The Aboutness of a Story: An Interview with Carmen Maria Machado
Managing editor Krys Malcolm Belc sat down with Carmen Maria Machado to talk about flash, teaching, and I-didn’t-know-you-could-do-that nonfiction. Machado’s memoir In the Dream House will be published by Graywolf Press in October.
Passages North: Ok. I hope this is ok; I’m not going to ask you about Her Body and Other Parties, as much as I love the book. I want to talk about other stuff! I want to talk about flash fiction first.
Carmen Maria Machado: That’s a great place to start.
PN: Yeah! Let’s talk about “Mary When You Follow Her,” that awesome one-sentence flash fiction from Virginia Quarterly Review, which was also recently named to Best Small Fictions. What’s it like for you from a craft perspective to write flash vs. writing a longer story?
CMM: I imagine that flash is the closest I get to what it’s like to be a poet because there’s this sense of compression, and this sense of very fine-tuned tinkering that’s happening, which is just different. It’s just obviously a very different process than writing something larger. There’s something about that compressed form and that line-level fussing. I mean, I do do that on the line level of a short story or an essay, but there’s something really beautiful and compact. You can take it all in at once. And the process of writing it—I’ve written flash in an afternoon. And I don’t get that experience that often, and I’m like, this must be what it’s like for a poet! Obviously some poems take much longer, but you can write a poem in an afternoon and there’s something really nice about that. And this very different form, it’s very pleasurable for me. I used to do it a little more. I don’t do it much these days, but I had written “Mary When You Follow Her” for a book of flash, so it was a prompt-based flash, and it was kind of cool to get to go back into it again.
PN: I was excited to see it; I read a flash you wrote years ago in Wigleaf.
CMM: Yeah! I used to do much more of it. I guess I’ve just gotten out of the habit.
PN: You wrote in a craft essay in Smokelong Quarterly that one of your favorite qualities of flash fiction is its “ability to reflect back on the reader.” As someone with a large readership, can you talk about the range of excitement and trepidation you have knowing that with a story like “Mary When You Follow Her,” if you think that flash might reflect back on the reader moreso than other types of writing, how might publishing flash now, or even publishing nonfiction now, is it more about the reader’s response?
CMM: It’s always about the reader’s response, and I think it’s about the reader’s response in a way that has nothing to do with me. Ultimately, the way people react to my work, it’s interesting to me, and when people tell me about it I think it’s really cool, but ultimately every reader reads things in their own way. Every reader has an intimate and personal relationship with the things that they read and that actually has little to do with me. I’m part of it; I’m this little piece because I wrote the story and other people can access it, even if they don’t know me. I think that flash—again I’m not a poet, but I imagine the relationship might be like a poet with their readers, where, yeah, you’re getting this piece and there’s so much room in it to insert yourself and play around in it and turn it over and think about it. It has little to do with the writer, it’s the reader and the text.
PN: I recently read your essay “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity.” In it you write the aftermath of an intense and exploitative relationship you’d had with a pastor in high school: “I felt like I was deep in a fairy-tale forest, and he had been a confident guide taking me to my destination, the unsteady flame of an oil lamp and his instincts moving us through the darkness. Then just like that, the lantern went out, and I was in the inky blackness, alone.” In reading that essay in particular there’s a lot of description that reminds me of your fiction—the way you see the world, the details that you choose. Later you’re describing this astrophysicist you’re having a relationship with who is warning about the world’s “impending helium shortage” and that’s the one descriptor. How is it different to train your lens on your actual real life vs. a world you’re creating in fiction?
CMM: This is a really interesting question, and it’s complicated by the fact that I actually took that essay and I stripped it down, and re-worked it,and used it in my memoir. So there’s going to be a really different version. It was really funny because I hadn’t read that essay in so long. I was really proud of it when I wrote it, and I’m still proud of it, even though when I re-read it I did that thing where I was like, ooooh, some of these sentences. I wrote that essay, what, five years ago? It feels like a million years ago, like I was a totally different writer. Having to strip it down was a complicated process.
When the memoir comes out, I think people will be asking me a lot about this question, because the memoir does have stuff that’s engaging directly with fictional tropes, and ideas about fairy tales. For example, there’s a chapter in the memoir where I had wanted to include these e-mails that my ex had written me, and my editor explained to me that you can’t reproduce someone’s letters because that is copyrighted to them. So I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and I was really frustrated. I was trying to figure out how to do it, how to do the thing. Finally, I decided to write a fairy tale, about a queen and a squid. And I used that to tell the story of the emails without actually using the emails. And so it is this really weird hybrid that’s hard to describe. It became the tool that I used to do the thing I wanted to do.
Turning a voice that’s more used to fiction to nonfiction and to my real life was interesting because all the stories we tell ourselves are narratives in a way. That’s true for everyone. People who write nonfiction regularly constantly grapple with this fact that when you write about yourself and you write about the past, you’re recreating it. You’re trying to reconstruct this dead thing, and trying to do things like reconstruct dialogue. You’re doing these things that are so strange. And then to just call it nonfiction is so complicated, because, well, there’s no way! Unless you record dialogue, there’s no way you remember sentences going back and forth.
