Mary Gaitskill doesn’t believe literature should have to be polite. Do a Google image search of the author and you’ll see a succession of penetrating gazes—pale, wide eyes you just can’t fend off. Gaitskill’s writing, which has earned a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner nomination, has a similar effect. The author whose most recent book is a collection of personal and critical essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017), is best known for her fiction, having previously published three novels and three story collections. Gaitskill has been labeled “The Jane Austen of sickos,” a moniker that supposes her fiction—famous (and in some circles probably infamous) for its enjambment of sexual brutality with sensuous lyricism—is debauched. While her prose can at times appear as icy as her stare, waves of empathy, soul, and B-12 shots of humor course beneath the surface. From her first book of short stories, Bad Behavior (Simon & Schuster, 1988), which became widely known for “Secretary,” a story of sadomasochism and desire that was made into the 2002 indie film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, to her most recent novel, The Mare (Pantheon, 2015), Gaitskill’s fiction has always been ferocious, but not for the sake of brutality. The fireworks are in the vulnerability of human connection, not just the spectacle of sex. When she talks about her craft, Gaitskill’s eyes brighten and she smiles often. If you are fortunate enough to speak to her about Chekhov or Nabokov, as I was, you feel thankful for her clairvoyant insights, for her mastery of opinion—for her energizing confidence in what makes a good writer.
In an interview you once said, “Literature is not a realm of politeness.” What’s your style in the classroom? Are you the conditionally supportive teacher or the unconditionally supportive teacher?
I’m sure most people would call me conditionally supportive. I don’t really know what I’m like. I mean, I can’t see myself from the outside. People have described me as blunt. I’m not always, actually. I mean, I’m not always as blunt as I—
As you want to be?
—as I might be if I were actually being blunt [laughs]. I’m blunt if I think there is no other way to be. I think my teaching style has also somewhat changed. And again, it’s hard to see myself from the outside. But I think I’ve learned how to be critical in a better way than I used to. In the past, I was so uncomfortable in a position of authority. I had never had a job before where I had any authority at all. My generation is notoriously uncomfortable with authority. That’s why we are terrible parents. I mean, I’m not speaking personally. I am not a parent. But it’s a thing—my generation makes awful parents. Because they’re so busy trying to make their children happy and be a friend to their children and make everything in their life work out that they end up just smothering them, basically.
All unconditional! I guess psychologists would say you need one unconditional and one conditionally loving parent, right? There’s a balance.
I had a similar problem teaching. But, it didn’t show up in the same way. I was just so uncomfortable having to be the authority. And I knew that I had to be. So the things I would say would come out much more forcefully than I actually meant them. It translated into harshness. And it was actually coming from a place of real discomfort and insecurity. But I don’t think the students knew that. Maybe some of them did, some of the time.
I remember a former writing professor, Chuck Kinder, always driving home the principle of Chekhov’s smoking gun. This West Virginian drawl saying, “If there’s a gun, there had better be gun smoke.” What’s your smoking gun principle? Do you have a rule?
I don’t, actually. I think there are very few rules that can’t be broken. I think there is only one that is very difficult to break. I have seen it broken, but not very often. It’s that something has to change. From the beginning of the story to the end, something needs to be different. The only time I’ve ever seen it successfully broken was a Grace Paley story called “A Conversation With My Father.” But as a general rule, something has to change. There has to be some source of tension. And even that can be subtle. Even in the language itself. You know the Flannery O’Conner story “Everything That Rises Must Converge”?
The blood pressure. It’s mentioned in, I think, the first or second sentence. The blood pressure is the number-one thing.
Earlier I asked you which short stories of yours I should read, and you immediately responded with “Secretary.” You said you considered it one of your best. So I started there with Bad Behavior. That was your first book. You were thirty-three when it was released. How long did it take you?
About six years.
A first book is like a band’s first record, right? You have your whole life up to that point to write that first collection of words. And you release it. And then people tell you who you are. They say, “Oh, you’re the masochism writer,” or “you’re the next Dylan.” It can be kind of crushing. Then you have, what? A year? Five years? You have such a shorter time frame to follow it up. What was the difference between writing Bad Behavior and your second book, the 1991 novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin?
Well, there were a couple of things. I had actually started the novel before I sold the story collection. I had written maybe thirty-five pages and stopped, because I just didn’t know what to do. And the reason I picked it up again was because I was in a publisher’s office, and they didn’t know if they wanted to buy the collection or not. And the guy said, “So, do you have a novel?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah I do.” And he said, “What’s it about?”
And I just started talking about these girls. And they were like, “Oh, ok.” And they wanted to do a two-book deal: the short story collection and the novel.
Well, that certainly worked out.
