Mary Gaitskill is the writer of three story collections, three novels and, most recently, a book of essays called Somebody with a Little Hammer. She was my teacher last summer at the New York State Writers’ Institute, where my classmates and I hiked, ate several kinds of fruit pie right out of the tin, and, most importantly, workshopped each other’s manuscripts. In class, Gaitskill shared her favorite stories by Dickens and Nabokov and listened closely as we discussed each other’s work, occasionally disagreeing, or pointing us in a different direction. We spoke again over Skype last fall, while she was teaching in Pittsburgh and I was back at Brooklyn College.
Monika Zaleska: I’m interested in how you write these minute changes in behavior between people, especially in romantic or sexual relationships. For example, in “The Blanket,” Valerie and a younger man, Michael, are innocently playing out their fantasies with each other, but then there’s this shift. After she tells him she was raped, he stops the car on a dark street, thinking that they’re still joking around or that it’s still part of the fantasy. To her, it’s not. I wonder how you approach writing these shifts in relationship dynamics.
Mary Gaitskill: The relationship in “The Blanket” is a particularly dramatic situation because they’re in a realm that can be treated playfully, or can suddenly become serious, so the small changes matter in a way that they might not, say, in a student-teacher relationship. A student may disagree with something I say, but we’re not in a dark car together talking about rape. What I’m more interested in is the relationship between fear and excitement, how something scary in one context can be exciting or playful or funny in another. In his mind, he’s still in a place where they’re fooling around. To me it’s interesting how dark and light can be interchangeable sometimes. Feelings blend into each other in unpredictable ways, especially feelings like aggression and excitement and love and hostility. It’s very mysterious, and can be scary.
MZ: You delve so deeply into the emotional lives of your characters. How do you balance developing that emotional landscape with the larger action of a story or novel? Which comes first for you when writing?
MG: I don’t know. I do spend a lot of time on characters’ internal thoughts. I feel like that’s where my strength is, and it’s hard for me to translate it outward into action. That’s a challenge for me as a writer.
MZ: You also seem interested in characters that have trouble communicating, or that have frustrated or conflicting emotions that are hard to pin down.
MG: The people in my stories, in Veronica or in The Mare, don’t have a strong social grounding. Like in Veronica, for Alison to be friends with another model, that would make sense in the world. But for her to be friends with this older, socially unattractive woman, Veronica, doesn’t make social sense. I think she feels a deep affinity for Veronica because they’ve both been wounded, and they have both occupied worlds where their external appearance is very important. For Alison it’s the fashion world, and for Veronica it’s styling herself in these weird sweaters she wears and her intense make-up and hair. It’s an affinity that isn’t obvious, but it’s there.
In The Mare, people are always telling Ginger that she has nothing in common with Velvet or her mother. Here’s a middle class white woman who has a relationship with an impoverished Dominican girl and she keeps being told you can’t understand her, your life is too different. In a way it is, but in another way, it’s not. Ginger feels out of touch with the world around her. She can’t understand the people around her or be understood by them. She’s looked down upon by them, and that’s similar to the experience that Velvet’s mother is having in her neighborhood. She literally can’t understand. She can’t speak English. It’s a more serious situation because she feels physically threatened, perhaps even more than she really is. Velvet is also having a lot of trouble socially connecting with the people around her. All of them are people that don’t really fit in. They have a deeper connection, but the social, external connection doesn’t make sense to people. I write about that a lot, people who have instincts to connect that aren’t supported by the outside world, and that’s hard. Harder than people realize sometimes.
MZ: In a novel like The Mare, why do you think it’s crucial for the story to be told from many different perspectives? There’s the voices of Ginger and her husband Paul, who take Velvet in from the Fresh Air Fund for inner-city kids, and take her horseback riding for the first time. Just Velvet spends summers with them upstate, yet you also include her mother Silvia’s voice and her little brother Dante’s.
MG: Well, partially because I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole story in the voice of a Dominican girl. I know enough that I could tell part of it, but I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole thing from her point of view. Just of the sake of reality, I felt I had to tell half of it from the middle-aged white person’s point of view. But also, part of the story is about how the different people see each other, and try to understand each other, and do so very imperfectly.
MZ: Did you always know you were going to include the younger brother Dante’s voice in the book, or did you think writing in the voice of an eleven year old girl was challenging enough?
