Mary Gaitskill’s knack for writing about the social and physical world with unapologetic clarity has led to her style being described both as “cold and brutal” and “tender and compassionate.” Tyler considers her works The Mare, Veronica, and Lost Cat to be some of the best and most insightful American fiction in recent times. And lately she’s taken to writing essays on Substack, where she frankly analyzes “subjects that are vexing everybody,” including incels, Depp v. Heard, and political fiction.
She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons some people seem to choose to be unhappy, why she writes about oddballs, the fragility of personality, how she’s developed her natural knack for describing the physical world, why we’re better off just accepting that people are horrible, her advice for troubled teenagers, why she wouldn’t clone a lost cat, the benefits and drawbacks of writing online, what she’s learned from writing a Substack, what gets lost in Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita, the not-so-subtle eroticism of Victorian novels, the ground rules for writing about other people, how creative writing programs are harming (some) writers, what she learned about men when working as a stripper, how her views of sexual permissiveness have changed since the ’90s, how college students have changed over time, what she learned working at The Strand bookstore, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded September 6th, 2022
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m very pleased to be chatting with Mary Gaitskill, who is one of my very favorite contemporary writers. I love her books — The Mare, Veronica, Lost Cat — her essays, her short stories. Mary, welcome to Conversations with Tyler.
MARY GAITSKILL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
COWEN: One thing I find so intriguing in your writing is your understanding of people who just seem to not want to be happy, flat out, such as Velvet’s mother in your novel The Mare. These people — what’s your understanding of why they aren’t happy or why can’t they be happy? Why do they process everything so negatively?
GAITSKILL: Well, could we talk about one character? Because I think they’re all different.
GAITSKILL: What is that Tolstoy said? All happy families are the same; all unhappy families are different. I don’t think all happy people or families are the same, either, but I think the reasons that people are unhappy, or why they seem to just go to that place really easily, are quite varied.
I think, if I could come up with a general reason — not talking about my characters right now, but talking about people — I think people who seem like they just want to be unhappy or are incurably unhappy — it doesn’t have to do with what they want. It’s usually because they’ve been hurt very early on, and not just once or twice. There’s a persistent pattern of them encountering enormous adversity.
It doesn’t have to be social. It can be in their family. I guess that is social, but basically, they’re very injured, and so their strategy for life becomes how to protect themselves or how to cope with what they see as just a nonstop barrage of shitty experiences. And so that puts them in a posture that they — certainly without intending to — invite that.
In terms of Velvet’s mother, that’s not what’s happening. She really, truly has had a rough life. If you’re in a foreign country, and you cannot speak the language, and you’re in a dangerous neighborhood, and you don’t even understand the social signals that are being sent by the people around you, and you’re in a social group that’s really looked down on, and you don’t even know how to respond to that or you have no means to respond to that — that’s hard.
If you put on top of that, that she’s come from a very rough circumstance — there’s a little about her backstory there — you’re going to be in a posture of real defensiveness and just locked in. And that makes it very hard to move with any joyous energy, which is what her daughter learns in the book in riding horses. That’s her exposure to a free and joyous energy which she doesn’t get anywhere else.
COWEN: In the general case, is it a desire to be preemptive so you feel in control of the pain?
GAITSKILL: Partly, yes, but it’s not even that thought out. Have you ever seen cats? Sometimes I’ve had situations where I’m introducing a new cat to a household where there are going to be three other cats. I’ve had the situation where two of the host cats are aggressive and they “grrrrr.” They’re ready to fight with the new one. I’ve seen two different responses. One, I had a fairly confident, dominant cat. She knew she couldn’t fight two cats, so her strategy was just to sit down, stretch out her paws, and look the other way and yawn. That defused the aggression.
Another cat was just super reactive, just howling and fear. “Don’t come near me. Don’t come near me. I’ll scratch your eyes up.” They always went for that cat. Because of her response, it magnified the aggression. It’s something like that. It’s like getting yourself into a position of being prepared to be attacked that can draw not only from people, but it almost supercharges any negative situation. Not that I’m blaming the people. Velvet’s’ mother, like I said, is in a bad situation objectively.
COWEN: If we’re trying to understand such people, there are literal answers to the question of why they’re unhappy, and then there are what you might call fictional portrayals of why they’re unhappy. Do you think we need both to understand those people? And do the fictional portrayals add to the literal answers?
GAITSKILL: When you say the fictional portrayals, you mean in the heads of the unhappy people, or literally fiction somebody like me would write?
COWEN: Someone like you would write a character out. Does that add to our literal explanation of why these people are unhappy? Or is it just mirroring what you might say?
GAITSKILL: Part of what I want to do in writing about some characters — not so much Velvet’s mother, but also people like Ginger, the other woman in this story, who seems to have a much better life, who actually does have a much better life. Her suffering is more she’s a lost soul, in a way. With somebody like that, I’m not trying to literally tell people how they should understand them, but what I want is to acknowledge that many people like that exist.
