Carmen Maria Machado writes rich, fabulist fiction that draws on fairy tales and folklore. She has some exciting publications forthcoming–including a debut short story collection, Her Body & Other Parties (Graywolf Press), and a story in The Ochre Issue of Fairy Tale Review. For this interview, however, I decided to ask Machado about an older story– “The Husband Stitch,” published by Granta in October 2014, and inspired by a frightening children’s tale, urban legends, and the experience of being an awkward kid at Girl Scout Camp.
“The Husband Stitch,” is a variation on “The Green Ribbon,” a popular scary story (I remember it well from childhood!). How did you first encounter “The Green Ribbon”? Why did you decide to write your own version of it?
I first read “The Green Ribbon” in Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, a children’s book in the vein of his Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. (Though with significantly less terrifying illustrations.) Anyway, In a Dark, Dark Room had a story called “The Green Ribbon,” by which I was simultaneously repulsed and entranced. Of all the urban legend and folktale retellings in Schwartz’s oeuvre, that’s the one that stuck with me the most.
Later, when I was in graduate school, I was hanging out with friends when Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came up in conversation. That series pretty much scared everyone in my generation, and each person in my group had a different story from it that’d scared the bejeesus out of them as kids.
My brain kept returning to “The Green Ribbon,” and it occurred to me that there are all kinds of interesting currents about gender running beneath that story’s deceptively simple ice. That summer, I sat down and wrote the first draft of “The Husband Stitch.” At the time, it was just a straight re-telling of the protagonist’s story from meeting her future husband to her head falling off; the metafictional elements and retellings of other urban legends came later in the editing process.
Themes of transgressive female desire and secret female knowledge are central to “The Husband Stitch.” The story is based on a scary folk tale, and weaves in references to other frightening stories and fairy tales. What do you think it is about fairy tales, folk tales and scary stories that make them such great devices for exploring these themes?
Kate Bernheimer has a wonderful essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” in which she praises the “artistic dexterity” of the fairy tale and discusses a critical part of the form: flatness. She writes:
This absence of depth, this flatness, violates a technical rule writers are often taught in beginning writing classes: that a character’s psychological depth is crucial to a story. In a fairy tale, however, this flatness functions beautifully; it allows depth of response in the reader.
This syncs up very closely with my own experience: that an ostensibly flat fairy tale with minimalist, abstract prose permits a range of deep emotions in a capable reader. Plus, a writer adapting a fairy tale has infinite tools at her disposal; she can tweak some or all of the form’s elements, and perform any other number of techniques (modernization, reversal of point-of-view, blending with another story, etc.) into near-infinite variations. The fairy tale is simply an excellent foundation for its own interrogation.
But in addition to the flexibility of the flatness—and perhaps more importantly—there’s also the “fairy tale as mirror” factor. No one will deny that many fairy tales have their own demented, regressive logic and morality, particularly when it comes to issues of gender. Giambattista Basile’s “The Old Woman Who Was Skinned,” for example—the origin of my Fairy Tale Review story “The Old Women Who Were Skinned”—is about an old woman permitting herself to be literally skinned so that she might be beautiful as her fairy-transformed sister, with a “lesson” at the end about vanity. “The Frog King” is deeply and uncritically rape-y. The Charles Perrault version of “Bluebeard,” a story about abuse and femicide, has two terrible “morals”—
Moral: Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly.
Another moral: Apply logic to this grim story, and you will ascertain that it took place many years ago. No husband of our age would be so terrible as to demand the impossible of his wife, nor would he be such a jealous malcontent. For, whatever the color of her husband’s beard, the wife of today will let him know who the master is.
—neither of which properly gets at the heart of the story’s true horror. In fact, they almost appear to deliberately, laughably miss the story’s monstrosity.
