Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
“Our bodies are graveyards of cells, the source of art, inherently finite, constantly decaying.”
The first story I read by Carmen Maria Machado was “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU.” The novella’s inventive structure and indelible images—the unforgettable doppelgängers, the ghostly presences of girls-with-bells-for-eyes—were an apt introduction to the writer’s powers. Borrowing from the tropes of speculative fiction, Machado takes on even the most rigid, seemingly closed forms (like estate sale inventories or TV capsule descriptions), and inhabits them as though they were living systems, subverting them to her own ends. The worlds of her seductive stories, whether post-pandemic or ostensibly made-for-entertainment, reveal the uncanny of our own, and then some.
In Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf Press), relationships among and within bodies are as complicated as we’ve ever felt them to be. One character chronicles an apocalyptic pandemic through her own sexual history, another is haunted by her flesh incarnate after a weight-loss surgery, and another rents a “DVD from a company that advertises adult films for loving couples,” only to realize she can hear the actors’ thoughts. Parts of the collection read like dreams or hallucinations, others like sex in its myriad variations, and some manage to conjure up those 3:00 a.m. fits of panic that feel as though they’ll last forever.
Liza St. James Her Body and Other Parties was also the title of your graduate thesis, even though only three of those stories became part of this collection. Did the title function as an organizing principle as well, to help decide which stories wouldn’t make it into the collection?
Carmen Maria Machado It’s funny. The title is older than the majority of the stories in the collection, but it did end up being something of an organizing principle for the entire book.
LSJ How did you arrive at it?
CMM I was trying to name my thesis, and a friend recommended I pick a story title from the collection that encompassed the whole of the book. None of them quite fit. But I started playing around with the titles and mashing them together, and eventually shoved “Difficult at Parties” and “Real Women Have Bodies” together. I really liked the words “bodies” and “parties.” I was also thinking about Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others, in which “and Others” has the double meaning of “other stories” and “other lives.” So then it became Bodies and Other Parties. Then I realized that women’s bodies were the focus of my obsession, so it became Her Body and Other Parties.
LSJ The “Other Parties” takes on those kinds of double meanings, too—a body of people, or outside agents. There are so many resonances of both bodies and parties throughout. What are the “parties” for you?
CMM I always talk to my students about party scenes, and how if you need to break something open, write one! Because parties are wild and full of people and bad behavior and you can mash lots of characters together—it’s like a chemistry experiment. So yeah, the collection has literal party scenes. But I also like to think of parties and bodies as being double-edged swords—parties can be fun, exciting, delicious, memorable, amazing, but they can also be long, hot, terrifying, vomit-inducing, boring, stressful. The body is also a source of pleasure and suffering, both from yourself and from other people. They’re liminal spaces, thin membranes separating day and night, birth and death, etc. They both, by definition, will end.
LSJ In a wonderful passage from “Difficult at Parties,” the narrator in the bath tub recalls a time when she imagined herself a carrot: “I remember a small version of myself, sitting in a hotel hot tub and holding my arms rigid against my torso, rolling around the churning water. I’m a carrot!” Do you have any tips for the rest of us who have trouble knowing where our bodies end and the world begins?
CMM The boundaries are hardly fixed. The state controls several aspects of our bodies. We leave pheromones in the air for other people to respond to. Our bodies are graveyards of cells, the source of art, inherently finite, constantly decaying. They are the accumulation of genetic lines that have survived this long. They carry trauma like they carry cancer. There’s a kind of peace in understanding and accepting this state of liminality.
LSJ Given the various “parties” throughout the collection, I was surprised when I looked back at “Mothers” and realized that The Dinner Party wasn’t named in the story.
CMM Yeah, I refer to The Dinner Party in “Mothers” but never name it.
LSJ Though you do give a lot of names in “Mothers,” and the prose in that section is so lush. The “major and minor arcana” list. It was really exciting to get to.
CMM Despite that story being very intense, writing that middle section of “Mothers” was really pleasurable. I got to let loose with my best/worst habits. The major/minor arcana is a real-life idea. I have a dear friend who is very, very Catholic, who I’ve known since we were three, and for a while she was blogging about eating “liturgically,” that is, preparing meals according to the saints’ days. So, for background, if a saint has a particular fruit associated with her, you might put that fruit into a pie or something. I’m not religious at all, but there’s something magical about the idea of hanging the ins-and-outs of your days on the lives of long-ago mystics. I’ve always had this idea of making a big book of personal saints, sort of like the one in that story. When I wrote that bit I got to actually imagine what that book might look like, if it existed.