Also, I think part of Velvet’s mother’s problem is that, not only she doesn’t fit in with her own community — she, in a way, is like Ginger. They’re both oddballs. They’re both very sensitive people in their own ways, and there are many, many people like that on Earth that, for whatever reason, have a great deal of trouble fitting into the world around them, even if it’s not a bad world, and that’s really hard.
It’s not that I’m trying to say, “Here are the reasons why, and you should understand.” It’s more like I want you to feel those people. I want the reader to feel them, and that’s something that’s more unconscious almost. But I think that I want to create almost a feeling that you’re in the room with that person, and instead of dismissing them quickly, you open your psyche and just feel them. That’s ideally what I’m wanting to achieve.
COWEN: Why are we all to be pitied? You said that in The New Yorker once, I believe.
GAITSKILL: It’s hard to remember the context. Perhaps I meant because we’re all weak little creatures, finally. Even the strongest of us is going to either die violently or age and get sick and come face to face with our weakness and the fact that we have no idea who we are or what we’re doing here. And we’re not aware of that most of the time because we’re just moving around in the world, but on the deathbed, the things we think were really important may not matter very much.
Our personality may not matter very much. Everybody is very connected to their personality. Well, I guess maybe a few people are not, either by design, either because they want to look past their personality, or they’re crazy and their personality is disintegrative. But most of us are really into our personalities.
I think, at certain points in life — say you were really sick or were really disadvantaged, or you’ve been beaten up badly by somebody, or something — we realize our personality is actually quite fragile, and it’s just a construct really. I think that’s scary for people. I hope I’m not answering at too great length. It’s just a big question.
COWEN: Yeah, great.
GAITSKILL: I’m doing the best I can. I was once with a woman in her house, and her son was there, and he was a big strong kid, like 21 or something, and he really worked out and was a strong guy. And she was trying to tell him to be careful about something and bad people in the world. He’s, “I’d like to see somebody who could” — he used the f-word — “fuck me up.”
I didn’t say anything, but I’m like, “All it’ll take is somebody with a gun, and you’re dead.” He doesn’t know that, and he doesn’t feel that. He probably knows it in his head, but he doesn’t because he’s so strong in the moment. He’s not always going to be like that.
COWEN: Sometimes in your self-accounts, you claim to be confused by social situations, yet in your novels, I would say your remarks are extremely insightful into character and into the human condition. How do you put all that together into one unified theory of Mary Gaitskill?
GAITSKILL: I don’t have one unified theory of Mary Gaitskill.
COWEN: Do you have a disunified theory?
GAITSKILL: No, I’m not into . . . This is too complicated. That’s too big a question, but it’s certainly true that I’m often confused in social situations. Those are very different from sitting by yourself and writing. I can have a great deal of clarity if it’s either a character I’ve completely invented, or I’m writing partly from life, partly from fiction, or it’s an essay about something that really happened. I’m just completely in my own point of view. I understand my own point of view, usually pretty well, and that’s very different.
If you’re in a room, even with two other people, and you’re dealing with other people — not just their point of view, but their whole psyche and presence and tone of voice. Plus, on top of that, if you don’t know them, there are social rules and conventions. Those are what I have trouble with. I often don’t read those correctly, though I’m much better at it than I used to be.
Anyway, they’re two different things, so that’s how I may come off as — in fact, may be — very knowing in my own writing, but it takes me a while to understand what’s going on socially, sometimes.
COWEN: As you know, many 19th-century novels — they focus on social structures rather than individuals. Could you ever imagine writing such a novel?
GAITSKILL: I’m not sure, because of that very reason, that I don’t think I understand, say, the education system. That’s the one I understand the best because I’ve taught in universities, but even that, I don’t pay much attention to the bureaucracies of those things. I could learn about them, but on a profound level, they don’t interest me, and I wouldn’t want to write a story about that world, probably, anyway, or a whole novel — a story, maybe.
Other settings, I simply don’t know enough about them, and it would take a very long time to research them adequately. I have seen people write about things like that that I don’t think they know about them either, and it doesn’t stop them. But I think that would be the main difficulty I have with that. To me, it’s not the highest possible goal. It’s a high goal, and there are people who do it brilliantly, and I admire those people, but I don’t feel like you must do it if you want to be a valid writer.
COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader, and I quote. “She has an amazing attention to the physical, you might say to sensual detail. The smoothness of a seashell, the hairiness of a horse’s leg, the inherent virtue of a beautiful pair of flip-flops. How did she develop this quality?”
GAITSKILL: Thank you for the observation. It comes naturally to me. It’s the way I do understand the world. I understand people that way too, by looking at them that way. Not entirely — I understand them by their words and actions as well, but I think people tell the truth with their face much more than they do with their words — and their tone of voice, and the way they move their body.
Also, to me, that’s a bigger world than the social world, in a sense. It’s a very mysterious world that we come from, this raw matter. The social world’s certainly important, but it exists in that bigger world. To me, that’s where I’m more naturally attuned. The social world comes out of that, in my opinion. I feel like I can’t claim to understand that natural world. I don’t understand it like a biologist would, certainly, but it’s very natural for me to go there, though I have developed it as well. I have consciously developed it as well.
