Where does it come from?
This elusive thing that creatives do, be they writers, designers, artists, sculptors—where does it come from?
It’s a question we always tend to ask when observing those with brilliant output, like author Carmen Maria Machado. And in seeking the origins of a wellspring of pure talent, one usually arrives at the beginning.
Machado grew up in Allentown, PA, and storytelling saturated her life from the start. Her grandfather had come to the U.S. from Cuba, went to college in Tennessee, was deported during the heyday of Joseph McCarthy, and eventually returned to serve in the U.S. military during the Korean War. There were a lot of tales to be told, and one wonders if the architecture and narrative of story began to anchor themselves then in Machado’s burgeoning brain.
Moreover, as a kid she wrote—and not just in diaries. Sure, she had journals filled with the usual childhood melodrama like the rest of us, but she was also inventing her own worlds on her father’s stationery … and dutifully sending them off to publishers.
She was an anxious kid—one who liked to be scared by the likes of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, which was subsequently banned in her house. She was a self-described “weird” kid—one who found difficulty interacting with her peers, but discovered an outlet in the Girl Scouts, where she excelled at telling scary stories around a campfire. She was a voracious reader—one who repeatedly checked out The Stories of Ray Bradbury from the library, developing a passion for the art of short prose as she devoured the tome.
In high school, an English teacher who perhaps sensed the possibility within Machado gave her a handpicked selection of books to read, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude among them. As she told Shimmer, “I’d never even heard of magical realism before. It seemed to sync so cleanly with my perception of the world—reality tinged with inexplicable events, a kind of lushness that I understood but had never put a name to. And of course, the book was gorgeous and completely overtook me. After that, I never wrote the same way. Everything seemed pregnant with magic. I’ve been trying to recreate that experience in my work ever since.”
Machado attended American University, where she briefly studied journalism before switching to photography (an artform she has noted shares interesting parallels with the craft of fiction). She later headed off to the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she graduated with the foundation of what would become Her Body and Other Parties.
As she worked on the short story collection, she had to support herself with a gig at the cosmetics store Lush in a Philadelphia mall—and during that time, she considered walking away from writing. But the scribe who seemed predestined world eventually complete the book. People sometimes assume that when a writer pens that final sentence, the work is done. In fact, it tends to only get more intense. If a writer does not have a literary agent, the traditional path forward is to seek one via dozens of query letter appeals. If a writer already has an agent, a brutal waiting game ensues as the agent does their best to convince a publisher to place a financial bet on the book and its success.
There’s a lot of fight in getting a book published. And after a first round of submissions, no publisher picked Machado’s up. But the independent nonprofit Graywolf Press eventually did—and when they released it, the reception shocked Machado, and likely the team at Graywolf, as well.
As The New York Times wrote, “Her Body and Other Parties … is a love letter to an obstinate genre that won’t be gentrified. It’s a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror. Not since Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, in 2006, has a debut collection of short stories from a relatively unknown author garnered such attention, or deserved it more.”
As World Literature Today wrote, “Machado is a revolution. She is at once a funny, dark, terrifying, uplifting anti-Lovecraft. … Her Body and Other Parties is fiery, mischievous and elusive. Like the worlds Machado glimpses: brutal and yet life-affirming.”
The book is a wonder, rightfully won the Bard Fiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and a host of other accolades. An experimental memoir is next up for Machado and Graywolf, and in addition to that, she has said that she has notes for a handful of novels, essays and more. One delights in the possibility of what form those might one day take.
But the question remains: Where does it all come from? These ideas, these modern fairy tales? Where are they stored within her? How does she conjure such intense magic on the page?
As she told The Paris Review last fall, “Whenever I’m writing a story, it’s coming from something that’s on my mind, so I’m just drawing from my own constant internal chatter.” Similarly, as she detailed in Guernica: “I just try to write for me.”
Sometimes, when you radiate talent, it really all is that simple—and it’s also a lesson for the rest of us, as we may run from, circumvent, dance around the dreams and passions that could define us, if only we just did what we were put on this Earth to do.
Carmen Maria Machado has.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
By Carmen Maria Machado:
Carmen: "It's the first day of the season and there's still a lot to choose from. Bright teal slips and dusky pink thunder puffs. The Bella series, the one the color of bees. Mermaid cuts in salt flat white, trumpets style in algae red, princess gowns in liver purple. The Ophelia which looks perpetually wet. Emma wants a second chance, the exact shade of a doe standing in a shadow. The banshee with its strategically shredded milk colored silk, the skirts curl ruffled with layers of taffeta, except when they drag and slink. Their busts are crunchy with coral hand stitched sequins, or studded with pebbles, or stretched with netting. The color of frosted sea glass, or neon early-morning buttercream, or overripe cantaloupe. There is one that is just thousands of jet-black beads in midnight black settings, that moves with every breath.
Debbie: If you like fairytales and myths, this book is for you. If you like horror and science fiction, ditto, the same book has got you covered. If you like experiments or fiction, Queer theory and luminous storytelling, well you're in luck. My guest today is the author, Carmen Maria Machado and her book, Her Body and Other Parties has been nominated for the National Book Award for fiction. She's here today to talk about her writing, her life and her career. Carmen, welcome to this Design Matters.
Carmen: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: Carmen, I understand that from the moment you were able to pick up a pen, you were writing. I read that as a kid, you found the address for the Scholastic Book Publishing company in a baby-sitters club book, and sent them a chapter of a novel you were writing adding, "Please let me know if you would to see more of it." How old were you when you did this?
