Carmen Maria Machado‘s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
Diana Clarke is a New Zealander. Her fiction has appeared in DIAGRAM, Hobart, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.
Diana Clarke: I’m going to start with Marianne Boruch’s favorite question: Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote that you would call a story? And what makes you call that story a story compared to anything you’d written before it?
Carmen Maria Machado: So there’s sort of two answers to this question. The first time as an adult that I wrote a story was in college. I wrote a retelling of Noah’s Ark. It was this troubled couple, their marriage is dissolving, a flood is coming. I was really proud of it. Before that, as a child, I wrote a story called “This Turkey Can’t Find the Farm” which had a very distinctive arc and also an ironic ending, where the turkey who has been lost the entire story returns to the farm and is promptly eaten by the farmers and then wishes he had not come home at all. And so that story also had a very satisfying, recognizable story arc. I think that was the first time I ever truly wrote a story. But then as an adult it took me a few false starts to get to that. That story I ended up submitting to MFA programs and it was the thing that got me going in that sort of career.
DC: I feel like the turkey story wouldn’t be out of place in Her Body and Other Parties.
CMM: Oh yeah not at all! My parents were very disturbed. I read a lot of Shel Silverstein so I think I was just really primed for dark weird shit, you know?
DC: Shel Silverstein. Who else? Which other authors got you into writing in the first place? Or which books in particular made you want to be a writer?
CMM: Oh my God so many. I mean I was a really voracious reader as a kid. Ray Bradbury was a big early influence. I read John Bellairs, Louis Sachar, who wrote the Wayside school books. Roald Dahl. Lois Duncan. So all genres. I read a lot of V.C. Andrews, who wrote Flowers in the Attic. I read all of those books so it kind of gave me that gothic influence that was super not appropriate for how old I was. Have any of you read those books? They’ve got a lot of incest in them. I was eleven. I should not have been reading those books at all. They were really interesting to me, and they had these really great covers with a really dramatic title and you’d open the flap and there’d be a really scary portrait and there was a hole in the cover so you could see through it. My goal one day is to publish a book where it has that — where you get to look through the window and see the portrait or see the image behind it.
DC: You mentioned Roald Dahl and some other writers interested in fantasy and magical realism and that’s obviously very present in your work. There are some fantasy writers in my workshop this semester, actually, and I’m interested in how you use fantasy. Specifically, I think, you do a really interesting thing where you write realistic worlds—in that we’re not operating on a different planet or with dragons, but in the real world. Just with women whose bodies are incorporeal now, or a mysterious plague taking over everyone and showing the disease in their eyes. So you use these realistic worlds but speak to them from this fantastical distance. What is it about that sort of purgatory between the two that draws you to writing in those spaces?
CMM: Ooh, I like that word. Purgatory. What I’m basically writing is liminal fantasy, which means that the rules of the world are generally our rules, but there’s sort of these holes punctured in reality. And that covers a lot of ground. Ghost stories are liminal fantasy, right? You’re in a haunted house and everything is recognizable but a ghost has appeared. Secondary-world fantasy is not really my jam. I think it’s interesting, and I’ve read some that I like but I don’t think I have the brain power necessary to conceive an entire secondary world from the bottom up or from the top down. The notion is absolutely exhausting to me. So I’d rather just sort of show a world that’s recognizable in most ways and then put something weird in it. It’s just easier and it’s sort of how I think. When I’m just in the world, I do a lot of this — I’m sitting on a bus and I’ll think, “What would happen right now if this weird scenario happened on this very bus that I’m riding on?” I just feel like my brain is sort of always half here and half in some other place. So it’s just how my creative process functions. What if everything was the same but this one weird thing happens? Then what would everything look like?
DC: Yeah, and I think because you write in this sort of hybrid erotica-meets-horror-meets-realism-meets-surrealism, it makes the “real” in the story seem “surreal” as well, you know? You have a story about bariatric surgery, and a story about abusive relationships, and men being awful in general, and it makes that sort of realism seem as if it has been inflated to surrealism in some way. But, thinking about The Husband Stitch in particular, I didn’t realize that the title of that story was a real thing until I googled your story and found the Wikipedia page for the surgery, and found that it was this gross, gross thing that happens. Do you often pull the realism from real life events and then grow the surrealism from there? How does that sort of process take place?
