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Lisa_Taddeo (c) Lara Downie
Lisa TaddeoPhotography by Lara Downie

Conversations from Isolation: Lisa Taddeo and Carmen Maria Machado

From the newfound joy of puzzle tables to sex writing and rewatching horror-movie favourites, authors Lisa Taddeo and Carmen Maria Machado share an isolation conversation as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign

Lead ImageLisa TaddeoPhotography by Lara Downie

This article is published as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign:

The authors of wildly different bodies of work, Lisa Taddeo and Carmen Maria Machado have a few cornerstone interests in common: themes of female sexuality, desire, shame and dominance pulsate through both their writing with the urgency of live wires. Taddeo’s Three Women – a work of remarkable reportage that follows the individual stories of three women, each of whom Taddeo moved across the US to be near and to document – is a nonfiction book so filled with intense character and feeling, one could easily forget its real-life origin. Following Sloane, Lina and Maggie through their diverse and compelling explorations of their own sensuality – spanning cuckold fantasy, adultery and an underage relationship with a teacher – Taddeo paints portraits of desire that are strikingly unseen, tender and true. 

Meanwhile Machado’s first book, Her Body and Other Parties, is a dizzying collection of short stories that cycle nebulously through fairytale, the gothic, folklore and sci-fi genres, haunted by feminine iconography and symbols of sexuality. The Husband Stitch, one of the most unsettling and most quoted tales in the series was chosen by Björk for Document, the anthology she guest-edited for the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of AnOther Magazine. Machado’s new book, a memoir titled In the Dream House, tells of a haunting from Machado’s own life – that of an abusive same-sex relationship from her past. As Machado explores through the writings of Jane Eaton Hamilton, Leah Horlick and Melissa Febos, such violations are often left out of general discourse – Machado’s memoir sets out to establish a canon, of a deeply entrancing sort.

Talking from their homes in lockdown – Taddeo’s in New England, Machado’s in Philadelphia – the authors explore their own habits as readers, writers and self-isolaters.

Lisa Taddeo: Carmen I think I told you when we met, but I had read The Husband Stitch in Granta, however long ago that was, and it just really floored me. I loved it. I read it twice – and I don’t read anything more than once. I am not that kind of reader. When I was young I read The Secret Garden a lot but now I might pick up and read three pages of a book that I love, or a short story that I love, but I read that piece at least twice.

Carmen Maria Machado: That’s so interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes you want to read a book more than once. We’ve just moved into a new house and built this very beautiful library down here in our parlour, and it’s gorgeous, but we had so many books that we’ve had to make space – we’ve been going through the shelves and asking ‘why’ of each one but my wife kept asking me, ‘what would you choose to read again?’ And I think The Secret Garden is a really interesting example because when I was a kid I read A Little Princess a lot, which is by the same author. As a kid I was obsessed with orphans, which is hilarious, or maybe very normal, but there was a rash of books about children running off into the wilderness and children making it on their own. A Little Princess was endlessly readable – so was the fantasy that I were suddenly on my own, and wondering what kind of life would I establish for myself? I think there’s something about a re-readable book that permits you to enter into a kind of space that I think is very hard to articulate.

LT: Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – that whole genre?

CMM: Yeah, but also the idea of a book that creates a dimensionality of fantasy not in the genre sense but in the sense of the mind – like being able to put yourself into a space. I feel like what interests me so much about your work and my work in tandem with each other is this idea that women’s desires have a sense of tonality and shape that they are not given in a lot of media. When you have art forms dominated by men, whether they see women is by definition limited – even with the best intentioned, least sexist of all of them. Right? Thinking about what it means to have certain experiences of your own body is so specific and so important. And I feel like that sort of loops the two of us together. For me it’s like with queer women’s sexuality especially, but even with women in general, what I respond to so strongly in writing – not just about desire – is when I read a writer articulate a thought that I’ve had and I didn’t know anyone else had and then I’m like, ‘holy shit!’ Somebody has seen me. And I know that that can happen in lots of ways – not just with the body but the mind too.

“What I respond to so strongly in writing – not just about desire – is when I read a writer articulate a thought that I’ve had and I didn’t know anyone else had and then I’m like, ‘holy shit!’ Somebody has seen me” – Carmen Maria Machado

Sophie Bew: Are you both reading a lot during lockdown? And are you finding anything helping you particularly? Any one writer perhaps?

LT: Well I have a box of books in the basement in my office that are great, but they don’t make it into my office. Then I have regular shelves. And then I have these bookshelves by my desk of my favourite books in the world. And those are what I’ll pick up and read three sentences of like, Noy Holland, Gary Lutz, Robert Coover – and think, ‘oh, you can be wild like that.’ That’s what I do. 

CMM: I have been reading a mix of things, so I’ve been reading some new work because I’m always getting requests for blurbs. And I have a pile of books from writers who I really love and admire whose new books I’m very excited about, like Melissa Broder, Melissa Febos, Leah Horlick and Rumaan Alam. One of the best parts of my job is getting to read books that haven’t come out yet. I’ve also been having regular chats with a good friend and I’ve been reading from [Shirley Jackson’s] The Haunting of Hill House.

