Interview with Mary Gaitskill

by Alexander Laurence
(c) 1994

Q
How long have you lived in San Francisco?
Mary Gaitskill
I've only been here for five months. I went back and forth between Marin County and New York City for a while. Then I ran out of money, so I don't have my place in New York anymore. I moved to San Francisco because I started to go nuts in Marin. I realize that Marin County repels many people, but I didn't feel that way because I wanted to live somewhere that was very quiet and didn't demand anything of me. It's been hard for me to get connected to San Francisco. I'm not sure why. A lot of my life here has been very internal, but that's always been true of me.
Q
You sound like you don't drive?
MG
No, I don't. Which is one of the reasons that I liked being in Marin, because without a car, everything had to slow down to one mile an hour. You wouldn't think from my demeanor that I would require that, but I can be very amped up, even though I don't show it. Everything was slow like silly putty. That was good for me at the time. My internal state was so chaotic that I needed to be somewhere that wasn't going to reflect that back to me. Two Girls, Fat and Thin came out a while ago.
Q
Have you been working on a novel or short stories in the past couple of years?
MG
I did a draft of a novel which is real short. I don't know how long it will take me to finish it. I've been working on stories. It takes a long time to finish a story. Sometimes it takes years, which is ridiculous. It used to be like I'd write something in a month, and then I would put it aside for a few months, then go back to it and finis h it up in a month or two. Maybe sometimes I would go over it again. Now, I'll put it aside for a year and come back to it. So it ends up taking four years. The new novel is tentatively titled Veronica. It's about two women and their friendship. One of them becomes sick with AIDS. It's not just about that but that's a central motif.
Q
What is your opinion of creative writing workshops? Can writing be taught?
MG
It was OK. I don't think that I'm really a teacher by inclination. It was hard for me to get over the idea that the teacher is supposed to be dispensing wisdom. That's not how it is. That's just an idea that I had in my head. But I enjoyed SF State because there was a lot of exchange. Some of the students had read my books, but most of them hadn't. I'm kind of indifferent to creative writing schools. Some writers will harangue how horrible they are, then they go teach at them. I didn't learn writing that way because when I was in school they didn't have programs like that. I think that Iowa just started when I was getting out of school. So I wasn't ever presented with that as an option. I didn't like creative writing classes all that much. It was a way of getting credit for something I would have done anyway. Why I'm not against them is because I do notice that some people really get energized by it. It's a way to be around other people who will discuss things. If you're a good writer, you're going to write whether you're in a writing program or not. I think that it would be better if you could have that arrangement in a non-scholastic situation. If you could find a congenial group of people.
Q
Do you show your work in its preliminary stages to other writers or friends?
MG
It's not something that I do very often. I'm more likely to do it if I'm working with a form that I'm not used to. I just wrote an essay recently, and I showed it to people I know who write essays. I show fiction less frequently, but I do sometimes. The essay was about all this talk on "victimism." How everyone wants to be a victim. And the date rape thing.
Q
What is your view on victimism?
MG
I think a lot of people, especially middle class people, were kind of brought up not to think for themselves. They were told what to think. So when they are put in a situation where they are required to think for themselves, they're in trouble. So they feel victimized without knowing why. They might respond by becoming very passive just going with whatever the other person wants or by becoming aggressive and thinking they have the right to take over the situation, regardless of what the other person wants. Which Is a recipe for date rape. It's weird how people are saying "How could this be happening?" It's always been present in the culture. It's just that before there was an illusion that everybody was doing the same thing, living the same way. Since that illusion has been lost, many people don't know what to do.
Q
Could you explain what you call "the fetishization of romance?" That was a concept that you wrote about in an essay for MS. Magazine.
MG
I don't think that I remember the essay well enough to give you a clear idea of what I meant at the time. But what I think I meant that when people get obsessed by something -- women are encouraged culturally to do this more than men -- they have an idea about someone or something that has nothing to do with the alleged object. People often describe it as romance, but that sounds nicer than it actually is. Romance can be rather hideous. I mean you can romanticize something to a point where it's a grotesque distortion. It can be so distorted that it's kind of gross, but on the other hand it can have some pretty aspects for the person who is doing the romanticizing. There's usually an underpinning that's nasty. At the expense of what are you elevating them? When you idealize something, you strip out all the good parts and magnify them, but the other stuff doesn't go away. You're just blocking it out and at some point it'll bite you on the ass.
Q
Sadomasochism is mentioned in your stories and about your stories. Is that just a buzz word or is that a judgment of the reality of most relationships? Is every relationship between victim and abuser?
