In this week's paper, I interview the formidable Mary Gaitskill, author of the short story collections Don't Cry, Bad Behavior, and Because They Wanted To, and the novels Veronica and Two Girls, Fat and Thin (if you're one of the folks who got swept up in last summer's spate of Ayn Rand bios—or if, like me, you just find her fascinating, consider picking up Two Girls, which takes barely-veiled aim at Rand and her followers).
Gaitskill is touring for the paperback release of Don't Cry, which I reviewed here; she'll be at Powell's on Monday, March 8.
MERCURY: You’re about to embark on the paperback tour for Don’t Cry. Do you enjoy revisiting your old work?
MARY GAITSKILL: I don’t do it very often. I usually wait ten years or so after I’ve put something out to read it, because I feel like it takes me that long to have any objectivity. Sometimes I read things and I really do enjoy them and I feel happy that I did it; other times, I’ve read a few things that I find embarrassing and that shouldn’t have been published.
Your writing gives the impression that you spend a lot of time observing people and figuring out what motivates them. Is that the case?
It’s not that I observe people… I don’t go into a room and consciously set about observing people in an analytical way. It’s just that for some people, not everyone, I have a pretty high degree of empathy. By that I don’t mean sympathy necessarily, but I often am quite receptive to other people’s feelings, and I can read people’s body language pretty well. It’s not something I have to think intensively about. It’s second nature to me, almost. It’s not unusual, a lot of people are like that, I just happen to be one of those people that writes. When I sit down to write I have to then think about it a little more analytically, but in a social situation I’m not sitting analyzing people.
In the New York Times review of Don’t Cry, the reviewer notes that your writing “falls outside the domestic realism readers have come to expect from female writers.” Which I thought was a surprising comment from a female reviewer. What do you think about that?
I respond the same way that you do: I don’t know what she means by that, “to expect from female writers.” There are male writers that write in a domestic frame as well, and there are many female writers who do not. It also depends on how the domestic frame is treated. There’s an awful lot that can go on in the domestic frame. I'm reading a book right now called Agaat, by a South African writer named Marlene van Niekerk. It's a domestic situation, all right, but it’s extraordinary—it encompasses everything from the most primal, basic impulses that people have to the most refined social dynamics to the politics to the history. You can do a lot in the domestic sphere, so to speak of it as though it's somehow minor or inferior is wrong to begin with. And then to say "that's what you can expect from women" is also wrong.
In hardcover, Don't Cry has a misleadingly chick-lit-y cover. [As I noted in my review, "The innocuous packaging of Mary Gaitskill's new short story collection is the design equivalent of Mother Nature giving the adorable koala bear a set of enormous fucking claws."-AH]
I actually liked that cover. That kind of packaging doesn’t. … I’ve had book jackets I’ve really hated, but that wasn’t one of them. The original hardcover of Because They Wanted To had a giant screw on it, so it read “Because they wanted to…” I threw a fit, I tried to get them not to do it, but they gave me even worse covers—pictures of cannibalistic looking women stripping the clothes off of a screaming man, or a girl in a wet dress leaning over with her hands on her butt. So, I picked the screw. It was tasteful in comparison.
What are you working on now?
I'm almost afraid to talk about it because I don't know if I can do it or not, but I'm trying to write a young-adult novel about a girl and a horse. Which is absurd, because I don't ride, I don't know anything about horses, and the girl is from a social milieu that I also don't know very much about. I'm taking riding lessons to try to learn about horses—I'm actually scared of them, so that's a challenge. It may wind up not being a young adult novel, because… it’s hard. I have to write very differently than I’m used to.
Your work is known, fairly or unfairly, for being very frank about sex—but I guess you’d have to keep that on a subtextual level.
Well, maybe not… she is going through adolescence. But that isn’t what’s difficult, what’s difficult is that I usually have a lot of leeway in terms of using complicated language to describe complicate feelings states or perception. The vocabulary I can use when writing for adults is pretty unlimited. But this girl, in the span of the book she goes from 10-13, and I think children that age perceive very complexly emotionally, but they don’t have a complex language, not even to themselves. So that’s what’s hard.
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