Tales of abuse from a ‘Dream House’

The writer in residence reflects on her craft, the attention attracted by her new memoir, and what it means to teach creative writing.

The true dream house for author Carmen María Machado is in West Philadelphia, a Victorian fixer-upper she and her wife bought last year. It’s within walking distance of the Walnut Street brownstone that houses the University of Pennsylvania’s Creative Writing Program, where she is a writer in residence. 

That house of her dreams is not to be confused with the one in her new memoir, “In the Dream House,” a place where she suffered a nightmarish existence. Experimental in its approach, the memoir describes in detail the dynamics of her life with “the woman in the Dream House,” as she refers to her former girlfriend, and the frightening emotional and psychological abuse Machado suffered during their two-year relationship.

“In the Dream House” has received extraordinary attention, and has been named one of the best reviewed nonfiction titles of 2019 by Literary Hub, with extensive national and international coverage in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and many other publications and media outlets. Machado is especially pleased with an interview on NPR’s “Code Switch,” as well as a feature in The New York Times: “Welcome to the House of Machado. Proceed directly to the forbidden room; enjoy the view as the floor gives way.”

In the Dream House a Memoir book cover.

“It’s been very heartening,” Machado says about the reaction. “The topic of the book is very niche, and the book is very experimental in structure and form. But it does seem like people have been really diving into it and feeling a lot of feelings, which is great.”

With this memoir, Machado is filling a gap, exposing queer domestic violence. “There’s this inability to recognize that women can hurt women,” she says.  

She was surprised how little she could find while researching historical narratives. “I felt like I was almost creating it from scratch. It made me more determined to do something in that space,” she says. “It’s one book in a new, or a very young, canon, and that’s okay with me. That’s all it needs to be, is just like a star in that constellation.” 

Machado’s star has been rising since a celebrated book of short stories, “Her Body and Other Parties,” was published in 2017. Also widely covered in the press, the book received a long list of awards, including as a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.

In 2018, The New York Times listed “Her Body” as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.” In its10th printing, with more than 115,000 copies in print, it’s been or is being translated into 23 languages. The stories are now being adapted for a television series on the FX channel, and Machado is collaborating with the writers as a consultant. 

Her Bodies and Other Parties by Carmen Machado book cover

She has been teaching creative writing, primarily speculative fiction, which she describes as “all sorts of non-realism,” at Penn since the spring of 2017. Her classes have included The Art of Haunting, and Horror, Mystery, and Suspense, as well as Memoir and Creative Non-Fiction, which she taught last spring after returning from a semester’s sabbatical to finish “In the Dream House.” 

“I love teaching. Teaching is this thing that really excites me and interests me,” she says. “But teaching is very exhausting. I really can’t write when I teach. It requires a lot of sort of energy that for me comes from the same place as my writing.”

Julia Bloch, director of the  Creative Writing Program, says that Machado has helped fulfill a long-standing need for classes that address the wide range of speculative-fiction genres, which she describes as writing inspired by magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, horror, fiction that bends the rules, that might include elements of the supernatural, “all genres in which Carmen is not only fluent as a writer herself but also as an extremely skillful as an instructor.”

Machado has raised the visibility of queer, transgender, and Latinx writing on campus, Bloch says. “She’s considered one of the most visible queer writers of her generation. That’s been really thrilling for us, to have her presence here,” Bloch says. “That speaks to something students have been wanting and needing and have been delighted to have here at Penn.” 

Machado’s classes are popular, with waiting lists for the 15 spots. Students submit writing samples and an essay to describe their interest in the class.  

“Carmen’s courses are robust. They are reading-heavy. They are craft-based. They focus a lot on form and structure and ask questions about why the writing works the way it does,” Bloch says. “She’s an amazing teacher. She’s adored by her students; the intellectual rigor and creative joy she brings to the workshop space is very inspiring.” 

