This article may contain explicit content or views that don’t necessarily reflect those of Mailchimp.
Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist is a story of scientific struggle, of heartbreak and ultimately of chaos. In the Dream House is a precise and innovative accounting of a horrifying relationship Carmen Maria Machado found herself in. We were captivated by the unmistakable openness to inquiry in both of these memoirs. Carmen and Lulu, each in their own way, are both reimagining what it means to be queer and resilient. Life is chaotic and uncertain at every turn, and we couldn’t think of two better writers to help us make sense of it all.
-Aminatou & Ann
Curators’ note: Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist is a story of scientific struggle, of heartbreak and ultimately of chaos. In the Dream House is a precise and innovative accounting of a horrifying relationship Carmen Maria Machado found herself in. We were captivated by the unmistakable openness to inquiry in both of these memoirs. Carmen and Lulu, each in their own way, are both reimagining what it means to be queer and resilient. Life is chaotic and uncertain at every turn, and we couldn’t think of two better writers to help us make sense of it all.
-Aminatou & Ann
June 23, 2020
Hello, Carmen! It is truly a treat to get to talk to you. I know I have fangirled on you so much via email, but here we are as humans and I’m going to rein it in.
I’m super excited.
Can I start somewhere random?
Can you tell me more about what it felt like to be afraid of a balloon when you were a kid?
Oh my god, did I write that in my book?
Yeah, that’s in the book.
I have no memory of what’s in my own book. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this with your book yet or if it’s still kind of fresh, but people sometimes ask me questions about Her Body and Other Parties and now apparently the memoir, and I’m like, “I have no memory of that.”
It snuck in there, in the last third. It just kind of pops out as this strange memory.
Is it about the invention that I made?
I was originally telling a friend about this and they were like, “That is the most you story I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” When I was a kid, in school we were to make an invention and I think it might have been in the context of that very problematic thing they do to children to try to figure out if they belong in a “gifted” program, which obviously has a lot of really intense implications. But it was definitely a thing in the mid-90s.
I remember my invention: I made a hole in the bottom of a 20-ounce soda bottle and put a straw in it—I had gotten this idea that you could blow up a balloon and then if you inhale, the balloon would go into your body and choke you and kill you. Which, I suppose, could happen? I don’t really know.
I was afraid of everything and that was one of many things. I reasoned that this device, you could blow through the straw and the soda bottle served as a way to capture the balloon. So you could put the balloon over the mouth of the soda bottle. But of course it didn’t actually work because you can’t get enough lung power into the device to make the balloon actually inflate, but it was a small price to pay for a device that protected you from dying.
From absolute death. I remember this other girl in my class making a miniature movie theater. She made a little diorama and there was a little cup of popcorn. I remember being very contemptuous of her invention. I was like, “That doesn’t save you from death. That’s just a small movie theater.”
So, as a kid, you were afraid of a lot.
Oh, yeah. When I was living in California after college, I had the worst health insurance in the world and I was a mess. I really needed to go to a therapist but my insurance didn’t cover it. The only thing they cover for mental health was group sessions, so I went to a group session with other very anxious people, which of course is the worst thing you could do—go into a room with other people who all need therapy.
Did they give you new things to be anxious about?
Yeah, exactly! It’s an infection of anxiety. So you go in and you’re like, “Wow, now I have 30 new things to worry about and I’m in a room with all these people.” But I do remember the person running it saying something about how anxiety is your nervous system being turned up to 11. Your body is wary of danger that doesn’t even exist or isn’t there. And I remember being like, “That tracks with my whole life.” Like I’m anticipating death or some things to be afraid of, and I’ve always been that way, as far back as I can remember.
The reason I was asking is because the way you dropped that, it was such a powerful image in the book for me—being afraid. And then the next thing you write about is being afraid of your own mind. Essentially how your mind is potentially either celebratory as an inflated balloon or a prison. Because you had just placed that image of the balloon going into your lungs, I thought about your mind as being that precarious. So much of the book, in one way, is about this person and this human, who in certain ways is really scary and violent, but in other ways it’s about the fraying trust with your own mind and the role that your mind plays in the whole story, and the descent.
