A Q&A with Carmen Maria Machado 

It'll be raining.

click to enlarge TOM STORM
  • Tom Storm

Carmen Maria Machado's first short story collection, "Her Body and Other Parties," is a bewitching examination of the lives of women, both lived and imagined. The world of Machado's characters feels harsh and unapologetic, yet magical and real. That world is revealed across eight stories, tales of desire and insecurity woven together in sumptuous prose. "The Husband Stitch" recalls tropes from classic horror stories and urban legends, the text peppered with parenthetical instructions to the reader. A laundry list of a woman's erotic exchanges is detailed in "Inventory" and a violent drama unfolds in her retelling of 12 "Law & Order: SVU" seasons in "Especially Heinous." She dares the reader to explore the darkest spaces of the heart and psyche, to dissect (using a sharp scalpel) our understanding of sex and queerness, our body expectations and purchase on the material world.

Machado's style ignores genre classification to produce a work that is eerie and playful, suspenseful and erotic, tactile and endlessly imaginative. It's also quite funny. "Her Body and Other Parties" was nominated for the National Book Award in 2017. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Guernica and Tin House, among other places. She is the writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife. Machado will join her friend and author Bennett Sims for a conversation on "literature striding into genre" at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 28, at the Historic Arkansas Museum as part of this year's Arkansas Literary Festival.

Some of the stories in your book have lived in other publications first. Was it difficult for you to narrow down the stories you wanted to include in this book, and were any of them written specifically with "Her Body" in mind?

I wanted the book to have this theme of bodies and sex and queerness and gender, and I wrote some that wouldn't fit into that category, so I didn't include them. As I got toward the end of the process, when I had been working on "The Resident" for a really long time, I was having trouble finishing, but I knew that it fit in the book, so it was important to me to get it in there. I also knew I wanted to write a story about fatness, but I hadn't figured out what it was, but it felt important for the project. And then eventually I put together "Eight Bites."

The book involves a lot of genre-shifting, and at times can feel like a literary exercise to read. Especially in the story, "The Husband Stitch," the reader is instructed to interact with the text.

I very much like when fiction or any kind of writing implicates the reader in some way, and there's lots of ways that that is done. I was really interested in that story, the way in which these commands of instructions or stage directions implicate the reader. It's funny; there's one [instruction] in that story that says, like, "Open the curtain, it'll be raining I promise," and I'm sure, if anyone actually does that, oftentimes it's not raining, but I have definitely heard from like 10 people who said, "I did it, and it was raining!"

Text itself is very metaphorical in that way: You read a piece of writing and you are engaging with the author, even if the author wasn't thinking of you specifically, or might be dead or is not present, but you're connecting with them in this way. It's almost a more obvious way of playing with that.

click to enlarge cover_carmenmachado1-1b-7e103148d2887506.jpg

There is a sense of facing one's fears in the book, and situating one's everyday fears within a more fantastical world. Have readers been thankful for this fear-facing catharsis?

Fear is definitely part of it. People tend to thank me for talking about sex and normalizing queer people. This quality of "Let's face the metaphor of our lives and face these things pretty head-on," I think people are grateful for that. I myself am grateful when I read fiction where the author takes something that I've been thinking about for a long time and turns it on its side, and I'm like, "Oh, my God, you're right!"

I love the way you write about sex, especially queer sex, in this hyper-realistic way. Why do you think it's important to complicate portrayals of sexual relationships in fiction?

Sex is like a unit of measurement. It's part of the human condition. We all have bodies; most people experience sexual desire as a matter of course. Desires change and shift throughout their lives. There is explicit sex in literary fiction, but it's often written by old white men and very reductive and sexist and women's bodies are approached with this disgust or the alienness.

I was really interested in thinking about female-centered sex, and queer sex in a way that is normalized. Women have desire, queer women have desire, it's just part of the process. It's not bad. There's something really joyful and liberating about it. Sex scenes complicate the situation and encourage character development. You're getting this other side, this other angle of a character or set of characters.

Your forthcoming novel is a full-length memoir, "House in Indiana." Is that format new to you? What is the book about?

It's the first time I've written a book-length, personal-fiction writing project. So, it's definitely weird uncharted territory. I'm excited and nervous and having a lot of emotions about it. It's still in progress, so I'm thinking about it a lot.

It's about domestic violence in same- sex relationships. That's sort of the center of it, but it's about a lot of other things, too. It's hard to describe. The primary focus is the hidden narrative of domestic violence in same-sex relationships.

Who are some writers that are pushing the envelope in the same way you are in the world of fiction?

Oh, my god, so many. Last year was an amazing year for short story collections. Actually another writer who will be at the Arkansas Literary Festival, Bennett Sims, is a friend of mine and I'm a huge fan of his work. Lesley Nneka Arimah, she had a collection come out last year called "When a Man Falls from the Sky," and it's a gorgeous genre-shattering short story collection. Jenny Zhang's collection "Sour Heart" is amazing. Obviously people like Kelly Link and Karen Russell are doing really exciting things. I'm really interested in the short story form and what's happening in the genre right now.



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