I went to visit Mary Gaitskill on a pleasant October day in the comfortable, chalet-like home she shares with her husband, also a writer, on the campus of Bard College (though neither of them teaches there).
She had recently submitted to her publisher her latest story collection, Don’t Cry, her fifth book in twenty years. Her first, Bad Behavior, was a story collection, published when she was thirty-three. This was followed three years later by the novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, then the story collection Because They Wanted To, and, eight years later, in 2005, the novel Veronica, about a former fashion model, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Perhaps due less to her writing than to the film Secretary, which was based on her short story, her name now conjures up images of degrading, sexy sadomasochism and female weakness. But her themes are far richer, and what is most amazing about Gaitskill is her ability to portray the heart of human longing and suffering, and to see in each gesture of our lives the disturbing and conflicting pool of drives that marks our every gesture.
In Don’t Cry, she speaks more directly about America and Americans than in previous works. One story traces what transpires in an airport between a widowed old woman and a young, fatherless boy, set against the backdrop of the Iraq War. Another follows a single woman who travels with a friend to Ethiopia to adopt a baby. Yet there is the same loneliness, attempt to connect, flashes of beauty, and lostness.
Soon after I arrived at her home around midday, she served me large cookies and apples and made tea. We sat for over two hours at a wood table in her dining room, across from each other. Her demeanor was fragile, powerful, and tough, her voice gentle and steady, and she always made very direct eye contact. She laughed often, intent and friendly.
I. THE UNKNOWABLE
SHEILA HETI: Henry Miller says that when he was younger, he was mainly imitating other writers and was interested in plot and these other things, and that then he discovered “the vital thing,” and after that he was able to write in a different way—in a way that was closer to his real preoccupations and that truly expressed himself. He never says what that “vital thing” is, and I wonder if for you there’s a vital thing in writing—something that has to be there.
MARY GAITSKILL: Yeah, but it’s very hard to say what it is, and I should preface my answer by saying that when I was first interviewed, when I published Bad Behavior, I really didn’t know how to answer interview questions, because I never thought analytically about what I was doing, so I would answer very clumsily. I heard myself on a live radio show and the interviewer was Michael Silverblatt, and I was dumbstruck—there was just this silence. Since you can’t have dead airtime on the radio, he would answer for me, and I would be like, Yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant. When I listened to that, I was horrified—I thought I sounded stupid. It’s not good to let other people define your work for you. They’re going to do it anyway, but you should at least step up to the plate when you’re asked. So I cultivated a method. I began to think analytically, which I had to do to teach, anyway, and I began to cultivate an approach where I would answer questions in a very thorough way. But after listening to myself talk and talk and talk, I now think the more intelligent response was the silence, because I don’t think people know. It’s only after writing it do you look at it and go, Oh yeah, that’s what I was doing—but most of the time when you’re actually writing, you don’t have that clear an idea. I think you do in some unconscious way, but it isn’t that thought-out, analytical thing you call upon when you’re answering questions.
Having said that, I think the closest thing I can come to defining what that vital thing is for me—is that there’s a sort of soul-quality in writing, if it’s any good. It has a spirit or an energy to it that is very integral to who the writer is on a deep level. It’s almost a cellular thing. It takes place in the cells of the writing, and it is what makes it alive or not. That’s why most writers have a cynical attitude toward writing programs. You can teach people a lot about craft and various techniques, and you can certainly teach them to appreciate, but you cannot give them spirit or soul if it’s not there.
SH: And do you think that’s a gift? Do you put that ability into the realm of the unknowable?
MG: Yes. And it’s something that critics don’t much write about because most of them don’t understand it, and I think even when they’re sensitive to it, it’s very difficult to. It’s something that takes place almost under the skin or under the flesh of the plot of the story or the characters.