COWEN: How do you practice that?
GAITSKILL: Just by looking at things and asking myself, “How does that look?”
COWEN: Then do you draft and redraft, or it just flows out, and then it’s there on the page, and you’ve got it?
GAITSKILL: I usually have to draft and redraft. It’s very rare that I don’t.
COWEN: You once quoted your therapist as saying, and I’m quoting him here, “People are just horrible, and the sooner you realize that, the happier you’re going to be.” What’s your view?
GAITSKILL: [laughs] I thought that was a wonderful remark. It’s important to note the tone of voice that he used. He was a Southern queer gentleman with a very lilting, soft voice. I was complaining about something or other, and he goes, “People are horrible. They’re stupid, and they’re crazy, and they’re mean, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be, the more you’re going to start enjoying life.”
I just laughed, because partly it was obvious he was being funny, and it was a very gentle way of allowing my ranting and raving and acknowledging the truth of it. Gee, I don’t know how anybody could deny that. Look at human history and some of the things that people do. It was being very spacious about it and just saying, “Look, you have to accept reality. You can’t expect people to be perfect or to be your idea of good or moral all the time. You’re probably not either. This is what it is.”
I thought that was really wisdom, actually.
COWEN: At the margin, what should be we doing more of to help troubled teenagers? More therapy, more medications, something else?
GAITSKILL: Wow, you like to ask big questions. I could answer that if you presented me with an individual. I can’t answer that. That’s not my field, for one thing, but also, even if it was, I don’t know if I could . . .
I think the broadest answer that a lot of people, including professionals, would agree with is, the problem is this can’t be implemented. If there was a way to limit social media, I think that would help. If there was a way to get people more physically active and more grounded in their body, but you can’t have mass meditation classes for teenagers. I can’t picture that at all.
People are so different. Some kid might be very amenable to the idea of learning some kind of meditation technique or breathing technique or get interested in martial arts or something like that, but you can’t say, “This is what everybody needs to do.” I think if there was a way to get people more grounded in their bodies, that would help, and not so fixated on social media. The problem is that no one can figure out how to implement something like that on a mass basis.
COWEN: A very specific question. For how long will you look for a lost cat?
GAITSKILL: It depends, again, on the situation. I looked for the one cat that I lost for months, probably about a year. Possibly even more than that. No, I think I actively looked for maybe nine months, but I was still keeping my eye out for months after that. There’s another cat I lost. Most of my cats, when I lose them, I find that they come back. But there was one I didn’t, and that was really terrible, and I looked for a long time.
Then there was another one. I didn’t look as long for him, and I’m not sure why. Maybe a couple months.
COWEN: At what point do you feel justified in replacing the lost cat? You might still be looking, but you say, “Well, I need to move on. I’m going to get another cat. If this one comes back, I’ll have an extra.”
GAITSKILL: I wouldn’t justify it. It’s just what I feel compelled to do.
COWEN: What do you think of the people who clone their dead or missing cat to produce a replacement? This happens in South Korea fairly often, right?
GAITSKILL: Put it this way: It’s not something I understand. It’s just not something I understand.
COWEN: But if you miss your cat, and you’re attuned to the visual cues of your cat especially, and you want what you think will be the same cat all over again, you clone it.
GAITSKILL: I can’t.
COWEN: You can’t?
GAITSKILL: I could not understand that as the same cat, no. It’s because it looks like the cat? It’s not the same thing. I can’t grasp how anyone could see that as the same animal.
COWEN: Is it worth it that it looks like the same cat?
GAITSKILL: I don’t know. It’s just incomprehensible to me.
COWEN: Should socially awkward people focus on writing online?
GAITSKILL: Again, that would depend on the person. I think, for some people, it might actually be very helpful to them for a while. If it helps them connect eventually to a physical world, then I think it’s great. I think some people — that might be, say, somebody who lives in a place where there’s no one who shares their sexual orientation. Say they’re queer, and that’s really not an accepted thing to be where you live, so you go online, you find people like yourself, and you realize, “If I go to a different place, here’s some people I could know ahead of time.” That’s great.
Even if you’re in a more subtle situation, where you don’t belong in some discrete category that’s looked down on, but you are just really awkward, and you have a hard time meeting people and fitting in, it might be good for you to be online for a while, just to feel like, “Oh, there are other people here I can connect with. I can connect with other human beings.” If that supports you in somehow getting out in the world, then I think it’s excellent.
But if you’re like one of the many people we’ve read about, that that becomes the only thing you do, and it actually makes it harder for you to connect with real people, obviously, that is a disaster. Apparently, that happens a lot.
COWEN: What are the dangers in getting such rapid feedback on your writing all the time if you’re writing online?
GAITSKILL: I am.
COWEN: Sure. What’s the danger of the rapid feedback? It drives you crazy, you get too upset, you always feel you have to respond, you can just ignore it, or . . . ? For you.
