By Kate Tighe-Pigott
Raise your hand if you’re a writer who has been chastened away from the subject of sexual violence. (Me too.)
Raise your hand if you’ve been told that a queer protagonist will limit your access to a mainstream literary audience.
I followed the buzz to Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. Machado writes unapolagetically about women in their bodies. She writes them into relationships with women and men–relationships that are casual or serious, healthy or dangerous. She tackles topics we’re told are off limits (and who decides the limits anyway?!) and she makes them new. There’s a satisfaction for women who read Machado at being seen, understood, known. “The Husband Stitch,” the first story in this collection, became a kind of shorthand for the women in my workshop to describe how the nuances of women’s lives are worthy of close examination and depiction; how these nuances have the weight of life and death.
In Her Body and Other Parties, Machado takes on new forms, blending unlike genres in new ways, and in doing so, changing how this reader conceives of what’s possible.
She graciously corresponded with me for this interview.
Let’s start with “Especially Heinous,” the formally bold novella in the center of the book. It reminded of this episode of Luther that I think about all the time, where the serial killer pushes his way into the woman’s house and, using her baby as leverage, convinces the woman to go with him to a second location where, of course, he puts her in a freezer and drains out her blood. Reading “Especially Heinous” crystallized for me that TV–maybe especially crime drama–is humanity’s way to work through its need to victimize women, which explains why I’m often outraged at the depictions of girls and women in TV and movies. You said in a Jezebel interview that this story “seemed like the best vehicle to talk about [your] feelings about media and sexual violence.” Can you say more about those feelings and why you felt this story and form was the right approach for you?
I think it’s relevant that Law & Order: SVU is as popular as it is. (It’s the only currently-running show in the Law & Order franchise.) I think we’re internalized so much shit about sexual violence our only responses to it are trauma or obsession. I think it’s possible to make funny, dark, good jokes about rape. I think humor is one of the few ways we keep ourselves sane in light of the reality of our situation. I think women live on the edge of reality, and everything about our situation is hilarious, terrible, surreal. I needed to write something that encapsulated these ideas—trauma, obsession, humor, surrealism—so I did.
“Especially Heinous” is told in this very interesting form: episode titles with descriptions. What challenges did you face trying to making a form like this work and how did you overcome these?
I didn’t find it particularly challenging? I just needed to get into the rhythm of the structure, which incidentally uses the actual episode titles—so I didn’t even have to come up with them! I just had to figure out my basic plot points and let the story build symphonically. It took less time that you’d think. (Before you feel jealous, I have a lot of trouble with basic traditional structure.)
In your story “The Husband Stitch,” you rework the classic children’s story, “The Green Ribbon.” A girl with a green ribbon around her neck falls in love with a boy. In “The Husband Stitch,” the sex seems so mutually pleasing, and they care for each other and have a healthy baby together and everything seems good, except for these moments when the husband wants to untie the woman’s ribbon, refusing to create space for this “secret” or, another way to think about it, her personal autonomy (and this is amplified, the moment we learn what ‘The Husband Stitch’ refers to). You said in a Jezebel interview that you’ve always wanted to rewrite the Green Ribbon. Can you say more about what you think the original story lacked, and why you feel that this recasting was important to you?
I guess the original story—which is an oft-patched folktale/urban legend with a lot of history behind it—doesn’t have a ton of self-awareness. When I was thinking about it as an adult—with more perspective than when I first read it as an eight-year-old—I realized that this idea of the blithely persistent husband and the wife who refuses and then concedes was sinister and terrifying and perfectly in-line with my experiences as a woman. So it seemed like a story ripe for the recasting. I had something new to say about that story, and how it relates to the idea of “good men.”
Today, as I write questions for this interview, Twitter is ablaze with Harvey Weinstein reactions to the extent that there’s a burgeoning #metoo hashtag. There’s even a think-piece on Electric Literature that uses your story, “The Husband Stitch” as it’s grounding element. In a Jezebel interview you said you were interested in the “surreal, liminal horror about being a woman or a queer person in the world. Can you say more about the timeliness of this collection? On the one hand, nothing seems new or different about any of this. On the other hand, your book feels like it validates what can feel like very lonely experiences of living in certain types of bodies–maybe that is what’s new?
It’s weird because this book is timely, even though I sold it two years ago and was writing it for five years before that. Because women’s lives have been shit for all of human history; we’re just having a particular moment right now. I think, unfortunately, this book will always be relevant. I don’t think that the forces that make it, or #metoo, relevant are going to abate anytime soon.