Your book is about this, too, this idea of “What does it mean?” I was rereading your book last night and this morning, thinking about our books in conversation. I was thinking about how when I talk about the film Gaslight in the memoir, how this person creates a prison for her mind, and then her mind is this thing she can’t escape. And it’s only when this other presence enters—this detective—that she’s able to get some perspective.
And I feel like you’re also talking about how following certain paths that people send you down, or that you yourself go down, can lead you to terrible places, but that other people are the context that can free you from that space. So it’s a super interesting idea you’re tracking in Why Fish Don’t Exist.
For me, my brain is a kind of prison I deal with in a lot of ways—therapy, medication, and other ways that I free myself. But if I’m alone for too long, I can go down some really weird places and people can be my liberation.
I also reread the book, which was so fun and possibly even better than the first experience, which was one of my favorite reading experiences ever. This is such an addictive book. In the second read, I realized how much I was really interested in where you started things.
You start with this image of John and Laura… the guardians are there at the beginning and then you slowly lose contact with them and you write about the process of dislocation augmenting abuse. And I realized that your protection was right there all along. And then you leave them, and then when they finally come back, they are these bookends to the story and how, much like a good horror writer, you’re foreshadowing. I didn’t see that structure on the first read.
Do you think that was a realization for you, in writing or in living, that then you wanted to commit to paper?
I don’t know. One of the things about writing a book is that sometimes people pick up on things that you did not consciously inject into the writing. So it’s interesting to hear you talk about them as bookends, because they did function that way in this relationship and are still very dear friends and people who are really good presences in my life. When I think back to that time, I think of them as a kind of interrupter of this sorrow and this pain.
I talk about dislocation and how space and isolation are these tools of the abuser, and how mine manifested in this odd way. I was never officially living with her, I hadn’t actually moved. I was theoretically still living with roommates in a community that was mine. But there were these other ways in which isolation and dislocation functioned. One of them, almost self-imposed, was feeling so embarrassed about how bad things were that I didn’t want to talk about it with them. And I realized later that had I done that they would have been able to intervene even sooner.
We talk about how humans are social creatures, which I think is not just about needing human contact—which obviously in this pandemic era is such a real and specific thing. People are like, “Oh right, we need social contact. That’s very helpful.” But also, other people give us perspective in this way that isolation, by definition, cannot.
On one hand it’s so beautiful—where you can go with the mind, and imagination can be refuge. But at a certain point, you keep calling it perspective. And even these little glimpses you’d get from the roommates—I think it was John’s ghastly face when you’re like, “You can prove I’m not cheating on you,” and his horror that you would have to do that.
I think it’s also—and I talk about this in the book—it’s also about context. One of the most violent things that can be done to a person is to tell them that the experience they’re having is singular and terrible and has never happened to anyone before or since. It’s a kind of social gaslighting. Which is why when you read an account of something that is familiar it can be so exciting and wonderful. You’re like, “Oh my god, I’m not alone. This has happened to other people. Other people know what I’ve gone through. I have some context.” And then how that connects to things like queerness or race or gender.
They’re almost always untrue or sinister in some way. It’s important to recognize.
Yeah, and that was such a cool thread in the book, commonality. You were like, “I am a pie chart. My behavior, my experience…” This book has many gifts in it. It’s so many things: a horror story, a memoir, an incredibly cool history lesson that’s not just about queer history, but also about the archive itself.
The dedication is, “If you need this book, it is for you.” I don’t know if these are things you were almost handing to your past self. “Leaving is an option. You actually have infinite chances. This experience is common.” I felt like the book itself was giving gifts to everyone who has questioned their own trustworthiness. You offer these lifelines.
People ask me whom I write for all the time. Generally speaking, my answer is: I write for me—my own satisfaction is my highest priority and everything else is secondary. If you write for other people, it can create a kind of madness. You can get really stuck.
I remember when I was writing the story “The Resident” in my first book… I got a lot of anxiety about what it meant to portray a queer woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and how that contributed to certain stereotypes or clichés of the crazy lesbian or whatever. Then realizing that ultimately I had to write this story to my own satisfaction because if I got bogged down in other people’s perceptions of it I would never have been able to finish.
