Surrealism, Structure, and Scary Stories: An Interview With Carmen Maria Machado

Machado - credit Tom Storm Photography

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado‘s debut collection, is a surreal powerhouse of a book. It encompasses everything from a plague that causes women to fade away to the life of a woman living out a horrific folktale to strange reimagining of Law & Order: SVU. Earlier this week, Her Body and Other Parties was announced as one of the titles longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this fall, Machado and I conversed about the collection, unlikely sources of inspiration, and more.

When we read at the same event a few months ago, you read a nonfiction piece from Guernica where you talked about bodies and spaces. And your collection also references bodies in the title, and elsewhere. Do you find that your fiction and your nonfiction dealing with the human body are interrelated, or do you keep them fairly separate?

I need to work through something in fiction before I tackle it in essay form. The fiction loosens the reins a little bit, and gives me a space to explore. It’s only after I do that that I feel I can do an essay version. I write fiction much more easily; nonfiction is a little more raw, a little closer. It’s harder and slower. So fiction feels like a necessary first step for me.

Was there a point where you realized that about the way that you write, and the way you approach these subjects?

The thing is, nonfiction is pretty new for me. I’ve been writing fiction my whole life. I’ve only been writing essays in the last three, four years. It had never occurred to me to do it. I wasn’t sure if I was good at it–I liked my fictional voice better.

Honestly, I only noticed it when people started asking me this question. At some point, someone said, “Oh, you have an essay about this and a story about this,” and I said, “Oh, I do do that, don’t I?” I guess it was not a conscious, focused thought. Someone had to point it out to me.

Several of the stories in the collection deal with epidemics or plagues that characters are witnessing unfold. What draws you to that as a motif?

I’m really interested in pandemic narratives in general, in the same way that I’m very interested in disaster narratives and possession narratives and haunted house narratives. There are specific elements of the epidemic narrative that are very interesting to me. I remember being a kid, and my dad had a lot of Michael Crichton books. I ran out of books to read, because I read really fast, so I would go to my parents’ shelves. That was how I read some truly inappropriate science fiction, horror, and romance when I was a kid.

I remember reading The Andromeda Strain and–this isn’t Michael Crichton–The Hot Zone, which is a nonfiction book about Ebola. There was something about the way that those narratives gather steam. You’re seeing it from lots of different angles: here’s what’s happening! There’s the first cough! There’s the encounter! There’s the first symptom; there’s another symptom. Things are ratcheting up in this very specific way. I’ve always found those narratives super-compelling.

That was probably part of it, that I was reading a lot of it as a kid. It creates a good stage with which to explore various issues. Plague can be a metaphor for all sorts of things.

Was there a point where you realized that weirder fiction–whether science fiction, fantasy, or horror–was something you were drawn to both as a reader and as a writer?

I’ve been reading non-realism since I was a kid, which I think is true for most children. That’s just such a huge part of children’s and young adult and middle grade. But as a writer, I only discovered it when I went to Iowa–which I realize is different from what people perceive Iowa as being. When I applied, the stories I was writing were realism with the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest bit of magic or something. It was very slight. For the first workshop I did, I wrote this truly dreadful story that I will never show to any person ever. It was about a woman whose father died, and she was going to his funeral. There was a point in the story where Death appears to her and is silently watching her and following her around. My classmates, god bless them, were all so smart, and said, “Well, most of this is not great, but this part of the story is really popping. This part of the story is the most interesting part and it feels like you’re doing something there that is different from the rest of the story.”

This happened a few times, and I realized that what they were identifying was the place where some natural instinct was taking over. They said, “You need to read Kelly Link and Karen Russell and George Saunders,” all of these people who I’d heard of but hadn’t really read. I said, “Sure,” and I did, and I felt like my mind had been broken open to this magical place. I started writing what I think of now as my style. “Difficult At Parties” was the first story I wrote in that style. When I wrote it, I had this very deep sense of satisfaction, that this felt very right and real and good. I felt very confident in it. And the longer I did it, the easier it got.

The book opens with “The Husband Stitch.” There are so many archetypal stories referenced in it, both in terms of the narrative itself and in terms of the stories that characters tell within the story. Was all of that present from the beginning?

The stories that she’s telling within the story came later. I wrote the first draft of that story pretty fast. I was thinking about the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, which was very formative for me as a young person. I wanted to write a version of that story. I’d also had the idea to write about a sexually adventurous mid-century housewife. I’d also had “The Husband Stitch” as a title floating around on a list somewhere. I realized that they seemed kind of like the same thing.

The first version of the story that I wrote was basically just her story, from beginning to end. Imagine that story with all of the directives and the other stories stripped away, and that was what the first version looked like. I liked it in many ways, but it didn’t feel complete. It was interesting, but it felt like it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. Then I started thinking about other urban legends that I had thought about. At first, I thought, “What if I retold other urban legends in this way?” But then I realized that it seemed like they were all the same, they were speaking to each other in the same way.