It didn’t have to do with the process, though. It was much more complicated. Because when I was writing Bad Behavior I could always say to myself, “It doesn’t have to be good. No one is going to see it.” That actually made it possible for me to go forward. I said that to myself literally every time I sat down, repeatedly. “It doesn’t have to be any good. No one will see it.”
Like The Basement Tapes. Dylan and his band didn’t mean for anyone to hear them. They were just hanging out in Woodstock, recording music they never thought would see daylight.
It’s a very helpful thing to say to yourself. And I didn’t have any expectation of how it would be received, either. Whereas with Two Girls I could not say that. I knew people were going to see it. And actually, for the first time, I was self-conscious about how it would be seen. And I felt a desire, an obligation almost, to please certain readers. Because I knew who had liked Bad Behavior and I knew why they liked it. So I was uncomfortable about disappointing those people, perhaps. I tried as hard as I could to put those feelings aside. But it was very difficult.
That had to be jarring.
Had you ever thought about your limitations as a writer when you were working on that first collection?
Oh, yeah! I thought I was terrible.
You thought you were terrible?
That was the other thing about Two Girls that was different. It was that I had never tried to write a novel before. Short stories are—some people say they are harder, but I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because it’s just a smaller space to deal with. I mean, some are quite capacious. It’s not that they are easy. I don’t find them easy. But a novel? It’s like I was a cat that had been in a house all of its life, and all of a sudden a door was flung open. And I was flooded with sights and smells and was crazily running over in one direction wondering what was going on there and getting distracted. And then running in the other direction. It was a total feeling of freedom. But I didn’t know what to do with it. It was very hard to figure out what I wanted to pay attention to and how to structure it. And stories are way more manageable that way.
Being flooded with sights and smells. Yes. So appropriate, because your fourth novel, Veronica (Pantheon, 2005), is flooded with sights and smells and senses that overlap and eclipse each other. Let’s start with the origin myth that opens the book —the dark folktale told to the narrator, Alison, by her mother. Alison revisits this story for the rest of her life. It haunts her. At one point she admits that she felt it more than she heard it. At what phase in the process of writing this novel did you write the beginning—this story that keeps coming back?
I added that later.
Was there a Lebowski’s Rug moment, when you arrived at this origin story and added it, and it really brought the whole room together?
Honestly, it was because someone who read a draft of the book said it reminded them of the tale The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf. It’s Hans Christian Anderson. And I said, “Really, what’s that?” And I went and looked it up. And I agreed. I thought it was perfect.
Those old tales are soul crushing and beautiful, but also scary as hell. It’s scary being a kid.
Right. Because everybody’s bigger than you. And they are weird! [Laughs.]
You’ve mentioned a soul-quality in writing. I’ve read interviews where you break it down to the molecular level. I guess it’s a voice quality, right? This energy. How did you find that? And how in the world do you teach that?
I don’t know. How did I arrive at the voice quality?
Yes. This energy in your writing, the music of it. The way you describe these grotesquely beautiful things. It’s your voice. What all MFA students want so badly to get, I think, is their own version of that.
I used to tell students, “I want to see it how only you can see it. I don’t want to see it how a hundred people would see it.” I was basically telling them not to rely on shared perception. There isn’t anything wrong with shared perception. It can be a beautiful thing, and I think music relies partly on shared perception, or it assumes a certain kind of shared perception, rightly or wrongly. Because you feel, in a group of people, that you are hearing it the same, although you’re probably not. You feel that commonality. Slang. Expressions. There are certain things that make shared perception beautiful. You can’t have a conversation without it. But when you’re reading a story, it’s a different thing. It’s much more intimate. It’s much more like…you’re wanting to get the pith of what that person feels and sees. It’s more like that.
Music plays a huge, great part in Veronica. What’s your soundtrack?
You mean, what music do I listen to?
Yes. When you’re writing, or on the train with your headphones. What are you listening to?
I’m really sorry to say this, but I don’t have those things. I don’t like that. I don’t want to walk around listening to music and not listening to what’s happening. It’s bad enough that I’m glued to my phone. I’m not going to go there with music. But right now I’m also at a disadvantage, because I don’t have a good sound system. So I’ve been listening to music on my computer and I just don’t like it as much. Like, when I had a good sound system, I used to put on music and just walk around, drinking a glass of wine, just listening to it.
In your writing, you slip in and out of time seamlessly. In Veronica, you’re like a time bandit. We’re talking a really adult version of Madeleine L’Engle. The book spans decades of Alison’s life—from her teenage years in Paris in the 70s to New York in the 80s, where she meets Veronica, and she’s narrating when she’s in her fifties. There are certain sentences that stretch between two different moments. Considering the amount of time the book covers, there has to be a level of trust—in your own ability to do that, but also that the reader will trust this time machine you’re driving. Was that hard to do? Did you question that?
