INTERVIEW | Enter: On Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House
Jacket design: Kimberly Glyder
Jacket art: Alex Eckman-Lawn
What does it mean to be haunted, to have a place that is haunted, to become a place that is haunted?
These are just a few of the questions that sit at the heart of Carmen Maria Machado’s new memoir, In the Dream House, published by Graywolf Press. In this work, Machado weaves together essays, narrative tropes, and legal cases, divided into short chapters, almost like vignettes, with titles like: Dream House as Omen, Dream House as Romance Novel, Dream House as Haunted Mansion.
Machado tells us that there are stories in our history that are missing, about queer relationships, about violence in queer relationships, about how to recognize violence in queer relationships. How do you look for the signs when you don’t know where to look? And what do you do with the signs that have already passed? Machado does not set forth to answer this, but rather, gives us ways to let the reader ruminate, conjuring up a force that makes us want to search for those answers.
She recounts a relationship with a woman that started as a dream, “a convent of promise (a herb garden, wine, writing across the table from each other), a den of debauchery (fucking with the windows open, waking up with mouth on mouth, the low, insistent murmur of fantasy)” that turned into something like “a haunted house (none of this can really be happening).”
“The book itself is the body, the book is the house, the book is me…all of those things are haunted,” Machado said when we spoke on the phone last week.
If all of those things are haunted, and memoir is a way to remember, to reconstruct, then Machado is rebuilding, brick by brick, piece by piece.
Machado has already mesmerized readers with her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, that became the winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, and many others. She has also edited for both this year’s The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Best Experimental Writing 2020—and she continues to captivate us, leaving a lasting impression in our history, an echo of her story.
Enter: An Interview
Topics include: haunted houses, queering research, and Tarot.
Shiane D. Jacocks: First off, I want to say that I loved your book, and couldn’t wait to read it. It comes out next week, I’m wondering, what’s going through your mind?
Carmen Maria Machado: Oh! I mean, I’m stressed [laughs]. It’s going to be really intense, and so I’m really just bracing myself for the process of touring my book.
SJ: Hopefully you get a break soon!
CM: Yes. I hope so, too [laughs].
SJ: So, in your memoir, you talk a lot about the complexities of abuse in queer relationships and the lack of stories that we need to talk about those complexities. I’m wondering, would you say that you had to use a critical “queering” lens kind of near [these] heteronormative cultural tropes, [the Stith Thompson Motif-Index] Folk-literature, and legal case to do that research?
CM: Yeah, I think the process of writing the book was about “queering” the archive in this very specific way, so yes definitely.
SJ: I feel like a lot of queer bodies are kind of forced to “queer” something in order to see themselves [in work].
CM: Yeah, I agree.
SJ: This entire book reminded me of your story “The Husband Stitch,” where, in that story, you use folklore to address how we treat real horrifying things that happen to women as urban legends. When I first read the story, I did some research and there wasn't a lot of articles on the actual violent practice of [the husband stitch], but years later when your story came out, a lot of articles started coming out and people were talking about [the practice of the husband stitch], and putting a name to what happened to them, and so, do you think this book will have a similar impact and reception?
CM: I hope so! I mean, that would be really lovely if people began to have these conversations in a more active way. That would be really, really great, I think.
SJ: I hope so, too. Something that I thought a lot about when I was reading your book was this idea of the act of creating art, particularly this violence behind it. [This reminds me of] the chapter you have about the director George Cukor, who was known for torturing actresses on set to get real performances out of them. Do you feel, as though, there is some idea around this kind of violence that we tolerate and ignore?
CM: Yeah, I mean I think that we make calculations about acceptable casualties, and I think that in his own way—that is what that calculation is, right? That it’s okay to torment an actress as long as you get the performance out that you want, which is not a particular, unheard of thing. That a lot of directors—male directors—that do that to women. So yeah, I think it’s all about the conversation of what is acceptable, what is acceptable to do to a woman, like where is the line, and if you get good art out of it, does it matter?
SJ: I found that line [in your book], particularly where [you write about the biographer, who wrote about Cukor] almost justified [Cukor’s actions], because they found it was purposeful. And what does that mean, that torturing—this violence is purposeful?
CM: Exactly. It’s like, if it’s done with intention, does it make it any less terrible?
SJ: I wanted to talk about the Choose Your Own Adventure part of the book, which I really liked. That was the point of the book where I couldn’t hold it anymore, and I cried!
CM: Oh! [laughs].
SJ: [laughs] I’m wondering about the intention of creating that chapter, and what that process was like for you?
