Carmen Maria Machado, Pocket Interview No. 4
Carmen Maria Machado lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her debut collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, has been longlisted for the National Book Award and described in the LA Times as "an example of almost preposterous talent that also encapsulates something vital but previously diffuse about the moment." Recently, she talked with us about, among other things, sex, gender, television, anxiety, the multitudinous insults of street harassment, the revelation of Kate Winslet's body, and the power of imagining that there are, and have always been, other ways of being.
"I'm Carmen like the opera and I'm from Allentown like the song. "
STORYOLOGICAL: Yeah. My dad's favorite weather was to sit outside and smell the thunderstorms coming.
CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: Yep.
STORYO: That was his favorite thing in the world.
CARMEN: We did that just last night in fact. I was out of town and I got back to Philly and the cab was bringing me home, and the sky was full of clouds and I was like, “Ooh, it is gonna pour, I can just tell.”
I got home and Val and I just sat on the porch and drank beer and watched the thunderstorm come in. Until it got too scary and then we went inside cause the lightning got really close and we were like, ahhhh! But, it was so dark the street lights went on and I was like, “Yessss!”
It's a little drama in your day, you know? A little dramatic arc.
STORYO: Where did you grow up?
CARMEN: I grew up in Allentown, sort of close to the edge of the city. Near Murlemberg College and near a lot of parks, on this very old, tree-lined street. And then when I was about in fifth grade, our parents built a house way further out in the suburbs much closer to the more rural part. That was also beautiful in its own way, but it just had a little less. You know it was that sort of new development. It was a little more controlled I guess.
STORYO: Billy Joel had this song Allentown.1
CARMEN: It was funny, he called it Allentown but it was more about Bethlehem because Bethlehem Steel closed in the 70s or the 80s and it sort of threw the whole area into a big economic depression including Allentown, also, but Bethlehem was actually sort of the main center of that.
But I definitely know it. I mean, was it good? It was handy. When I went to college and people would say who are you and where you're from, I said I'm Carmen like the opera and I'm from Allentown like the song. And it was a handy shorthand and then everybody remembered me. Or, at least, they seemed to remember my name in any case.
STORYO: There was an interview I read where you said how when you were growing up you thought this place that I grew up is the one thing I'm never going to put in my stories. Like you thought that your art would take you away from that. I wonder if you could talk about what was going on in teenage Carmen that she thought like this.
CARMEN: Yeah, you know, when I look back on it, it wasn't that bad. Like there are way worse places I could have grown up. And I think Pennsylvania is very beautiful and obviously I live here now. You know I had friends. I was a good student. I read a lot. I was in some clubs. I feel like I had in some ways a very normal sort of upbringing.
But, also, I was very religious and had this sort of like really intense--I don't know what to call it--this intense sort of spiritual crisis of a type. I experienced sexual violence as so many young women do. I wasn't getting along with my parents, especially my mother, and so there was just a lot. I felt so unmoored and there was nothing I wanted more than to go to college.
I was one of those kids who always wanted to go to boarding school, cause I imagined boarding school like college where you get to go away and live your life. I was ready to be in charge of my own, not destiny, but just in charge of my own day to day existence.
I feel like when I was younger I felt out of control. I felt like other people were in control of my life and I wanted to be in control of my life.
And that didn't really happen until I went to college.
Which I think is a pretty normal feeling for teenagers to feel. You technically don't really have a say over where you go or what you do. And I didn't like it and I felt very trapped. And then when I went to college I was sort of able to——you know it sounds weird—-but, like, I could decide just how to structure my day. What to put on my own walls. How to just sort of live. And it felt really good and really freeing. And I think it's something that I was missing as a young person. And so I think I translated that to Allentown but I don't think it's actually Allentown specifically. I think I just was unhappy as a kid.
STORYO: You've talked to me about the role Titanic played in your adolescence. If you're comfortable to express that now I feel like we're in that moment of Carmen's life where you're discovering things. Power. Control.
CARMEN: It's funny I was just talking about Titanic to somebody three days ago and they were like I don't understand why you like Titanic so much and I was like it's very important to me.
I actually saw it in the theaters which is just crazy because I wasn't allowed to see PG-13 movies. But, for some reason my mother took me to see Titanic even though I was 11. And I was riveted by it.
