Interview with Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the short story collectionsBad Behavior, andBecause They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and the novelsTwo Girls, Fat and Thin, andVeronica, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories and essays have appeared inThe New Yorker,Harper’s,Esquire,The Best American Short Stories(1993 and 2006), andThe O. Henry Prize Stories(1998). Her new collection,Don’t Cry, was published in March 2009.

Interviewers’ Note:

As we heard another writer put it once, Mary Gaitskill is a "deeply honest" person. That deep honesty one finds in her fiction is not so different from the deep honesty one might be met with, say, on a weekday afternoon, sitting across a desk from her in a Syracuse University office, where she teaches creative writing. In her latest collection, Gaitskill describes the emotional fallout of deeply scarred people who are trying their best to navigate a strange, harsh, but often dazzling world. Hers is an honesty with that rare power to illuminate as much as it unsettles, and, in this case, to force two lowly interviewers to wince occasionally at their own ineffectual questions, and then to rejoice at her marvelous, deeply felt answers.

—Natalie Rogers and Mikael Awake

Salt Hill:We noticed that news and journalism seemed to come up in a number of the stories in your new collection,Don’t Cry. “Folk Song” is a tantalizing example. Why were you interested in that?

Mary Gaitskill:Well, it’s not something I consciously had any idea about. I think it’s fairly natural for it to come up in characters’ minds because we’re bombarded with it constantly, even if you don’t pay that much attention to the news. You walk into a store, and there it is. You go to a gym, and there are tons of them, a bank of televisions streaming out at you. I described that, I think, in “The Little Wife.” An older woman registering with astonishment that you can’t get away from this. You get into a taxi in New York, and there it is. You turn on your computer; there it is. It’s not something that’s escapable, so I think it’s natural for me to put it in the consciousness of characters.
As far as “Folk Song” goes, like I said, I had no conscious motivation. I think sometimes the way that reality or situations get constructed by news is…funny. Because it doesn’t even have to be manipulated or false. Simply by seeing three different stories in a newspaper, or in the same window of an Internet screen, creates a sort of strange relationship between them unconsciously. I was inspired to write “Folk Song” partly because I did pick up eitherThe Daily Newsor theNew York Post—I don’t remember—and there were just preposterous stories put together on the same page. I don’t remember what they were. I think there was a story of some violent crime and then turtles being stolen from a zoo. There wasn’t [as there is in the story] a woman who was having sex with a thousand people, I don’t think. Although maybe there was. I don’t know. [Laughter] I just remember looking at it and going, “This is so ridiculous.”

SH:So the turtles came first?

MG:Yeah, they did. [Laughs] And “The Agonized Face” would also have something to do with that. It’s something that I’m particularly aware of: how people present themselves, how they get perceived, how they get presented, in turn, by somebody writing a story about them. It’s just a part of life now.

SH:Weren’t you a journalism major in school?

MG:I was but that doesn’t have anything to do with it. I just did that because I left home pretty early and I had the experience of being in the world and not having any real marketable skill, so when I went to college I was hoping naively to pick that up. I didn’t really have much skill at it. I tried to work for the student paper; it was awful. I couldn’t do it, really, to save my life. But that’s why I did that, just because I knew an English major was worthless in terms of a job…A Journalism major was too. But I didn’t know that. [Laughs]

SH:I guess journalism sounds more practical.

MG:It sounded more practical, and I thought it would be. It wasn’t useless in the sense that I had an internship at the magazineMonthly Detroit, which I actually kind of enjoyed. They let me write a little book review for them. I did learn something from it. I also did some journalism when I went to New York, before I published a book. I wrote a couple things for theVillage Voiceand some other smaller papers, so I did have a little bit of experience there. And I enjoyed it.

SH:Do you see any similarities between what you do in your fiction and what you did in journalism?

