The Strangeness of Our Fears: Carmen Maria Machado Discusses Her Debut Story Collection ‘Her Body and Other Parties’
Reading Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties (out this fall from Graywolf Press), is like walking down a long hallway in a dream, and the hallway twists and turns in peculiar and impossible ways, the doors along this hallway opening and closing, with the dark forms of submerged memories and feelings entering the hallway to travel along with you. You’re not ever sure you’re in your own body. You’re not sure you’re in control of the journey. You’re not exactly sure what to think. But, you cross paths with characters trying to orient themselves in their own lives and anxieties and emotions. And finally, at the end of the hallway, you are changed, stepping back into the daylight of your life, now filled with the strong emotional resonance of some strange, other world.
Her Body and Other Parties is a powerful, terrifying, and boldly ambitious debut, which has garnered plenty of critical attention, including being nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. The NBA winners will be announced tomorrow, November 15 at 7:20 pm EST.
Last Thursday, Machado visited The Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, PA to read from her work, answer questions from the audience, and sign copies of the new book. We talked with Machado via Skype last Monday evening, prior to the event.
Eliot White: First off, congratulations on being shortlisted for the National Book Award. How does that feel?
Carmen Maria Machado: It feels really good. It was sort of a surprise. I definitely didn’t think my book would get nominated, among other things. I’ve been surprised at every turn. Every day I think, what new magic is going to be in my inbox?
EW: I want to start by talking about Pennsylvania. You’re from Allentown, right?
CMM: Yes, originally.
EW: Allentown is sort of at the top of Eastern Pennsylvania’s coal country. A lot of that area has a pretty distinctive, run-down, almost gothic vibe to it. How much of this Pennsylvania Gothic, small-town feeling gets into your work?
CMM: I think that Gothic sensibility is pretty prevalent in my work. I spent a lot of time in high school with my friends, driving into nowhere, for our own amusement. Driving through Centralia, and thinking about Pennsylvania as a very interesting, weird, Gothic place. I don’t think I had that word in my vocabulary back then, but I think it was on my mind in some capacity. I’m working on a project right now that is much more actively engaged in that Gothic sensibility. I feel that the landscape and the setting of Central/Eastern PA is very much in my blood.
EW: For better or worse.
CMM: It’s really beautiful. Every time I come back, every time I drive through the state, I’m like, God, it’s so pretty here. It’s prettier than any other place, which is amazing, because I’ve spent time in all these other states, and they’re all gorgeous in their own way. But I’ve always found Pennsylvania compelling. It’s in this weird crisis of conscience right now. I keep thinking about this last election, and how the state went red for the first time in a while, sort of thinking about how that felt to me, as a queer writer who is from PA and now living in PA again. Philadelphia is historically one of the more progressive cities in the country. But, there are these other, rural elements at work too. I get more and more interested in it every day.
EW: I always talk about PA as an in-between state. Its essential being is its in-betweenness because it’s not really New England, it’s not really the South, it’s not the coast and it’s not the midwest. And, it’s a swing state, not fully conservative or fully liberal.
CMM: It’s so true. I’ve never thought about it that way.
EW: I’m interested in some of your childhood experiences too, of how, in some other interviews you talk about being a highly imaginative child and saying you would do things like say “goodbye” to your furniture before you would leave the house.
CMM: I did. Multiple people have described this. I don’t know where I put that quote, but I feel like people have asked about that. Looking back, it’s pretty funny. I did do that, yes.
EW: I feel like there’s another part of your childhood that you’ve covered in several of your essays about being raised in a Christian environment, which is fairly common in Central PA. Does that sort of imaginative state of your childhood relate in any way to your Christian upbringing, as far as seeing the possibility of other worlds or dimensions, spiritually speaking? Is there any connection between childhood spirituality and childhood imaginativeness?
CMM: What’s really interesting is that my religious faith was self-imposed, which was a weird twist. My parents were religious, but not in an imposing way. A lot of the things that I imposed on myself were intense and did not really come from my parents. I wanted to feel strongly, and I felt that was an avenue to the supernatural. If you truly believe in things like God, angels, demons, you believe in a supernatural world, and that’s actually very intoxicating for a lot of people, especially young people.
I feel like there were a few other things at work too. I was an avid reader and I’d say I had a naturally active imagination. But also, I’m sure those things fed this desire to have a sense of something else, something outside of me. Faith and religion kind of fit that mold for me.