The stories “Eight Bites” and “Real Women Have Bodies” deal with women disappearing. In “Eight Bites”, the protagonist makes herself smaller by having her stomach stapled, like her sisters to the horror of her daughter and becomes haunted by what she’s leaving behind. In “Real Women Have Bodies” two women develop this relationship with each other as this condition ravages the world where women become invisible. (Even in “Especially Heinous” the ghost girls with bells for eyes lose the hammers for their bells, which is heartbreaking). Can you say more about what inspired these stories, this lens, and how you found yourself coming to this material from these so many different angles?
I wanted to explore the ways in which women are disappeared from this world (murder, being ignored and devalued and tucked away), and the ways in women are trained to disappear themselves (weight loss, taking up less space).
I loved the story “The Resident” so much, because the protagonist (a particular, introverted, and fragile writer at an artist’s colony) seems to be grappling with what kind of stories to tell and how to face other people’s criticism or skepticism, or perhaps just the initial resistance to stories about women. This piece feels the most metafictional, as though it is establishing space for the rest of the collection to exist. Was that what you were trying to do here? What compelled you to start this piece? Were there specific challenges to writing about a writer, or writing something so aware of itself?
Yeah, “The Resident” was a lot of work. It took me the longest to write—three years—and went through a ton of revisions. It needed so much work we almost didn’t put it in the book, but I was determined to get it in there, and spent a huge chunk of my one-and-a-half-month stint at Yaddo trying to get it right. I struggled for a long time to figure out what this story was about. I wanted to write about a writer, about being a writer. I loved the idea of setting a story at a residency, which seemed like a riff on a cabin-in-the-woods-style horror film. When I workshopped an early draft, a reader said to me, “I tire of ‘madwoman in the attic’ stories,” and I felt utterly stymied. I took that criticism very seriously, of course, but then what am I supposed to do if I want to write about women (particularly queer women) and mental health? Are all of my characters supposed to be healthy, adjusted, “normal?” As I began to interrogate that idea, the story got longer and weirder. My characters argued with each other over dinner a lot, which was really just a way for me to act out this debate on the page. And of course there are references to the other stories in the collection, so there’s a lot of metafictional possibility. Ultimately what came out—something long, sprawling, funny and serious, weird, gay as hell, actively asking all the important questions, messy, hard-to-pin-down—really worked for me. I’m so glad I got it right.
Difficult at Parties killed me. I don’t want to give anything away, but the protagonist is recovering from a trauma and trying to re-assert (re-discover? Re-establish?) her sexuality with her loving boyfriend. The party scene really got to me because, how does one compartmentalize trauma and then, for the sake of others, act like everything’s normal? This emotional space echoed for me what walking around in a woman’s body feels like. Perhaps this is less of a question and more of bestowing of appreciations. But perhaps I could ask: what were some of the things you felt you had to get right in this delicate story? What were your polestars? How did you know you were striking the right chords?
So, “Difficult at Parties” was the first story I wrote in what you’d think of as my “voice.” It was the first time I felt like I was both developing a style and a set of inquiries for my work. Before that I was just playing around, trying to figure out what sort of artist I was. I went into the story thinking I wanted to write about sexual violence, but with every approach I could think of I could hear critical voices telling me that it’d be done already. I began to think about how interiority—something we value so much in fiction—is put in peril by trauma. So I found myself drawing on stuff I’d been reading recently—Kelly Link, Karen Russell—and imagining a liminal-fantasy solution to the problem. Once I started writing, the story just kept unfolding. Then I went in and tightened and alienated the language until it fit, until it felt right.
Her Body and Other Parties was published by Graywolf press at the beginning of October and then quickly longlisted and then shortlisted for the National Book Award. So much congratulations on this great reception! First, are you busy? How are you taking it all in? Secondly, I usually ask writers what craft elements they are exploring in their next projects, or what their next writing questions are, without giving too much away. Have you even had a chance to think about what’s coming next?
Yes! I have a bunch of projects in the works. My memoir House in Indiana, which comes out in 2019, is about a very specific topic close to my heart: abuse in same-sex relationships. I also have a novel-in-stories and a YA novel in progress, both of which explore memory as a central theme.
What are you reading these days?
I’m doing a lot of reading for blurbs, so I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on upcoming books by Sam J. Miller (Blackfish City), Anjali Sachdeva (All the Names They Used for God), Mark Miller (Aerialists), Mallory Ortberg (The Merry Spinster), and Rebekah Frumkin (The Comedown).
Are there other emerging writers whose work you love, who you think should get more attention?
Yes! So many. I’m utterly obsessed with Bennett Sims—he has a brand-new story collection out that I’ve been waiting for since 2010, and he published a brilliant novel in 2013. I was also completely bowled over by Amy Parker’s debut collection, Beasts and Children, and I really think more folks need to be reading her work.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Guernica, Gulf Coast, NPR, and elsewhere. Her stories have been reprinted in Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. Her memoir House in Indiana is forthcoming in 2019 from Graywolf Press. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.