Photo credit: Tom Storm Photography
Her Body and Other Parties
, the new story collection by Carmen Maria Machado, is one of those books that is almost impossible to believe is a debut, particularly by a young author. Inventive, dark, playful, authoritative, and exciting, these stories will knock you off-center and linger in your brain. The collection includes a brilliant reimagining of "The Green Ribbon," which is also a tour-de-force weaving of ghost stories and urban legends; an inventory of hook-ups that gradually reveals something grim reshaping our world; and an extraordinary, disturbing, and hilarious story made up entirely of fictional descriptions of Law and Order: SVU
episodes. Throughout, the stories in Her Body and Other Parties
display a wholly original talent.
Others agree — the collection is shortlisted for the National Book Award, and is garnering a ton of critical praise. Jeff VanderMeer
raves, "Her Body and Other Parties
is genius: part punk rock and part classical, with stories that are raw and devastating but also exquisitely plotted and full of delight. This is a strong, dangerous, and blisteringly honest book.” And Ben Marcus
writes, "Carmen Maria Machado writes a new kind of fiction: brilliant, blindingly weird, and precisely attuned to the perils and sorrows of the times." We are very proud to have created a special hardcover edition of Her Body and Other Parties
for Volume 70 of Indiespensable
What was the process of writing and collecting these stories like? Were some written much earlier than others?
Carmen Maria Machado:
They were written over five years. The oldest, “Difficult at Parties,” was written in 2011, when I was still in grad school, and “Eight Bites” is the newest one, and that one was written in-between the first and second rounds of submissions from my agent to publishing houses. So the first round of submissions didn't even have “Eight Bites” in it because I wasn't finished with it, and then it was like, okay, since we're doing another round of submissions, let's include the story in there because it really fits the whole shtick.
How did you choose the order?
My editor and I talked about that, because the order in the book is not the order that it was sold in. It was his idea to open with “The Husband Stitch,” which really surprised me, because for a long time that story was towards the end of the book, which started with “Difficult at Parties.” So we had a long conversation about it. I really wanted to open with a story that just jumps right in; one that goes to town and says, Here we are.
I wanted the Law and Order
story to be in the middle, because it felt very much like a hinge. I had spoken with Kevin Brockmeier, a former teacher of mine, and that was his suggestion, to think about the book being like a mix-tape, and he liked the idea of that story being in the middle.
So that's how I determined the order, and then — after a while of trying to figure out the last story — I said to my editor, despite being about a rape, “Difficult at Parties” is the most optimistic. It ends on a note of optimism. So I wanted to put that at the end, as the final beat of the book, for the reader to rise a little out of the suffering.
So that was how we came up with the order, as a group effort. But I'm really pleased with the order; I think it really works. To be frank, I hadn't given it much thought before, and so it was nice to think about it in a purposeful way.
I really wanted to open with a story that just jumps right in; one that goes to town and says, "Here we are."
I think it's fantastic. It’s really surprising to me that “The Husband Stitch” didn't originally begin the collection. It feels inevitable as the opening story to me because it's just like, boom! You're in it. It has such a strong voice.
I think my work can be very polarizing, which is fine, which can be good, but I also have this anxiety about alienating people, so I liked the idea of easing into the book a little more. But my editor was like, No. We're not going to do that.
So I said, You're right. We don't need to do that, we don't need to hold anyone's hand. Let's just go in guns blazing.
And that's what we did.
Speaking of “The Husband Stitch,” what was your experience with scary stories and ghost stories while growing up?
Like every other millennial [laughter
], the work of Alvin Schwartz
was a centerpiece of my childhood. When his books came out in the ’80s and early ’90s, they were slightly before my time, but in the ’90s they were like the most banned books of the decade, because of the illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
But I loved them. I loved being scared, and I loved scary books. When I was in the second grade, I think, I borrowed a Goosebumps book from a classmate — it was Night of the Living Dummy
— and I read it and had nightmares for weeks; I wouldn't let my parents turn the lights off at night. My mom was like, This is ridiculous. No more scary books for you.
But I really wanted them.