Sometimes when I teach a class I read a paragraph from Bleak House—a description of Lady Dedlock. On the one hand she’s a very flat character, and we never cease to be aware of exactly what she’s like. She’s cold, she’s rigid, she’s self-tortured, she’s proud. It’s reasserted over and over again, both by the narrator and by her actions and words, but in the paragraph in which she’s introduced there’s this description around her of where she lives and it’s just this vast, moving, wet, dripping, surging world that is mysterious and strange and infuses her with this power—this female power. So on the one hand she’s like this static playing card, but on the other she’s representative of this incredible force of nature—this primeval force and thwarted fecundity—a death and fecundity at once. And that’s not something that’s simple. That’s not something that most writers have any understanding of how to do.
SH: Do you think it’s also something most writers simply don’t pay attention to in life?
MG: I think a lot of people don’t feel it. And then many people feel it but they don’t necessarily have the power to put it down on the page.
SH: Nabokov is one of your favorite writers, and he talks about his characters as “galley slaves,” and I wonder to what degree your characters have a mind of their own, or to what degree you have a sense beforehand of what’s going to happen in your stories.
MG: Sometimes I don’t have a sense. Other times I’ll have a vague idea of what the story will be, but I can’t find a way into it. Then I’ll get an image that sometimes doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story but for some reason it’s my way into it, but then I have to feel my way around and kind of—I make little notes in the margin of what I want to happen next, or what I want to talk about next.
SH: Do you write longhand, then?
MG: I used to write longhand exclusively. I’ve switched over now partially. I usually start in longhand, then at some point I’ll go to the computer. Actually, the last few stories I wrote totally on the computer. I’m not sure I like the change.
SH: How is it different?
MG: It’s for some reason easier to write on the computer. I started to turn to it when I felt really blocked and frustrated writing longhand. Somehow sitting down at the computer was a little more freeing. It seemed more casual. I don’t quite know why that is.
SH: But you like the casualness or you don’t like the casualness?
MG: At times I do. If I’m having trouble getting anything on the page, I’m willing to go for that. I feel that when you’re writing longhand, you really get heavily immersed in your own being, because your writing is so much you. Typing is ideal for revision because there’s a distance to it. It’s more impersonal. But there’s another thing which is more practical. I’ve noticed that when I’m writing longhand, sometimes I’ll write something and I’ll go, Oh, that’s awful, and I’ll cross it out and I’ll write something over it. And frequently when I go back, I decide that what I crossed out was actually better. When you’re writing on the computer, you don’t cross it out, you just delete it. But now, if I’m not sure, I don’t delete it. Instead of making the revision, I just put it in a bracket and write my second idea, and I can look back and see which I think was better, because sometimes the first thing is actually better.
III. FREEDOM AND SENTIMENTALITY
SH: Before a writer is published there is such a privacy, and I wonder if it’s possible to get back to that same privacy. Was it very hard to write after your first book, Bad Behavior, was published?
MG: When I was writing the stories in Bad Behavior, I kept saying to myself, It’s OK, it’s OK, it doesn’t have to be good, no one will look at it. And that was very liberating. I wasn’t even thinking of it as a book. I was looking at it as whatever story I was working on at the moment. But after publishing Bad Behavior I was very self-conscious. I knew people would be looking at Two Girls, Fat and Thin and that I was going to be looked at more harshly, but also that the people who liked Bad Behavior would not turn their back on me if they did not like Two Girls. The third book was scarier because I didn’t feel that I was going to be cut slack. I felt if that book was a flop, I was dead. That’s kind of a ridiculous way to think, but I did have that fear.
SH: And with Veronica?
MG: I actually did feel very free. It had been so long since I put out a book that I felt that in some way I was no longer on the scene. I felt that people who read were aware of me, but that I wasn’t really a focal point, there wasn’t a spotlight on me, and it made me feel like I could do what I wanted, and I wasn’t concerned with pleasing people. I actually thought that people wouldn’t like it.
MG: I felt it was very different from what I’d written before. I thought people might find the shifts in time confusing and would just be impatient with it, though I made an effort to have it follow subliminally, so the images would subliminally connect, and I guess I succeeded, because it did not seem like many people found it confusing. But I was worried about that. I was worried that people would find it sentimental or gushy and mystical somehow.