I feel like it's the root so to speak of a lot of things about me. I think it's the root of my love of a certain amount of sentimentalism. I think it's the root of my love of disaster movies and I think it's a root of—-I don't want to say the root of my sexual orientation but—-I remember very clearly my mother covering my eyes during the sex scene but not covering my eyes during the drawing scene because I think she thought, “Oh like whatever it's breasts, like Carmen's a girl she has breasts or she will, not a big deal.”
But, of course, the assumption being that I was not queer which I was. So I was like, you know, Kate Winslet's body was a revelation and it was pretty magical and I was like I don't know what's happening to me right now but I'm having lots of feelings.
So, yeah. Titanic. I feel like I defend it a lot. I am just fascinated. I watch it not infrequently and parts of it are kind of silly but you know the sort of obsessive level of historical detail in that movie is quite extraordinary. And I am very much in awe of James Cameron for that because that movie is a manifestation of his obsession which is also a thing as an artist something that I'm really interested in. How people's obsessions turn into art.
STORYO: Were you already writing stories when you saw Titanic?
CARMEN: Oh, yes. I basically wrote stories from when I could pick up a pen. I was always really interested in narrative and I was writing weird little stories and poems and things when I was real little.
STORYO: Did Kate Winslett’s breasts change what you were writing?
CARMEN: I don't think explicitly, though I did, you know, our first computer was a Windows 3.1 desktop. And I would write—-I haven't thought about this in a long time—-I would write like dirty stories, but they were dirty for like what an eleven or twelve-year-old could conceive of which was like not very dirty at all.
So I knew words like nipple and I would write a little sentence and be really titillated by it. But, the thing is I didn't know how to delete documents, so I would save it under a different name and put new text over it and save and save and save and then I would double-check and make sure that the thing in the document was some weird sentence and it wasn't this weird, “dirty” thing I'd written.
I haven't thought about that in so long. I loved that computer.
"I feel like I was always sort of chasing this idea that I can be as good as a man, which is like it's own like really fucked up problematic weird thing to say..."
STORYO: How would you describe this collection, Her Body and Other Parties. I'm sure that you've been doing lots of interviews and maybe you've you figured out the way you want to describe it. Maybe it's changing every time you describe it. But, I just want to hear it, in your words, how you would describe this collection.
CARMEN: How I would describe it? I mean I would describe it as a collection that is uninterested in genre boundaries and very interested in the body as it relates to the mind.
I don't think I've ever articulated that precisely before.
I've gone through this long process of learning how a story collection functions. There are different philosophies about it. When I was in grad school, a teacher said to me, “I like collections to be sort of chewing on similar themes. Like they're speaking to a sort of a body of interest. And in that way they feel consistent even if the stories aren't linked to each other. You know they're not like in the same universe or whatever.”
And, at first I thought, oh you don't need that, but, of course, as I continued to read collections, the collections that really interest me are the collections that do that exact thing. And, when I read collections that are just sort of the last 20 stories this person wrote, I always feel kind of annoyed. Like I wish this was more thoughtfully curated.
And I mean again, it's a different philosophy. It's not like one is right or one is wrong. But, I'm just really interested in collections that explore what an author's interests are and what they're chewing on at that moment as a person. And I think that, when you read Her Body and Other Parties, it's like your little window into my weird mind.
So that's the kind of collection that I like to read. So that was the collection that I wrote.
When I sold the book, there were a few stories that my editor took out and he was like I think they don't quite speak to this theme. And I was like, Oh you're totally right. So, the collection is actually pretty lean. It's only eight stories, but I like that. It's a really tight collection around these ideas, and I like that that's my book, you know?
STORYO: Lean and focused, but so immersive. There's a feeling of immersion that I adore in the way that I adore music albums that feel like they speak to a similar sound or theme and aren't just a collection of singles where each four minutes I'm jolted into a different mode of being.
No matter how many different forms your stories take, they feel obsessed. And you mentioned obsession before. Is obsession something that you've embraced your entire life? A way to find out who you are, or a thing to follow that will take you deeper and wider into the world?
CARMEN: Yeah. I do think that obsession does interest me very much. I think it interests me because I feel like I grew up with a tremendous amount of anxiety about knowledge. Having enough knowledge or not having enough knowledge.
