VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Carmen Maria Machado
Folklore, speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, magic realism, comedy, and erotica collide beautifully in the eight provocative short stories that make up Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.
Machado, a fiction writer, critic, and essayist who has written for the New Yorker, Granta, and Tin House, also has a memoir, House in Indiana, forthcoming in 2019.
She is currently the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
In this interview, Machado talked about her story collection, riffing off the work of other writers, and how writing is like solving a math problem.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about “The Husband Stitch.” How did it come to be? How did it evolve?
Carmen Maria Machado: It happened in a couple of stages. The first was being in grad school, talking to some friends about the Alvin Schwartz oeuvre. He’s the guy who did the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They came out in the 80s and have really terrifying, sort of iconic illustrations. He died a few years ago and was this folklorist for children. That series was probably his most famous, but he also had this book called In a Dark Dark Room, which is actually for younger readers. The illustrations were not nearly as scary, but the stories were very simple, urban legends and sort of creepy. They stuck in my head, seared into my consciousness.
So years later, when I was talking to my friends, everybody had a different [Schwartz] story that had really stuck with them. And for me it was the ribbon story. Then I wondered, what if I rewrote and adapted that story?
I was interested in writing a story about a housewife figure who really likes sex. I had a series of ideas, and I realized they all kind of fit each other. The first draft was basically “The Husband Stitch,” minus all of the other urban legends. Basically just a story of her life. But it was missing something. I’d written a draft about this woman who has the ribbon, and she meets her husband. That was the main plot. But it wasn’t done. When I got home I looked at the actual Alvin Schwartz book. And there are these stage instructions and all these other really interesting urban legends. I thought I could integrate those into the story.
Rumpus: When I encountered your work for the first time, I remember thinking that you write with such confidence. Many writers aren’t born that way. Can you talk a bit about your evolution as a writer?
Machado: I’ve always been a good writer, in the sense that I’ve always been very interested in stories and interested in reading a lot and wanting to write my own stories. But when I got to grad school, I was a little bit directionless in terms of knowing what my projects were. I could write a good sentence, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, what I really felt passionately about as a writer. Which I think you have to figure out, right? What weird topics, what interesting little niches of the human experience am I really, really interested in?
My classmates, who are now dear friends and really brilliant writers, told me to read writers who, I think, have a sense of confidence and self-possession. Like George Saunders and Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi—all these speculative writers who do really different, weird, bold, things. And I was just really taken with it.
And then, the way every artist does, I tried to imitate. I’d try to write stories that Kelly Link would write. And that process got me to a place where I suddenly realized that I had the tools to create what was in my head.
Rumpus: For “The Husband Stitch,” you said part of the genesis was the idea of a housewife who really liked sex. What were some of the first kernels of your other stories?
Machado: There’s a story called ”Eight Bites.” I wanted to write about gastric bypass surgery. I’m a fat woman. I come from a family of fat women who have all had gastric bypass surgery. But I reject that for myself. And I have a lot of feelings about it, so I decided to write about fatness and the body.
For “Especially Heinous,” I was really interested in not just sexual violence, but narratives about sexual violence, cultural narratives. And how Law & Order: SVU is this extremely popular, very long-running TV show that is all about rape. Why are we, as a culture, so focused on this?
A lot of my ideas are, What if I tried this? Sometimes it doesn’t work, and I don’t continue, but other times it does. With “Difficult at Parties,” I wondered, how do I write about rape in a way that is different than what other people have written about rape? And I figured out I wanted to write about interiority, the loss of interiority, or the violence against interiority that happens with sexual assault. In a magical realist way, where this woman can hear the voices and thoughts of porn performers in her head.
For some authors it’s about character, but for me it’s not. For me, the characters develop as I’m trying to figure out what the story is about. It’s like a math problem I’m trying to solve. I have to figure out the tools I need to do that. What if this situation played out different? What would that look like? That’s the only way I can really get into it.
Rumpus: As women, as women of color writers especially, we don’t always feel we have permission to be wild. Not that we need permission, but there can be judgment or expectations. Were you ever concerned about audience or reception, or did you just write whatever the hell you wanted?
Machado: I try not to think about audience, maybe because I feel like that’s a recipe for disaster and for being shut down really easily, because when you’re thinking about other people—worrying about what they’re going to think—it puts this thing in your head.
I had to make choices at some point. My father, who I love very dearly, did not like that I was writing swear words and about sexting and all this stuff. And eventually I had to say to him, “Dad, if you don’t like it, don’t read my stuff. I’m just going away from this part of the obligation. I don’t owe anything to you with my writing. If you want to read it fine, but I’m not going to give it to you. You can figure it out on your own because I don’t want to deal with this.” Yes, that was a thing I had to decide.
When I was in an MFA program, I was writing all this weird stuff. But I loved my classmates and my teachers, and I generally felt very supported. I never felt like anyone was discouraging me. But I would meet with agents, and short stories are really hard to sell. Collections are not big sellers. An agent said, “Your work is really interesting, but when you have a novel, let me know.” Then I just lucked out that I found an agent who was really sweet and brilliant. He said, “I don’t care that you only have short stories.” He saw the arc of my career before I understood it.
In that case, it’s a combination of dumb luck, hard work, and privilege at work.
Rumpus: Any novels in your future?
