How Carmen Maria Machado wrote the best memoir of the year
In the Dream House is a thrilling, harrowing exploration of queer identity, abuse, and storytelling. Its author tells EW how she pulled it off.
It was almost exactly a year ago when Carmen Maria Machado announced news of a completed new book, her first since her lauded, National Book Award-nominated debut, Her Body and Other Parties. She admitted it was a particularly difficult experience. “Y’all, this book almost killed me dead, but I did it,” she tweeted.
In the Dream House marks Machado’s debut nonfiction book, a memoir she comfortably calls “experimental.” It tackles the rarely explored, oft-misunderstood, and deeply painful topic of queer domestic violence. Machado revisits an abusive relationship she lived through in the book, but filters it through various common pop tropes and narrative conventions. The result is an alternately devastating and ingenious volume that challenges not just the way we look at abuse and the clichés that surround it, but the nature of storytelling itself. EW’s Leah Greenblatt calls it “a gorgeously kaleidoscopic feat — not just of literature but of pure, uncut humanity.”
Machado broke down the book’s development with EW shortly after she turned it in — so again, a little less than a year ago. Here’s how she wrote the best memoir of the year, which is now available for purchase.
The reason I wanted to write about queer domestic violence is that it was something that I experienced. I remember in the early days after I’d more or less gotten untangled from the relationship and was beginning to have a postmortem a little bit, actually thinking about what happened in a critical way — and which, for me, was completely unprecedented in certain ways. I was thinking a lot about narratives. I had a friend sort of say to me, “Maybe what you experienced was abuse.” I was like, “I would not have described it that way.” Like, it just wouldn’t have occurred to me to say that. The more I thought about it, I was like, “Oh, not only is it an abusive relationship, but it’s actually abusive in really obvious ways.” In the book, I tackle the problem that people have survived these experiences have: Abuse is, by definition a cliché — the way that abuse functions is very structured in this very oft-repeated, boring way.
It was the first time that I wrote a full-length nonfiction book, and it’s also the first time that I wrote a book where I didn’t sell it finished. Well, I’ve only written two books now. [Laughs] But the first one: I sold it, it was basically done. I had some edits I had to do but nothing big. This book I sold a very, very early draft of. I was working on a deadline, against the deadline, and had to do that while I was touring for my other book. There were a lot of firsts for this book. I sold a very early draft of it last winter, in early 2017. We were sort of like, “We don’t have to tackle it right away,” because I had to go on tour for my first book and my editor was doing other stuff. It wasn’t the right time. Then I actually had two residencies this year: I went to New Mexico over the summer and I went to Bard College this fall. They were both residencies I’d already scheduled. I was like, “Cool, finish the book.” As to schedule: There’s no real schedule. I’m not a scheduled writer. Just as things move me I do them — which of course, is hard if you’re on a deadline!
There were academic texts for social workers or people going into psychology — there were academic texts. But they weren’t a memoir or even a layperson’s breakdown of any of it. I was just like, “Wow, that’s so weird, there’s this weird gap in the world.” I was also thinking a lot about how — when the majority of it was going on, in the final stretch of the marriage equality fight in the United States, I remember thinking, “I bet it will never happen in my lifetime.” Obviously I was wrong, and thank goodness. But I remember having that thought. Where on the one hand, this very public fight is going on, saying, “We’re the same as you, we deserve your rights.” Then there’s this pressure to not talk about queer domestic violence. I didn’t necessarily know I was going to do that for my next book, but as it turned out, while I was editing my first book, the collection of stories, when I’d get bored of that I’d just go write material. Then at some point publishers were like, “Do you have another book you want to show us?” And I was like, “Weirdly I do.” It occurred to me: I basically have a draft of this thing. It was odd because the version I sold them was very skeletal. I’ve added a lot of material. I hadn’t even written a full-length book before where it was all one thing.
Something I discovered when I was doing research is: Not only are we saturated with visions of heterosexual abusers, but a weirdly specific kind of vision of it. We as a culture think about a big man beating up a tiny woman, and they’re usually white. That’s the perpetrator, that’s the victim. That’s what it looked like. If you invert that or mess with that in any way — if you have people who aren’t white or have queer folks or genderqueer folks or a woman abusing her boyfriend or husband — people don’t know, and have historically not known, what to do with that. They really struggle to shove all these things that happened in real life into this box that they understand. That actually, it turned out, was a lot of the problem: the way that a community of lawyers and legal experts have tried to figure out how to navigate this space. It’s a problem with certain qualities that don’t always fit neatly into the boxes we’ve already created for this issue.
Even the conversation on domestic abuse is relatively recent. They only identified it starting in the ’70s as a thing. When I was writing it, I kept thinking, “There’s a whole separate book to be written here that I cannot write.” About the history of the representations, especially, of queer domestic violence, culturally. I did not write that book. But I talk about parts of it and tried to break down things that I saw and things that I’ve read and tried to put it all into context, and at the same, put myself and my experience into context. For me, it’s the thing I wanted to do in the beginning. That was my initial goal.
I love nonfiction that pushes formal boundaries. I love classic essays as well, but I’m interested in the ways form and structure can inform a piece of writing. This book in particular: the chapters are these little fragments and takes a different genre idea or a different trope and uses it to view what happened through the psychic lens.I talk about the trope of the haunted house, and I talk about the gothic, and I talk about murder mysteries. I’m using these narrative ideas…. [Laughs] It’s just how my brain works. It’s how I process stuff. I was reading a bunch of other works I’d call “experimental nonfiction” — work that deals with nonfiction but that uses these different formal elements to do all of these interesting things. In many ways, this book is very different from my collection, but I also feel like when one reads it, if you know my work, you’ll go, “Oh, yes, I could see how this is a book that she wrote.”