Feature image of Carmen Maria Machado by Tom Storm Photography.
One day I was feeling kind of crummy so I got on my Kindle and pressed the shopping cart icon. I chose Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which would soon be named a finalist for the National Book Award, and I pretty much disappeared for the next few hours. I was turned on and horrified and delighted and bewildered like an Ella Fitzgerald song but also not at all like that. I was in that rare sweet spot where queer characters you can identify with are gorgeously portrayed in narratives that are apocalyptic and creepy and romantic and critical of the patriarchy while also being deliciously funny and mischievous and devastating with sex scenes that are ferocious and ferociously honest. It was an impossible situation.
Last Sunday, I called Carmen Maria Machado on the phone while she was hiding from the Super Bowl in the home she shares with her wife in Philadelphia. And guess what? She was delightful. We discussed Kristen Stewart, gems, lesbian tropes, Girl Scout crushes, swine flu, and the apocalypse. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A: I’m so excited that you’re familiar with Autostraddle.
C: Oh my god, I love Autostraddle and have for so long and it’s amazing that y’all want to interview me. I go there for TV recaps, I also really love the sexy Sundays with links and cute pictures, I’m always on there for one reason or another. But I’ve been reading Autostraddle for like a decade. Or as long as I can remember.
A: That will make a lot of people very happy. So, I was thinking about one of your epigraphs, this Elisabeth Hewer quote, “God should have made girls lethal when he made monsters of men.” Have any super literary people found complicated ways of asking if you’re a man hater because of that?
C: [Laughs] I don’t think anyone’s asked me that but I feel like there’s plenty of reason to ask. I have many beloved male friends, I have a father I love, and a brother I love, and obviously there are men in my life who are very important to me. But I have become exhausted by masculinity and men by extension. I find that it’s a lot of energy that I just don’t have to coddle the male perspective. So I’ve just kind of lost interest in that. And I don’t write for men. Obviously if men respond to my work that’s awesome and wonderful but I don’t really care. I’m bi, I have dated men, it’s just, I’m in this space where I find it so exhausting and I just don’t want to deal with that kind of energy and entitlement. I just don’t care.
A: That sounds like a pretty good updated definition of misandry. It’s more exhaustion.
C: Yeah, exactly. Hatred is strong and it’s not correct. It’s just a level of exhaustion that I don’t want to deal with.
A: I think you do a really beautiful job of illustrating why.
C: Thank you.
A: As a bisexual person it was a huge relief to encounter your characters. But I imagine that there’s a certain level of… I don’t want to say objectification, but when you have a character who is any kind of “other” in a book that can draw a certain kind of attention to it. So I’m wondering, similar to the misandry piece, have you been having any weird conversations with straight people about queerness?
C: I’ve said at events that “I don’t write for straight people. If they like it, that’s great, but I’m not writing for them.” Which is in a similar vein. I just think that people are really curious about the amount of bisexual sex. Sex is a huge part of the book. And I’ve seen reviews where people are like, “oh my god there’s so much sex, everyone’s using the ‘c’ word so much!” I was really interested in thinking about queer sex as worthy of literary art. I’m always looking for not even just bi women or queer women but women in general, just women writing about sex in an explicit way that elevates women’s desire into this art form. And the queer angle as well. Generally speaking people seem pretty into it, which is great. I haven’t gotten too much [weird reactions from straight people], unless there’s someone who finds all writing about sex to be aberrant, which some people do, some people are really prudish, but besides that, generally speaking people have been pretty into it.
“I was really interested in thinking about queer sex as worthy of literary art. I’m always looking for not even just bi women or queer women but women in general, just women writing about sex in an explicit way that elevates women’s desire into this art form.”
A: So I was thinking, “Ok this is an Autostraddle interview I should find a way to ask about Kristen Stewart.”
A: But the more I thought about it: did you see Clouds of Sils Maria or Personal Shopper?
A: Oh my god you’ve got to see those movies because especially [in your story] “The Resident,” there’s something so similar to these two Kristen Stewart films that I adore and that my girlfriend and I watch over and over again, the style is really similar to your style. So this isn’t a forced question actually, I feel like Kristen Stewart really does relate to your work in a lot of ways.
