Carmen Maria Machado Discusses Her Groundbreaking Memoir

Posted by Cybil on November 1, 2019
Carmen Maria Machado
The dream house is a soap opera, a doppelgänger, a house in Florida, a utopia, a lesson learned, a comedy of errors, and a Nightmare on Elm Street.

It is anything but a dream house.

In her memoir, In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado tells the story of her psychologically abusive relationship with another woman. Machado uses the metaphor of a dream house to talk about her experiences and uses historical examples to show the untold history of abusive behavior in queer and lesbian relationships.

More than 100 mini chapters each present a part of her relationship through a different cultural, scientific, or metaphysical construct, but all through the filter of the dream house.


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Using this approach, Machado not only tells her story, but also offers a commentary on how it feels to be living inside a psychologically abusive relationship. Life is not rooted in logic or stability but seems to float in liminal space.

One of the chapters that best represents this, “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” describes a fight that Machado has with her girlfriend and the ways that she struggles to respond—apology, avoidance, dreaming of the past, present, or future. Each choice leads Machado deeper into despair rather than to a happy ending. She flips back the pages, choosing again and again, with the most satisfying result being never to return.

Machado’s memoir is not only unique in the way that she tells her story, but also in the way that she presents the abusive side of a lesbian relationship, a subject that she says there is little written about, and a relationship pairing that she says is culturally considered safe and utopian.

She spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about haunted houses, queer romance, life in Indiana, and how Lyft and Uber might have changed her story. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: What inspired you to write this book and tell about these experiences?

Carmen Maria Machado: The thing with writing about something that happened to you is that the story isn't enough. You need to write about it in a beautiful and interesting way.

At first, I would try to write about it, but everything I wrote was really bad. [Laughs.]

It was terrible, it was so bad.

It wasn’t until 2015 or 2016, when I got the idea for the form, that I really started to dig in. I wanted to write about this experience and abuse in queer and lesbian relationships, but spent years struggling to do so. It took me years of thinking and talking to people and trying to make sense of the experience in a way that was meaningful to me.

A friend of mine read an early version that I had written as an essay, and I remember her saying that I was a really beautiful writer but that I was too close to the experience.

The thing is, I sold In the Dream House very quickly and by accident.

This was before Her Body and Other Parties had come out, and my publisher, Gray Wolf, asked me if I had another book. The story I sold to them was very skeletal. It was maybe 100 pages, and it was all memoir. I knew I wanted to add research and historical context, and when I finished it last year, I had added 150 pages.

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GR: I love the creative way that you structured this book. How did the dream house come to you as the symbol of what to deconstruct for this relationship and look at through different lenses?

CMM: I'm obsessed with haunted houses nowadays. And I am very interested in space and the way space is affected by trauma and how the definition of haunted is much wider than you think. And the definition of house is much wider than you think. In thinking about that, I had the idea of this relationship being a haunted house. That was the first inroad to thinking about my story in that way.

I also thought that I could not tell my story in a linear way. And also that a haunted house is just one genre, but what about other genres—what do they have to offer? Once I got the idea to do different genres, I was off to the races.

And I started keeping a lot of notes about different things I wanted to do. The list was massive. I only used a tiny fraction of what I came up with, but the book could have been 20 times longer if I really had felt like doing that.

GR: Did you ever think of titling this In the Haunted House?

CMM: No, never in the haunted house because that's a little bit too on the nose.

The original title was House in Indiana, not Dream House. I had pages in my journal like, House in Indiana as fill-in-the-blank. House in Indiana as generation shift, House in Indiana as sci-fi thriller, House in Indiana as creature feature.

I changed the title because it was distracting to people. I kept being asked if I was from Indiana, and I was like, “No—why would you think that?”

GR: In your process of writing these mini chapters, did you come up with a list of topics and then tell your story according to those? Or did you have your story written and then come up with the chapter titles? What was your process?

CMM: I did a little bit of both. The memoir parts I had written. For those I had to look at the list and see if I could match any of the titles with the body of the piece that I had written. So that was part of it.

There were others that I backed into. For some, I would look at a title and think, “Schrödinger's Cat. Let’s think about Schrödinger's Cat. What’s the deal with Schrödinger's Cat. Is the point of the thing that it’s two things at once.”

And it gave me a space to think about the relationship in that way. So it was in both directions.

GR: And with this book, just looking at the cover of it, it has this Japanimation quality, and the font seems almost like a comic book. How did this visual come together?

CMM: I told Gray Wolf I wanted a book cover that was half haunted house, half lesbian pulp novel. And that's what they gave me.

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GR: Yeah. You got that!

CMM: I did.

The main image, the design of the cover is by the woman who did my other book, but the artist who did the house is this amazing local artist named Alex Eckman-Lawn. He's a Philly artist, and he does these beautiful Gothic, horror-like cutouts. He did all these houses that were perfect.

GR: How was writing memoir different from writing short stories or fiction?

CMM: Oh, it couldn't be more different. Fiction is fun to write. It's joyful and playful, and nonfiction is hard. It's like peeling my skin from my body one strip at a time.

GR: Oh, I’m so sorry. For this book, who are you writing for? Who do you hope picks this up?

CMM: If I could take anybody, it would be young, gay teens or just people who are still trying to figure themselves out and just need to see something talking about this particular issue.

GR: In your book, you also talk about queer memoir and the way that there is a lack of literature and stories of lesbian couples, particularly in abusive relationships. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CMM: After the breakup, I was doing a lot of reading, and I was trying to find narratives that spoke to me.

There are a lot of books about domestic violence that circled around activism or mental health or social advocacy or things like that. I thought that there must be a really good memoir written about my type of situation. But I looked and looked, and I could not find it. Just a few essays here and there.

