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Carmen Maria Machado: 'Her Body,' ghosts, and eggnog

Philly writer Carmen Maria Machado has had a huge year. Her collection "Her Body and Other Parties" was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. She's been reading locally a lot and will be at Tattooed Mom on Dec. 15 and Big Blue Marble Books on Feb. 9. She talks about becoming an "overnight" sensation (after five years of hard writing), ghosts … and the wonders of eggnog.

“Carmen Maria Machado,” author of “Her Body and Other Parties.”
“Carmen Maria Machado,” author of “Her Body and Other Parties.”Read moreLeft: Tom Storm Photography

Carmen Maria Machado managed to make it through her whole book tour without getting sick.  Then she hit Thanksgiving with family.

Now, sitting at the Gold Standard Cafe near her house in West Philly, the author of the best-selling book Her Body and Other Parties (which made the National Book Award short list for fiction and is on a lot of 2017 best-of lists) is pulling tissue after tissue out of her purse and trying to get through the last few weeks of what's been an intense, fantastic year.

Kirkus award finalist and Shirley Jackson Award finalist, Machado's been running around the country. Her next book, a memoir called House in Indiana, is due to her publisher in September.  Married to her partner, Val Howlett, Machado has a visiting professor gig at the University of Pennsylvania and plans to stay still for a while. Still, Machado will be signing books from 8 to 10 p.m. at the Blood Milk & Friends Friday Night Market at Tattooed Mom on Dec. 15 and will read at the Big Blue Marble bookstore on Feb. 9.

Chatting over pancakes and bacon, Machado talked about becoming an "overnight" sensation after five years of hard writing, why the author of a book of horror stories doesn't believe in ghosts, and the wonders of eggnog.

What do people say to you about your book at readings?

They have a lot of questions, and sometimes it's things about my writing that I never thought about.  Like, someone asked me why all but one of the essays in my book are in first person. I never really realized that.

People have access to living authors like they never have before, and they'll ask what I was thinking when I wrote this or that, they want to know the secret, what I think is true. But while I write with intent, I want them to think for themselves. Like, approach this book as if I was not here, if I died.  Because that's what we have to do for most authors, right?

One thing I love about your writing is that you really focus on the details. It’s not blue, it’s cobalt blue. When I said I was meeting you and that I was wearing a red sweater, I was really nervous about describing the exact kind of red. Is it bloodred? No. I decided on cranberry. Do you notice that kind of specific detail all the time?

It is cranberry! I do notice details. I was a photography major – that's what I switched to from journalism – so I absolutely think visually and specifically.

Do you have a particular way of finding story ideas?

I find them all over. Sometimes I'll be talking and then I'll just stop and stare into space, and my partner, Val, will say, "Are you thinking of a story?" She knows.  Sometimes when I'm driving I'll think of something, and I'll describe it and she'll write it down and text me.

Do you have a specific writing place?

We have an office in the house, but I actually write more in residencies and I can focus. I know some people say to write every day, but I don't do that at all.  A lot of writing is not writing – it's reading, it's thinking about things. It happens when I'm not thinking about writing. It sounds cliche, but it happens in the shower. All of a sudden I'm like, "Oh, that's how I fix that problem."

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a number of things, I like to work on several projects at once.  I mentioned something on Twitter about how much I love eggnog, and the New Yorker contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a story about eggnog.

Eggnog? It’s like liquid flan.

Yes! That's about my speed right now.  So I'm doing fact-checking about eggnog. After this, I'm walking up to Mariposa [Food Co-op] to see if they have my favorite eggnog.  I don't even know the name, but I know it comes in a glass bottle. I'll know it when I see it. (FYI, they didn't have it.)

You write a lot about women being haunted, by secrets, by a disease, by killers, by their pasts.  What are you haunted by?

What doesn't haunt me?  I don't believe in ghosts, in angels, that kind of thing. Sometimes you walk into a place and it feels weird. They've done studies of where they put someone in a room and scare them, and then people walk in after, not knowing what happened, and they can feel it.  They feel the fear.  Because you release pheromones and they are still in the air.

Maybe that’s part of what’s going on now. All these women are airing their fears out in public, and it frees others to share what’s haunting them.

Women are coming forward and sharing the specters of memories, of what was lost, of what could have been. Everybody else can see these ghosts now.