So I grabbed my copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz. I have the trilogy in one book. I started flipping through it, looking at the different stories and picking ones that I felt that I could retell in this way that would be meaningful for the overall narrative. As I was reading, I was also taking note of his stage directions, which I remembered from being a kid, and I loved. It was things like, “Yell the final line as loudly as you can.” I remember doing that at Girl Scout camp and scaring the shit out of a fellow Girl Scout.

I realized I could have stage directions, too. I started rewriting it, and it just came together. On that second run-through, it more or less resembles the story that was in the book. Then I submitted it to Granta, and there were some edits from Granta that were really, really fantastic. It was nothing huge; they were very focused edits. It all came together in a way that felt very natural and right, which I liked.

I had totally forgotten that the Alvin Schwartz books had stage directions. That might be a result of my brain blocking off painful memories of being terrified as a child. Some of the illustrations will be etched into my brain for the rest of my life.

Oh, totally. I was shocked when they reissued the books a couple of years ago and they put different illustrations in them. They’re the most iconic part of the book!

It’s funny–the green ribbon story isn’t in there, but everybody thinks it is. All of the other stories are from the trilogy, but the ribbon one is by another book by Schwartz, In a Dark Dark Room. It’s for younger readers, and it’s a little more simplified.

In that same story, you balance this fantastical premise with some very realistic scenes, like the protagonist in the hospital giving birth. How do you balance the two?

I don’t track it super-closely. I think it’s instinctual; I’m moving back and forth between them. I’ll definitely read stories and think, “Oh, the fantastical element is getting drowned out,” or “The realism is getting covered up.” I feel like I have that sense, but it’s not technical at all, it’s instinctual.

The stories in your collection were first published in a range of publications, from journals considered quote-unquote literary to places like Strange Horizons. Do you find that your have distinct groups readers from each, or has it been your experience that boundaries around genre don’t exist much nowadays?

I feel like it’s a mix of both. Unfortunately, I feel that despite the fact that the concept of genre has changed very much in the last ten years, there is still a weird divide. A lot of the literary readers I know have never heard of any genre magazines. Or they’ve heard of Asimov’s, and I go, “Strange Horizons!! Uncanny! Lightspeed! Nightmare!” And they look at me like I’m just reciting weird words.

Every semester, I say to my students, “There are tons of great magazines online that you can read for free; you don’t even need to have a print copy. And there’s a ton of good, paying, pro science fiction and fantasy and horror that are online that you can access, and they’re fantastic.” I’m doing my best to get the word out there!

It’s interesting, because I do think that there’s not a lot of overlap between those communities and who they’re reading. There’s some, certainly, but not as much as you’d think, given how much these barriers have broken down.

When I look at a story, I think, “Is there a magazine I have in mind in particular?” Right now, I’m working on a story, and I keep thinking, “I want to send this to; I think this would be a really good story for” Not that I’m writing for the publication, but I feel like it’s a place to think about once I’m ready.

For “The Husband Stitch,” luckily Granta was super-excited about it. If Granta hadn’t been into it, I might have tried to submit it to a genre magazine. It sort of depends. I have had stories turned away from genre magazines for having too slight of a magical element, which is fine. The editor can do whatever they want; they know their readers. Sometimes I’ll go with the lit mag, because they’re more comfortable with that level of ambiguity. There are a lot of factors when I decide where I’m submitting.

I have an amazing readership from all places. It doesn’t feel like it’s more one than another.

I feel like, right now, you and Sofia Samatar are two of the only high-profile writers I can think of who are actively publishing on both sides of that.

Yeah. And I’m a massive fan of Sofia’s. I find her career very interesting. I feel like I’m constantly recommending her to people, and I’m curious about what the arc of her career will be. I look up to her so much, and I’m interested in her work.

When did the title of the book come into play?

Back when I was in grad school, my thesis was also called Her Body and Other Parties, though it only shares three stories with the current version of the book. There were other stories in there that weren’t that great, or didn’t fit with what the project ended up becoming. I’d asked a friend, “How do you name a short story collection?” He said, “Pick a title from one of the stories that you feel encompasses the spirit of the collection.” I kept looking and none of them seemed to fit. And then I started mashing them together. I mashed the titles together in different ways, and I saw “Bodies and Parties” and thought, “That’s interesting.” I was also thinking a lot about Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others, where there’s the double entendre, of other stories and other lives. I thought, “You could play with that; that would be interesting.” I kept fidgeting with it, and then I loved it.

Was “The Husband Stitch” always planned as the first story in the book?

