Reviving the Beauty of a Nightmare: An Interview with Carmen Maria Machado

Author photo of Carmen Maria Machado

In this interview conducted by Emily Ellison, author Carmen Maria Machado discusses the language of trauma: the need to leverage beauty against pain, to continue through the investigation of that pain, and to challenge singular representations of suffering. By layering various self-perceptions, she believes we might capture something akin to the emotional weight of that event; sometimes, our fragments are enough. And sometimes, Machado advises, it is best to wait, to be the best interpreter of that event, needing first to raise yourself up.

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the memoir In the Dream House and the short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award and 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. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife.

Emily Ellison: You’ve spoken about how you dislike writing autobiographical nonfiction—in fact, you refer to it as ripping off your skin piece by piece. Can you speak about the moment you decided to engage with the content in Dream House, and why you continued despite your displeasure?

Carmen Maria Machado: I don’t know if it was a single choice or moment. I was picking away at it, idly working, and then at some point I decided to sell it. It happened really quickly, you know; everything sort of just fell into place, and then I really didn’t have to engage with it immediately—at that point it was before even Her Body came out. So I sort of just sold it and was like, “Great! File that away!” I finished the edits and then started the tour for Her Body. It wasn’t until much later that I sat down with it and was like “Oh no! What have I done?” [both laugh]

So yes, I don’t think there was a single moment where I made that choice—and maybe if I had known that it would feel the way it would feel, I wouldn’t have done it, but I did, so it’s fine. Yeah. I just had to keep going, because I sold it, you know—didn’t want to give that money back.

Ellison: Returning to that “Oh no!”what were you worried about? The writing itself?

Machado: You know, I think I just didn’t quite expect the work of the memoir to be as traumatic as it ended up being. And I don’t fully know how to account for that—was I just being naive and stupid to think it wouldn’t feel bad, or was it actually worse than I anticipated? I don’t really know. I mean, it wasn’t until I was pretty deep in the process of working on revisions for Graywolf that I realized I was very stressed out by the project and didn’t want to engage with it at all.

Ellison: Reading through, of course your format is unique in the way that it layers chapters. Often a composite of juxtaposed angles can depict a subject more accurately than one single approach. Did the conglomerate of Dream House transformations—Dream House as Bluebeard, Dream House as Heat Death of the Universe, Dream House as Utopia, and so on—feel like an exercise towards finding some essential element or truth?

Machado: Yeah. I think, for me, when I tried to write the book in a straightforward manner, it never quite took. I think it’s because there’s simply more to gain by turning it around in various ways and looking at it from different angles. That’s true in general, and obviously people write in all different ways to reflect that need for that sort of complexity. But for me, I had such trouble just articulating what it even was that I was trying to work on, and it really wasn’t until that form occurred to me that I actually managed to make the whole thing kind of pop. So yeah, I think the book is more complete for all its pieces and fragments.

Ellison: And, I think, more dynamic than just the different angles of you approaching the subject—the fables, the mythological elements, all of those additional lenses we can place on it.

The sentences written in second person can often be read for multiple audiences. Naturally, reading second person can feel as if you are part of the story. In a narrative about domestic abuse, did you worry about implicating the reader in the second person POV portions?

Machado: Not really. I think second person can have a lot of different functions, but in this book I think the “you” is more a reflection of trauma, of severance and separation. Actually, the first draft of the book was entirely in second person, and I remember my editor saying to me when he bought it, “When we get back to this book in a couple of years—when you’re ready—we need to talk about the second person and the way it’s being deployed. I’m worried it’s a distancing technique, and I don’t know if that’s the right thing.” And then I went back and tried put it all in first, and some of it worked, some of it didn’t. And then I realized I wanted there to be a separation between the moments when I’m in the relationship—which works well in that second person present tense, where you’re trapped forever in this eternal thing, this eternal disconnect, this eternal dissociation—versus, you know, the past and the present, or the present version of myself in the essay sections. So yeah, for me it feels less about the reader precisely—though, of course, obviously I have a “Choose your Own Adventure” section, which muddles that a bit, because I’m a rascal that way—but for me, it’s more about trauma than necessarily about implicating the reader.

