The writing scene in Philadelphia is filled with some of the most amazing talent in the country. Carmen Maria Machado is no exception. She is the author of numerous short stories and swaps genre hats as easily and deftly as someone with a PhD in millinery.
She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, VICE, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, 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. Her debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017.
What brought you to Philly?
My partner Val and I spent the first year of our relationship long-distance—I was in Iowa City, she was in Boston. After I was done with grad school, we were trying to find a mutual city to move to on the East Coast, which I missed terribly. I grew up in Allentown, about an hour north of Philly, and Val had lived here for a year before we met, so we decided to make West Philly our home. I’ve never had any regrets; I really love this city.
How’s the writing scene here in the city?
There are some really excellent writing communities in Philly, including a vibrant piece of the science fiction & fantasy world, a huge children’s lit scene, and one of my favorite reading series ever, TireFire, which meets once a month at Tattooed Mom’s. I tend to write in solitude, but it’s exciting being able to go to readings and events and socialize with so many different kinds of writers when the day’s work is done. Plus, Philly is a relatively affordable city, which makes living here as an artist easier than, say, New York.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a kid, I used to make books out of my dad’s office stationery. I made a ton of them, but the one I remember the most clearly was titled The Biggest Turkey Can’t Find the Farm.
The plot is this: a turkey is lost and wandering around a city, constantly in view of “Wanted: Lost Turkey” signs that he can’t read. He goes from place to place asking himself, “Where is the farm? Is it here?” He visits a fancy hotel, a restaurant, and a zoo, and is turned away each time while saying “No, it is not here.” On the second-to-last page, he arrives at the farm. “Is it here?” he asks, seeing a rooster crowing. “Yes! Yes, it is here!” And on the final page, there’s a roasted Thanksgiving turkey on a platter. It says: “I wish I did not come here.”
Anyway, I showed this dark little project to my parents, and they were simultaneously impressed and concerned. I was ecstatic. Their reaction was like a drug; I’ve been aiming for that effect ever since.
Quite a few of your stories made me squirm in my seat. What is it about the weird or horrifying that attracts you?
I feel like horror, in its many iterations, is the genre that aligns most closely with how I perceive the world. That sounds really fucked-up and pessimistic, but I think it’s not too difficult to argue that society and life are profoundly weird and uncanny, and every time I open up my browser or turn on the TV, that idea is reinforced. See the current election cycle, for example. I tend to like my fiction (both what I read and what I write) to be a sharp contrast between light and dark—a whiplash-inducing jerk between beauty and sorrow, humor and terror, compassion and brutality—in a way that reflects my perception and experiences.
Who are some authors that have influenced you the most?
So many! An incomplete list: Shirley Jackson, Helen Oyeyemi, Kevin Brockmeier, Bennett Sims, Ray Bradbury, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Angela Carter, Jane Bowles, Muriel Sparks, Yoko Ogawa, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gloria Naylor, Gabriel García Márquez, Nicholson Baker, Michel Faber, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Michael Chabon, Alissa Nutting, Andrea Barrett, and Chris Adrian.
Many of your stories inhabit the space between genres. What are some of the challenges of writing a story between genre lines?
Honestly, I think the biggest challenge for me is identifying an audience and finding a home for each story. Some of my work seems to resonate harder with self-identified “literary” readers and writers, and some seems to jive better with the genre community, so I’m always making decisions; not about how to write my stories (I write what I’m gonna write, regardless of considerations about my audience), but where I should be submitting them for publication. It’s an ongoing balance.
You have a collection of short fiction being published. Can you tell me a bit about the stories you’ve included? Will there be new ones unique to the collection?
The collection is, currently, six short stories and two novellas. One of the short stories and one of the novellas are unpublished, and two others are in now-defunct magazines that aren’t online and are hard to track down. All of the others my fans will easily recognize.
You have an excellent and eclectic list of favorite books listed on your website. Do you think there is a common thread, a style or theme, running through them earned your love and respect?
I think all of the fiction I love all has this ineffable quality of “itself-ness.” That’s so vague, I know! But they feel like they weren’t forced into creation; rather, they were stories that have always existed in secret until the author came along and carved away everything that wasn’t the story until only the story remained. Those novels and essays and collections ring in this particular way, and earn my obsession. That quality cuts across genre and style and theme and era and tone. Some writers, their work does this very consistently for me, and I’ll happily devour anything they’ve written. Other times, I feel this way only about one or two of their projects, like they struck oil with a certain project and never again.
Having worked as an editor, what sort of story really captures your attention?
I’m a sucker for gorgeous, meaty language, cutting humor, re-imaginings of existing tales, metafiction, stories with non-arbitrary and well-executed formal constraints, uncanniness, queer & female & nonwhite protagonists, riveting narrative voices, odd and elaborate setpieces, the re-conceptualization of classic tropes, and stories that evade my expectations at every turn.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with some aspiring writers?
Sure! My big pieces of advice are: read as much and as widely as humanly possible, always read your work out loud, and don’t be afraid to tackle what scares you, what stresses you out, what you think you “shouldn’t” write about. Ask yourself: what makes this story the kind of story only I can tell? What do I bring to this character, this setting, this situation?