One’s Body is an Animal: A Conversation with Mary Gaitskill

Writer Mary Gaitskill. Image via Aesthetica Magazine.

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To, and Don’t Cry, and the novels Veronica, Two Girls Fat and Thin, and, most recently, The Mare. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

Mary very kindly took the time to talk with me on Thanksgiving, and over the phone we spoke about writing generating new perspectives, universality in literature, the issue of teaching style, and insidious censorship. This interview was conducted in collaboration between Sampsonia Way and Aster(ix) Journal.


In your essay “On Not Being A Victim,” you write against an assumption that stories should function as an instruction manual, that readers need a certain kind of moral universe reflected back to them. Do you have any strong feelings, though, around the notion of literature as a vehicle for opening up new perspectives—writing across something like race or class, to engender empathy from people of a different background. Is it simply a good thing if it happens, not necessarily a failure if it doesn’t?

I think any real literature creates “new perspective” whether it’s writing across race or class or not. I think that if you write across race and class, and if it happens naturally because that’s your story, it’s good, or can be. I think people try to force it when they’ve got an idea in their head that that’s what they should be doing to make that happen. I mean you never know, people are motivated by all kinds of different things.

I think how art gets created is very complicated, and a lot of it’s a matter of the individual person—what makes them move. As for me, I tend to think that if you’re trying, if you’re saying to yourself, “I’m going to open up a new perspective about a particular group of people,” it’s probably going to be a bit artificial.

But, when I wrote The Mare I did something I never believed in before.

“I think how art gets created is very complicated, and a lot of it’s a matter of the individual person—what makes them move.”

Twenty years ago, when I first heard conversations about how you must write stories about Latino people for Latino audiences, and that you must give positive role models and positive characters, I thought that was the stupidest thing in the world. I thought, “That’s ridiculous, how could people need that?” But then I got to know this little Latino girl and through watching television and movies with her, I could see how important it was for her. She didn’t have to say it; she didn’t say, “I really want to see Latino characters,” but nonetheless I did feel her perk up when Latino characters came on the screen—which wasn’t very often.

That actually began to bother me; I began to think, “well where are these Latino characters? Where are they?” Take Mean Girls, that Lindsay Lohan movie set in Southern California, which begins by listing all the cliques that are in the school: white girls, Asian girls. I thought: Where are the Latino girls? If there were any there didn’t seem to be enough of them—especially considering the location. If it was set in Michigan I could see it.

So because of her I began to feel differently on the subject, and I did partly write The Mare for that reason, something which would have been inconceivable to me twenty years earlier.

So your own personal experience made you notice this dearth of representation more?

It became meaningful to me in a way that it hadn’t been before. That wasn’t the only reason I wrote the book, at least it wasn’t only conceptual, but it really was something that came from a very emotional place and it happened almost spontaneously. I actually resisted the idea when I first got it.

In terms of writing across race, I remember being at Bennington College when Saeed Jones gave a lecture. He talked about doing work from a life point of view, the kind of work of going out into the world and encountering people who don’t share your background. Is there anything you feel strongly about when it comes to writing across race, in terms of research and making sure you get things right? Did you have readers who checked things out for you along the way?

I did, I felt like I had to. I had more readers for that book than I ever had. I don’t normally show my work to that many people while I’m writing it. It’s a pain in the ass for whoever you’re giving it to: Here, read this huge manuscript.

But in the case of The Mare, I had a Dominican teenager coaching me on the language—the kind of slang and expressions that would be used—because while I felt I could understand the feelings, the language is obviously important. At the same time, I didn’t want to try and write like Junot Diaz, with such a heavy use of Spanish and slang, because I didn’t feel I could even with help.

I had to learn how to ride in order to write the book, and I also had horse people read and double-check things to make sure I got things right, because the horse world was quite unfamiliar to me.

Some of your earlier work—like the story, ‘The Other Place”—has a protagonist who doesn’t feel immediately likeable. We have this amazing scene where he’s recalling how he almost murdered a woman, and he gets an erection thinking about it while also comforting his young son: though extreme here, this coexistence of violence and tenderness is something that exists in us all on a varying scale, and I’m wondering if universality—giving the reader something they recognize in themselves to latch onto—is really key for you?

