Interview with Mary Gaitskill
by Alexander Laurence
- 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
- You sound like you don't drive?
- 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.
- Have you been working on a novel or short stories in the
past couple of years?
- 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
- What is your opinion of creative writing workshops? Can
writing be taught?
- 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.
- Do you show your work in its preliminary stages to other
writers or friends?
- 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.
- What is your view on victimism?
- 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.
- Could you explain what you call "the fetishization
of romance?" That was a concept that you wrote about
in an essay for MS. Magazine.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- In Two Girls, the character Justine Shade likes
sadomasochism. She wants it, up to a point.
- 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.
- Was she reliving what had happened to her? Being tortured
in the same way she tortured others.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- The name Justine Shade suggests both Sade and Nabokov:
what is your interest in these writers? Who are you
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Can you talk about your writing process generally? How
has your writing process changed since moving here? How
do you begin to write anything?
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- What about their interest in S/M and sexual marginality?
- 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.
- You have mentioned before in an article that you worked
as a stripper in Toronto. Was that a good or bad
- 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
- 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?
- Yes. Have you?
- No. Not really. Maybe I should. I've paid a prostitute
for sex before.
- I definitely would if I was a guy.
- Do you think that a purpose of writing is to communicate
something and to overcome alienation?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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