On a pleasant October day, I had the pleasure of visiting Mary Gaitskill at the chalet-like abode she and her husband, another writer, share on Bard College grounds (despite neither teaching there).
Recently, she sent her publisher her most recent compilation of stories, Don’t Cry – her fifth book in two decades. Her initial publication, Bad Behavior, was a set of reports released when she was thirty-three.
Three years later, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, a novel, followed. Then, Because They Wanted To, another story collection, and, nearly a decade later, in 2005, the novel Veronica was published – a narrative about a former fashion model and a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Gaitskill’s name has been associated with degrading and erotic sadomasochism and female frailty mainly due to the movie Secretary, an adaptation of her short story. Nevertheless, her themes are much more complex.
What is truly remarkable about her is her capacity to capture the essence of human yearning and tribulation, and to comprehend the complex mix of drives in each action we make.
In her work, Don’t Cry, the author offers an insightful perspective on America and its citizens. For example, one narrative follows what happens in an airport between an elderly widow and a fatherless child in the midst of the Iraq War.
Another story follows a single woman who, accompanied by a friend, goes to Ethiopia to take a baby home. Throughout, there is a persistent feeling of loneliness, a yearning for connection, moments of grace, and a feeling of being lost.
When I got to her house around noon, she presented me with plentiful cookies and apples, as well as some tea. We sat at a wooden table in the dining area for more than two hours, facing each other.
Her atmosphere was both delicate and strong, her voice was kind but firm, and her gaze was always direct. She would laugh a lot, her attitude being both attentive and cordial.
— Sheila Heti is the author of this piece, and she believes that we all have to make our own decisions and create our paths in life. She states that it is not possible for somebody else to determine what is best for us and that we must go through our own struggles and dilemmas in order to find our own way.
She emphasizes that we should not rely on outside influence to make our decisions but rather find our path and make our own choices.
SHEILA HETI inquires whether Henry Miller’s “vital thing” in writing applies to her as well–something that needs to be present for her to write in a way that is closer to her authentic preoccupations and authentically expresses herself. Miller never reveals what exactly the “vital thing” is.
When Mary Gaitskill was first interviewed upon publishing Bad Behavior, she didn’t know how to answer questions because she hadn’t necessarily thought analytically about her writing process.
When she heard herself on a live radio show with Michael Silverblatt, and there was silence, she was horrified that she sounded stupid. Thus, she began to cultivate a method of responding to interview questions thoroughly.
Upon reflection, however, she now believes that a more intelligent response is silence because people often don’t know what they are doing until after they have written it. The process is not necessarily thought-out and analytical.
To put it another way, if the writing is of any quality, I believe that it has a spiritual element that’s inextricably linked to the writer on a very intimate level. It’s almost as if this energy is coursing through the text itself, and that’s what makes it come alive.
Consequently, most writers do not have a very favorable outlook on writing programs. While you can certainly teach the technical aspects of writing and foster an appreciation for it, you simply cannot impart a soul or spirit if it’s not already there.
Do you consider this skill a blessing? Do you believe that it is something that is beyond our understanding?
MG commented that many critics don’t write about it due to the fact that they do not comprehend it. He continued to say that even when they are conscious of this, it is hard to express as it takes place under the skin of the characters or the plot of the story.
I have found when teaching a class, I like to read a passage from Bleak House describing Lady Dedlock. She is presented as a flat character, one who is cold, rigid, and self-tortured.
The narrator, as well as her words and actions, consistently portray her in this manner. Yet, her introduction is in a setting of a vast, wet, and strange world, one that gives her powerful, female energy.
This is not something easily understood by many writers, as she is depicted as a static playing card, yet also representative of a primitive power and a mix of death and fertility.
SH: Is it something that many authors usually overlook in life?
MG stated that a lot of people lack the ability to express their emotions in writing, despite them being felt.
Sec. II. Writing by Hand
SH posed the question of how much control the writer has over their characters, citing Nabokov as an influence and bringing up his idea of them as “galley slaves.” He wanted to know whether the writer has an idea of what will happen in their stories before they start or if the characters have their own minds.