LT: I have that on my special shelf!

CMM: Yeah, I’ve been reading it a piece at a time and it’s really interesting because I’ve never read it out loud before but I re-read it all the time. A lot of the humour is heightened by reading it out loud – it’s a funny book.

LT: I realised the same thing when I wrote a short story for The Sawanee Review. I went to this conference they did and I read the short story which, like all of my things, is super depressing – I’m just a depressive person. I read it out loud and people were laughing and I was like, ‘oh my God!’ I was so happy and shocked – maybe out loud, my stuff is completely different.

CMM: It’s weird how different it is. And I don’t love audiobooks: I really hate audiobook narrators and I really struggle with audiobooks. But reading out – a normal person reading a book out loud – I really enjoy it.

LT: Did you do your own audiobooks?

“Audiobooks don’t do it for me. I need to see the words. I want to go back and look at a sentence and I don’t want to hit rewind” – Lisa Taddeo

CMM: With the first book I didn’t have time. And the narrator they used is fine, but it’s an audiobook-ish narrator, which I tend to find over-pronounced and bizarre and I really, really hate listening to them. But for the memoir, I was like, ‘can I do it?’ There was a lot of back and forth, but I did it and I think I did a really good job.

LT: I also feel the same way, audiobooks don’t do it for me. I need to see the words. I want to go back and look at a sentence and I don’t want to hit rewind. So, who does your favourite sex writing? Fiction or non?

CMM: Oh, I mean, there are a few people – I really, really love Garth Greenwell, I feel like Garth’s the gold standard right now for sex writing. Historically, I really love Nicholson Baker – he’s always been very special to me. Normally I would not choose this straight old white guy but I do feel like the genuineness, or tenderness, with which he writes sex is very, very interesting.

LT: I prefer women’s. I don’t like Elena Ferrante’s trilogy My Brilliant Friend but in her shorter novels, Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment in particular, The Lost Daughter, she writes sex but it’s very quiet. There’ll be like one hit sentence, and you’re just like, ‘holy shit!’

SB: And how are you both coping during this particular time? What’s keeping you going?

CMM: I mean, not having any children, I feel like I can’t complain. My wife is working from home – normally she wouldn’t be – so we’ve been together, non-stop for two months now and not having killed each other yet, we’re doing great, I think. We have a dog to take care of, so we can’t just lie on the couch all day – you have to actually get up and do stuff which is nice. I’ve been doing a lot of puzzles – I just finished a dog park puzzle last night with 1,000 pieces. I am very proud, and actually I just bought a special puzzle table ...

LT: I did too! With the drawers?! I didn’t know those existed – I would have been a happier clam my whole life if I had. But I have a five-year-old, which is part of the problem. My husband and I take turns with our kid; home-schooling is its own horrid thing. I work till three o’clock in the morning, it’s hard ... So, yeah, for me it’s puzzles, a five-year-old, not leaving the house, not exercising, not doing anything healthy, making bread, eating donuts and taking vitamins which I never did before but now I’m home I have the time to take them. So that’s my life.

CMM: I’ve been re-watching a lot of comfort movies. Last night was The Sound of Music, which I fucking love. And I haven’t seen it in years. And The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I’ve been re-watching a lot of horror movies – like The Descent – which is another kind of comfort.

“I’ve been re-watching a lot of comfort movies. Last night was The Sound of Music, which I fucking love. And I haven’t seen it in years” – Carmen Maria Machado

LT: I also am on the comfort movie track, which for me is again depressing stuff like Revolutionary Road or The Babadook, which I think is amazing. I saw Parasite which I was blown away by. I watched Boogie Nights the other day – I don’t know, it’s kind of all over the map.

SB: Are you guys finding that working on your own work is helping you at this moment? How does creative process translate to this situation?

CMM: I usually work from home or at a residency so it hasn’t changed very much for me. It’s a bit harder to focus on your own work when the world is pulling apart at the seams – when you’re like ‘maybe this is the end’ but I feel like my day to day is kind of the same. I don’t know about you, Lisa? For you it’s different because your kid is home all the time which I think adds a lot of pressure to it.

LT: Yes, that part’s been harder but my day to day is almost completely the same. I don’t leave the house – I never have. I sit in my little rabbit hole. We have an office but I do not go there. I like quarantine. What I feel really lucky about is that I can continue working and doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and I’m lucky – people are losing their jobs. I feel very lucky. But then again, I don’t like to leave the house. I don’t think I have agoraphobia quite, but I have something on the cusp of it. I’m working on the TV adaptation of Three Women right now, and we’re supposed to have a writer’s room. They said I might need to move to LA. But now it’s all going to be virtual. I was like, ‘oh ... that sucks ... ’ And then I went and paraded around the house, throwing stuff in the air in celebration. So yeah, my life hasn’t changed. If anything, my lifestyle has been normalised.

Three Women is launched in paperback in July, while the hardbacks of both Three Women and In the Dream House are out now.