Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award and has since been optioned by FX. Machado has worked as a caregiver and in retail, at both a sex shop and a luxury bath goods store. She currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s how she made ends meet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: Did you write as a child?
Carmen Maria Machado: Oh yeah. I wrote poems, little books that I made. In maybe third or fourth grade, we learned how to send a letter. My godmother gave me personalized stationery with jungle animals on it, and I figured out how write to publishers, because their addresses are right inside of books. Once I sent a fan letter for an author, but I also would send chapters and say, “If you want more, please send back to me.”
Did anyone ever want more?
No. But I did have one author write back, which was very exciting.
Does this mean you went to college to study writing?
When I said I was going to be a writer, my dad freaked out. He was worried that I wouldn’t have any security or health insurance. He said, “If you want to write but also have a job, be a journalist.” So I applied to the journalism program at American University. Of course, I did one semester of journalism classes and was like, “This is terrible.”
So I ended up a photography major. My father was having a heart attack daily, I’m sure. In every moment, I was choosing the least marketable major imaginable.
Did you take any fiction classes?
Basically, there was only one fiction writing class. I took Creative Writing 101, and then I took the same MFA-style workshop over and over again. My professor, Harvey Grossinger, would just give me new readings. The workshops scratched an itch that I really wanted to scratch.
Did that itch lead you to an MFA?
There was no precedent for that in my family. My dad had a PhD and said, “When I went to grad school, they paid me to go. They don’t do that for the arts.” Harvey told me that there are funded programs, so I knew they existed. I filed it away. But my senior year, I went into a meeting for my next semester’s classes, and the adviser said, “You realize that you have enough credits to graduate?” And I was like, “But I don’t want to graduate halfway through the year, I want to go through to the end.” And the adviser said, “Well, you won’t get any financial aid that last semester.”
So I graduated early, kind of against my will. I was really broke, but I stayed in D.C., because the idea of going home was unbearable.
How did you pay the rent?
A lot of random-ass jobs. I was working at a hotel and in retail at a sex toy shop. I ran children’s birthday parties at a paint-your-own-pottery studio. I barely made it work, but I walked with the rest of my graduating class. Then I didn’t want to be in D.C. anymore. A friend who had just moved to California was house-sitting for, like, two months, and said, “Come stay with me, and we can look for work together.” So I packed up and drove to Berkeley.
What kind of work did you find there?
The recession hit, so it’s just the worst time. The only job I found was working for a woman in Oakland with cerebral palsy. She needed an assistant every day from, like, 4 to 11.
Those are good hours for a writer.
I was not thinking about my writing. I was just looking for a job. I needed work and I needed to eat and I knew that I had to find my own place.
Did you keep that job the entire time you were in Oakland and Berkeley?
The woman I worked for moved away. I ended up working at the office of the company that hires attendants for people with disabilities. The company was corrupt and fucked up, which is a really bad story in and of itself. I was not trained [or] qualified to be in charge of or hiring anyone. So I spent two years at a company I hated.
Did you use any of that company time to write?
Oh, yeah. I used all their resources. I had a desk and a computer and wrote on it all the time, polishing stories. I was so miserable that I basically applied to graduate school entirely on office time. I got good at moving my screens quickly so you couldn’t tell what I was doing. I wrote in my email browser so it looked like I was writing an email. But I did come in early, stay late. It was the first time I realized that it was helpful for me to be away from my house to write.
Whenever I would get an idea, I would print receipt paper from the register and write on the back. My pockets were stuffed with receipts.
What did your writing practice look like at that point?
I had no routine of any kind. I just sort of wrote when the spirit moved me. I was still in a very early stage of learning how to put a story together, how to finish a story. Harvey Grossinger said, “If you ever want to apply to an MFA program, I’d be happy to help you.” So we edited a story together. I would email it to him, and he’d print it out, write notes on it, and physically mail it back to me.
Did you want to go to an MFA program?
I wanted to leave the Bay Area. I didn’t like my job. I broke up with my boyfriend. I couldn’t find any other work. The only way I could afford to leave was if someone paid me to go somewhere else. So I applied to literally every funded program I could find in Poets and Writers — 26 programs, like a total maniac. And I got into half of them.
Ultimately, I had to decide between Iowa and the Michener program [at the University of Texas]. I visited both. Austin was like Berkeley in Texas, and I wanted to leave Berkeley. What is the point of going to Berkeley with worse weather? Then I went to Iowa and really liked it, so I just quit my job and rolled out.
How did the MFA shape your writing?
I realized, “I have time when I can just write.” Time with my brain unencumbered by all the ordinary work bullshit that I had been dealing with for years. Suddenly I felt very free, and I was able to do all this really exciting stuff.
When I first got to Iowa, people asked, “What do you want to write,” or “How do you want to write?” I didn’t know. It wasn’t until I started submitting these dreadful stories to workshops that my classmates said, “Most of this is pretty dreadful, but there are these moments where the work comes alive.” And those were always these magic moments when death appears or this weird thing happens. So I started thinking about surrealism and fantasy and science fiction and horror and how those things spoke to me, and I let my work get weirder and weirder. I went down that path for my entire MFA.