Occasionally, I have zero clue about what the story I’m writing will be. Other times, I may have a faint notion of it but no idea how to get started.
Then, I get an image that, for some bizarre reason, gives me the means to start the story, but then I must feel my way through and make notes on what I want to take place in the next part or what I would like to talk about.
SH: Do you jot down your writing manually with a pen and paper?
In the past, I only used longhand for my writing, but I’ve become partially dependent on a computer. For the last couple of stories, I composed the entire thing on a computer. I’m not sure if I’m happy with this transition.
SH: In what ways is it different?
MG found it easier to write on the computer than in the longhand, especially when feeling blocked and frustrated. Taking a seat at the laptop felt more informal and liberated. It’s unclear why the difference exists.
SH: Do you find the casualness appealing or not?
At times, when I’m having difficulty getting words on the page, I’m willing to write longhand. This method of writing gives me a chance to really explore my own being, as my handwriting is so personal.
Typing is preferable for revision purposes, as it allows for a distance between me and my work. I’ve noticed something else practical as well: when I’m writing longhand, I’ll often write something then decide it’s awful and cross it out, only to later decide the original was actually better.
On a computer, I’d just delete it, so now I make sure not to delete, it but instead put it in brackets and write a second idea. That way, I can look back and decide which of the two was better.
SH asked if it was possible to return to the same privacy that a writer had before their first book was published and if it was difficult to write again after Bad Behavior was released.
When MG was writing Bad Behavior, they had a sense of liberation due to their mindset of “It’s okay, it doesn’t have to be good, no one will look at it.” At the same time, once the book was published, they were more self-conscious of the fact that people would be reading Two Girls, Fat and Thin.
They felt that the third book was the most intimidating since they were unable to anticipate how people would react to it. MG expressed the fear that if the third book was not successful, they would be “dead.”
What about Veronica?
MG found a sense of liberation when they released their book after so long. They felt that they were not as popularly recognized as before, so they were no longer under a microscope. This gave MG the freedom to create and express whatever they pleased, even if they thought that it wouldn’t be well-received.
SH queried, “What is the rationale?”
MG was concerned that the changes in time within her writing might be disorienting for readers and cause them to become impatient. To reduce confusion, she tried to make sure the images would link together on a subconscious level.
Fortunately, this seemed to work as few people found the transitions confusing. Still, she was apprehensive that her work might be perceived as overly sentimental or overly mystical.
SH asked why the sentiment was there.
MG commented that sentimentality is false-feeling to them, however, people today appear to mix it up with the demonstration of intense emotion–which is undeniably present in the written work.
SH: Were any comments made that it was overly sentimental?
I didn’t invest much time into analyzing the feedback, however, my general feeling is that it wasn’t a critique.
SH: Why haven’t you taken the time to read them?
MG believed that most of the voices he heard would be harmful; however, he was not in a place to welcome the input of others at the moment.
SH: Could working on other matters distract you from your task?
SH: Are you concerned about deadlines? If the article you’re crafting is taking a long time to complete–
My concerns have been increasing of late that I am being too small-minded. In many ways, the rate of history appears to have accelerated, and things seem to change more quickly.
When I wrote Veronica, it was during the 1990s, so I wanted to ensure that I updated the point of view to match the current age. However, I was also content to include references to the 80s and 70s.
SH: Could the lack of brand names and pop-cultural figures in Veronica be attributed to a particular reason?
MG often brings up names like Doris Day and Jo Stafford in her work. However, she dislikes it when authors just throw names around as she believes this implies a specific response from the reader that not everyone has.
Therefore, if her characters respond to, say, Judy Garland, then she will describe what she looks and sounds like to provide a more profound experience for the reader.
Throughout the world, there is a common understanding that specific rules and regulations must be followed for progress to take place. Such understandings are applicable not just in a single country or region but universally.
SH: After going through all your books and then experiencing the world, I noticed slight changes in people’s opinions and how emotions can fluctuate so quickly. Every tiny act affected another in some way, and I went through life with an increased awareness of this. Does this reflect how you go through the world?
