Carmen Maria Machado, Val Howlett and Marne Litfin Are Each Other's Editors

The three of them live in a tall, old Victorian home. It is all staircases, piles of books. Carmen Maria Machado’s first short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties—an inventory of the monstrous that includes fabulist Law & Order fanfiction and a ribbon cloaking an unspeakable secret—developed a broad cult following. Carmen is known around the house as “big tall vampire lady.”

Even though Carmen is 5’ 8”, she towers over her wife Val Howlett, and their partner, Marne Litfin. Val, whose primary craft is the coming-of-age tale, is working on a YA novel about teenage lesbian suffragettes set in 1913 Philadelphia. A prober of anxieties with a standup comedy practice, Marne writes more straightforwardly realist short stories and nonfiction essays. The home has other occupants too. There’s an ancient beagle named Rosie. And Carmen often finds herself uttering, “Oh, that’s clearly a ghost.”

Carmen and Val met in 2011. They were both dating the same person, the one who provoked In the Dream House, Carmen’s experimental, nightmarish memoir about queer abuse. The book catalogues the many manifestations a home can take: container of mental sickness, machine for evil, but also hallowed, familial space for healing, adventure and joy. “After the breakup Val and I got in touch with each other mostly as a postmortem,” Carmen says. They married in 2017, and kept an open relationship.

One day in 2019, Marne was on Tinder and came across Carmen. They didn’t know that Carmen was a well-known author, but still, they say, “I’ve never swiped on anyone so fast in my life.”

Clockwise from standing: writers Carmen Maria Machado, Val Howlett and Marne Litfin in their Philadelphia home, December 2021.

When Covid hit, Marne was marooned on Long Island, living with “their very dear and very sweet but very heterosexual aunt and uncle.” Carmen, usually averse to talking on the phone, was convinced by Marne to read The Haunting of Hill House to them. Carmen and Val agreed to have Marne come and live with them.

At first Marne felt they were “just the girlfriend who sleeps downstairs.” But things changed one day at the dog park. After Val was out of earshot, Carmen turned to Marne and blurted, “Val wants to know if you wanna have a threesome.” Within days, Carmen upgraded from a queen to king size bed.

The throuple is a highly productive factory for giggles and layered analysis, prone to periods of plaintive reflection. Their pet names for each other include sugary terms common to many relationships—honey, sweetie, baaby—but their cache is a true cornucopia of plosives: Pecan, Pineapple, Pickle, Peach Pit. Val, who wears lemon-print pajamas, is known as Lemonboy. Carmen calls Val Peanut, and Marne Bean.

Rosie, the dog, aka Robot, Rosamuffin, Rosina Bambina, Our Beautiful Daughter and Lumpy Space Princess, sits in the center of their linguistic Venn diagram. They have a voice for her, which Marne refuses to do during our interview, but describes it as a “very low Eeyore voice that’s also at the same time very demanding.” The three of them speak as her and through her, building fables around the beagle. Carmen says that she and Rosie are “vying for the same throne and trying to depose each other constantly. She sends assassins for me and I send assassins for her.”

I ask how they’d describe each other as characters. “Val is very gentle and thoughtful,” Carmen says. “Marne is dry and mean, but in a good way. And I’m loud and mean.” (Needfully so: Carmen is currently fighting against a campaign to ban In the Dream House from Texas’s school libraries.) Marne says that Val is quietly observant, but gifted at chit-chat: “I would love to make a doll with a pull-string that says some of the things that Val has said.”

The three of them help each other at every stage of the writing process. “Carmen makes me think about how to elevate my language all the time, because her language is so rich in every sentence,” Val says. Of Marne’s writing, Val describes an “incredible sense of pacing, and their ends always pop. Always.” Carmen says Val is “insanely good at dialogue, which is something that I always struggle with, and so that has been very instructive for me.” Normally averse to research, Carmen was also inspired by Val to include a lot of history and investigation in the book she’s currently working on, a short story collection called A BRIEF AND FEARFUL STAR.

Despite, or perhaps because of their trade, writers are often at a loss for words. Carmen describes difficulty communicating when she feels low: “I tend to kind of just shut down emotionally, and I just wanna keep it private, and I think much to Marne and Val’s chagrin. Marne will be like, ‘You need to share one single feeling with me, like any feeling that you’re having.’” The three of them laugh long and heartily at this.

Whether about the vagaries of human behavior or an hour-long discussion about gardenias, the triumvirate always has much to discuss. “It’s just really nice to not build your whole life around one single person,” Val says. “Everything from like, the division of labor to how we have conflict to sharing joyful things. I just really love our lives.”