I think that’s something that will happen if you’re writing about people in a close way. I once read a book by Cormac McCarthy called Child of God. I’m not a tremendous Cormac McCarthy fan, but I loved Child of God even though it’s ridiculous and almost comical. The protagonist is a mentally disabled, necrophiliac serial killer, like a John Waters character. But I felt enormous empathy for this character, which really surprised me simply because McCarthy stayed so close to him physically and to the things he was doing—he rarely got into his head or his emotions.

It’s like this story I heard about someone tracking and photographing animals in Africa. When he was close with the lions, he was really rooting for them to catch an animal, and when he was close to the zebras he was really rooting for them to get away. You tend to identify with what you’re looking at very closely.

You tend to identify with what you’re looking at very closely.

I read in an interview that you have an interest in weaker people, people more mixed in nature – which is something I’m really interested in as a reader. Would you elaborate on what you mean by “weaker people”? I felt you weren’t talking about a wounded surgeon type, who overcomes obstacle and has lots of redeemable qualities, but maybe people who just don’t have the right stuff to make it in the world?

I actually think I am drawn to people who just don’t have the stuff to function in the world, and I don’t know why. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I find them mysterious and often more courageous than seems apparent. Their perspective is what I might call a “new perspective”, because they are truly despised and invisible people; they have no common language, no community will ever exist for them. And I think there’s more of them than people want to know about. They exist in every culture, every race— they’re everywhere. Maybe some cultures make it easier for those people and give them a little more space, and others are more brutal towards them, but I think they’re everywhere and, I have a lot of empathy for them because I feel like I could have been one of them very easily.

I’ve been thinking about how themes develop over the course of a career. You’ve described The Mare as a different way of expressing themes you’ve worked with in the past – specifically love or intimacy that doesn’t fit into socially approved forms. “The Secretary”, for example, shows people experiencing intimacy in terms of brutality, violation, submission. And more recently in The Mare, the love between Ginger and Velvet, while warm and maternal, is also not socially sanctioned. Could you comment on why this has taken so many forms in your work?

I guess it’s been an issue in my life, as I tend to be drawn to difficult relationships or relationships that don’t entirely make sense. I also bridle against the idea that love has to be a certain way, and it probably does—I’m probably just wrong because you have to fit with some sort of social schema, whoever you are. Some people have a lot more leeway than others, but what really irritates me is that for women it’s even more demanded that they fit into that social schema. But I sometimes wish that things could be different than that, that the emotion of love all by itself could count for more.

With Ginger and Velvet it’s very simple: Velvet is not Ginger’s child. And she’s not superficially like her, she doesn’t live in the same neighbourhood. If another woman lived in the same neighbourhood, spoke the same language as Velvet’s mother, and they became friends, it’s very possible she could be accepted as a sort of honorary mother figure; but, given the different location, economic class, and race, it’s very hard to make something work in that situation. To me, it’s sad because sometimes the deeper bonds don’t come with a social similarity and you can’t see them right away.

Very few people have commented on the role of Pat, the horse trainer. She’s somebody who has a strong relationship with Velvet, though neither one of them really think about it that way. It’s not so much based on personal love: Pat doesn’t want anything from her, she doesn’t really concern herself with Velvet’s problems; they have a very practical relationship, no baggage attached to it at all. She’s as important if not more important than Ginger, but it’s partly because she’s not trying to relate to her in terms of emotional love. Pat is most interested in Velvet because she has a talent that Pat understands, and is good for the barn.

I wonder if you could comment a little further on the role of motherhood in The Mare, the different styles of motherhood and the judgement women still face in relation to how they go about being maternal. Ginger and Silvia have very different approaches to mothering Velvet, and there’s a sense throughout that people are judging Ginger because she’s able to kind of dip in and out, while Silvia is often judged for her harshness. Was presenting these “opposing” poles of motherhood something you wanted to do from the outset?