I'm sure there's some therapists who would love to explain to me how that's like a thing and I'm sure it goes back to, I don't know, some childhood trauma or whatever. That was always an anxiety of mine. Like I'm not smart enough. Like I don't know enough things. I haven't read enough books. I'm not a wide ranging enough conversationalist, etc., etc. And the thing about an obsession is that it's almost like it's natural. It's not forced. It's something your brain is so into, something that you can't help but gather a great deal of knowledge. And, so my obsessions are very strange—-not strange, I think they're fairly normal, but they're very focused. And that's kind of how my reading history is as well. I haven't read chunks of the so-called canon, but I have read all the books by certain authors. Or books in certain fields, so that I know a lot about a certain topic.
STORYO: When you mentioned the obsession with knowledge I was thinking about people I've met, including me, who have this feeling a little bit like Karen Russell's story, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” a sense that like everyone seemed to know what you were supposed to do, but you felt like you were missing this piece of knowledge.
CARMEN: Yeah. I mean I think there also was a gendered element to it.
I remember growing up and visiting certain relatives and everyone would eat and dance and have a good time. And then when it came time to do the dishes, the women would all go do the dishes and the men would retreat outside to smoke cigars.
And, as a kid, I was very attuned to that and how unfair and disturbing it was that—-not even that just that some people labored and some people engaged in recreation—-but that it was the women who labored and the men who engaged in recreation.
I feel like I was always sort of chasing this idea that I can be as good as a man, which is it's own really fucked up problematic weird thing to say and to think and I feel like this is a thing that I struggle with as a thinker and as a writer and I feel like I've tried to sort of articulate it and write about it and I've never quite like hit, I've never quite figured out what I'm talking about when I say tha But I feel like there was some sort of anxiety in there and it comes from this sort of gendered idea—-like my parents are lovely and were never like you can't do this thing because you're a girl—-but I feel I was really sensitive and attuned to all the really, really sort of nefarious, subtle sort of gendered messages that just exist in the world. There are so many. And I think I'm fighting against that really hard. And it's been a real challenge.
“They're alive. They're a person. They're having sex in various ways for various reasons with various results.”
STORYO: I remember reading an interview where you mentioned Philip Roth.2 That you wanted something different than Roth. You wondered where the women writers were who were writing as explicitly about sex. And I don't know how long ago that interview was, but do you feel like you're creating this space, or that you're occupying this space that you wish was being occupied?
CARMEN: I definitely do not want to ever say that I created that space because I definitely didn't.
CARMEN: There are women who are writing about sex but it's just not as common.
Just the other day I opened up—-I think it was Bookforum or some some review magazine—-and there was this entire article just about how Jonathan Franzen writes sex and I feel like I just never see that with women. I feel like we just don't value it, we don't talk about female writers writing sex nearly as much as we do about men. And there are absolutely male writers—-I think I've probably mentioned in that same interview—-I’m obsessed with. Nicholson Baker. I absolutely love him and he writes beautiful, funny, weird, gross, loving hairy sweaty sex scenes that I love and that have a sense of generosity of spirit that I really enjoy. And they don't feel misogynist, which is part of my objection to Roth.
More than once I've talked openly about how I can't stand the way a certain dude writes about sex and then later in the same conversation somebody—-usually a dude—-is like oh you're a prude. Like that's your problem.
STORYO: That is not a word I associate with you.
CARMEN: Right! No, no. It's happened to me multiple times and I'm always like no. I can not be a prude and write my own very graphic sex scenes and still not like the explicit sex writing of certain male authors. Whatever. Anyway.
STORYO: I feel like generous is not a word I generally associate with Roth in the same way I don't associate prudishness with you. I mean Roth is generous in his explicit detail at times.
STORYO: My first connection to Roth was when I read him as a young person and I connected to the twinned engines of shame and desire. That sense of overwhelming desire and overwhelming shame. Is that something that you've experienced in your life? Something that you've put into fiction? Some way to reclaim generosity? A dispensing with shame and saying this is a part of life that is awesome?
CARMEN: Yeah. You know. I'm writing this essay right now about writing about sex, so I've been thinking about this very explicitly—-no pun intended.