No. For a while, it was the closing story. Even when I sold the book to Graywolf, I hadn’t given much thought to the order. I think they were initially in the order in which they were written–so it might not have even been last. It might have been second- or third-to-last. I’d always had “Difficult at Parties” as the first story. I can remember submitting it back when I was in grad school and getting a lot of super-positive rejections from a lot of places. People saying, “We can’t take this, but please send us more work,” which had never happened to me before. I had this sense that people really responded to that story, so I decided to put it first, for if I was ever submitting for a contest or whatever, that would be the opening story.

Once we were doing edits, Ethan Nosowsky said to me, “We need to talk about the order.” He said, “I kind of want to start with ‘The Husband Stitch.’” I said, “Really?” I was worried that it wasn’t as accessible, and I didn’t want to freak out my readers. Some of the stories are more straightforward than others.

Kevin Brockmeier was one of my thesis advisors. I remember, we had this really good conversation about how one orders a story collection. He had given me his philosophy on it, and had suggested that the longer novella be this hinge in the middle of the book, which I liked. Ethan said, “I kind of want to start with ‘The Husband Stitch,’ because it’s such a bonanza; it sets up the expectation for the reader that this collection’s going to be super-weird and great.” I said, “Sure! That sounds good.”

We fiddled with the order. I decided to keep “Especially Heinous” in the middle. The reason I decided to end with “Difficult at Parties” was because I felt that it was the only story in that collection that was hopeful, in a way. It’s not happy, but it ends on this note of hope–which I feel like most of my other stories do not. So I wanted it to end that way. When I explained that to Ethan, he said, “Yup! Let’s do it. Sounds great.” It was a good conversation. It wasn’t a hard conversation, but I’m glad that we really hashed it out, and I feel like the order of the stories makes a lot of sense. I’m glad we fiddled with it.

How did you come to write a story in the form of episode descriptions for a decade’s worth of a television show?

The short version is, it was an idea that I had. Initially, I had this idea that I would take the actual capsule descriptions from IMDB or Wikipedia and I’d alter them to be sort of odd, maybe increasingly as they went along and got weirder and weirder and weirder. The first five or six “episodes” of that story are share some similarities with the actual plots of Law & Order: SVU. By the time I entered the second half of the first season, it felt too restrictive. I love a restraint as much as anybody, but my hands were too tied. I couldn’t open up in the way that I wanted to.

They did have these amazing titles that I just love. I thought, “Maybe I should just be using the titles as springboards.” I went through and I deleted all of the episode descriptions from the Word document that I’d been using, but I kept all of the titles in order, and I started writing a new story.

I was very interested in flash fiction, and I remain very interested in flash fiction. I like the idea of a story that builds symphonically, where there are lots of data points and the best fit line was this narrative about these two characters. I’m a fan of Law & Order: SVU, but I have a lot of thoughts about it and the narratives of sexual violence and the way write and tell stories about sexual violence. It became this place where I was working out a lot of my thoughts about narratives about sexual violence and sexual violence and all those things.

Weirdly, I wrote it fairly linearly, which I know seems impossible. I more or less advanced through it narratively. I took it in to one workshop, and with the exception of one classmate, everybody was really encouraging. It was Kevin Brockmeier’s class, and he had a lot of good ideas about how to continue it. Some of my stories have been rewritten radically a number of times. This story has not had that many revisions since the initial version. Most of the revisions were in terms of consistency: even in the version I published in The American Reader, someone died and came back to life randomly. I’d missed it, and the editor missed it. I have made changes, but it just came out. Clearly it had been marinating in my head for a long time. I think that’s the explanation for why it came out that easily.

And it was always going to be SVU as the program?

Absolutely. It was initially a little more SVU-focused–I had other detectives, like Munch and Fin Tutuola. I had Benson and Stabler, but some of the feedback that I got was that it was sort of distracting. I wanted this story to be read by somebody who had not seen the show. If you have seen the show, there are little Easter eggs in there for you. I wanted you to not need the context of the show to appreciate the story. It was a goal that I had. So when you added in other characters, it complicated that goal, so I stripped them away or changed them to “this other detective.” But I kept Benson and Stabler, because I like that refrain of their names, over and over.

So you’ve got SVU, you’ve got Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark–have there been other narratives that you’ve encountered since finishing these stories that you think might inspire you in a similar way?

I did publish a story in Tin House this year where I was doing a really intense Shirley Jackson pastiche, because I’m really into Shirley Jackson. I don’t know if I have any other pop culture stuff. I’m working on a book right now that has a lot of historical material, which is really hard for me. So it’s less pop culture and more infused with a lot of historical events that I found very interesting.

But I’m sure it’s not the end. I’m sure I will continue to be using those other narratives. I believe so strongly that writers need to read, and that reading is the way you can prevent writer’s block or get over writer’s block. You can’t keep writing if you’re not filling your gas tank with whatever you want to read. So I’m sure that as I keep reading narratives, they’ll keep speaking to me in their own ways, and I’ll be turning back out stories that have been flavored by whatever I’ve been reading.


Photo: Tom Storm Photography

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