CMM: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty accurate way of describing it. So that story in particular, for those of you who don’t know, a husband stitch is — women give birth and if they have a tear in their perineum – so between the vagina and the anus, that can happen during childbirth – and that has to be stitched back up in episiotomy afterwards. I have an aunt who’s an OBGYN nurse and she was telling me weird shit she’d see in the delivery room and she said, “Oh yeah, and then there’s the husband stitch.” And I asked, “Well, what’s that?” And she said, “Well husbands think it’s super funny to be like ‘Hey, give her an extra stitch, like tighten her up a little bit just for me, you know?’” And they’ll say it to the doctor. “Oh yeah, so we have this name for it.” There are other names for it that are a little bit worse. “Daddy stitch” is another one. They’re all grosser and grosser. Every phrase is horrible. But I thought, “Wow, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.” Also the phrase is very interesting and the music of it caught my ear and so I just wrote it down. It was one of those things where I wrote that story over many years and ended up pulling together a lot of disparate ideas I had that came together in the one story, and then I realized The Husband Stitch was the perfect title for that story.
But yeah I feel like oftentimes I’m drawing on real life. Eight Bites, for example, about bariatric surgery, kind of came from this space where I really wanted to write about bariatric surgery, I wanted to write about fatness and mothers and daughters and bodies and sort of the rejection of the body, and that really interested me. So that story just became—I had the idea for it and then all the real life stuff that I was thinking about and that I had experienced got filtered through this weird mesh of horror and fantasy.
I feel that I’m usually operating from a central question, and the question is often based in my own experience. “This is a thing I’ve experienced. I wonder, how do I look back and think about that?” For example, gender or race or sexual orientation or sex or fatness or bodies or whatever – how do I think about those things? Or mental illness? I mean you could go on and on and on. I feel it often is coming from this place where I’ve been having this thought, and then I’m also pulling in outside material, like in The Resident. Most of that did not happen, but I was a Girl Scout as a child and I did go camping in those mountains. So I was able to draw on something I already knew to add to the story.
DC: I feel like another thing that we can’t not talk about is sex in this story. It seems pretty clear that you love writing about sex: queer sex, straight sex, violent sex, romantic sex. I’d like to read a favorite passage from Inventory:
“Afterwards she asked me if I wanted to fuck and undressed before I could answer. I wanted to push her out of the window.”
And then, on the very next page you have:
“In the master bedroom I caught my reflection in the vanity mirror as I rode him, and the lights were off, and our skin reflected silver from the moon, and when he came in me he said, ‘Sorry. Sorry.’ He died a week later by his own hand. I moved out of the city. North.”
All of the sex scenes in this book, I think, are saying sex is important, and I feel like you write it in a very refreshing and full frontal way.
CMM: I love that. Oh my God, somebody put that on my tombstone. That’s amazing. Sorry, continue.
DC: Let’s go with… “face on” instead?
CMM: Okay, sure, sure, sure.
DC: So it’s this “face on” way, rather than this sort of “two characters embraced, ellipses, and afterwards…”
DC: What made you want to write about sex and all of its very dirty, gory, real details?
CMM: I guess a couple things. I had a teacher once say to me, “You should give your characters a roll in the hay. They work really hard, they deserve it.” I thought that was tremendous and funny and I thought, “Yeah, that’s right!” But also, I talk to my students a lot about party scenes. I think often if you’re feeling stuck in a story it’s really useful to throw in a party scene, because you can bring a lot of characters together into one place. There’s a lot of bad behavior, it’s aesthetically really interesting, it’s just a good little catalyst to get some stuff going and see what happens. And I feel like sex scenes are really similar in that they uncover a character in this really interesting way. And also people like to read them, they’re fun. You know, it’s just as fun to read a good sex scene as it is to read the party scenes from The Great Gatsby or whatever. So I feel like that’s part of it. And I also, I’m queer. I’m really interested in the idea that queer sex is elevated to a literary space. I feel like we usually think of queer sex as this dirty illicit thing that’s happening—because historically that’s how it has been treated. So that was really important to me also. And yeah, they’re really fun to write. I like it. It’s interesting to me. It’s never boring. People blush and get really stressed out when they talk to me about it.