Carmen: Oh my God, I must have been I'd say it probably about third grade. So how old are you in third grade? Eight maybe. Yeah, my godmother bought me a personalized stationery set. It had jungle animals on it, and it had my name and my address and after that I just went to town. I was sending letters to everyone and I felt really empowered by the stationery.
Debbie: Did you write the story on the stationery?
Carmen: No, the story was printed. My parents had bought, it was Windows 3.1. It was a really old computer, well it's old now it was at the time amazing. I loved the word processor, and I typed a lot of stories up on the word processor so I typed it up. I must have gotten my father to print it at work and then I wrote, I guess we called it the cover letter on my stationery, and then I mailed it in.
Debbie: Did you ever hear back?
Carmen: I did not. My wife who works in publishing assures me that some intern probably hung it up in their cubicle, with a lot of joy and happiness, which makes me happy.
Debbie: Your grandfather came to the United States from Santa Clara when he was 18, and went to Tennessee to go to college. It took him 10 years to finish his degree between working, learning English and being deported back to Cuba during the McCarthy era, and serving in the Korean War which is how he earned his citizenship. Growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, you've said that there was a lot of storytelling going on in your home particularly from your Cuban granddad. What kind of stories were being told, and how did they influence you?
Carmen: He would tell stories about Cuba and about his life after he left Cuba that were really strange, and that they were very dark. I don't think I fully appreciated or understood their darkness. For example there was a story he would tell about how he had this pet rooster, and then one day they were having dinner and they hadn't seen the rooster in a while, and he asked, "Where's the rooster?" They were like, "Well, you're eating it. You're eating him." Because it's Cuba, and everyone's ... their family was hungry they had to eat their pet rooster as you do.
Carmen: So that's a very dark story or he would talk about how a lot of the people that he knew went to, so he didn't serve in Korea proper. He was during that conflict, but he was in Germany as an engineer, but the story that he tells is that he narrowly escaped going to Korea, and that a lot of the men that he would have served with died while over there. He just escaped by the skin of his teeth, and there's this way of speaking about his life that was funny, and rueful, and structured, in this really interesting way.
Carmen: Like a storyteller but also had this funny darkness to it, and that the humor in the darkness were always very close to each other, and playing off of each other, which I have since learned is actually a very distinctly Cuban way of speaking. Having now been to Cuba and met a lot of relatives who lived there, that's just I think a way that a lot of Cuban folks speak about. The humor and the grimness.
Debbie: You've written this about your grandma. "My grandmother was a mountain. When I was a girl, I'd stand next to her vanity and watch as she strung herself with what I thought of as her jewels. Jangling glittering bangles, and jade green Lucite earrings, and roped gold necklaces, and Swarovski crystal breeches shaped elephants and tigers. She wore leopard print nightgowns and smelled white diamonds, and overflowed from the bones of her chair. Her body was a marvel to me, a forum unbound and soothing as a Buddha. Sometimes I would sit in her lap and peek down her shirt to see her mysteries. She was the biggest woman I knew." I love that, I love that description. Did she influence how you see the world, or how you see bodies in the world?
Carmen: She didn't really talk about it. It wasn't as if she sat me down, was like, "All right Carmen, let's talk about bodies now." She just existed in this way that was audacious and in a way that was very at odds with all the other messages I was getting about bodies, and the way that fat women should treat and present their bodies to the world, including for my own mother. So she was the one example that defied what I was seeing everywhere else. It wasn't so much, it wasn't as if she was directly telling me, but yeah just speaking. It's weird, it wasn't until so that essay that that quote is from. I had been trying to write about fatness for a really long time, and I'd really struggled to in that essay was how I figured out the essay that I wanted to write.
Debbie: After you graduated from a bunk bed that you shared with your brother, you got your own room and around that time, you began to have night terrors that climax. Didn't sleep paralysis and you would sense a phantom presence with you in the room. Did these experiences play into the themes of the stories that you would later write as an adult? I was thinking of the phantom presence in your story, Eight Bites.
Carmen: I think it played into a general sense of there is something else, and that manifested in a lot of ways in my life. It's manifested as religious faith, it's manifested as being really interested in horror and work, both writing and reading work that deals with these other elements. Even though there's a very obvious medical explanation for night terrors, and for the reason people feel like there is a thing in the room with them, I haven't had it as an adult but as a kid yeah. Sometimes I would fall asleep and as I was falling asleep, I would just hear the sound like a train coming down on me, or like a monster. It would just be unbelievably loud and that it would stop, and yes all of those ways in which my body existed in this weird liminal space in the world, I guess contributed to my desire to read about those things and then also eventually write about them.
Debbie: Back then you were incredibly anxious, and have written that you were always upset about something that had happened, or could happen and you were also an obsessive rule-follower. I was too. Where did all that anxiety come from?
Carmen: It's probably, I think it runs in my family and there is an element. It's a combination of psychology and a way to think about the world, and also there's a sensory element a bit, where it's like being easily overwhelmed, or my body responds very strongly to my anxiety which is just the way it is, but yeah.
Debbie: I understand you were a big reader when you were a kid, but you got so freaked out by R.L. Stine's Night of the Living Dummy book that your mom banned goose bumps books from your house. I read that you liked how it made you feel afraid, and you've observed that a book can reach out and do that was a really marvelous thing to learn.
