Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
The first thing of Mary Gaitskill’s I ever read was a short statement she made at the back of The Best American Short Stories, 1993 about her story “The Girl on the Plane,” in which a man tells a woman in the airplane seat next to his that he once participated in a gang rape. Gaitskill describes a reader of this story asking her, “What am I supposed to feel?” and goes on to say, “Most of us have not been taught how to be responsible for our thoughts and feelings. I see this strongly in the widespread tendency to read books and stories as if they exist to confirm how we are supposed to be, think, and feel . . . .
Why would an adult look to me or to any other writer to tell him or her what to feel?”
The word feel, as the aforementioned reader used it, implies a judgment of this male character’s actions, and of the story that depicts them. This is uncertain territory: are we in the realm of sentiments? Of morality? Of aesthetics? Language gives us these three words to denote what are presumably three distinct kinds of experience, but experience—and narrative art like Gaitskill’s that represents experience in all its intense complexity—is not so clean and clear. Her stories are about people having strong feelings, trying to figure them out, acting on them, and pondering what to make of their own actions and those of others. Often her characters do judge each other, but even when they do, the stories do not. They are open systems, with—as one of Gaitskill’s favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov, said of Lolita—no moral in tow.
Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, judgment was one of the repeated themes of the conversation Gaitskill and I had this winter: her youthful judgments of people and how they showed up in her work, how readers have judged her characters, how she herself views them, how people in our lives judge the uses we make of fantasy, and even the possibility of moving to a place beyond judgment.
The occasion for our talk was the publication this spring of her fifth book and third collection of stories, Don’t Cry, but we also discussed her first two collections, Bad Behavior (1988) and Because They Wanted To (1997), as well as her novels, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) and Veronica (2005).
Don’t Cry has perhaps the widest range of characters of any of her books: Americans, Ethiopians, and Italians; grandmothers, children, war veterans, journalists, nurses, musicians, murderers. They behave in the broad spectrum of ways typical of her work: from kind and compassionate to harsh and transgressive. Written with her distinctive, uncanny combination of bluntness and high lyricism, Don’t Cry takes its place among artworks of great moral seriousness.
Matthew Sharpe When did you think writing might be something that you would do as a vocation?
Mary Gaitskill When I was 18 or so. I was indignant about things—it was the typical teenager sense of “things are wrong in the world and I must say something.”
MS Do you remember what you thought was wrong in the world?
MG This will sound silly: it wasn’t social injustice, some people being poor and others being rich, or anything like that. I was living in Toronto at the time. Every summer we’d turn the main street into a mall; we’d close out the traffic and there’d be street performers and people selling things. I used to sell flowers and trinkets, and the boyfriend I had was a frisbee player. He and his partner made money doing that. They were really good-looking guys and they’d take off their shirts and people went nuts over them in an extreme way; beyond reacting to what they were actually doing. They represented something to people—nonconformism, I guess, freedom. I thought it was fucked up. It was my first close-up reaction to watching people turn somebody else into something like a superstar. I thought it was gross—people taking their own creativity or spark and projecting it onto somebody else. Now I don’t think that kind of projected idealism is all bad. I mean, I was a teenager then, so I was being very puritanical. I wonder if I wasn’t also jealous of the objects of this adoration.
MS When did you start writing the stories in Bad Behavior?
MG When I was 25 or 26.
MS How many years did it take you to write that book?
MS Do you remember which story you started working on first?
MG “Something Nice.”
MS That’s the one about the woman who’s temporarily being a prostitute.
MG It’s told from the man’s point of view, a character people have wrongly described as stupid. Fred is a romantic person. I don’t think it’s stupid of him to entertain fantasies of love. A phrase I remember was, “Dumbbell Johns who fall in love with hookers,” and I’m like, That’s not stupid, that means he has feelings. You could say it’s a little foolish, but that’s different from stupid.
MS Bad Behavior had a pretty big impact, right?
MG For a book of short stories by an unknown, yes.
MS And how did that affect you?
MG It was life changing.
MS Do tell.
MG I was stunned—I mean, my agent couldn’t sell any of the stories to magazines. I wasn’t expecting it to get reviewed in the New York Times particularly; I thought it would maybe get one of those “Books in Brief” articles that now are the reviews.
