Carmen Maria Machado and I sit outside Simple Joe’s Café in Baton Rouge for brunch—shrimp and grits for her, blueberry quinoa yogurt for me. As I set my recorder to begin my interview, the author of the forthcoming short story collection Her Bodies and Other Parties (Graywolf Press, Fall 2017), a friendly dog puts his nose on our laps. Her Bodies is Machado’s first book, though she has been widely published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, NPR, and VICE, among others. Some of her stories, creative nonfiction essays, and blog posts can be read at carmenmariamachado.com, and her excellent novella Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law and Order can be read online here.
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Amandine Faucheux: You don’t exclusively write speculative or horror stories, but you do use a lot of these tropes. What attracts you the most about speculative genres?
Carmen Maria Machado: Oh goodness…. I guess I like having all the tools of storytelling at my disposal, and historically that has included things beyond human perception, or entering the surreal realm—so I enjoy using those elements. Sometimes that’s what I need to tell the story. When you’re a kid, you tell stories in this sort of organic way, and there’s no distinguishing between the rules of world building and things like that. I enjoy that sense of play—being able to play around in various genres.
AF: Were your stories always fantastic, growing up?
CMM: Not always, no, but I feel like, often. I wrote a lot of stories and printed them out—I actually have an archive of stories I wrote when I was eight, nine, ten. It’s funny re-reading them because I had the same preoccupations. I had a story that I think is really funny about a girl dying of a brain tumor and an angel is visiting her. It’s speculative; it’s about the body, about the breakdown of the body, and illness—so it hits all of my points now, but I wrote it when I was ten years old. I’ve always done stuff like that—but I also had stories that took place in our world. I played around a lot.
AF: One of your stories was included in Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, which is a collection of speculative fiction written by authors of color. Who are your inspirations in speculative fiction?
CMM: I have a huge list. When I was a kid I read a lot of Ray Bradbury; he was a really early influence, especially short stories. I feel like kids don’t read enough short stories, they’re not really taught. You get a couple stories like “The Monkey’s Paw” [by W. W. Jacobs] in American public schools, but for the most part it’s novels. But Ray Bradbury—I just devoured his short stories. I loved them. Shirley Jackson is a big influence. Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, Yoko Ogawa. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a big influence. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude because I had a really wonderful high school teacher who gave me that book—it wasn’t assigned—but it blew my mind. I never knew magical realism before.
AF: Did you know any of the contributors in the Mothership… collection?
CMM: Yeah, some of them. Bill Campbell who edited that anthology is really lovely and Rosarium publishing is doing excellent work with a lot of people of color. They have these new great comics. It’s a great house. And I think Bill was just starting out with this anthology. I really liked writing that story and working for that anthology.
AF: In a recent interview, you said that for people of color, women, non-cisgender, and queer people, taking yourselves seriously as writers and publishing your work is a form of activism. How do you see that activism work in speculative genres, especially in the context of the recent right-wing backlash with the “Sad Puppies” controversy [a right-wing movement that influenced the voting slates for the Hugo Award].
CMM: The Sad Puppies thing was so stressful. What I take away from that situation is how people perceive value in fiction. For the Sad Puppies, the fact that the list was diverse and the fact that the stories broke from a specific narrow aesthetic was somehow an indicator of a lack of quality. They talked about message fiction with no aesthetic value beyond its political agenda—and it was message in that it had women in it, people of color, queer, and trans* folk… The fiction was not fitting a narrow value of humanity, so it became (by default) message fiction. But what’s wrong with having a political agenda? Aesthetic and politics are not incompatible with each other. And a lot of the work nominated via that forced slate was also message fiction with an open, naked Christian agenda. The controversy was horrible, and a lot of good work was eclipsed. And I feel like the conversation is not over. People will always resist sea changes. I think it is a losing battle though—[the Sad Puppies] are going to lose eventually, and they’re not going to see what they want changed. What are they gonna do? They’re gonna stop people from writing?
AF: As a queer writer of color, what would be your advice to queer writers and writers of color?
