Meet the Philly Writer Who’s a National Book Award Finalist

Carmen Maria Machado on old and new Philly, working at Lush and her debut short story collection.

carmen maria machado, national book award

Carmen Maria Machado | Tom Storm Photography

West Philly’s Carmen Maria Machado doesn’t like New York. But she’s there today.

The 31-year-old literary mastermind’s latest collection — Her Body and Other Parties — is a finalist for the National Book Award. The winners will be announced tonight during the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony, which Machado will naturally attend.

Remember Machado’s name: She’s among the most relevant and anticipated voices emerging in fiction today. The stories in her collection are poignant, haunting, surreal and shocking in their familiarity. She juggles heavy topics like sexism, queerness, gender and sensuality with a deft hand and a splash of sci-fi horror, skillfully weaving details reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales into the mix (in case real life wasn’t strange and disturbing enough already).

Machado is the artist-in-residence at Penn. I met her in her office at the university’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, a cozy building where, on the fourth floor, Carmen sits between bookshelves and below paintings of Frida Kahlo and Detective Olivia Benson (yes, from Law & Order: SVU, which she writes about extensively in her book).

On Wednesday, you’ll find out whether you’ve won a National Book Award. How did you feel when you found out you were nominated?

When I found out I was a finalist, I was sitting here prepping for class. It was very exciting. I cried and called my wife. And then I had to go to class like nothing happened.

It’s very surreal. The whole process has been very surreal. But real life can be a little surreal, even in the most normal of times.

In “The Husband Stitch,” you write that “stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond.” What kind of pond does Her Body and Other Parties create?

I wanted the stories to be about bodies, women and gender, sex and sexuality. The pond is those larger thematic elements, and each story is contributing its own piece to that larger puzzle.

I’m really interested in collections that have some sort of thematic resonance, where each story is echoing and altering the next, and they’re reflecting off each other and working together.

Was one story harder to write than the others?

“The Resident” was the hardest. It took me the longest, and it’s the longest in the collection.

I want to talk about a section of “Especially Heinous.” It’s titled “Philadelphia,” and it reads: “Evan the intern was annoying everyone in hell, so the demon sent him back. He overshot his target, though, and accidentally deposited him in Pennsylvania. Evan decides to stay. He never liked New York, anyway. Too expensive. Too sad.”

I don’t like New York. I mean, I like New York in the sense that I like people who live in New York, and the city has a lot of great things offer. But I find it very stressful when I go there, and I much prefer Philadelphia. So that was my little joke to myself.

You’ve lived in Philly since 2013. Which stories did you write here?

Everything except for “Especially Heinous,” “Difficult at Parties” and “Real Women Have Bodies.” Those three I wrote during graduate school in Iowa.

How does the city, as a setting, shape you as a writer?

I did an event in Harrisburg recently, and someone asked me about Pennsylvania as a setting, because I grew up in Allentown. I started talking about Pennsylvania gothic and how there’s this sort of grim, surreal quality to parts of Pennsylvania.

In Philly, it’s a little different. There’s something about the way the history of the city is maintained. Things aren’t torn down. You go downtown, and the Macy’s is in the crazy ass Wanamaker’s building, and there’s a Walgreens in this other gorgeous building that’s clearly some old society something, and the Anthropologie is in an old society house.

There’s something about the way Philly pushes all this new stuff into the old stuff that feels very jagged and weird. It really appeals to me as a person, aesthetically and psychologically. Philly’s just got a real funkiness to it.

And I’m in West Philly. So it’s very gay, which I love. It really helps me with my own work and my life.

In an interview with The Atlantic, you talk about working at Lush, the bath and body products store, at the King of Prussia Mall. What was that like?

It was very stressful. I liked my coworkers, and I love Lush products and still use them. I used to work in retail, so it’s not like I’m not used to it, but I just wanted to be writing. The whole mall was just stressful.

I couldn’t help but think of KOP when I read “Real Women Have Bodies,” which is set in Glam, a luxury dress store located in a mall with a very similar feel. 

There were a lot of references to previous retail jobs in that story. I’m sure the Lush stuff influenced it as well. That’s my retail story.

Can you talk about the disappearing women in that story? The concept feels so relevant right now. What were you thinking when you were writing the piece?

I was really interested in the idea that “real women have curves,” which is problematic. Even as a fat woman, it’s a problematic idea that “real women” are anything. So I wanted to riff on that by playing with the idea of “real women have bodies.”

My collection is relevant to right now, but I wrote it over five years. It’s not like I wrote it yesterday. That I’m using speculative fiction to get at this phenomenon is not new, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. We want women to disappear. We encourage their disappearance, and we teach them to disappear themselves, like in “Eight Bites.” Those are things we have always done. Obviously it feels really bad right now because we’re in a political toilet, but it’s just a little more obvious now — for some people at least.

Can you speak to the contrast between “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites?” In the former, women’s bodies are taken away from them. In the latter, women are giving parts of themselves away. 

One of the most insidious things about sexism is that, in so many ways, it’s cartoonish. Things that are happening right this second, like the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the fact that Trump was elected after all this pussy-grabbing – all that stuff is cartoonish. They might as well be twirling their mustaches and tying damsels to railroad tracks. It’s obvious, which isn’t to say it’s not harmful.

But there also forms of sexism that are way more subtle, like that fact that women reinforce sexism. That is insidious because it’s less obvious. When women say things like, “I’m just one of the guys,” it feels funny, but it’s not. It’s fucked up. And I think it’s more dangerous because it’s less easy to pin down. Those stories are on the opposite sides of this concept.

You’ve been at Penn for a year. What classes are you teaching?

This semester I’m teaching horror and fiction. In the spring, I’ll teach an introduction to creative writing class and a flash fiction class.

What have you learned from teaching young women?

I’m learning that the trauma of being a woman right now is real. It’s affecting women on a large scale. 

All of the students I work with impress me tremendously, but especially the young women. They’re smart, poised, and they interrogate what’s around them with such ferociousness. I was a hot mess when I was 20. It’s really hard to be that age and not know what the hell is going on in terms of your life, and, in my case, figuring out how to come out of the closet. If you asked me what I would be like when I was 31, I would never have said what my life is like right now.

At what age do you feel you came into yourself?

Maybe 27. It took me a while to find my footing. When I got out of grad school, I developed a vision for my life. I think that’s a key thing that one has to have at some point.

What’s next?

I sold my memoir to Graywolf earlier this year. That’s coming out in two years. I also have an essay collection, another short story collection, and this YA novel I’m working on. I’m always fussing around with different things.