MS And how did it change your life?
MG I was able to pay my student loans and eventually quit my job. I could buy nice clothes—
MS What was your job at that time?
MG I was a proofreader. All of this changed my psychological attitude as much as anything, though that took a while. It changed my whole idea of who I was, but it was uncomfortable because I felt like my public identity was far outsized compared to my private one. At the same time it was also constricted.
MS Yeah, actually here are a few lines from “Today I’m Yours,” a story in Don’t Cry: “I did not realize I had made monsters, nor how strong they were, until the book was published and they lifted the roof off my apartment, scaled the wall, and roamed the streets in clothes that I never would’ve worn myself. Everywhere I went, it seemed, my monsters had preceded me, and by the time I appeared, people saw me through their aura.” Was that your experience?
MG Yeah. I was actually not a sophisticated person; I was lonely, socially ignorant, very shy. When I say that, people don’t believe me because the stories were perceived as bold. I also could blurt things out that were quite forward, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t shy; I simply didn’t know how to communicate very well. I’ve changed quite a bit, but I’m talking a long time ago. Suddenly I would be at these parties, or at dinners with, like, Sonny Mehta and some big agent. I had no idea what to say, and I felt that people expected me to be really sharp. They’d say things to me as if they were expecting me to hit the ball back really hard, and I would just freeze.
MS I see that in your characters a lot. There are these people who are unusually perceptive but are often trying to crack the code of some social situation: there is this constant effort to figure out who’s doing what and who’s where in the pecking order. There’s often this sense of people standing at the edge of a party and wondering, Are all these people having a good time or are they as baffled as I am?
American culture and recent history are constantly woven into your books. In Don’t Cry the Iraq war comes up explicitly in “The Arms and Legs of the Lake.” “College Town, 1980” has the vibe of the recession that we had leading into the Reagan era. You’re also constantly referencing pop music.
MG I don’t think of it in terms of referencing it; it’s just very poignant to me sometimes, the way music will hit a person at a certain moment or will be playing in a person’s head. It’s just a naturally expressive thing for me.
MS Yeah, there seem to be a number of dads in your stories who intentionally put on certain songs to try to recapture a feeling or to make up for certain lacks that they feel. There’s Alison, the narrator of Veronica: “My father used to make lists of his favorite popular songs, ranked in order of preference. These lists were very nuanced, and they changed every few years. He’d walk around with the list in his hand, explaining why Jo ‘G.I. Jo’ Stafford was ranked just above Doris Day, why Charles Trenet topped Nat King Cole—but by a hair only. It was his way of showing people things about him that were too private to say directly.” And then later in the book these singers go out of vogue and the father can’t use them as shorthand for conveying his feelings.
You said in one interview about Veronica that you wished some of the critics had touched on the question of form and formlessness. Can you say more about what you meant by that?
MG Music is part of it. Music is a form that tends to give shape to rules, social mores, social attitudes, feelings—it does this in a very beautiful, fluid way. To me the issue of form and formlessness is most strong in the theme of mortality versus a human wish for immortality of a sort. Take, for example, the definition of beauty in fashion. Remember what Alison says at the beginning? She says when she was young she didn’t know what beautiful was. She looked at this woman who everyone was saying was beautiful and she didn’t even know what they were talking about. I experienced that when I was a child. If I loved someone I thought they were really beautiful. And then eventually, I began to get it, the social concept of beauty. Not that I think beautiful is completely imaginary, but beauty is so wide ranging and fluid. Yet there’s a need to say: “This is what it is, and it’s not changing; we’re taking a picture of it to hold it still.” It’s like an impulse to put up a building meant to last forever. An urge to grab and hold something in place when nothing human can be grabbed and held in place. We come into these physical bodies . . . whatever we are takes this shape that is so particular and distinct—eyes, nose, mouth—and then it gradually begins to disintegrate. Eventually it’s going to dissolve completely. It’s a huge problem for people; we can understand it, but it breaks our hearts. And so we’re constantly trying to pin something down or leave a trace that will last forever. “And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita . . .” What other immortality will anyone share?
