“This is what it felt like to be there”: A Conversation with Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.”

Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, VQR, Conjunctions, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Michener-Copernicus Foundation, Elizabeth George Foundation, CINTAS Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.

Her debut memoir, In the Dream House, will be released on November 5th, 2019 from Graywolf Press (U.S.) and Strange Light (Canada), and January 2020 from Serpent’s Tail (U.K.).


Brittany Coppla: Besides the actual home you lived in, were there any specific houses—from books, movies, true historical sites—that you were inspired by while writing In the Dream House?

Carmen Maria Machado: Well, I’m generally very interested in houses. I don’t know how much other houses shaped the actual writing of the memoir itself, but I’ve always been interested in architecture and the way that architecture can conserve a certain space in writing.

When I was a kid, I used to love houses that were scary or weird. I went to the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, which is the one that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about. And I really was interested in houses and how they felt. I have a lot of other writing that’s not the memoir, like an essay that I’m working on right now about the suburban home I grew up in and how that feels like a haunted house in many ways. It’s a thing that I think about a lot.

Part of the way I figured out how to structure this book came from my interest in haunted houses. Instead of thinking about what happens to me, I thought, “How do I talk about this experience?” I went really concrete and asked, “How was that house a haunted house?” And that gave me the space to hold onto something and begin to create this book. So, in many ways, I think that was sort of my way in.

BC: The next thing I was thinking about was actually regarding the architecture of In the Dream House. This book doesn’t necessarily abide to a traditional structure, and reading through it kind of felt like walking through a physical home. It reminded me of Durga Chew-Bose’s essay, “Heart Museum.” It’s different structurally, but both Chew-Bose’s essay and your book felt like walking through all the exhibits of your hearts. Reading through them feels like walking through physical spaces, whether a museum in her case or the physical house in your case. How did you determine the architecture of this book?

CM: For years, I tried to write not this book in particular, but a book of essays about my experience. I really struggled because I was trying to tell them in this very straightforward way. As it turns out, that was not the form it needed to take. Once I sort of had this idea of thinking about this space of the haunted house, I asked, “What other tropes could I use to unlock my experiences so they don’t need to always fit together in a neat way?”

I wasn’t even in the home while writing this book; I wrote it after I left. I went back to Iowa City to teach at a summer writing camp for teenagers and I was wandering around. By the time I had left, I had a page in my notebook that was filled with time travel, haunted houses, high fantasy, ghost stories. I just listed all of these things that kept coming up and into my head. And then suddenly, it just felt right.

It’s one of those things where I could have written the book and it could have been five times as long. I had so many of these little mirrors, or whatever you want to call them. A lot of my editing process was actually just condensing [the mirrors]. My editor would say, “These three passages are basically the same.” It’s true, great tropes share these origins, they share these elements. There were times where I had to pick a few tropes and reduce them down a lot.

BC: When readers pick up a book called In the Dream House, they’re already thinking about domestic architecture. The title is setting that framework. It was so refreshing and unarming in the most productive way to read something that wasn’t conventional.

I think I gasped when I got to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” section. That format illuminated so many of the books themes, like agency, responsibility, and deception. How did the writing process for that section compare to the writing process of the greater book?

CM: I knew that I wanted to do a “Choose Your Own Adventure” section for a while. I actually wrote it fairly late in the process. There’s a really great short story by Kevin Brockmeier—he’s really a great writer. He has a stunning short story in one of his collections called The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device. It’s also a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” I don’t want to spoil it or give too much away, but you should read it.

That story was one I read in graduate school. I had actually written a not very good “Choose Your Own Adventure” story of my own. It was a fictional story that was about an art museum and experiencing its ghosts and artists. In the end, it wasn’t very good. But I was just so interested in this form, how that form can work, and the challenges of that form. I was using Brockmeier’s story as a kind of model, but I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to give anything away. There are certain things that he does in his story that I also do. I wanted to think about using this form not just arbitrarily but asking, “What does it mean to make choices or not make choices? What does it mean to be stuck in a loop?” It was really interesting being able to play with that form.

It didn’t take very long to write. It probably took me a day. I had to sit down and, unlike everything else, I had to physically map it out in a notebook. I had to ask, “Where do these pages go?” I needed to make sure there weren’t any inconsistencies, or that you couldn’t get stuck in a way that I didn’t want you to get stuck. I knew what I wanted to say in that section, I knew what actual material I wanted in there. But it was a matter of figuring out how to make that form pop in the way that I really wanted it to.

BC: Moving on from structure and writing process, I wanted to discuss a quote from section two. You write, “I’ve been obsessed with edges, with physical and temporal limits.” Later on, there’s a scene at a storage container craft fair. I was wondering how In the Dream House’s containers—the abusive relationship, the house, the narratives that we fulfill—work in your book? How did you play with the idea of containment?

CM: Oh, that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know! I don’t think I thought about it in any conscious way, is the fact of the matter.

BC: After I read about the container craft fair, I was trying to put together that constellation of containment. I was thinking about it a lot and, at least from my reading of the book, all the containers were properly claustrophobic. I felt claustrophobic during the times when I felt like I was supposed to be caged in. At other times, containers were liberating and felt really healing.