MG
It's certainly a buzzword, but it also refers to something real. It's also a term I think has many different meanings for people. In one way I haven't liked it that people have talked about my books like that because to me that's not what they're all about. On the other hand, I've repeatedly used S/M as a motif, so I don't blame people for reacting that way. In "Romantic Weekend," the second story from Bad Behavior, part of the problem, when this girl says "I'm a masochist," is that she doesn't mean what he thinks she means. It could be anything from very theatrical playing to heavy, violent physical stuff. A lot of my characters are actually too incompetent to be properly called S/M practitioners.
Q
In Two Girls, the character Justine Shade likes sadomasochism. She wants it, up to a point.
MG
That's a more negative version of sadomasochism as opposed to Bad Behavior which was more playful. In that book, in her case, I was describing a more negative aspect of S/M sex where it's unconscious. She conscious of it in a way, but in another way she's not. It's involved with a lot of feelings that she hasn't fully dealt with or allowed herself to experience even. You asked me earlier if S/M is a part of all relationships. I think it's always there in the spectrum whether people choose to act on it or not. Justine is a special case in some ways because as a child, she was the torturer. I saw her switching roles.
Q
Was she reliving what had happened to her? Being tortured in the same way she tortured others.
MG
If humiliation and betrayal and emotional pain are central themes in your life, you can respond to that fact in many diiferent ways. I didn't see Justine as consciously trying to redress the situation of childhood. In her case, and I think this is true of a lot of people, the victim role which a masochist chooses to play may look really passive, but in some sense it's a very aggressive stance. When I say aggressive, I mean in an internal level, because she's putting herself in a passive position; dangerously so in the case of Bryan, the character opposite.
Q
How is Justine's position different from a standard S/M situation like the one that is elaborated in The Story of O? O gives herself totally to this man, becomes a slave, submits to him, and through that process feels freer than before.
MG
In Justine's case, it's not like that. It's more like a ferocity, but it's convoluted. It's a kind of inward aggression. It seems like self-contempt, but it's really an inverted contempt for everything. That's what I was trying to describe in her. I would say it had to do with her childhood, not because she was sexually abused, but because the world that she was presented with was so inadequate in terms of giving her a full-spirited sense of herself. That inadequacy can make you implode with a lot of disgust. It can become the gestalt of who you are. So the masochism is like "I'm going to make myself into a debased object because that is what I think of you. This is what I think of your love. I don't want your love. Your love is shit. Your love is nothing." Justine's attitude toward Bryan is very contemptuous. I've been puzzled when some people have described my women characters as these passive victims. On the surface I see what they mean, but ultimately I don't see Justine as being passive. She's just too angry, and she tells Bryan what to do at almost every point.
Q
The name Justine Shade suggests both Sade and Nabokov: what is your interest in these writers? Who are you favorite writers?
MG
I may be totally embarrassed about all those wacky character names at some point. Well, I like Nabokov a lot. I don't think much of Sade as a writer, although I enjoyed beating off to him as a child. His books can be good beat- off material. I haven't read him for a long time. Some other writers that I like are Marguerite Yourcenar, Deborah Eisenberg, Flannery O'Conner, Jean Genet, and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Q
Realism is a mode of writing based on 19th century models. Post-Joycean experimentation has been an interesting activity over the past 25 years. What is your impression of the term "post-modernism?" Your writing seems to be free of theoretical implications.
MG
I'm not interested in that discussion. I don't usually look at things in terms of whether they're experimental or not. It's more like, does the form suit what they're going after. I see form as being a by-product. I say that even though style and form is very important to me. What I mean is that the style will be the inevitable result of what the writer is pursuing and how she's pursuing it. Some people use non-realistic forms very well, but I don't have an allegiance one way or another. And as far as theory goes: I'm not that conversant in it. I'm not a very theoretical person.
Q
I ask those questions because your two books were written in the 1980s in the midst of what in the art world we generally call "post-modernism." I was suggesting that it was a theoretical period. You have any interest in that?
MG
It's funny, in writing I really don't. I realize I don't have anything against it in principle because I've seen it done in film, in music, and in artwork where I've liked it. So it's not like I have a statement against it, but I've never been tempted to do it. I suppose that you can argue that I've done it by the suggestion of the name Justine, because it evokes things--other people's work-- even though I don't literally use it. I'm not interested in doing it myself.
Q
Can you talk about your writing process generally? How has your writing process changed since moving here? How do you begin to write anything?
MG
I don't get ideas fully formed. I usually start with just an image, or a conversation that haunts me, or an experience I had that's really striking to me. I work with superficial detail first. If you notice, there is a lot of detail in my work, and physical detail. It's because that's how I get into the story. If I try to think in terms of who is this character, or things thematically, or things psychologically, I get lost. I just start with some small thing and dig into it that way. I write longhand first. I have to do it that way. Then, I put it on the word processor.