MS There’s a moment at the end when Veronica assumes a beautiful form in the dream of David, a minor character who takes in Veronica’s cat after she dies of AIDS. He tells the dream to Alison, who’s been narrating her friendship with Veronica throughout the novel. In the dream he’s at a party at a beautiful mansion and describes the beautiful guests:
There was one woman he noticed in particular; even though he saw her from behind, there was something familiar about her. She wore a beautiful man’s suit tailored to fit her. On her head of gold-blond hair sat a fedora, angled rakishly. She was talking to two men, and even from behind, her poise and intellectual grace were visible. As if she could feel David’s eyes on her, she turned to look at him. It was Veronica!
Alison relates the dream to her sister and she says, “And that’s what Veronica was really like, under all the ugliness and bad taste.” I see that as one of the times when a character in your story uses form in a happy or useful way.
MG You could say that dream appeared in David’s head as something from the other world conveyed to him in a form that he can understand and translate. It’s also for his own benefit. He’d probably prefer to think that when people die, especially people who’ve had terrible lives, there’s a possibility that they’re going on to something ideal and beautiful. It’s a compassionate gesture towards this woman, Veronica, but it’s also comforting for him. Or you could say that it really is a communication from Veronica herself, letting him know, as the person who’s taking care of her cat, that things are going well for her. She’s putting it in a form that can be translated to human beings as good: a beautiful party, a beautiful home, a beautiful haircut.
MS At the end of Veronica a fairy tale is reiterated. The novel begins with Alison describing how when she was a child her mother would read her the story of a wicked little girl who is sent to work for a rich family. At one point the family gives the girl a loaf of bread to take back to her mother. When she has to cross a swamp, rather than get her fancy shoes dirty, she puts the loaf of bread down using it as a bridge and sacrifices her mother’s meal. Then she and the loaf of bread descend into this world of demons. One of the most amazing moments in this novel is when Alison describes not only hearing the story, but, since she is leaning against her mother, feeling the story. “I felt it in her body, I felt a girl who wanted to be too beautiful. I felt a mother who wanted to love her. I felt a demon who wanted to torture her. I felt them mixed together so you couldn’t tell them apart.” And then, at the end of the story, Alison projects herself and Veronica into this fairy tale by seeing the two of them as demons who become human by looking upon each other with pity. So this again seems to be an example where people project themselves into fantasies as a way to constitute themselves more salubriously.
MG Fantasies can be very good for people. I had a conversation with someone recently who thought that sexual fantasy was always a by-product of damage to a person. I thought about that quite a bit . . . . I’m not entirely sure what she meant by it but it was an interesting idea to chew over, certainly. I tend to think a fantasy, if it’s an obsessive fantasy, can be a way of retreading over and over again something that was painful for you in an attempt to heal it, so I suppose that it could be described as a product of damage. But I also think of it as a creative thing, a way to give form to something inchoate inside yourself. That’s why Hans Christian Andersen’s stories are powerful—they come from a deep place, like that story of the girl who trod on a loaf of bread. There’s so much violence and cruelty in this story and yet also a sense of purity and redemption, since someone is able to escape a violent, painful knot they’ve gotten themselves into. So yeah, Alison could use that in her own mind to make sense of who she is in the world and what’s happened. She has been bound in a dark place and although she’s gotten free, she’s a marginal person outside the big story, you know, but her story also has its own power and beauty.
MS Did I understand you correctly that your friend said that sexual fantasies are the result of damage? That implies that people who aren’t damaged, if there are such people, don’t have sexual fantasies. I thought everybody had them.
MG Yes, most people do; I would find a person who didn’t have them strange. I think she meant particularly elaborate, grotesque kinds of fantasies about things that she didn’t really want to have happen to herself.
MS I have a relative who repeats the assertion that this whole business of everyone having a dark side is not true, that some people have “dark sides”—this is her term for it—and others don’t, and she resents Freud for suggesting that everybody has this nasty person or animal within them who wants to kill and devour. My assertion is always that the scariest ones of all are the ones that don’t believe they have a dark side.
MG Yeah, it’s even beyond us, what we like to call “dark,” and I don’t even like the word very much in this context—
MS Well, I mean, aggression, violence, willing pain on oneself or another person, is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?