I actually gave an interview a couple of weeks ago and I was describing this to the interviewer and he said, “So you like books that change your temperature.” I like books that change my temperature. I love that feeling of being so viscerally affected by something. Even as a young kid, I was really drawn to that feeling. I was also a Girl Scout, so I did a lot of campfire storytelling. [Laughter
] I really liked hearing the stories, but also telling them.
The green ribbon story is actually not from the Scary Stories series. People think that it is, but it's from In a Dark, Dark Room
, one of Schwartz’s books for younger readers. Alvin Schwartz had a ton of books. He was an incredibly popular folklorist for children. So I was really into all those books, and I liked telling scary stories, and in those Scary Stories books, there were instructions. So for the story about the liver, for example, at the end you were supposed to grab the person next to you and say, “YOU have it!” and scare the shit out of them. Which is exactly what I did, because I really liked that, and I made another Girl Scout cry. [Laughter
I just really loved everything about it, which is weird because I'm kind of a fraidy-cat; but I also loved being scared, so I had this back-and-forth. That's just the way I am. I'm very anxious, but I also seek out experiences that make me anxious. I don't know what that says about me. [Laughter
The narrator in “The Husband Stitch” names several of her favorite stories. What were some of yours?
I obviously liked the green ribbon story. I was really drawn to… There was this urban legend. Do you remember the hand-licking story? It was something like a girl is scared, and she puts her hand out for her dog to lick, to be comforted, but later she finds out that someone else was in the house, who murdered the dog and put up a sign that read, “Humans can lick too.”
Ah, I heard a different version of that one! That's funny.
It's funny, because I keep getting asked questions about fairy tales, and I am interested in fairy tales, and I do write about fairy tales, but I think that these urban legends, these other scary stories, represent a distinctly American folklore that is very interesting to me.
I'd forgotten about the story about the young girl and her mother in Paris — which the narrator calls "of all the stories about mothers, the most real." Can you tell that story and talk about why you wanted to focus in on it?
Sure. The basic arc of that urban legend is: A girl goes to Paris with her mother, they check into a hotel, her mother doesn't feel well. They call a doctor, who comes to the hotel and sends the daughter away with some arcane instructions in another language. She's instructed to go to a certain place where the doctor's wife is making pills, and it takes forever, and when she returns, the cab driver takes a long time, doubling back down the same road several times. When she finally gets back to the hotel, the clerk claims not to remember her, the room where her mother was staying is empty, the furniture is all different, and everybody's like, You were never here
The end of the original story is that her mother had some kind of communicable disease, like the plague, and the doctor didn't want to cause a citywide panic, so he orchestrated this plot to get the daughter away so they could get rid of the mother's body (she had died) and make everyone swear that she had never met them before.
Which is horrifying! [Laughter
] As I'm retelling it, it's like that's the most horrible thing. It's weird and implausible, but it’s also just terrifying, this orchestrated plot to undermine your sanity. I feel like, for women, that is true all the time.
In my book, in the story that I tell, that could be what happened. It could be that she figures out what happened to her mother, or that she spends the rest of her life wandering around believing that she's crazy, or that she invented her mother and has completely lost her mind.
I was really interested in that story from the perspective of gaslighting, in society and by society, sort of "for the common good."
It emphasizes how women are not believed or listened to — which is echoed in the narrator's experience of the toes among the potatoes at the grocery store (which is such a great, creepy image). That's something that's always relevant, but feels particularly so right now.
I think that's what makes all writing good, right? You're approaching something in a very specific way, so that even if somebody is like, "Oh, I know this experience," it's being seen through fresh eyes. That's really hard.
How do you think about form, in general? Several stories in this collection have unusual and interesting forms — how do your stories find their correct shapes?
It really depends on the story. I feel like some stories come out fully formed, and others come from the form. So in “Inventory,” for example, the idea that I had was quite literally like, what if the story was all sex scenes, a list of this woman's lovers, and then another story in the background? And then I wrote it that way. So that was like, I have an idea!
And then I wrote it. [Laughter
“Especially Heinous” was similar, where I had this idea for the form, and then once I got the rhythm, I just wrote the whole thing. So the stories were actually informed by their form, and they weren't arbitrary forms — they speak to some quality of the story and the plot. I think that can be a problem people have, where they come up with a very innovative form, but the content of the story doesn't fit it, which is not good.
