Before Carmen Maria Machado was a National Book Awards finalist and a bestselling author, she was an undergraduate at American University just trying to pick a major. Now the author has been traveling nonstop on tour for her 2019 memoir, In the Dream House. Each chapter in the book borrows from a different genre—romance, comedy, erotica, bildungsroman, ghost story—to narrate Machado’s experience of domestic abuse at the hands of her ex-girlfriend. The book also confronts the lack of literature that grapples with same-sex domestic violence. On February 12, Machado will return to her alma mater to give a lecture at Katzen Recital Hall. Washingtonian chatted with Machado on the phone from her home in Philadelphia, where she was on a rare break from tour events.
When you got to American University in the early 2000s, did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I came to school in DC and a lot of my friends were in communications and international relations and political science. Then I took, like, two journalism classes and was like, “Oh, my God, this is not for me. I hate this so much.” I briefly considered politics, and then was sort of like, the kind of life I want to live—I can’t be worrying about how people perceive me. And then I ended up becoming a photography major. [Laughs]
What was living in DC like?
I took a photojournalism class, so I went around to a lot of protests. I went to the art museums constantly because they were free. And I loved going into the city. All the jewels in the Natural History Museum—the Hope Diamond and all the big crystals. Those were my favorite. I would just go to look at the diamonds in the Natural History Museum, and then I would leave. At the Hirshhorn, I really loved this big purple sculpture—it was purple and black—and if you looked at it, you couldn’t tell if it was concave or if it was flat. And I used to love these really big paintings at the National Gallery—there’s a set of four of them, do you know what I’m talking about?
“The Voyage of Life” by Thomas Cole?
Yeah! That’s it. It’s a man at four different parts of his life.
Yes, they’re totally wacky and mystical.
Yes, they’re really detailed. I always used to go look at those. Every time I would see them, I’d notice something different. Like, “Oh, like the angel on the boats or the cherubs change in every painting.” I really liked those paintings a lot.
Did you have a plan when you graduated?
Oh, no, I had absolutely no plan. I mean, I graduated right around when the recession started [in 2007]. So I moved to California, like a fool, because I was like, “I don’t want to be in DC anymore. I want to do other stuff.”
Your newest book, In the Dream House, seems like it’s really a writer’s book—it’s very meta and is making references to all these genres. When did you know that you were going to commit to that unique structure?
It was around 2015 or 2016. I had been trying to write the book for a really long time, and really failing. And then I was in Iowa City teaching high school students at this summer kids’ writing camp that’s really awesome. I was talking a lot about genre every day, and then at some point I was just walking around the city and started thinking that maybe I was approaching the book all wrong. I started thinking about the Gothic and the haunted house and generation shifts and epic fantasy. Pretty soon I just had the beginnings of the book.
What was it like to write this book?
This book was very difficult. Challenging, upsetting, depressing.
As you go on tour for In the Dream House, I can imagine that it would be difficult to do public readings of these really intense, traumatic moments from your life.
Yeah, the tour has definitely been challenging. I’m better at it [this time around] because I know how to pack a suitcase. And I know what to expect. But it’s still very new. There’s always some surprise around the corner.
I’ve been reading about the advice you give to students, which is making me wish I could be a fly on the wall in some of these classes. What do you tell students who really want to write but aren’t sure how?
Basically, I feel like my job is to make them read as much as possible. I want to give them tools to think about how one writes, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. And then I let them go and see what they do and encourage them when they do good, interesting stuff. So, yeah, I don’t think there’s anything that novel about it. [Laughs] But I enjoy it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.