C: WILL SOMEONE GET HER A COPY OF MY BOOK.
A: Yeah. Let’s let this be an avenue for that.
C: Anyone out there knows her, please.
A: For some reason I think that this relates to my next question because in “Real Women Have Bodies,” one of the characters has a necklace “with smoky quartz encased in a tangled sprawl of copper vines. Her lips are a little bit chapped.” The gem show is in Tucson right now so I was really attracted to that detail. Do you have a relationship to gems?
C: I really love gems, and with that necklace in particular I was describing someone I was dating at the time. But yes I always really loved stones in a way that has surprised me because I’m sort of a hybrid, witchy and not witchy. My wife is really into tarot and all these things that are not really my scene, but I find myself really attracted to them in an aesthetic way so there’s an interesting dynamic there.
A: So your wife is the one bathing them in salt water and putting them out for the moon.
C: Yeah she’s the one. I went to Yaddo two years ago in Saratoga Springs. And my wife had gone to Saratoga Springs for one of those high school or college prep programs when she was a teen and had this amazing awakening. She had her first girl crush, and she went to a new age shop, and she also has really fond memories of being a teenager and being in Saratoga Springs. So I went to the same Saratoga Springs new age shop and I got her some crystals and stones, and the woman at the store was like “there’s a full moon you need to put them in the full moon to charge them with energy.” So I did it, I charged them up with moon energy or whatever. And I went home and I was like “these are for you, I charged them with moon energy” and she gave me the biggest hug. She was like “I love you so much. Because I know that must have felt very weird for you.” And I was like, it did, but I love you.
A: That’s incredibly sweet. You mentioned that she’s your favorite writer; what kind of work does she do?
C: She’s working on a really incredible — she’d be so mad I’m blowing up her spot — this really incredible historical YA novel about queer women in women’s colleges at the turn of the century during the suffragette movement. It’s amazing, I love it, she’s been working on it for a while and it’s glorious and amazing. We’re both each other’s first readers so we get front row seats to each other’s work.
A: That’s amazing. So, I’ve never really watched Law and Order SVU so I was wandering around in “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” [which retells every episode in the first 12 seasons] I kept reading it in the middle of the night because I have insomnia, and it was an especially disturbing but also perfect place to go to in the middle of the night. But it’s such a dark place and it’s such a long story I’m just wondering—did you struggle? I know a lot of the pieces, though you have an amazing sense of humor, go into pretty intense places—how do you maneuver around spending that much time in that emotional territory? Do you have a protective sweater? Do you light a candle?
C: [Laughs] It’s really hard, I just sort of, I just do it. Sometimes it’s disturbing and intense and I have to really think about it. I have to take a break or whatever. It’s hard because I love art and work that “change my temperature” or make me feel things. And so in genres that I’m really attracted to, like horror, I want a book to disturb me and take me to those places. But then I’m always disturbed and in those places. Sometimes I feel like shit afterwards, and I have to figure that out, but I just have to manage it as it’s happening. But it’s really important to me to get to those spaces.
“I love art and work that ‘change my temperature’ or make me feel things. And so in genres that I’m really attracted to, like horror, I want a book to disturb me and take me to those places. But then I’m always disturbed and in those places.”
A: That story is so incredible and gemlike. How did you get it to that point? How did you discover that story?
C: The story I tell people is that years ago, when I was living in California, I had swine flu, so that would have been 2009 or 2010. And I was really sick and my boyfriend and I had just broken up so I was sick and alone and lived by myself. And Netflix had that thing where you can push play and a show would keep going, you didn’t have to click to the next episode. So they had just put Law & Order SVU on and I had only ever seen it on TV when I caught it on cable but I was like, “Oh I can just watch this from the beginning.” I started watching and I went into high — probably I should have been in the hospital — fever, I was sick for days. I lost time. And when I came to days later and I was fully conscious and I didn’t feel like death anymore, it was still playing.