CMM: Every art form, every artistic community, has its institutions and barriers. What I like in the genre world is that there’s a lot of excellent publications that are actively working with diverse voices and trying to include more diversity. Clarion has a lot of resources for writers of color, like the Octavia Butler scholarship, but there’s always going to be barriers. I know that Clarion can be very difficult for international people because there is a very American, Western-centric focus to it. Even with these publications, there’s always going to be that latent racism and sexism that you can’t totally escape. For folks that are feeling that way—try to continue on the path, and try not to be discouraged. But it’s hard! If you feel like your voice is not welcomed or you feel like you’re really struggling, it can get really exhausting. You just have to keep working. But I don’t blame folks who feel discouraged. I think everybody—not just marginalized folk—everyone, especially people with privilege, should be amplifying marginalized voices and opportunities. Just today, on Twitter, I saw that someone had tweeted about raising money for the Octavia Butler scholarship. I also love the People of Color Destroy Science Fiction, Queer People Destroy Science Fiction series—that’s amazing. It puts a great spotlight on these different communities and produces amazing work. Right now, there’s an ongoing conversation about problems of accessibility at Cons, for example, or harassment at Cons—and I feel like there’s always these conversations happening in genre communities, but it’s like fires that keep getting put out—there are these fires that happen and then everyone talks about it and then it gets put out.
AF: Who were your teachers at Clarion?
CMM: Ted Chiang, Walter John Williams, Delia Sherman, Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, and Jeffrey Ford. It was really great—I really like Clarion. I like how Clarion [employs] their teachers, and every teacher has their own specialties, interests, and craft focuses. It was really exhausting (laughs). It was a really exhausting six weeks, but it was wonderful. And I feel like I got so much wisdom about really specific elements from different people. I went from the tail end of an MFA. Some folks at Clarion, it’s their first workshop they’ve ever done—but for me, workshop was old hat. It wasn’t the fact that I was being workshopped, but rather the new people, and new voices, and new teachers.
AF: What do you think is the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
CMM: Oh my god. The most valuable… The best part is that you’re constantly writing and critiquing—that’s part of the exhaustion. I wrote six stories there, and four of them I haven’t done anything with, because they were not in any condition to be published. Maybe one day. I have them in a folder, and I’m like, I don’t know what to do with this! But two of them I eventually published, and they will be in my upcoming collection. You feel your way through a new project when you’re in a time crunch. During my MFA I had much longer to work on stuff, so by virtue of the structure of the program it was a different way to work through the process.
AF: I know you’re working on a novel, but you’ve also said you’re a very fast writer, so how is it to be working on long-form fiction?
CMM: It’s really hard. I have a lot of admiration for novelists. I don’t know how they do it. When I say I’m working on a novel—I have literally twelve novels on my computer (laughs). I’m always trying something. For me the challenge is to find a story to sustain for a long period. I have a lot of thoughts, but I feel like I can’t make it last for two hundred pages. But I am working on something that I feel like maybe I could make last, by virtue of its themes and its structure. I also freelance and I teach, so short stories are easier to manage when you have a schedule like that. But I’m taking the summer and fall off to work on the novel to hopefully get over that hump. I have a rough draft that I will be editing.
AF: You said at the panel on Friday [at the Delta Mouth Literary Festival in Baton Rouge] that you take a lot of weird details from life and write them down for future stories. Do you think that your visit to the South will make its way into your stories?
CMM: Probably. When I go to a new place, I’m always mining for atmospheres. The story I read on Friday [“Eight Bites”] is actually set in Provincetown, in Cape Cod. I was there during the winter last year to visit a friend of mine—beautiful seaside town—right when the weather was changing, and the streets were covered in snow, and my friend had been kind of trapped. I was really enamored with the idea of a seaside town off-season and what would happen there. I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for a location I’m really interested in telling a story about. I’ve never set a story in the South. I have an ongoing draft about a story set in Savannah, but never a published story. I’m sure it’ll come up at some point.
AF: I’m asking since you write horror—I figured you should probably take a swamp tour.
CMM: I really want to! It’s funny to think about writers like Karen Russell, who is also a writer I really love, who writes stories about Florida. I think she grew up there. It’s so atmospheric. I have written about Pennsylvania a few times, because it’s where I’m from. I feel like every state has its weirdness and it’s a matter of figuring it out. There’s Centralia, for example. This is a town in central Pennsylvania that has its underground coal deposit that, at some point in the seventies maybe, some lightening lit on fire. And the town has been on fire underground for decades. Nobody lives there anymore because it’s not safe. But if you go to Centralia, there are cracks in the ground and there’s smoke pouring out of the town. When I was in high school that was the cool thing to do.
