CARMEN MARIA MACHADO
CARMEN MARIA MACHADO
The award-winning author on the power of becoming more purposeful and the welcome challenge of translating her work to television.
With so many different outlets plus social media, the dissemination of writing is faster and more prolific than ever. How do you, as a writer, go about developing your own voice in these wild times?
The question of voice is so interesting, I feel. What does it mean to have ‘voice’? I'm a teacher and I talk to my students about it. It's always like, "What do you want to say, and how do you want to say it? What does that look like?" I've spent my whole professional career trying to figure out the things that really interest me and how I want to present them–that question of style and content. I feel that's been my vibe and that's come from literature and film, but also, I'm a millennial and I grew up with LiveJournal. There were all these other influences from what I guess we call non-literary or non-artistic spaces, but maybe that's not fair. I think that's just speaking broadly. I feel like I'm this amalgamation of all the influences that have come into me, like playing Myst when I was a child. All these random things have made me distinctly me.
Jumping off of that–and maybe this is an impossible question–but what are some of those early things that you felt really impacted you and got you interested in the idea of writing and literature?
My parents were not big readers themselves, but they were big into reading to me, and everyone used to read to me all the time. I feel like I grew up in this relationship with reading and books and storytelling that was really intense. As a kid, I would read Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl and picture books, and then I'd write my own stuff. I'd make my own books, I'd make my own poems. I was always writing. It was always this back and forth.
Then as I got a little older, I really got into horror and the Gothic and science fiction. I went in that direction. And then, of course, I was on the internet and experiencing the world through that lens of thinking about storytelling, or even essay writing. What does it mean to write for an audience? What does it mean to write for a reader? That was the first time I ever really thought about my practice in those terms. It was kind of coming from everywhere.
It's interesting that you talk about your work as a practice. How has the concept of your work as a practice evolved over time?
I think it's become a lot more purposeful. When I go back and I look at the old stuff that I used to write, I have an obvious set of interests and you can see them developing, even though I didn't really realize it. It wasn't until I got to grad school and began having these conversations that asked, “Why do you write what you write?” I remember a classmate saying to me that I seemed bored by my own story, and he was right. I was because I wasn't really writing. I wasn't thinking about it in those terms, in terms of my own obsessions or my own interests or even the things that really focused me.
I feel like it was random, and then it wasn't random anymore. It's still random sometimes–things just come to me or I get ideas. But now I'm so aware of what I'm doing, and I feel that's also part of the process, where you do it by accident until you do it on purpose.
Maybe it's also kind of the reverse because things that you practice also become instinctual, but there's something that develops and hones, and I think now I also have no qualms. I'm like, "Oh, that interests me. Oh my god, I want to try that. Oh my god, I want to see that." I don't think about it. I don't overanalyze it. I'm just like, "This will give me pleasure. This will be interesting to me. I want to check this out." And I feel like you hope to get to that place where you're really attuned to what lights your fire and what makes you feel creative or productive, or what catches your attention. I feel as though I've gotten to that point.
You write in so many different forms–essay, memoir, critique, short story. I read in another interview of yours that the idea of form itself is really interesting to you. How is your approach different for all of those, if at all?
Every story that has its own formal element is going to function in a different way, because every form has its own rules and its own tropes and its own history. When you're writing, you're dealing with that, but in a way, the task is always sort of the same, which is: how do I elevate the story above the form? Because it's not enough to say, "Oh, it's a short story to happen in the form of X." It's more like, "How is the form deepening, or subverting, or breaking, or heightening the effect of whatever the story is that's on the page?" That's a tall order. That's a real task that you have to do.
Circling back for a second, you mentioned that over time your work has become more purposeful. Expand on that for me, if you could.
I think I now possess the ability to know when something is done. I get this question a lot, “How do you know something is finished?" It's really interesting to me, because it's such a personal question and it's a thing that now feels instinctual to me. I'm like, "Oh, this is done or it's not done", but it's really hard to explain to a person who doesn't know what they're looking for. The best way I found to describe it is this: if I tell you to think of a horse, you can imagine a horse. And then you draw a little stick figure with a little circle, then little stick legs and a little round head. And you're like, "Oh, that's barely a horse." The whole process is trying to get the thing on the page to match the thing in your brain. You're trying to get them closer and closer.
I feel like now I can just do that. I know if I write a draft and I'm like, "God, this is not the horse I want,” I know how to do the next draft to get it closer to the horse I want. And I just do it. Before I was like, "Well, now what?" Grad school, just the practice of writing there, whether it’s with a group or with a mentor, is learning how to just do what you need to do.
So that sort of honing in form and style, has that related over to the content and subject matter itself at all?