Carmen: Yeah, it's funny I just, I literally just bought an enamel pen that is the dummy's head from that book that I found at a store, and that felt right that I owned it. It just seemed like a thing I should wear my lapel whenever possible. I did interview awhile ago where I was discussing this with the interviewer, and he described it as something that changes your temperature. I was, "Yeah, the work that I like is work that changes your temperature." It makes you feel something because I feel oftentimes like I'll watch a movie, or read a book, or play a video game, [inaudible 00:09:35].
Carmen: I do it and I'm like, "Okay" that was the thing I did, but there's no sense of anything. There's no like I'm not happy, or sad, or angry, or afraid, or anything. I just feel nothing, I'm just okay and that's my worst nightmare. As a reader and as a writer, if someone was like, "I felt nothing when I read your book." I'd rather someone be I hated your book, I'd be like good. I'm glad it evoked a feeling in you that way. So yeah, those books I couldn't tell you why, I don't know why that book in particular but for some reason that was a book that so affected how I felt. I couldn't sleep, the lights were on for a week, my mother was just, she was beside herself. She's like, "This is ridiculous, why are you doing this?"
Debbie: Why do you think it terrified you so much?
Carmen: I haven't read in a long time, I honestly can't tell you anything. I knew it involves a living, or like a demonic possessed dummy. That's about all I know. I do remember, I think I had nightmares about it. I think that probably, I remember nightmares about the dummy being in my house but that's not from the book. That's from my own mind, so like my house then the dummy, and the dummy chasing people and what came out of it which is this complete terror that just had no name.
Debbie: That's interesting, that terror that has no name is almost a way that I would describe some of your stories, where there's this underlying sense of tension and you tease us with it. You bring it out a little bit and then you begin to wonder if, "Wait, did I get that right?" Then you have to remember and go back. There's this building sense of intensity that I've never read before. I've never read anything that before and it's just been an extraordinary experience reading your short stories. What is it about short stories you like so much?
Carmen: Short stories, I think of short stories as laboratories because they're so short, you're able to play around in a way where if the experiment fails, you can cast the story aside and move on. Like people write novels that never go anywhere, and that's so much, just literally the sheer amount of pages before you're like, "No, this is a failed novel." That's a nightmare to me and I'm sure at some point I'll write. I hope to some day write a novel but for me, it's the pleasure of just right now I'm writing a 10 page story, 20 page story, 30 page story.
Carmen: That's like a very contained space that I can play around in and experiment, and also you can pull things off in the short story that a reader would not necessarily just want to sustain. Like try to imagine my story inventory but over the course of a novel. It'd be like ... I'm sure there's a version of it that's possible, but I think that a reader would be like, "I'm exhausted by this." There's formal, there's constraint and I don't know. So for some reason the short story just really, it just works for me. I really enjoy it, I always like reading short stories. If you recommend an author to me and I go to the library and there's a novel and a short story collection, I'll always pick up the short story.
Debbie: Me too, I love short stories. They feel somehow easier to manage emotionally.
Carmen: Yeah, it's just like a different ... I always tell my students a novel is like being beat up over the course of a day, and a short story is like a one punch to the nose. They're just a different experience of reading, and I just prefer the punch to the nose I guess. I don't know why.
Debbie: For those of my listeners that have not read Carmen Maria Machado's book yet, I want to give you a little bit of a sense of what she was talking about when she referenced the short story inventory. It's a list of the various sexual experiences the protagonist has over the course of her life. It's quite interesting and unnerving and surprising and very, very unpredictable. We have a book that we both love in common. In high school your English teacher, Mrs. Steinberg I believe is her name, gave you a stack of books from her personal collection that she wanted you to read. Among them was Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. You've said it blew your mind as it did me. I remember reading it when I was in college, you read it younger.
Debbie: I remember reading it on the bus, I couldn't stop reading it so I just was carrying it reading it wherever I was going. I was going to a class and I had to take the bus to school, and I was reading it on the bus. I finished it on the bus and I wanted the bus to never stop driving, because I just wanted to keep reading this book for the rest of my life. You've said this about your experience reading it, "I'd never even heard of magical realism before. It seemed to sink so cleanly with my perception of the world, reality tinged with inexplicable events, a kind of lushness that I understood but never put a name to. Of course the book was gorgeous and completely overtook me after that, I never wrote the same way. Everything seemed pregnant with magic. I've been trying to recreate that experience in my work ever since." Do you believe in magic?
Carmen: I want to believe in magic. I'm one of those people, I exist in this very weird space, but I'm like a ruthless pragmatist and I have zero superstitions of any kind, and yet I want to believe in magic more than anything. If I could change anything about the world, I'd be like I want to know that supernatural things could be true. It's weird because I love ghosts and the idea of ghosts. I don't believe in ghosts but I am very interested in the experience of what does it mean when people say they've seen a ghost, when people have ... I was very religious for a long time and I'm not anymore, but like what does it mean to have a ... Why do people need faith in these unseen elements. What does it mean for us to believe in things demons? How do these elements plan to, what people have to need or want psychologically? So yeah, that's just really interesting to me but yeah, I want to believe in ghosts so bad. It would be amazing.
Debbie: It would stop a lot of wars and fighting, because we'd finally understand something that we didn't understand before. We'd see proof of something that we didn't believe, and therefore everything would be called into question. You were a brownie and then a Girl Scout until you were a senior in high school. I would not have expected that.
Carmen: Really, why?
Debbie: I don't know, you just seemed so much more subversive.
Carmen: You don't know me well. I'm subversive in certain ways, but like I said I was a rule follower. I loved Girl Scouts.
Debbie: Did it make you fit in? I know you said that you felt you were really weird when you were in high school.