MG:For me, it’s completely different. You still want to write the best sentence possible, but it’s very different. When somebody does, say, a profile of me, I often feel like it doesn’t have much relationship to me. Although sometimes it does. It depends how good the person is, and also, probably, how well they happened to be tuned into me. But often I just feel there’s no relationship between what gets written and me.
I’m more aware now, when I do profiles of people. Because I’ve done them—of actors, actresses, writers—I’m often aware now that they probably feel exactly the same way. I’m probably not that good at it. I mean, I’m good in the sense that I’m able to write something that the reader will find interesting, but I’m probably worse than average in terms of getting the person in an accurate light—because of being a fiction writer. Meaning, I’m coming from a place of very strong perception and wanting, by nature, to mold whatever it is I’m looking at in a certain way. To create it. And being a journalist, you aren’t supposed to do that. You’re not creating a person, or you shouldn’t be, I don’t think. They often do; I’m certainly not alone in that. But I think a better journalist is far more attuned to just receptively seeing the person for what they are as much as possible.
So I’ve become aware of that. But I’m sure that the people I’ve written about have felt exactly the same as I do when I look at them and go, “Well, whatever. I hope it sells some books or some movie tickets.”

SH:As a fiction writer, it seems like it can be hard to write about experiences you haven’t had, or lifestyles you don’t lead, or getting in the heads of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, without stereotyping them. Is that something you have to think about consciously when you approach a new kind of character? Or do you not think about it too much and just feel it out as you go?

MG:I do think you have to think about that. I don’t honestly think that I write about many characters that are wildly unfamiliar to me. I do sometimes. But I try to connect with them on a very basic level. Even if I can’t understand the exact circumstances of their life, I can understand their emotions. If I don’t feel I can understand their emotions, then I don’t try to go there. Also it depends on how deeply I’m getting into that character. If it’s a main character, and I have to be inside them and speak for them, then that’s harder. If it’s a more minor, more peripheral character, it matters less. You might be thinking of “The Arms and Legs of the Lake.” Did you read that?

SH:Yes, but we were actually thinking about the title story, “Don’t Cry,” which you set in Ethiopia.

MG:I can get back to that, but “Arms and Legs of the Lake” I found very challenging. Because I’ve never been to war.

SH:Neither had Stephen Crane before he wroteRed Badge of Courage, right?

MG:Wow, really? I didn’t know that. A whole book would be really hard, but he probably talked to a lot of people. And I did too. I actually hate to confess, but I did see that incident [in “Arms and Legs of the Lake”] happen on a train, and I was really disturbed by it. Particularly by the smaller man, who I wasn’t really sure was a veteran. I thought he might have been making it up, because he was a little old for [an Iraq War] veteran. He looked at least forty, but I heard they’re taking anybody now pretty much; they’ll take people who are in their fifties even, and small and fucked up. So he could have been telling the truth—horrifying to me if he was. That guy was way too fragile, not just physically, but emotionally. Of course, God knows what happened to him really. But he was nuts and he was drunk, I think, too, so I felt really sorry for him for being basically beat up on the train. But I also felt bad for the other guy. I mean, these people really were on their honeymoon, and I can understand. I mean, this guy was much bigger, but all he saw at first probably was a hand grabbing his wife. So what was he supposed to do?
So that was a case where, no, I don’t know what it’s like to be that person, but the big guy, I can understand his emotions, I think. He probably was afraid at first. Because being a guy that big, and thinking, “My God, who is this son-of-a-bitch that has the guts to grab my wife’s breast right in front of me?…He’s probably got a gun.” [Laughs] Because I know, for big men, when someone messes with them like that, their first thought is, “He’s got a gun.” Because I think he wouldn’t dare otherwise. So they get scared. They’re going to panic and try to get out of a situation, or they’re going to come with everything they have. So when he saw that the guy was little, because I could see him standing there, I could see the surprise in his body. But he couldn’t come back down because he’d gone from one to a hundred very fast, so he grabbed him and threw him.
So even though I don’t know what it’s like actually to be them, the emotions I can identify very clearly. I may not have gotten all the details of their, you know, manner of speech or thoughts exactly, but the emotions I feel confident I can understand. Plus, I could see them having emotions right there. Also, I’ve been around people who are crazy, and so I feel like I can understand what it’s like to be unmoored from your rational mind, to go in and out of past experiences that don’t really have anything to do with what’s happening, but to have them kind of blurred in moments of extremity.
The older man was easier for me because my father was a veteran, so I just kind of hooked in with my dad to get him. But the younger man was harder for me somehow, because he was quieter and less expressive. I invented him, partly because I didn’t want the only veteran on the train to be crazy—or the only Iraq veteran. I didn’t want to seem like I was presenting them as all crazy, so I wanted a counterpoint there. Anyway, I guess that’s how I was saying, if I feel like I can understand somebody, I feel like I need on a basic level an understanding of their emotions.
But in “Don’t Cry” …why were you thinking that she was foreign to me? She’s a teacher. She has a life that’s very similar to me. She’s my age.