CM: I think that’s a really interesting and valid reading of it. There’s a quote by one of the founders of oulipo, the French literary movement of constraints, where he talks about how constraint is a kind of liberation. The constraint is not a prison. It counterintuitively liberates you into all these new spaces. I think in a literary sense that’s absolutely true. But of course, in the sense of living, being contained is not a way to freedom. It’s an act of great violence.

BC: In the afterward, you discuss your hopes for In the Dream House to be a resource for the growing canon of same-sex domestic abuse literature. Looking forward, what kinds of texts do you hope for this cannon to contain?

CM: What I want and what I wish I had had, and as far as I can tell this does not exist, is a book that looks at the history of the way we think about domestic violence, or domestic abuse, and includes queer people as a center of that narrative. I want to see historians’ take on that because I’m not a historian. I did a historian’s work—there was some historical work in the book—but there were limits against which I was bumping because I’m not a historian by practice. I’m really interested in seeing the queer community taking that on as a subject. I believe it deserves far more attention and literature than it has at the moment.

There was also a lot of stuff that I found where I was like, “This is really interesting. I don’t know what to do with it, it doesn’t belong in my book, per se. But, there’s a lot of really interesting stuff that I can’t even use.” I just feel like there’s a whole book or a series of books that can deal with this idea.

BC: Throughout the book, I was thinking about the literary canon, especially texts like Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me. But, the historical canon is so fascinating. I hadn’t realized that the canon you were referencing was broader in that historical sense, but I understand its scope now.

CM: There are critical texts, but they’re very diffuse. There are legal papers, and then there are some books about modern cases. There are some texts that have addressed it from a more sociological standpoint, maybe for a therapist or for people who are working with certain populations. But what we have does feel very diffuse and like it’s missing important pieces. As I was researching, I was like, “Man, there’s a whole book in here, like a big-ass book. But I’m not the person to write it because I’m not a historian.” But it’s there.

BC: There are so many historical elements in your book, and some of the sections are more historical and research-based compared to your personal narratives. That provided me a breath to shift from a really intimate reading to a factual, historical reading.

Is there anything that you definitely don’t think this growing cannon of same-sex domestic abuse should contain?

CM: I can’t think of any. I feel like the point of the canon is that it includes so many things.

BC: Is there any advice that you have for writers who are trying to write about the fundamentally human parts of their communities, especially when acknowledging both strengths and flaws?  I’m thinking especially communities of “people on the fringe,” as you said in your book?

CM: I think my advice would just be don’t be afraid to be honest. It’s hard, because I love the queer community; I love being queer. Those are not things that I’m ashamed of or angry about. It’s really hard reading through these historical accounts and looking at the really flawed ways in which people have tried to reconcile problems in their own community with the realities of being in that community.

And then, of course, there’s the butting up against susceptibility politics and feeling like we need to show ourselves as good as humanly possible so that we can be given the rights that other people already have. In reality, that’s a really nasty trap to fall into. I feel like people shouldn’t be afraid. That’s easier said than done, but I think that that’s just what you have to remember. Be honest, and don’t be afraid.

BC: I was recently reading about the fine line between dominant and submissive kink in queer relationships compared to abusive queer relationships. More specifically, about identifying the differences between the two. While reading your book, I was thinking about the challenges of writing about both the strengths and flaws of any community, but especially one that you identify with so intimately.

CM: [In the ‘80s,] a lot of lesbian communities were having conversations about domestic battering or queer domestic violence within their respective communities, and they would bring up BDSM as a corollary. They would say, “If you’re a batterer, or if you practice BDSM, you can’t come to this event.” They would mix them together. “If you are in a BDSM relationship, you are either abusing your partner, or you’re allowing yourself to be abused.” There was no space to simply say, “I’m in a consensual BDSM relationship.”

Obviously, I don’t agree with that perspective. I believe that you can be in a consensual, kinky relationship that is not necessarily abusive in any way. But it can be. It can be in the way that any relationship can be abusive. But those things are not inherently linked.

A lot of discourse in the ‘80s in the lesbian and gay communities was deeply transphobic. I would look back at these conversations and know that people were having these really important dialogues while also really fucking up.

BC: In the section called “Dream House as an Unreliable Narrator,” I was really struck by the line, “This is what I keep returning to: how people decide who is or is not an unreliable narrator.” What do you think constitutes a reliable narrator, specifically in memoir and nonfiction?

CM: This is a really interesting question and one that I really want to write about at length. In fiction, it’s sort of a different matter. But the process of writing nonfiction is very tricky because you’re pulling memories from different places, and sometimes those places are very clear. Sometimes you have things like photographs, or video, or other people who were also there and remember it. That becomes a way to sort of bolster your memory. But, at other times, you don’t have those things.

I had this really weird experience while I was writing the book, where I was digging through some emails, just trying to find something. I saw this thing that I had written that I had forgotten had happened, but I had written about it to a friend. Suddenly, it came flooding back. My brain had clearly dislodged that piece of information. My brain was just like, “You don’t know that anymore. Whatever, just send that away.” And it was only the fact that I had written it down and I had Gmail back in college that I managed to pull this detail back up.