LSJ When I got to that list I felt turned on by it, like I’d been waiting for it.
CMM I love that.
LSJ Do you have a list of possible saint candidates?
CMM The list in the book, for sure. I’m constantly saving Wikipedia pages of people I learn about. Like, the women of the Moberly-Jourdain incident. They’re not scientists, just ladies who may have had a lesbian folie à deux and thought they slipped through time. Oh, and Katherine Johnson—she was this really important mathematician who worked for NASA. Rita Mae Brown. Dorothy Allison. Ana Mendieta. Octavia Butler and Maya Deren.
LSJ Your characters act on intuition, instinct, and dreams in a way that feels fresh and powerful. How much would you say this reflects your writing process?
CMM A lot of my characters’ thoughts and flights of fancy are reflections of my own head, and I can’t really articulate where they came from. There’s a bit in “The Resident” where she has a dream that she’s talking to her wife, and they have this exchange about eggs and legs and the forest. I came up with that just walking in a forest. I could not tell you for the life of me where it came from; it just showed up. I liked it so much, I stuck it in there.
LSJ In “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator sees toes in the potato aisle, “pale and bloody stumps, mixed in among those russet tubers.” Her parents don’t believe her and so she begins to doubt herself: “As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes.” Do you have tips for others invested in sharing true things, whether unseen or seen only by their own sets of eyes?
CMM Truth rings true to people who are familiar with that truth. Women, for example, are more inclined to believe other women who have survived sexual violence or abusive relationships—not just because of a general political principle, but because they’ve most likely experienced it or know someone who has. You can’t control for that, right? You can’t force something to resonate for folks who don’t know what you’re talking about, because of privilege or circumstance or anything else. You can only tell your story.
LSJ Your stories have taken on various forms—a crowd-funding campaign, an inventory, TV capsule descriptions, numbered lists, selected objects from an estate sale… How do you come upon those forms?
CMM I call myself a “form vampire.” I’m really interested in what they can do for me. Whenever I see a non-fictional structure, I start to think about how I might be able to use that form for fiction. Sometimes I try things and they straight-up don’t work (which isn’t the fault of the form; I just haven’t found a way in). But when they work, it rings like a bell.
LSJ I’m not sure I’ll be able to divorce the word bell from eyes now.
LSJ Speaking of non-fictional structures, on a Guernica panel last spring you mentioned that writing “Eight Bites” before “The Trash Heap Has Spoken” helped you work through some of your thinking for that essay. What is the relationship between fiction and nonfiction for you? Does one help us understand the other?
CMM I think I’m working through material with fiction before trying to tackle it with nonfiction. I don’t know why, but that’s what my brain needs.
LSJ ”Real Women Have Bodies” deftly evokes the scarcity of jobs, labor inequalities, student debt, the rigidity of beauty standards. How did you arrive at the disappearing women?
CMM That story started from its title, which was my attempt to play with the phrase “real women have…” curves or whatever. As I wrote and revised, I realized it was part ghost story, part pandemic story. I loved the idea of setting this hot, burgeoning relationship in the midst of a gender’s genocide. It just felt… right. Right and real.
LSJ And even as they’re disappearing, the women pose a kind of threat. In “The Resident,” someone tries to write off the narrator’s work as a trope, as the “madwoman in the attic” or the “mad lesbian.” I’ve noticed more conversations around the gendered use of “crazy” lately. Is this a critique you’ve encountered?
CMM The only time I ever tried to workshop (a relatively different form of) “The Resident,” a fellow writer said that she “tired” of the madwoman-in-the-attic trope. I took this critique very seriously, because of course I’m invested in disrupting stereotypical narratives—or, at the very least, not perpetrating them—but I kept wondering: what happens if you’re a woman and/or a lesbian, and you’re interested in writing about mental health? Am I somehow obligated to only write good and flattering stories about the demographics to which I belong? So I decided to address this very directly in the story. The fact that the protagonist is given so much interiority, and so much space, and in first-person, seems important to the project of overcoming this problem; closer to Wild Sargasso Sea than Jane Eyre.
LSJ The narrator in “The Resident” takes up residence in her own head and imagines its furnishings: “What if you colonize your own mind and when you get inside, the furniture is attached to the ceiling?” How do you imagine the furnishings of your own body?
