In this interview, Online Nonfiction Editor Vera Carothers spoke to Carmen Maria Machado about her new memoir, In the Dream House. The book explores domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship. Carmen is also the author of Her Body and Other Parties, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
I was looking up the comic book that you have coming out. It looks incredible! And I read an interview where you talk about fantasy in terms of creating a fictional version of the ‘90s without homophobia. I was curious; in your memoir, In the Dream House, how did you conceive of fantasy as a framework to write about an abusive relationship?
The comic series is where all my dreaminess and idealism went. I’m imagining these super gay teenagers who are just living life and having a good time. They have problems but they aren’t homophobia. That was really important to me. I did that because all my sadness and perspectives about queer relationships with the other book were so intense and so different. When I was writing it, I was thinking a lot about this idea that queer female relationships are very beautiful and very singular and very special. The idea that when you don’t have men involved, it’s great. In some ways, there’s a reason that that idea exists. But it becomes [a perception that] nothing bad can happen and that is not true and really damaging, actually. That was an epiphany I came to while I was writing this book.
How was the beginning of the book project for you?
I had been trying to write it for a while but it wasn’t until summer 2016 when I first thought of the idea of the structure of the book. I had really struggled because everything I had written for so long was so terrible. And then suddenly, it all came out. I thought, oh, this is interesting, this is great. So, I was just picking away at it as I was editing Her Body and Other Parties. Then in the spring of 2017, Graywolf was like, do you have any other books that you want to sell to us? And I said, actually, I do have this really weird memoir; why don’t you look at this sort of skeletal thing that I’ve written? Then they bought it. I ended up adding about one hundred and fifty pages, so it’s not like it was over right away.
And the structure that came to you was to begin each section with “[blank] as Dream House,” just like different typologies of the idea of a dream house?
Yes, it was like the different genres. And actually, the initial title was House in Indiana, which is basically the same sort of structure. So, for a while it was called that. But then I got sick of people asking me if I was from Indiana and I didn’t feel like answering the question anymore.
Are you from Indiana?
[Laughs] I am not! I was like, no way, I don’t want to talk about Indiana anymore. So I knew I needed to change the title so that people don’t ask me that anymore.
I’m curious about the research process for the book because there’s an incredible number of sources pulled in. What were some of your biggest surprises or things that you learned during research?
When I began doing research, I thought, surely I’ll find some interesting writing on this; certainly someone has sort of done the work for me a little bit. But there was nothing. I was like, oh no! What have I got myself into? So, then I began to dig and find different avenues.
I kept seeing a lot of legal papers—there was this whole body of work stored in the early 90s; lawyers were just beginning to talk about how queerness intersects with domestic violence and how those things play out in the legal system. I just kept following footnotes. I found out more about the Framingham Eight. Then I found out about Deborah Reed.
It was weird because it was such intense material, but also somehow less intense than my own memoir. I would read some fucking horrible legal paper about a woman killing her girlfriend and then I’d think, let me go back to this other thing which is less sad. Then I’d write my own shit and realize, oh, now I’m sad again, I’m going back to the research.
Hence the comic project, which sounds like such a nice release of energy.
Yup! It also has some grim bits, but it’s really fun. I just write these scripts and then they make beautiful art out of them. I’m like, yeah, this is great, I just want to do this forever.
I was really struck by how you switched between first and second person in your book. I’m curious how you decided to do that.
When I sold the book to Graywolf, it was entirely in second person. I had done that sort of by accident. And then my editor was like, when we begin to work on this, we need to talk about the second person. He said, I don’t think you can’t do it. I just want to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that is very conscious and very purposeful. So when I went back to it, I began to fuss, and I was like, oh, just put it in first person, who am I fooling? I began trying that and it was really resisting me. I was playing this weird tug of war [with] myself.
At the time, I was reading We The Animals by Justin Torres and in that book, the POV is sort of smashed apart by trauma. I thought, okay, what if I indicated a space on the page where the voices get separated? So, there’s this “I” that’s grown up who’s living her life and writing essayistic bits and then there’s this “you” that’s trapped in this eternal present. I showed it to my editor and he said, oh, this is perfect.
I’m very interested in the ways in which prose, sentences and tense and point of view and word choice, sentence structure, sentence length, space breaks, all those things, are reflecting some essential quality of the text. The way in which the truth of what you’re writing about is baked down to the marrow of the letters. For me, that split of POV was really important because I think it did something for the book that felt really real and really true in a way that putting it entirely in first person wouldn’t have.
How do you feel about the book coming out?
It’s really scary. If I said otherwise, I would be lying. I definitely have regretted writing the book. I’m actively thinking, oh, this was a choice I made, knowing that when people read this book, they will know things about me. I don’t think I smooth over any rough spots. I feel like this is basically me on the page. It’s weird because I have a lot of autobiographical material in my fiction. But with fiction, you can say, it’s fiction. With memoir, it feels so naked and scary.
What’s the best possible scenario of someone reading it and feeling impacted? What do you hope a reader will take out of the book?
Before, I imagined somebody like me who is trying to figure out what the hell’s going on in her life reading the book and thinking, oh, fuck, I need to get out. That’s for me a best-case scenario. But I have been really touched by the way in which people whom I wouldn’t have guessed have been touched. I got an email from a man who said: I just left my abusive wife. I know the book wasn’t for me but thank you for writing. It was really helpful to read it. I also had a woman write to me and say, I am straight, but I had an abusive boyfriend and this was really helpful to me. There was somebody else that wrote a piece where she was basically saying, I know this book wasn’t for me, but I was molested by a fellow young girl when I was young. The fact that this book was written towards people who don’t see their experiences written about was really helpful. So, those are three people who are really different from me but there are all these weird kinds of connections.
This book sucked to write and it’s going to suck to tour it. I’m not excited about it, I’m very sad and stressed and triggered and upset all the time. But I feel like there’s something about letting that go and being like, here it is. I had my half of the conversation. Whoever wants to pick up the other half for themselves, I want them to feel that that’s a thing they can do.