GAITSKILL: For me, it’s that I feel like I have to respond. It’s not even that I feel I have to. I know I don’t have to, but if somebody says anything at all interesting, I want to respond. It’s very difficult for me not to respond because I’m curious, especially if it’s somebody who’s saying something that is very different from people I know in life.
I have a couple of people on my Substack who comment every now and then. They don’t usually speak in a political way, but occasionally they do, and I learn they’re actually Trump supporters. I know very few. In fact, in my personal, I know one person who may be a Trump-supporter-ish person, but I know very few people like that, so I’m right away quite curious about that person. I don’t engage them politically, usually — or once I did. It’s interesting to me, if I don’t know a type of person, to have that opportunity to connect with them a little bit that way.
COWEN: What have you most learned about yourself, your own writing, from having started a Substack?
GAITSKILL: I have learned something, but I’m not sure I can articulate it quickly: that it’s refreshing. It’s been refreshing to me to be in a writing situation where I’m not so careful about what I say. I go over it sometimes and see I’ve made ridiculous mistakes in terms of dropped words or incorrect grammar, but it’s worth it because it’s freeing to have that uninhibited flow with people.
I don’t know if I can say exactly what I’ve learned, but it’s definitely been something. Also, it’s been interesting for me to see how social media can be very positive in some ways because I’ve always been extremely wary of it. It’s the first time I’ve been on anything like social media, but people — there’s politeness to it.
The thing about social media that everybody knows is, it allows people to be really awful in a way they wouldn’t in person because it’s easy to be really insulting and gross if you don’t even have to look at the person’s reaction or deal with the fact they may want to punch you in the face. But there’s another thing I’ve learned: that people can also be much more polite for exactly that reason. You don’t really know who you’re talking to, so you don’t want to quickly assume something about what they’re saying.
If I’m with the person, and they say something, one, I feel like I have to respond quickly. Two, I may jump to conclusions based on old habits or old ideas about the type of person I’m looking at. But if I don’t have any of those cues — it’s just something they’re typing — first, I don’t have to respond quickly, and two, I’ve sometimes started to be really sarcastic in my responses to people. Then I’ve looked at it and realized I don’t know if this person is meaning to be sarcastic to me. I don’t know if this person is joking.
Somebody said something, and I almost typed, “I hope you’re joking. You’re joking, right?” Then I looked at it again and realized I don’t know that he is. I want to clarify, so I’ll ask a question first before I come in with an immediate response. I’ve noticed most people are very polite, maybe for the same reason. That’s been really interesting.
COWEN: Why did you recently pause your Substack?
GAITSKILL: Oh, because it was . . . Here’s the down part of it. To get the quick responses does supercharge my mind in a way that’s both good and bad. It’s stimulating, but sometimes it’s stimulating in a way that’s weird. It’s jangling. It’s almost like your brain electricity is crossed with other people’s, and it’s just too much, and it doesn’t have the grounding quality that it would if you were actually seeing those people and talking over drinks or something.
There’s a physical reality that comes from just being with people, even if there’s a lot of stimulation. There’s something that’s hard to articulate. There’s an animal quality of comfort if you’re really with them. Even if you’re quarrelling with them, it’s still that grounded, real quality. You don’t have that when you’re just communicating online. It’s just this electrical connection, which is, to me, a little is jarring. I think it is for a lot of people.
I thought maybe it’s just because I was old and not used to it, but when I published that — I needed to stop because I’m getting overstimulated — a lot of younger people, like former students, emailed me and said, “Yes, that’s how I feel.” That surprised me.
COWEN: Why is Lolita such an intriguing novel for you?
GAITSKILL: Probably the same reason it’s intriguing for a lot of people. One thing, it’s incredibly beautiful. The beauty is not simply decorative. It’s to take you to a really deep place. Again, like that physical reality that I’ve talked about before. He has an extraordinary ability to render the complexity of the physical world and to deepen whatever his story is about by really drawing you into that and making you understand the vastness of the world, and also how it’s informing all of the people and the feelings, the weirdness of the complexity, the yearning of, say, Mrs. Haze and Humbert and Lolita for some kind of profound connection, and why it’s leading them to behave in horrible ways.
Lolita’s innocent; she’s a kid. She’s not developed enough to be horrible, but the adults are — what they’re doing, and what their needs are that is drawing them into these intricate ways of just evil, actually, and yet enabling you to feel their humanity in the way they respond to the world around them. Also, the way it makes you feel in this extreme case, like Humbert is a monster, but he also has elements that we can recognize.
I can’t say a developed answer quickly, but I wrote about it— how I feel that it makes us, again, in that very subtle, subliminal way, without thinking it out — unless you have to write an essay about it — that it makes you understand the relationship of pure feelings of love with all the terrible things that people are, too — the rapaciousness, the jealousy, the cruelty, the greed, the selfishness — all of those things that human beings have can also be in very close proximity to our desire for love and our drive to love other people.
It can be really hard for everybody, whether you’re having a pedophiliac impulse at all, and it can be with your sister, with your brother, with your friend, with your parents — this really complex relationship of the feelings of love with all these other really dark elements. I think that’s what ultimately makes it so powerful.
COWEN: Do you agree that the Kubrick movie of Lolita is quite disappointing?
GAITSKILL: I haven’t seen it for a long time. It’s certainly not as good as the novel. I think it’s very hard to put that novel in film because so much of it is about such precise internal observations that you just can’t put on film. It doesn’t work.
COWEN: Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” — why is it interesting to you, and how do you read it?
GAITSKILL: I need to really think these things out before I can answer them well, but I think it’s very much about . . . Again, for those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a terrible story in a lot of ways. It’s a totally fantastical idea of someone from another country coming to visit a penal colony with an absolutely bizarre society, seemingly, although it’s quite recognizable. If you think about it, it’s quite real.
One of their rituals is, the prisoners there have a set of impossible rules. They’re governed by an elite set of people who have plenty of money and leisure. If they break any rule — for example, if you’re supposed to sit outside an officer’s door and wake up every half-hour and salute him, and if you fail to do that, then you have to be strapped facedown onto this machine, which will very slowly, over a period of 12 hours or something, write with needles on your back the rule that you’ve broken. Sometimes they’ll just write it. Other times, they’ll write it until you’re dead, until your body is basically broken.
The main character is a guy who just loves this machine, thinks it’s the most beautiful, holy thing in the world. He’s enraged because the liberals in his society are trying to banish the punishment. He’s trying to persuade the visitor to write something or to say something that will make them realize we must maintain this sacred institution of torturing people to death in front of a crowd, including children.
That sounds familiar right away, when you think of medieval times, or times in history when people have been tortured to death, including in this country — lynching, and witch-burning for the amusement of a crowd or the edification of a crowd. What’s amazing is he actually locates you in . . . He makes the officer who’s pushing for this weirdly sympathetic. That’s one of the amazing things about it, that even though he’s evil in some way, he believes in something in a way that nobody else seems to. The prisoner and the guard — the person who’s guarding him — are oafish figures, stupid oafish figures, like animals almost.
You’d have to read it to see how he accomplishes this, but it’s quite remarkable. Also, to me, it’s such a complex story. It’s almost like a dream. It almost exists outside any rational thinking. It comes from that deep place that nature comes from, almost. It’s also, to me, about how people really — not all people, but there’s a big part of humanity that craves irrational, authoritarian governance.
That’s part of what I think makes it powerful. It’s why people vote for dictators and why people support dictators. Some people crave that. It’s beyond dominance. It’s just someone telling them what to do and having a heavy hand that will govern them in a way that’s truly brutal. Some people want that, and it isn’t about masochism in a sexual way. It’s beyond that. It’s very weird.
COWEN: Which do you think are the best Norman Mailer writings?
GAITSKILL: I haven’t read all of them. I haven’t read, for example, The Executioner’s Song, which some people think is his best, although other people think he actually got somebody else to write that. I have no idea.
COWEN: The first half is amazing, I think, but then it somewhat falls apart. I think it’s real Mailer, and it’s worth reading.
GAITSKILL: Yes, I should. I’m very poorly read for a writer, actually. I actually love The Naked and the Dead. It’s nowhere near as sophisticated as his other writings, or as weird, but it’s quite powerful and beautiful, especially the opening — the innocence of the soldier who’s getting off the boat and has no idea what he’s walking into, and gets shot within moments.
Anyway, I really liked Armies of the Night, and it’s a horrible book in some ways. I really have enjoyed An American Dream. It’s so kooky. I read some other ones that I’m finding difficult to recall. Oh, The Fight, I thought, was very interesting. I don’t know if I think it’s great, but it’s interesting and has some great moments.
COWEN: Harlot’s Ghost is surprisingly good, I think. You feel it has to be too long, but somehow it isn’t.
COWEN: If you think about your own writings, there’s some inner body to them that makes them appealing to other people. Did you have a self-conception of what that inner body is?
GAITSKILL: You mean a strong character?
COWEN: There’s some strength on the page or vividness of feeling that, I think, sets you apart from any other writer. Just what’s your self-understanding of that?
GAITSKILL: I don’t know, because it’s something that I would take for granted. It’s hard to understand it really. I think you’re talking about what I described in one of my Substack essays as an inner weave that I think good work has. It’s almost like a vision of life that the writer isn’t even aware of when they’re writing it, because it’s so integral to them. But if they are connecting their vision of life with their actual style — the words they choose — it can be quite strong, like Nabokov has that incredibly. All great writers have it, and even good writers have it.
COWEN: Now, in some of your writing, there is sex, not sexual scenes explicitly. But if you think about Victorian novels, they pretty much always avoid the sex. Does that make them inherently flawed?
GAITSKILL: No. I think that even Victorian novels — it’s there. The first thing that pops into mind is Bleak House. You don’t think Dickens is a sexual writer at all, but he is. He doesn’t do it explicitly, but Lady Dedlock — very, very. Have you read that book?
COWEN: Sure. I love that book. It’s one of my favorites.
