Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the artist in residence at the University of Pennsylvania. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Years Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. Her debut book is a short story collection called Her Body and Other Parties, and it was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award.

This interview first appeared in November 2017 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

 

One topic that’s come up a bunch of times on this show is what kind of experiences people have writing fantasy and science fiction in college and in MFA programs. Could you talk about what your experience with that was like?

Well, in college I wasn’t really writing non-realism. I feel like I was mostly writing realism in college and undergrad, but when I got to my MFA program . . . like I started writing realism, and then I transitioned to fantasy and horror and more experimental stuff. I consider myself pretty lucky in that all of my classmates were really behind it. Every so often someone wouldn’t really get it, but for the most part, everybody was really supportive, and amazing, and were just like, “This is weird as hell. Keep going.” Which felt really good. I really, really liked it. Nobody really stopped me or got in my way. They were just like, “This is great. Keep going.”

You were at Iowa, right? Was anyone else there writing fantasy and science fiction?

 Oh yeah. I’d say at least half of my classmates submitted nonrealism in some form or another throughout the time I was there. I was there with E.J. Fischer who identifies as a science fiction writer. But, a lot of my classmates were writing horror, or liminal fantasy like magical realism, or science fiction. All kinds of stuff. I think most people were playing around and experimenting.

My experience seems to be that maybe programs are more open to the magical realism, liminal fantasy kind of stuff—like Kelly Link or Karen Russell, things like that—than they would be to Game of Thrones or Dune or something like that. Was that your experience as well?

I don’t think there was a ton of epic or secondary world fantasy, not because it was discouraged, but just because I think that’s not what folks were really writing. I feel like maybe there were a couple, but I don’t really remember much about it. It was more about what people were actually bringing in. But, there was definitely science fiction. There was definitely liminal and portal-style fantasy of various kinds. And horror.

I know that you also went to the Clarion science fiction writers workshop. I wonder if you could contrast Iowa and Clarion a little bit?

Clarion is not an MFA program. Clarion is a six-week, insane, exhausting boot camp. It’s a totally different process. The MFA program is more moderate, in the sense that it’s happening over the course of several years. I don’t know really how to compare them. The workshop style is really different. Genre places tend to use the system where everybody goes around in a circle and says their piece and then is silent.

The Milford system?

Oh yeah, the Milford. Which, actually, I do not like that workshop system, but that is the way it’s done at Clarion. It was done that way when I went to Sycamore Hill. That’s just the sort of tradition. Whereas, in my MFA program, it was more of a style of people talking and responding to each other in real time, which I prefer. It’s hard to compare Clarion and Iowa. They’re just inherently really different in terms of what you’re getting out of them. What I got out of Iowa was two years of funded time to work on my own shit, which was amazing and really wonderful. What I got out of Clarion was this really bombastic, high-intensity, octane-fueled, genre extravaganza where I barely slept. I was writing a lot of stuff, some of which was really terrible, and some of which was pretty good, and workshopping non-stop and barely sleeping. They’re really different programs.

Who were your Clarion instructors? Ted Chiang was one of them, right?

It was Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, JeffreyFord, Delia Sherman, and then our duo was Holly Black and Cassie Claire.

That’s really cool. Does any advice that you got stick out in your mind? Or any conversations that happened, or anything like that?

I feel like the nice thing about Clarion was how every instructor brought a different sensibility to the classroom and had different focuses. Some people were more plot-focused, and other people were more focused on the energy of a story. It’s funny, we had written down all of the advice and Sam J. Miller, who was in my class, at some point had published a post somewhere that went semi-viral. It was like all of the advice we received over six weeks. Some of which was kind of obvious, and some of which was . . . I’m trying to think of a good example. Like Ted Chiang gave us this incredible lecture about time travel and the way that time travel can function in a story, and sort of gave us a mini-lecture on how time travel could theoretically work. He was like, “You can write a story that has this as its basis, or you can use it as a more literary device, where it’s less about the technicality of the genre, and more about using it as a device.” That was really awesome.

