'Life is its own horror story' for this author

Carmen Maria Machado gravitates toward the genre


Author Carmen Maria Machado might just change the way you think about horror writing. “Horror is a genre that reflects a lot of our anxieties but also our realities,” Machado said in a recent phone interview. “When I think about the world and when I think about what bothers me about it, horror is the genre I gravitate toward, in some form or another, to tell that story.”

Her debut book, “Her Body and Other Parties,” is a collection of “sexy genre-bending horror stories of things that women will find very familiar.”

Machado will read from her collection at 7 p.m. Thursday at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

“Life is its own kind of horror story,” Machado explained. “It’s full of magic and wonder and horror and everything. I read this tremendous essay by Alyssa Wong where she talks about how she writes horror because she’s a non-white woman whose whole life has been marked by sexual violence. That’s a horror story, isn’t it?”

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Machado found her classmates and professors to be incredibly encouraging, even as her writing “got weirder and weirder.”

“I found Iowa to be incredibly helpful and useful to me as an artist. A lot of my classmates and my teachers were really just down for whatever. And that was regardless of what they themselves wrote.”

“I think that really speaks for the class and the culture that Sam Chang has created at Iowa, which is, I think, very different than it used to be. There is space for diversity of all kinds, including diversity of genre.”

After graduating from Iowa Machado went to the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop where she continued to pursue and refine her particular style.


“I think all genres have their own sorts of beauties and benefits. I’m particularly drawn to stories where they’re more or less based in a familiar reality, but there are these holes poked through to the other side. And I think that’s because that’s how I sort of see the world, more or less. I feel like we’re already sort of hovering on this liminal magical space, so you don’t actually have to do a ton of work to push through.”

As a child growing up in Allentown, Pa., Machado started writing stories from a young age.

“It never occurred to me not to be a writer. I was always writing my stories down in little books and then sending them out to publishers. My grandfather, my father, everyone just told stories. The oral tradition was very important in my family, and I feel like I’m coming out of that.”

“I’m very lucky — my career is going very well. Like more well than I think anyone would have expected,” Machado said, laughing. “I think my parents are a little surprised.”

In addition to her debut collection, Machao will publish a memoir with Graywolf in 2019, and she also has a collection of essays in the works.

“I have so many books started. Like, seven books. It’s ridiculous. I have writer ADD. I hop around from project to project. When I get stuck on one I go to the other.”

During a writing residency at Yaddo last year, Machado needed something to work on in-between doing edits on her collection. “And then I accidentally made a draft of a memoir,” she said.

“I have all the other things started, but what actually comes next is a mystery because I don’t know when I’m going to accidentally finish something.”

Machado, who is currently the artist-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was drawn toward the short form from a young age, though her exposure to short stories was limited in school.


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“We’re weird about short stories. And I think part of the reason we feel that way and they don’t sell as well as novels is because we don’t really read short stories as children. When I was in high school and middle school we read “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Lottery,” which are all great stories. But they feel not as relevant because they’re so old. And you’re seeing them as individual things and not as part of a larger literary collection.”

Instead, she said, students should be exposed to modern short story writers such as Octavia Butler and Kelly Link, and read entire collections, not just isolated stories, in order to learn how larger literary collections function.

“I wish short stories were taught better. They’re a really useful teaching tool, and there’s so much exciting innovation happening in the short story form.”



What: Calla Devlin will read from her new book, “Right Where You Left Me”
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 7
Where: Barnes & Noble, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids
Cost: Free


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