CMM: Yeah, my students say to me, “I read your book….” They just freeze in terror. But there’s something really really delightful about it. I don’t know, I just have always found a lot of pleasure in it. No pun intended. Also, I feel like when I was reading books, literary books that had sex in them, it was all from this very straight male perspective. I was very exasperated because the tone of it is very cruel and misogynistic and it’s weird because when I’d say that people would respond, “Well you’re just a prude.” And I thought, “No! I love sex scenes, bring on the sex scenes, but not where women’s bodies are just being talked about like that.” You know? It’s just gross. It’s gross. And it’s interesting, I guess, that it’s so gross, but you know? It’s gross.
And there are exceptions—I really love Nicholson Baker and he’s a straight white dude who writes beautiful, tender, amazing, funny sex scenes. If you have not read Nicholson Baker you absolutely must, he’s amazing. So there are certainly exceptions. But I feel like I never see women writing explicit sex scenes outside of erotica and I really want that. You have to write what you don’t see, and what you want, right? That’s the job. I sense a lack in something, and I’ve got to fill that space with myself, with my art. So yeah, I was really sick of just reading what really old white straight dudes have to say about women’s bodies. I’m just sick of that, I don’t want to read it anymore. I really wanted to do something about that.
DC: Okay. What is your favorite moment in this collection? I am sorry, it’s an impossible question.
CMM: Why don’t you tell me yours? I’ll tell you if I agree. How’s that?
DC: It’s in The Husband Stitch. “I do not know if I am the first woman to walk up the aisle of St. George’s with semen leaking down her leg, but I like to imagine that I am.”
CMM: Yeah, that’s a good one. That’s a really good one.
DC: You can’t take that one. You have to think of a different one.
CMM: I feel like I don’t remember writing this book. I don’t even know where I am right now. In The Resident, I really love the protagonist’s fight with Lydia. Lydia, who’s an odious poet composer, and the protagonist cannot stand her. Lydia is just really insufferable. And they get into a really intense fight. Is a queer woman allowed to write about queer characters with mental illness? Because doesn’t that fulfill a stereotype?
DC: The mad woman in the attic.
CMM: Exactly, and I’ve actually had people write emails to me about “That scene.” She calls Lydia an aggressively ordinary woman and everyone’s like, “That’s the only—I’m gonna put that curse on everybody I see, like, ‘You are an aggressively ordinary person!’” So yeah, I feel like that’s probably one of my favorites, for sure.
DC: In your work, I see writers that I know. I see Aimee Bender or Kelly Link in the fantasy, and Roxane Gay in its politics, and maybe Ottessa Moshfegh in its grotesque. All writers are thieves. We steal from everyone, right? Who did you steal from? Who did you borrow and steal from?
CMM: Oh, I steal pretty intensely from Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson. There’s a story I had in Tin House this summer, not in this book, that I just straight up stole a character out of a Shirley Jackson story and put it in a different story. You know, with acknowledgment that’s what I was doing. And that was pretty satisfying. So, for those of you who don’t know, the story The Lottery comes from a collection called The Lottery and Other Stories: Or, the Adventures of James Harris. And there’s a character called James Harris, or Jim, who is also described as the man in the blue suit, who appears in various stories throughout that collection. He’s sort of painted as this trickster figure who leads women astray in various ways, almost like a demonic trickster sort of character. And later there’s a poem called The Daemon Lover that’s about a woman who’s lured away. So he’s this weird character and I thought, “I want to put him in my own story.” So I just wrote a story where a woman encounters this man.