I feel like we were getting lots of really different, interesting areas of focus from other writers. Holly Black and Cassie Claire were really into plot and structure and outlining. Holly gave us this really great piece of advice about making a menu for yourself of things that could theoretically happen in your story or in your novel, and then when you’re feeling stuck in your plot, going to the menu and being like, “Oh, this would be a good time to do this thing,” and pluck it off the menu and try putting it in. That was really helpful to me because I’m a person who struggles with plot all of the time.

So, yes, everybody had their own sensibility based on their work and their genre. I think the neatest part of that was getting such a wide range of instructors.

You do these sort of artist colony things as well?

I do. I love residencies. I get a lot of work done because I like to have a lot of time at my disposal. It really works for me to go somewhere for four weeks and have nothing to do besides write.

Did you write your story “The Resident” at a residency?

I started it before I went to a residency, which is pretty amazing because I didn’t have a sense of what really happened at residencies, but I was like, “I need an isolated, natural place.” I want the character to be an artist, so that’s actually a perfect sort of setup. I’d begun the story like that, and there were a lot of details in the story that if you’ve been to a residency, you’ll be like, “Oh, that’s very real.” Those I wrote after. That story took me like three years to write. In between starting it and finishing it, I went to multiple residencies, and so I had a better sense of even better details to include.

What happens in the story is that it starts out as a fairly regular kind of residency situation, and then it becomes more and more surreal, and grotesque, and hallucinogenic, and very gothic. I was wondering, are you importing that mood into the residency experience?

I definitely feel like that sort of gothic sensibility. You’re in this very isolated place. You’re with a lot of other artists who are usually more or less pretty high strung. I was at a residency last year during the election, and it was like twelve or fifteen people having a slow, collective nervous breakdown over the course of a month and a half. There is the sort of weird group energy. You’re talking at dinner, and conversations can get weird, and you’re all sort of strangers, but also there’s this forced sense of intimacy because you’ve been together non-stop for however many weeks. The mood is very strange, even though I love it. I really enjoy residencies. But, the mood is definitely odd. Also, when you’re alone with yourself it’s weird, right? It gets weird if you’re alone with yourself for a certain period of time. That setting was perfectly suited for the mood I wanted to strike in that story.

Were you consciously drawing those gothic elements, or surreal elements, from any particular source, or was that coming out of your imagination?

It was coming from a few places. That story is pretty heavily influenced by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and also this writer that I really adore, Bennett Sims, who has a book collection called White Dialogues. He’s a friend, and is a tremendous writer, and he has this really beautiful, terrifying story called “House Sitting” that’s about a guy who goes to a cabin in the woods, and it’s different in many ways, but I think it’s drawing from this inspiration. Films like Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, right? These eerie films about isolation. I feel like I was drawing from all of these narratives where it’s like one must go to a place and be alone with oneself, and oneself slowly spiraling away from reality. I very much enjoy that genre to watch as well. It worked out pretty well.

In the story, one of the characters talks about the artists who cloister themselves away from the world as being undesirable. The narrator says, “I needed to be home with my wife in our home and civilization and away from other artists. At least the sort of artists who cloister themselves away from the rest of the world. Dying profession. Dead hotels. I had been foolish.” Do you share that view that you don’t want to be around artists who are cut off from everyone else?

Oh yeah, I don’t actually think that. I think it’s perfectly fine to go isolate yourself and make art. I think that’s actually admirable and wonderful. I could see how if you were having the feelings and the experiences that she was having that you would be like, “I need to get back to civilization.” After you’ve been at a residency for a certain period of time, there is a sense of, “I would like to return to some sense of normalcy in terms of my routine, and my life, and my relationships.” You miss all the things that make your life your life. I think that it was more like calling on that sense of like, “This is too much. I need to get back.”

I thought it was interesting because a lot of the stories in this book have a bit of influence from the millennial experience, and the kind of running down of jobs that pay well and college degrees that get you a good job. Could you talk a little bit about that?

I am a millennial, so that makes a lot of sense. I feel, like everybody, as an artist, I’m responding to my own sense of the world. I was one of those people who had these dreams of being an artist. I was talked into getting a certain degree by a parent, which was going to be a little more fruitful in terms of income. Then in college I rejected that major and went to another major that was even more useless.