Yeah, I did question if it was a good idea or not. I was afraid it would be too arty, or just too hard to follow. Yeah, I wondered about that.
For me, that kind of movement through time made everything move faster. It made my heart beat faster, especially as the book went on.
Well, thank you. I did it, for one thing, well, I felt like I had to blend the times because the book is focused on something in the past, and the narrator is in the present. But also because I was at an age where I felt like time was blending for me, personally, in a way that it hadn’t before.
I think when you get to a certain age, and for some people it may be in their forties or for other people it may be in their sixties—I’m not sure—but I think for everybody it happens that your relationship with time changes and you see the future or the present, and it becomes like a palimpsest for the past, and you just kind of blur things. And it’s not necessarily in a confused way, but sometimes it is. Like, you can talk to very old people and they’ll think something happened. Recently, my mother thought that her mother gave her the book, Born Free by Elsa the Lioness. And that’s not possible. My mother wasn’t alive when that book was written. But in her mind it absolutely must have been that way. She’s blending something. I think that starts to happen in middle age. Not in the sense that you’re confused, but that your connections of when things happen in time, spatially, are just different.
So, let’s talk about sexuality. Never have I read fiction regarding sexuality that made me feel quite the same way—that way I felt when reading Veronica.
When you say “that way,” what do you mean?
As a male, reading about sex—this beautifully painful account of health, illness, death, with all of this sometimes brutal sex—I felt my own mortality. I became very aware of my heartbeat and my breathing. Thinking about all the cigarettes I had smoked a long time ago. It made me anxious. It hurt. And I saw all of this through the eyes of Alison, a model, who is absolutely nothing like me. At all. I related to it. Absolutely, in the moment, related to it. And it’s hard enough for me to be in the moment, ever.
At one point Alison says she sees how men can look at pictures and feel things. She’s trying to see the world through the eyes of the other, and reading the book as a man, I was doing the same thing backwards, through her eyes. Have you found that the reaction to your writing has been starkly different along gender lines? That men have a different response? Like, me, how I am getting super uncomfortable talking about it with you right now?
Oh, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. I don’t really know. Someone wrote an article about how horrible she thinks men are when they write about me. And it’s true that some male critics have been unusually nasty. But it’s also true that once, a long time ago, for my own curiosity, I went through all the reviews and divided them into male and female. And then I added up where the most negative ones came from. They came from women. So, I think women are more likely to relate to my writing in a superficial way, because most of my characters are women. I don’t really know if there is a predictable breakdown.
I thought my last book, The Mare, would not be read by men at all. The Mare is all female characters with specifically female issues. And there isn’t a whole lot of sex in it. Even the horses are female. But men read it and liked it. I mean I don’t know how many. I can’t really say for sure. I am thinking, though, that some men seem to view it with horror that seems gendered.
Recently, Veronica was republished in England and my editor decided to have a personal friend of hers write an introduction. I can’t remember the guy’s name. He’s an English writer whom she says is very respected, but I’ve never heard of him. And he spent a lot of time—and he was a fan, apparently—talking about the horrifying, degrading imagery that I use about men. In one of these horrifying examples, Alison was thinking about a guy, and I hope you don’t mind me using this language. She’s having sex with somebody, and she can feel his asshole tingling on the end of his spine. In the context of writing, that does not seem especially degrading or at all degrading to me. If you were saying that to someone, it might be different, depending on who they are and how you said it. But the idea of somebody thinking that, in private, in a fictional novel, I don’t understand. I scratched him doing the introduction and I did it myself. And I wrote back to [my editor] and said, “Has this guy ever read Philip Roth or Saul Bellow? What makes him so shocked by this?”
In conversation it might be a shocking remark, but not in a novel, in somebody’s head. And that’s what I mean by politeness not applying to literature. There’s a different standard than at a party. I really did wonder if he would have reacted that way if it was a male writing about a female he was having sex with.
Well, I think there is maybe a double standard when it comes to writing about sex. Men might get more of a pass, right? And I’ve never read anything about sex that was written quite like that.
Thanks. Except I would normally disagree with that. I think women get more of a pass. For sexist reasons, actually, sexuality is considered the purview of women. It’s like women’s area of authority. Women can write really dirty things without being criticized as much. Are you aware of Nicholson Baker’s book The Fermata?
It’s a pretty dirty book. It’s a fantasy book. Have you read him at all?
No, I haven’t. I guess I should.
Beautiful writer. Line by line, probably the best writer in America, in my opinion. Line by line, though, not by the whole content, necessarily. Well, The Fermata was one of his lighter books. He’s better known for Vox, because Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky read it together. Or for The Mezzanine. But The Fermata is about somebody who can stop time, and he uses it to take women’s clothes off…
Oh! Yes…he masturbates on their clothes?