Carmen: I did not fit in at all. The girls were not big fans of me, which I understand because I was a really weird kid. I think I was very off-putting and very strange, but I still got all the adults really well. I always got along with adults and I don't know, I just enjoyed even though it wasn't the most socially enriching experience. I just loved camping and I loved selling Girl-Scout cookies, which I was really good at. I don't know I just really, really enjoyed the elements of it. My dad was an Eagle Scout and a Boy Scout leader, and my brother was a Boy Scout and became an Eagle Scout. So scouting was like a thing my family did but yeah, I really liked, I learned cool stuff. I learned-
Debbie: Did you have one of those sashes with all the badges?
Carmen: I did actually. Just recently I just cleaned up my apartment and I found all of my vests and badges. I need to do something, I don't know what I'm going to do with them. I need to put them onto a quilt, I don't know. I need to do something with them because they're so cool. I liked being like, "Okay, I got to go get my ..." I don't even know, like explorer but it's not.
Debbie: I know, I think it was. I was obsessed with getting badges and I never got one. Not one and then I ended up buying one on eBay.
Carmen: No, just for yourself? What was the badge for?
Debbie: Arts and craft.
Carmen: I think you've probably earned the arts and crafts badge. I'm sure if you went and looked at the requirements, I'm sure ...
Debbie: Years and years ago, I was doing some brand consulting. I went for a meeting at the Girl Scouts, and they have that store in their offices. I went in and like you could buy all the badges and I was like, "I could just completely re-engineer my childhood right now, could buy every single badge." Then I said to the woman at the check out, "How much are the badges?" She says, "You can't buy those unless you're a Girl Scout leader." I was like, "Oh."
Carmen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, there was something just so pleasant about it. I don't know, I just really liked it.
Debbie: You said that you were, this is a quote. "I was just so fucking weird, I cannot emphasize how fucking weird I was as a teenager. I was the weirdest." So how were you weird? I don't-
Carmen: I guess everyone says that about themselves like, "I was so weird as a teenager."
Debbie: I wasn't weird.
Carmen: You weren't. No, I was. I just, I was not super interested in the normal social stuff that I think a lot of teens get really focused on. I was religious, so there was this element of it where I was hanging out with the Bible study kids, which was like social suicide. I never quite, I have friends from high school but I just also didn't have one clear group. I moved around between social groups, I don't know. I don't know, I didn't know well I was a mess. I didn't know what I was doing.
Debbie: What did you think you wanted to be professionally at that time?
Carmen: I wanted to be a doctor for a long time which is insane to me, because I'm a hypochondriac, and I hate science and math. Why would I, not hate them but I was not good at them. So what on earth could I get by being a doctor, but my dad was an engineer and so I think I had in my head like, "What's the most exciting?" So I was like "I want to be a pediatric oncologist." I learned that phrase, I know right.
Debbie: What is that?
Carmen: I want to be a pediatric oncologist. They were like, "Okay." Just strange, it was really strange. Yeah and my friend and I, my friend Margaret and I had American girl dolls, and we made an American girl doll hospital. So my dad actually built me a little bed from my American girl doll, the back would raise and lower if you pull the rope. I guess like how I imagined a hospital bed would be, and then we would make IVs out of Ziploc bags and put food dye in water, and then we would have a string and we tape a safety pin to a doll's arm.
Carmen: I drew on my American girl doll's stomach stitches. My mom was so mad, she was like, "Do you know how expensive that doll is?" I was like, "She had surgery. What do you expect?" Yeah, so we just really got into this playing, and we ... My friend Margaret and I, this is another example of how I was weird. I played imagination until I was like 16 years old. I feel that was another way in which I just wasn't quite, in some ways I was very advanced for my age. In some sense I was reading really far ahead of my age level, but also I would do things like I was just playing pretend until I was way too old.
Debbie: Did you have an imaginary friend until you were 16?
Carmen: Not imaginary, Margaret is an actual friend. Margaret was an actual person but I think so. No, she is, I literally ran into her last year on the street in Philadelphia. I feel like objects always had this intense narrative potential, and I believe that my furniture was sentient for a really long time. So I would do this thing where before I left for a vacation, I had this ritual where I would say goodbye to my furniture and explain like, "I'm coming back in two weeks." We would do this every summer, my mother's from Wisconsin and we would go visit my Wisconsin family for like two weeks every summer.
Carmen: That was our family vacation and very exciting. So it was a long time I would ever be away, so I would say like, "Goodbye, I'll be back in two weeks." I think I got that idea because I had seen Pee-wee's Playhouse and I was imagining all the chair spoke, the chair spoke and so I think I just got this idea in my head that my furniture could, if it so chose swallow me alive, or do something else to me. I had to keep a good relationship with my furniture and I did so by ... Saying that out loud sounds insane.
Debbie: No, not at all.
Carmen: This happened again and again, until I was too old, old enough to know better. I feel like those rituals lasted much longer than one would expect.
Debbie: You went to American University in Washington, DC and you studied initially journalism. Why journalism?
Carmen: I wanted to be a writer and my dad told me the only people who had jobs, full-time jobs were writers that had health insurance were journalists. Of course this was before, this was 2004. So everything really changed for journalists, all the people I knew who got journalism jobs lost their jobs when everything shifted over. I took one semester of journalism writing classes, and I remember I had this poor beleaguered teacher, who was like this lovely brilliant human, this really talented journalist Amy Iseman. She was trying to get me to take adjectives out and I was like, "No, I won't relinquish another adjective." She was like, "I don't know if this is for you" Eventually I just changed majors because I was like I just can't, this is not how I want to write. Then honestly, whatever job you want you imagine the glamorous partner.
