I lost my innocence to Mary Gaitskill; I think a lot of people did. Her first story collection, Bad Behavior, was full of high-concept naughtiness: women turning tricks in New York City, doing Dexedrine for days, getting spanked by the big bad boss and getting a big fat check to keep quiet. (The latter story became the film Secretary, which was a comparative Disney cartoon.) Her stories were told the way Debbie Harry delivered lyrics: matter-of-fact, offhand, but with sparks everywhere. Like Harry, Gaitskill’s net effect was hard to process and easy to categorize. Maybe it was her openness about her past as a stripper, maybe it was her later role in discovering J.T. Leroy, but somewhere along the line she got this reputation as the Queen of Sexual Transgression, which sells her way short. Yes, her stories were about explicit, non-PC sex, but Behavior was more Catcher in the Rye than Catherine M—it was about being young and doing things because you need to and you can; time has made the acts less shocking but the humanity more evident. Her second collection, Because They Wanted To, achieved this from the start. Its highlight is the story “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” in which a man contemplates his daughter’s lesbianism while he’s waiting for his wife to bring the car back from the mall. In a half-hour monologue, it becomes clear that his outrage masks an entire life’s worth of betrayals. Gaitskill’s new book, Veronica, is her first in five years. Set in 1980s New York City, it’s the story of a former model named Alison who develops a friendship with a middle-aged proofreader who was infected with AIDS by her bisexual boyfriend. It’s as much about AIDS and the ’80s as Bad Behavior is about bondage: instead it’s about friendship and loyalty and sex and power and death. The reviews have ranged from terrific to glowing, and it has been nominated for the National Book Award.
Recently, Nerve took Mary out for coffee. The thing about Mary Gaitskill is that, when you’ve been open about your experience with sex work and abuse, and you say things like “masochism is normal” to the Wall Street Journal in 1992, people try to run you down with the same narrative shortcuts you avoid so assiduously in your work, and depict you as shifty and weird. In person she’s warm and very funny, and impossible to look away from. — Michael Martin
One of your bios reads, “Mary Gaitskill’s fiction explores the meaning of sex in American life. For Gaitskill’s characters, sex represents a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to break out of social isolation. Her fiction often explores the theme of how people seek intimacy but don’t know how to achieve it.” How do you feel about that description?
Mary Gaitskill: Well, that suits some of the stories I’ve written. It certainly doesn’t suit my work overall. But those descriptions are written by people who are trying to come up with something that sounds interesting and that’s the best somebody could do.
And what’s your definition of intimacy?
Gaitskill: [laughs] Well, I know it when I feel it. Me and my husband have a joke. It’s not really a joke, it’s a preposterous idea. I actually shouldn’t … well. There’s this place in Rhinebeck [New York, where she lives] called the Omega Institute, and they have really ridiculous workshops there. We imagined one where some guru is leading one on intimacy called “Into Me See.” At the end of it, people would take turns being naked and put their heads on the floor and their butts in the air and that’s when you were really going to experience the reality of Into Me See. The joke came up because we were both experiencing the yuckiness of talking about intimacy. It just seems so repulsive, the way people talk about it — it’s the Holy Grail or something. You know . . . [musically] intimacy. The tone is always so solemn and sticky. And kind of damp, in an unpleasant way.
In an interview back in 1994, you mentioned you were writing Veronica. Why the long gestation?
Gaitskill: I wrote it in about a year. It was a short draft. Things were described in a very general way, instead of the way I like to describe things: sharp. If you had shown it to me and said it was the work of a 23-year-old writer, I would have thought they were brilliant, but if you told me it was the work of a 36-year-old writer who had already written two books, I would have thought it was awful. So I would take it out and look at it every two years or so and I just didn’t know what to make of it. Then I looked at it again in 2001 and something clicked. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I was somehow able to pick it up.
The novel’s elements of moral judgment and sexual guilt are relevant to what’s going on politically now.
Gaitskill: I started it in the early ’90s, when the face of AIDS was changing already. It was becoming less deadly and people were understanding it more and learning how to deal with it. But still there was that feeling of terror and judgment. When it first appeared, it was terrifying. Like a medieval plague, like nothing anyone of my generation or younger had experienced. And people really had a primitive response — there was terrible guilt, I think.
For example, I just assumed I had it. I think a lot of people did. It was like an alien, like this huge maw with teeth just appeared out of the darkened room. So that mentality very much influenced me when I was writing it at the time. When I picked it up again in 2001, things had changed quite a bit. But I thought I had to have both that mentality — the extreme fear — and the more pragmatic and understanding point of view that exists now. I wanted both of those to be present.