Genre is an important concept in her courses, Machado says. “We talk about potential devices and tropes and avenues for a story to be told. We do a lot reading in that genre or sub-genre and then the students write their own stuff,” she says. “I want them to be thinking more critically about the stories they consume and the stories they tell.” 

Machado will be taking a sabbatical during 2020, to work on her next book as part of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship she won last year. She will resume teaching at Penn in January. 

The new book will be a work of fiction, as she has discovered that she does not like writing nonfiction, especially when it is about herself. “I finished this book and I was like, ‘I’ll never write nonfiction ever again. It was very, very emotional and taxing and stressful,” she says. 

“Fiction, for me, it’s like playing. It’s like I could just do it forever, even when I’m writing about stuff that’s really intense. I just love that sort of act of creation. It feels really free form and really lovely,” she says. “Writing memoir requires you to figure out what you think. That’s a really hard thing to know, truly knowing what you think.”

Machado has been crisscrossing the country for readings and interviews about her memoir. She also made two public appearances in Philadelphia, in conversations with writers Emma Eisenberg at the Free Library of Philadelphia and Jaquira Diaz at the Penn Book Center. She is scheduled to hold a reading on Penn’s campus on Feb. 10 at Kelly Writers House

It is especially painful to discuss her memoir in front of her students, she says, which happened during her very first appearance, at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. 

“It’s really horrible. It’s really hard. Because it’s really personal, and it’s weird to read that out loud,” she says. “I’m very embarrassed and sad and had this great pain and to have students who had once been in my classes sitting in the audience. It’s a really intense experience.” 

carmen machado seated at a table
Carmen Maria Machado

Machado, whose grandfather came to the United States from Cuba, grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Thinking she might want to be a journalist, she went to American University, but she soon discovered that she was more interested in creative writing. She moved to Berkeley, California, and kept writing while working at a variety of jobs. She also kept in touch with an American University professor, who encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree, and she was accepted at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. 

It was during those two years, when she was 24 to 26 years old, that she was in the relationship she describes “In the Dream House,” driving back and forth to Bloomington, Indiana, where the woman, her first real girlfriend, and also a writer, lived in the house that became a nightmare. 

The way the memoir is constructed is unique, telling the story of her relationship with the unnamed woman as it unfolded, each of the 145 titled chapters in 264 pages starting with “Dream House as.” The vary in length from several pages to just one line, like the chapter Dream House as Epiphany: “Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.” 

Chapters are written with elements of the supernatural, haunting, mystery, science fiction, modeled after road trips, romance novels, movie thrillers. Some have pages of detailed footnotes, referring to deep research she conducted on folklore and fairy tales.

Machado says she struggled to write a straight narrative, judging everything she wrote to be, in her words, terrible.  It was when she was teaching high schoolers at a summer writing camp that she had the space and time to think. She says she focused on haunted houses, an obsession of hers, and she thought of haunting as an organizing structure for the memoir.

“By the time I had left Iowa City a few weeks later, I had a notebook that was just full of ideas and it was showing literally lists of tropes and narrative arcs and just everything I could possibly imagine,” she says. “I could tell it was right because it was like everything cracked open and immediately the whole book fell out of me.” 

The approach is similar in some ways to her short stories in “Her Body and Other Parties,” using “tiny, almost like microsections to create a larger experience,” she says. 

The perspective changes throughout the memoir, with some chapters in second person, which was not her original intention: “The text was like resisting me. A lot of the pieces I was trying to put into first person sounded really weird to my ear. They weren’t fitting. And so, I left those in second person.” 

As she continued writing, it became clear to her that the second person was her in the past, and the first person was her in the present. “It is like the me that is sitting in front of you right now, and the me that is this past version of myself. The book was about me stepping up to her and trying to understand her,” she says. “It’s like you can access this other past self, but you can’t tell her anything.”

And what does Machado dream for her memoir? “I hope that people who need it read it,” she says, echoing the first words on the first page, “If you need this book, it is for you.”