Where did that path lead when you graduated?
Val, my then-girlfriend, now-wife, was living in Boston. She is also a writer. I said, “We should be able to go somewhere and have the kind of jobs where if we want to write, we can.” Philadelphia was one of the very few affordable cities on the East Coast.
Did you get a job there?
Val got a job. I did not. I was freelancing a little, but it was rough. I struggled. I applied to Starbucks and got an interview because the manager knew my kid brother. “Yes! I have an in!” And then they said, “You don’t have enough coffee-making experience.” How is that even possible? So I finally managed to get a job at Lush, a bath products store at the King of Prussia Mall.
Did you apply for any teaching gigs?
I may have applied for a couple, but I honestly didn’t think I would get anything, because I didn’t have a book. The market is so competitive. Eventually, somebody who knew me told me there was tiny little college that had a writing class, so I started doing adjunct work making $3,000 a class. I would get measly paychecks from teaching and Lush. So I was broke, broke, broke. It was bad. Val was the only thing keeping me afloat.
How did you protect your writing time and creativity while you were doing these jobs?
I was notorious at Lush, because whenever I would get an idea, I would print receipt paper from the register and write on the back. My pockets were stuffed with receipts. It looked like I was robbing the place. I became good about honoring that when it happened. And also taking bathroom breaks when I wasn’t supposed to. My brain could solve writing problems while it was doing other things. I remember we had this job weighing and cutting soap. It is very soothing, actually. If that’s all I did, I would have loved it. But whenever I’d be cutting the soap, someone would come up and talk to me about some other little thing. And I was like, “Can’t I just have five minutes by myself?” So I think it’s okay to learn to find space for yourself outside of what they’re trying to make you do.
What was your writing practice like at this time?
I wasn’t doing a ton of writing. Work was so physically exhausting that I would come home and crash. Teaching also took a lot out of me, which was why I went to a residency at the Millay Colony [in upstate New York]. I had to quit Lush to go, but it was the first time since grad school that I was able to just sit with my brain.
What did you use that month for?
I wrote a draft of a novel that no one has ever seen because it’s pretty bad. But it was good just to be doing it. I started the story “The Resident,” which is in Her Body and Other Parties. I edited some stories, wrote an essay. I was very productive because I had all this time and I put a lot of structure into my days.
How did you balance work and writing for the next few years?
I went back to teaching and freelancing, really hustling. I did copywriting for a small agency that would farm out work. I was writing blog posts for a mobile technology company. I once did a high school study guide for the novel Cry the Beloved Country, which was just tedious rehashing of plot. I would take anything I could get. The nice thing is the more I did, the more I was able to hustle. People would send me work. I did some pieces for the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
My wife kept me afloat. She was working full-time and said, “It’s okay if you’re not pulling ‘equal weight’ right at this moment.”
Iowa has a summer writing program for teenagers. I taught there for, like, two weeks and made a couple thousand bucks, enough to make my minimum student loan payments and give Val some rent money every month.
But honestly, though, my wife kept me afloat. She was working full-time as a publicist and said, “It’s okay if you’re not pulling ‘equal weight’ right at this moment, because you’re getting so much good work done.” Which was so kind and generous and wonderful, [but] I didn’t like the idea of her paying the majority of our bills. It made me uncomfortable and stressed out. I worked my whole life — I had a part-time job of some kind ever since I was 16. The idea of relying on people is very stressful to me.
What was it like to rely on her?
Lots of teary conversations where I said, “I feel like I’m a leech,” and she said, “You’re not a leech. You’re a human being.” What I needed was somebody to give me a little bit of a break, just one more nudge up the ladder to take care of my affairs and navigate my own career. The fact that she was willing to do it is amazing.
I’m lucky because we both believe in each other and each other’s work. There isn’t a lot of resentment in that arena. Maybe if it had gone on for years and years, that would have changed. Now I say to her, “If at any point you decide to take a break from work to write, that’s on the table.”
FX just is developing a series based on ‘Her Body and Other Parties.’ Did you want to be involved in writing it?
I would happily write for TV, but it is not the thing that I’m trained in, nor is it my strength. There were things [in the book] that were important to me to preserve. I was like, “If this show is full of skinny white ladies who are straight, I’m going to be super upset.” And I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve already seen a rough outline of the pilot script. The woman who is working on it, Gina, is amazing and gets me. I trust the expert.
Did you have any misconceptions about yourself that you wish you had shed earlier?
The idea that your value is somehow tied to your ability to make money. I had a lot of attachment to that idea because I grew up in a very practical house. It wasn’t until later that I realized, “Yes, you obviously need money for rent and health insurance — these are important things to have. But your worth is not tied to your ability to generate revenue.” There are lots of artists whose work is beautiful and amazing who aren’t wild commercial successes. The act of making beautiful art is unrelated to money, unrelated to publication. And I think realizing that was very helpful for me.
When I’m at events and baby gays come up to me and say, “It’s so amazing to read your book with all these gay people in it,” or when moms buy my book for their daughters, or daughters buy the book for their moms, that just makes my heart explode out of my chest. It’s amazing. That is something very satisfying that has nothing to do with money.