Repulsion/Attraction: The Stories of Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado’s 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. Her memoir House in Indiana is forthcoming in 2019 from Graywolf Press. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I’ve read that you’ve been writing your whole life. But what about finding your voice? Because I discovered I was imitating Tolkien fantasies and it took me until my late twenties to move away from slavish imitation and finding myself. What was that process for you, or did you come out right out of the egg?
I wrote a lot of dreadful, plodding stories before I found my voice. Everything changed in grad school—I had written this story with all these horrible tragedies, and then at some point Death showed up and sat in my protagonist’s hotel room, watching her. My classmates thought it was pretty dreadful, but told me that part was interesting. I realized that I did best when I was in a liminal fantasy space. My second semester at Iowa I wrote “Difficult at Parties,” which became the first story that was in actual voice. It was such a revelation. After that, I felt like I had a vision for what I wanted to do as a writer.
Where did the idea for that story come from?
I wanted to write a story about someone recovering from sexual violence, but approach it in a way that was less traditional, including exploring the branding of pornography. It was the first time I felt like every sentence was really important. My body was really tuned in to what I was writing. The fabulist element was functioning. Everything was coming together in a way that made sense to me. When I finished I thought ‘this is so different than everything I’ve done before.’ I felt I had broken through a barrier.
I also read in another interview that oral tradition is very important in your life.
My grandfather has always been a storyteller; growing up, our favorite part of being with him was hearing new stories and re-hearing old ones. He’s still alive, but now he has dementia, and that element is very diminished. We still ask him for his stories, but he loses the thread of them easily. Sometimes we help him get through it by prompting him—because, of course, we know the stories by heart. I’m very interested in the ways stories pass between people, as information and as entertainment, and as an essential thing.
My brother and I we went to Cuba last year, and met a lot of family there. We were walking in this square in Santa Clara one night, and passed by a bank—or maybe it was a school? But it was a big building. My brother said ‘Granddaddy used to walk around here,’ and then he started telling me a story I’d never heard. He was walking by the square as a little boy and a white man in a fancy car drove by, and tried to get him into the car. My grandfather ran away. I’d never heard that story. It was amazing, it was a story that was connecting me to the place where we were standing and to the past. I love the way stories connect temporally and geographically distant places.
Angela Carter says people think about fairy tales as recipes. This is my recipe, this is the way I make this particular dish. You might make it another way, even though it’s the same dish. It’s like the story is its own distinct characteristics but is drawn from a common tradition.
How did your collection come together and take shape?
I wrote three of the stories in grad school, but it took about five years to finish it. I’d write a story and I’d feel it would belong in that collection. After some time, I realized a collection is not a random assortment of stories, it’s stories mulling over a complementary assortment of ideas. So, I’d write three and maybe one would end up in there. And some of them took years to finish. It’s a prolonged process. I also had to rewrite several stories before the book came out because writers change a lot in five years, if they’re doing things right. There was one story where I had to rewrite every single sentence because the sentences were so five-years-ago-me, instead of current-me.
Are there certain themes you return to?
Sexuality, the queer body and the female body, mental illness, illness in general, death. The fragility of our bodies; what we do with and to them.
Have these interests always been there?
I once found a story I’d written in second grade about an angel who visits a girl with a brain tumor. So those interests began when I was a very small child.
Is there a story you wouldn’t write?
The odds of me writing a secondary-world fantasy are kind of low; it’s just not a genre that speaks to me as a writer. But I wouldn’t say ‘I won’t do that, ever.’ It could happen.
Would you write a novel?
I have a lot of novels started, but it’s a genre that doesn’t come naturally to me. I think in short story form; ideas come to me in short story form. A novel may happen, one day. We’ll see.
Tell me a bit about your influences and it doesn’t have to be writers.
There was a woman who was very important to me when I was young—Eleanor Jacobs. She had multiple sclerosis and she was a family friend. I called her my godmother. She always gave me books. She gave me books every time I saw her—A Little Princess and other classics, and feminist literature, like the diaries of Susan B. Anthony. She was amazing, and I wouldn’t be the same without her.
I’m also inspired by horror movies. When I was a kid I consumed a lot of horror movies from the 80s and 90s, like Candyman and Poltergeist. I’d catch things on TV a lot and they would freak me out. Then I would seek them out, even though they made me really upset. My mother forbade the movies, but I didn’t want to stop.
I also read lots of medical thrillers. I remember very clearly the novel Coma, by Robin Cook. The basic plot of it is that many people are going into serious comas after routine procedures, and it turns out it’s a conspiracy so their organs can be harvested. I had to have surgery as a teen, and when the doctor asked me if I had any questions before the procedure I said ‘please don’t put me into a coma to harvest my organs.’ I also had a book of non-fiction accounts of weird medical mysteries that I read a lot. It was horrifying. I had certain parts memorized; I still remember them to this day.
I was an anxious child and I am an anxious adult. But I’ve always pursued genres and stories that freaked me out.
Do you have any favorite horror legends or folktales?
I was always freaked out about the hand-licking story. Someone in bed and they think a person has broken into their house. They lean over to pet their dog, because they’re scared. The dog licks their hand reassuringly. Eventually they get up and find the dog downstairs, dead, with a sign pinned to it that says “Humans can lick, too.”
I also read a lot of detective books, and thrillers. My friend Margaret and I played a lot together. We would pretend to be detectives, leaving notes and clues behind. We also played doll hospital quite a bit. My dad built a hospital bed for my American Girl doll so she could convalesce, and we would do surgery on them and give them IVs and take their blood pressure and everything.
We played a lot of “pretend.” We did it way later than most people would admit to playing pretend games. We also played this game called Tale of the Crystals, which was like LARPing for young girls in the 90s. It had a cassette tape you listened to, and it would send you on quests. There were banners you could hang around your house so the rooms could be part of the world—here was the Evil Castle and here was the Dark Forest or whatever. You would act out the story and solve problems. I loved that game. I think that impulse to act the narrative and create it as you’re going—I think I kept those instincts. They never went away.
If you could write a horror movie what would it be about?
I’ve had so many ideas about this precise thing. More generally, I’ve been thinking a lot about haunted houses and haunted spaces and what that means—what it means to be haunted, why something would haunt a space. I have an idea about a lesbian couple who move to an apartment and one finds out that somebody died there recently. Then her girlfriend begins acting strange—I don’t want to give too much away. It sounds pretty standard, but I have this idea of turning the haunted house conceit on its head. I keep seeing little snatches of this film in my mind, and I hope to actually write it one day.