Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The American Reader, Tin House’s Open Bar, Five Chapters, Best Women’s Erotica 2012, VICE, The Paris Review Daily, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Philadelphia. You can find her on Twitter @carmenmmachado or at carmenmariamachado.com. Her story “We Were Never Alone In Space” appears in Issue #17.
Tell us how “We Were Never Alone In Space” came about.
I was on a cross-country roadtrip last summer with my now-girlfriend when we stumbled into a UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico. It was really strange and beautiful–sort of a large-form, slightly demented science fair project about the town and its alien happenings. One of the exhibits had a decades-old newspaper clipping in which locals were interviewed about the Roswell incident. One of them said (in a voice, I like to imagine, full of excitement and newly-minted wonder): “How were we to know we were never alone in space?” That phrase stuck in my head. It felt like a title, but I didn’t have a sense of what story would go along with it. It marinated in my brain for months, until one day I woke up and I just knew. I wrote the first draft of the story that day, in its entirety.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is on your “recommended reads” list. Tell me about this book. Did it change you as a writer? As a reader?
I had an extremely insightful and amazing English teacher my sophomore year of high school–Mrs. Stinebaugh. She observed me as a student for part of the semester before coming in one day with a stack of books from her personal library that she wanted me to read. One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of those books. It blew my fifteen-year-old mind. I’d never even heard of magical realism before. It seemed to sync so cleanly with my perception of the world–reality tinged with inexplicable events, a kind of lushness that I understood but had never put a name to. And of course, the book was gorgeous and completely overtook me. After that, I never wrote the same way. Everything seemed pregnant with magic. I’ve been trying to recreate that experience in my work ever since.
I owe a great debt to her. I am absolutely positive I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, were it not for that act of kindness and perceptiveness.
How are photography and writing similar?
For me, there is this constant interaction between language and narrative in fiction that very much resembles the physical considerations of photography (light, composition) balanced with the narrative of its content. I used to work as a second photographer for a friend of mine who shot weddings. She always talked about how the best wedding photography closely resembled photojournalism–not the posed shots, but the off-guard, active images that told one story (or ten, or a thousand). The stolen glance, the unintentional body language, the children playing off in the corner. She was so right. There’s a kind of honesty, a kind of realness, in that sort of photography, even when it’s during a highly staged event like a wedding. Fiction can also do this. Or not, which is, I think, when fiction can fail.
Sometimes the lessons that I’ve learned from photographers and lessons that I’ve learned from writers blend together and I can’t keep them apart in my mind. But that’s okay–they service each other beautifully.
What is currently in your cd player/iTunes/Spotify/8 Track?
I’m currently rotating through David Byrne & St. Vincent’s “Love This Giant,” Ane Brun’s “It All Starts with One,” music by The Civil Wars, Nina Simone, Daft Punk, and Janelle Monáe, the soundtrack to “The Great Gatsby,” and a playlist I call “Girl, You Badass.”
What is your favorite Bradbury story/novel?
I’m madly in love with all of Bradbury’s work, especially his short fiction, but there’s special place in my heart for his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I have a startlingly clear memory of sitting on my porch as a teenager on a hot August afternoon, reading it as the thunderheads rolled in. When Bradbury died last year, and every article and obituary mentioned Mr. Electrico commanding his 12-year-old self to “live forever,” I thought about that book and how perfectly it captured that age, and I remembered those roiling black clouds slit with lightning, and I shivered. That book will haunt me for the rest of my days.