So it seems to me that these morals serve as powerful mirrors for women’s actual relationships with the world: how we are steeped in a culture of rape and violence and death; how, if we resist, we are punished; how, even if we punish ourselves, we are mocked and blamed. And these mirrors are not (just) historical, not vague and old-timey and how it used to be. They are mirrors of here, now, today.
The fairy tale usually plays this element straight, of course, but that makes them virtual playgrounds for feminist writers; all we have to do is pick a story up and turn it askance.
The motif of the green ribbon, coupled with the themes of transgressive desire and secret knowledge, reminded me of Angela Carter’s short story “The Bloody Chamber” (a variation on Bluebeard in which the protagonist is gifted a red ribbon by her betrothed—a ribbon that prefigures the way he wants to kill her). Are you familiar with this story? Has Angela Carter inspired your work? What other writers and storytellers have influenced you?
Ah, yes. “A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat… the flashing crimson jewels… bright as arterial blood.” That image is so vivid and terrible and beautiful. I do love Angela Carter’s work very much, but I came to her a bit later that one might expect. My literary education was sort of fragmented and weird; it was almost entirely self-directed (neither of my parents were big readers; I didn’t major in literature in college) and thus contained large gaps that I’ve only recently amended.
For example, I once wrote a story that an entire workshop identified as heavily influenced by Shirley Jackson. At first, I was confused by this comment, because I hadn’t read a stitch of Shirley Jackson beyond “The Lottery” in high school. But what I later concluded was that I’d read a lot of writers who were influenced by Shirley Jackson; so I was getting her fragmented, filtered influence.
Now, of course, I have read and am obsessed with Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson both. Other writers who influence my work: Patricia Highsmith, Jane Bowles, Muriel Sparks, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Yoko Ogawa, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gloria Naylor, Gabriel García Márquez, Nicholson Baker, Kevin Brockmeier, Michelle Huneven, Michel Faber, Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Oyeyemi, Ann Patchett, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Michael Chabon, Alissa Nutting, Andrea Barrett, Chris Adrian, Ray Bradbury… I could go on forever.
“The Husband Stitch” is peppered with instructions that tell the reader how to share the story out loud, should they want to do so. These instructions gesture at traditions of oral storytelling. Why did you decide to include these instructions? What do you think they bring to “The Husband Stitch”?
When I was a Girl Scout, we’d go on this annual autumn camping trip in the Pocono Mountains. I sort of loved and hated it—I hated how cold and dark it was. I hated bugs. I hated the latrine. But I was enamored with the campfire—telling stories around it, eating food cooked in it, throwing various objects into it to see how they burned. (My favorite: a half-filled Dixie cup, which immediately burned down to the water line. Then the wax on the exterior blistered, and the contents bubbled and boiled for what seemed like forever, burned off, and then the entire thing was consumed by the flames.)
I was a really weird kid, and didn’t get along with the girls my age. But I was a good storyteller—theatrical, dramatic, effusive—and I loved telling tales around the campfire. So the first time I read the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series—which included a story where a ghost’s question, “Who’s got my money? Whoooo? Whoooo?” is followed by instructions for the storyteller to grab someone and yell “YOU’VE GOT IT!”—I became obsessed with the idea of the story crossing over into the real world. Which I did, the next chance I got. It was exactly as fun and exciting as I’d imagined. (And, bonus, I got to make a fellow Girl Scout cry. An artist is born!)
So of course, as I was working on “The Husband Stitch,” I got the idea to fold in warped narrative instructions. It does all kinds of interesting work: breaks down the wall between the story and the reader, invokes a tradition of oral storytelling, reinforces the story’s danger as real and literal, enables further commentary on gender, and is also just plain fun.
After I published “The Husband Stitch,” I received a bit of fan mail in which the writer told me that they had read this passage:
(If you are reading this story out loud, move aside the curtain to illustrate this final point to your listeners. It’ll be raining, I promise.)
And then felt compelled to push aside their living room curtain. And it was raining. And it blew their mind. Knowing that has happened even once fills me with incomprehensible amounts of joy.