I grew up in the suburbs of Allentown, so I wouldn’t even call it rural, but I definitely feel like I had this desire to infuse my world with something more. There must be something out there, a kind of feeling. I still have that feeling of the fragile potentiality of space, but now it’s more of an emotional state and more of an acknowledgment of the mysteries of the world as opposed to God or religion.
I feel like it’s an interesting evolution, but definitely my imagination fueled that. I fell into an evangelical crowd for a while as a teenager, and I remember people would say, don’t you feel it? Can’t you feel God’s presence right here? I was like, yeah I do! I feel like that is imagination at work, right? It’s where you become bodily engaged with what’s happening in your own mind, which is really interesting to me.
EW: There is such an imaginative quality to your work, but there’s also a sort of rich embodied experience that I would like to talk about. You’ve talked with several interviewers about sexuality and the female body and the queering of sexual experience. How did you pull that off? And, why is embodied experience and sexuality so important for these characters that you’ve been crafting over the past few years?
CMM: It’s funny that you say that. Some people do not agree with you and do think it’s overwrought, which is fine. It’s just interesting because when I set out, sex is a very human experience, and I think that one of the reasons that I gravitate to it in my work is that I read writers who use sex in ways that I like and don’t like. An example, I really hate how Philip Roth writes about sex. His contempt for women drips off of every page. I get so much flak for saying that. I have to be careful. Some people get really stressed out about it. But I just don’t like it. …
Nicholson Baker who is a writer I adore, he has a lot of books that are very sexual, but the sex is, it’s not always good sex, but it’s full of joy and there is something that’s very human and real and he’s empathetic about it in a way that’s very compelling. I feel like there are ways to do it well and not so well. There are far more celebrated male literary writers that write sex than female writers, and that really bothers me. So, I was interested in sex being part of my project from the beginning. How did I do it? I guess I just wrote the scenes that I wanted to write. There are some stories that have more than others. Some of the stories like “Inventory” or like “The Husband Stitch” are very sexual. But, it’s not arbitrary. These stories demanded a certain honesty to make them work. Can you ask the second part of that question again?
EW: Sure. I think contemporary literature in general is having a moment where writers are creating characters that are rooted in the body, and bodily experience, as opposed to living so much in the mind. Why is embodied experience valuable or beautiful or important for these characters?
CMM: I am really interested in the relationship between the body and the mind. This is something I’m exploring in a lot of the things I’m working on right now. In some ways, the mind is beautiful and excellent, and it can do so many things, but it also is housed in the body. If my body dies, my mind does not continue. If my mind would die, my body would keep living. So I feel like that’s interesting and worth exploring.
There’s something I’m trying to figure out about how we value minds in relation to their bodies. The way that women scholars aren’t taken very seriously, or non-white folks are constantly being questioned, what their perceptions are and their ideas about the world, how people assume fat people are stupid. There is a very intense connection between the body and the mind in everyday experiences that we’re not quite aware of. That’s very interesting to me also because those things are actually not related. They have nothing to do with each other.
It was important to me to have characters that were embodied in a very specific way, to be housed in different kinds of bodies. People are not floating brains on the page. They are human beings, in the way that we all are. I notice that with some fiction. It feels so floaty. It’s not a craft problem. It’s a perspective problem. That type of work feels like it shows a belief in pure reason, and fiction like that feels like a bunch of dudes having a pure, reasoned argument on the page. That just doesn’t exist. The idea that the mind is separate from the body, like pure reason, that literally does not exist. It’s not possible. There is no such thing as a neutral person. Your body is not neutral. White men are not neutral, for example. Straight people are not neutral. It’s just something that I’m really interested in, and these stories are a manifestation of that interest.
EW: There’s a passage from the story “The Resident” that I wanted to talk about. It’s one of my favorite passages in the whole book. It takes place at the end of that story, where the character is reliving the childhood moment where she sleep-walked out into the woods. It goes like this:
“My body was so cold it felt like it was disappearing at the edges, like my shoreline was evaporating. It was the opposite of pleasure, which had pumped blood through me and warmed me like the mammal I was. But here, I was just skin, the just muscle, and then merely bone. I felt like my spine was pulling up into my skull, each vertebra click-click-clicking like a car slowly ascending a roller coaster’s first hill. And then I was just a hovering brain, and then a consciousness, floating and fragile as a bubble. And then I was nothing.
Only then did I understand. Only then did I see the crystal outline of my past and future, conceive of what was above me (innumerable stars, incalculable space) and what was below me (miles of mindless dirt and stone). I understood that knowledge was a dwarfing, obliterating, all consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and suffer greatly. I was a creature so small, trapped in some crevice of an indifferent universe. But now, I knew.”
