Carmen Maria Machado reflects on a life of creativity and her amazing breakout short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties.
Where does it come from?
This elusive thing that creatives do, be they writers, designers, artists, sculptors—where does it come from?
It’s a question we always tend to ask when observing those with brilliant output, like author Carmen Maria Machado. And in seeking the origins of a wellspring of pure talent, one usually arrives at the beginning.
Machado grew up in Allentown, PA, and storytelling saturated her life from the start. Her grandfather had come to the U.S. from Cuba, went to college in Tennessee, was deported during the heyday of Joseph McCarthy, and eventually returned to serve in the U.S. military during the Korean War. There were a lot of tales to be told, and one wonders if the architecture and narrative of story began to anchor themselves then in Machado’s burgeoning brain.
Moreover, as a kid she wrote—and not just in diaries. Sure, she had journals filled with the usual childhood melodrama like the rest of us, but she was also inventing her own worlds on her father’s stationery … and dutifully sending them off to publishers.
She was an anxious kid—one who liked to be scared by the likes of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, which was subsequently banned in her house. She was a self-described “weird” kid—one who found difficulty interacting with her peers, but discovered an outlet in the Girl Scouts, where she excelled at telling scary stories around a campfire. She was a voracious reader—one who repeatedly checked out The Stories of Ray Bradbury from the library, developing a passion for the art of short prose as she devoured the tome.
In high school, an English teacher who perhaps sensed the possibility within Machado gave her a handpicked selection of books to read, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude among them. As she told Shimmer, “I’d never even heard of magical realism before. It seemed to sync so cleanly with my perception of the world—reality tinged with inexplicable events, a kind of lushness that I understood but had never put a name to. And of course, the book was gorgeous and completely overtook me. After that, I never wrote the same way. Everything seemed pregnant with magic. I’ve been trying to recreate that experience in my work ever since.”
Machado attended American University, where she briefly studied journalism before switching to photography (an artform she has noted shares interesting parallels with the craft of fiction). She later headed off to the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she graduated with the foundation of what would become Her Body and Other Parties.
As she worked on the short story collection, she had to support herself with a gig at the cosmetics store Lush in a Philadelphia mall—and during that time, she considered walking away from writing. But the scribe who seemed predestined world eventually complete the book. People sometimes assume that when a writer pens that final sentence, the work is done. In fact, it tends to only get more intense. If a writer does not have a literary agent, the traditional path forward is to seek one via dozens of query letter appeals. If a writer already has an agent, a brutal waiting game ensues as the agent does their best to convince a publisher to place a financial bet on the book and its success.
There’s a lot of fight in getting a book published. And after a first round of submissions, no publisher picked Machado’s up. But the independent nonprofit Graywolf Press eventually did—and when they released it, the reception shocked Machado, and likely the team at Graywolf, as well.
As The New York Times wrote, “Her Body and Other Parties … is a love letter to an obstinate genre that won’t be gentrified. It’s a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror. Not since Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, in 2006, has a debut collection of short stories from a relatively unknown author garnered such attention, or deserved it more.”
As World Literature Today wrote, “Machado is a revolution. She is at once a funny, dark, terrifying, uplifting anti-Lovecraft. … Her Body and Other Parties is fiery, mischievous and elusive. Like the worlds Machado glimpses: brutal and yet life-affirming.”
The book is a wonder, rightfully won the Bard Fiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and a host of other accolades. An experimental memoir is next up for Machado and Graywolf, and in addition to that, she has said that she has notes for a handful of novels, essays and more. One delights in the possibility of what form those might one day take.
But the question remains: Where does it all come from? These ideas, these modern fairy tales? Where are they stored within her? How does she conjure such intense magic on the page?
As she told The Paris Review last fall, “Whenever I’m writing a story, it’s coming from something that’s on my mind, so I’m just drawing from my own constant internal chatter.” Similarly, as she detailed in Guernica: “I just try to write for me.”
Sometimes, when you radiate talent, it really all is that simple—and it’s also a lesson for the rest of us, as we may run from, circumvent, dance around the dreams and passions that could define us, if only we just did what we were put on this Earth to do.
Carmen Maria Machado has.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
By Carmen Maria Machado:
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories