During graduate school at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Carmen Maria Machado heard other students discussing their short story collections, talking about how they wrote around a central concept. "They seemed to be focusing on a very specific theme or set of topics, and the stories are turning them over in various ways," she told Spine.
Machado found it ridiculous, this concept of limiting oneself to a defined thematic space. But then she looked at her work — about "bodies and sex and sexual violence and the physicality of bodies" — and realized she was writing this way, too.
By the end of graduate school, Machado had written and gathered a book-length collection of short stories for her thesis, called Her Body and Other Parties. Last week, a revised version of the project arrived in bookstores.
The work defies genre; Machado's stories are funny and horrifying and frightening and strange and beautiful, each exploring women's lives and what it means to occupy a woman's body. In her publisher's words, "Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment."
The book has only recently hit bookstores and already won Machado the Bard Fiction Prize, is a National Book Award finalist, and has been nominated for the 2017 Kirkus Prize, impressive for a first book, especially one that couldn't find a publisher during its first round of submissions.
After working with her agent Kent Wolf and failing to find a publisher, Machado hunkered down with her book, pulling in, letting out, adding and subtracting. They sent it out again and Ethan Nosowsky, editorial director at Graywolf Press, called with a few ideas. "He said, 'Here's my vision for the book,'" she recalled. He suggested removing three stories he felt — and she agreed — didn't quite fit. A little more work, and Machado arrived a "a lean, tight collection" and a publisher, Graywolf.
The stories included in the final version share themes, but were born of a variety of creative processes. Inventory, in which a woman itemizes sexual relationships while the world transforms in the background, poured out of Machado in a few hours. Mothers began with a question: What if a woman's ex-girlfriend came to her with a baby?
Fascinated by form and dedicated to exploding traditional notions of how to tell a story, Machado sometimes begins with a structural conceit. She wrote Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead, part of the anthology Help Fund My Robot Artmy!!! and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects, as if she was writing a crowdfunding request. In that instance, narrative followed form.
Other stories sprung from inspiration found on one of Machado's lists. "I'm definitely an ideas person," she said. "I keep a lot of lists and collect them and go back to them. I'm acquiring little bits and bobs, and at some point it all pays off. "
Machado is not wed to a particular means of generating narrative, but she is very particular when it comes to how and where she works. "I wish I could be easier. I need to be in a relatively clean space." She needs drinks, usually coffee and seltzer. She needs to be alone; she's constantly reading aloud as she writes. "It's a way that I make sure my sentences are working," she said. "At home, I'll say sentences out loud as I'm writing." She also reads aloud to celebrate. "The reward for finishing something is, I can read it aloud to Val." (Machado's wife is the writer Val Howlett.)
Finally, Machado needs time, lots and lots of time stretching ahead of her. "I have to have all day to write. A week. Hours and hours and hours and hours. That helps me feel like I can move about." Residencies in particular suit Machado's process. She'll undertake a residency via the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation next summer to work on House in Indiana: A Memoir, to be published by Graywolf in late 2019. The book will be her first nonfiction title.
"Nonfiction is much, much, much harder for me," she said. "I can write five short stories in the time it takes me to write one essay. It's a really different process mentally and emotionally. Even if I'm dealing with similar emotional materials, nonfiction is a new challenge."
The residency is almost a year off. In the meantime, Machado will focus on the classes she's teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and on promoting the short story collection. In addition to the prize nominations, the book is receiving many strong reviews. Machado's okay with all the attention. "It feels good to be seen."
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Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.