It's so funny because I remember thinking to myself when I sold my first book, which is just such a wild thing to happen–to write a book and then sell it–"Well, if I have anything else to say in this world, it must be said in this book." I think it's actually a common response, because you poured so much of the person that you are at whatever age you sell it, into this book. And it's weird to imagine past it. It's weird to imagine a second book or a third book. I feel like I had that thought, and by the time my book came out which was two years after selling it, I had new interests. I had new things I was thinking about.
I remember drafting my first short story after Her Body and Other Parties and being like, "Oh, I still have a lot of things to say as it turns out." And also I've gotten older, and things have happened to me. I'm just living my life. And that's how you write: you are just a person in the world and then stuff is coming to you and coming out of you. And then you're like, "Oh great, right. I've got way more to say."
I read an article the other day about something and I thought, "Oh, that's so interesting." And I read a bunch more on the topic. I said, "Huh, that'd make a great short story. I can already imagine what I would do with that material." And I began to do it. And it's a real joy to just do that, to say, "I know what I like, I know what I'm good at. I know the kind of stories I can tell." Boom, done. Not boom, done. Obviously, it's really hard. But I feel like there's a lot less guesswork in the process for me. I know who I am and what I am and what I can do.
Speaking of Her Body and Other Parties, it's in development to become a TV show. I was just wondering what it's been like for you to watch your work develop into a different medium.
It's really interesting. I think it also depends on if I'm doing the adaptation or if someone else is doing it because that can make a huge difference. I've seen some adaptations and thought, "Oh, it's so interesting to see what another brain does with my brain." And I love that. I think it's super interesting. And then I have a comic book. I didn't draw it but I wrote it, and then this artist sent me sketches. It was really weird to have imagined these characters in this world and then to see these drawings and say, "Holy shit. That's what I was thinking and now I can just see it."
If I'm doing my own adapting, that's a whole different animal where I have to rethink, re-approach a fixed set of material that I've already pinned down in prose and think about it in this whole different medium. It is a really interesting process. I find it really invigorating. I think some people find it really scary, which I also understand because it is really weird to have another set of hands on something that's really precious to you, and my work is really precious to me. It's odd, but I also love the idea of seeing someone's consciousness through the consciousness of another person.
Let's talk a bit about art. Maybe this is vague, but how does what you're drawn to in terms of literature, writing, your work relate to your aesthetic sensibilities when it comes to art?
Interestingly enough, I was actually a photography major in college. I thought for a minute that I wanted to be a photographer and I graduated in 2008 when the recession hit. I never had a job and I just totally pivoted. I paid off my student loans and I have a very nice Instagram that is the summation of all that work. But I do still have a really strong visual aesthetic. I think about rooms and spaces and clothes. People will say to me, "Oh, your work feels very cinematic." But often what they mean is that there's a really strong visual sensibility.
I have a really strong mind's eye. I think visually. If a friend sends me an album to listen to, I think about my friend listening to the album. I don't just listen to it. When I hear music, I imagine a music video or some kind of visual component. When I'm writing, I'm thinking visually. There's a very strong visual element in my brain, and so I feel like, for me, you can't untie the prose from that at all. Maybe that's why it doesn't feel so weird to adapt it, because I'm thinking, "Oh, it's just going back to the visual plane." I couldn't make a movie of it if I wanted to, but it just makes sense that it was a movie in my brain that went to the page and now it's going back to a comic or something.
I feel like my aesthetic senses are overdeveloped. I can't untie anything I do from them. It feels really essential. And I feel it was essential to understanding what I do and why I write the way I write. I feel that's such an important part of my process. And it's weird because I had never thought about my mind's eye in this way until a journalist was writing on this exact subject and was asking about it. I said, "Oh, I do have a really strong mind’s eye." It never occurred to me, but I suddenly got very over-aware of all the ways in which my brain sees all these pictures. I would never call myself a visual artist, but I do think that training and that way of thinking and that way of appreciation also really affect what I do. And on the other side of it, I also really love visual art that's really narrative. I feel like it goes both ways, where I say, "Oh, my visual art is narrative, and I want my narrative art to be kind of visual." Those two are very alike or just have a very strong connection.
I know you said you could never do a movie, but are you ever tempted to dip back into photography or other mediums, and experiment in that space?
I am tempted sometimes because I used to love being in the darkroom. You know what's so funny is the way I've actually been thinking very visually. I haven't been doing this because I've been really busy, but I got a dollhouse and I've wanted to make a haunted dollhouse. I feel like I'm going to start doing something with it at some point. It's not going to be a professional thing I do. I also love to do collages. I went through this phase a couple of years ago where I was collecting magazines and making these very intricate, weird, collages and giving them to people. And they didn’t know what to do with them. And I basically just said, "Sorry, you can throw it away, bye."
I just made these things, and there's something about the physicality of that. Back when you could see other people all the time, I would do residencies and I loved getting to see artists' studios. I thought, "Oh, but it's so good just to be fucking doing shit with your hands all day." Because I'm just sitting here at the computer staring dead-eyed at my screen. And this seems much more fun. Maybe one day.