That was the emotional birthplace of that story. And then years later, I just had this idea, I want to write about sexual violence, I’m interested in Law & Order SVU as a cultural artifact, and also the first 12 seasons of that show before they switched showrunners were all one word titles. So I was like, oh I could use those as little jumping off points. And I just sort of wrote it. And it took way less time than you would think. It’s a controversial story. People either love or hate that story. It’s challenging, it requires a lot from the reader, and some people are like, “Fuck it, I don’t want to have to deal with this thing.” But I’m really proud of it. I think it’s a really beautiful piece of art.
A: It is beautiful. I was marveling at it at the same time that I was — I don’t know enough about SVU to know what you were playing with exactly, so I kept wondering “do I need to watch the show to have a sense of it?”
C: In theory no. But I think if you have watched the show there are some little Easter eggs. The big one being that Olivia Benson is not queer on the show. But there’s this massive lesbian shipping of her and Alex Cabot, who is one of the DAs: they’re definitely definitely lesbians, they’re definitely into each other. She keeps dating these boring men, she dates these odious, boring dudes, and it’s like, “No, she’s only meant for Alex, that’s the only person she should be with.” So there’s that little Easter egg where if you watch the show you’re like, “Oh my god, you hooked them up! You got them together in the story!” But other than that you don’t need to have seen the show. But I was really interested in exploring what it means that our only currently running Law and Order franchise is the rape one.
A: Throughout the collection, there were some moments that were kind of a queer utopia feeling, paired with an apocalypse feeling. Do those things go hand and hand for you?
C: A little. I did not do that on purpose. Half the shit people ask me about I did not do on purpose. It’s the weirdest part about being a writer: [someone says] “I love that you did this thing” and I’m like “yeah that was super intentional, that brilliant thing that you’re attributing to my conscious mind.” You know?
People have asked me why my book is so readable while being so weird, and I think it’s because I’m having a lot of fun. I’m enjoying writing, I’m enjoying imagining these spaces, so in a way I enjoy imagining that queer utopia, but then also, I’m ultimately drawn to pandemic narratives, and post-apocalyptic narratives. Those things are interesting to me. So it’s interesting to me that I’m in this space where I’m allowed to do what I want and create whatever I want that the pleasure and the anxiety of both those things would be present in the same space.
“People have asked me why my book is so readable while being so weird, and I think it’s because I’m having a lot of fun.”
A: It is kind of sad because it’s like, “Yay! Here we are! Oh shit.” But that also feels like about how it would happen.
C: I just thought of something. There’s this really good piece of interactive fiction called “Queers at the End of the World,” do you know it?
C: Have you ever read interactive fiction before? It’s text based.
A: Not since elementary school.
C: Right. I don’t know who the writer is but basically it’s like you are with somebody else, like a fellow queer, and you can give commands like “we kiss, we fuck, we do this,” and then there’s a timer counting down and you do as many things as you can while you type as fast as you can and then the world ends. It just stops.
A: So you did that for your book.
C: I was only just thinking that as you were talking I was like, there’s a queer interactive fiction game.
A: So this is gross to say but, I have an ingrown hair and it feels like it’s reminding me of this next question.
C: That’s not gross at all. I hope you get it. I hope it’s really satisfying.
A: Well, I’m working on it. You have such a beautiful way of describing what some people could potentially experience — although I love a good ingrown hair every now and then — but a disgusting thing you write in “The Resident” is “a constellation of pustules cluster at his jaw in the elliptical shape of the Andromeda galaxy, they were tipped in yellowish green domes.” Is that how you move through the world? Do you see people that way?
C: Yes. I’m very visually focused, and I think about things in metaphor. And I’m also very drawn to the grotesque and body horror. I’m not making that up for the book, that’s how I think about a thing.
I think I’ve trained my brain that way. I think if you want to think that way it’s something that you can train your brain to do. If you’re paying attention — and I’m not saying “experience the world put down your smart phone,” I play video games, I get it — when you are in the world, thinking really intensely about what you’re seeing and what it reminds you of, that freedom of your mind to go where it wants to go, respecting your brain and respecting your experience and your instincts, is part of becoming a writer. Ending up with a harmonious experience with your subconscious. I think that’s part of it as well.