SH: Sentimental? Why?
MG: It’s not to me, because sentimental is false-feeling—but a lot of people now seem to confuse sentimentality with expression of strong emotion, and there is emotion strongly expressed in the book.
SH: Did people say it was sentimental at all?
MG: I didn’t read most of the reviews, but my impression is that that wasn’t a complaint.
SH: Why didn’t you read them?
MG: I thought most of them would be bad, but also I didn’t want other people’s voices in my head right now.
SH: Because you’re working on other things and it could throw you off?
SH: Do you worry about timeliness at all? If you’re writing a story and it’s taking years—
MG: I do worry. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s small of me, but it’s such a concern now. I think our sense of history has sped up and things change so much faster now. Veronica was originally written back in the ’90s. I did worry and make an effort to bring the point of view up to a more current time, but I think it was fine still to talk about the ’80s and ’70s.
SH: Is that part of the reason you don’t use brand names? I notice there are rarely pop-cultural figures in Veronica—
MG: Well, I refer to them every now and then. Doris Day, Jo Stafford—I have no problem referring to those people. What I don’t usually like is when people just drop names in. I think it’s lazy. It’s assuming your reader is going to have a particular emotional or mental response to that thing or that singer or that person, and I don’t think everybody does have the same response. So if I do use somebody like Judy Garland, I’m going to describe what Judy Garland looks and sounds like to the character. I may not describe it in enormous length, but if it’s worth noticing—if the character’s noticing it and she’s having a response to it, then I want to say what that response is. To take the reader into a deeper experience of it.
IV. IN THE WORLD
SH: Re-reading all your books, then going out into the world, I started to see things in a much more granular way, like little shifts in people’s perceptions of each other, and how feelings are so molecular, and how they change instant to instant. It made me go through the world with a heightened sensitivity to how every little gesture changes somebody else’s little gesture. Do you feel like that’s an accurate reflection of the way you go through the world?
MG: Sometimes, not always. One of the unnerving things that happened when Bad Behavior came out was that I was actually a very shy person and very socially awkward, and suddenly I found myself in these very sophisticated social circles, which I was not used to, and people seemed to expect me to have this X-ray vision and to be coming up with these witty, snappy comments, and that’s not what I was like at all! I don’t pay attention a lot of the time. When I’m sitting down to write something and I’m imagining a situation or remembering a person or whatever it is, that’s when I really think, What is going on here? I think probably everybody in some unconscious way absorbs a great deal, but you’re not consciously thinking about it all the time. If I’m puzzled by something or I’m not understanding a person, then I’ll home in on them. Sometimes somebody does grab my attention in a very strong way, and I’ll pay attention, but I don’t pay attention like that all the time with my mind.
SH: Would you be able to explain what your basic attitude is toward people that you meet? Like if you go into a room or go to a party, is there a basic disposition you have toward humans going through the world?
MG: [Slightly defensive] Could you answer that question?
SH: Yeah. I think for me I would say that I basically admire the distinctness of people, and I feel that I start off with a kind of admiration that gets chiseled down, but my fundamental attitude is curiosity and imagining mostly that they have qualities that I would admire.
MG: That’s very thoughtful. It really varies with me. A lot of it depends on the context, my mood. I mean, my attitude toward coming into a classroom of students is going to be different from my attitude going to a cocktail party, or to an interview, or answering the phone and I’m in a bad mood and I stub my toe and I pick it up and it’s somebody trying to sell me something. I think in the past my baseline was probably very guarded. I think that because once someone who knew me very well said, “When you meet people, the door is locked, and if somebody says something that interests you, or you talk to them awhile and decide you’re interested, then you unlock the door, but from their point of view they’re just looking at a closed door.” [Laughs] And I thought that was a great metaphor and interesting and possibly true for me at that time.
SH: I’m curious about your titles. Do you come up with a lot of different titles and choose the best one? Because They Wanted To is a title I love.
MG: Yeah, that one just came to me. Bad Behavior wasn’t my title, although it certainly has a lot of resonance for many people, so I’m not unhappy about it, but it wasn’t my idea.
