Her Body and Other Parties is Carmen Maria Machado’s first collection of short stories, but Machado is no novice: her writing is prolific and varied, from essays on higher education and retail consumerism, fiction on clairvoyance and the afterlife, and criticism on Leonora Carrington and Game of Thrones. In Her Body, Machado flexes that versatility as her characters navigate the emotional landscapes of love, sex, and grief within the contexts of pandemic narratives and ghost stories. Throughout each of the book’s eight stories, Machado uses elements of the fantastic as a vehicle for better understanding the complications and challenges of reality.
Machado and I spoke over the phone at the end of August, as she was preparing to start the semester at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the artist in residence, and just before her collection was named to the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction and as a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. Our lively conversation took us from Victorian England to Law and Order and a lot in between.
Let’s start at the beginning. What prompted you to start writing?
I have been writing basically my whole life. My family read to me a lot, and my grandfather’s Cuban, so there was a lot of storytelling in our household. I learned about stories through that oral tradition and through reading, and as soon as I was able to pick up a pen I was writing “books” and “stories” and sending them to publishers. I found Scholastic’s address in The Baby-Sitters Club and sent a letter saying, Here’s a chapter of my novel. Please let me know if you would like more of it.
I wrote constantly, poetry and prose. For a while I wanted to be a doctor, but only because I was reading a lot of books about doctors. When I got older, I thought I wanted to be a journalist for a while. But I always returned to writing fiction. It was a stable thing in my life, and it was just luck that it was natural for me. But I feel like it was pretty late that I decided I wanted to be a writer, with writing as a part of my identity, as opposed to somebody who writes.
Was your early writing encouraged? And were there writers or books that especially influenced you?
Oh, there were so many different teachers. I had an amazing tenth-grade English teacher, Marilyn Stinebaugh. I was always cranky about the required reading. I would get so mad about the books we had to read in English class because we read a lot of Hemingway, and I fucking hate Hemingway. And then one day she came in with books from her personal library that she thought I would like—One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, The Awakening, some Henry James. I went home and read them and my mind just broke open. In college, I took writing classes and had a wonderful teacher, Harvey Grossinger, who told me my work was interesting and thought I had a lot of potential. Even after I left school, he and I would still email, and he would send me notes on stories I was working on. Then once I got to Iowa, everybody was so open and generous and gentle, but also encouraging and smart. I’ve been incredibly lucky.
What makes a story start to form in your head?
It can be an image or an idea, it can be reading about something. Right now I’m working on a new project, and there’s a lot of historical material in it. So right now I’m doing a lot of reading, and when I locate the right historical detail there’s a chain reaction in my brain—I can see how it all fits together. But it’s not magic—I just have to set myself up to be as open and responsive to stimuli as I possibly can be. If it’s in my wheelhouse, I notice it, and I tuck it away. There’s always something I’m chewing on. 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.
What sorts of things are in your wheelhouse right now?
Recently I was reading about the Moberly–Jourdain Incident. It happened at the turn of the century in France. Two women were walking along together and both believed they had encountered a time slip. They thought they had entered into Marie Antoinette’s court. They claimed to have seen people in fancy dress, including Marie Antoinette, and they wrote a book about it. There are different theories about what might have happened to make them both believe that they’d had this experience. Some think they were Victorian ladies just really bent out of shape by, you know, repressive Victorian society. Some thought that they had encountered a real fancy dress party and didn’t know what they were seeing. And some described it as a lesbian folie à deux. I love their story—it’s so weird, so liminal. The queer angle interests me. I feel like it’s really ripe for something. When I see or hear about something and my brain files it away, I know I need to write about that.
What draws you to that space between reality and the fantastic?
It’s very close to how I actually perceive the world, but turned up to a higher degree. I don’t actually believe in ghosts and angels, I don’t believe in anything really supernatural, but I’m attuned to what they could look like in the real world. My imagination is very vivid, and I feel like life is a little surreal already, so when I’m writing from my own experiences, I’m really just pushing the situation in the story slightly further than what I perceived in reality.
Do you think that ties back into growing up on stories as a child, having that cultivation of imagination at a very early age?
Totally. When I was a kid, I used to apologize to my furniture if I was leaving for a long time. I would explain that I had to go on a trip, but I would be back. I think I had seen Pee-wee’s Playhouse and was convinced that they were all alive and that they would try and eat me if I made them upset. That sense of play was never squashed. For a lot of people it does get squashed, or it’s not exercised, so it atrophies. But artists, especially writers, have to invoke that sense of play. If you don’t have it, you can’t really create anything interesting. Even in my day-to-day life, when I’m out doing errands or whatever, that sense of playfulness and the potential for story is very alive. And that’s good—it makes writing easier, because I feel like I never stray very far from that weird, surreal space.