That was true of my first book, and then with this book I am still writing to my own satisfaction, but also I feel like I am writing to a certain community. But even that idea is false because my book hadn’t even come out yet when I started getting emails from people who had gotten advanced copies through various channels, one straight guy was like, “I was abused by my ex-wife and I’ve just never seen abuse by a woman written so clearly. I know you didn’t write it for me but I appreciate it.”
And then I had an email from another woman who was like, “I’m a straight woman and I know you didn’t write it for me, but I’ve just never seen emotional abuse written about so clearly. Thank you for that.” Realizing that even my own perceptions of who would benefit from the book or who it would speak to, was, by definition, insufficient.
I remember, I sent a copy to a friend of mine—a woman in a heterosexual relationship—because there’s the abuse but then there’s the role that your own self-doubt of, “Was it that bad? Am I melodramatic?” plays into it. And to see that examined so much as part of the cycle, part of the trap, I think is very helpful to lots of people in all kinds of situations.
Rereading your book, I was admiring the detail of the philosopher who’s like, “You have to be sort of humble about how things are real and that categories ultimately don’t exist.” I feel with writing, you have to lean hard into your own humility and be like, “I will create this thing, the best thing I can make. And I must know that the minute it leaves my hands it is, by definition, insufficient.” And it becomes separate from you and it’s not in your control anymore; you have to just watch it in all of its beauties and accomplishments, and also sufferings and the places that it fails.
When you think about it that way, how does anyone ever make a concrete statement or make any kind of art at all?
There’s a failure of a kind.
It is, yes. And I’m thinking about that more and more today, as a white woman trying to be a reporter, riddled with blind spots and biases. But then, at the same time, we can just accept putting out imperfect things and let that spark conversation and let it be received. Even our imperfect steps are our right that we have to connect—if that’s what we’re coming back to—community, and not being isolated. Let us all just connect imperfectly and with curiosity.
Another process question: did you write any of it in the moment? When you were sitting, looking at the coyotes and you’re like, “Remember this. Don’t forget this”—was that a moment you were actually like, “Don’t forget how bad things are. Don’t let sleep make you fall in love again”? Were there scenes you were committing to paper almost as a “Remember this, Carmen,” in whatever form? Or was this writing experience all from memory later on?
It was mostly from memory. I don’t know if you’re a journaler or if you’re a person who records your day-to-day.
I’m not really. On and off. Every now and then, but not really.
I was one of those kids who was given a diary in 3rd grade and kept really good diary entries for a month and then stopped. I have a lot of journals like that. And I did keep a LiveJournal because that was the era. That was the most regular but that also had an audience. I was unable to keep a regular journal if it’s just me.
So no, the only contemporaneous documentation I have is emails I sent to other people, which were actually helpful. There were emails I sent to folks from which there were things I had forgotten. And there was this process of having to remember.
Some things were so clear. And then there were others where I would look back in my calendar. One of the earliest things I did in the process of writing the memoir was keep a timeline for myself using calendars and emails and things that I had.
Was that painful?
It actually was sort of pleasant because it was very logistical, which I appreciated, and I would do it while watching TV. The episode of Star Trek that I talk about in the book, I watched that while doing this activity of writing down the schedule. And just by coincidence this episode played. I was sitting there with my pen and paper, like, “Are you fucking serious?”
I can remember certain details really clearly and others feel equally plausible, or I can’t remember, or there’s just a gap. Or there’s the scene where we go to Petco and look at the little ferrets that are hanging out. The ferrets are all piled on each other. That was something I had forgotten had happened and then Val, my now spouse, was present for and remembered. She was like, “I thought it was weird that you didn’t mention that cute little scene.” She said it and I was like, “Oh my god”—my brain had jettisoned that memory. She helped me retrieve it.
If I had known that I was going to write a book back then, maybe I would have been keeping notes. But I wasn’t and I didn’t.
I like that quality, though. I think it augments the dreamlike experience of memory, where certain things are really vivid, then it’s blurry.