SH: It was the publisher’s?
MG: Yeah. Or her boyfriend’s title. He was the one who came up with it.
SH: What was your title?
MG: It wasn’t a very good one, but I still like it better than Bad Behavior and I would have preferred to have called it that.
SH: Called it what?
MG: I wanted to title it Daisy’s Valentine.
SH: [Laughs] Right. Would you say that the characters you portray are the common run of humanity, or extreme cases—if there is such a thing as an extreme case?
MG: I don’t think they are extreme cases. I think there are such things as extreme cases. I haven’t written about that many of them. Most of my characters aren’t very extreme. You read about the extreme ones in the paper. [Laughing]
SH: A reviewer, writing on Veronica, calls a model “the single most explicit expression of physical, superficial beauty in a contemporary setting.” I wonder if that’s what a model is for you.
MG: Yes and no. Death is a big theme in the book, illness. What is that? It’s a fact that human beings—no matter who they are, no matter how healthy or strong or beautiful they are—are going to age and become weak and ugly by a certain standard, and die. And I think that’s a terrifying idea for people to get their minds around. It’s a very strange thing the way we exist: that we appear in the world out of another person’s body in this discrete, small form, and that we have all of this life force pouring through us—as does everything alive, animals, insects—yet it must take this very specific form of a personality, a body that looks a certain way and that functions a certain way. Our eyes and our mouths and our noses are so particularly formed. Human beings look so different from each other, voices are so different, everything about us is so individual, and that’s so exciting and juicy and appealing, and we’re attached to these things and they’re so fascinating and beautiful—I don’t just mean model-beautiful, but all the individual forms that people can take.
And yet in another way, we’re going to fall apart, kind of dissolve back into this vast soup from whence we came, whatever that is. It’s almost like these beings pop out of this massive sludge and then they get sucked back into it, and that’s a really hard thing to comprehend. I think people try to make the most of their time on earth and also to fix their time on earth. They try to fix external verities, things that are true for all time, ideas that are true for all time: Rome will last forever! America will last forever! Beauty, as defined by the fashion industry, is one of those things—this is beautiful. This will always be beautiful—and hold it in a way that has some sense of permanence about it, and absoluteness. And yet it’s not.
Then take a young teenage girl who happens to be born in this definition of this thing. On the one hand, it must be very powerful and extraordinarily exciting for a girl of that age to be infused with this importance, and yet how confusing. I mean, she’s just a very young, unformed person who’s being asked and demanded by her job to take this very intense form that has all this meaning for people. That’s a heavy thing. Also in the ’90s, when I began writing the book, it became just monstrously, grotesquely important. This idea of the model. I mean, it had always been there. When I was hanging around in New York in the ’80s I met models, and models were fixtures in nightclubs, but at least people I knew didn’t make such a fuss over them. I mean, some men did, but certainly the women I knew didn’t consider models to be the ultimate in what they might want to be. Then suddenly in the ’90s it seemed like this was the ultimate of what a young woman should want to be, which seemed insane to me. I think it’s changed a bit now—I hope. I’m not that attuned with popular culture but it seems like that’s a little bit different now?
SH: Do you ever feel like you would rather have been born a man, or are you happy to have been born a woman?
MG: I think, for my type of personality, I might have been better as a male. When I was a kid, I did want to be a boy. I didn’t like to play with dolls, and most of my friends were kind of sensitive, sissy boys. But as I got older, the mystique of being a girl began to interest me. It was confusing what sexuality was, and the responses of other people, but it didn’t make me feel terrified or vulnerable. Then once I got into being a girl I did like it, although I was very conscious of and angry about certain inequalities or ways that women were treated. I became aware of that early and I didn’t like it.