I feel like there's this element of, it's not like sex isn't sometimes shameful—-of course it is—-but as I'm writing in this essay I feel like in the same way that sex is not always two people coming together, like orgasming simultaneously (which is, you know, very unrealistic) similarly all sex is not angry, shameful, reluctant orgasms. Sex can be joyful or interesting or even not, you know? It can be sort of like whatever, but still be a pleasurable act. There's all these sorts of shades and ways of thinking about sex outside of shame that I'm just very interested in.
When I'm writing I'm trying to think about why have I had sex in my lifetime? And what does that feel like? What does it mean? I'm just really interested in thinking about sex writing in new and interesting ways. In feminist ways. Writing from women's points of view. That's what I really care about.
STORYO: You’ve said that there is a kind of activism, or importance, in just being queer and being a woman and writing about sex.
CARMEN: Yeah, yeah. And not commenting on it. Characters just being queer incidentally. That's very important to me. In the same way that some of sex is sort of incidental. They're alive. They're a person. They're having sex in various ways for various reasons with various results. And that's just part of the human experience and also they’re like queerish.
CARMEN: Whether they're sleeping with men or women they're just sort of having their experiences. And I think that's what I always tell people. Write the stories you want to see and I feel the same about it. I'm writing the sex scenes that I wish I was seeing all over the place. And there's something very satisfying about that.
“And actually this is a thing..”
STORYO: Do you think of your pieces of writing--and I'm thinking specifically of stories, fictional stories, but it could be any kind of writing--do you think of the writing itself as having a body? As having its own kind of physical form?
CARMEN: Like the book itself or like the story?
STORYO: I was thinking of the story. One of the things that I loved in the collection is that the stories exist on these pages in various different shapes. Here's a story in the shape of a legal document. Here's a story in the shape of an urban legend. Here's a story in the shape of a TV show. All of them stories and all of them existing in different shapes.
STORYO: Almost like different body types. I wondered how conscious that is in your mind.
CARMEN: I don't know. That's a great question. I don't know if I'm super conscious of that, but, also, I mean the subconscious does a lot of work like...
CARMEN: I'd be lying if I didn't say that.
CARMEN: So, I mean, I think you could absolutely make that argument in the way that the what I love about the body is all these pieces do their own bit. And it's all sort of serving you, and your mind, and your existence, and they can be, and often are, imperfect. They all have their own job to do. And the sum of them is this larger self, right? And, so, I think you could definitely make that argument for a story collection as an example of each thing sort of doing its own thing very well--I mean hopefully very well--while allowing for flaws, for, you know, various sort of flights of fancy. And then the end result is this cumulative body. And we talk about people's bodies of work, right? Once a writer has written a lot of books then you have a body of work which is like their whole oeuvre or whatever, and you can see the writer. You can see the body aging, right? You can see this person's mind and body changing as they get older and as time progresses.
STORYO: So, what drives these different shapes of stories for you?
CARMEN: I think it's a sense of playfulness. I'm very interested in play.
When you're a kid the world is so open to you in the sense of your imagination. I was one of those kids who walked around telling themselves stories and I played intense games with anything even slightly anthropomorphic. And even things that were not at all anthropomorphic.
And I think that desire to create stories out of what's around you is a very childlike sort of play instinct that a lot of people lose. I think if you don't nurture it, or take care of it, it goes away. And, so I think I’m just very good at indulging that part of myself, and, so, that's kind of what my mind kicks back at me.
When I look at forms I'm always really interested in what I'm seeing, and I'm like how can I bend that to my will? How can I take that existing structure and make it work for some story that I have in my mind?
CARMEN: I don't know. I really love it.
CARMEN: Makes me happy.
STORYO: Which. Yeah. It's the subconscious thing again. The subconscious is really a wonderful little buddy to have back there sometimes.
CARMEN: Oh my God, it's magic. But, you gotta take care of it. You have to nurture it and feed it. You can't just make it do whatever you want. You know, I'm at the point where I’m writing so much, that I'll have a narrative problem and then three days later I'll be showering and my subconscious will kick back out the solution to the problem three days ago I was trying to figure out. It's pretty great. It’s really exciting. It is like, thanks, buddy. Thanks, friend. That's very helpful to me.
STORYO: So what have you what have you discovered? How do you nurture this? I know it's different for every single person, but what's your thing? How do you take care of your buddy?