It was sort of both. I always intended for Sylvia to love her daughter, it’s just that her love is compromised by how she had experienced love herself, how harsh her life was and how harsh she believed she had to be, and how harsh she felt Velvet had to learn to be. But I got more into her point of view as I wrote it. I don’t know if I expressed her point of view as well as I did Ginger or Velvet, but I did feel more empathy for her the more that I wrote the book. Ginger’s experience was hard too, more so than I was expecting. But she’s also compromised by how she’s experienced love; that is connected to a lot of disrespect.

A lot of women hold your work so dear because of the varied faces of women’s experience you represent, for example: “The Agonized Face” and the “dark orgasm.” I have this quote of Maggie Nelson’s from The Art of Cruelty about the story: “Who would want a world in which everything nice were partitioned off from everything horrible…Who would want a feminism that lessened our apprehension of such difficult existences?” I wonder if you’d comment on how you see women’s experience being represented in literature right now?

I’m probably not well read enough. I haven’t read Maggie Nelson, yet.

I will say this: I don’t like a lot of contemporary literature, from America anyway, because especially with women it seems like there’s a premium placed on charm, humour, and cuteness. Even when the subject matter is supposedly dark, the voice is often so chirpy and so manic. It’s not that I have anything against humour, “The Agonized Face” is meant to be partly funny, but the humour is always so similar, always so much alike. I find it kind of grating even when it’s self-deprecating, or dealing with stuff that might be gross. Way too often it’s like the writer wants to be charming. And I just don’t think charm is very important in art. At a cocktail party, yes.

Do you know the Chinese writer, Yiyun Li? She lives in America. I love her. I haven’t read all her work yet—I’m a very slow reader so it takes me a long time to read all of anybody’s work—but I tried to teach a story of hers in class the other day, and I said I can’t see an American writer writing a story like this. They tried to argue with me about that, but I really can’t. There’s probably someone out there I just don’t know about it.

What was it in particular you felt American writers wouldn’t be doing?

She’s serious. And she’s down to earth, she’s earthy. She looks at the world around her, rather than looking at herself looking at it. And while I wouldn’t say she has no interest in her characters being liked by the reader, I don’t think that’s her first concern; whereas I feel that for Americans it’s the number one concern—along with being funny.

Li is not trying to be funny, though there are moments of humour in the story; her writing does not try to cut the pain with jokes. “Self-serious” is now one of the worst things that can be said said about a writer. I see nothing wrong with taking yourself seriously any more than there’s something wrong with making fun of yourself. But taking your characters seriously and your story seriously is not the same as taking yourself seriously anyway.

I don’t think I’m even immune to it. I read Bad Behavior out loud recently because it was being made into an audio disc, and I was going, “Ugh, this is so cute! So irritating! Why did people like this so much? Why did people think this was dark? This isn’t dark! It’s cutie pie.”

I don’t mean to disparage Bad Behavior completely, I could see good things about it, too. If I’d forgotten I’d written it and I was asked to review it, I wouldn’t give it a terrible review. I’d think it was a good first collection, but I would have some critical things to say. I wouldn’t think, “This is so dark and terrifying,” I’d think that it errs too much on the side of too much sweetness and light.

Do you find it formative, in other ways, going back over older work? Do you ever see anything you might return to?

No, I don’t think I could do that. I remember a couple of years ago I was talking to a friend, and I was kind of worrying about my writing, and she said, “Go back to Bad Behavior.” I just said I can’t do that, which is true. I don’t know what she meant by “going back,” but there is no way I could go back, how would you do that? I was in my twenties when I wrote those things.

Forgetting that it’s a title it’s a great life mantra – it sounds very restorative.
I remember reading something you said about people previously being able to trust their bodies more, whereas now we’re being constantly stimulated by illusion; our embodied experience isn’t our way of double checking reality anymore. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the “continuous feed” on social media: you’re getting new hits of information every couple of seconds. Do you have any thoughts on whether this constant onslaught of information will impact how we read, or how we write, like a more pervasive conditioning going on? Or do you think literature will always find its readers?