Ellison: And reading it, I trust when I know I’m not supposed to feel implicated. But there are those sentences that do, that apply to emotion that I’ve felt—they bring my body in, and that feels wonderfully painful. So I love how that works and how I know when I belong.

Dream House addresses an absence of language to appropriately articulate the myriad forms the oppression of women can take. For those in the fight now, what are ways people can conquer this language barrier?

Machado: That’s a good question. [Pauses] I feel like it’s not on the people in the fight; it’s on the other people. We don’t give language to things that we don’t believe exist; we don’t see that it exists, or we don’t believe people when they tell us that it exists. And that’s a failure of the majority collective imagination, right? To say a thing is not worth talking about or dealing with just because one hasn’t experienced it or doesn’t recognize it for what it is.

And obviously that question has to be self-directed within the community itself. But I also think that there’s this process, which has to happen: we have to let people have that language. It also starts with giving children language, giving young people language to talk about their experiences.

Ellison: How can we learn to shape our experiences into narratives that can enlighten and empower an audience larger than ourselves?

Machado: [Laughs] “Oh you know, no big deal—how do I, uh, write?” [Both laugh]

Ellison: Of course that—but even in the smaller perspective of learning how to tell your story in a way that is organized, or mature, willing to learn, deepen.

Machado: Yeah. I mean, I think part of it—something people ask me about a lot—is if the work is therapeutic. But for me, you can’t write from a place of pain. You can write from a place of pain—I mean, many people do—but it’s possible to be too close to something; it’s possible you’re not the right author at the right moment for that thing, in that moment, you know. And I think it’s hard to recognize that. It can be hard when you just need to make sense of this thing, and writing is how you know how to do that.

But it’s okay to wait, to try to find the right language and to find the right word. Because it isn’t enough to just transfer the pain of your body to the page: it has to be interesting, it has to beautiful, it has to do something for the audience or else it’s just secondhand pain.

It’s really about, “I need to make myself—I need to be a better writer, I need to make myself think about craft and the ways in which I can bring myself and rise to the level of the vision I have for this project and what I want this project to do.” Which is a really huge thing, and it’s not easy. I kept thinking as I was working on this book, “I’m not smart enough to write this book, I’m not good enough, I’m not.” And maybe I wasn’t. But I had to get myself there.

I wished that there was a crash course in, say, “How to Convert Research into Readable Prose,” which is not really a thing that I had ever done or had to do. I had written papers and things, but I never had to think about language in the way of taking research and making it into language that is interesting and matches the rest of the book. It was super difficult, and I had to make myself pull myself up to the level of this material, but I knew I had to do it otherwise no one would care about the book, you know?

Ellison: And I think, too, of how the beauty of language can be a supplement.

You’ve spoken a couple of times about beauty that must accompany trauma, in that ideal balance. Do you find that your first drafts often favor one side over the other?

Machado: The first drafts of this book favored the trauma—which was not good, you know. I remember thinking, “If I just write a book about how bad things were, nobody will understand why I was with this person in the first place.” And I think one of the hardest things about writing the book was having to remember what it was when it felt good, when it was pleasurable, when it was lovely, when it was so wonderful—you have to write about that too, or else the other stuff doesn’t make any sense. That was harder and it took longer; it required me to almost un-know what I knew and recalibrate my brain.

Ellison: To rehumanize someone.

Machado: Yeah! To rehumanize someone who, to me, had lost many of their human qualities in the monstrosity of what she did. I tried to remember what I felt like—resurrecting this dead version of myself, having a confrontation with her to get out of her what I needed to know. It was very difficult. So many of the earlier [versions] were grim [laughs], sort of skeletal. I think the finished book is also grim, but there’s a levity in there that, I think, is necessary.

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