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August 01, 2023

Filmmaker interviews one author from each state for documentary, including Pa.'s Carmen Maria Machado

'Books Across America,' which also includes N.J.'s Joyce Carol Oates, debuts next year. Booklovers can pre-order the film by supporting its Kickstarter campaign

Arts & Culture Documentaries
carmen maria machado documentary Provided Image/Books Across America

Pennsylvania-native author Carmen Maria Machado will be featured in an upcoming documentary, 'Books Across America,' which explores one famous author from each of the 50 states.

In the upcoming documentary "Books Across America," writer and filmmaker Mason Engel travels across the U.S. to speak with one accomplished author from each state in hopes of answering the question, "Why do we read?"

"I was toying with this idea of the great American novel and trying to understand what exactly that is and why such a thing would be connoted with America at all," Indiana-native Engel said. "And what I think we found was something distinctly American about reading, which may sound odd, in a country that is known for Hollywood and for its music and other flashier forms of entertainment."

To delve further into the topic, Engel set up an impressive lineup of author interviews, which he conducted during a jam-packed 50-day road trip. The group includes Carmen Maria Machado, representing Pennsylvania, and Joyce Carol Oates, representing New Jersey. 

"For Pennsylvania, I knew pretty early on that I wanted to talk to Carmen," Engel said. "I had read her memoir 'In the Dream House' a couple years prior, so I was eager to talk to her."

Machado, 37, is an award-winning, best-selling short story author and essayist known for her 2017 collection "Her Body and Other Parties" and her 2019 memoir. She also previously served as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania. Machado was born in Allentown, graduated with an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and spent time living in West Philly before moving to Brooklyn, where she now resides.

Engel caught up with Machado in Brooklyn at the Books Are Magic bookstore, where they discussed Machado's foray into graphic novels with her 2020 DC Comics release "The Low, Low Woods."

"To see someone as literary and intelligent as Carmen enter that medium, I was fascinated by what the results would be," Engel said. "And I wasn't disappointed. It was like reading literary fiction in graphic novel form, which is not to say it was inaccessible. I think anyone could pick up the book and read it. But it was fascinating to see that side of her personality after, in my head, casting her as this very, very high-brow smart writer."

Engel met with Machado just a day after chatting with literary legend Oates in New Jersey.

Oates, 85, is a Pulitzer-nominated author who has published more than 50 novels over her six-decade career. She also has written plays, novellas, short stories, poetry and non-fiction, and her 2000 novel "Blonde," inspired the 2022 film of the same name. Oates was born in Lockport, New York, and taught in Princeton University's creative writing program from 1978 until 2014. She continues to run small seminars at the Ivy League school, where Engel met her for an interview.

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around this; I talked to Joyce Carol Oates in Princeton, which was probably the most — although I was very intimidated going into my conversation with Carmen too, because she's so smart and well-respected in the publishing industry — but Joyce Carol Oates is in a league of her own," Engel said. "So I was shaking for that talk ... (Oates) really is just the sweetest person and I had no reason to be nervous. She was so kind and generous with her time."

Other famed writers interviewed for the documentary include Kristin Hannah (Washington), Walter Mosley (New York), Veronica Roth (Illinois), David Baldacci (Virginia) and James Patterson (Florida).

"Books Across America" is slated to release as early as next year. Once post-production is complete, it will be submitted to film festivals before being sent to public television stations across the U.S. This will allow free viewing for educators and anyone else with access to a local PBS affiliate. Engel's team will then investigate broaching major streaming services like Netflix, Max or Hulu.

Bibliophiles can contribute to a Kickstarter now through Aug. 8 to preorder the documentary. The proceeds, after deducting production and editing costs, will benefit the Read Across America program.

A trailer for "Books Across America" can be viewed below:

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