Carmen Maria Machado: ‘I’m interested in messing with genres’

The author of Her Body and Other Parties on the art of writing sex scenes, engaging with dead writers, and the readers who give her flak

Carmen Maria Machado’s acclaimed debut collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for America’s National Book award. She is writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives with her wife in Philadelphia.

Women’s bodies – and what they are subject to – seem to be central to this collection…
It was something very personally important to me, which I think a lot about. It’s weird because people keep saying it’s so relevant right now, but our bodies have been oppressed for all of human history.

There’s a lot of sex in your stories, something that’s notoriously difficult to write about well. What’s the secret?
Letting some sex scenes be pleasurable, letting bodies be real. For me, it was important to have a lot of queer sex, because I never see it – I always tell my students you have to write the stories you want to see in the world. I feel like the people who write the most sex scenes are straight white dudes, which isn’t to say that’s wrong or bad, but if you’re getting the sex through the same perspective over and over, of course it’s going to be boring.

Your acknowledgements suggest that you don’t subscribe to the myth of the solitary writer. True?
The longest acknowledgements in the history of mankind! I think that [myth] is a very romantic and fake idea that people love for reasons I don’t quite understand. Some of writing is solitary, but first you should be reading as a writer and then you’re engaging with other people, even if they’re writers who have been dead for a long time. A lot of people on that list didn’t necessarily directly help me as a writer, but created a life in which writing my book was possible.

You also studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
To have two years where I was just letting stuff marinate and letting stuff take off was incredibly important to me. It wasn’t like I was “learning how to write”, because I already knew how to write, but I was finding my voice and that time was so valuable to me.

You were a finalist for the National book award, interviewed by the Paris Review... as a debut author, how have you dealt with that attention?
Trying to get as much as sleep as possible! It’s been very intense. On the one hand, I’m so glad that this book that I love, that I’ve worked on so hard, is getting all this attention. On the other hand, it feels like “I’m not worthy!” as there are so many good books in the world.

Your stories range across fantasy, fairytale, erotica, horror. Where does that variety come from?
It comes from what I love and what I read. I just picked things up as a child – Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, Shel Silverstein, a lot of horror and thrillers, a lot of mysteries – and there was something very magical about it. Children don’t really have these questions about genres and play in this very organic way – they naturally have a narrative sensibility that’s untethered to traditional narratives. There’s something so wonderful about that, it really speaks to me as an artist.

Have you encountered any prejudice against genre fiction?
No, I actually get way more flak from certain kinds of genre readers – AKA very traditional genre readers – about how my work is insufficiently genre. I’m really interested in interrogating tropes and engaging with genres and messing with them in a way I find satisfying.

Which books would you press on people at the moment?
I’ve loved a lot of books this year, but the two I’d recommend would be Bennett Sim’s White Dialogues and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, which are both short story collections.

What were your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story, Cat Person?
I don’t think it was a perfect story, but almost no stories are. I really liked it – it captured a very distinctive part of the female experience and that was why people responded to it so strongly. People didn’t seem to understand that it was a short story, which wasn’t the fault of the author. I’ve seen it before, this misunderstanding about the function of fiction: people want to read fiction for a clear moral lesson, which is not how fiction works.

• Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is published by Serpent’s Tail (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Stephanie Cross

The GuardianTramp

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