And then the structure of The Resident is basically the structure of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is one of my favorite novels. Actually, probably my favorite novel. So yeah, those two I say pretty aggressively—also I steal the entire structure of Law & Order SVU. I do that, too. I’m a pretty unabashed thief, that’s my way. When I read a thing or I see a thing I always think: “How can I make that my own?”
DC: That’s actually a good segue. You have your Law & Order story, which is just a story made up of every title from Law & Order SVU that you have been watching?
DC: You also in here have this apocalyptic sex catalogue, which is Inventory, and you have a screenplay – or at least it’s meant to be read aloud. So you’re doing a lot of playing with form. So tell me, did these stories start out with form? Did any of them start out with form? Or what do you usually start out with?
CMM: I am not a person who starts with character. I feel like a lot of times writers will say, “Oh this character spoke to me,” but that’s not my way. I’ve never had that happen to me. I usually am starting from form or a concept or a question that I have. Or sometimes an image or a title. So it sort of depends on the story. But Inventory, which is the apocalyptic sex catalogue—which I also want on my tombstone—so I thought, “Could I write a story where every scene was a sex scene? How would that look? How would I do that in a way that wasn’t just excessive?” I mean it is excessive, but in a way that I could formally justify it. And so Inventory was what I wrote to sort of scratch that itch, “I have this question. Can I do this thing? Oh yeah I can, I did it. Huh, good for me.” And oftentimes I’ll do that, and it’s a failure. “Whelp, that didn’t work. That was terrible, no one will ever see that.”
I had a dream once about a man turned into a boat, and then I wrote a story about a man turned into a boat that I submitted to workshop, and everybody was very confused. And I thought, “You know what, it’s a failed experiment.” I had a dream, I thought I could use the dream—it was bad. We’re just going to scratch that.
DC: Okay. You said you turned in lots of story for workshop that you did not use.
CMM: Oh yeah.
DC: That’s helpful, for me, and for probably most of us. Which story in here is your oldest? Which is your newest? How many did you get rid of in the process? You don’t have to give me an exact number.
CMM: So, the title of this book is the title of my thesis from Iowa, but it only shares three stories in common with that book. You can go into the library to find a bound version of my thesis—don’t do this, because it’s very bad. It’s not good. The only stories it has in common are Difficult at Parties, Real Women Have Bodies, and Especially Heinous. Everything else is different.
I think when you start off as a writer—I think this is really common—you worry that the well of your words will run dry and so you must hold on to every word you commit to the page. Because what if you wake up one day and words no longer exist? So you need to keep them. For a long time I thought, “This is the book I am writing and I will never write a second book because I can’t conceive of another book in my head. I only will have the one and that’s it.” And now I can tell you, past the first book, I have like five books I’m working on and that’s just how it happens, right? Eventually the concerns that are in one book, you realize, “I have other concerns, or additional concerns, or things I want to talk about that aren’t necessarily about the thing I was writing about in this book.” And that’s a really weird sensation.
Difficult at Parties I actually wrote first out of all the stories in this collection. It was the first story that I wrote when I got to grad school, I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was just sort of reading things and imitating them. But not in a good way, not in a, “I’m stealing this plot from Shirley Jackson because I love her and it’s amazing” kind of way. More like I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what kind of writer I was, so I was reading things and then trying to come up with something. My classmates, God bless them—they didn’t say it exactly like this, it was much nicer—but they basically said, “This is kind of boring, but there are places in these stories that are really interesting.” So I had this truly dreadful story and my classmates said, “Well this is real bad. But there was this moment in the story where Death appears to this woman and starts speaking to her and that’s where the story came alive. We could just see this spark of life that wasn’t in the rest of the story but was in that one part. You should read Kelly Link, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Karen Russell, George Saunders.” They just recommended all these people to me, and so I went and read those people and suddenly it was like the sun came out. I thought, “Oh my God I think I kind of know how I want to write, or what I want to write about!”