He masturbates, but he doesn’t do it on their clothes. My, that book got outraged reviews. People said it was violent, degrading, disgusting. It was none of those things. It was a totally harmless fantasy. And I think if a woman had written it, it would have been different. Have you ever read Natsuo Kirino?
No. You know what? Not only have I probably not read any of the books you’re mentioning, I’m probably going to get a big complex about it.
No. Don’t worry. I’ve hardly read anything. But Natsuo Kirino, one of her books that I really like, in one of the final scenes is this guy who has been stalking her and finally gets her tied up and he’s planning to torture her and he’s cutting her and he’s raping her. And she actually responds to him. But she’s actually tricking him. She ends up killing him. And he almost likes it. She cuts his throat and he dies slowly. I don’t remember the words, but it’s almost like he says, “I love you” in the end. If a man wrote that scene, he’d be considered the equivalent of a murderer. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in public.
Well, I guess I’ll have to read that now…
It’s true, though. I think women are allowed to be much more outrageous sexually, in general, than men. What some of the male critics, who have been nasty, are responding to—and this one guy said that reading me was like being sodomized by an icy dildo—
Um, does he know what that’s like?
[Laughs] Oh, I suspect he doesn’t. Because if he did, he would never make such a ridiculous comparison. But, in a way, it’s a huge compliment, because I have never read anyone in my life who would make me feel even remotely like that. So he must think I’m some kind of badass.
What I think makes people like that uncomfortable isn’t the level of sexual detail. I think it makes them feel emotionally uncomfortable. Because they feel emotionally exposed. Lots of people write about sex very graphically.
Switching gears, you really describe the beauty and sometimes ugliness of voices. The sound of them. And you do it visually, too. Alison will describe how something looks as a sound. Are you the kind of person who can be enthralled, or just totally turned off, by the timbre of someone’s voice?
Oh yeah. I’m really, really voice responsive. When I was very young, at home, in the other room doing homework, some guy came to see one of my sisters. And I was so revolted by his voice, I could hardly bare to listen to it. And when he left I walked in the room and I said, “Who was that?” And I said, “He’s a horrible person.”
It turned out he was, actually. He had sexually molested somebody and later he made obscene calls to one of my sisters. I’m not saying I can do that all the time, but I am very voice reactive. And I can even fall in love with somebody just by the sound of their voice. I mean, I may not stay in love with them [laughs]. And it might not mean they’re a wonderful person. Although, interestingly, when I first heard my husband’s voice, I didn’t like it. But that changed. I’m not completely wedded to that impression. But it does mean something.
I read you once say that Debbie from “Secretary” was no older than eighteen. And I thought, “Wow. What an erudite, literate eighteen-year-old.”
Really, you think?
Oh yeah. That first-person narrator in that third-person universe? Totally.
It’s pretty simple, I think.
But what we can get to here is the idea of the reliability of a narrator. In Veronica, you use the first-person narrator, and you nailed the trust—the narrator was so reliable. How do you confer that trust? What advice do you give students to find that place?
I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, “Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me?”
With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.
Would you agree if I were to say that you are hard on your readers?
I don’t know [laughs]. It probably depends on the reader. I’m sure some people read my stuff and think it’s fun. And some people might think it’s boring.
Your writing? Boring?
Sure. I think Bad Behavior is boring, quite frankly. I had to read it for an audio book. I was just like, “Oh…”
For some readers it is hard. I guess I do know that for a fact. I’ve seen complaints. I’ve seen people talk about how hard it is. So it must be. But it’s not something I set out to do.
I guess we have a theme here, of conditional versus unconditional. Reading your work, I found it very hard on the reader. Not in a pejorative sense. I found it absolutely conditionally loving. It gives me everything I need, but as you once said, there is a thin line between absolute excitement and humiliation—and you thrive on that line.
I said that?
I think in New York Times Magazine, actually.
Wow. I never read that one.
You’re tackling incredibly emotionally intense, sexually intense, illness, health, and death…
It’s true. That line.
It’s so interesting that you bring that up because a student of mine just workshopped a story; the ending is a scene in which the male character is really ashamed of his body and his girlfriend is really beautiful and she decides she wants him to pose naked for pictures. And it’s a potentially very powerful scene because it can potentially be a very horrible experience. And he’s just so uncomfortable. It would be very much a thin line. And it could be one of those things where it could be great or just really, really awful. Or both.
I’d say great and awful at the same time would be the goal, right?
Oh, yeah. For a lot of people, yeah. Because it’s the whole picture.
I think that’s what I would say about your writing.
Well, thank you.
Joseph Master is the executive director of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.