I wasn’t really sure where that story was going, and then it arrived at the character facing this extremely intense realization. Could you talk about that passage and how your characters’ often face that same sort untamed, ominous fear?
CMM: That it is the last story I finished in the collection and it required the most revision of any story in the book. It had never been published anywhere before, and no one had ever really had eyes on it, except one small workshop very early in the process and then later my wife, but that was it. When my editor at Graywolf looked at it for the first time, for the collection, it was in a much different form. He said, I don’t think you know what this story is about. I said, you’re right. I don’t. For a while I really had no idea what I was doing with this story, but it felt important, like it belonged in the book.
Part of the story that I really wanted to write was the sexual discovery. But, I didn’t want the trauma to come across as if it was because she was gay. Instead, the horror is the fallout with her troop, because of the kiss she shares with one of the other girls. When I was younger, there was actually a girl scout in my troop who sleep-walked into the woods and she woke up out in the darkness, in her pajamas. The troop leaders had to go out and get her. Which is terrifying.
So, in that scene in the woods, the girl character has to confront her own nothingness. It’s existential. It’s the feeling of alienation. Once I figured out that scene I realized it was a scene with purpose. I was interested in exploring the horror of nothingness. Once our bodies recede away and evaporate, we are nothing. That’s the trauma, the realization that we are nothing, regardless of whatever lives we choose to lead.
EW: I think the beauty of it is that you don’t approach that big, overwhelming subject head on, but in a roundabout way… it’s been done before so it can feel hard to approach that subject at all.
CMM: It’s a sort of classic artistic question.
EW: It is. It’s central and probably will never go away, but you approached that big, existential idea through the convergence of discovered sexuality and the loss of spirituality and facing fear and owning the body. Anyway, this scene felt raw and visceral. It reminded me of that Stephen Crane poem where the speaker says to the universe “Sir, I exist!” but the universe responds with complete and absolute indifference.
CMM: Have you read Crane’s prose poems? I love the one about a boulder crushing the workmen. Do you know that one? Oh, it’s so good. I don’t want to mess it up by saying this, but basically, these workmen make a boulder and then it rolls and crushes them to blood, but before that some of them are able to scream. And, that’s the whole poem. I have his collected prose poems.They’re so creepy.
EW: Could we keep diving into this topic? The idea of fear, and how fear drives a lot of the characters, or at least is a major part of their experience. For instance, the fear of the plague in “Inventory,” or the fear of losing control of your body, of sexual assault implied in “The Husband Stitch,” or the fear of your body disappearing and blinking away, like in “Real Women Have Bodies.” Obviously, there are many different iterations of this in your work, but maybe you could talk to me about that impulse of fear?
CMM: Sure. I teach a horror class, and I always make my students make a list of a hundred things they’re afraid of, to start off the semester.
EW: That’s amazing.
CMM: It’s really intense. Some of them are like, You want us to do what? I think you can’t really create horror without accessing your own anxieties and fears. You just can’t. The mistake that I see a lot, especially with students who are starting to write horror, is that they’re really focused on the pyrotechnics and are less focused on the existential horror beneath the surface.
For example, I teach a story by Joyce Carol Oates called “Aiding and Abetting” from her I Am No One You Know. It’s a story about a husband and wife and the husband really hates the wife’s brother, who is this ne’er-do-well, swishy artist type who calls the house and begs for money, clinging to her about his life and talking about how sad he is, and she listens very sympathetically and sends money and helps him out. The husband just hates it. So one day, the brother calls when the wife is not home, and through their conversation, the brother says that he’s thinking of committing suicide, and the husband says, yeah, you should do that. Then the brother says, how would I do it? The husband suggests driving the car off the road so that it would look like an accident. When it’s over, he thinks, what a weird conversation we had. A few weeks later, his wife comes home and is like, I ran into my brother, and he’s taking our son to his sleepover. The story ends with him waiting for the phone to ring.
In that story, the horror is purely about “Who are you as a person?” It’s a horrifying idea, right? Basically, I tell my students that you have to write from a place of real fear. You can morph it and change it, add different cosmetic elements, but what you’re really getting at is real concerns about losing control of your body. Or nobody believing you when you say things. Or not being able to move your body, for whatever reason. Or being dependent on someone else. Or that you’re really a bad person. You can’t write horror without being able to access real fears, in all their weirdnesses. If you tap into that vein, it can be pure fucking terror.
EW: I think capturing the strangeness of our fears is a thing you do really well.