Difficult at Parties was the first time I ever wrote a story where I wrote it and thought, “That’s a really good story. It answers the question I had, it does the things I want it to do, I love the sentences…”
And I was really proud of it, and I felt like I had sort of hit upon my style. Like I’d hit on my voice. Which, as a writer that’s what you’re always trying to do. Find your voice or figure out what your voice is. And I thought, “Oh my God this is amazing.” Then I sort of kept writing, and there still were—I still failed after that but that was the first time I’d ever succeeded in this thing I was doing, or felt like I had succeeded.
But most of it I wrote post-grad school and there were stories that I’ve published that I like but that aren’t in here because they don’t really belong in this collection. They don’t really fit the thematic heart of the stories. And also stories that I liked at the time, but I look back on them and I think, “Meh. If no one ever reads that again I really don’t care.” Because I’m just not that invested in it. I feel like that’s part of it. There are a lot I workshopped. I workshopped two to three stories a semester, two years, a couple times it was double. So I workshopped maybe fifteen to twenty stories while I was in grad school, and only a handful of them are in this book. Most of them I never looked at again, because I realized, “Eh, that was fine, but I don’t really care about it anymore.” That’s just part of the process, right?
DC: You talk about stories either fitting or not fitting the thematic heart of this. I feel like there were maybe multiple thematic hearts to it, but one thing I really got out of it, I finished the collection and I had never felt so alienated. My mind had never felt so alienated from my body. You sort of separate the two and you talk about your mind living inside your body.
In The Resident you have a protagonist who considers taking up residency in her mind, and you have babies considering their mother’s bodies as houses, and in The Husband’s Stitch it’s all about ownership of your body, basically. Did you intend, writing these stories, to say, “Yeah, this is about bodies and minds” or did you finish the stories and realize that you had been speaking to this theme all along and all of these stories just kind of tied together magically?
CMM: I mean, it’s not magic. It was pretty intentional. I didn’t know it at first, but at some point I realized that I was writing this book. I think for a long time I sort of thought, “Well, a short story collection is a collection of short stories.” I mean, it’s just right in the name. Short stories are put in a book and it’s a collection, right? The short story collection is more than that. It’s like a body of work that is speaking to a single or a set of thematic commonalities, or is sort of asking a question in a bunch of different ways. So I feel like sometimes people do publish collections where the stories aren’t that tied together. I’m not saying that they have to be linked together, in the same plane of existence or universe. There are obviously stories where it’s different characters in the same universe or whatever. But just the idea that the stories are turning over or chewing on common questions or materials, I think is really important. At some point I sort of realized, “Okay, so it seems like what I’m really interested in is sex, death, gender, bodies, sex, death, illness, sex, death, bodies.” I just kept coming back to these things. “Well, all right. That’s clearly what I want to be writing about.”
I’m just switching genres all over the place and letting the stories play out the way they’re going to play out. It was weird, because when I was trying to sell this collection I only had one offer, which was from Graywolf Press, but there was an editor who was sort of thinking about it and he said, “I would publish this book if you added more stories. I know you have a bunch of other stories.” And I said, “Yeah, but they don’t fit this book. They’re not part of this project.” And he didn’t quite get that, which I was kind of annoyed by.
DC: You talk about how someone asked to add stories. Did you remove anything from this that you regret removing from it?
CMM: No, I have no regrets about the stories in this collection. When it was first on submission, there actually were a couple of tiny little flash pieces in here. And this was the reason I picked my editor, or why I wanted to work with him, when we had our phone call he said, “So here’s my vision for this book.” And it was as if he was in my head. He was just describing my own vision for the book. I thought, “You know, I’m shocked because you’re a middle-aged straight white dude. You’re not who I imagined would really get this project, but you seem to really get this project.” Which was amazing. And so he said to me, “The only thing is there are these three flash stories. And it seems to me, they’re not quite—I imagine a tight, sort of lean collection. So take out these little bits and bobs.” And I said to him, “Yeah, actually I was having that same thought but I just didn’t do it.”