CM: When I was working on the book, at some point I made a note to myself, and I wrote down, ‘gaslight the reader?’ so that was always a thing on my mind in some way or another. Then at some point, I was just like, okay, I have to figure out some way to do this, and I tried a bunch of different techniques, and it wasn’t until I did the Choose Your Own Adventure, that I was like, oh, that’s the perfect way of sort of fucking with somebody who’s reading the book, because it’s giving them this illusion of choice—whether it’s no choice.
SJ: Yes, this "illusion of choice.” Do you think that it was also a way to visually show this cycle of abuse?
CM: Yes! I think also, because you can get stuck in that cycle, in that Choose Your Own Adventure, there is a way of getting stuck. I mean, I don’t know if you didn’t or not, but there is a way to do it.
SJ: I did feel like that I was going through that circular motion.
SJ: In your book, it also felt like you were playing with this idea of body as haunted house. Could you talk a little about that? [And also] remembering as a way to rebuild?
CM: Well, I’ve always been very interested in houses, and haunted houses, and what does it mean to be haunted? What is a house, exactly? And I think the more I thought about this story, the more I felt as if I was the haunted house. And so, it just felt like a natural extension of that metaphor, like the book itself is the body, the book is the house, the book is me…all of those things are haunted. That was a very purposeful part of my project.
SJ: This makes me think about the quote you used [for the epigraph In Her Body and Other Parties] from Jacqui Germain’s [poem “Bipolar is Bored and Renames Itself”] about [the body] as the haunted house. Was there a connection between the two?
CM: Yes. I remember when I found that poem, and I found that quote, and I really loved it, and I felt very moved, and very spoken to by it. And so, I definitely feel like that was an early way that I began to conceive that idea.
SJ: I’m also very interested in this idea of body as haunted house. I’ve heard that one of your favorite authors is Shirley Jackson. Did you see Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House play into formatting this idea of the haunted house, too? Or thinking about the haunted house?
CM: Yes. Absolutely! I mean, I read that book so often, it kind of seems inevitable that it would find its way into my work [laughs].
SJ: Have you seen the show?
CM: I did see it, yes. I’ve watched it.
SJ: There is a part in your book where you talk about the home, and privacy, and safe spaces, and seems to be close to this idea of the haunted house. You talk about how we think of the home as safe spaces, but maybe that’s false calculations?
CM: I think we see houses, a house, as safe. Period. That’s an idea that people have, and I talk about how idioms about the home are also talking about ways of how frangible they are; glasshouses, house of cards….For me, these fundamental elements of the gothic—woman plus habitation and discovering that what you think is safe, is not safe, is the center of a lot of my projects. And so, this idea of a house as safe is false in these interesting ways and becomes this appointive intention, and that was a thing that was certainly on my mind.
SJ: It’s particularly interesting, especially thinking about queer bodies, and trying to find safety, and trying to create new homes.
SJ: Do you think the speculative genre gives space to address a lot of these topics about racism, sexism, and homophobia, and other issues?
CM: Absolutely. I think because, if you belong to a marginalized—or liminal identity, that a liminal way of storytelling very much maps cleanly with what you’re [writing], so it feels like a very natural sort of avenue.
SJ: Could you talk about using this speculative aspect in your memoir?
CM: I was just really interested in, ways in which—I mean, I’m not the first person to do that. There’s a writer I really love named Kevin Brockmeir, who has a beautiful memoir [A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade], and there’s a part of the memoir where time freezes and his adult self goes and talks to his young self, and that to me is a very beautiful gesture that really spoke to me, even though it ruptured reality in this way, I felt like it was a way to [show a] deeper truth telling, and so I was just really intrigued and interested in that.
SJ: As I was reading your book, I couldn’t help but connect it to Halloween. The haunted houses, cornfields, and the scary things that happen to us that we can’t explain. Have you ever used Tarot cards for your writing process?
CM: Not for writing, explicitly. I do Tarot sometimes, but never for writing.
SJ: Do you see [Tarot] as being productive for queer bodies, or just this idea of connecting to your intuition?
CM: Oh, I think that anything that helps you map out your own thoughts, has the potential to be very interesting and subversive and useful, and I think Tarot is a way of doing that for sure.
SJ: Thank you so much for talking with me. I hope you have a good rest of your day!
CM: Thank you, yes. Thanks for calling.
Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House will be out November 5th from Graywolf Press. Purchase your copy now.
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. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of "The New Vanguard," one of "15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century."
Shiane D. Jacocks is the prose editor for Puerto del Sol and current MFA student and graduate assistant at New Mexico State University, where they are studying fiction and gender & sexuality. They are interested in pop culture, queerness, and ghosts—not particularly in that order. They have been published in The Pacific Review, The FEM, IE Voice, Black Voice News, and Ventanas. They are currently working on a book of short stories. You can follow them on Twitter @shianejacocks.