CARMEN: I think I allow myself time with my mind. It’s like any kind of relationship, right? If you're struggling, if you and your partner aren’t getting along, you got to maybe go on some dates or spend some time together. It's the same way. You've got to just be alone and be thinking. And that sounds obvious, but, you know, in your day-to-day there's just so much going on that sometimes you don't have time to do that.
And actually this is a thing. This is one of the many reasons why I find--this is going to come around I promise--street harassment so fucking annoying.
Because oftentimes when I'm thinking, I'm out walking around in the world, in my own head, performing my own business and thinking about whatever. And then someone just fucking interrupts me because they want to tell me that they like my ass or whatever. And that is like doubly insulting because it's insulting in this way where it's like, “Sorry, I was just like in my own mind which is my right as a person, and you felt the need to just take me out for no reason at all except your own like weird perverse satisfaction.”
I feel like that was kind of a weird tangent, but, anyway, I like to spend time with my mind, and I think also just keeping track of my interests and reading. I'm always beating this drum but, you've gotta read. When I have writer's block, I read, and that's just so important because other writers have figured out their own solutions to their own problems of their stories. And reading is a way of feeding—it’s like new material; it’s like fuel.
And then also just cultivating my own interests. Keeping track of them. I have lists, and whenever I get an idea I write it down immediately, so I have it all kind of written down somewhere. That’s a really useful way of acknowledging, like saying thanks. I'll write that down because that's a good idea.
STORYO: Yeah. I never thought of writing something down as a kind of honoring. As like honoring...
STORYO: ...your mind. It's come up with this thought and you take a moment to write it down.
CARMEN: Yeah, exactly.
“Television is like a body in that way..”
STORYO: STORYO: So I grew up with, and I still I just love, television. It formed a lot of my subconscious. Did you see the Too Many Cooks thing?.3
CARMEN: I did.
CARMEN: I love it.
CARMEN: I love it so much.
STORYO: I notice reading your stories that television pops up occasionally. Sometimes totally in the background like “Inventory” where the screens are kind of giving us the background of what's happened.
STORYO: In a way that reminds me of Children of Men which I know...
STORYO: ...that you adore. I love TVs in the background doing some expository work. It's great.
And then in “Difficult at Parties”, the character is watching porn and the people on the screen, they're hearing thoughts, hearing voices, almost like the the videos they're watching are haunted. And then, of course, “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law and Order”4 which is just glorious TV haunted by everything.
So is TV a thing for you? I'm assuming it's a thing.
CARMEN: I'm generally interested in other media forms. I'm interested in video games and movies and TV and all kinds of things. When I'm teaching, a thing I often have to talk to students about is how movies and TV and fiction are not the same thing, right? They absolutely have overlapping instincts and overlapping techniques, but when you're watching something on a screen, it is a different experience than reading something on the page. And there's things you can do on a screen that's really hard to do on the page. And there are things on the page that are really hard to do on the screen, right?
CARMEN: Which is fine. It doesn't make one better or worse than the other, it's just different. But oftentimes I'm very interested in figuring out how to borrow techniques and play between them. Fiction has this interiority I love—-I love letting characters go off in their own heads—-and so that's the pleasure for me of having the page.
But, in Children of Men, that movie is one of my favorites and I’ve probably seen it, oh my God, like 20 times at least, and every time I watch it I see new background data that I'd never noticed before. And that's the pleasure of it. Without actually explicitly drawing attention to it you can get all this background information and it permits a lack. There's no need for info-dumping. We’re getting the expository information in the background which is really, really interesting and really nice. And, so, that's definitely a thing that I’ve thought about, especially with “Inventory.” I wanted the plague sort of happening in the background, but I wanted to foreground this woman's very personal life experience, so that was the technique that I used.
And with, you know, “Especially Heinous…”, that's sort of a different thing where it's like a police procedural, which is its own formula that exists in the same way that you have a detective novel, and Law and Order has a very specific style. I was really interested in trying to hack that and use that for my own pleasure.
And TV is interesting because, you know, a film is made, more or less, in a very set amount of time. It's like, “Oh this took like half a year to make or whatever.” And it's the same director and everyone, all working for this one discrete thing.
But, with a TV show actors leave, writers change, people and actors die. Which is a thing that really interests me. And, I mean, this also happens with movie series. Like, for example, in the Harry Potter movie series, right, the first Dumbledore die a few movies in, and they had to replace him. But just the idea that television goes on for so long that it's subject to more of real world intrusion.