In the book, Alison, who’s young and beautiful, sticks with Veronica, who’s older, uglier, and sick, partly because she pities her. Pity has such a negative connotation, but you seem to come out in favor of it.
Gaitskill: I think pity, if it’s genuine, is deeply felt. I mean, we’re all to be pitied. We pretend that we’re not. We strut around like we’re a big fucking deal, but we’re all to be pitied, unless we’re very lucky. Some of us will drop dead rather painlessly or have easy deaths, but many of us will die slowly, with all the things we love stripped away from us, quite possibly alone, quite possibly in a great deal of pain, not even able to talk, shitting in our pants. I think that people, when we’re young and healthy, tend to forget that we are all on some level to be pitied, and if you have that feeling for someone, and you see their suffering, and you feel for them, that does make you more human, and it acknowledges their humanity.
How did the onset of AIDS affect you mentally? You lived in one of the early epicenters, New York City.
Gaitskill: It was like everything we thought we had triumphed over came roaring back. As a teenager, I got very indignant over what I perceived as a kind of Dark Ages, superstitious, particularly antifemale attitude toward sexuality that was linked with death. The level of fear and awe that I saw in people of my parents’ generation just seemed really ridiculous. It wasn’t that I didn’t know sex could be powerful, but I didn’t see it as being quite such this monster that they did. Gonorrhea and syphilis could be cured. If you got pregnant, you could have an abortion. One hundred years ago, if a girl got pregnant and she was unmarried, she was dead. Her choice was to become a prostitute or . . . well, that was pretty much it. If you got something like syphilis, it would kill you.
That threat went away, then AIDS happened. It was like a death figure just slammed a hammer down on everybody. Like, Oh yeah, you thought I wasn’t here? I’m not saying that’s what I really think, but it had that feeling to it. There was a period of ten to twenty years where you could have sex with impunity, with basically anyone you wanted, without feeling horribly ostracized—in New York anyway—without feeling like you were risking your life. That was very different than the rest of history, and suddenly everything was changed. We thought we were living in a world that was totally remade, and it wasn’t.
How did living through that time of sexual freedom, then into the AIDS era, change your sexual behavior. Did it evolve or freeze in one spot?
Gaitskill: Well, I’m in a monogamous relationship now; I’ve been married for four years. Frankly, this is terrible, but in my thirties and through my forties, I didn’t much think about it. If I knew I was going to be sleeping with someone, and it was a guy, I would ask him to get an AIDS test, and I would get one too. And we would do that and it would come back negative. I did use condoms sometimes, but I still often behaved like it wasn’t an issue. I think a lot of people did. I wasn’t a person for lots of one-night stands anyway, not since my twenties—not even then, really. It was something I did occasionally. I remember I almost had one when I was forty, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask the guy to put a condom on. So my behavior didn’t actually change that much. Which I know is terrible, but I also know a lot of people my age were that way.
Do you miss living in New York City?
Gaitskill: I haven’t lately. I do sometimes. It could be because I’m older; I’m not sure. It’s so different now than what it used to be, even fifteen years ago. It seems like a much colder place. It’s always been an ambition-driven place, but . . . maybe it’s just because I was younger, but it seemed like in the ’80s and the ’90s, the ambitions made sense to me, or I could connect with them more. Maybe that’s just because I was closer to them, but it seems colder, and definitely more about money.
How were you introduced to sex as a child?
I had very early a sense that sex was very complex and potentially violent. And I don’t mean violent in a terrible way, but that it involved a very powerful clash between two people—powerful whether they were male and female or of the same gender. There’s a kind of oppositional meeting taking place.
I got that from watching cartoons. Mighty Mouse, Popeye and Olive Oyl. Mighty Mouse was my first crush. I thought Mighty Mouse was really virile. And he was. He was always saving some helpless female. I remember one cartoon in which he was saving a female mouse that had been hypnotized by a villain and she was singing in a high voice, “Don’t You Remember Sweet Alice,” and the villain had placed her on a conveyor belt that was heading toward a buzzsaw. Mighty Mouse came along at the last minute and rescued her and carried her off, still singing. I just thought that was so erotic! And I was probably like eight.
And then on The Three Stooges, women were always getting shot in the butt with nail guns or something. And Olive Oyl was always having incredibly humiliating things happen to her, but being rescued by Popeye in the end, so Brutus would be put down. But it was clear that you needed Brutus. There would be no story without Brutus.