People always ask me, “How does one know what to write?”

You want something to be in the world that isn’t in the world yet. And then you make it. That's making art. And for me, that was part of it. This type of book didn’t exist anywhere yet. And this will just be an imperfect first step in the right direction, and I’ll be really honored to have written it.

GR: You have such self-control in the way that you wrote in such a succinct way. Did any books inspire the way you structured In the Dream House?

CMM: This is not the perfect example, but Maggie Nelson was very important to me when I was writing this book. I read The Argonauts, and I had read Bluets, and I had read The Red Parts. I was really interested in the way that she blended academic writing and memoir and things like that.

GR: In terms of writing a trauma memoir, frequently folks who experience trauma, similar to you, understand their experiences in fragmented ways and have to process things from the outside looking in.

CMM: Really there's an old version of myself that has died. And I see that as dramatic, but I think that's true of all people. You have old versions of yourself, and when they pass, then a new one replaces them and you keep moving forward.

But the process of writing a memoir, you have to go back and confront this version of yourself that's long gone and try to reimagine and recapture what it felt like to be so optimistic about the world.

There's something about that idea where I'm this little version of myself. The other version, she was great, but she's gone. And, you know, and there's a new person who has replaced her. There are certain things that happen to you in your life that kind of break you into a “before” and “after.” I've had a few of them, and this is one.

I teach, and I'm always trying to give students advice—without being weird about it. And I’ve told them, there are people in this world who will chew you up and spit you out and not think one thing of it. That is not a thing that I knew when I was 22. And it is a thing I know now.

GR: How did you decide what parts of the relationship to put in the memoir and what to not put in the memoir?

CMM: I didn't include every single thing because you can’t. It becomes confusing to the reader. There was stuff that repeated itself, and at some point, I was like, just because it did happen doesn't mean I had to write every single thing down.

I was constantly making choices about how if this is a repeating thing, then I just won’t put it in. Or I'll put it in, but then I ended up combining it with another section where I mentioned two incidents in the same sentence. There is a lot of negotiation of that stuff where I was trying to figure out how to organize and how to think about things.

It's about creating the effect of realism or creating the effect of reality.

Anything that you write is through the lens of the body, through the lens of the mind. What makes the piece, what makes the book work, is that there's this intelligence that's pulling it all together that’s like, “All right. Let me try to tell you this story.”

GR: When you were writing this, does your ex know that this is coming out?

CMM: I mean, the book will be available, and perhaps she will read it. I don't know.

GR: I imagine you've had a lot of people react to the story of abuse. Like you say, you were not physically abused, but it was abusive, nonetheless. How are people responding to the emotional component of this?

CMM: I've gotten a couple messages from folks for whom that part really spoke to them, which is not something I expected. I was surprised that so many people responded to what it’s like—what does it really mean when you have an experience that doesn’t fit into the culturally accepted narrative? I know I was thinking about that a lot.

GR: In terms of the relationship itself—you're with your wife, Val, now, and when this relationship started, you all three were in the same relationship together. Seeing as how you both dated the same person, did she have similar experiences as you?

CMM: The thing about my wife's experience—in some ways it was very similar. In some ways it was different. It's comforting to be with somebody who you don't have to explain it to them. There's a shorthand, there's a way of thinking about it.

I think it's useful because it's the two of us. We're always working around this shared trauma that we didn't create but that we experienced. I think it's made us stronger in our relationship. It's also very hard. It's both those things at once.

GR: You and your ex were sometimes in the same town, and sometimes you were long distance. How did proximity dial things up or down in your situation?

CMM: In some ways, when I would go visit her in Indiana, there was an isolation that was created. I was going to this place where I didn't know anybody. There was a time when she tried to throw me out. And it was the middle of the night, and I didn’t have a car. What am I going to do? Pre-Lyft.

Whenever I think about this story, I was like, “Man, if Lyft and Uber had existed, things would have been so different.”

So it was just like this nightmarish situation of isolation.

But then…I would return to this other life that I had and that made it a little easier to untangle myself from her. If I had been living with her full-time, it would have been really bad.

It's interesting how the proximity—the movement between these various states and these houses—is very significant.

GR: For people who want to read more in this genre—limited though it is—what's one book that you would recommend?

CMM: The Professor by Terry Castle. It's a really beautiful, funny little long essay in an essay collection about a really fucked-up, abusive lesbian relationship that is really funny, even while being very dark, and I think it's really just beautiful. The cut between levity and seriousness is so perfect. And I really, really love her.

GR: What books are you reading now?

CMM: Oh, lord. I just finished Garth Greenwell's new novel or new collection; it’s called Cleanness, which is really beautiful.

GR: This happened some years ago. When you look back, what lessons or recommendations would you give your younger self or someone in this situation?

CMM: The reason that it's important to write a book like this and to have art that reflects the multitude of queer experiences, including the bad ones, is because someone giving you advice is not always going to be helpful.

What’s helpful is seeing what is happening to you being modeled elsewhere so you have language for it.

I can talk until I’m blue in the face and say, “If every time you talk on the phone with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you start crying hysterically, that is not normal. That's not good. If they throw things at you, that is not good. If they chase you, that is not good. If they call you names, that is not good.”

You can say this until you are blue in the face, and that's just the reality of it.

But what I think is more useful is saying, “I can give you advice, or I can just show you what happened to me.”

There's something about art that has a way of moving in sideways. And it does create a model and a way of thinking about your experiences that is way better than advice.

I guess I just wish I'd had books like this one.



Carmen Maria Machado's memoir, In the Dream House, will be available in the U.S. on November 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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