I do think there’s a more pervasive conditioning going on, because there’s so many opinions—not that I’m void of opinion. But it’s true: there are like 50 opinions if you look up a book online. There’s just opinion-opinion-opinion, and there’s usually a dominant one. There’s always been critics, of course, but you used to discover them much more slowly and there were fewer of them. So you were more likely to just approach the book by yourself, rather than having instant access to fifty different, very strong, elaborate and well-argued opinions about it. What particularly astonishes me about things like Goodreads, is the amount of time that people spend writing a review—it’s like pages. I’ve been told that people on these sites are practicing to be critics and that’s the only explanation for it.

I know, they’re so dedicated.

Especially about books they don’t like; reviewers will say this book is so boring and then spend three pages explicating why. Why would anyone spend that much time on something they think is boring?

So I wanted to ask you about censorship. I’m Irish, I live in Ireland, where women have no reproductive rights. It comes up in conversation a lot, a sense of creepy censorship on our bodies, which extends into women’s narratives, and certain narratives which are labelled as confessional. I’m wondering if there any external voices you experience as censorship on a personal or editorial level, or if you’ve learned to shut those down?

The time I’ve been most aware of anticipating or hearing external voices was when I wrote my second book. With my first book I didn’t have that problem because I didn’t have readers before, except for some friends who didn’t particularly like my work. But when I published the first book and it had readers and I knew the second one was going to be read and commented on, it did affect me. It did paralyze me a bit. I was afraid of offending people. I was much more aware of how I might be perceived, and how certain phrases might be perceived. It was not a good thing.

I made a conscious effort to throw it off, but in my case it wasn’t so much about what men or more conservative people would think; I was more worried about what feminists and people who are gay might think. I felt perhaps that was more the people I cared about, and those people were perhaps more my natural readers.

It was hard to think of displeasing them which was not something I had considered before. If you know people expect a certain thing of you, even if you’re a very independent person, part of you will want to give it to them.

So I do think I’ve been affected by that, by an image of me that’s out in the world, even if I don’t like it or feel that it reflects me very much. I think it probably in a subtle way or at certain times has influenced how I’ve written, and I don’t know what one can do about that.

I think that one’s body is really like an animal.

In relation to that, I read something Claire Vaye Watkins wrote online about how there was a little white man in her head. And it was telling her what to do, influencing her. She felt hobbled by it. But she also talked about how she had gotten a lot of support from white male teachers in workshops, and I thought, “She’s really talking about workshop culture.” Workshop culture habituates people to getting feedback very quickly. And if it’s white men, well that is what is going to be in your head. As I experienced it, this could be the same problem with some other group: a little gay woman or whoever.

Again, it’s partly that mass feedback that you see online too; you become habituated to immediate feedback. If you’re the kind of person who’s likely to have somebody in your head—and I think it’s a personality type as well as anything, not in terms of it being good or bad, just some people are more prone to it—well, the workshop culture is really going to heighten that.

I’ve been thinking about the MFA structure in terms of style, how it’s something that calls attention to itself the moment it’s contrived. (I have a lot of style and not much else.) Would you agree that style is something that can’t necessarily be taught? Does it speak to you one way or another, as a professional writer and someone who’s taught?

I think style is very important. I don’t think it’s simply decorative . It’s basically the horse that everything else rides in on: It is your outer form, the first thing people become aware of.

And I agree, you can’t really teach it. I think that if you have students who have a natural affinity with your style—an affinity between yours and theirs—you can certainly be encouraging and offer guidance. But if that affinity is not between you and the student, it’s going to be pretty difficult because then you can only comment in a very building block type of way on the structure, when you think a character is convincing or not, or when you think it might be better for a certain action to happen, again all of which is opinion. But this is also hard, because how all those building blocks interact with the style is very mysterious.

When a person is stylistically connecting with their material they can make the reader believe in something that’s actually very improbable, which is something that a person with a less acute style wouldn’t have been able to. So, it matters a lot and it’s hard to communicate with someone who has a radically different approach stylistically.