One thing I’m very envious of men for is when they get married—this is less true than it was, but I still think it’s true—their wife is going to help them. Look at Nabokov. He was a brilliant writer. He would have been a brilliant writer no matter what. But do you know how much his wife did for him? She did the shopping. They would drive to the store together—she would drive. She did all the dealings with the landlord, she shoveled the walk. She typed his manuscripts, she edited them. I don’t think most women would go that far, but women are far more willing to do the support work, which is really, really helpful. Virginia Woolf—I’m sure she would have been a great writer, regardless, but she had a lot of help, too. Leonard was a wife. That’s invaluable. Women do not have that very often.
Also, the fact that women are expected to have children and most of them want to have children. That is a lot of work. Men can have children and enjoy that and have the pride and love but they’re not expected to do most of the child-care and they don’t. Even if they want to, most children, when they’re young, the connection is with the mother more than the father.
My husband and I have a pretty mutually supportive relationship, but sometimes we joke about, Somebody needs to be the wife around here! Where’s the wife? Will somebody please be the wife! I mean, we sort of take turns being the wife to some extent, but both of us would really secretly like a wife.
SH: But would you have respect for a man who would be your wife?
MG: No! That’s the problem. I mean, I would appreciate him, but I think that most women—not all, but most women—would have some degree of difficulty with that, whereas men don’t.
SH: I would find it hard to be very sexually attracted to somebody who was doing everything for me.
MG: Well, Virginia Woolf and Leonard didn’t really—I mean, maybe they did, sometimes—but I don’t think that was their primary relationship.
SH: Is not having children part of wanting to write?
MG: Well, I never wanted children, up until my forties. Then at forty-one I got married and started to think of it. I think I still could have conceived. My sister had children when she was forty-three and I probably could have, too. If things had been different, we might have, but both of us were in very bad shape financially, and I had to teach, and I was trying to write Veronica, and it would have meant giving up being a writer, and I wasn’t in a position to do that for ten years. So it did involve a decision based on writing. It was something that I did feel a degree of sadness about, because children are wonderful. They are. And it is part of the gift that women have, that they can do that. Not being able to have a child is another way in which it’s hard for me to imagine being a man.
SH: Do you think it’s more of a role to be a man in the world than a woman?
MG: I don’t know. It’s certainly been the conventional wisdom. I think there’s a sense where you have to prove being a man, where you don’t have to prove being a woman. But I think there’s a great deal involved in the woman’s role as well, and having children is proving that you’re a woman. I think that if you don’t have children, people are very critical of your femininity. There’s a strong tendency to feel that a woman who doesn’t have children is somehow failing in her role as a woman.
SH: I like that Susan Sontag quote, where she says, “The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.” What would you say is the easiest thing in the world for you?
MG: To sit and stare into space. I experience that as very nurturing. I like that.
SH: You said in an interview for Because They Wanted To that you used to think it was wrong to tell the reader what to think, but sometimes now you don’t think it’s so bad. In Veronica you say even more what people are feeling, and I wonder where that decision came from.
MG: I don’t know. It may have come from reading people like Dickens again and noticing the power of him—it’s like the feeling comes in waves, it’s like these waves crashing over you—you get it on a mental level, then you get it on an emotional level, then you get it on a deeper emotional level, then it comes and knocks you out of the picture. I just find that that’s very true to life—that as you get older, you have an experience, you think you know it, then it comes again and you understand it more deeply, then it comes again and you understand it, and then you understand it to the point that it almost tears you to pieces.
I think for it to work in fiction, some of it depends on timing—when the reader is ready to have that other wave hit them, and when they’re wanting it—when they’re wanting what they’re feeling about the book to come pouring out at them, almost like an answering to their own feelings.
SH: Do you experience a lot of repetition in life?
SH: Do you think that’s created by one’s own character?
MG: Yeah. And also just the nature of things.
SH: That there are only so many possible experiences?
MG: On a daily basis you tend to experience the same things, to the point that you often don’t recognize when something new has happened, or you’re very disoriented when something new happens.
People tend to set themselves up in patterns; something happens, it hurts them, then something similar happens, and—it’s happened again! It seems much bigger then, and they get worried and go through life looking for that thing, and because they’re so concerned and looking for it, when anything that happens resembles that thing, they’re sure it’s happening again. So sometimes people think things are repeating even when they’re not.