SH:We were thinking about the larger context of the story, and maybe the work that went into tapping into Ethiopia as a place, and as a place that actually is a kind of character in the story.

MG:Well, that was difficult too. I had some anxiety about that. I thought,Should I go to Ethiopia?I was going to be in Italy at the time I was working on it, so I thought,Well that’s not that far. Maybe I should actually get a ticket and go over there.But I’m not an easy traveler, and I wasn’t in a big city and I would have to, like, go to Rome and go from there, and I didn’t know anybody in Ethiopia, and I just thought I’d only stay a few days, how much would I really understand about it. I would have understood a little more, I think. But finally I decided it wasn’t worth the money and the energy it would have taken me to get there for one story. So, I had done a lot of talking to people about it and seen a lot of pictures. And the memoir I read wasNotes From the Hyena’s Belly. I asked people very detailed questions, like is there a characteristic expression that people would have that’s different, like a facial expression. Because I know in Holland or Sweden, I don’t remember where it is, some Americans told me they were confused, because, when most people here are in agreement with you, even if they don’t say anything, they’ll nod their head like this [Nods head]. Whereas there, in Holland or Sweden or wherever, they’ll go like that [Slowly shakes head]. People told me at first they found it very disturbing to have people constantly going like that [shakes head again] until they realized what it meant. I wanted to know if there was something like that that’s characteristic of Ethiopian people. Is there a characteristic affect? That’s where I found out about that sound, that intake of breath. That’s what somebody told me they do as a sign of agreement or acknowledgment or response. And was there a smell? What kind of things do people eat? What were the kinds of things you would see when you walk out on the street? I asked questions like that. And then when I wrote it, I had people who’d been there read it, several people. And a lot of little things were corrected.
There was one thing I didn’t correct which one person questioned, although the woman who told me this story originally of going there swore up and down that she saw this. But this one guy said he would find it very surprising if there was a woman outside of an orphanage with her baby dying.

SH:This might be a leading question, but with something like that, where someone objects to the believability of a situation, does the emotional logic trump the plausibility of it?

MG:It depends on how big a problem it is. Similarly, withVeronica, when I started I knew very little about the modeling world, so when I was done with it, I showed it to a couple of models to read, one of whom couldn’t finish it for whatever reason, but the other one read it all the way through. What I asked her was, “Is there something grossly unbelievable in here?” If something is a little bit unbelievable, that doesn’t bother me. If it sounds unlikely, to me that’s not a problem. Unlikely things happen all the time. But if it’s just impossible, then that would be a problem for me. There are a couple things inThe Human Stain, for example, that I don’t find believable, but Roth writes it with such conviction that he’s able to make it work. It’s a bit of a problem for me, a couple things that happen in that novel, but he’s nonetheless able to make you accept it.
I have a book I’ve been working on for a while, and I have a lot of anxiety about two characters, because I’m not sure how believable they are. And I just thought, “Well, if you really want it to happen, write it and worry about it later.” With Dickens’Bleak House, there’s a huge problem, but it doesn’t interfere with the plot really. We’re supposed to believe that Lord Dedlock is married to Lady Dedlock and does not know that she has had a child out of wedlock, that she’s had a child at all, that she was a virgin when she married him. Now that is impossible, when you think about it. The story is written so that you don’t even ask the question, but if you think about it for a minute, you’re shocked to learn this.