Debbie: Rosalind Russell and His Girl Friday.
Carmen: Yeah, right all right. I was imagining, "Yeah, I'm going to do some investigative reporting, and then I'm going to see it coming, and I'm going to get a Pulitzer." Then my teacher would be like, "Usually in the beginning you're doing things like covering city hall meetings and covering this." I was like, "I don't have time for that. I don't want to do that." Journalism is just not for me.
Debbie: You change your major to photography?
Carmen: I did.
Carmen: I just liked photography and I didn't really know what to do with myself. I was at AU and everyone at AU is like political science, or international relations and I know those things really spoke to me and yeah, then I took a photo class and I absolutely loved it. So I was a photo kid, I did a visual and I did some studio art and I did some writing, creative writing. If I could go back and do it over again, I probably would've done something really different, but-
Debbie: Like what?
Carmen: Actually design was a thing that I was really interested in, and also graphic design was interesting to me.
Debbie: After you graduated from AU, you applied to and got into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, widely regarded as one of the best writing programs in the world. What inspired that decision?
Carmen: Well there was a gap in between, so I moved to California for no reason.
Debbie: Where in California?
Carmen: In Berkeley, and it was the beginning of the recession. That's the worst decision I could have possibly made. I had a degree that was totally non-functional, student loan debt. I moved to the most expensive area in the country I could possibly have moved to, and I just struggled. I had a couple of relationships that didn't end so well, and then I was working a job I really hated and I couldn't find a job that I liked. I was broke all the time because it's so expensive.
Carmen: This was 10 years ago, so can't imagine it now but even then living in Berkeley, all my money went to rent and it was just impossible to live. I was miserable and I missed everyone. I was just really sad and so I just started applying to MFA programs, and I was so desperate. I applied to a ridiculous number of them, I think 25, 26 which is unbelievable. People were like that's really intense but then yeah, I got into Iowa and did not look back. Was just like peace California, see you later. Smell you later.
Debbie: Is this when you finally accepted that you wanted to be and were going to be a writer?
Carmen: Yeah, it was the first time that I think I'd taken what I consider a professional step. Before that I still was writing this whole time, but I never really thought about like what if I wrote a book, or what if I did this. Going to Iowa was the first job, so I also was not sure through most one time at Iowa if I'd actually be, like if a book was going to happen. I was experimenting and trying new things, and then everything clicked into place. Most of that happened after I graduated but yeah, when I was at Iowa I was like and I made decisions about I want to try freelancing, like I want to try book reviewing, actively trying to push into certain areas that I was interested in trying out.
Debbie: You've stated that you consider your short story, which is in Her Body and Other Parties difficult at parties. The piece that started the way you write now. In what way?
Carmen: When I first got to Iowa, the work I was writing, it was derivative and not in a good way. All writing, all art comes from your influences right, and you read other writers or if you're in art I know if you're an artist you consume other art, and then you think about that art when you're making your own art. I was just playing around but I wasn't really, my heart was not in what I was doing. I would write a story and I really liked the sentences, but if you were like, "What's this story about?" It was just some dreadfully boring like, "Her father died and she's sad about it, and there's a funeral."
Carmen: It was always just really tedious and plotting. I remember a classmate saying to me a lot of this is pretty dull, but there are moments in here there's flashes in here, where I can see that you were ... Most of the story I feel you're not interested in what you're writing, which he was right. He was 100% right, I was bored with what I was putting out. Then again there are moments in here where suddenly I sense you are suddenly interested, and there was a moment in one of these stories where death appears to this woman and she has this conversation with it. This is a story that has never been published but-
Debbie: This is the famous story that's never been published?
Carmen: Right, it's super bad. It was just not a good story, but there was this moment in it right where death appears, and this woman has this conversation with death. My friends were like, "This is what ..." My classmates, my friends and classmates were like, "This is what is interesting. This is where you come alive on the page, so you should be reading writers that do things this." Kelly Link, Karen Russell George Saunders, Helen Oyeyemi, Angela Carter, et cetera. Just all these fabulous people who are writing in this liminal horror space, and so I did.
Carmen: I just started reading them and suddenly I felt like ... I feel when people ask about like, "What is the writers voice? What does that mean?" For me, one's voice is what you want to ... It's like you want, the thing you want to talk about in some capacity and you have a way to talk about it. For me the thing I wanted to write about was gender and women's bodies. That I think was always there, but suddenly I realized I had this language for it. I had this way of thinking about it that involved things like horror and liminal fantasy, magical realism, whatever you want to call it, that gave me an architecture through which I could erect these ideas in a way that was unique to me.
Carmen: So I sat down and I wrote Difficult at Parties, and I wanted to write a story about sexual violence. It was really important to me, but I was also really concerned that people would be like, "Okay, a woman, a feminist writing about rape." Like whoop-Dee-Doo and I was like, "I want to find a way into this story that no one can tell me that something's been done before." So I decided to have this woman who post rape, trying to find that inner part of herself again. Then of course just in the story discovering that she can hear the voices of the actors, and in pornographic films and so-
Debbie: You never use the word rape in that story.
Carmen: I don't, I don't, I don't, I think it's inferable.
