Ask the Author | Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado graduated from the Iowa Writers Workers in 2012. Students and staff packed the Shambaugh auditorium on Friday, Nov. 4 to hear her speak — Now, Machado shares her writing tips and tales with The Daily Iowan.



Ariana Lessard, Assistant Arts Editor

Carmen Maria Machado graduated from the Iowa Writers Workers in 2012. Since then, Machado has distinguished herself as a writer by winning numerous awards and publications in “The New Yorker,” “Granta NPR,“Electric Literature,” and more. She has received several awards for her fiction, including the Shirley Jackson award, the Bard Fiction Prize, the Richard Gage short story prize, and the Bisexual Book Award for Fiction. Her 2019 memoir “In The Dream House” was awarded the 2019 Folio prize and the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ fiction as well as long-listed for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence. Students and staff alike packed the Shambaugh auditorium on Friday, Nov. 4 to hear Machado speak.

The Daily Iowan: How did you develop such a distinct literary voice?

Machado: It’s funny because it’s a thing that people just say, they’re like, “Oh, you need to find your voice. You need to find your voice.” It’s just this idea that people say about writing, and it’s true. It’s important because it’s the thing that makes it distinct, right, where it’s like, you read a story, “it’s my story.” You read a story, it’s a George Saunders story that you read, and you’re like, “Oh, this is like distinctly this person.” I think voice is a lot about what you want to say and then how you want to say it, so it’s like the themes or ideas or obsessions that you’re going to navigate through in the course of whatever you’re writing. Then the prose style, the genre, the tools you use to kind of execute this vision. It’s the marriage of those things that kind of creates this idea of voice, so for me it really was like, I got to school and was writing good sentences and I had a sense of what I wanted to be doing. But also, I didn’t quite know what tools I wanted to be using exactly in terms of genre and then also didn’t really know what I wanted to be writing about, which again, is a totally different question, right? It just took me a lot of trial and error for me to get to that place. Then once I did, I was off like a shot like once I did, I was like, “Oh, this feels correct to me,” which ideally is what happens is you look light upon it, and then you’re like, “Oh, this is the thing I’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

DI: How did you nurture your interest in writing? 

Machado: I thought I wanted to be a doctor for a while. I studied photography in college. I didn’t study writing or English or anything like that. But I always was writing, regardless of whatever I was doing. I was always reading. I was always writing. I never stopped doing it. And I think that it’s interesting because I teach and like a lot of times, I get students in my classes who are business majors or science majors or they’re doing totally unrelated disciplines. They’re always kind of like, “Oh, whatever”, but I’m like, “Yeah, but you can have more than one interest,” and I think the thing about writing is that it can adapt to all these other interests and forms, so you can still be studying biology or whatever and also be writing to be a really important part of it. I just kind of kept doing it even though it wasn’t my major. I just really enjoyed it, and it became a very natural part of my life. I feel like I actually cannot say this in a paper version ever. I mean, I feel like there’s like literal things. I’ve seen people writing papers on my book, and people told me like, “I read your memoir, and I left an abusive spouse,” which is like obviously a massive, massive compliment. But it wasn’t people being like, “Oh, I was like reading your stories out loud to somebody then we started dating each other because it was so romantic and so sexy.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So really, like runs the gamut. It’s like very serious stuff and very intense stuff. And it’s also just like, delightful. So, it all makes me happy. I think the idea that I could conceive of something in my brain and write it down, like inspires people to do other stuff, is kind of incredible to me. That’s it. It feels almost unreal.

DI: How did you overcome discouragement? 

Machado: My father is a scientist, and he was always very anxious about where my health insurance would come from and what kind of job I would have, which is fair. We live in, unfortunately, a country that doesn’t really value artists, and we have to fight tooth and nail to get health insurance, for example. So, it makes sense that people will be like, “What is your plan for like, you know, existing?” But also, again, for me, I just think it was always the thing that I was interested in, and I just got really good at it. 

DI: What is the reality of being an LGBTQ writer who writes about the LGBTQ experience?

Machado: I think that a thing about being in any group, any kind of identity category that falls outside of the sort of dominant paradigm if it’s queerness or being not white or being a woman or being not CIS or whatever [is that] there’s always a lot of pressure to sort of write a certain way or have certain politics about the kind of writing that you do, and I think I understand it. 

I feel like I’ve noticed a renewed interest in thinking in these very moralistic ways about like what people choose to write about. I think that while I understand that instinct, I think that it gets in the way of art. I think there is this way in which you have to, to the best of your ability, let go of the idea of an audience, so it’s like, “Who is your audience?” My audience is so much bigger than I could have ever imagined, and there’s simply no accounting for it, and it’s like people — they’re going to read. There’s an audience for my work. Knock on wood, hopefully, for many years. After my death, there are people who I can’t even conceive of right now who could be my audience. So in some ways, you’re relieved to release that anxiety, to release the pressure to write a certain way or be a certain way. You have to write the thing that burns inside of you because why else are we here on this planet?