MG: I didn’t initially think of doing anyone but Ginger and Velvet, and then Paul crept in in a natural way, and I thought he was a good counterpoint to Ginger. He could say the things that Ginger wouldn’t say to herself or think about. Much more reluctantly did I include Velvet’s mother and I was really uncertain about that. I didn’t think I could do her. Yet I felt that you were hearing so much about her that if I were the reader I would want to know what she thought. And then Dante came in from the side. I don’t remember how I made that decision but I’m glad I did. He’s one of my favorite voices.
MZ: I think it’s really interesting to see how a child sees the developing drama of the novel in both a simpler and more complicated way.
MG: Yeah, he’s definitely a wise-ass and I like that about him.
MZ: So why the reservations about writing Velvet’s mother?
MG: Because she’s so different from me. She’s close to my age—she’s younger than me, but she’s not significantly younger— and her life is totally different than mine. Velvet’s life is different too, but at least Velvet grew up in this country. She’s Dominican-American, but also she’s American, basically. She listens to pop music and watches the same TV shows I do. She comes from a different cultural place than me, but it’s not radically different. She’s impoverished, but she reads and writes, whereas her mother is someone who has grown up in a different country. She’s in a poor neighborhood and she’s responsible for the care of two young children. I can only imagine the sense of stress and fear you would feel not only for yourself but your kids. You are in a dangerous neighborhood, and because you can’t understand what people are saying, you don’t know the rules of that neighborhood. She doesn’t like black people and so she is possibly more afraid than she has to be. That’s a level of stress that’s hard for me to understand.
MZ: Do you worry about being criticized for trying to portray someone so different from yourself?
MG: Somewhat. I’m afraid it could be seen as insulting, or just simply unaware. I was concerned with it.
MZ: I wonder how you negotiate those feelings as a writer. I often have them myself and wonder what my own limits of understanding are when it comes writing other people’s experiences.
MG: I ultimately decided that if I do a poor job, people can say so. It will be clear. I’m not going to do any terrible harm to anyone, though there might be people who disagree. But it could be seen as just stupid. If it is, I don’t think it’s going to harm anyone except me and my credibility.
MZ: At the New York State Writers’ Institute, you read from your story, “The Agonized Face,” about a woman at a literary conference attending the talk of a feminist author. The feminist author criticizes her bio in the conference program, which focuses on the more salacious aspects of her life, such as her brief time working as a prostitute. Our narrator is confused by this feminist author, by how she is both vulnerable and outspoken, both victim and champion of womankind. I’ll admit that I also wasn’t sure what to take away from the story.
MG: People still have so much trouble with women’s vulnerability and strength. Really the trouble the narrator is having with the feminist writer is that she’s someone who appears to be a know-it-all, but is also very vulnerable. Look what happened to Marilyn Monroe. People adored her, but she died early. She was treated badly and not respected in her time. The feminist writer is no Marilyn Monroe, but she’s a woman who is presenting as vulnerable while trying to be very much in control. And if there’s something that story is about, it’s about even other women’s difficulty in coping with that. The sexuality of women still throws people because it’s so fluid and open.
There’s a story by David Bezmozgis that I teach often called “Natasha.” It’s a really good story, but it always gets my students riled up, the undergrads especially. Some of them hate her and think she’s a psychopath or monster. Other people think she’s really an unfortunate girl, and that the he’s really horrible and takes advantage of her. I don’t think either one is true, though I’m more on the side of her being a very unfortunate girl. I don’t think the narrator is taking advantage of her, though I think he doesn’t know how else to be. Natasha seems to be in control. That’s how she presents. In some ways she is, and in other ways, she’s not.
MZ: That story sparked a heated debate in our craft class at Brooklyn College as well.
MG: It always does. It’s partly because people are still mystified or don’t know how to respond to a woman who is both very powerful, which Natasha is, even at the age of fourteen, and very, very vulnerable and clearly has been badly hurt.
MZ: In our class this summer, we started talking about a philosophy of writing. I remember you came in with some notes, but then you became hesitant to present anything to us as a philosophy of sorts, and we ended up talking about how style shapes writing. Do you think having a philosophy of writing is helpful?
MG: As a writer, I don’t think you have to have an articulated philosophy, though I think most writers do, whether they know it or not. I think I was hesitating because I’m not sure how current my philosophy is or if my students need to hear what I have to say. I don’t know that it’s going to help them get published or move forward in their writing. Nonetheless, I have these opinions and feelings that are important to me. But if I wasn’t a teacher I would have never tried to find a way to express them verbally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Monika Zaleska is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Review. Her work has appeared in Lenny Letter, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Rookie Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel.