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HORLA INTERVIEW – CARMEN MARIA MACHADO (May 2018)

CARMEN MARIA MACHADO

ASTONISHING NEW QUEEN OF THE HORROR STORY

EXCLUSIVE HORLA INTERVIEW

If the stories of Carmen Maria Machado were to shapeshift into an alternative body then Gaudi’s fantastic Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona is perhaps the kind of edifice that her fans might have in mind, writes Horla editor Matthew G. Rees.

Her story collection Her Body And Other Parties has awed many – strange, seductive and staggering are typical of the words that have been used to describe her fiction. It took her to the finals of the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s richest for young writers. On the night, the award went to brilliant young poet Kayo Chingonyi after what the judges confessed had been no easy decision.

In an exclusive interview with Horla in Swansea Machado told us what she’s making of the acclaim, as well as explaining where she thinks her compelling, enigmatic writing sits in the literary canon. She also spoke of her ‘vampire’ tendencies when it comes to creating.

‘It’s been very strange,’ says the charismatic Cuban-American, 31, of the reaction to her book, an engaging slight smokiness in her voice. ‘No… I did not expect it.

Fevered

‘Short stories are something people do not really respond to in such fevered ways. It’s usually novels that get that kind of attention. So there’s that. Also the fact that they’re so strange and they feel very specific to me. The fact that people have responded to them so intensely has been very exciting, but surprising. I remain shocked,’ she laughs. ‘Right before the book came out my publishers seemed to have some sense of the energy it was gathering. They were like We’ve never had anyone responded like reviewers are responding. Everyone is responding to this book even though it hasn’t come out yet. We’ve  never seen anything quite like it.’

‘I can’t really account for it,’ Machado continues, relaxing on a sofa after a reading at Swansea University. (Perhaps fittingly we are in the lounge of a theatre that bears the name Taliesin, a Welsh bardic figure associated with folklore and story-telling.) ‘People,’ Machado continues, ‘respond to the playfulness of the stories.’ One being Horla contributor Jon Gower whose review can be found elsewhere within these pages.

Forbade

So how did she get into this business of writing weird stuff? A certain independence of mind as a child was a pretty big factor, it seems, specifically a tendency to smuggle home horror books. ‘I was one of those kids, I was a very anxious person, I was a very anxious child,’ says Machado. ‘It’ (horror fiction) ‘upset me very badly but I was drawn to it even so. My mother forbade it in the house but even so I’d be up at night in the house with the light on and she’d be like ‘I told you: “Get rid of them!” ‘ I sort of kept returning to horror over and over and thrillers over and over again.’

Her biggest literary influence at that time was American writer Alvin Schwartz and his Scary Stories series. Recalling them now, Machado says: ‘It was a very frequently challenged book, where parents would, like, call the schools and be, like, ‘I can’t believe you assigned this book to my kid. I don’t want to see them on the shelves because the illustrations are so scary.’ The kids just ate it up,’ says Machado. ‘They just loved those books.’

A story – ‘The Green Ribbon’ – from one Schwartz compendium has made itself felt in her own fiction. The motif is referenced in her story ‘The Husband Stitch’, which some feel to be the strongest in her collection.

Machado says of her writing process: ‘I’m a real vampire. Whenever I find a thing I like – a form, a genre, a trope – I’m like ‘How can I use that…?’

Other writing, TV, all kind of influences feed into her stories. ‘Especially Heinous’, one of the octet that makes up Her Body owes much to the influence of American cop show Law & Order: SVU which Machado found herself watching while seriously ill with swine flu (to the point whereby she was hallucinating).

Categorising her story collection has caused some bafflement among booksellers and librarians, she admits. ‘They are like ‘Where does this go?’ Machado smiles. Her own judgment? ‘I think horror actually wins out.’

Favourite

Her own favourite story is ‘The Tooth’ by Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), the American queen of horror and mystery.

‘A great short story,’ says Machado, ‘is like a punch on the nose. When it’s over you’re sort of disoriented, you’re like ‘What’s happened? That was so fast and yet so painful or so changing in this way.’ It’s like ‘What happened?’

‘It’s like with a novel there’s something really beautiful about the dance with the novel. You engage with it over a period of time, but a short story can just take you through and sock you right at the end and then it’s done. I love that feeling that I’ve been changed very quickly… and the art involved in the short story, having that turn, having that sort of movement, is very interesting to me as a reader and a writer.’

Dance

The constructions that some admirers put on her own work take her by surprise at times, she admits. ‘I have a terrible secret,’ she laughs, ‘which is that as a writer about eighty per cent of whatever people attribute to me is pure accident… or habit…’

Machado is currently engaged in a memoir project. More fiction is on the horizon, and she says, ‘At the moment I’m really into haunted house stories.’

Returning to the way her writing is received, Machado says: ‘I think people do respond to the ballsiness of it. I think people respond to that. I think other people will hate it. Readers will either love it or hate it. Nobody is going to say it’s just okay. They’ll either be angry that this book exists or so excited, ‘I love it so much’.

‘And I think that’s really exciting.’

Read Jon Gower’s review here www.horla.org/her-body-and-other-parties/

Finally we’d like to thank Carmen Maria for posing for a snapshot for the Horla album in front of a piece of wall art, which may be one of a kind – rather like the lady herself.

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