MG has always been a shy, socially awkward person, and so when Bad Behavior was released, it was quite a shock to find herself in such sophisticated social settings. People expected her to be witty and have an X-ray vision of the situation, but that wasn’t the case.
She explained that when she’s writing, she will take the time to think about the situation or individual, but she doesn’t do that all the time. Sometimes people will catch her attention, and she will focus on them, but it’s not a regular occurrence.
SH: Could you elucidate your fundamental outlook toward people you encounter? For instance, if you walked into a room or attended a gathering, do you have an entire demeanor towards other people in the world?
MG: [ Appearing to be a bit on the defensive side ] Is there anyone who could respond to that query?
SH remarked that they have a tendency to appreciate the uniqueness of people, beginning with admiration and then getting gradually refined. Ultimately, their primary attitude is curiosity and the assumption that the person they interact with has admirable qualities.
MG commented thoughtfully that her attitude and mood change depending on the context. For instance, she would be in a different mindset if she went to a classroom or to a cocktail party.
She stated that in the past, she tended to be very guarded. To illustrate this, she shared an anecdote of someone telling her that when she meets people, the door is locked and only opens if they say something to interest her. This metaphor made her laugh.
The process of breaking up into components or fragments is known as dissolving. This process can involve either a physical or chemical reaction. The material is separated into smaller pieces in physical reactions, while in chemical reactions, different substances are created from the original material.
In both cases, the original material no longer exists in its original form, having been changed into something else.
SH: I’m interested in the process of creating your titles. Do you have a habit of devising multiple options before you settle on the final one? Because They Wanted To is an example of a marker I adore.
MG expressed that the title Bad Behavior was not one of her creations, although it holds a lot of importance for many people, so she is content with it.
SH asked if the publisher was responsible for it.
MG mentioned that her boyfriend created the title they were talking about.
SH: Could you tell me what your job title was?
I wasn’t entirely pleased with the title I chose, but I would have instead gone with Bad Behavior than what I eventually settled on.
SH: What is it called?
MG had the desire to call it Daisy’s Valentine.
SH: [Chuckles] Right. Would you consider the characters you act out to be representative of the average person or extraordinary cases – if there is such a concept as an extraordinary one?
MG: I don’t believe these are particularly out-of-the-ordinary cases. I’m not particularly experienced in writing about these sorts of scenarios. Generally speaking, my characters are not too far-fetched. If one is curious about extreme cases, one can look to newspapers for more information. [ Chuckling ]
SH: In a review of Veronica, one critic characterized a model as “the single most explicit expression of physical, superficial beauty in a contemporary setting.” Do you think this is what a model is to you?
MG: In a word, yes and no. The concept of death and an assortment of illnesses is a great focus in the book. It is an unavoidable truth that all humans will experience some level of physical decline and eventually pass away.
It is peculiar how we come into the world through another person’s body in a distinct, small shape, yet with the same kind of life force as everything else living. Our physical traits are unique; our eyes, noses, and mouths are all so individual, as are our faces and voices.
These differences make us unique and attractive, not just in looking like a model but in the diversity of human forms.
It is tough to understand that we come from something vast and unknown and eventually dissolve into it. People attempt to make the most of their time here and make it permanent.
They attempt to find truths that will always be true, such as Rome and America will last forever. The fashion industry defines beauty in a way that is seen as permanent and absolute, yet it is not.
A young teenage girl, born into this definition, must feel powerful and excited to have been given such importance. Yet, the pressure and confusion it brings can be difficult for someone so young and still developing.
In the ’90s, when the author began writing the book, this model idea seemed to take on a monstrous and grotesque importance, which had not been as significant in the ’80s. It appeared to be the ideal for many young ladies to aspire to, which the author found absurd.
She believes that this has changed somewhat today, although she is not up to date with the current popular culture.
The role of a spouse is often a fundamental element of many relationships. It is essential to recognize the responsibilities of this role, such as providing emotional support and companionship.
Being married can bring a great deal of joy and stability to one’s life, but it also requires patience and understanding to maintain a healthy relationship.