MG Yes, but it’s not only a question of individual people’s feelings or psychologies. Again, this has to do with form versus the formless. A lot of what makes crazy people not be able to participate in society, in a way, is that their personality doesn’t take a recognizable form that functions well in the overarching social forum. The things that we experience as violent or destructive are huge formless forces that sometimes take form in us. Fantasy seems like a pretty harmless and creative way to express them.
MS Another example of somebody using a fantasy or a fiction in a helpful way is Dorothy in Two Girls, Fat and Thin, whose father has sexually abused her. She’s having a crisis—almost a dissolution of self, it seems—at this community college, and then turns to the novels of Anna Granite. They save her.
MG In a way, yes. You could also say that she’s been very limited and deluded by trying to live her life according to this other person’s ideas as expressed through fictional characters.
MS So this is an ambivalent use of fantasy?
MG At a certain point it’s useful to her but there’s a lack of fluidity. She makes it to be like “This is it, this is the literal truth,” whereas if it were something that’s held a little more lightly, it might not have that limiting effect.
MS This reminds me of parts in Veronica where Alison uses the metaphor of a series of ten photographs to describe the different ways that a given moment could be seen or interpreted. The first moment is when Alison describes how she got into modeling: “One night at work, Veronica asked me how I got into modeling, and I said, ‘By fucking a nobody catalog agent who grabbed my crotch.’ I said it with disdain—like I didn’t have to be embarrassed or make up something nice, because Veronica was nobody—like why should I care if an ant could see up my dress?” Then at the end of that scene, she reflects, “Imagine ten pictures of this conversation. In nine of them, she’s the fool and I’m the person who has something. But in the tenth, I’m the fool and it’s her show now. For just a second, that’s the picture I saw.” That seems to be an acknowledgement of the attempt to freeze moments into retainable images as well as of the fluidity that lies beneath the frozen ways in which we construe experience.
MG At this moment I feel obliged to acknowledge a part of life that’s not subject to fantasies or projections and doesn’t care about how anyone sees it. I’m reading from a book of Simone Weil’s letters, Waiting for God. It was introduced by Leslie Fiedler, and he says something that I like very much:
This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the “imaginary,” our own dreams and self-deceits, the Utopias of the politicians, or the futile promises of future reward and consolation which the misled blasphemously call “religion.” The soul has a million dodges for protecting itself against the acceptance and love of the emptiness, that “maximum distance between God and God,” which is the universe; for the price of such acceptance and love is abysmal misery. And yet it is the only way.
MS Wow . . . Well, since we are talking about God, let’s talk about the Chekhov story “In the Ravine.” It comes up twice in Don’t Cry. The writing teacher, Janice, who appears in “Description” and in the title story, talks about the importance of its descriptive passages, the soft open quality of description right after this woman’s baby has been murdered. I was also struck by how, at least until the end, Chekhov’s story doesn’t have a protagonist.
MG It’s fitting that a protagonist isn’t that important in “In the Ravine” because it’s about a very big picture of life. If you were going to tell this story from Lipa’s point of view, the tragedy of losing her child would not be anything that she could quickly step back from. She would be completely in her feelings. But a bigger eye looks at her as this little person wandering through a forest and still notices the soft darkness and the sounds coming through the night. Chekhov doesn’t describe the scene as “beautiful,” but you feel the mystery and beauty of these things: the sound of birds, the sound of men’s voices, the sight of someone’s face half lit by the fire. You wouldn’t get anything but despair if you were in Lipa’s point of view—the foundation of her life has just been shattered. I would be hard-pressed to analyze why I consider “In the Ravine” such a beautiful story, though part of it is in those qualities of description where we are made acutely aware of the smallness and fragility of human beings, the strangeness of the world. Also how it expresses people’s will to live and their brutality and tenderness and vulnerability, beyond what the human heart can bear, coming up against this hard, beautiful world.
MS But also cruel and ugly. The nastiest character in the story is this very seductive woman, Aksinya, who triumphs over the kinder characters. She has a willfulness and strength that others can’t contend with.