Sex factors heavily into your work without overwhelming it. How do you approach it in your writing?
I’m really interested in writing about sex. I feel like it’s not often done well, and it’s sometimes done outrageously. I also get annoyed when writers are afraid to show pleasure. I’m tired of reading really dreadful sex scenes where everyone’s miserable and then eventually maybe one person has a reluctant orgasm. I thought, What if I tried to have a scene where people had sex and it was great? My characters do have sex in varying emotional states, and with various results. I took a class at Iowa with Allan Gurganus, and he picked my story to talk about in class—it was a very different version of “Real Women Have Bodies”—and he really liked that there was sex in it. He said, You should always give your characters a roll in the hay—they work hard, they deserve it. Which I thought was so funny. I tell my students that party scenes are really important in fiction because a party scene can go in any direction. Sex scenes can be similar. You’re putting characters together—what happens as a result?
I also like treating sex as a thing that happens. I wanted the sex to be mostly uncommented upon, just a part of the story, a part of the characters’ lives, as sex is in real life. I have characters in this book who have sex with both men and women, and I wanted the queerness and the liquidity of the sex to be uncommented upon also. It’s not a big deal—it just is what it is. Sometimes people describe “The Husband Stitch” as erotica, and I like erotica, but that’s not erotica. The story is not serving the sex, the sex is serving the story.
What about horror? Elements of horror underlie most of your work in this collection.
Horror is one of my favorite genres because it’s so limber. In some ways, it’s regressive—it’s still very male and white. The fact that Get Out was so big this year is amazing but also unusual. On the other hand, horror can be a very transgressive space. It reflects so many of our anxieties and fears. When you enter into horror, you’re entering into your own mind, your own anxiety, your own fear, your own darkest spaces. When horror fails, it’s because the writer or director isn’t drawing on those things. They’re just throwing blood wherever and seeing what sticks. But horror is an intimate, eerie, terrifying thing, and when it’s done well it can unmake you, the viewer, the reader. That tells us a lot about who we are, what we are, and what we, individually and culturally, are afraid of. I love the ability of stories to have spaces in them where the reader can rush in. That is the work I am most interested in, and that is the work I am most interested in writing.
“Especially Heinous” is a strange ride through almost three hundred reimagined synopses of Law and Order: SVU episodes. Where did the idea for that piece come from?
In 2009, I got swine flu. I was living in California, in a little cottage by myself. I probably should have gone to the hospital, but I was so sick that I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. I had a fever for three days and was hallucinating. But right before I got so sick, I couldn’t function, I had turned on Law and Order: SVU on Netflix, and they had just started that feature where the next episode would automatically start playing. So the show played in the background as I burned with fever and dragged myself to the bathroom to lie in the shower to cool down because I was so hot—or maybe it was cold, I don’t remember. I’m just glad I didn’t die.
I joke that the emotional root of that story was being in that hallucinatory fever state while I was watching the show. But years later, I was in a very bad place in my life, and I was coping by writing a lot. I was also watching a lot of TV, including Law and Order: SVU. My initial idea was to rewrite the existing episode descriptions in slightly surreal versions. So I looked up the little capsule descriptions of the episodes, and I was trying to manipulate them to make them surreal, but it was too restrictive. Then I realized that all the titles are one-word titles. And what if I just use the titles? I put only the titles all in a row, and then just started writing and imagining Benson and Stabler. Something about having the titles to hang onto—I was able to swing through them like monkey bars. I wrote the story, surprisingly, in a pretty straightforward way. I was thinking about sexual violence, how we talk about and portray sexual violence, and I got to funnel all these thoughts into one piece. The story took forever to sell, which I get, because it’s strange, and also incredibly long, but I felt really good about it. I felt proud of it, like I was stretching my legs as an artist.
Your nonfiction pieces are strikingly vulnerable. Do you feel that vulnerability in your fiction as well?
Some stories more than others. I have definitely cried while writing some stories, or cried while writing parts of them, because it’s been me accessing something very intimate and personal. It’s hard to admit that, because I don’t want to be sentimental in my work. I’m trying to cut that emotion with formal experimentation or with bluntness. I’m trying to walk that line, and it’s hard. Part of it is that I am very aware of my role as a female writer, and that makes showing my vulnerability twice as dangerous because I’m assumed to be soft. So to write in a way that’s revealing is almost reinforcing that idea, and I struggle with that. I mean, in my fiction, obviously it’s fiction, but there’s emotional honesty there. That’s really important to me, too.
Lauren Kane is an editorial intern at The Paris Review.
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