SH: Have you ever felt that you would instead have been a male rather than a female, or have you been content with your gender identity?
MG suggested that being a male may have been more suitable for their personality. As a child, they had desired to be a boy, as playing with dolls did not interest them. Most of their friends were sensitive and timid.
Despite this, they grew to appreciate the charm of being a female. It was puzzling to comprehend sexuality and the reactions of others, yet it did not frighten them. Ultimately, they did enjoy being a woman.
However, they were conscious of and irate about the unfairness towards females and how they were treated.
I am pretty envious of men for this particular reason–it is still valid, although not as much as it used to be–, they can get help from their wives when they get married. Take Nabokov, for example.
He was an exceptionally talented writer and would have been a great writer no matter what. But do you know all the things his wife did for him? She drove them to the store, dealt with the landlord, shoveled snow, and typed and edited his manuscripts.
Even though many women today don’t go to the same lengths, they are more likely to provide support in other ways, which is highly beneficial. The same is true for Virginia Woolf–she would have been an accomplished writer anyway, but she too had a lot of help, particularly from her husband, Leonard. This is something many women do not have access to.
Furthermore, the amount of work involved is immense due to the societal expectation for women to bear and raise children. Men can certainly experience the joy of fatherhood and the love that comes with it, but they are not commonly expected to do most of the childcare.
Even if they desire to, typically, the bond between a mother and her children is stronger than the one between a father and his.
My spouse and I have a very supportive partnership. However, we sometimes make jokes about who will take on the role of the wife! Who is the wife? Could someone please assume the role of the wife? We trade off being the wife in some ways, but we would secretly love to have a wife.
Would you admire someone who was married to you?
MG argued that while they would appreciate him, most women would find it difficult to accept, while men don’t seem to have that issue.
It would be difficult for me to feel a strong sexual appeal to someone doing everything for me.
MG suggested that the primary relationship between Virginia Woolf and Leonard was not always the same; however, they may have had periods when it was.
Is writing a goal for those who don’t want to have children?
MG expressed that he never wanted to have children until his forties. At forty-one, he got married and started to consider it. His sister had kids when she was forty-three, and he believed he could have too.
However, they were both in a financially difficult place, and he had to teach, plus he was writing Veronica and could not give that up for ten years. He admitted to feeling sad about it, as children are a wonderful gift for women.
He also stated that not having a child was another way he could not imagine how it would feel to be a man.
SH: Is it more of an expectation for men than women to assume a specific role in the world?
MG commented that, traditionally, the concept of having to ‘prove’ masculinity had been widely accepted. However, they also pointed out that there is a lot of pressure on women to demonstrate their femininity by having children.
If a woman chooses not to have children, they are often seen as having failed in their role as a female.
SH: I am fond of the Susan Sontag line, “The simplest thing for me is to pay attention.” What would you say is the most natural thing for you?
MG expressed that they find sitting and letting their mind wander very nurturing. They appreciate that type of activity.
One technique in writing is to employ repetition as an effective method to convey a point. This strategy can involve repeating words, phrases, or sentences to emphasize the presented idea.
Repetition keeps readers engaged and can emphasize the main point of a piece of writing.
In the interview for Because They Wanted To, you mentioned that at one time, you believed it was inappropriate to direct a reader in terms of thought, though you now don’t feel it’s so terrible.
With Veronica, you convey the emotions of the characters even more. What inspired you to make this choice?
MG mentioned that experiencing the power of writers like Dickens was like waves crashing over you–mentally, emotionally, and even profoundly emotionally.
As one grows older, the same occurrences can be seen; an experience is encountered, and then it returns to be understood from a different angle. Eventually, it can come to a point where it almost breaks the person apart.
The timing of when to introduce a new wave of emotions in a fiction book is paramount. It must be when the reader is ready to be overwhelmed with their emotions, almost as if their feelings are being answered.
SH: Is there a lot of redundancy occurring in your life?
SH: Is the formation of one’s character a result of their own making?
MG mentioned that the nature of certain things is also a factor.
SH inquired if it was confirmed that the number of experiences could be had was limited.