MG Yeah, she has a female sexual vitality that is part of what makes her wicked. Lipa’s vulnerability and passivity are part of what makes her good. I don’t entirely like the idea of a feminine ideal as something that passive. I mean, Aksinya has just murdered her child and Lipa doesn’t even say anything! The family thinks that Lipa is to blame for not caring for her child and she doesn’t even dare to tell them it wasn’t an accident. It disturbs me a little to see this passivity equated with purity and moral goodness. At the same time, it’s rather appalling that we’ve come to idealize vitality and strength to such a degree that somebody like Aksinya would probably be the heroine in a modern story. She has gumption, and how! In an American story she wouldn’t be a murderer. She would be the strong one who carries the day and has a successful business. And Lipa would just be drooping around chewing gum and scratching herself, and on welfare, probably, and considered bad because of that.
MS Yeah, this business of the meek shall inherit the earth doesn’t dovetail very well with the American ethos, does it?
MG Well, the meek are despised now unless they’re very, very cute. But often in our culture people who are actually the meekest come across very aggressively—their aggression is masking a deeper passivity, so they’re doubly looked down on.
MS There’s that final image where Aksinya’s father-in-law—who after all was himself a villain, if only of a monetary kind—is deranged and no longer eats in his own house, where Aksinya has made him irrelevant. He’s wandering down the road half out of his mind, and Lipa and her mother treat him very kindly and offer him food.
MG Yes, to me Lipa is the one who does have the deeper triumph in the story, even though she’s lost everything and is essentially doing slave labor for Aksinya. But she nonetheless is walking down the road singing in this big beautiful voice, and she is able to extend generosity and help this poor man who’s been destroyed by his own wickedness. And that is a bigger kind of triumph, absolutely. I think sometimes the powerful of society can allow the weak to have that kind of triumph while they sit on their bags of money and have a sentimental enjoyment of a story where the trampled-on person, safely out of the way, is having her spiritual triumph. I just can’t help but look at it from a couple of different points of view.
MS A lot of the women in your stories are people who, by contemporary society’s standards, are failures. The protagonist of “The Agonized Face”—
MG Well, actually Alison in Veronica would be a better example of that. The person in “The Agonized Face” has been married, she has a child, she’s working a job that many would find glamorous. She may not have an ideal life, but certainly, by social standards, she is not a loser. Before Veronica was published, I was talking about the manuscript with a publicist who I don’t think liked it much. She said at one point, “Well, Alison has nothing.” I was shocked at that, but it’s true—she’s living much worse off than the woman in “The Agonized Face.” She’s on welfare, she’s ill, she doesn’t appear to have many friends, she’s never been married, she doesn’t have children—these are the building blocks in the most conventional sense of how women are defined as being successful or not. By those standards, she really doesn’t have anything. Yet, she’s learned so much from her life experience and is someone who can have a deep experience just walking through the woods—not everybody can do that.
MS In an essay about Nabokov you said, “Sometimes I write from the point of view of characters whom I would dislike as people, not as a perverse exercise but because this cracks the story open and makes me see it in a way that I would not see it naturally.” Is that the case with the narrator of “The Agonized Face”?
MG Yes, although I wouldn’t say I dislike her; I wouldn’t go that far.
MS She goes to hear somebody she refers to as a “feminist author” at a book festival. And the feminist author reads a story that bears a striking resemblance to your story “Turgor” in Because They Wanted To. And this woman, the narrator, is offended by the “Turgor”-like story; she considers it a cheap, pornographic description of sexuality even though the “feminist author” has just given a speech in which she’s said that she doesn’t want to be defined in those terms. Did writing from her point of view, as you say, crack the story open for you, or did it help you figure out something that you didn’t know?
MG Yeah. Sometimes when you go to what seems to be the opposite of your point of view, a whole gets created.
MS Something which I see in your work as well—we’ve touched on this already—is the way that stories can heal. I wonder if there have been times in your life where you have felt healed by a story.
MG Healed is perhaps a little too strong a word.
MG Nourished. Stories or books which I find most satisfying in that way are those that fully express something. Sometimes human life seems so partial or incapable of full expression, of whatever is at the core essence of a person or situation. I feel a level of frustration with that, so when I see someone who is able to give full expression to whatever it is—I mean expression to the point of being able to glimpse those things that are always going to be outside our range of vision . . . There’s nothing more profoundly satisfying to me.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. He has taught creative writing and literature at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, in the Bard College MFA program, and in New York City public schools. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, The Los Angeles Times, Art on Paper, and elsewhere.