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"Read. Read read read read read.": an Interview with Carmen Maria Machado

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Our Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest is open for submissions. Want some insight into what this year's judge, Carmen Maria Machado, is looking for? Read on! 

Your most recent book, Her Body and Other Parties, is a collection of short stories; your forthcoming book is a memoir. How do you conceptualize genre? Much of your work resists arbitrary borders, bending boundaries as part of craft—how does the construct or fluidity of genre influence your choices as a writer?

I think about genre and form all of the time: the negative space around them and the boundaries alongside them and their histories and iterations and strengths and weaknesses and tropes; the way they inform each other. It gives me an entry point into my writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Sometimes I abandon or submerge this entry point once I’ve gotten into something; other times, I embrace or even center it. It just depends on what the project demands. 

Your next book is described as “an experimental memoir told through a sequence of rotating narrative tropes.” How do you approach structure in this book? How does form help create the meaning? Are there any memoir constructs you resist or rewrite?

I’m still working on it, so it’s hard to say! The structure is in flux. But the narrative tropes help by giving me a framework to explore specific elements of my memory, and that is both fruitful and satisfying. 

Your use of experimentation and alternative reality complicate our understanding of nonfiction as a genre defined by fact. Why is questioning, rewriting, and complicating truth necessary for writing? For nonfiction, in particular? Do you see your craft choices making larger commentaries on our current social and political realities?

There’s a really beautiful memoir by Kevin Brockmeier—A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip—about his seventh-grade year. In the middle of the memoir, time freezes, and Kevin’s young self finds himself having a conversation with his adult self. It’s obviously a fictional gesture, but it does important work for the memoir. Similarly, Brian Blanchfield’s Proxiesis a book of short essays on certain topics which he is writing entirely from memory; the final essay is comprised of corrections for all of the preceding essays. Sofia Samatar also has some beautiful essays that use speculative elements. There’s definitely precedent within nonfiction to push the boundaries of how reality is portrayed, and I’m very interested in those boundaries. 

What works have you turned to while writing your memoir? What besides reading the works of others (music or travel, for example) has shaped your process and prose?

Alongside the memoir I’m reading (or re-reading) Hilton Als, Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Alice Bolin, Brian Blanchfield, and Sofia Samatar. I’m also influenced by film, television, and video games. 

Cultural hierarchies like the idea of high and lowbrow culture, for example, are becoming less stratified—what does that mean for the essay? What cultural spaces do you see the essay occupying?

I recently devoured Alice Bolin’s essay collection Dead Girls, which just about took off the top of my head. She writes beautifully about true crime and detective novels and crime shows and teenage witch guides and shows us how all of culture—from our most beloved literary novels to our tawdriest shows and everything in between—echoes connected ideas about gender and bodies and violence. 

Her Body and Other Parties was released to wide critical acclaim, but what struggles did you face during the writing? What advice can you offer writers who are struggling?

My main struggle was that I was writing an utterly unmarketable book. Weird gay feminist short stories of uncertain genre are not precisely a best-selling formula, and every step of the process—publishing individual stories, finding an agent, selling the book—was difficult and almost didn’t happen. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel confident in my work—I loved my stories—but rather I had no idea I’d be able to do anything with them. Luckily, everyone who told me “you only need one”—one magazine editor, one agent, one publishing house to believe in your work—was totally right. The advice I’d give is to not compromise your vision and write the stories you want to read in the world. Don’t worry about anything else. 

Similarly, we often dispense advice to “beginning” writers, though much can be applied to writers at any stage of their careers—what broader advice do you have for writers?

Read. Read read read read read. You cannot enter into the literary conversation unless you know what the conversation is. 

Finally, Prairie Schooner receives and publishes a wide range of essays—memoir, personal essay, literary journalism, lyric and experimental essays. What are some of your favorite essays? What kinds of stories or craft choices grab your attention? What might you be looking for in the submissions?

I love the perfume writing at The Dry Down, Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report,” JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” Andrea Long Chu’s “On Liking Women,” Sarah Marshall’s “Remote Control,” Sofia Samatar’s Monster Portraits & "Meet Me in Iram,” Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies,Maggie Nelson, Jenny Zhang, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samantha Irby. I want beautiful sentences, formal experimentation, being taught something I didn’t know before, intelligent criticism, bodies and their nightmares, humor, risks. That essay you’ve been sitting on because you’re wondering if it’s too weird? I want that essay. 

Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Kirkus Prize, LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, 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 TimesGrantaTin HouseVQRMcSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The BelieverGuernicaBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the 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.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir(The Ohio State University Press 2018), and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women(Dancing Girl Press 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide(Finishing Line Press 2017), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch(Finishing Line Press 2014). She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.