I've also tried to use form and failed. I workshopped “Eight Bites” one time, and I remember people saying they expected it to have a weird form, because it's called “Eight Bites,” but it's a pretty straightforward story, structurally speaking. I had tried something, but I could never make it work. Sometimes the story doesn't want it and resists it. Other times I'll be like, I wonder if I can make this story, and then I'll rethink the form later. But I feel like some stories demand a more unusual structure, and others don't. It's a matter of figuring out what the story requires.
I was going to ask you how you decided to do that with “Inventory,” layering one story on top of another. That layering happens in many of your stories — it almost reminds me of the way poetry works. How do you think about that aspect of your stories?
It's funny that you say that, because I don't think of myself as a poet. In terms of that story, I often refer to one of my favorite movies, Children of Men
. The thing that I really love about that movie is that some of the world-building happens in the background and is never clearly seen, and so every time I rewatch that movie I feel like I see new details. There's something I like about that very cinematic way of thinking.
I was a photography major in college; I think very visually. It's important to me to think about things visually, as well as with sound. So I had that image in my mind of a foregrounded narrative, and something happening with a sort of moving, scrolling background. It's different, because fiction and movies are not the same form, but it was interesting to me to try to use that effect in some way.
It really was very much like, I wonder if I could do this
, and then, Yes, I bet I could. Who's going to stop me?
In terms of visual elements, there are so many incredibly realistic details in your stories, integrated into the more surreal elements, like the inventory of food in the fridge in “Mothers”; the women going to Canada who dub the narrator “the protector of Maine” in “Inventory”; and too many things to count in “The Resident.” How do you think about the balance between intensely sensory and realistic detail and the surrealism that's also in the stories?
I like fiction in all genres, from realism all the way to high fantasy and everything in-between. But for me, the work that most reflects the way that I think about the world is a sort of liminal fantasy, where you have a recognizable world, a recognizable situation, and then there are these holes punctured in reality. That, to me, reflects the way that I think about the world. It makes sense to me. It's not much of a leap from thinking about a thought I'm having or a situation I'm trying to work through in fiction to some sort of supernatural element. That just really makes sense to me.
“Especially Heinous” — my lord, what an amazing, inventive, funny, and wonderful story. How on earth did that one come about?
Well, so I'm a big Law and Order: SVU
] I think about it a lot, as I think about all of the media that I consume. I watch it intensely, and my wife will walk into the room and I'll pause it and be like, Here's 10,000 thoughts I'm having about this show.
I was interested in trying the form. I wanted to try writing a story that had a symphonic structure where lots of microfictions build into a larger story. Then I had this idea of a TV show — so I thought of Law and Order: SVU
, and thought I could try taking the existing episode descriptions on IMDB and altering them to be surreal. That was my first idea.
But when I started, it was too limiting. Having to work from the actual episode descriptions was too much. So I thought, What if I dropped that and just used the titles as a jumping-off point?
So the titles in that story are all the actual titles of the episodes.
I just realized that this morning.
Most people don't realize that. You wouldn't know unless you started looking into it. But yes, those are the real titles. The nice thing about that — it's not true anymore, there was a shift, but back then, all of the episode titles were one word.
So when I had them, they became these comfortable monkey bars to hold onto — I could swing over to this one, or swing over to that one. And I wrote that story more or less linearly, from beginning to end. As I could see the next title, I thought, Oh, that'll work with that plot line, or work for that other one
, and I sort of blazed right through it. I mean, it's pretty long, but it was pretty linearly written.
And it did this structural thing that I wanted it to do, which was great. I took it to class at Iowa — I took it to Kevin Brockmeier, and he was incredibly helpful in his thoughts about what was and wasn't working. I worked on a fuller version of it the next year. Then I tried to sell it for eight years and I couldn't sell it, because it was so weird and long and no one knew what to do with it, until The American Reader
, which was a wonderful magazine, decided to take it. So it ended up working out really beautifully.
