How Carmen Maria Machado Paid the Bills While She Wrote the Book

“I wrote in my email browser so it looked like I was writing an email.”

Mike Gardner
Feb 19, 2019 · 10 min read
Illustration: Lorenzo Gritti

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?

Did anyone ever want more?

Does this mean you went to college to study writing?

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?

Did that itch lead you to an MFA?

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?

What kind of work did you find there?

Those are good hours for a writer.

Did you keep that job the entire time you were in Oakland and Berkeley?

Did you use any of that company time 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?

Did you want to go to an MFA program?

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?

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?

Did you get a job there?

Did you apply for any teaching gigs?

How did you protect your writing time and creativity while you were doing these jobs?

What was your writing practice like at this time?

What did you use that month for?

How did you balance work and writing for the next few years?

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?

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?

Did you have any misconceptions about yourself that you wish you had shed earlier?

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.

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Reader. Writer. Paramedic.

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