STORYO: I love that phrase. Real world intrusion.
STORYO: That like television exists in space and time in a different way where it ages as you age.
STORYO: As soon as you see a movie it's frozen. It's done. You're not. And that's what I find, I was going say amusing, but sometimes really unsettling, with the new Star Wars movies. Because the characters are all old now. Luke Skywalker is an old man.
STORYO: The way I'm an older person. Suddenly that sense of a movie's relationship to time feels violated in a way that's exciting and more like television.
CARMEN: Exactly, exactly.
Television is like a body in that way. It has this bodily sense of aging, and of real world intrusion.
Also, the fact of fan culture. People obviously have thoughts about films and video games and all kinds of things, but with a TV show it's going on for long enough that people develop fan bases and they have thoughts about the ongoing narratives in this very serialized way which reminds me of a story that I think was very influential for me which was Kelly Link's, “Magic for Beginners.” I think I've read that she was thinking about Buffy when she wrote that story. And it deals with what it’s like to be a fan. And it's dealing with this element of engaging with a show and a show being very real and important to you and meddling in real life in interesting ways and that was very, very influential for “Especially Heinous…”
STORYO: In “The Husband Stitch” it feels like stories are haunting a person's life. Whereas in “Especially Heinous…” it feels a little bit like real life is starting to haunt a piece of fiction.
STORYO: I wondered, you know, people talk all the time about how reality is different than realism which clearly it is because realism is just an attempt to mirror the surfaces of things that doesn't necessarily get at anything true. But, I wonder for you personally, how you see that boundary between a sense that stories are haunting your life or that your life is haunting stories. I don't even know if this is making sense. But.
I think there's something really interesting—and this is true of all sort of art—but, as a writer, it's really interesting for people to say, “Oh, I've read your book and I have thoughts about it,” or “I read your book and I really liked it,” or “I read the book and I really hated it.” Like whatever. I read something that you wrote and I have feelings about it. It's a total stranger and I have somehow managed to reach out through time and space and touch this person. Touch them not in necessarily like a good way, but I've managed to sort of impose on their life a little bit. And this is true also of dead authors. Like I read a lot of dead authors and they are dead. And from beyond the grave they've created this thing that's reaching out and influencing me in various ways. Or not. Or just making me mad. But, it's still affecting my life in some way. And there's something very interesting about that to me.
And then, also the way in which sort of again with TV our human instincts and our human experiences reach out and touch you. When you think about like Law & Order: SVU, ripped from the headlines, right? So you watch episodes of Law & Order: SVU and it's this weird fever dream of sort of true life things kind of and you're like, “This is familiar, oh cause I read a story about this in like the Times or whatever.” And now there's this weird fictionalized version of it happening mashed up wit some other fictionalized story that you sort of remember and the result is very uncanny and strange. So I feel again those things are kind of imposing on each other. And I think there's something very beautiful and weird and scary and interesting about that process.
STORYO: Was that something you wanted in “Husband Stitch?”
The feeling that those stories were impinging or pushing against something? I realize some people may not have read the story so maybe you should try to describe it a little bit.
CARMEN: So, the short version is it's the story of the woman with a ribbon around her neck, which is an urban legend. And it's her story sort of told in almost a realist way—-in the sense of it's her life from when she meets her husband until other things happen—-and then, sort of between, she narrates back familiar urban legends like the girl who got stuck on the grave and the woman who took the liver from the corpse and ate the liver. Various urban legends that really interested me.
I always wonder what is a science fiction story in a science fiction story. In a science fiction world what kind of science fiction stories they have and in a horror world what kind of horror stories are they having.
CARMEN: And, I feel in the same way, like in this urban legend, what do her urban legends look like? And so they're familiar-ish, but they're sort of warped and off from what we know them to be. And that became that story.
STORYO: You were talking before about imbuing the objects in your world with spirits, with kind of an animating consciousness.
It strikes me that you're giving the same interiority to stories. Maybe this is stereotyping too much, but I feel like a lot of people read stories and the story is the surface of the story and then for other people it’s another place to imbue with its own spirit. Like to give it an interiority. To give it a mind of its own.
