DEAR READER: A Q&A with Carmen Maria Machado

Tin House Staff

It’s a breakout year for Carmen Maria Machado. Her debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was long-listed for the National Book Award and named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize; the LA Times just called it “that hallowed thing: an example of almost preposterous talent that also encapsulates something vital but previously diffuse about the moment.” But Carmen’s no stranger to literary success: her stories have been reprinted in Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Best Women’s Erotica, and more.

Last month, Carmen took 24 hours to catch her breath at Ace Hotel New York. As the latest Dear Reader author, she was selected by Tin House for a one-night residency, during which she penned a letter to an imagined audience. Today, pub day for Her Body and Other Parties, that letter will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Carmen to talk Angela Carter, the surprising work of the subconscious, and jumpstarting some magic.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be and why?

CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: Angela Carter! I feel like my life would be greatly improved if we wrote gruesome, baroque letters to each other about sex and death and fairy tales and murder and bodily fluids.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

My writing process tends to be pretty freeform. I keep lists of ideas and when enough of them seem to be speaking to each other, I put them in the same document and try to connect them. Or I’ll start with an image I can’t get out of my head, and try and make sense of it on the page. There’s a real pleasure to being surprised by my own characters or plots, which is really just a way of saying there’s a pleasure to being surprised by my own subconscious.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

I write for myself. I try not to think too hard about my audience—I think that’s a recipe for stopping a project in its tracks. It’s very easy to get shut down by perceived expectations. Plus, how do I know who’s going to respond to my writing? This isn’t to say that I don’t love my readers. When people respond to my work, it’s exciting and amazing and humbling. But that’s not why I do it. It’s just a bonus.

To turn it around a bit: The writers whose work I love weren’t writing for me in particular. They might be delighted by my readership, or puzzled or indifferent or enraged. All of those things are okay. Because once they put their work into the world, it became, in its own little way, mine. And that’s incredible, right? That we can be touched, moved, excited, provoked by a text whose author is removed from us in every way, even by time, language, or death.

So you can’t get hung up too much on audience. There’s simply no way to catalogue or write for the sheer width and breadth of your potential readership. You have to just write.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims. Think: a David Foster Wallace meets Nicholson Baker meets zombies. Gorgeous, brilliant, utter perfection. Also: Beasts and Children by Amy Parker, 253 by Geoff Ryman, Tender by Sofia Samatar, The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I always write with coffee or seltzer water on hand. I like to be dressed—that is, not in my pajamas. And I need my desk to be relatively neat and clean, or I need to be in a relatively neat and clean room. (In other words, if there’s paper or clothes or dirty dishes everywhere, I can’t focus.) And sometimes I need to switch locations, get out of my element—head to a coffee shop or my office or a residency or even, say, a hotel. There’s something about being in a controlled environment with specific aesthetic stimuli around you that can really jumpstart some magic.

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.