CMM: Thank you. I’m a weird person. A lot of this book is not necessarily biographical, but I’m just digging deep. I’m bringing out all the weird shit that I think about every day and putting it into fictional form.
EW: The stories in Her Body, even if they’re not necessarily biographical, feel pretty emotionally vulnerable. Does writing in such an open-handed way wear you down? Do you have to take breaks after you finish a long, intense story? Or, does it fuel you?
CMM: It depends on the story. A lot of people who read the book have said to me that they had to read the stories one at a time, and it was really difficult to just read one after the other because they were so intense. That’s interesting to me. I’ve written these stories over the course of five years. And, there were other stories that didn’t go into the collection. They had natural breaks in between them, where I was doing other things or wrote different stories at different residencies. So I guess I engage with each story in a separate way.
I would say that “Mothers” is very intense. Also “Eight Bites” is another one I was really emotional about. It can be hard to read them out loud because those stories are particularly close to home. Sometimes I’ll take breaks if I’m working on a particularly difficult scene. Really, it all just depends on the story.
EW: “Mothers” definitely messed me up. It is devastating. In a good way, of course.
CMM: Yeah, it felt like I was cutting it out of my body. Writing that story was definitely intense.
EW: You mentioned that you’re working on a few new projects right now. Would you be able to talk a little bit about some of these projects? I think I read that you’re working on a memoir that’s forthcoming.
CMM: I do. Graywolf bought my memoir. It’s due to them next September, and then it’ll come out in 2019. It’s taking a lot out of me, but I’ll be finishing next year, if everything goes according to plan.
EW: You said there were some things you’re working on relating to the mind and body connection? Are those essays or stories?
CMM: Essays. I have an essay collection in progress, but I write essays very slowly. In terms of essays I would want to put in a book, I write maybe once a year. I also have a YA novel and some stories that I’m working on. I work on a lot of things at once. I can’t focus on just one project. I wrote the memoir while I was editing my collection, in between rounds of edits.
EW: Do find it’s helpful to work on more than one thing at a time? Or do you wish you could focus more?
CMM: I feel like there are two types of writers. There’s the type that I am, and there’s also writers who are super focused on one project. I like having more than one thing to work on. If I get bored, I can take a break and do something totally different.
EW: What are a few great books you’ve read lately?
CMM: I’ve read Lesley Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, which just won the Kirkus Prize, which is amazing. I just read a collection, White Dialogues by Bennett Sims, which is amazing. He’s really incredible. I’ve also read Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. I’ve been on a real kick. All of these are really good, very different from each other, but very excellent. I’ve read a lot of story collections this year.
EW: So, prior to Her Body and Other Parties, you were already having success publishing essays and stories in major publications, but the buzz that you’re getting now and being shortlisted for the National Book Award really feels like a next-level breakthrough. From your new vantage point in the national literary spotlight, I was wondering if you could tell us about some of the best writing advice you’ve ever received.
CMM: I feel so much writing advice is really subjective. But, I think the best advice I ever got was that you have to read to write. I feel like a lot of people don’t know that or don’t understand that properly. Writing fiction is such a specific thing, and you have to read it to be able to do that. When you’re reading, all the stuff you’re reading is going into your mind-body, your body-mind, it’s going into your head. You’re digesting it, and it will come back later in ways that will really surprise you. It helps to read outside of your normal, comfortable genre, to take risks as a reader. When I get writer’s block, I read. That’s how I unstick myself. Sometimes I start a book and I really don’t like it, but I also like to think about what I’m learning from it, as a writer.
The second piece of advice is, I had a teacher once say to me that you should give your characters a roll in the hay. They work hard. They deserve it. That’s so smart. I don’t think that’s a universally applicable piece of advice, but if you’re feeling stuck, try a sex scene. I also always tell my students to write party scenes if they’re feeling stuck. A party scene throws lots of characters in one place, is really aesthetically interesting and always involves a lot of bad behavior. It forces a lot of character and plot work.
EW: Almost anything can happen in a party scene.
CMM: Exactly. Almost anything could happen. It gives you a little laboratory. That’s some actual writing advice.
EW: Carmen, thank you so much. This has been really fun.
CMM: Good! Thanks for having me.
Carmen Maria Machado‘s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Guernica, Electric Literature, AGNI, NPR, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review of Books, VICE, and elsewhere. Her stories have been reprinted in Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. Her memoir House in Indiana is forthcoming in 2019 from Graywolf Press.
She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Artist in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife. For more information visit https://carmenmariamachado.com.