Carmen Maria Machado's literary universe contains multitudes

Carmen Maria Machado
Art Streiber / AUGUST

“Diva, bruja,” reads Carmen Maria Machado’s Twitter bio, but the celebrated author is well on her way to another archetypal role, as a kind of contemporary American Scheherazade, the indefatigable storyteller of the One Thousand and One Nights who outwits a murderous, sexist king. In Machado’s capable hands, fantastical stories of women and girls — many of whom are queer, and just as many who are affected by violence in some way — take myriad forms, drawn from myriad influences.

The author of a paradigm-shifting story collection, 2017’s Her Body and Other Parties, and an inventive memoir-in-parts, 2019’s In the Dream House, Machado, 34, is also now the author of The Low, Low Woods, a graphic novel collaboration with the Greek illustrator Dani and colorist Tamra Bonvillain, which DC Comics released in hardcover format in September.

For Machado, the new book represents “kind of a detour,” she said in a recent video interview from a couch in her Philadelphia home. The comic begins when best friends El and Octavia, two queer teens of color, emerge from a cinema with no memory of what had transpired, only suspicions of dark deeds. From there, they bike the haunted streets and menacing woods of their decrepit hometown Shudder-to-Think (town motto: “Everybody's goal is to mine more coal!!”). Inspired by real-life Centralia, the near-deserted central Pennsylvania town where underground coal fires have infamously burned since 1962, Machado, a native of Allentown, about an hour and half away, builds a frightening rural crossroads of economic desolation, environmental wreckage, and violence against women and girls that is both supernatural and not at all supernatural. The Low, Low Woods is a story of sinkhole beauty queens, eerie gamines, and nightmarish, Bodies-esque hell-dwellers that is, at its core, about friendship, queer romance, unlikely solidarity, and fighting nefarious forces — whether it’s deep-seated misogyny or the skinless not-quite-dead — for the ability to choose your own path.

“We're sort of making our own traditions.”

“Geographical location is not super critical to my writing in general,” Machado told me. But after reading several books on the history of Centralia, she became “really interested in the Pennsylvania gothic, this way in which space and body got turned against each other.”

The town has long held a fascination for her and others. “When I was growing up, a thing that you would do if you were cool — and I was not cool, so I did not do this — but you would skip school and drive to Centralia and, like, take moody black-and-white photographs,” she said. “The imagery of Centralia is already kind of oriented toward horror.”

What she realized was that these kinds of disasters happen all over the world. “They’ve been going on for years, places where basically the earth was on fire because this massive industrialization, the environment completely gutted, and people will have to move or they become ill. It was just really horrifying to me that, like, we do this,” she said. Machado speaks at an energetic, fast clip; with regularity she will revise, mid-sentence, what she is saying. Before we spoke, she and her wife, historical novelist Val Howlett, had just finished their Christmas decorations; a large tree loomed behind her. (Another object in her house is a taxidermied alligator head, which she described in a short essay I edited for the Believer.)

“I ordered a very fancy, self-illuminating garland,” she confessed. “We’re sort of making our own traditions.”

Making your own traditions feels apt when considering Machado’s genre-slippery works that remix horror, fairy tales, speculative fiction, erotica (pen name: Olivia Glass), and literary fiction, guided by a defiantly queer and feminist sensibility that is all her own. Formally, she is distinguished by the ingenuity and exuberance with which she weaves — or, better yet, nests — numerous stories, which then scuttle out like baby spiders. Consider: a catalog of genre tropes (In the Dream House). A list of romantic partners at the end of the world (“Inventory”). Choose Your Own Gaslit Adventure (also In the Dream House). And probably her boldest, the existential horror novella, “Especially Heinous,” which takes the form of 272 fictional episode capsules of Law & Order: SVU, or, as one character quips, monstrously, “Manhattan’s rapiest police department!”

“Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious,” gushed the judges at the National Book Foundation, citing Her Body and Other Parties to have “explosive originality.” Amid such praise and plaudits — she was a 2019 Guggenheim fellow and the winner or finalist for a slew of prizes (over two dozen by my count) — it’s easy to forget the collection, which has sold over 137,000 copies and is in its 11th printing, an enormous figure for a debut story collection from an independent press that was initially rejected by some 30 publishers.

“For a writer like Carmen, who’s operating at a frequency ahead of the prevailing culture, gaining entry into a risk-adverse publishing industry can be frustrating,” Kent Wolf, her agent, told me in an email. “But that makes her commercial success all the sweeter.”

Machado’s sweet rise has been, in at least one aspect, traditional — she obtained her MFA in fiction from the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop — but before that she worked “a lot of random-ass jobs”: as a caregiver, sex shop employee, and hotel worker. She ran children’s birthday parties at a paint-your-own-pottery studio. Meanwhile, she wrote stories in her email browser at work and applied to 26 grad programs — “literally every funded program I could find in Poets and Writers,” she told an interviewer at Medium.

