say a little more about “genre lenses?”
Carmen Maria Machado: Like… using genre tropes to pull apart my own experience. Like haunted house stories, or generation ship stories.
Eva Woods: GUH THAT’S SO COOL. You’re sort of a genius.
Carmen Maria Machado: Haha I don’t know. Come back to me once it’s actually done. Right now it’s a mess.
Eva Woods: That’s such a cool way to do it and I can’t wait. Her Body and Other Parties was seriously my favorite book in years, so I’m super stoked to have found your work.
Marisa: OMG that sounds wonderful. And yes, probably messy along the way. Kind of like, “The Resident.”
Carmen Maria Machado: Thank you, Eva! ^_^
Carmen Maria Machado: Marisa: Yeah, I hope it comes together as well as “The Resident did,” eventually.
Eva Woods: Before we run out of time, are there any writers you’re loving at the moment?
Marisa: We’re nearing the end of our time, but I’d love to know what books are in your to-read pile right now.
Marisa: Ha! Great minds, Eva.
Carmen Maria Machado: Oh yes!
Marisa: YES! I just told Eva she had to read that ASAP.
Carmen Maria Machado: I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s new book, Manhattan Beach, right now and I’m enjoying it very much.
Eva Woods: All added to the TBR list.
Carmen Maria Machado: Yay!
Eva Woods: Thank you so much for doing this! I loved the book and everyone’s getting it for Christmas this year. My dad is going to be so confused.
Carmen Maria Machado: Of course!
Carmen Maria Machado: Haha omg. My dad will buy it but not read it, which I’m okay with.
Eva Woods: I made him read Lindy West’s Shrill last so he’ll be relieved tbh.
Carmen Maria Machado: Well, thank you so much for the amazing questions!
Eva Woods: I’m going to go brag I talked to Carmen Maria Machado to everyone at the bar.
Carmen Maria Machado: ^_^
Eva Woods: Have a great night ladies!
Carmen Maria Machado: You, too! Thanks so much, Marisa.
Marisa: That is a wonderful list of books! And thank you again SO MUCH for sharing this book with the Book Club and for answering our questions. I hope pub day goes smoothly, with lots of PJ time & video games!
Carmen Maria Machado: Of course! Thank you so much for picking me for the Book Club. I’m so honored.
Marisa: Oh, I didn’t even hesitate. It was a must-ask. And I am so glad I did and you could participate! Have a wonderful night. <3
Author photograph © Tom Storm Photography.