“When you are in the world, thinking really intensely about what you’re seeing and what it reminds you of, that freedom of your mind to go where it wants to go, respecting your brain and respecting your experience and your instincts, is part of becoming a writer.”
A: Something about “The Resident” really stuck with me, maybe because it’s a really meta story, or at least for the reader it’s like, “this is so similar, potentially, to her experience as a writer.” I’m hovering around that Brownies memory and how potent it was and the sort of synchronicity of ending up at that retreat.
C: Were you a Girl Scout?
A: I was a Brownie and maybe that’s part of it, as you were retelling that elf story, I was like “I forgot about it,” and I remember the camping trips, and I just really viscerally remember going to girl scout camp and being extremely homesick. So maybe it was just an emotional story.
C: I really love “The Resident.” The thing with that story was it took me a million years to finish it, I wrote it in multiple stages, I wrote it before I knew what it was about, which was really weird. I was thinking about girlhood and what made Girl Scouts so interesting and I was thinking about residencies and how memory can come upon you very unexpectedly. I really love that story and it gave me space to think about this anxiety that I was having, which I decided to write about really directly, which was how to write queer female characters where mental health is a question without falling into this trap of “the crazy lesbian,” and I feel this anxiety about how you write about things that are real without falling into tropes. How do you not fall in an unthinking way into a trope, how do you address that, what are you supposed to do about that? That story just became like a really interesting vessel for me to think about some stuff. And I got to write about Girl Scouts which I think about all the time. I was a Girl Scout — I’m like a huge fucking nerd — I was a Girl Scout until I was a senior in high school. I was like a hardcore Girl Scout. [laughs]
A: Very impressive.
C: It was only me and like three other girls we’re all very like embarrassed. We’re like all in girl scouts but also involved in radically different parts of school culture. So it was this weird motley crew of almost adult Girl Scouts.
A: And were the Girl Scouts you knew queer at all? Or is that just a pipe dream.
C: No no no. I also did not know that I was. I didn’t come out to myself until I was in college. I didn’t even realize I was queer. In retrospect it’s like that thing where I feel like I remember being an older kid and like a teen and being really drawn to certain girls, and being like “I want to be her friend, I want to be her friend more than anything that I want in this world.” You know and then later being like, “oh I just had a crush on her.” So there was another girl in my troop who I was like, “She’s so pretty, I just want to be her friend.” We were like sorta friends but not really. Because I was just so fucking weird. I cannot emphasize how fucking weird I was. As a teenager, I was the weirdest.
“I feel this anxiety about how you write about things that are real without falling into tropes. How do you not fall in an unthinking way into a trope, how do you address that, what are you supposed to do about that?”
A: Well join the club.
C: Right. Like the rest of us.
A: Is it too soon to ask you what you’re working on next?
C: I’m actually working on a memoir on abuse in same-sex relationships. Graywolf bought it last year and it’s coming out fall 2019. And so it’s still in progress so I can’t say too much about it. But I do a close reading of the film Gaslighting with Ingrid Bergman, and I’m sort of trying to do some, I’m basically in this place where I was looking, after I had an experience, an abusive relationship with another woman that I extracted myself from, and I was looking to read about that topic and I really struggled to find stuff. I found one or two novels, I found a lot of academic textbooks that came out in the 80s and 90s that were about “lesbian battering” which is a very old fashioned term that’s not used anymore. It also suggests that it’s all physical and it’s not. And I just really struggled to find writing about it, nonfiction writing, so I was thinking, “Well, I need to write this.” So it’s a memoir — I don’t know how to describe it, it’s like a nonfiction book with a lot of stuff. It’s a thing that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around and I’ve been trying to write about it for years and I’ve only just managed to get it sort of out.
A: As you’re in the hubbub of your first book—
C: Luckily I finished a draft before the first book came out. Which is why Graywolf bought it so early. And then, and I haven’t been working on it right this minute but I’m about to start working on it this summer, I’m going to a residency. In New Mexico, actually.
A: Nice. Well I am sure a lot of Autostraddle readers will be looking forward to that.
C: Thank you.