But I’m glad I took them out. I think maybe one day I’ll write a flash collection, because I do have a lot of flash pieces that are really, really short. But they just didn’t really work in here.
DC: I would call your prose very lyric. Do you read your work aloud? Is that part of your process?
CMM: Yes. Yeah. Everything. Many times over. Makes working in coffee shops really hard because I’m just muttering to myself. And I will find myself muttering to myself while I’m at home, or there is even a point where I say, “I’m going to read this out loud now,” and that actually helps me kind of polish the prose and helps me get that musicality into it. I can tell when a sentence isn’t working because it catches on my ear. I do not have any musical experience, but I imagine it’s what it’s like to hear a bad note. You know, if you’re playing an instrument and you think, “Oh, God that is absolutely 100% the wrong note.” I feel like I have a similar sensation, like, “Oh that word is not working,” or “This sentence is—something is holding up this sentence.” And it’s hard to even describe exactly what it is, but I just know it’s not right.
But even when I’m not intentionally reading out loud, I do mutter through sentences. I need to hear it or feel it in my mouth to get the sentence right. Sound is really important to me. I tell my students for proofreading, reading out loud is good because you can catch a lot of stuff that way, but also for this sense of musicality and this sense of how the sentences sound to the ear. Which is just as important as how they read on the page.
DC: I feel like you deal with urban legends a lot. That’s something that’s rarely touched on, in short stories that I know at least. I’m thinking about The Husband Stitch, again, and I remember hearing this story about the woman with a ribbon around her neck as a child. What draws you to retelling or sort of speaking to those dark urban legends?
CMM: I think urban legends or any kind of oral tradition, like children’s hand games, children’s chants or jump rope chants, fairy tales, horror stories—they always change and they move and they follow generations of children and they reflect a lot about what we’re interested about. So the example I usually give, when I was a kid there was a story that I would hear, an urban legend: if you went to a movie theater you had to be careful what seat you sat in because people were putting hypodermic needles in the seats.
But the sort of catch—I think because I grew up in the 90s—there would be a sign on the back of the seat that would say, “Congratulations, now you have AIDS” or something. So this sort of anxiety about HIV and this anxiety about contamination and this really intense cultural fear surrounding that particular issue sort of manifests. That story about a thing, like a sharp, dangerous thing being hidden in a safe or good thing is a genre of urban legend that’s existed for a long time. But that’s just one manifestation of it that came about in this one particular era that reflected a sort of general cultural anxiety. I think they’re really useful in that way and they’re useful in how they tell us about ourselves.
And that’s true of fairy tales. I’m actually writing a story right now about children’s hand games, like Miss Mary Mack and all those. I was looking up this one that I remembered as a kid, which was like, “Miss Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a valve. Miss Lucy went to heaven, the steamboat went to hell. Oh, hello operator—” and it would just go on and on. I remember doing it as a kid. I was looking up this rhyme and I found this amazing website that had fifty years of that exact rhyme across regions. “This is from 1985, Georgia,” “This is from 1996, eastern Pennsylvania,” “This one’s from…” You know? And you could see all the different variations on it and how it changed and what stayed the same. There were certain bits where I would read the phrase and I’d realize, “I don’t know what that means,” and there’d be a footnote explaining, “Oh this phrase means this thing,” but I never would’ve known that because it was a regional phrase.
In the same way, all these sort of elements are telling us things about ourselves and I feel like that’s very interesting and just a really rich space. When you retell a fairy tale what you’re doing is looking at a story and saying, “What is this telling me about who we are? Who people are? Or what people value?” And then trying to find a way to riff on that or comment on that or subvert that. I feel like it’s just a good, interesting space to work from.
DC: You know that hypodermic needle story actually made it to New Zealand. It had morphed into the needles were going through toilet seats in public bathrooms, which I don’t even know how logistically that would work. But I was scared for a long time.