Then the recession hit, and I’ve never even worked in my field at all. Because everything really shifted, and the world really changed dramatically around us. I feel like any millennial will tell you or will sort of know, even if they don’t admit it, that sense of being unmoored, and feeling very mistrustful when people tell you what you should and should not be doing. It’s like, they tell us how to do things, the world shifted around us so dramatically, and now everyone is yelling at us for things that are completely outside of our control. I think that that is a general sentiment shared by millennials.

I also wanted to draw on the fact that we’re the last generation that remembers time before the current technology was more ubiquitous. It’s this weird, liminal boundary between the technical and non-technical elements of our lives, in terms of computer and smartphones and whatnot. I feel like we are this weird, liminal generation that is really trying to grapple with a lot of chaos, while also being told that we are garbage at every turn.

I really find that very interesting. I identify with it, obviously, as a member of that group. Also, this collection draws on the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, which were very formative for my generation. I’m a millennial, and so this book is drawn from me, and so it makes sense that that influence would be felt throughout.

If you could go back in time, would you tell yourself not to go to college? What advice would you give?

I think if I went back in time, I would say, “Hey, maybe think about getting a different degree, one that maybe could be applied in many ways.” But also, because I literally graduated in 2008, and the recession happened, and I was like, “Well, everything I thought I knew is not the case anymore.” I’m going to be growing up with this sense of economic instability, and I wish I had known that was just going to be the case. But no one could have, right? I probably would have gotten a degree with some more and broader practical applications. Stuff that would have actually mattered. People that I knew who had “useful” degrees also struggled to find work.

Everything changed for me when I went to grad school because I reset my professional experience, and I could work from a new place. I don’t know if I would do it any differently because, obviously, everything has worked out pretty well, in terms of my writing career. The reason I went to grad school is because I was living in California, had a job I hated, and I spent two years trying to find other jobs and never even got an interview anywhere. It was really bad. I was miserable, and I was like, “I need to get out of here. I don’t want to be here anymore, but I also can’t just quit my job because then I won’t have any money, and I don’t know what I’ll do.” If I applied to a funded grad program, it would be like a get-out-of-jail-free card. I ccould just go and not have to worry about a job.

Then I decided to apply for MFA programs. It ended up working out pretty well, but I literally applied to grad school because I was like, “The world is fucked, and I don’t know what to do about anything. I might as well go do this because what else am I going to do with my life?”

Do you feel like literature has fully come to terms with this changed world you’re describing? I feel sometimes that if you read books, realistic novels, it’s almost like a fantasy world where people own houses and stuff like that. That’s not my experience, you know?

All of fiction is its own fantasy, but there definitely is fiction that grapples with the changed world we live in. That happened about ten years ago, right? So, we’ve had a decade to have art reconcile with that. But, certainly there are situations like house ownership that I find totally baffling.

I remember one time, my aunt, who has a government job was like, “What are you doing for retirement?” And I was like, “Retirement?” And she was like, “Well, you have a retirement account?” I was like, “Nope.” She was like, “Well, where do you put your extra money?” I was like, “What extra money? My savings? What? I don’t have savings.” I’m barely scraping by. I have student loans I’m still paying off. That is just not the world that I have grown up in. Our lives are just so different.

We’re just trying to figure it out. I think it would be easier to figure out if everyone wasn’t telling us we were pieces of garbage all the time. I think that would be a little bit easier. But, you know, what do you do about that?

I wanted to talk about how a lot of these stories deal with men and women and the way they relate to each other, and the way that women relate to women, and so on. I thought the story “Eight Bites” was really interesting because it’s sort of this weight loss horror story. Could you talk about the premise of that story?

The premise of “Eight Bites” is that there’s a woman who lives up in sort of Cape Cod, and she’s pretty estranged from her adult daughter, and all of her sisters and her are somewhat overweight. Then her sisters all get weight loss surgery, and she decides to also get weight loss surgery. As she loses the weight, she begins to hear things in her house, and at some point realizes that the fat that she’s losing—the body of hers that’s leaving—is accumulating somewhere else, and has become sort of its own creature. The latter half of the story is her very fraught relationship with this thing that used to be sort of her, but is not really anymore.