Iowa was a key turning point. Tony Tulathimutte, author of the novel Private Citizens, was her friend and classmate there. “Her work was really different coming into the workshop,” he said in an email. “Very polished but not all that distinguished, the sort of buttoned-up stuff that you often get from writers who haven’t fully caught on to their own strengths and interests yet. Of course she leveled up out of that faster than anyone I've ever seen.” (Even then, she had to turn to freelance copywriting and retail gigs post-MFA. At one point her job was to weigh and cut soap. “It is very soothing, actually,” she told Medium.)

Eventually, she found a home at the independent publisher Graywolf Press. “To me, it was just the old sort of Gertrude Stein thing — the bell was ringing and then you just go for it,” said Ethan Nosowsky, her editor, in a phone interview. He applauded her “amazing style — high style, essentially.” Some of the stories had originally appeared in sci-fi magazines. “To me the stories were almost bilingual,” he noted. “They really traveled in both worlds very comfortably. It just felt like a new evolution in that mode of using fairy tales or genre. And then the additional thing that happened, of course, with the book on this subject about the violence visited upon women’s bodies in the world; it got published right into the height of the #MeToo movement.”

One standout story along these lines is “The Husband Stitch,” a fairy tale-turned-horror story about a beautiful, green-ribboned girl who gets married and raises a son with her “robust” husband —“not a bad man” — who, nonetheless, leads to her literal undoing.

“I feel like Donald Trump makes a lot of men feel complacent, because they’re like, ‘Well, at least I’m not that disgusting human being,’” she told me. “It’s more important to me to figure it out when it comes to people who I theoretically agree with, or are my peers or my colleagues. That to me is far more interesting, but also far more nefarious because people say, ‘Well, I’m not this cartoon villain. I’m not Snidely Whiplash twirling my mustache and tying people to the railroad tracks.’ We really struggle to have honest conversations about what that actually looks like.”

“Carmen is like this beacon telling me to keep going.”

Beyond just sales, Machado’s work has resonated deeply with many younger readers and writers. When I put out a call on Twitter, I was flooded with stories of being introduced to her work in their writing, literature, and queer theory classes. Victoria Hernandez, 21, a gender studies major at William and Mary, told me Machado’s books “truly changed her life.” Shoshana Bockol, 21, an undergraduate poet at Temple University, messaged to say she’d “never felt so deeply seen as a fat lesbian” and that she read “The Trash Heap Has Spoken” — Machado’s extraordinary and vulnerable essay on fatness — “probably monthly, tbh.” Willa Holt, the managing editor at McGill Daily, told me she had “never seen anyone capture what it viscerally feels like to exist as a queer woman (or womanish person), and it validated a lot of feelings I never really had words for.”

Both identity-drawn and aesthetic elements played a role for Kelsey Scult, a 28-year-old multimedia artist in New Orleans. “In the Dream House was instrumental in me writing my first feature script,” she said over the phone. “The style to me was just as empowering as the other parts of her that identify as well.” Similarly, Shaylyn Martos, 25, a journalism major at San Francisco State and a queer, part-indigenous person, told me she was drawn to speculative elements in Machado’s work that “propos[es] solutions and [tries] to encourage others to advocate for themselves.”

A. Poythress, 29, a PhD student in fiction at Oklahoma State University, also expressed feeling “seen” by Machado’s writing. “I hadn’t been in my MFA program for long, and I was only just starting my own journey into short story writing, and here was this fabulous, fat woman who was also a lesbian and also loved horror and surrealism and fabulism,” they said in an email. “Seeing Carmen, and seeing her succeed, which she has done and continues to do, is like watching the literary world accept me. Carmen is like this beacon telling me to keep going.”

Tony Tulathimutte, the novelist and fellow Iowa grad, framed it in literary-historical terms. “I do think that every generation has a sort of tentpole writer who’s most associated with the successful gatecrashing of literary realism, who reminds readers how fun it is to futz around with form and genre, like George Saunders or Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel Garcia Márquez,” he said. “In my opinion that's Carmen.”

As I read from a few of the reader responses, Machado sighed. “I mean, it’s kind of terrifying honestly.” She laughed and quickly revised. “I mean, it’s beautiful, it moves me tremendously; it makes me all just warm and fuzzy inside. One of the hardest things about Covid has been not being able to do physical events. One of my favorite parts is getting to be in a room with people who want to be there listening and also getting to meet them afterwards. But also it’s scary because, like, I’m a human being. I also feel like, if you yourself are a writer and are inspired by it, I want you to be adding to it so I can read your stuff. I want to hear the other half of the conversation.”