But I also did experience sex as being a really wonderful thing. When I got into puberty, it just made the world more interesting to me. I was aware of the incredible intense energy and the pleasure of it. I went through a phase when I was considered ugly. But something happened between the ages of twelve and fifteen. For one thing, fashions changed. It became very fashionable to be very thin and pale. To suddenly have the identity of a pretty girl was certainly preferable to the identity of an ugly girl. And suddenly the songs on the radio—which previously I couldn’t relate to at all, they just sounded scary and tough and mean and I just didn’t get them—at a certain point they were all about sex, and I totally understood. It was like suddenly I was on the same page as everybody else.
Your introduction to our fall fiction issue two years ago was titled “Bring Back the Skank.” Today, it seems that many young women writers—who are the age you were when you wrote Bad Behavior—are calling for a return to a certain prudishness. For example, in Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that women are copying men’s ideas of how women should be sexually brazen and inflicting that on other women.
Gaitskill: Yeah. I don’t know what I think of that. Actually I do know what I think of that. It’s kind of complicated. When people make those kinds of sweeping statements, it’s some impulse to adjudicate what Women —with a capital W—should be doing. And it really so much varies. The problem for me with some of the seeming brazenness that was fashionable for a while is that it can be forced also. Because if a person doesn’t feel like being brazen or doesn’t want to do that, they shouldn’t. I think a lot of times women who really display sexually are covering up a lot of fear. A confidently sexual person doesn’t have to announce it all that much. But if it’s who you are—if you love to get dressed up in the big heels and the tiny skirt and the wig and the whatever, why not? But I don’t feel like that should be idealized any more than the modest, demure person. The same woman can feel both ways on different occasions.
For example, I was a stripper in my twenties, and I got naked—very naked—in front of people regularly. Yet about a year later, I was getting undressed in my bedroom at night and I saw something outside. It was a peeping tom, and it scared me. Partly because I thought that he was not simply looking, he was squatting and planning and waiting for me to go to sleep and come in. And that was not okay with me at all. And the fact that I was dancing naked a year before didn’t have anything to do with it. I mean, it’s all a matter of context and how you feel at the moment and who you’re with. But my guess is that there will always be a need to define women in a way that we don’t with men. There isn’t a strong need to define what kind of man he is sexually, aside from the gay/straight question. It’s something that’s been true since the beginning of time.
I think the writer you’re talking about, the phenomenon she’s describing and her argument against it are two sides of the same coin. The Sex and the City thing of, “Oh, women want sex and sex is great and women are just as horny as men and they love to watch gay porn!” . . . there’s something about that that rings false to me too. Sex and the City always seemed ridiculous to me. You would never have a show about men like that. It’s too insistent, it’s too reactive.
But I don’t think there’s a solution. I think some women have to find their own way of being where they’ll feel the right to be very sensitive and shy and they don’t want to have sex or take their clothes off and whatever, and some women will feel like ripping their clothes off and dancing around, but I think that’s something people need to come to terms with individually, and I think that writing books about it and announcing that this is how people should be isn’t going to do anything.
One of our editors summed it up well: their argument is that the thong equals the death of feminism.
Gaitskill: I once wrote a story that I never published, but I just looked at it again recently. It was about how in the ’90s the criticisms were, “Feminism is bad because it’s made women into neurasthenic asexual babies who are afraid to have intercourse!” or, “Feminism is bad because it’s made women into sluts who only think about sex and don’t have any sensitivity or desire for motherhood!” Whatever it was, it was feminism’s fault.
Andrew Sullivan published an essay a few weeks ago about “the end of gay culture,” and argues that the idea of gay as a separate identity has to fade for gay marriage to be acceptable to the masses. Do you think that’s plausible, and would it be a good thing?
Gaitskill: I still think it will be a long time before it is totally accepted by most people. I’m not sure it’s a good thing. I think it depends on the person. For some people, it’s really important for them to be part of the mainstream and get married and be just like everyone else—and I understand that feeling—but other people they really don’t want that. They prefer the identity of the outsider and will maintain that identity.
If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said that it was a good thing that gay culture ended because it perpetuated an idea of outsiderness that I thought was artificial. But I don’t know what I think about that now. I think maybe that what I considered artificial at the time was to some people necessary.
You once wrote in a book review that you weren’t sure what mental illness was. I thought that was interesting, because I read in one of your bios that you spent time in mental institutions.