SH:That’s interesting, because there might be instances when a person might write something very autobiographical, something that’s just “the way it happened,” and then you show it to people, and they say, “There is no way that you went to court and the judge said this.”

MG:I know. That’s what’s weird. Outrageous, absurd things happen all the time. In “Don’t Cry,” what I was most worried about was that people would find it unbelievable that a poor man would return valuable jewelry. But that actually happened. That’s what inspired me to write it. I thought it was so moving. My guess is if it hadn’t been wedding rings he probably wouldn’t have. I asked the woman in question. She said she thought that it was because it was a time of emergency in Addis Ababa. Everyone was in an incredible place of heightened consciousness and fear. She connected with him because she was expressing such emotion. I’m sure some people will say, “He wouldn’t do that.” But I don’t care.

SH:In writing that story, why were you interested in adoption? Particularly, about American women going to Ethiopia to adopt a baby.

MG:It was just a dramatic situation to me. I’ve heard about it a lot. I’ve known a number of people who’ve gone to South America to Russia to Romania [to adopt children], and so it’s something that happens a lot now. There’s something strange about it. And it is largely because of the adoption rules in this country. I think it’s harder for a woman past a certain age, especially if she’s single. But it’s not impossible. You can adopt a child in this country.

SH:A few stories in the new collection seem to look back on the 80’s and 90’s. As a writer, do you think there’s a big difference between writing about something that you’re immersed in, as opposed to looking back from a vantage point? The difference between handling something like “Arms and Legs of the Lake,” as opposed to “College Town, 1980.”

MG:Well “College Town,” to reveal a not very important little quirk, is an older story. I’ve never done this before, but I wrote a version of it in the 80s, and I happened to find it because I moved. I found a box of old stories that had never been published, and most of them were terrible. But I kind of liked “College Town.”

SH:So did we.

MG:Thank you. I rewrote it a bit, because it was clumsy. But it is an old story. So at the time I wrote it, it was current.

SH:Comparing the writer of the first version of “College Town” to the one sitting here, what do you see as the progression or change in your work?

MG:I’m probably not the best person to answer that, because I can’t see it with any objectivity. I have a feeling of it, but it’s a feeling that’s very hard to articulate. The word that comes to mind, it’s a little bit of a meaningless word, if you don’t get the full context of what I mean, is: open.Bad Behavior, although I’m certainly proud of it as a first book, has a tightness to it. There’s a tightness and somewhat of a closed feeling.Because They Wanted Tois more open, less closed, but it’s very shaped and very wrought in a way, in ways both good and bad.Two Girlsis interesting because it’s kind of this big, crashing, hairy sweaty thing. WithVeronica, I remember feeling surprised when people compared it toBad Behavior, because to me it’s a really different feeling. To me, it’s very open, much more spacious.
I can have a feeling about them. But I don’t know quite how to articulate it. I think that the motion in them is more unfolded. People say thatBad Behavioris cold. I don’t think that it’s cold, but the emotion is very inside and hidden, in a way. InDon’t Crythe emotion is more fully out there, on the surface of the stories. I’m not sure. That’s my best answer.

SH:Another broad one: when you look around at the country right now, at the political and economic and literary landscapes, what jumps out at you as a writer? What worries or excites you?