CMM: Also the whole idea with razor blades and apples, which is a thing that has never happened. It has never been recorded, ever, in the history of mankind and yet people are really anxious about razor blades. Which is what I mention in The Husband Stitch. I remember being a kid and someone giving me an apple and my mother would say, “Throw that away! You can have this candy, but not that apple!” Because, you know, the candy was wrapped up and so it was “safe,” ostensibly.
I mean, if I was to go back to school—which I would not do—but if I did, I feel like I would study folk lore. Because I just feel like there’s a lot to say, to tell us about ourselves.
DC: Okay, maybe two more. What is the worst advice you hear often said to writers? We hear some bad advice.
CMM: I think the problem with advice is that oftentimes people will say advice as if it is universally applicable, and not question the sort of assumptions that advice is reflecting. So a really common one you probably hear, is “show don’t tell,” right?
CMM: So “show don’t tell” is so standard, you see it everywhere. It’s not inherently a bad piece of advice. This idea that sometimes people use exposition when they should use scene—it’s true, it happens. It’s useful in that way. But it also doesn’t mean that you should show everything. Because if you have no exposition the story is going to go on for a million years. The story will not move anywhere because you’ll be describing every single thing that’s happening. And it also dismisses an entire genre of literature, which is like the fairy tale and like other sorts of stories that have an expositional form. Also, certain stories need certain balances of scene and exposition. It just depends on the story and what the story is doing. It doesn’t have anything to do with this arbitrary rule. What you need in that sort of craft element really depends on a lot of things and you’ve got to figure it out. So yes, I hear that a lot.
I once had a teacher say to me—who shall remain nameless—say to me that you couldn’t switch POVs in a short story and I thought, “What are you talking about?” That was weird. I feel like when people are proscriptive with writing advice, just take it with a grain of salt. Because I feel like people love to give advice and it all really just depends. The only writing advice I’ve ever given anybody, which I think is pretty consistent, is that if you want to write you have to read. That’s the only advice that I think is pretty consistent. And if you’re stuck, reading can really help you. You know, you want to be in contact with other writers. But everything else you have a lot of things you can do.
DC: Okay, I’m going to ask one more question. I feel like we should talk about what is coming up for you. You’re working on a memoir. I know, because I stalked you.
CMM: By stalking you mean Googling. You don’t mean peeping through a window in my house or anything.
DC: You’re also compiling an essay collection, I think. How is the process of writing nonfiction different for you from the process of writing fiction, and how does one feed into the other?
CMM: I’m a much slower essay writer. I write short stories pretty quickly, but with the essays I write maybe one essay a year. I just have to think about it for a long time. I’m sort of always thinking. And I’ll go and write some stuff down and have some notes but I can’t get my thoughts together because I’m still thinking about the thing. It’s still cooking, basically, and it takes me longer to cook an essay in my brain than a short story, for reasons that I don’t fully understand. But I also often find that if I want to write about a thing, it’s easier for me to write a story about the thing first and then write the essay.
There’s two examples of this. In this collection there’s a story called Eight Bites which is about gastro bypass surgery and I really wanted to write an essay about fatness and I just hadn’t figured it out. I was thinking, “I don’t know how to do this. Everything I write seems really obvious.” It just wasn’t working. And then I wrote a short story about fatness and then I found myself writing this essay called, The Trash Heap Has Spoken which was in Guernica last year. Which I really loved and it was like, “Oh, I’ve got something!” I was just trying to get to that place. I wanted to figure out my thoughts and fiction helped me organize my thoughts, and then I could write the essay that I needed to write. That also happened with the story Mothers in this collection, which is about a woman in an abusive relationship with another woman. And the memoir that’s coming out is also about that, but I needed to write the short story first and then I found myself able to write a memoir. So I feel like for some reason I need to write the fiction thing, because I have more freedom. With nonfiction you have the constraint of reality, right? And with fiction I can do whatever I need to get my head around it, and then I can deploy an essay.
I feel like I’m talking in military terms. But there’s something very interesting about it to me. I don’t quite understand it, myself. I’m writing more and more nonfiction these days. Actually, that’s almost entirely what I’m doing right now.
DC: Thank you very much.