GAITSKILL: Lady Dedlock is a very erotic figure. Her intense female strength, her intense masking, the idea that she’s always hiding something. She’s like a Diana Rigg figure in The Avengers — Emma Peel. Older people might get that reference. She’s super elegant. The lawyer, the guy — Tulkinghorn, I think his name is — who decides to expose her, like their conversation is quite highly eroticized in a S&M way.
I’m trying to think of somebody else. The name is escaping me. Edith Wharton. One of her books, I remember, House of Mirth, the interplay between the male characters and the female heroine. Definitely, you get a sense of masculine power and feminine response, which is, I remember, being subtly eroticized. Henry James — oh my goodness. Everybody knows Turn of the Screw is heavily eroticized. I think there’s quite a lot you can do with very subtle means without overtly referring to sexuality.
COWEN: Do you ever read children’s books?
COWEN: Young adult fiction?
GAITSKILL: Sometimes. A few years ago, I read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy, and I really enjoyed that.
COWEN: What do you think is your most unusual, yet successful, reading habit?
GAITSKILL: I don’t think I have any unusual reading habits.
COWEN: Some general questions. At what age is it too old to get a tattoo?
GAITSKILL: I’ve never thought about that. I don’t have a tattoo.
COWEN: Nor do I. I feel I’m too old for one, also.
GAITSKILL: I don’t know. The problem is, as you get older, you’re probably going to be covering more of your body. It would be less visually appealing on old skin, but if you want to get it just purely for yourself, and no one else will ever see it, I guess you’re never too old, but I don’t really have an opinion.
COWEN: What do you think should be the ground rules for when you should be able to write about other people in fiction without their permission? We all know Karl Knausgård. A lot of his family got quite mad at him. Some of them were not talking to him because he wrote about them so openly. It’s a fictional work. It’s fiction and it’s not fiction, right?
GAITSKILL: My own personal ground rules are, well, it depends if you’re speaking to the person or not. Also, if you know how to find them. I once, at least — and I’ve probably done it more than once — wrote about somebody. They were in my past. I actually didn’t know how to locate them. It would be easier now, but I’m not even on Facebook. Also, they may not be on Facebook either. I went ahead and wrote about her, and she got in touch with me later, really hopping mad.
I felt bad, but I explained it to her. “To me, that character wasn’t really you,” which people never believe it when you say that, but in this case, it was actually true. “Yes, she was based on you, but also, I didn’t know how to reach you.” Also, she’d changed her name legally, so that made it even harder. But normally, what I would do, if I’m on speaking terms with them — if I’m not, it’s a different story — is I write it first. I don’t ask their permission first. That’s a can of worms.
I write it first, and then I show it to them, and I ask, “Is there anything you really want me to change?” Normally, people are quite reasonable. They appreciate it that you asked them, and they’ll come up with . . . They’ll say this and this and this. Usually, it’s been things I’m okay changing. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me to change something that I just absolutely felt would ruin the piece. Those are my ground rules.
COWEN: How much do you miss the New York City of the 1980s?
GAITSKILL: Sometimes I do. I don’t think about it mostly, but sometimes I’ll walk by a place I was familiar with and be like, “Oh, I wish things were like that still. I wish I could go back to that time.” Maybe 10 percent of the time.
COWEN: What do you think of the master of arts in creative writing? Is it a waste? Is it ruining American writers? Is it helping them? Is it irrelevant?
GAITSKILL: Well, again, it depends on the person. I hate to keep saying that, but I really believe that. I’ve come to have a more negative opinion than I used to. When it first happened, when I first was aware of it in the late ’80s, early ’90s, I thought it was fine. My basic attitude is, if you are going to be a writer, a writing program isn’t going to hurt you. It may not help you that much either, but if you’re going to be a writer, why not?
Sure, you could take it. It’s not going to ruin you, or may not help you that much. I always thought it was silly, people saying, “It’s going to ruin American writers. It’s going to make it uniform. They’re going to be grinding out people cookie cutters.” That, I don’t think, is true at all. Writers who work in these programs — you’re not interested in making people write like you. You couldn’t. Why would you want to do that? It’s impossible, and it would be exhausting to try. People are going to respond to your comments differently. That’s ridiculous to think that.
First, I do want to say that also, my basic feeling about them at the beginning was, some people do not belong in those programs. It’s not going to help them. It just confuses them. I would not have liked a writing program when I was younger. It would’ve simply confused me.
Some people do not thrive in a workshop environment. It intimidates them. There are certain people who will dominate the workshop just naturally. Some people fade in the background. Some people don’t like that. Some people, though, it’s great. They love it. They love the quick feedback. It focuses them on their work really well. They thrive. So, some people, it’s great for.
What I have come to think is negative about it is the fact that people think they’ve got to do it. Even some editors, I think, expect that people have gone through this program. That, I think, is quite destructive because of the reason I just said. For some people — they don’t do well in it, and it doesn’t help them. It’s expensive.
Even if it’s not expensive — a lot of programs do have a lot of leeway. They let people in with a lot of stipend and a lot of help, but still it’s going to cost them money because they’re not going to be working while they’re in that program, or they’re going to be teaching to make up for the fact that they’re not paying. That’s hard.