Gaitskill: I spent two months in a mental institution when I was fifteen. I know the essay you got the misinformation from, I think Ann Carson wrote it, and I don’t know what her problem was. She makes it sound like it was something that happened often over the course of ten years. Maybe she wanted to make me sound more pathetic than I ever was. Not that I haven’t been pathetic at times…
So what’s your definition? I’ve been told the basis of mental health is flexibility.
Gaitskill: That’s not bad. I think I’ve gotten a little more conventional about it than I was when I wrote that article. I do use the term “mentally ill,” and I used to avoid it, almost as a matter of principle. I used to think people got called mentally ill when other people didn’t know what to make of them — they were just on a different wavelength, and if you could just look inside them, what they were doing would make a lot of sense. And that may be true — in fact, I’m sure it is true. But at some times, at a certain point, you just have to say, “This person’s fucking crazy.”
And I hate to say that, because I hate to subscribe to that utilitarian definition. It doesn’t allow for time to slow down and look through the other person’s eyes. But sometimes there isn’t time, and sometimes it seems that however you slow down and how you look, you’re never going to be able to connect with them anyway. But I still couldn’t really define it. And I do think the diagnostic manual is mentally ill itself. It’s so eager to classify so many different mental conditions as disturbed or problematic that you wonder what’s left.
About the J.T. Leroy story in New York magazine. I had heard those rumors for a long time, specifically that J.T. was someone you had created.
Gaitskill: That I had created? Gee, I wish I were that, uh…I only create people on the page, I don’t have them physically walking around.
There was also a rumor that he was someone you and Dennis Cooper were collaborating on.
Gaitskill: That is such a kooky idea. Whoever believed that, I don’t think they know how to read. The three of us, Dennis, J.T. and me, we do not write at all alike. I mean, Dennis Cooper and I—it would be almost impossible for us to collaborate, and if we did, it wouldn’t come up with J.T. Leroy.
So is he real?
Gaitskill: He’s a real something. I’m not totally sure what he is. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I don’t really know what he is or who he is. But I don’t care. I like him a great deal and I think he’s wonderful. I don’t care if he’s a hoax.
You wrote a great review of the Garbage album for the Voice in 2001. Someone said to you, dismissively, “Oh—Shirley Manson, she’s just a secretary.” And you wrote, “Music could use more secretaries right now.” You praised the Shangri-Las as “generic containers for pure female electricity.”
Gaitskill: That is something you don’t see anymore. It seems like something that isn’t possible anymore. As soon as someone emerges they’re seized and groomed and controlled so much that whatever ordinariness they have is immediately obliterated or marketed so aggressively that it’s not remotely anything ordinary. And I’m not necessarily, you know, a champion of the ordinary, but it’s a good feeling to have in music.
Has time softened your view of the film adaptation of Secretary?
Gaitskill: I haven’t thought about it. My reaction to it, when I saw the rough cut, I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen. But I just thought, well, whatever. I felt sorry for Shainberg [the director]. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I thought, the poor son of a bitch went through so much trouble, he’s never going to find a distributor, that’s really sad. But then there became this whole thing with money. I didn’t get paid when I was supposed to, and I was concerned that they were going to cheat me, and a lawyer told me they very well could. That was what upset me. I didn’t give a fuck about anything else. I just thought, if I don’t get my money, I’m going to have to kill somebody.
So I didn’t see it for a long time. I got paid, and as far as I was concerned that was the end of the story. Then my sister came to visit, and she wanted to see it. It had been out for some months at that point, and we went to the theatre, and I enjoyed it! Its not what I would have done but it’s kind of sweet. My actual character in the story, Debby, she would have loved it. It was too cute and ham-fisted, too “wanting to create a positive image.” It wanted to make people feel good about themselves. It was so odd, because I read an interview with the screenwriter, who was sort of blathering about political correctness and how awful it was—well, the movie is the epitome of political correctness! It was a positive statement about people who are into S&M, and those who don’t understand. Which I find icky. But bottom line, it’s great to have a movie of your work no matter what; it’s a no-lose situation.
Have you ever read what Nabokov said, that Chekhov wrote sad stories for humorous people, and in order to understand their humor you have to understand their sadness because they’re connected? People don’t get that now. To me, Secretary was a sad story for humorous people. It’s actually very funny. But you have to feel the pain of it before you can laugh at it. I think you can certainly like the movie and like the story too, but I think a lot of people whom the movie would appeal to would not understand that.