Can we talk about research? We are coming to our books from really different places. You obviously are coming from both a fiction background but also as a journalist who turns reportage and research into a narrative for other people to read. Whereas when I did it, I was reinventing the wheel. I was like, “I have no clue what I’m doing.” I took one semester of journalism classes in undergrad and I hated it. I was like, “I hate research, I hate talking to other people. I’d rather just make things up in my brain.” So the process of having to turn writing into a narrative for other folks was really hard.
I remember an early draft of the book where the memoir pieces would be well written and eloquent and then I would hit a research chapter and the boat would dive. I was just like, “In this state…” The process of learning how to turn facts I had gleaned from publications or from other people’s writing into narratives, was so hard.
And then reading your book, I was like, “Man, this is seamless. There’s no transition.” You’re writing about things that happened that you could not have possibly seen or that you’ve read about, as effortlessly as you write about your own experiences, which I think is just a miracle. It’s so beautiful.
So I want to ask you about that process, to write a book that has both really personal material and also stuff that you’re reporting or learning from history or from other people’s writing, and how it feels to turn that into your own prose.
Well, in my proposal, I had barely any personal stuff. You often hear this, and then the editor’s like, “Maybe throw a little more…”
I felt out of my depth in the more personal stuff. I think about research—I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I came out this way—but I’m like, “I love me a good archive dive.”
In radio, one of my favorite parts is the editing process. You have two hours of experience with someone in the world and then you go back to your little cave and you just pick the moments that your body responds to, that are either funny, or awkward, or loaded, or tense. You’re like a miner for these gems that are emotionally hot. Then you try to reverse engineer, through writing, the shortest, quick little bridges to string them together. And maybe you play around with chronology and you try to serve something back to the listener that sets up those emotional moments to really succeed. And throw away all the scraps. So I really think my job is making these little bridges from hot tape, to hot tape, to hot tape, and giving the listener the right amount of context history and setup so that the tape itself lands the volleyball spike. I think it was sort of similar in this process, where archive diving and research is similar to getting tape, where you just get thousands of pages of blather but then you find these moments in a study—either a weird finding or a surprisingly honest way someone says a thing.
Like Trenton Merricks, the philosopher you were bringing up, he’s this classic, “Chairs might not exist,” and everyone rolls their eyes. But then you love him when he admits, “I don’t tell people what I do for a living on a plane.” When he said that, I was like, “Ok, this is my doorway into you as a character,” and I can give this to at least stall the eye roll in everyone else.
So in that way, I think of myself as someone exploring largely unexplored territory. Very little had been written about David Starr Jordan, so that made him enticing to me. There wasn’t already a take on him, I wasn’t filling in a nuance. I get intimidated when experts have already said their thing. I like going to a quirky, mostly unknown place.
I see that process as so fun. And I think there is a fair amount of cracking myself up or, like you were saying, in a certain way, pleasing myself. And then my editor was like, “You are such a nerd, we’ve got to dial these back, Lulu.” Bless him, he let me stay myself but I think he dialed me back enough to make me palatable. Research is where I felt more confident and the more literary stuff was scarier.
I am the opposite, where I feel comfortable in the narrative places, and then when it came to the reporting I was like, “Oh man, I’m really out of my depth here.” I keep thinking of that line from Contact where she says, “They should’ve sent a poet.” And I’m like, “They should have sent a historian.” I’m so out of my depth.
Also, it was a topic similar to your book, where it had been written about but never in any big, comprehensive way. I found myself developing theories so the whole idea of, wow, the way in which queer women get disconnected from their gender, the way we think about violence in women, and the ways in which we have dismissed queer domestic violence, is so specific and I feel like I had that revelation. I was like, “I guess that’s what historians do; they read a ton within a very narrow scope and then they have a sense.” At some point, I remember being like, “Ok, I don’t know that much about anything but I could tell you about the nuance and the movement of the conversation about domestic violence in the American lesbian community between like 1981 and 2000.”
I have now figured out the rise and fall of that conversation and the arc of it and I feel like I have a sense of that story and maybe a sense of where I fit in this thing. Which is what I set out to do—to get context. And now I’m really into research. And now I’m into historical fiction.