MG:Oh, God. Well, I’m kind of horrified by it. But I think it’s partly my age. I think it’s normal for people who are older to look at the culture around them and suddenly realize, “I don’t recognize this. What’s happening? This is awful.” I remember my parents expressing feelings like that and it was just very clear to me that it was because they were older and they could no longer identify. So I can feel that happening to myself, somewhat. Yet I can recognize the advantage, the quickness of everything, everything seems really sped up to me. There doesn’t seem to be time for people to react emotionally a lot of the time. Kids sometimes say the weirdest things. I was shocked, actually, in a class last week when a lot of students didn’t seem to realize that a lot of what one of the stories was describing was cruelty. I think that it’s partially because kids are so attuned to watching television, which is so sped up compared to what it used to be. When we used to watch TV, there weren’t very many shows on. There were three major channels and two minor ones. And you would watch the show for fifteen minutes and then there would be a commercial break. The commercials were a minute long. Now you watch TV for five minutes, and there are ten commercials that are all like seconds long. That to me is so jarring. I think it’s really hard on the nervous system and it makes it difficult for people to feel fully. Their emotions are yanked around so rapidly, from one dramatic horrifying thing to the next. I think kids that are growing up now are used to that, but it’s hard for me to believe that it doesn’t have an effect on them. And it’s hard for me to believe it’s good. But maybe it’s not as bad as I think. In some ways, it’s advantageous to be able to do things very quickly, or find out a lot of things very quickly. Maybe it works for some people to have their brain working in three different ways at once.

SH:So, Mary Gaitskill: not a muti-tasker?

MG:[Laughs] Actually, more so than I used to be. I’ve seen the change. I’m now likely to talk to someone on the phone while checking my email, where I used to find that weird. Or sometimes, I’ll listen to music while I’m doing something else. Actually, I used to do that as a kid. I used to write while I had headphones on. Listen to music really loud. Then, as I got older, I stopped doing that altogether.
Other than that, I’m not sure of something that really leaps out at me, in particular. That seems big, though. You used to have to deal with the physical world more. Even when I was younger you had to get out and shovel the snow. There wasn’t a snow blower or a leaf blower. You yourself had to grasp the rake in your hands and pull the leaves. I still do. I don’t have a leaf blower.

SH:Do you still shovel the snow?

MG:Well, I did a few weeks ago and threw my back out horribly. I was glad when the snow blower guy came by, and I gave him twenty bucks.

SH:Along the lines of snow shoveling, reading also doesn’t seem to be as vital as it used to be. Do you think there’s any hope for books and writing in a world where people are on the internet all the time?

MG:I don’t know. That’s a question on my mind. I think there will always be people who like to read. There are people who love poetry, and poetry is almost non-existent. It’s much less read than fiction. So I think there will always be people who like to read books. Throughout human history, literacy has never been that high. For most of human history, only a small portion of the human world population read at all, let alone fiction. I think that the early part of the last century was the golden age of literature, because at that time, more people globally read. It was normal in most cultures for people to learn how to read. In the middle ages, most of the people did not read…For awhile, globally, there was a golden age of writing and literature, that’s probably going to pass out of existence. But I don’t think that it will go away altogether.

SH:It’s hard to remember that people did not always read.

MG:I don’t know. I’m sure the intellectuals of Dante’s time read theInferno. But probably very few people of the time actually read it. My opinion is not deeply informed, but when you think about how recent widespread literacy is as a phenomenon, it says something about how many people would be reading and caring about fiction.
But people told stories. I think maybe this is the bigger difference: During those times, people told stories, which is a different kind of literacy. They told old fairy tales, which I happen to love. Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm Brothers didn’t invent those. Maybe they invented some of them, and maybe they put their special spin on them. But those are ancient stories that have been told for a long time.
You know, I’ve never thought of that. That’s a big difference. Because even if you don’t know reading and writing, if you’re sitting with friends or with your family and telling stories, and they’re telling other people, that’s a very physical connection that you do not have with a computer. So again, that’s a lack of physicality of the world and also a change.
It’s really not a big leap from sitting and orally telling stories to writing them down. It’s different, but it’s not a huge leap. Perhaps movies are not a huge leap either. But it all gets away from connection.