Do you remember how you came up with that idea?

You know, I actually had originally written that story for an anthology prompt, and I ended up withdrawing it from the anthology because the edits they wanted me to make, I did not like. I ended up just not submitting it. But, my initial concept is that it was a retelling of The Little Mermaid, which you would not know, unless you knew that and then looked at the story again. There are certain beats. But it’s pretty far removed from that story, so I don’t really consider it a retelling.

I wanted to write about an older woman. Most of my characters are fairly young. I liked the idea of writing a story about a woman with an adult daughter, and I was really interested in tackling the concept of weight loss and weight loss surgery, which is something that I think about, and something that I have experience with in my own family. It was like so many stories where I wanted to grapple with this idea using fiction. I just got this idea like, “What if she’s haunted by her own body?”

And then that took shape, and then it became this thing, this creature. I wanted it to be not scary, exactly, but more like tender and strange. I had all of these ideas about setting something in a tourist town in the off season. I feel like I pulled together a bunch of things, and then I was really pleased with the result. I really love that story.

A lot of the stories in your book deal with women’s bodies disappearing and things like that. Bennett Sims, actually, you mentioned earlier, had an interesting blurb for the book saying that “the stories are about women that can survive in worlds that want them to disappear, whether into marriage, motherhood, death, or literally prom dresses.” Could you talk about that idea a little bit? Of the world wants women to disappear?

Yeah, it’s funny, I get asked this question a lot, but it dwoesn’t seem to me as if this is that revolutionary, or strange, of an idea. There’s nothing clearer to me in this world than the fact that we, and by we, I mean like culture, society, hate women. We hate women. We hate women so much that we couldn’t even have a national imagination that could imagine Hillary Clinton being president. I think about that, not just in terms of Trump, which is its own sort of problem, but sort of the progressive response to Hillary Clinton, especially with progressive men.

It’s not shocking to me that Hillary didn’t win because it makes total sense to me. We hate women so much. I think that we want women to disappear. We want women not to take up any kind of space: either literal space, or emotional space, or mental space.

Every so often, we sort of burst forth, so like, right now there’s this current, really intense, violent conversation happening about sexual assault and sexual violence, and Harvey Weinstein and all of this stuff. Every so often, women will cry out as one, and then it recedes into itself, and then the silence continues, and then it bursts forth. It’s just this horrible cycle.

I feel like we are not—and again, we meaning society—do not find it suitable for women to be present in any significant way. Sometimes other readers see things that you don’t necessarily see in your own work, so when Bennett gave me that blurb, I was like, “Wow, I hadn’t even really considered that, but that’s true. Every story is like that.” I think that was just a thing that’s on my mind as an artist, so of course, it was reflected in this book.

So, when you say that we hate women, you mean women as well? Do women also hate women, or the idea of being a woman, or something like that?

I think women have been socialized to hate women. I don’t think women naturally would, but I think that we also are sort of trained. For example, the obsession with weight loss, with food policing, and body policing, and thinking of food as this shame—that whole conversation, we, women, have been taught to do that. So, yeah, I think women also hate women. It’s a really bad situation. I don’t know what to do about it, but it really bothers me.

I just was talking to somebody about autobiographical fiction, and thinking about the guy who wrote My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s like this multi-book series, this very meticulous recounting of his life. I can’t even imagine a woman writing a book like that, not because I don’t think a woman could write a book like that, but because we would never permit a woman to engage in that self-love and self-obsession. Women are punished for doing that. We call them divas. We’re like, “Ugh, she’s so self-centered.” We don’t allow women the same range of artistic expression that we permit men because we hate them, and we don’t want them to take up any space.

I think if like art was reflecting more of that space-taking, then yes, I think there would be a kind of trickledown effect. But, unfortunately, they sort of follow each other. Culture follows art, and art follows culture. So, it’s like, if we can’t imagine it—and the artists who are the most prominent and the most well-known are men, and they can’t imagine it, so it doesn’t show up in their art—then we don’t see it, and we can’t imagine it in other ways. Again, it’s like a cycle.