Q
Your work has been described as "queer literature." I was wondering what you thought about that label? Two Girls has lesbian overtones, Justine and Dorothy sleep together at the end. Are they excluding the men in their lives, and feeling free being with each other?
MG
I wouldn't say that, but for those particular women, freedom for a while might be good. I wouldn't see those two as a couple. The reason I see it having gay overtones is that I see Dorothy as being gay. I don't say that in the book. Most of her feelings toward Justine have erotic undertones. I don't know if they would act it out together, but at some point Dorothy might.
Q
What about their interest in S/M and sexual marginality?
MG
I may be alone, but it's always been my feeling that people who are into S/M tend to be bisexual because their sexuality is not oriented around the genitals. It's more oriented around fantasy than people not into S/M. So there's more inclination to go either way.
Q
You have mentioned before in an article that you worked as a stripper in Toronto. Was that a good or bad experience?
MG
I did it for two years. Actually it wasn't lap dancing. It was more like old-fashioned stripping. The last vestiges of the burlesque world were still in place in Toronto at the time. It was a culture clash because the go-go dancing was starting to happen, and the older strippers really hated it. It really disgusted them. They really despised these young girls who would dance with a nightie and then throw it off. The older burlesque dancers were in the posture of defending themselves because stripping wasn't a respectable thing. So when they saw people coming in making it more funky, it threatened their self-esteem. I saw some lap dancing recently, and I was like "God," it's totally different. It's not ego gratifying, I would imagine, but I haven't done it yet. Maybe it's in my future? When I was doing stripping, you weren't a piece of meat. There was nudity but there wasn't fisting. When I grew up, I didn't have experiences of adolescent femaleness because I left and didn't do the normal thing with dating and all that. So, in a strange way, I got to act that out in a burlesque way. So I could make fun of it and yet have the experience. It was like taking on various personas and throwing them off right away. I felt that I was in control and I didn't feel demeaned by it. I don't want to seem negative about lap dancing, but it seems that you have less opportunity to that now, at least from what I saw. I've never been to the theaters here, but in the bars that I saw lap dancing, it didn't seem that the women were able to play with that, because they're right in the guy's face, and he's telling her what to do. I want to make it clear because I don't want to put down lap dancers.
Q
Have you used your experiences as a stripper for a story? There was one story in Bad Behavior about a prostitute. I was wondering have you ever turned a trick?
MG
Yes. Have you?
Q
No. Not really. Maybe I should. I've paid a prostitute for sex before.
MG
I definitely would if I was a guy.
Q
Do you think that a purpose of writing is to communicate something and to overcome alienation?
MG
That's something that I feel complicated about too, because it is sort of a bond with the reader. When I had my first book published, I was really touched by the way people responded to it. I'm sure some people hated it. But just the fact that some people were emotionally affected by it, affected me. It was a really intense feeling. However it's also true that they saw the book in totally different ways than I meant it. Not in a bad way. For example, some people saw the story "Secretary" as a social statement about the evil of jobs and the horror of sexual harassment. Other people thought it as a story about a young girl being liberated from her tightness by a beneficent old guy. Those are two opposite extremes. Definitely it is partly communication because you're wanting people to read it, but it's also something that just happens internally for you. I didn't think that some of the stories in Bad Behavior were going to get published, but it was still important for me to write them.
Q
Are public readings something that you look forward to or like to avoid? I am thinking of a reading you did last September at SF State. Is writing for you a way to be direct by indirectness?
MG
Actually I like giving readings. Why did you think that I didn't like it? Because I seemed uncomfortable? I'm shy, so I was particularly nervous at that reading partly because I thought someone I knew would be there. Someone that I had a weird situation. Plus I find that story difficult to read because it has a bunch of different emotional tones. It's hard to get it right. I am shy, so in a way, it's hard to read. But when I get into it, I really like it. Shy people are always hams secretly. It's a way of totally being in my world, and yet coming out in the world and talking to people. It's my world because it's my story. But at the same time other people are sitting there listening, and I can often feel the audience responding, or at least I think I can. Although it's difficult if I feel the audience not responding.
Q
You wrote in both novels: "Somebody opened me up in a way that I had no control over." What is it about losing control in a relationship that is so attractive for your characters?
MG
There can be something innately erotic about it because there's a sense of limitlessness to losing control especially if you're a person with a lot of limits. And if you're used to being like that, the idea of having the limits just totally ripped off, anything can happen. It can be arousing, not just sexually, but in every way. It can be frightening to some, but fear can be exciting as well.


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