CARMEN: Yeah. You know, I think that might be one of the differences between--oh I feel like this is a controversial thing to say but I'm like thinking off the cuff, whatever--I feel like that's sort of a difference between what I would call like a literary writing and like I guess more commercial fiction.
I feel like a lot of commercial fiction, it feels like you're just watching a movie. And there's this surfacenesss to it. And again I'm not even like really impugning it, like it has its own pleasures, obviously. But I feel with literary fiction there is a sense of an animating spirit and a presence and an experience. Not just puppets acting out in front of you various things, but the sense of realness and dimension like you've stepped into a diorama and you're inside of it and there's a sense of life and that's the kind of fiction that really interests me regardless of what actually genre it manifests as, you know, which can be like anything. I think that's why prose is so important to me. I feel like sentences are really important because I think they aid in that process.
STORYO: In the process of…?
CARMEN: Of like animating, of like animating the work. Giving it a muscle and giving it a spirit and giving it a sense of dimensionality.
CARMEN: I think that's part of the job of sentences, and I think it's possible to try to do that with a story that's not working and then it feels, you know, beautiful and dead. Like that's not what fixes a problem or anything, but I think that's why I'm really interested in sentences because I feel like they are doing that work. It's like you know the story is Frankenstein and the sentences are like the electricity or the lightning.
CARMEN: Or Frankenstein's monster, I should say.
STORYO: Barry Hannah criticized one of my stories in a workshop once, saying, “You’ve built a cathedral around a dead cat.” So, I don't know what the problem with the cat is, but yeah, totally, words are magic. That's what spells are. An incantation of words and you might cast all these beautiful spells but if it feels like you're just trying to animate some random—I mean cats are great but I feel like what he was saying is, you know, it's just a cat. You're just bringing a cat back to life. You're not really animating something important. I don't know. I've offended cat lovers, but it's fine.
"We have other ways of being."
STORYO: You wrote an essay for how do you say Guernica's name.
CARMEN: I never say it right. I say Guernica. I think it's Guernica. I don't know. I feel like it's not the way I say it.
CARMEN: But yeah. That magazine. Which is great.
CARMEN: But I can't pronounce it.
STORYO: “The Trash Heap Has Spoken,” which is a title that's taken from the character in Fraggle Rock which is a show dear to my heart. In that essay, there's something you said, "the unapologetic fat lady is dangerous because like so many other dangerous things it suggests that there is another way. And that there's always been another way."
I wonder what is it that so dangerous about another way of being?
CARMEN: Hm. I mean I think it's always dangerous to learn that there's a different path than the one you're taking.
Because then you may feel inclined to go down that path, and it's exciting but it's very unknown, you know? And some people don't want want to do that.
But, I think what's really interesting about fatness is that it's this idea that people act like there's no other choice. That there’s only the desire to be thin, the desire to lose weight, the desire to engage in like this capitalist structure that is very interested in weight loss as a thing, as a billion dollar industry. And there are actually other choices. We have other ways of being.
I feel like, as someone who grew up with and knows a lot of people who are so firmly ensconced in that world and that idea and don't know that there are alternatives to that available to them, it’s like, the idea is that not only is there another path but that it's been there the entire time, that it's not brand new, it is always existed, and I'm sorry that you got on this other weird path that you feel like it’s your only choice.
So, it's not dangerous to the person. It's dangerous to the system that's in place. It's dangerous to the well trod path for people to know, “Oh there's another one I haven't even seen and it's been here the entire time.”
I'm interested in that particularly as it comes to fatness and the body but obviously that can manifest in all kinds of different ways.
STORYO: Yeah, like what can seem innocent—and, of course, the way that people think children are innocent is ridiculous; children are just little humans—but what you mentioned about the sense of play that children have, to just make things up, even that sounds dangerous. If adults are just allowed to make up new realities. New ways to be.
CARMEN: Yeah, absolutely.
STORYO: This may be a problematic metaphor—-and, if it is, let me know and we can discuss that—-but do you feel like the way in which in writing, in storytelling, that people police kind of genre lines, or police the idea even of what a story is—-like this is what a story is and what you've written does not look like a story to me therefore it's not a story-—is in any way analogous to the way people police body image, or body shapes, like this is the way a person is supposed to look and, I’m sorry, but you don't look like a person.