Are you trying to fight back against that in this book, do you think? By writing autobiographical stuff into it?

Yeah. Except for the Law and Order story, where half of it is about Stabler, all of my characters are women. Some stories have no men at all, or only have a couple. Actually, I’d had an editor of one of my stories, not my editor at Greywolf, but a magazine editor, kind of get short with me about the fact that I didn’t have male characters in one of my stories. I was like, “So what? Who cares?” It’s like, I don’t give a shit about men’s stories. I mean, there are men in my life that I love and adore, and there are male artists that I love and adore, but also, I don’t need to add another male character to the pile. That’s not what we need. We need women. We need queer women. That’s what I want to see. And so that’s what I did.

I was also kind of struck by this line: One of the characters says, “It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right to be unsociable, and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around.”

In that story—that’s again the story “The Resident”—and that character is super weird. She’s very in her own mind. It’s clear looking at the way that other people interact with her that she’s so strange, right? And the others get weird about it, and she’s like, “No, it’s my right to be weird.” Basically, it’s my right to be an unlikable character, is what she’s saying. Or an unlikeable person. Again, I wanted her to be a little unpleasant and a little weird because like, why not? Men get to be unpleasant and weird all the time. I really just wanted to give her that space and give her that mission. I think it was more subtle throughout, and then at some point I was like, “I should just have her say that out loud.” And I did.

Is that just something for characters, or when you’re out in the street and stuff, do you think there are virtues to be had in the attitude that I can be unpleasant to be around if I want to be?

Yeah. Street harassment is an example of this. Some days when I’m out doing business, I’ve got things I’ve got to do, and I’m zoning out, I’m in my own head, I’m thinking, I’m listening to a podcast, and it’s like I’m not even allowed to just walk down the street in my own mind because some person, a man, has to be like, “Hey, I’m going to say this thing to you now. I’m not actually trying to like take you home on a date. I want to let you know that you’re not allowed to occupy this space on your own. I have to impose myself.” Then my reverie, my private time with myself, like that whole process has been punctured and ruined.

This happens all of the time. The fact that women can’t just be out in public in their own heads. That’s like forbidden to us. Informally. It’s an informal process.

So I will tell somebody like, “Fuck off. Leave me alone. Go away.” Because I am being covetous of my time, and being covetous of my space. Also, like, the fact that just saying no to things, like saying, “I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to do that.” And not having to give an explanation. Or just saying, “I don’t want that.” And not having to provide an excuse.

I think women need to do that more. And honestly, my life has been better since I learned how to do that. And not be so worried about being polite, or being giving.

I wanted to also ask you about the story “Mothers” because the characters kind of invent their own religion. Could you talk about coming up with that idea?

There’s a movement in the middle of the story where the character is fantasizing about the life she had imagined with her lover who has since left her. There are many pages of her fantasizing about this place that they would have lived. She talks about her own liturgical calendar. I have a good friend, who I’ve known since I was a kid, who is Catholic, and for a while, she was blogging about what she called “eating liturgically,” which meant eating according to the Catholic saint calendar. I’m not going to know any of the actual saints, but she’ll be like, “Today is so-and-so’s day, so tonight we’re going to eat based on this.” I’m not Catholic, but I was like, “That’s so cool. What a cool idea.”

I had always imagined what if I had my own liturgical calendar, but it was like my own saints. So it would be figures in history, characters from books, and then they would have their own affiliation, and there would be ways to celebrate them if you so chose. This is an idea that I’ve always had, like I want to make my own saint book.

I just got to make a fictional version of it where there’s this day, which is for Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt, and there’s this day, which is for Frieda Kahlo, and there’s this day for Shirley Jackson. Those are their saints. There are various ceremonies and foods and things that they use as part of those celebrations. I was like, “Maybe I’ll be able to do that at some point for myself, but I’ll just write about it in this story.”