At the best-case scenario, they learn a skill that they can later use. But if they’re not a person who ever wants to be in academia, they never get a teaching job, that’s a worthless skill, and it’s demanding of their energy. Again, they’re going to get into debt one way or the other, and they may get nothing out of this.
They’ve gone into debt and basically wasted two or three years of their life. That’s a danger. I think a lot of people don’t realize, “I may not be a person who can get something out of this, and I do not have to go through this program.” You don’t have to do that to be a writer. I’ve heard people say this: “You’ve got to do this if you want to be a writer.” That, I think, is really destructive.
COWEN: As an undergraduate, why didn’t you fit into University of Michigan?
GAITSKILL: What makes you think I didn’t?
COWEN: Oh, I think you said it somewhere, and you left, right?
COWEN: So, you did finish, and you were happy there?
GAITSKILL: No, but it was mainly because I was older. I didn’t share the experiences . . . I had gone to community college first, and even then, I got into it older because I didn’t graduate from high school. I came with a different background than most people. I had lived on my own for years. I had had experiences that most people, undergraduates . . . I didn’t hang out with most undergraduates at all.
I was friends with older people who were either graduate students or were people who were just hanging out in Ann Arbor because they’d graduated, and they hadn’t figured out what else they wanted to do. But even them — I just came from a completely different place.
I had worked as a stripper. I had had just a very different experience. I didn’t come from high school and right from my parents’ house to the university, but some of the people who were living in Ann Arbor didn’t come from that either. They had also been supporting themselves in the world for a while as well. It wasn’t like I was radically different from those people, but there were differences.
COWEN: Working as a stripper, what do you think you learned about men?
GAITSKILL: Well, first, I should say that the kind of strip club I was working in was quite different from what people must think of now. It wasn’t like a lap dancing place. There was only one woman on stage at a time. It wasn’t like there were three women, and they were moving through the audience and having a lot of physical contact with men. There was no pole dancing, which I think is awesome, by the way. Pole dancing can be quite amazing, but the women didn’t have to do that. It was nowhere near as demanding.
They just basically went up on stage by themselves, walked back and forth, smiled at people or didn’t, and created a persona. What I learned, I guess, in this very particular setting — this would not apply in a lap dancing venue — that men can be quite romantic about women in that situation, that they sometimes would fall in love with a persona that a certain woman would have.
The women would create . . . not all of the women. Some women just went on there, they danced around, did their thing, that was it. But the most popular strippers — it wasn’t about being beautiful. Nobody had artificial breasts. The most popular women were women who were either very flirtatious — some of them were very plain. They weren’t that pretty, but they clearly loved being there. They loved the attention. They would look at the men, they would smile at them, and the men would feel like, “She’s a girl I could date. She likes me.” They really enjoyed that. They enjoyed the fact that she enjoyed what she was doing.
Then there were the beauties. There were some beautiful women who weren’t so flirtatious, but they cared about what they were doing. There was one girl, really beautiful, like really just a gorgeous woman. She didn’t make eye contact. She didn’t flirt, but she was really obviously into creating this mystique. She put a lot of effort into her show. She used feathers and feathery boas, and she thought about her music. And the men loved her because, same reason — they felt she was really into what she was doing, and she wanted to do it for them.
I learned that men could be really . . . They weren’t just about tits and ass. They wanted to have this romantic fantasy set forth. They wanted to know that the woman cared about it or that she was just in it because she was really into it and liked them. I didn’t know that.
Some of them could be really crude and gross, like at late night, if they came in drunk, they could be horrible. But that I already knew. I knew that men could be ugly and gross and really disrespectful. Those men often got thrown out, by the way. They were too much. There was bouncers there. But I didn’t know about the other side of it, that really romantic, longing side of masculinity. I hadn’t really known that yet. On an individual basis, yes, but not on a group level.
COWEN: How have your views about sexual permissiveness changed since the 1990s? Social views have changed a great deal. In your case?
GAITSKILL: I guess I’ve seen the downside of it, how confusing it can be. I actually started to see that in the ’90s. I didn’t see that in the ’70s and ’80s. I was very into permissiveness and the more freedom the better, not that I didn’t recognize there were dangers, always. I began to see that in the ’90s, it was beyond physical danger, that it could be very confusing to some people, even to me. I began to see how it had been confusing to me, which it took me a while to understand.
I’m also seeing now how repulsive it can be to younger people. There’s always a matter of balance. For my generation, it was so uptight and so rigid and so locked into tradition that it was awful. That’s how the extreme permissiveness happened. Then, I think there’s been a reaction to the extreme permissiveness. “Wait a minute, this is not okay to just be saying whatever you want and grabbing people.”
There’s a real downside to that. The most powerful people — not even socially powerful but physically powerful — are going to take advantage of that. Not everybody is going to be able to deal with that. “Wait, put the brakes on, I don’t like this. We don’t like this.” I think that’s a natural reaction.
COWEN: What did you learn working in the Strand Bookstore in New York City?