CMM I see myself like a glitzier version of a woodland house; Falling Water with higher ceilings. I’m imagining stone floors, stone and wood walls, ornate furniture, taxidermy, books, Tiffany lamps, a nearby lake or river. A very large dog, like maybe a wolfhound, draped over a red brocade fainting couch.
LSJ The body acts as a kind of house throughout this collection. In “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator says to her son that her body “couldn’t house another” child, and then, “You were a poor tenant, Little One […] and I shall revoke your deposit.” In “Mothers,” the narrator overhears her father tell her brother: “You never live with a woman, you live inside of her.” How do you understand these body-as-host relationships?
CMM The mind and body are both two halves of a whole and also two discrete entities. Sometimes your body gets away from your mind; your mind can also get away from your body. They occupy each other. I think this is why I find ghost stories, haunted house stories, and possession stories so compelling—it’s a literalization of that state.
LSJ Many of the stories in this collection have stories folded into them and threads carried throughout. What lets you know the length of a story while you’re working on it?
CMM I try to let stories be the length they’re going to be. “Inventory” is so tiny, and “The Resident” just kept getting bigger. I wondered for a while if it was going to turn into a novel. I read my drafts out loud to myself a lot, so it’s pretty easy to tell when a story’s length is working, or when it feels draggy or over too quickly.
I do love tiny embedded stories, though. They’re some of my favorite narrative pleasures.
LSJ An index card plot point of C––––– M–––––’s novel reads “Lucille’s girlfriend breaks up with her because she is ‘difficult at parties.’” I love little nods like this—at what point did you add it in?
CMM That’s a deliberate leftover from when I tried, briefly, to link these stories. I was getting anxious about selling this collection, and I didn’t want to wait to write a novel to put it out into the world, and thought, “Maybe they’re connected?” They’re not, and I’m glad I didn’t push that line of revision too hard, but I did like the idea of the author in “The Resident” briefly referring to other stories in the collection, as if they could, possibly, be plot lines in her imagination.
LSJ Do you always know where you’re headed with a story?
CMM It’s about 50-50. Some stories come out with their shape set to go. I recently wrote a draft of a new story where I had brackets for every plot beat, and then I had to go in and write the scenes. That’s an ideal situation, because the writing process is a little more putting-in-the-work than exploring-in-the-dark. The latter is a really different process.
LSJ One of the things I love most about your writing is its attention to acoustics. It feels, as William Gass famously put it, “by the mouth, for the ear.” Do you wait until you read aloud for those kinds of music-related concerns?
CMM Both my initial writing and line-level revision is directed by the music of the prose. Often I’m saying the sentence out loud as I write, and when I come to a place where I know the sound that needs to be there, but not the word itself, I just insert brackets with the general beat so I can return to it later. It’s definitely at the forefront of every step of my process.
LSJ Could you speak to this line in terms of rhythm, inspiration, and revision: “Back in Bad’s bed, in the good bed, as she slid her hand into me, and I pulled and she gave and I opened and she came without touching herself, and I responded by losing all speech, I thought, Thank god we cannot make a baby.”
CMM I’ve always been interested in trying to mimic specific physical experiences with prose, and here I’m doing (or trying to do) just that. This sentence rocks back and forth on its heels (bad/good, slid/pulled, etc.). It’s full of alliteration (bad, bed, back) and hard consonant endings (-d, especially). It starts with sex and ends with a strange but adjacent thought. It’s simultaneously physical and cognitive. It’s sex, in other words. Or at least that was the goal.
LSJ I reread “The Resident” on my way to a residency, and I can’t get over the severed roadkill’s mysterious return. Could you speak to the genesis of that?
CMM In the initial version of the story, I had this idea about a distortion of time, and the way that I’d illustrate it would include her hitting an animal—actually a squirrel—and finding part of its body under her car, and then the missing part of it near her studio weeks later. Then I went to a residency in Oregon and had something—maybe an owl?—leave half a rabbit on my studio doorstep. So I turned the squirrel into a rabbit, and I left the uncanny sense of time distortion because, why not?
LSJ What did you do with the half rabbit?!
CMM I just left it there! I didn’t know what to do. Eventually something dragged it off. There was a lot of wildlife out there. A hawk got stuck in my air-drying laundry. Nature is horrifying.
Liza St. James is a writer and translator from San Francisco. An editorial assistant at Transit Books and assistant editor of NOON, she is a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.