I love the idea of having one’s own religion based on the figures in history that speak to you. Also, the fact that I feel like part of being an adult is learning all of this history that you never knew existed. One of the best parts of being older is like, for example, learning queer history that you never know. For example, most people do not know that Eleanor Roosevelt was bi and had this lover for decades. I read about Eleanor Roosevelt all the time, and I never had heard this story at all. Then I discovered all of these letters. It’s a pretty infamous story. So, it’s really cool, that just becoming part of one’s own personal history and faith.

You mentioned your story about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and there’s a part in the story where the characters realize that they’re characters in a story, and that people are watching the characters’ suffering for their own amusement. I was wondering if you could talk about how you included that in the story, and how you feel about those kinds of stories where the characters realize that they’re characters in a story.

That whole novella is sort of my attempt to grapple with the idea of what does it mean that we as a culture are so invested in these narratives of violence against women? That was part of what I was thinking about going into this project. Then at some point it just made sense that art is an inherently metafictional conceit—this is a piece of fan fiction about a show that exists that deals with our reality, in the sense that it’s about sexual violence, which obviously exists in real life, and also the ripped from the headlines qualities of the Law and Order franchise. They might as well be aware of the fact that they are in a story that is satirizing another set of stories where they are trapped in the cycle, but they are trapped in the cycle because we the real life viewers are really invested in this narrative.

I mean, Law and Order: SVU has been on for nineteen seasons, and is like the only one that’s outlasted all of its other compatriots in the Law and Order universe. Again, what does that mean? Why are we so invested in this particular story? It made sense to me that those characters would become aware of the fact that they are trapped in this weird, metafictional story. It just made sense with the rest of the conversation of that story.

Right, and your version of Law and Order features doppelgangers and ghosts and various other kinds of supernatural creatures. Could you talk about why you wanted to incorporate those into the Law and Order universe?

I’m firmly of the belief that Law and Order is a profoundly capital-W Weird show. Despite the fact that ostensibly it’s realist. I think if you think about the fact that all of these episodes are “ripped from the headlines,” so it’s like these weird, mashed up, reality-adjacent episodes, even though they’re fictionalized. The fact that actors repeat on that show. Sometimes an actor will be a D.A. in one episode, and then seasons later will come back as a suspect. There are a lot of ways in which it’s already sort of pushing through the boundaries of reality anyway, and so I just pushed it a little further. Because that was just made the most sense to me.

Something I think about a lot is if you buy the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and you believe that there’s all these different universes where anything that can happen does happen then literature that you read, you are reading about real people, and real things that are happening somewhere in the multiverse.

Right. I love that. I also was thinking about, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Tommy Westphall Universe theory of television. Do you know about this?

Not just offhand. What is that?

Basically, in the final episode of the show St. Elsewhere, which was like that ‘80s medical drama, there’s a sort of image that’s like an implication. There’s a zooming out process, and it’s a snow globe. The hospital is a snow globe. There’s a boy looking at the snow globe. This boy named Tommy Westphall, who I think in the story is autistic, and because St. Elsewhere has done all of these crossovers with other shows, there’s actually this Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis, which is that all of the shows that have crossed over with that show, or that have crossed over to shows that crossed over with those shows, are all included in this fictional universe that is all being imagined in the mind of this boy. And the whole Law and Order franchise is included in that list.

The idea that it’s all sort of consumed inside this boy’s head, which I really love, and I feel like in its own way it accounts for the weirdness. There’s actually a website that’s dedicated to tracking all of these shows, and it’s like seven decades of TV ensnared in this metafictional net. It’s really interesting to me. I feel like Law and Order is, again, a capital-W Weird property, so it didn’t seem that weird to include ghosts and doppelgangers and things, because why not?

This book of yours I mentioned is a short story collection, and I think people generally think short story collections don’t reach a really wide audience, but this book seems to be doing really well. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Just from what you’re hearing from people, do you have any sense of why this book seems to be striking such a chord with so many people?