I wanted it to be a vehicle to speak out loud all of the feelings I have about shows like Law and Order: SVU
, which is so morally complicated in the way that it both addresses and fetishizes violence against women. “Especially Heinous” ended up being this very useful thing that I could pour all of my feelings and my thoughts into. It was tremendously fun to write.
The work that most reflects the way that I think about the world is a sort of liminal fantasy, where you have a recognizable world, a recognizable situation, and then there are these holes punctured in reality.
In “The Resident,” the narrator says: "I was reminded, for the umpteenth time, of Viktor Shklovsky's idea of defamiliarization; of zooming in so close to something, and observing it so slowly, that it begins to warp, and change, and acquire new meaning." The narrator then describes, really beautifully, examining the foot of a refrigerator as a child and having that phenomenon occur. She says that process is useful for her writing — I imagine it is for yours, too. How do you think about defamiliarization in your work?
That scene was taken verbatim, quite literally out of my own experience, as you can imagine. [Laughter
] When I learned about that theory, I was like, Oh! That's what that's called!
] I didn't know there was a name for it.
As a kid I was obsessed with that idea, of lying down and seeing something from a different perspective and getting kind of lost in the weirdness of it, even if it was a thing I'd seen a million times. I think that's what makes all writing good, right? You're approaching something in a very specific way, so that even if somebody is like, Oh, I know this experience
, it's being seen through fresh eyes. That's really hard.
I was talking earlier about fairy tales, and the retold fairy tale as its own genre, which is something people do all the time. What's interesting is that I think people who retell fairy tales are not always looking at them with new eyes. They're sometimes just changing something around. I think about my favorite example of the genre, The Bloody Chamber
by Angela Carter, which is a gorgeous retelling of Bluebeard that throws everything about the original story into chaos. And it's so beautiful and fully realized. It really makes you think about the original story in a whole new way.
That's what you want, right? That sense of, I'm approaching a thing that I thought I knew entirely, but in fact I'm seeing it and I don't recognize it at all. I think that's the job of the writer, or really any artist. So defamiliarization has been very important and interesting to me since I was a child, but now I have the intellectual underpinnings to back it up. [Laughter
It’s kind of a stepsibling of the idea of the uncanny.
Totally! Absolutely. The idea of the uncanny is that something that should have been hidden has been exposed. Anyway, that's Freud's version of it — something that had been concealed has now been revealed. There's that sense of disorientation, or dream logic, like you're returning to the same place you were before. There's a dreaminess to it. I'm very interested in the uncanny, as a style and as a way of approaching work.
Something I thought was funny in “The Resident” is the narrator's imaginary answers to interviews. "Pickled things and shrimp” — are those the things in your fridge that you want Lynne Rossetto Kasper to come up with a recipe for?
] I don't do it very much anymore because I'm lucky that I get to work really close to home, but when I did a lot of driving… While I was living in Iowa, I dated someone for a while who lived in another state, so I was driving to see this person all the time, and I was in the car a lot. Sometimes when I was super bored, or if I wanted to turn off the radio because nothing I wanted to listen to was on, I would totally imagine being interviewed. [Laughter
I don't know if it was just me. I would narrate out loud answers to questions I imagined receiving, which is such a weird thing to do. The character in “The Resident” — obviously she's different from me in many ways, but I feel like I pumped my neuroses into her and then amped them up to, like, a thousand. So I loved the idea of her giving these interview answers.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper's not even doing that show any more. I do like the new guy a lot, though. I really do think he's great. But I fucking love The Splendid Table
] If I could listen to that show all day, I'd be so happy. My wife and I will have it on while we're driving and I'll just be moaning over the food that she's describing. [Laughter
] It sounds so good.
So that was a fun little way to integrate things from my own life, and things that I love. I think one of the coolest things about being a fiction writer is that the shit that's on my mind and the things I think about and that fill my days can all go into my work. That's really cool.
I spoke with Carmen Maria Machado on October 18, 2017.
÷ ÷ ÷
Carmen Maria Machado
’s work has appeared in Granta
, The New Yorker
, Tin House
, NPR, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Nebula Award and a Shirley Jackson Award, and was a finalist for the Calvino Prize. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife. Her Body and Other Stories
is her first book.