It’s funny, I’m teaching a nonfiction class now, and in talking to my students, a lot of them are like, “How do you do it?” and I’m like, “I don’t know! You just do it!” It’s very complicated and it’s a very weird process. I’ve obviously written essays, but writing the memoir was like that times a million, because it’s this extended project and it did have this element of speculative fiction. I have a chapter that’s a murder mystery, I have a chapter that’s like a generation ship narrative. I guess that was almost a way to take a break for me, you know, from these chapters like the ones I read last night in which I’m just recounting things that happened, but then when I did the Bluebeard chapter, even though it’s sad, it did give me the space to think more metaphorically and more laterally about my experience instead of just recounting a thing that happened to me. I found that very freeing, in a way. I tried to write this thing for years and I never really succeeded. I was getting very stuck in the literal things that happened and I was having trouble thinking laterally about it. It took me realizing those tools were available to me in some capacity to do it properly.
PN: Let’s talk more about this toolbox you have as a writer. You’ve talked in other interviews about knowing the “aboutness” of a story before you know the characters. So I’m interested in you writing yourself as a character. There’s aboutness, but you’re also inhabiting yourself and have self-awareness, so how does that work practically in writing nonfiction?
CMM: You know, it’s so funny, this question about what does it mean to be self-aware. I think people often think they’re self aware when they’re not self-aware. I include myself in that idea. I often wonder, do I have the right perspective on this? Am I thinking about this in the right way? I think that question is really hard. This is one of the reasons I find therapy really useful; it gives me a way to sit and meditate on these ideas. I just taught an essay about having to construct oneself as a character in an essay and the use of the “I” and what that means. In my memoir, I have parts that are in the “you.” I think there’s an interesting question of how I think about myself. Part of the reason it’s split where I have parts in first person and parts in second person is that the parts in second are as close to the experiences I’ve had in real time, where I was so self-critical and so sad and so doubtful and in so much pain. There was this distance between my brain and my body and this distance between my brain and my brain. The first person captures more contemporary stuff that reflects a time when that’s no longer the case. I think I’m about as adjusted as I could potentially be, at least so far in my life. I’m in a good and healthy place. I think that’s reflected in how the I voice shows up in the book. And so for me, it’s about that sense of distance and that sense of where are you relative to yourself and to the person you used to be. It’s weird; you would think the “you” would be more comforting, but in a way it’s more painful, it’s more painful to read that voice.
PN: Yeah, you’re literally in it. You have to be in it.
CMM: Yeah. When I first started writing it I thought maybe it was a distancing technique for me, and maybe it was, psychologically, but ultimately I think it became this interesting and painful thing about being dissociated from myself. It’s so depressing, you know?
PN: I love hearing you talk about your influences, which you’ve done quite a lot in other interviews. You talk about Kelly Link and Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, these people who really formed your idea of what fiction can do. Are there folks in essaying and in nonfiction that you gravitate towards?
CMM: There are! Some books that were really formative for me: Maggie Nelson was a huge one. I mean, she’s the best of the best. I read The Argonauts when Graywolf sent it to me after they bought Her Body and Other Parties, and I’d heard of it but I’d never read it. They sent me a copy, and I read it, and at that point I’d written a really early draft of the memoir and wasn’t sure I was going to sell it to Graywolf at that point. I remember reading The Argonauts and thinking, I didn’t know you could do this! Which is exactly the same process that I’ve described with fiction! I just didn’t know you could write a nonfiction book like this. I think at that point, the only memoirs I had read were memoirs that didn’t have essayistic qualities to them. That isn’t good or bad, I just think I had read more traditional or “pure” memoirs, and seeing Nelson moving from that mode into essay mode into academic mode. I’m not an academic, and some of The Argonauts is a little beyond me! I was like, I don’t quite understand what’s going on, but I’m still into it! It’s great! That was really helpful.
Kevin Brockmeier, who’s mostly a fiction writer, has this really beautiful memoir called A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip. It’s a memoir about his seventh grade year, and in the middle of the book, time freezes, and his adult self comes to talk to his child self. It’s this beautiful moment. I was, again, like, I didn’t know you could do that! That you could do this thing that is an obviously fictional gesture to create this effect in a memoir.
I read this amazing memoir recently called Lying by Lauren Slater. It’s a memoir about epilepsy, and she has a lot of really weird stuff. In the middle of the third chapter, her acknowledgments just show up, in the middle of the chapter! I thought it was an error, because I was reading an e-book version, but I looked it up and was like, No! This is just the way the book is.
Sofia Samatar is another writer, do you know her work?
PN: Yes! I recently read Monster Portraits.
CMM: Yeah! So Sofia and I are friends and colleagues and we have talked a lot about the speculative memoir as a genre. When she was working on Monster Portraits and I was beginning to work on my memoir we had this very long conversation over a meal about it, and she has a chapbook, also, that is a memoir with fictional elements, and it was so cool and so exciting to talk to her about it. She is one of the greatest. She’s so good. She’s so smart. I fucking love her. She’s a person on the nonfiction front who’s very influential.
Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing was really formative for me. Really, anyone who’s working in a hybrid nonfiction mode is really interesting to me. It’s a genre I’m less well-read in because I haven’t been doing it as long, but when I find stuff that works for me I get really obsessed. Oh, and Nicholson Baker’s essays are really special.
PN: Do you have favorite books or essays to teach?
CMM: I’ve only taught intro to creative nonfiction classes, and with intro students, I teach Jo-Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” and “Homemaking” by Jamaica Kincaid, and “Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf, Jenny Zhang’s “Blonde Girls in Cheongsams.” And there’s this really good one by Suzie Gilman. She has this book, which I think is the first essay collection I read. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, which I read when I was in my teens. It really holds up. She’s super hilarious, and she has these beautiful essays, and “My Brilliant Career” is about her first job at a mall. My students really love it, because I can be like, “Who here had a first job?” which is such a good conversation starter for them.