I realize I invest a lot in stories, so I will make metaphors about that conflate stories and human beings. But yeah, that's what I'm thinking. I don't exactly know where that evil comes from, but it feels present in so many spheres. The desire to say this is what a thing is and you don't look like that thing.
CARMEN: Yeah. I think that metaphor makes sense to me. People like what is sort of categorizable and explainable.
This is very biological. My wife used to work as a preschool teacher and children go through a developmental phase where everything has a category. They get fixated on this goes here and this goes here. Which is also why kids are as susceptible as they are to ideas about gender, where it's like girls do this and boys do this—-which obviously is problematic and not right. But kids, that’s their way of organizing the world, right?
And I think for some people that makes a lot of sense to them, so they’re like, “Oh I embrace all types, but they have to be in a category, and if they somehow don't fit into a category neatly then I find it very confusing and upsetting.” And I think this is true of bodies. It's true of gender. It's true of sexuality. And I think with stories, too, people get very invested in this is not the thing I thought it was going to be and I don't like how I feel. This isn't the category that I was promised by the genre or by the section of the bookstore or whatever. And I think people get very stressed out by that.
But, I think in other people there's a sort of openness to liminality. Which are usually the people that I become friends with, and also the people and the way of thinking interests me most, that it's not like I'm switching or combining these two genres—it’s like I'm just going to move freely between all these things as I see fit because I can do that because I'm a person and I have words and I can make them do whatever I want and I think that's actually very wonderful and beautiful and exciting.
CARMEN:And it's okay to not know what genre a thing is and to just be reading it. You know that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that.
“I have confidence in sunshine. I have confidence in rain.”
STORYO: So, there's this questionnaire that Bernard Pivot created for some French show that I've never seen, but James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio would do a questionnaire like this at the end of his interviews. And I love that show. I love James Lipton with his very particular beard and balding head and his stack of index cards that were very high that he would use to interview people. I'm assuming something was written on them. But right now I'm enjoying the idea that they're all blank and he's just picking them up and putting them down.
STORYO: What is your favorite word?
STORYO: What is your least favorite word?
STORYO: What is your favorite smell?
CARMEN: Campfire smoke.
STORYO: What is your least favorite smell?
CARMEN: Food that's gone bad in the fridge.
STORYO: What do you wish that you knew more about?
STORYO: What do you wish that you knew less about?
CARMEN: The terribleness of the world.
STORYO: Let's pretend your life has a soundtrack. What song is playing when you're at your happiest?
CARMEN: I can't think of the title but the song from The Sound of Music where she says, :I Have Confidence in...oh I think it's "I Have Confidence”.
singingI have confidence in sunshine. I have confidence in rain. end singing I love that song.
STORYO: What is your favorite kind of story?
CARMEN: One that surprises me.
STORYO: What is your least favorite kind of story?
CARMEN: One that doesn't surprise me.
STORYO: William Faulkner, definitely dead. So, we can say anything we want about him. I'm just kidding. I mean, we can, but not because he's dead just because he’s a person.
So, he said this thing about how the only thing worth writing about was the human heart in conflict with itself. So I'm wondering if William Faulkner comes back from the dead and writes the story of Carmen Maria Machado, what do you think that story is about?
CARMEN: Oh what is my heart—what does it look like when my heart is in conflict with itself?
CARMEN: Oh wow. That's a really good question. Oh. God that's such a good question my mind is racing in a thousand places. I feel like it's probably about...letting go of certain ideas that are that are hurtful or trying to let go of them. Or, hurtful isn't the right word. But trying to let go of memories and ideas that cause sort of acidic ruts of pain that are not healable and trying to move past those places. And. Yeah. I don't know if that's a good answer.
STORYO: It is good. I'm just practicing silence.
STORYO: It's a good teaching technique. And a good interview technique. Just...
CARMEN: Being silent.
CARMEN: Yeah, I think it's just about finding those places that are stuck and unsticking them. And how I choose to do that, or how I am able to do that. I wish he would write that story because then I would know. And I don't know. So, William Faulkner if you're planning on come back from the dead and writing a story about me perhaps there’s some things you could tell me that I don't know yet.
STORYO: Assuming that doesn't happen you'll just have to keep reading other people's books, I guess.
CARMEN: Exactly. Exactly.
STORYO: Thank you, Carmen.
CARMEN: Thank you so much, Chris. It's been amazing.