Do you listen to Heavyweight, the podcast? There was this episode about Rob Corddry, the comedian, and it was this really funny story about how he remembers breaking his arm as a kid, and his whole family is like, “You did not break your arm as a kid. You did not break your arm as a kid.” His siblings, his parents, they all swore, “There’s no way. We would remember.” As the episode goes on, the host of the podcast is trying to dig up information and trying to figure out if he did actually break his arm. Then they find a photo of him with his arm in a sling, and the family is like, “Oh yeah, you hurt your elbow, but you didn’t break your arm.” And eventually, they managed to track down an ER report. It turns out that he had, in fact, broken his arm. The whole family had just forgotten.

I [listened to] it and I remember crying. It was a minor thing, but I think he felt really vindicated. I think about how weird memory is. I don’t think his family was being malicious. They were just like, “We don’t remember it, so he must be the one who’s misremembering.”

Nonfiction isn’t this perfect thing where you’re recalling what happened in photographic detail. Instead, you’re saying, “This is what it felt like to be there. This is what I remember happening. This is what I don’t remember happening. This part of it is lost to me. I think this person’s eyes were a certain color. I remember it being this way.” There’s this really interesting thing that happens when you’re pulling back out of your own past. I think that some people don’t understand that.

That’s different than reporting and journalism. Obviously, there are different ways that it can function. But with personal material, it’s just so strange.

There’s even the idea of reconstructing dialogue. It’s really interesting, because you’re here saying, “I remember the gist of the conversation.” And maybe there was one really good sentence you remember that someone said to you. Maybe it was so beautiful or horrifying that it’s lodged in your brain permanently. You remember the gist of the conversation. You remember the gist of the back and forth. And then you reconstruct the dialogue to be as faithful as possible.

All creative nonfiction is a kind of unreliable narrator in the sense that our brains are subjective. The things you remember are subjective, and that’s just the fact of it. There’s nothing we can really do about that. It’s an idea that was very strange to butt up against so directly in the process of writing this book. I’ve written about my own past before. I’ve written some essays. But in this case, it was just so long, and it was such an intense process. I was pulling. I would talk to people that I knew back then, or look through emails.

It was especially hard trying to figure out when things happened. I wrote out this calendar. Thank God I had a Google calendar that I used through grad school. I was able to go back and outline a schedule of all these things that happened in this relationship. They often would happen alongside other events, so I’d remember, “Oh, yeah, we broke up the first time the day of that reading.” If I hadn’t had that calendar, I don’t know what I would have done. It would’ve been really hard.

BC: Have you ever read T Kira Madden’s essay, “Against Catharsis”? She brings up a similar concept about recalling memory accurately, especially memories associated with trauma, and the importance of communicating the essence of a memory rather than the cold hard facts.

You acknowledge that you were confronted by other people’s doubt when they learned about your experiences in an abusive relationship. And, although I don’t think this was explicitly said in the book, essentially they were accusing you of being an “unreliable narrator.” What happens when the “unreliable narrator” is the only one who’s willing to share a story that really needs to be told?

CM: Some people think I was exaggerating or that it wasn’t that bad, while other people were like, “that’s not an abusive relationship.” It’s really strange because of course I’m not the first person to be writing about this; people have been writing about it for a long time. I mentioned a lot of the pieces in the acknowledgments of works that really spoke to me, that really helped me find my bearings.

There’s something kind of scary about stepping out there and declaring, “Well, you thought I was an unreliable narrator, but here I am.” In a way, it’s not my problem. I’ve written this project, I’ve done what I need to do, and, yes, it’s scary. But it’s not as scary as it was back then. I’ll never feel worse than I felt when those people said those things to me.

BC: The epigraph for the final section quotes Dorothy Allison’s belief that “telling the story all the way through is an act of love.” Later on, there’s a quote from a Panamanian folktale, “My tale only goes to here; it ends, and the wind carries it off.” In your own writing, how do you know when to let your story yield to the wind?

CM: That’s sort of the trick, isn’t it? Knowing when. I think with fiction, it’s a little easier. Fictional endings can be whatever you want them to be. That doesn’t mean that they have to be neat or tidy, but they can still end where authors want them to end. The problem with nonfiction is that you’re limited by what has happened. You need to lead a reader out of your writing. You need to ask, “What’s the way I can lead a reader out that makes sense to this project?”

I think for me, especially with this book in particular, I realized that there is no revolution.

In a sense, it was still living because I’m still living. My life continues. There is no neat ending to the story. But I finished this book, and I can’t keep writing it.


Brittany Coppla

Brittany Coppla is a nonfiction candidate pursuing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the online editor for the program's literary journal, Lumina. Brittany is particularly interested in writing about furniture, names, bodies (specifically earlobes), and sleep. Her work has found homes in Barren Magazine, L'Éphémère Review, the Poetry Annals' anthology The Anatomy of Desire, Typishly, Red Queen Literary Magazine, Asterism, Colonnades, Visions, and more. She likes when people call her B, and her day-to-day words can be found on Twitter: @beecoppla.

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