Once rejected by Starbucks, writer-in-residence is a National Book Award finalist

Up four flights of stairs in the house-like home of Penn’s Creative Writing Program is the office of Carmen Maria Machado, writer-in-residence and celebrity author in the making.

Her brunette hair knotted on top of her head, she sits with her leg tucked under her in an oversized chair near the bay window of her garret-like space. She’s dressed to go to Penn’s Pottruck Center later, black tank top, galaxy-print leggings.

The fact that she is here at all on a Friday is unusual. After teaching her two classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, she usually travels the rest of week for events featuring her first book, “Her Body and Other Parties.” Signings, readings, and panels in cities from New York to Los Angeles.

The short story collection is a literary sensation, winner of a lengthening list of prizes, and was one of five finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction and the Kirkus Prize. The book is appearing on various “Best of 2017” lists, including just-announced Publisher’s Weekly.

“I’m super surprised at the attention it is getting,” she says, noting that hers is a debut literary collection of fantasy stories published by an independent press, not usually a recipe for star status. “It’s weird how much attention it’s getting.”

The Bard College committee that chose Machado for the 2018 Bard Fiction Prize said the eight stories “are bizarre, hilarious, sexy, and addictively entertaining while troubling, complex ideas about femininity, queerness, gender, and sexuality lurk around the corner of every sentence. This book is an oddball masterpiece.”

Released in paperback on Oct. 3 and already in the fifth printing, Graywolf Press has published 39,000 copies. As of last week, 22,000 books had been shipped and are in circulation.

“It is thoroughly, thoroughly unbelievable,” she says. “It’s been just incredible.”

Last week, Machado tweeted that the independent Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., chose her book as an “Indiespensable” which resulted in a special first-edition print run of 2,000 hardcovers. Using a black fountain pen, Machado “had to sign and sign and sign for hours and hours and hours,” she says. They are already sold out.

Book reviews and interviews with major publications are common for her now. The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times. The Boston Globe. The Atlantic. The Paris Review. National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” “The Today Show.”

The New York Times review made my wife cry. She read it to me out loud. It was beautiful. She started bawling, she loved it so much,” Machado says.  

The Times reviewer Parul Sehgal described the stories as fables that remix the language of fairy tales: “Her fiction is both matter-of-factly and gorgeously queer. She writes about loving and living with women and men with such heat and specificity that it feels revelatory.”

Machado listened to the NPR review last week on her way back to campus from a dental appointment. “Hearing the ‘Fresh Air’ interview set my heart on fire,” she says. She was parking her car on 39th and Walnut streets, right next to the Starbucks.

Ironic, since it wasn’t that long ago that she was rejected for a job at a Starbucks in Newtown Square.

“They said I didn’t have enough experience making coffee,” she says.

Machado, whose grandfather immigrated to the United States from Cuba, grew up in Allentown, Pa. She knew she wanted to be a writer, and chose American University to pursue a career in journalism. A professor corrected her for using so many adjectives in a news story, and suggested she try fiction.

Graduating with her bachelor’s in 2008, she moved to Berkeley, Calif., and worked a variety of jobs and kept writing. She also kept in touch with a creative writing professor, who encouraged her to apply for a master’s in fine arts. That’s how she ended up at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for two years.

“When I got to grad school, that was the first time I ever considered that writing fiction could be something I would do professionally,” she said. “And I never really considered teaching before as a career before I taught at Iowa. I really loved it.”

It was while she was in Iowa that she met her now-wife Val Howlett, whose job at the publishing house Running Press brought them to Philadelphia in 2013.

That same year, after the discouraging Starbucks rejection, Machado found work in a soap store, Lush, at King of Prussia Mall. She taught writing as an adjunct at Rosemont College and other local schools. She wrote freelance for literary publications.

Ends were difficult to meet, and she almost gave up on writing and teaching.

“I was just really struggling for a couple of years,” she says. “I was thinking: I have to have benefits and be able to support myself.”

It was at just that moment in 2015 that Penn professors Julia Bloch, director of the Creative Writing Program, and Al Filreis, faculty director of Kelly Writers House, called and asked if she would come in for a chat about a writer-in-residence position.

Filreis says she became their choice once they read her book of short stories in manuscript.

“We were thrilled to be able to hire an emerging writer whose work spans fiction, speculative genres, and thinking about identity,” Bloch says.

Machado said she was ecstatic about the opportunity.

“It’s so exciting,” she says. “This is my first full-time job in my field. I really love it. The students here are amazing, and I love all the resources available to me.”

Machado started at Penn in January.

“Carmen has taught both fiction writing and writing speculative fiction to great acclaim for the past two semesters,” Bloch says. “I have spoken with a number of students who find her classes ‘rigorously fun.’”

This semester, Machado is teaching two classes, a general fiction workshop and a “speculative fiction” writing course focused on horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Both classes, capped at 15 students, include literature analysis and creative writing.

“The students are just really smart and ridiculously talented,” she says. “They are so interactive. They have so much to say about what we are doing. We have really great conversations. I feel really lucky. It is really just delightful.”

Also while at Penn, Machado has been involved with various programs at Kelly Writers House, which have been “fantastic,” including a reading of a new short story on Halloween night, Bloch says. She also convened a weekend “scary stories club,” spoke on a panel devoted to finding a literary agent, and is now curating events this semester and next with visiting writers.

“I’m really excited to see her bring exciting fresh voices to campus,” Bloch says.

In the spring Machado will teach a class on “flash fiction,” pieces under 1,000 words, and an introduction to creative writing course. Also, she will have an “apprentice” student to help her with research for her next book,  “House in Indiana: A Memoir.” They will be searching for historical narratives on violence in same-sex relationships, she says.

Currently, Machado is wrapping up an “incredibly successful third semester here at Penn,” Bloch says, and she has been invited to stay in the program. After the spring semester, she will be working on her memoir, first going to New Mexico for a summer residency, and then to Bard College for a fall residency, the reward for winning the Bard Fiction Prize.

Long-term plans are to stay in Philadelphia, she says. She and Howlett were married in June, at the Old Mill in Rose Valley, Pa., and are settled in a brick West Philadelphia row house.

So that leaves the question of tattoos, whether to get more, or not. Machado has three, one for every time she has moved. In black ink with typewriter-like letters, the one on her left arm reads: “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.” And the one on her right: “She didn’t look back, but stepped off the edge of the known world.”

Her cell phone rings, and she begins another interview.

Carmen Machado