AF: That’s amazing actually!
CMM: Actually I can talk about Pennsylvania’s weirdness for a really long time—I think everybody from there knows about its weirdness. Every region has weird details that you are able to mine. Part of my process is very gritty—I’m always like “Oh this detail, and that one; this weird story that someone tells me!” I am always absorbing it. And it all gets churned on the page.
AF: I’m intrigued about what you said about keeping lists [as a method for inspiration]. What’s the weirdest list that you’re keeping right now?
CMM: I have a list of titles that have no stories. Multiple stories I wrote come from that list. I have a story that I wrote a few years ago called “We Were Never Alone in Space.” That story came from when I went on a road trip to Roswell, NM with my now-fiancée. We went to this really touristy tour about alien stuff, and this museum (in the loosest sense of the word—it was more like a big science fair project, or possibly an old theater). I was looking at these things on the wall and there was an article from when Roswell happened. They were interviewing someone and she said: “How are we to have known we were never alone in space?” I was so captured by that sentence that I wrote it down, and it became the title of my story.
AF: That’s a really great title.
CMM: Yeah, yeah it is! But it’s weird that before I have a story, my brain recognizes that it’s a great title.
AF: I want to talk a bit about sex, because a lot of your stories have frank depictions of sex and you also write erotica. Can you talk about that writing process?
CMM: I’m really interested in the human body, and sexuality is a huge part of that. I grew up really religiously, so I had very bizarre ideas and neuroses around sex. And then when I started actually having sex, it became kind of a revelation. So it became important to me to write about it frankly.
I do write erotica—and what makes [erotica and literary fiction] different from each other is that, in erotica, the plot serves the sex. How can I write the plot to maximize the sexy moments of the story for the purpose of titillation? And in the opposite direction, it’s like. “How does the sex serve the plot or characters?” It may be titillating or not, but it’s all about thinking about how sex functions in the story. A lot of sex scenes that I read, usually from male writers, are usually kind of UGH.
AF: They’re terrible?
CMM: They’re terrible or they reflect this ugliness that I find very grotesque.
There are exceptions like Nicholson Baker, who has written several literary erotic novels. He says, “A good sex scene needs thwartedness, surprise, innocence, and hair.” His sex scenes always feel generous, and there’s something very playful, open, and kind about them. Whereas Philip Roth for example—and I have a problem with Roth—of all of his novels, the one that I like the most, Sabbath’s Theater, has a scene that is very jarring, and very ugly, and there’s something really weird about it, and I don’t like it. I’ve written sex scenes that are heterosexual, but also queer, and I’ve always wanted to convey the fraught, multi-faced, aspect of sex. It can be beautiful, painful, scary, sad—and it has all its ways of manifesting. I wanted to write it in a way that isn’t cheesy or silly; instead, be as honest as I can be and aesthetically interesting. And that’s hard, because that’s what people do the most! The struggle is to think about how it works emotionally and aesthetically. How to portray the orgasm—you’d think there’d be limited ways to do that, but I’m always trying different ways to talk about that (laughs). That’s the thing that almost everybody has experienced (hopefully a lot for their sake!). So how do you write about that without it being “She rides the crest…” (laughs). But I like that challenge! I think it’s really important for women, and queer people in particular, to write about that.
Another thing that interests me is sex in relation to sexual violence, like with my story “Difficult at Parties.” In the story, the woman is trying to overcome sexual violence and have sex with her boyfriend, and that’s an interesting and necessary conversation. It comes up again in my work. It actually feels weird when I don’t include sex scenes in my stories—it feels strange (laughs).
AF: During the 2015 Nebula Awards, you gave a prophecy to Nick Offerman. Do you recall what it was?
CMM: I don’t, I’m afraid. Oh wait, I do—but it’s for his eyes only.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Granta, VICE, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015, NPR, Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.
Amandine Faucheux is a second-year PhD student in English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University, where she studies science fiction, queer feminism, and race theory.