GAITSKILL: That there are a lot of different ways to be in the workplace.
GAITSKILL: That there was a workplace that allowed people to be themselves in a big way, to dress however they wanted, and that that can really work for some people. And it can work for some customers. Some customers like that kind of environment, where you walk in, and you might be dealing with somebody dressed in their pajamas and their hair standing out to there and weird makeup, and who’s going to say, “Go find it yourself.” [laughs]
COWEN: What was your job in the Strand?
GAITSKILL: I was a typist. I was in the basement typing up orders.
COWEN: What are your favorite parts about now living in the Hudson Valley?
GAITSKILL: Just the sheer beautifulness of it. It’s a beautiful place.
COWEN: How long have you lived there?
GAITSKILL: Off and on since ’98.
COWEN: What would be your self-account of how you have kept your curiosity and intellectual vitality for so long?
GAITSKILL: I don’t know if I have kept it. It feels like it’s sagging down to my knees. [laughs]
COWEN: But people who have lost it don’t feel that way, I would note.
COWEN: I think so.
GAITSKILL: Well, by the fact that I, up until recently — I just quit teaching, but up until recently, teaching and having to clarify my thoughts about why I think something is important or why I think a piece of writing is working or not, or writing about writing — just the writing, you have to use your mind quite a lot.
COWEN: How did you observe your students changing over the years, as groups?
GAITSKILL: Oh, my God. Well, this has to be the last question because I’m really hungry.
COWEN: One final question after this. Yes, go on.
GAITSKILL: Well, they’re upset. They’re really, sometimes, quite aggressive. They really need you to express things in a very conformist way. Not all students. Some students really are still very open-minded and questing and want to know a lot about a lot of different ways of looking at things, but some of them are very rigid now and really only want to . . .
I handed out a piece of writing by an African American critic — very well known — named Hilton Als. He is writing about Flannery O’Connor, who he loves. In the first page, you see the N-word. They didn’t know that he was African American right away. They saw the N-word. One of them says, “On the first page, there’s the N-word.” I’m like, “I feel it’s no, yes, he can — ”
Honestly, in fiction, personally, I don’t have a problem with anybody using that word. My God, he ought to be able to use that word. They were just so rattled by seeing it. They didn’t quarrel with it eventually, as I explained, “Read the whole piece. There’s a lot of context to this.” But they’re so reactive to certain words. Even the word retard. It appeared in the story. They were upset by that. I’m like, “It’s just a story about kids. They would use that word.”
It’s just like they want everything to be so — I don’t know what the right word — policed. They’re so afraid of the use of certain words and terms and exploring certain mindsets that is very difficult for me. If you present it in the right way, they’re usually okay, but you have to go through so much presentation. I don’t understand why they think that it’s going to make the world a better place. I understand the impulse. I respect the impulse to want to make the world a better place and to stop insulting and attacking people who are already being insulted and attacked. I understand where it came from.
There used to be a lot of unchecked gross racism sometimes in schools. I could tell you stories about that, so I understand the impulse. But this really nitpicking, minute, over-policing of language — this is just a nightmare.
Most trans students are not like this. Most trans students are very . . . If you use the wrong pronoun, they’ll correct you, but they don’t really care that much. They get it; you just forgot. But one person I had recently didn’t actually clarify in her . . . You get a piece of paper with their picture, how they want to be referred to in terms of pronouns, how they identify. She did not identify as a trans person. She identified as non-binary, and she did not specify what pronoun.
Some people who identify that way aren’t particular about it. They’re fine with how you’re responding to them, how they present. She presented as a female, so I called her that, and she didn’t correct me. In her student evaluation, she was really angry that I didn’t support her trans identity. Well, she didn’t identify that way on her . . . That is a very strange mentality to me. Also, she could have emailed me and said, “I prefer to be called they/their.” I would have done it.
She said she was afraid to do that because I was just such an aggressive person. I don’t understand that. She didn’t even try. I don’t believe she was cringing in terror before my incredibly aggressive personality, because she would know that if she complained about that to the administration, they would have been all over me.
That’s a mentality that I see a lot now. It’s not just that they want to be called a different pronoun than has been the norm for a long time. It’s that they’ll hurt. Somebody like that person will act as if they have no power in the situation and that they’re too afraid to say anything to you, or they are unable for whatever reason. That is bewildering to me. I encountered that type, not just in terms of pronouns, but just generally people who don’t seem to feel they can express themselves, and then blame you for it. That is very new, and that is what I find more disturbing than anything.
COWEN: Closing question: What will you do next?
GAITSKILL: Just continue to write.
COWEN: A novel, short stories, essays?
GAITSKILL: I’m working right now on an essay and a story.
COWEN: Great. Readers that want to find out about you — they can go to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, google your name, independent booksellers, Mary Gaitskill Substack. Anything else?
GAITSKILL: Actually, Substack — probably it’s more labor intensive, but that would be a quick way to get to know me. Just be reading — picking one of them and reading that.
COWEN: Mary Gaitskill, thank you very much.
GAITSKILL: Thank you.