Machado: I’m working on a short story collection with a linking element. I don’t fully understand the architecture of the novel in a way that I could produce it. Recently at a residency, I was reading this Thomas Bernhard novel called Woodcutters, and I had an idea to use the same template of that novel, thinking, I could do a version of this. And I started writing, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and I hit twenty-five pages and the story ended. Oh! So, it’s not a novel. It’s a short story. Even when I’m trying to write a novel, or I’m thinking about writing a novel, I just write a short story. I think in short stories. It’s just the way my brain works.
Rumpus: You’re inspired by other writers and see their work as a template for things you want to try. Which brings to mind the recent nonsense with Francine Prose accusing Sadia Shepard of plagiarism. Let’s talk about imitation and inspiration.
Machado: A professional writer should understand the difference between things like plagiarism and pastiche, and reference. I love this idea of structurally borrowing from an existing piece of work. Writing is about being in a conversation with other writers. That’s the whole point. That’s why you have to read to write, because you’re always in the context of other people. And that’s true across genre and across time—it’s true in every direction.
I literally have an entire story that’s a riff on Law & Order: SVU, so you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re acknowledging, I’m in conversation with this person. That’s the end of that conversation.
Rumpus: So you are unabashedly are riffing—I love that you use that word—riffing off of other forms and other writers. When you do so, does your cultural background come into play?
Machado: I am Latina, more or less white-presenting, and writing about race is a thing that I have not done a ton of, because I feel like I exist in a liminal space where I don’t want to take space away from women who are experiencing racism in a more intense, visual way than I am. So, there’s that.
Right now, I’m working on the first story I’ve ever written where race is the active part of the plot. It’s a historical story of this young woman in Paris during what they call the Afrophile phase, where there was this fetishism of non-whiteness. People would go to clubs and really love that aspect of that culture, but obviously racism was a huge problem outside of the club and outside of these spaces. All the normal racist bullshit was playing out. So, I have a character of mixed ethnicity, and she doesn’t know exactly what her race is, because her mother never told her who her father was. People are constantly asking her, “What are you?”
Which is a question that I get sometimes. People who think I’m white, or people who say, “I can tell from your name that you’re not, but also you look white.” Or one time, I met this mixed race woman who said, “I can tell you aren’t white by looking at you.” And I almost started crying because I felt seen in this way that was really intense and normally doesn’t happen.
Rumpus: The sense of mystery, the unknown, is one of the best things about writing. We don’t always know what’s going to happen.
Machado: When I teach, I’ll talk to high school classes, and a question I always get is, what’s the deal with symbolism? Do authors really write a thing that’s a symbol for another thing? Well, yes and no. Writers are interested in things, and images have meaning, and those ideas can kick up in the subconscious without you realizing it.
Last fall, this interviewer asked, “All your stories are in first person. What’s that about?” I said, “I literally did not even realize that until you just said that to me.” That’s a good example of how, in one hundred years, hopefully someone’s still reading my book, and they’ll wonder, What did she mean with this thing? And I might not even know what I meant with that thing, because it’s just what’s in my head.
Rumpus: But some high school English teacher is going to be say, “Well, it’s because women didn’t always have voices back then, and she made a point of making sure every woman had a voice.”
Machado: Exactly! And that isn’t necessarily wrong, if you can justify in the text your view of my story. I am not the arbiter of my story. Once I’ve written it, it’s in conversation. Once I’ve written it, you are reading it, you are interacting with it. And there’s something very freeing about that. But I have a theory that because we are in a social media age, where you have a lot of access to artists and actors and creators, people are really focused on, What did you mean? I’m going to ask you what you meant. So imagine that I’m dead. I never did interviews, I died one hundred years ago, and you can never know what I intended.
Rumpus: The reader has to do her part.
Machado: Exactly. If the text is the author’s half of the conversation, then what is your half? I love Twitter, but people get really focused on, “What did you mean?” and sort of miss the other parts of it.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the research you did for a story about Paris during a bygone era or, in “The Husband Stitch,” what feels the 1950s.
Machado: I’m really scared of historical fiction. Which is why for the Paris story, I have to do research. I’m really scared of getting it wrong. My wife’s writing a historical novel right now, and she’s doing all this really intense research, going to the historical society and conserving documents. I prefer not to do any research at all! [Laughs]
Rumpus: Unless it can be learned on TV.
Machado: Right, exactly. But I feel like this novel in stories I’m working on has a lot of historical material from a lot of different eras. So I’m having to read books about historical stuff that I don’t know a lot about. For “The Husband Stitch,” I was imagining a rough past, like the 50s or 60s-ish. I had to research when Halloween trick or treating became a thing, because I didn’t know. I didn’t want to do anything super anachronistic. I wanted to strike this old-fashioned tone without actually committing to a particular era. Which I want to say was very intentional in a really academic and interesting way, but was really just me being afraid to commit to an era, because I was afraid that someone would be like, wait a minute, that wouldn’t have happened in that year! I guess you could make the argument that it added to that dreamy, urban legend-y, fairytale-ish feel.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Machado: I sold a memoir to Graywolf earlier this year, so the memoir is the next thing that’s due to them. I’m still working on it. I’m a couple of drafts deep. Then, I’m working on the novel in short stories I mentioned, and a YA novel. I have a lot of other things in progress. I work on a lot of stuff all the time. So, what’s actually getting published next, I have literally no idea. [Laughs]
Want more VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color? Visit the archives here.
Author photograph © Art Streiber.