SH: Do you think dignity has much to do with being able to consciously choose what one does?
MG: Yeah, I think that’s certainly part of dignity. There’s a character in the story “Secretary” who behaves in a somewhat degraded manner. She’s told to bend over the desk and she’s spanked, and she had a mixed reaction to it. On the one hand she’s very excited, on the other hand she’s really humiliated and shocked.
What gives the character a certain dignity is that she’s called by a reporter after she’s quit that job, and he wants to write an exposé on her boss because he’s running for public office, and she just hangs up. She’s young, in my mind, no older than eighteen, and she doesn’t know why she doesn’t want to cooperate. Some people would feel, He made me do this and my self-esteem was so low and I couldn’t say no. But in my mind, she chooses not to testify against him, because she feels on some level that she was part of it. This understanding is intuitive. It’s not in her head, but I think on some gut level she understands that what happened was as much her choice as his. To me that’s dignity.
SH: And what is shame?
MG: It’s interesting what shame is. The best definition I’ve heard is that guilt is about what you’ve done, shame is about who you are. If something’s out of my control, I don’t feel shame about it, because what could I have done? If you’re guilty, you can at least try to atone for it or make it better or not do it again. If it’s who you are, you can’t do much about it except change yourself, and that’s pretty hard.
SH: Your characters often like the ugly things in other characters—that’s what they’re drawn to—and in popular culture, people are never presented as liking those things in other people. It’s always that they love their beauty, or they love their kindness or generosity or this sort of thing.
MG: I actually don’t think that’s true. I think popular culture is full of people being loved for hideousness. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Who does she love? Angel—another vampire. Girls falling for bad guys is huge in popular culture. Tony Soprano is a murderer, a horrible person. Lots of people love him—viewers and characters. His mother is a monster and he loves her. I saw a poster on the side of a bus in New York that was showing this smiling young man with blood all over, and it said: DEXTER—AMERICA’S FAVORITE SERIAL KILLER. He’s got an audience. He’s a murderer. I think popular culture is very enamored with horrible people and is in love with liking the ugly parts of people. Which is fine. I think it’s realistic, but I don’t think people think of it that way. I don’t think people think, I love him because he’s aggressive and cruel and stupid or whatever. I think the good parts are often wound up in the bad parts, like somebody may have a lot of meanness to them, but the way they express it, it feels fun; it’s like something else is getting mixed in with it that has a feeling of excitement or of something happening or playfulness, and I think that’s what people are responding to.
IX. THAT’S GOOD.
SH: I love the story “Mirrorball” in your recent collection. I can’t stop thinking about the boy’s soul and the girl’s soul. It’s almost like a great new myth of what goes on between women and men who have sex with each other. It’s almost a perfect crystallization of one of the things you communicate in your writing—that there is so much going on in our humanity that we aren’t aware of, and our lack of care and sensitivity is a kind of tragedy, a tragedy of coarseness which diminishes us, though we are not exactly to blame.
MG: Actually, “Mirror Ball” was one that I couldn’t place anywhere, yet on these first readings I’ve been getting, you’re the third person to especially like it.
SH: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
MG: I think it was in first grade. To the extent that I remember it, Billy Blue Jay builds a nest, and he sits in it and he realizes he’s lonely, and he goes out and tries to find a girlfriend, and he goes out and finds Betty Blue Jay, and he asks her to come live in his nest with him, and she does. [Laughs] The end.
SH: Did you have an audience for it?
MG: I had to read it to two boys in detention after school. They were probably second-graders who whispered in class. But they seemed like juvenile delinquents to me at the time. I was so scared. I didn’t even look at them. I just looked down and saw their toes and read in a mumbling voice.
SH: Did they like it?
MG: Yes! They were really nice. They said to me, That’s good.
Web postscript by Sheila Heti: And please note that after conducting the interview with Mary Gaitskill, in the midst of our correspondence, she sent me the following paragraph, which she agreed to have reproduced here.