They heard it here first! But speaking to the visual sense of things, what do you think really shaped that for you? Do you have any films that you grew up watching, or anything in that regard that you found really formative?
I'm 35, was born in '86, and I grew up watching the same shit everybody else did–weird '80s fantasy, and '90s animation like Don Bluth. In my household, we had this thing called nostalgia movie night where pre-COVID, we would meet twice a month and all watch movies. It's just a bunch of friends who come over and we all watch movies from our collective childhoods, and we have themes.
We actually just finished a Don Bluth theme, and I had not seen most of these movies since I was a kid. What was amazing to me is how many of them, even ones that I swore I had never seen or had not since I was a small child, would have scenes that caused a visual deja-vu. I’d remember watching them on the screen. It gives me a weird thing in my body where I'm like, "Oh god, I remember how this weird image made me feel."
I feel like visuals were actually a really big part of my childhood. I loved art and picture books. I recently found this book by Richard Scarry [and Ole Risom] called I Am a Bunny. Do you know I Am a Bunny?
I don’t think I’m familiar with that one, but I did love Richard Scarry back in the day.
The art is so specific. The art, you either know it or you don't. If you saw it, you'd either be like, "Oh my god, I'm having a flashback," or you will not recognize it at all. I literally forgot about this book entirely. And then I think I was reading it to my nephews–I have four nephews–
Oh, wait! I just Googled and I do remember this book!
And then all of a sudden, I remembered it! I was like, "The next page is going to be a toadstool with a little wedge taken out of the lid.” I turned the page and the toadstool was there! It’s burned into my consciousness. It's not the traditional Richard Scarry stuff. It's a slightly different art style, but it's so beautiful. Some of the visuals are just so specific. And that book is just burned into my consciousness. I'll be 104 on my death bed and still remember the toadstool with the wedge taken out.
Are there any other visual artists that you’re a big fan of?
I feel this is going to be very embarrassing to answer because it’s going to be super normie, like Monet; I did love Monet as a child.
They're classics for a reason. That's not a bad thing.
My dad's an engineer, but he was really interested in art. And so we did have a lot of art books around the house that I would flip through, like the Sister Wendy books. Do you know those?
Sounds very familiar.
Sister Wendy was this nun who was also an art historian and she published all these art-consumption-for-novices books. Novices like amateurs, not novices as in nuns, but she is a nun. She had this huge book picking her favorite paintings from every major Western painter ever. I remember just paging through it constantly.
I really loved the impressionists, I loved the surrealists, I really loved Frida Kahlo, I really loved Mary Cassatt. I always loved Mary Cassatt and all of the little girls in her works. That was the art that I grew up enjoying, and then as an adult, it's interesting, because I really love sculpture. I like dioramas and miniatures and sculptures and things that have dimension. That's actually a thing that really, really, really speaks to me. Or big pieces that are the size of a room. I feel like it's not a thing that I'm an expert in. I follow a lot of modern art accounts, and there was some piece that a friend of mine posted about recently that was this piece that has wax that comes off of it and moves slowly across a room for a long time. It leaves this horrifying trail of wax behind it, and I loved it. I love Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms. That sort of stuff is really, really interesting to me.
I also really love outsider art. I used to go to the House on the Rock in Wisconsin when I was a kid. I really love weird, immersive collections of things and kind of being in someone's brain. I went to a residency a couple of years ago and I met this guy named Julian Hobart. He was super interesting and really sweet, and then at some point, I followed his Instagram and he made one of those mystery spot spaces in some gallery in LA. You walk into this little house that he built, but it was designed with all of these optical illusions.
That's kind of my vibe now. It's weird, modern stuff that's narrative, immersive, or very small. I just wrote something for Robin F. Williams’ catalog for her new show. I got to go to her studio and see these giant, beautiful paintings of these weird, scary women-monster things. I guess scale is really interesting to me. Big, big, big pieces or very, very small pieces. I really love the miniature rooms at The Art Institute of Chicago where the bottom floor is that miniatures exhibit with a one-to-one scale. I could spend five days there. I'm so interested in it. I love small things. I've collected this little sculpture that I love, and it's a little moon baby.
Maybe it'll touch on things we've already discussed, but outside of your work what are some of the other things you're really into?
I love cooking. COVID has really taken a little bit of the spark out of cooking. In the beginning, I was super gung-ho. I was like, "I'm making roast chicken." But two months in, I was like, "I want to die. I never want to cook again. I'm so mad right now."
I also really love video games. I play all kinds. I really love artsy games, like Limbo, or games that have a very strong aesthetic component. And I also really love Assassin's Creed. It really runs the gamut of beautiful, meditative, puzzle art games, and then chopping someone's head off really intensely, blood spurting out everywhere. That's also the energy that I want. So it's a little bit of both, you know?