This is one of the things about writing programs that’s difficult and problematic: they aren’t very programmatic. A writer can have a very good relationship with maybe a handful of students, maybe even a great relationship with some students, and be helpful to those students, but you can’t count on that to happen class after class, with all twelve students who happen to be in the class. It’s just not going to happen.

So writing is an act of self-expression, and not everyone in the world can express themselves without fear of consequences. I’m wondering if you think the act of writing is unavoidably, implicitly politicised?

I’m not a very political person by nature, but I’m very worried politically now about expression. Before the election, when Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump were working toward a final result, I remember expressing horror: I was very worried about Donald Trump winning. I thought he could. I felt optimistic at some points, but I remember saying to somebody, “Well, I guess the positive side would be we’d be witnessing a very, very chaotic and violent period in American history. We would certainly have a lot to write about,” and then I paused and said, “Not that it would matter if there was no one to publish it and no one to read it, no world left to appreciate it.’

Say a book like Lolita, if it was in a different context, if Nabokov had been writing that in a different culture, it could have been banned and never seen the light of day. It could still be seen as political here, because it expresses something about male sexuality that can be seen as horrific: that a great many men find very young girls blindingly attractive whether they act on it or not. Some people see Lolita as a celebration of that, some people see it as a condemnation, and nonetheless it does have a political aspect to it simply because it was allowed to be published and spoken of seriously.

The fact that I get published too and that people read me in a certain way is political as well. I don’t know how to parse that. I often get seen as really anti-male, and people have talked about me in a very weird, vicious way, both men and women. I’m not sure why, but clearly there’s a visceral sense of affront at my point of view that could be talked about politically if you wanted to. I’m not doing a very good job of answering your question.

No you are, I think you’re saying is that there’s always going to be political interpretation—the structures that we’re acting within are implicitly political—as is who gets read and why.

It’s something I’m not very sophisticated about, and I haven’t had to be really, because I think that regardless of how nasty some people might be, women are allowed to write about sexuality quite a lot—almost more than men. It’s more threatening when men write about it for obvious reasons.

I almost think that men tend to suppress themselves now in terms of what they feel is acceptable. I think they worry too much about being offensive or being dominating or something, and I think that’s regrettable. I don’t always like the male old-school writers, though I do really like a lot of John Updike. When I’ve tried to teach him in class, people really hate him and they react to misogyny, but he’s writing from a very real place. You don’t have to like and endorse it as a way of living, but if men are afraid to write like that, that’s really fucked up because it doesn’t change who they are. That still may be their genuine experience. I would rather have men writing about it openly than hiding it. But I think women should be able to do that too and they don’t, women are also very concerned about behaving in some way or being the way they should be.

There’s a quote of yours from your interview with Guernica that I love: “My body is like a good horse. I trust my body.” Are you talking about gut response or instinct? And is this something you’d encourage young writers to embrace, or is it an instinct you’ve come to trust over time?

I think that one’s body is really like an animal. It knows what hurts, it knows what feels good—sometimes both. But it responds to very basic things, it doesn’t lie or over-complicate. Your emotions and your thoughts are very connected to your physical being. Certain thoughts will make you feel hot and angry. Certain thoughts will make you feel frightened. It’s a very clear reaction.

For me, my mind can get confused sometimes, because I tend to be drawn to contradictory thoughts, and I tend to be drawn to things that really perplex or even irritate me, and I almost compulsively tend to look at a lot of different sides, which can be good or again can be too confusing. I can think very clearly, but I often have to sort through a lot of confusion first. And my emotions too tend to be that way, tend to be over-responsive and too fast: I come off I think as cooler than I really am. I think I said in that interview that emotionally my heart is like a five year old, it just reacts too much to things and gets over-excited; whereas if I feel my body hesitating, there’s probably a good reason for that. My heart will shout and run across the street in heavy traffic, but if some part of my body is hesitant, it will stop me. It will protect me and I trust it.