Carmen Maria Machado is a brash, unapologetic writer whose beautiful prose highlights razor sharp insights and challenging subject matter. A Nebula Award and Shirley Jackson Award nominee, as well as a Calvino Prize finalist, her work has appeared in Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. As well as writing fiction, Carmen Maria Machado is a critic and essayist who has written for The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, AGNI, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, VICE. Her writing is visceral, challenging, and gorgeously spun. She invites readers into her world, pushes their boundaries, and dares them to leave unscathed. This issue’s “My Body, Herself” is just such a story.
Uncanny Magazine: This story is beautifully haunting and evocative. You play with common horror tropes such as doppelgangers and entrapment, but also weave in metaphorical elements of healing, empowerment, and rebirth. When approaching a story such as “My Body, Herself,” do you start with the metaphors/tropes and build the story around those elements, or is the core of the story already formed and these layers added as the story grows?
Carmen Maria Machado: It depends on the story, honestly. I’m a big believer in the subconscious being a part of the process. My brain is working on problems constantly, even if I don’t even realize it. If I let my subconscious work on something long enough, solutions just pour out.
So sometimes the plot or concept presents itself first, and I have to root around in it for a while to figure out what my subconscious is trying to say metaphorically. (My story “Mothers,” published in Interfictions a few years ago, needed nearly two years in between writing the first half and completion, because my brain needed to work on the “What is this actually about?” problem.) Other times, I have a sense of what sort of metaphor I’m trying to establish, and then I have to set about building a plot and characters around it.
The basic premise of “My Body, Herself” came from a dream I had, wherein I was trapped and understood myself to be dead, but also could sense another version of myself up and walking around. When I woke up, I wrote “Woman is dead, but version of herself is alive next to her for years?” and just sort of chewed over that idea for a while. Eventually, I wrote the opening scene, and then meditated on what it would mean for a young woman to interact with a newly–hatched, elemental version of herself. What would she say to her? What would she do? Why? The rest of the story coalesced around these questions.
Uncanny Magazine: The wordplay in this story is subtle yet devastating. The contrast among the words “chase,” “chaste,” and “choose,” and their use in the narrative very succinctly gives the reader insight into the unexplained ordeal that led the protagonist to her death. Some writers revel in telling an engaging story while other writers find playing with and bending words to their will to be their greatest joy. Where do you fall on this spectrum?
Carmen Maria Machado: I’m definitely closer to the “bending words to my will” end of the spectrum. I love playing with the music of language; I love muscular, evocative prose. This isn’t to say I don’t love telling a good story—I do—but I think a good story and the language used to convey it are (or should be) inextricable from each other. If you aren’t thinking about the language—if the language isn’t doing some sort of work for the story—it’s a missed opportunity.
Uncanny Magazine: The layers in this story are amazing and leave enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusion as to the significance of a passage or scene. The rock pulled from the dead girl’s ribs, for example, can be read several different ways. Is it important to you to build that ambiguity into a story or, in your head, do you have a single way to read the text and everything else is what the reader brings to the table?
Carmen Maria Machado: Every good piece of writing has a certain degree of flexibility or ambiguity, a space where a reader is permitted to enter. Her experience and emotions and ideas contribute to the reading experience, which is why the same person can read a story or a novel multiple times over the course of their life and come away with different readings every time. The text isn’t changing, but they are.
(For example: the first time I read Karen Russell’s “From Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” I was moved to tears by its devastating metaphor for watching a parent age. When I teach the story to undergrads, my students—all of them 19 or so—never react to the story in the same way I did, probably because that experience is pretty alien for most of them.)
Uncanny Magazine: You have stated when you travel you are always mining for atmosphere. While “My Body, Herself” doesn’t have any distinctive geographical markers, it does have a distinct geographical atmosphere. What makes more of an impression on you—the physical presence of a place or the feeling of a place? Is it an important part of your work or simply another tool in the toolbox?
Carmen Maria Machado: I am addicted to setting and landscape, in the sense I work best when I’m in a place that’s wholly itself and evoking a particular mood. For example, right now I’m writing the answers to this interview from a residency in the Oregon desert. My desk faces a stunning evaporated lake. Blue mountains frame everything. When the sun sets, a living shadow creeps its way across the white, cracked earth. There was a forest fire a few days ago, which I passed on the road—a fire that ate its way up the side of a mountain and left glossy, blacked sagebrush and smoking fence posts in its wake. At night, the fire was still raging under the full moon. I’m not writing about this landscape in particular, but I am bolstered by it—its atmosphere, its aesthetic, and its ghosts.
So I don’t write about place the way some writers’ work is all about New York City or the American West or New England or the Deep South or Havana or Paris or anywhere else. I often don’t even mention location at all, unless it’s strictly necessary. But I still want a place’s atmosphere—its light, its mood—to filter down into the story. My BA is in photography and so that visual element has always been very important to me as a writer.
Uncanny Magazine: Sabrina Vourvoulias recently said in an Uncanny Magazine interview that all fiction is political and even the choice to write is political. Much of your writing is about sexuality, sexual violence, and a woman’s experience. Do you consider your writing to be political? If so, what message do you want readers to take from your work?
Carmen Maria Machado: I agree one–hundred–and–ten percent with Sabrina. That being said, there’s not really a single idea or message I want readers to take away from my work. It’s true I chew over certain themes, and I obviously have my own ideas about gender and sex and sexuality and what’s wrong with the world and many other things besides, but it’s important to me that I’m putting everything I’m thinking about in front of the reader and letting them draw their own conclusions.
Uncanny Magazine: Carmen, thank you so much for taking time from your retreat to chat with us at Uncanny Magazine!
© 2016 by Uncanny Magazine