Are you falling into some historical fiction right now?
I am, I am. I just published a story in Granta earlier this year that’s part of a new book that has a lot of historical fiction. My wife is writing a historical fiction novel, her first. She loves research and will just pop up and be like, “Can I tell about a thing I just learned?” and definitely has that historian researcher’s verve. For my first book I did exactly one piece of Googling for research purposes. After that I was like, “I’m done. I’m totally done.”
We will all follow you wherever you go. The Framingham Eight, the Debra Reid thing, was so fascinating. Is she still alive?
I was trying to figure that out and basically, insofar as I had the resources at my disposal, I followed her until she was out of prison. I found an article about her being released from prison and after that I do not know. At some point I was like, if she’s still living, she clearly doesn’t want to be found.
I don’t know what I would gain by talking to her. Though the fact that she ended up becoming a character in the book—you were talking about the gems or the hot tape—I felt like every time she came up everything she said was vivid and beautiful. That detail about the doorknobs, which I found in this documentary—a documentary that basically ignored her. Even in the writing about the Framingham Eight, she rarely appeared and when she did, it was like a sentence. There was no interrogation of her particular intersection of identities within this larger conversation.
Had this been the extensive treatise on queer abuse, it was perfect. You gave us the right gems, or inconsistencies—the fact that she was the second-to-last person who was released.
When you talk about gems, the accounts I was reading were about abuse, which, sort of by definition, are clichéd. A lot of people were saying things that were heartbreaking, and of course to them were very significant, but also sounded kind of the same.
Like a stone runs smooth and you can’t hold on to it anymore because it’s just the same thing over and over. But then I found that detail about the woman being stoned on the beach in France and I stopped dead in my tracks, and I was like, “Fuck, that’s amazing.”
In this moment, are you writing right now? Do you find yourself more drawn toward fiction or nonfiction? What is your relationship to writing, with everything?
I’ll say that I personally feel like, “Ok, it's just my job to listen.” I feel very alert and like there are bricks on my tongue. I just want to listen.
With Coronavirus and with unrest and rebellion and change, what’s your writing life like?
When Coronavirus first started, I was not writing. I was doing what I do when I’m stressed, which is compulsively clean and organize everything in my house. We have a three-story Victorian so you could straighten and organize until the cows come home. And then I had some scheduled foot surgery, from which I am still recovering. I can’t put weight on my foot, so my ability to clean was sharply curtailed and I suddenly had to confront everything else—a lot of other kinds of procrastination but also actually writing.
I am writing, and reading a lot, and trying to find the quiet moments when I can. Trying to also—to go back to the very beginning of our discussion—temper my anxiety in various ways. My wife and I had to figure out the appropriate amount of news to consume, and in what forms, so that we are informed about what is going on and can participate in the way we need to but also are not making ourselves insane. There’s a lot of that balancing, too.
Also, this was a year that I took off from teaching, just coincidentally. I was supposed to write this new book, so teaching could have been a distraction, but it’s not. It’s a confluence of things for me. But yeah, I am working.
The new book is fictiony, historical fictiony, and a little scary?
Well, I don’t know if it has hope.
No, like, I hope it’s scary.
The story in Granta is about the Grand Guignol. It’s a lesbian BDSM story set in the Grand Guignol in Paris in the 30s. That’s one story, but the stories take place over many different time periods. It’s very creepy. I’m really into it. And I’m working on a screenplay, which is really new and special. I’m making it work, I’m figuring it out. It’s nice to be able to work.
We’re in a very strange year. There’s a lot of upheaval and unrest. The pandemic is terrible. Police violence is horrific. Protests are hope-making; I feel like I’m very pessimistic about how things are going to turn out in the long run for all kinds of people but I feel like I’m being given these moments of hope, which is nice. So that’s where I am right now.
Well, I hope you keep staying a little anxious and scared because it produces wonderful reading for the rest of us.
That’s true, that’s true. It’s a good engine for sure.
But I also hope your foot heals.
Thank you. I’ll also start cooking again, which is another stress reliever that I have not been able to take care of because I can’t cook with one foot. I’m looking forward to that.