Author likes the impact of short stories

Tom Storm Photography

Like many fiction writers, Carmen Maria Machado’s first book was a collection of short stories. Unlike most, however, her debut was a finalist for the National Book Award. Judges described the stories in “Her Body and Other Parties” as “a sensual and gothic-tinged alternate reality both dangerous and addictive.” Machado, a writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, was in town this month as part of a book tour.

BOOKS: Did you read the other finalists for the National Book Award?

MACHADO: I hoped to read all the other finalists’ books. I got through two or three. I met other finalists who had similar goals, and I don’t think anyone suceeded. I read the other Graywolf books. [Graywolf is her publisher.] I started Kevin Young’s “Bunk” and read the poetry collections by Danez Smith, “Don’t Call Us Dead” and Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas.” All three books are extraordinary. “Bunk” is unbelievably prescient, which made it intense to read. I’ve seen Soldier read her poetry, which helps the [reading] experience. Poetry is not my forte.


BOOKS: What are you most likely to read?

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MACHADO: I love short stories. I’ll always read an author’s short story collection first. I do read novels especially now that I’m being asked to do blurbs. I’ve been reading books that aren’t out yet. I just read Mallory Ortberg’s “The Merry Spinster,” and it was extraordinary. I also read Sam Miller’s “Blackfish City.” It’s terrifying science fiction that imagines that climate change has devastated the planet, and there’s a city floating out in the ocean.

BOOKS: Are there any short story collections you wish were better known?

MACHADO: Bennett Sims’s “White Dialogues.” That came out this year. Amy Parker’s “Beasts & Children.” People didn’t talk about that book in a way it deserved. There were a lot of great collections published this year, like Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.”

BOOKS: Who are the short-story heavy hitters in the literary canon?


MACHADO: I’m a big fan of the short stories of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, and Lucia Berlin. Also Jane Bowles. Her novels are well known but she has this perfect short story called “Camp Cataract.”

BOOKS: What draws you to short stories as a reader?

MACHADO: A novel is like being wrestled for hours. A short story is like a punch to the nose. The story is grappling with you in a very immediate way. They don’t really teach short stories in schools. You never read bodies of short stories by authors. They go right to their novels. I think that is why we don’t value short stories, because people aren’t taught how to read them.

BOOKS: Do you read nonfiction?

MACHADO: Weirdly, when I was younger I never wanted to read nonfiction. Now I have a lot of interest in biographies. I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m my father.” Is this what it means to get older? I read the Shirley Jackson bio by Ruth Franklin and the Angela Carter bio by Edmund Gordon. Last year I also read Bronwen Dickey’s “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon.” I was completely taken by it.


BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a kid?

‘A short story is like a punch to the nose. The story is grappling with you in a very immediate way.’

MACHADO: My parents had one big shelf with their books. My mom had Danielle Steel and pulpy, commercial books. My dad had Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. Those I found confusing. I would read my mother’s books. She was trying to monitor what I read, but she’d just flip through the books. Because it was a lax system, I read a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have and a lot above my comprehension.

BOOKS: What stands out in your memory?

MACHADO: I read every V.C. Andrews I could find — these gothic books with a lot of incest in them. They aren’t written for teens, but they are perfect for teens, because they are so melodramatic. There was one with a plot about a girl whose stepmother disembowels her hamster and leaves it in the bathtub. I ate that like candy.

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