I think there are a few reasons. It’s unfortunate because I wish that Trump was not president and my book would do less well—I feel it’s a bit of a response to that. Everyone is feeling fucked up. I think women are feeling extra gas-lit, just by culture. Again, I feel like we haven’t really reconciled that Trump won, that we blew past the facts of why Hillary did not win. I feel like the fact that we did not have this large, public reckoning about sexism, and the way that we hate women so badly that we wouldn’t let one run our country. I feel like a lot of women have sublimated the trauma.

Also, the fact that the whole election cycle was like everything women experience, just on a huge, massive public stage. It was really traumatic. I feel like there is a sense that people are responding to that.

I also feel like the fact that it engages with media that is really meaningful like Law and Order: SVU and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories. That, I think, is also important.

It’s a very tight collection. It’s eight stories and two of them are novellas. They all deal with a very tight set of overlapping, interlocking themes and ideas. I don’t think all collections do that, actually. I think a lot of collections feel a little more haphazard in terms of what’s in there. I think it has more of a novelistic feel, even though it is a short story collection. I would never call it a novel, but I feel like that sense of all these stories are doing the same work in just slightly different ways is really powerful.

It’s partially because I’m coming from both a genre and a lit world, which have their own powerful reading presences, and the fact that the genre world has such a robust short fiction scene and short fiction awards. I feel like that’s part of it. Greywolf did a really great job with the book. There have been a lot of factors. And, yeah, the book is doing great. No one is more shocked than me. I’m like, “Wow, I did not think this book would sell at all, and here we go.” I worked really hard on this book. Greywolf worked really hard on this book. There’s a lot of luck and timing that’s involved that I think is also a part of it.

When you’re talking about Hillary Clinton, I’m curious, do you think that somebody like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris could be the next president? Or do you think the sort of cultural factors you’re talking about are going to undermine any female candidate in the near future?

No.

Honestly, if a woman is elected president in my lifetime, I will fall over dead from shock. Not because I don’t think women are qualified to do it. I think they’re probably more qualified. But, I don’t think we’ve reckoned with it. We’ve never had a very public conversation where even progressive dudes were like, “I didn’t like Hillary Clinton being president because I have mom issues,” or, “I don’t like the idea of a woman telling me what to do, and so I’m going to find all of these weird faults with her that I wouldn’t find with a male candidate.” We have not had that conversation. And, until we do, I don’t think it’s possible for us to elect a woman. I really don’t. Call me a pessimist, but no, I really don’t think so. It makes me really sad.

What is the way forward, do you think? Do you have any advice for us? For what we can do as a culture?

I don’t know. I’m not a political consultant. I have no idea. I don’t know. I guess we have to have that conversation. I just don’t think we’re capable of having that conversation. I don’t feel optimistic about it. So, I don’t have any advice. I wish it were different, but it’s not.

Do you want to talk about what kind of upcoming projects you have?

I sold a second book to Greywolf earlier this year. It’s a memoir, and it’s due next September, so next summer I’m going to a residency to finish that. That’s an experimentally structured memoir about abuse in same-sex relationships.

I’m always working on a bunch of things. I have a bunch of novels started. I have this novel in stories I’m working on. I have a lot of stories that don’t have places to go yet. I am working on an essay collection, but that takes a long time because essays take me a million years to write. I’m working on a million things at once right now. The memoir is the next big thing that I have to finish because it actually has a deadline. After that, I’m not sure what I’m going to be submitting next to publishers. We’ll see.

Can you say what’s experimental about the memoir’s structure?

I’m sort of using genre tropes as lenses to examine specific ideas and memories. For example, I have a chapter that’s a haunted house chapter, and it’s using the metaphor of the haunted house as the way of examining a specific memory. Or another chapter that’s a generation ship, and so thinking about generation ship as a genre or sub-genre, and using that to examine another idea. It’s hard to explain. I don’t quite understand it myself, but it works. I’ve been trying to write this book for a while, and it was that structure that helped me break into the version of the book that I wanted to write, so it’s been pretty helpful.

We’re pretty much out of time. Do you have any final thoughts? Anything else you wanted to mention?

No, no. Thank you so much for doing this. This was so lovely.

Absolutely. We’ve been speaking with Carmen Maria Machado, and this new book again is called Her Body and Other Parties. Carmen, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.