Carmen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I don't use the word rape. She doesn't really talk about it, there's a moment where she briefly flashes to it but it mostly exists outside of the story. I didn't really want to show it, it wasn't really important to me to show it but I was interested in yeah, this part of process of rediscovering herself through this weird conceit. Yeah, I never, I draw a draft of it and I was like I don't know how to explain it was like ding, ding, ding, that's it. I figured something out and it felt like a good worthwhile, unique, interesting, important, necessary story. I'd never felt that way about anything I've written before. I know I've been writing for my whole life, but I never felt that way and that was that. Then after that I was off to the races, it was just like I didn't look back.
Debbie: Your path to publication wasn't easy. You'd gotten a literary [inaudible 00:29:40] but during your first round of submissions, no publisher would take the book. How did you eventually land with Graywolf Press?
Carmen: The process of trying to sell a book is I think really terrible. It's very stressful if you're coming at it as a debut author, where you're outside of the system. Even finding an agent was really strange because back when I was looking for an agent, I would write query letters to agents, and also agents were visiting outside Iowa, and I would give them my manuscript. I would get this note back when people would be like, "This is interesting but it's not quite for me." They'd be like, "It's great. When you have a novel, let me know." Because no one wants to buy a short stories.
Carmen: They don't sell a lot. My book is in exception and there are exceptions like George. People were like, "What about George Saunders?" George Saunders is the exception, because he does, but yeah, in terms of sales people just often or don't know how to read short stories. In fact a lot of people will say to me like, "I normally don't like short stories, but I like your short stories." My personal theory is that it has to do with the fact that we don't teach short story collections in schools, in public schools. When I was in high school, we would read a handful of classic short stories. We'd read The Lottery, we would read The Most Dangerous Game and like I don't know, A Rose for Emily, and one other and always be The Monkey's Paw, and then that would be it.
Carmen: So the stories are old and they also would exist floating in this void where it's just like, "This is just that." But a short story collections is its own creature, the stories interact with each other in specific ways, but we just don't teach that. I don't think so, I think people are afraid of them. They don't know how to read them because they didn't learn, so yeah. They're just a hard sell and oftentimes when writers do sell them, it's often because they sold a novel and they sell the collection with the novel. I only had this collection and so a lot of agents were just like, "I don't really know what to do with this." I was really lucky in that my agent Kent Wolfe, who I absolutely love, took me on and so yeah. Then we did a second round of submissions to the Big Indies and Graywolf was the only place that made an offer. I still, even if they bought it I was like, "It will sell a few copies. It'll probably do fine, hopefully I'll make back my advance," and that's really the dream I had.
Debbie: NPR it's been released to rave reviews. I'm going to read you some of NPR dub did an abrupt original wild collection of stories, that somehow catch at familiar unspoken truths, about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing couldn't. You won the Bard Fiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle, John Leonard prize, you were a finalist for the National Book Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Kirkus Prize, LA Times Book Prize for first fiction, the Dylan Thomas prize, and The PEN/Robert Bingham W. Prize for debut fiction. Well fucking done.
Carmen: Yes, thank you. I think and that was the funny thing was, obvious it's a good book. I love it, I feel very proud of it but I think also there was a moment. I think the timing of the book, this sounds really weird to say but I think if Donald Trump was not president, I think the book would not be selling nearly as well.
Debbie: Really, why?
Carmen: I think that we are in this crisis about gender. I think the crisis is manifesting as #MeToo, it's manifesting in the way that the election played out with Hillary Clinton, regardless of how you think about her particularly as a candidate, the way in which women saw sexism and this massive boorish scale. Her voice is so shrill, she's so frail looking, like literally the sort of thing where if you put it in a novel someone would be like take that out, that's too obvious. It's too on the nose but the way that played out, and I think it was really traumatic for a lot of women. I think we didn't fully acknowledge or deal with that trauma, because then the election happened Trump as president, and everyone panicked.
Carmen: So I feel like that just happened, and I feel like there's just, we're in this really intense crisis moment. I think a lot of people are trying to reckon with these questions, and this feeling. The book feels really relevant, even though but also I wrote this book I had sold it two years ago. No, at this point over two years ago. Then I wrote it five years before that so these things were always relevant. The way in which we treat women and talk about women, and grapple with their bodies, has always been really terrible. I think it always will be, I'm a pessimist about that.
Debbie: You're changing that, you've said that writing about sex is not often done well despite the fact in your words, "Sex is so interesting from a craft point of view. Its action and it reveals more about a character, than most anything else." I think you write about sex in ways that isn't really about sex at all.
Carmen: Yeah, my book could do anything. I would hope that it would add toward normalizing queerness, normalizing queer sex, normalizing women's bodies, normalizing sex scenes where women are the center of those scenes, and are not these peripheral bodies. When people come up to me, the biggest comment or the most frequent comment I get is, it's really amazing to read stories with queer characters in them. I almost never get to do that and it makes me so sad, like I shouldn't be-
Debbie: You said that you wanted the queerness and the sexual partners to be uncommon.
Carmen: Yeah. I feel like if no one, I would be happier almost no one asked me about that because that would mean that it was not worth commenting on. It would just be like of course, but as it is we don't live in that world.
Debbie: Regarding identity, you've said that being queer can feel surreal. There's this sense that you're seeing things that other people don't, which I think is true of many groups of people who exist, apart from the more culturally dominant perspective. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.
Carmen: Yeah, I actually can cite an example that I recently listened to on a podcast that I loved. I was listening to an old episode of Planet Money about Subaru, and about the way that Subaru was marketed. When Subaru started being marketed toward lesbians, and it was talking about how the company was struggling. They figured out that lesbians were actually a massive part of their market, and so they would make these ads where queer people would get the joke and nobody else would. So there'd be one that was like, "Loves camping in dogs, too bad it's just a car." Or it would have, the license plate would have Xena written on it. It was these weird ways in which they were nodding in the secret language toward queer consumers, that a straight person would not necessarily understand or know.