Regularly, you may become so accustomed to the exact situations that it can pass without you noticing or even leave you feeling confused when something unexpected occurs.
Individuals frequently establish themselves in a cycle; an event occurs, injures them, then something similar happens, and– it appears to be a reoccurrence! It is then perceived to be bigger than it is, and they become anxious and start to anticipate it will happen again.
Thus, sometimes people think certain events are repeating themselves even if they are not.
The eighth principle of human rights is that everyone should be entitled to dignity. This means that people should be treated with respect, no matter their background or beliefs. Everyone should have the right to have their identity, beliefs, and opinions respected.
SH: Is having the capacity to select what one does closely related to having dignity?
MG commented that dignity is involved here. He then referred to the story “Secretary,” which features a character that behaves degradingly. This person was instructed to bend over and then spanked, resulting in a complex reaction. She was both aroused and embarrassed at the same time.
The character obtains a sense of dignity in that when a reporter contacts her after she has left her job to write an expose about her boss, who is running for public office, she simply hangs up.
She is believed to be no older than eighteen and needs to understand why she does not want to cooperate fully. Some might think that her low self-esteem stopped her from denying the offer.
However, she opts not to testify against her boss because she feels that, to some extent, it was her decision too.
This understanding is instinctive and not necessarily rational, yet she knows on some level that what happened resulted from her and her boss’s choices. This is what I consider to be dignity.
What would you say shame is?
MG: It’s intriguing to contemplate what shame is. I find the most accurate description to be that guilt pertains to our actions, while shame is linked to our identities. If something is out of our control, we are not likely to experience embarrassment because nothing can be done.
When we are guilty, we can attempt to make up for it or not do the same again. On the other hand, if shame is connected to our being, it is more difficult to change, as it is a part of us.
SH: The characters in your stories often find an appeal in the unsightly traits of others, which is not something that is commonly seen in popular culture. Typically, characters are shown to admire beauty, kindness, and generosity.
MG believes that popular culture is not shy of loving people who are hideous. For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer falls in love with Angel, another vampire. As another example, Tony Soprano is a murderer, although many people still love him.
Even Dexter, the serial killer, has an audience in the US. Individuals are drawn to the ugly parts of people, but the good aspects are often intertwined, creating an exciting feeling. People are likely responding to this and not necessarily the aggressive and cruel characteristics.
SH: The story “Mirrorball” from your recent collection is astounding. I haven’t been able to get the boy’s and girl’s souls out of my head–it’s almost like a new fable about the complexities of relations between the sexes.
It’s a great example of what your writing conveys–that there’s so much going on within us that we don’t understand. Our lack of attention and sensitivity is a kind of tragedy, a tragedy of our bluntness that weakens us, even if we aren’t entirely to blame.
I was initially unsure where to place “Mirror Ball,” but now, after reading multiple sources, it seems that three people, in particular, have enjoyed the song.
Do you have any recollection of the initial narrative you composed?
MG: If I recall correctly, it was during first grade when I heard the story about Billy Blue Jay. He created a nest and felt alone, so he searched for a female companion. Eventually, he encountered Betty Blue Jay and asked her to stay with him. She agreed, and that was the end of the story. [Laughs]
SH inquired if a group of people was present when the task was completed.
MG: I was intimidated when I was asked to read to two young boys who had been placed in detention after school. They were likely in the second grade. However, I viewed them as potential juvenile delinquents.
I couldn’t look up at them – my gaze was focused on their feet – and I spoke in a soft, mumbling tone.
SH inquired if the recipients were pleased with the item.
MG: Absolutely! They were so kind. They responded with, That’s positive.
Sheila Heti would like to make an addendum to her web postscript: Following the interview with Mary Gaitskill, she was generous enough to provide a paragraph that she authorized to be reproduced in this publication, which can be found here.
The ability to quickly and accurately identify a person’s emotions is valuable as it supports understanding and communication. Recognizing how someone feels in a particular situation helps provide insight into their point of view and can aid in fostering constructive dialogue.
Consequently, the capacity to detect emotions is an essential skill that can boost interactions with others.
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