Carmen Maria Machado is just like us. She binge watches Law and Order: SVU, she plays video games, and she didn’t get the job as a Starbucks barista. But unlike us, she received the Bard Fiction Prize, won the John Leonard Award for best first book, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize: all for her first collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties.
A writer–in–residence, Carmen roams the blocks of Penn’s campus. When she’s not working on her writing, she’s in class, teaching either a general fiction workshop or a “speculative fiction” writing course. Her time on campus is what she says “writers need. Time and space. That’s what you need to create.” Finding an Ivy League university that would provide this was a much deserved reprieve for Carmen, who found herself working in a mall after receiving her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, often thought of as the best writing program in the country.
It was there in Iowa, though, where Carmen found her voice. “I had friends sort of observe that my writing came the most alive when there was a little hole punctured in reality,” she says. This discovery lead her to voraciously read the writers who had paved the way for literary fiction, such as George Saunders, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Sofia Samatar.
But Carmen herself doesn’t fit into any specific type of genre. “I want to write about things like bodies, and women, and sex, and death, and illness, mental illness, and gender,” she says. “And the way that I want to write about them was using these sort of genre rules as stepping out of the boundaries of realism.”
Like most writers, Carmen pulls themes from her own life for her stories. As a queer woman, “all my characters are queer in some capacity,” she says, “because, you know, it’s like you gotta write the books you wanna see in the world... Not only do I want to write about these people, I also want to write about them outside of the capacity of like, coming out. Not like those stories are bad. Those stories are necessary. But being like, queer women just like living their lives and being in relationships and that's the situation.” Rather than confining herself to the constraints of a genre, she creates her own style through her own experience.
Aside from herself, though, Carmen also draws much influence from the media. In fact, there is an entire novella in Her Body and Other Parties on Law and Order: SVU (which was actually created by Penn grad, Dick Wolf). “I mean, I watch a lot of TV. I consume a lot of media, play a lot of video games. Like I am a human being in the world,” Carmen laughs. “But I can’t turn my writer brain off so when I do stuff like watch TV, I’m often thinking about what those narratives say about us and why [there are], for example, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen seasons of Law and Order: SVU at this point… the only active Law and Order franchise is the rape one and so that seemed like a really interesting lens through which to examine narratives about sexual violence, the way we talk about it, the way we consume it, the way we react to it.”
Yet, her own works, despite being published five years ago, retain an immediacy and relevancy even today, especially in the face of the recent election and the #MeToo movement. “This happens sometimes with books,” she says. “But I think that what it sort of underlines and emphasizes is just that it's not as if like things are bad for women just right now, but like things have been bad for women for all of human history, and I was responding to that and it just happens to be like right now we are in this very weird, very formative, very volatile moment politically.”
Given her experience in the literary field, there’s no doubt Carmen passes on real craft to her students through her courses. While she is taking a residency at Bard College after having won the Bard Fiction Prize, she is planning to return to Penn the following spring. “I love it here,” she says, enthusiastically. “The Penn students are delightful and just charming, and I adore all you guys so much.” In the meantime, while she’s still here, Carmen has one core piece of advice: read across genres, experiment, and figure out what you care about.