Debbie: Subaru as U-Haul.
Carmen: Right, exactly. Yeah, yeah so there would just be this really interesting way. It's like the secret language, and I think obviously these secret languages exist everywhere. They exist between people of color, certain kinds of communities. Women have their, we [inaudible 00:36:40], now with all the #MeToo stuff like about the Whisper Network, and the way that women interact with each other. The way women warn each other, there's a psyche level of engagement with this other space that's mapped over the space, that everyone knows but you don't realize that it's there. Does that make any-
Carmen: Sometimes a secret language isn't for you and that's okay, but when people who do have the secret language are recognized, it's very exciting for them.
Debbie: There was a line in The Resident that really thrilled me when the queer female character finally speaks her mind to one of the characters that's torturing her and she says, "I have never had less of an obligation to anyone in my life, you aggressively ordinary woman." I think that's one of the best insults I've ever heard.
Carmen: I think it's pretty much the worst thing that you could say to somebody.
Debbie: It is, the whole passage leading up to that line is just outstanding. There are actually two other passages in The Resident that I want to ask you about, because so much of that story is about memory and writing. The main character, this woman, is listening to this conversation about the role of ego in writing. So I'll read this passage, "And Nell shook her head. 'You have to work hard, Ego only creates problems but without ego,' Diego said, 'Your writing is just scribbles in a journal. Your art is just doodles. Ego demands that what you do is important enough that you be given money to work on it.' He gestured to the hotel around us, it demands that what you say is important enough that it be published or shown to the world." So Carmen, I was wondering how you feel about the role of ego in writing. Which side were you on in that construction?
Carmen: I'm Diego in that conversation. I feel like that story has a lot of parts where people are just having dinnertime conversations, that are just like me arguing with myself.
Debbie: This is the story that felt most autobiographical to me.
Carmen: Yeah, it's weird because-
Debbie: Especially because she was a Girl Scout.
Carmen: Right. It's funny because that story actually has less autobiographical material than you would think, but it has a lot of intellectual autobiography. There's a lot of spaces in that story where I've mapped a lot of my own concerns about, like the mad woman in the Attic conversation for example. In that case, this idea of what does it mean to have ego. I struggle with this for a long time because I dated a really terrible person in the past, who would say to me if I would say, "I'm really proud of this thing that I wrote, I really like it." He would like, "You're an egomaniac. You think that you're so great."
Carmen: Just would say these horrible things, and in retrospect it was just a very insecure person who was trying to fuck with my head. At the time I was very worried about that, I was like, "No, am I an egomaniac? Do I love myself too much? Do I love my work too much?" Now of course looking back at that I'm like, "No, no, you don't love yourself too much, and your work too much if you flip it exactly the right amount." I do think a lot about ego, because what does it mean to have ego. If you want something to be published because people will often write books for themselves, or write down their story, or write down their memories.
Carmen: That can be therapeutic and useful for all kinds of reasons, but when you say I want to publish this, I want this to be in bookstores, what that means is I think this is important enough that book sell, it's an investment of time and energy and resources. You're saying my work, or my vision, or my art that I made, is worth all of that. That's a really huge thing to say and I think people don't fully realize what a massive thing that is to assert. So if you don't have some level of ego, not obviously ego. When it's too big or undeserved can obviously get in the way, but I think we think of it as universally negative thing when in fact it's an essential element to being an artist because otherwise what are you doing with your time.
Debbie: With your voice.
Carmen: Yeah, what's the point.
Debbie: Whose voice are you sharing?
Carmen: Right, right, exactly. I would not spend all my time staring at a computer screen, ruining my eyes and my posture, to do this thing that I don't. That I'd be like yeah think about who cares.
Debbie: Another passage from The Resident is about the protagonist process of seeing and she states, "This process has been useful for my writing. In fact, I believe that what talent I have comes not from some sort of muse or creative spirit, but from my ability to manipulate proportions and time, but it has put a strain on my relationships. How I married my wife is still a mystery to me." How do you manipulate proportions and time? I love that line.
Carmen: Again that was per a part of a conversation I was having with myself about, what does it mean to have talent? What does it mean to be a skillful writer? I don't often reference TED talks ever, but there is one TED talks that I really like, that Elizabeth Gilbert does. I don't know if you've ever heard it about-
Debbie: Is it the second one, where the muse has to come in?
Carmen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Debbie: Yes, so good.
Carmen: Where she talks about the history of "a genius", which was not, a person was a genius but a spirit that entered you. In thinking about this philosophy of amuse or this another thing. He was a vessel, and so I was just thinking a lot about that and what that means. What I'm thinking about is often like how can shifting our perspective, or shifting time change the way we think about certain ideas? For example in Inventory, this is a good example of this. I start with that story very quickly, it was an idea that came to me. I wrote it down in two hours but I was thinking a lot about when I was writing it, I wanted to write a story that was entirely sex scenes.
Carmen: That was the challenge I had for myself, and then I also was thinking a lot about one of my favorite movies in the world which is Children of Men. That's a movie in which I've seen dozens of times. Every time I rewatch it, I see new stuff like there's more stuff that I have not seen before that I notice. The reason for that is there's this interesting thing that it's happening in that movie. It happens in all films where there's this foregrounding and back grounding. For Inventory, it's this woman's, in the foreground you have this woman's sexual encounters and then the background, you have this slow creeping pandemic that's slowly killing off people. At no point is the background foregrounded, you're just seeing ... In the way that we live our lives with tragedy in the background.
Carmen: Like right now we're sitting in the studio, you look outside of the walls of this room, all kinds of things are happening in the world, and it's only a matter of perspective. It's like I could frame this interview here as part of my day, and it would be like this really high point for my day. But if you were cutting between our interview and people in Puerto Rico, who are so suffering and dying from the hurricane, you would seem really petty and strange. That we were having this very casual conversation about a book, while people were dying. All that is, the coverage does not change, it's just the way that we frame it and think about it changes. You can do that in a million different ways, and so I'm just really interested as a writer in how shifting these elements, and how they relate to each other can change the way that you read or perceive events, or characters, or whatever.
Debbie: You have an untitled memoir coming out in 2019 from Graywolf Press. Given the clues that can be found in your piece the USS awakened dreaming about your time in Indiana, it sounds it's going to be intense. You recount this period with a headline in the piece in a single cryptic sentence, "Bed with a lavender comforter Bloomington, Indiana, 2012. This was the bed of trauma repeated, of tears and screaming, and violence of body and mind, rock beneath and upon sheets the color of flowers." How would you describe this memoir?
Carmen: It is experimentally structured memoir, that both covers personal material and also talks about domestic violence and same-sex relationships, and the unique qualities.
Debbie: Why experimental?
Carmen: It's not just going to be a straight memoir, like here's what happened to me. There's elements of essay and analysis, and there's elements of speculation and there's just these other pieces that exist, that I think fall outside of a more traditional. It's not things that I have invented, these things that other writers have already done, but it's definitely not traditionally structured memoir, if that makes any sense.
Debbie: You've said this about the book, "I'm afraid of this memoir. With a memoir, there's no place to hide. The screen of fiction is gone and it feels really naked, really vulnerable. I'm afraid people are going to ask me all kinds of overly personal questions when it comes out, but really I'm afraid that I'm going to get it wrong. That you'll capture an abusive same-sex relationship wrong, or that others who have gone through one, won't be able to relate to your experience." Are you feeling any better? I don't know that there's any possibility of doing it wrong.
Carmen: There certainly are ways to think about it and to write about it that don't center the things that need to be centered. It's a very fore fraught topic, it's a thing that has not been written about a lot. That's the other thing, it's the pressure of the single representation where it's just a book that doesn't really exist. I know this because I tried to find it after I went to this experience. I remember I was looking for books about domestic violence and same-sex relationships, and I found almost nothing.
Carmen: I found a couple, like a one [inaudible 00:46:10] novel from a long time ago. I found a couple of essays, I found a bunch of academic books for therapists but that was it. I really was like, "How is this not a genre that's been represented more." It's a topic that needs to be talked about, and also one that just seems ripe for conversation. Even though this, and in the quick meetings we've been having this conversation for a very, very long time, but never in any way that's been clarified by literature on this massive scale that I think it should.
Debbie: You refer to the now antiquated term lesbian battering, and suggests that that term suggests that it's all physical and it's not. What else is it about?
Carmen: Its physical, it can be psychological, it can be emotional, sexual. There are other elements that besides just again like someone hitting somebody else in the face, and giving them a black eye which is again what we imagine. I'm finding the space to talk about that, especially right now when we're having a lot of conversations about how men and women relate to each other in these ways, and how culture failed women and having that conversation about how these things manifest in queer couples is really important. Again it's not a thing that you talk about a lot.
Debbie: Thank you for writing this, it's an important book.
Carmen: Yeah, again I hope I do justice but I am excited.
Debbie: You always seem to be juggling multiple projects, you have notes for half a dozen novels, and essay collection, other projects. When you get bored or frustrated, you said you switch gears. Do you have plans for anything for after the memoir? I also understand you've taken up drawing.
Carmen: Yeah. I'm slowly trying to draw just for my own edification.
Debbie: I wonder if that will change the way you write, because drawing changes the way you see.
Carmen: Yeah, I know I believe it. I don't know how it will affect it, but I'm going to try. Yeah it's a hobby, I know sort of designs I'm becoming a visual artist, but yeah I know I actually am working on many other projects. I have some stuff I can actually can't talk about, that's in the works which is all very exciting. I also have another book that I'm working on, which is a novel and stories that I'm really excited about, that has a lot of historical material that I've been doing research for. So yeah, I've got a lot of stuff in the pan I guess, I don't know.
Debbie: That's wonderful. Carmen, before we close this show I was wondering if you could read another passage from one of the stories in Her Body and Other Parties. I've picked this excerpt, it's from the story titled The Resident, that we've talked about. The protagonist is reflecting on a traumatic experience and the subsequent understanding of it.
Carmen: All right.
How could I have known that they had guided my trusting sleepwalking body out of the cabin and through the forest? That they crouched mere feet away, watching my form suspended in the clearing. Circling slowly in the blackness like an errant satellite. My body was so cold, it felt 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 my body, like the mammal I was. But here I was just skin, then just muscle, then merely bone. I felt my spine was slowly pulling up into my skull, each vertebra click, click, clicking like a car slowly ascending a roller coasters 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 be both grateful and to suffer greatly. I was a creature so small, trapped in some crevice of an indifferent universe but now I knew.
Debbie: Carmen Maria Machado, thank you for bringing this extraordinary tour de force of a book into the world. Thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Carmen: Thank you so much for having me.
Debbie: You can find out more about Carmen Maria Machado and her books on her website, carmenmariamachado.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.