A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill

November 3, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 1 12 min read


Mary Gaitskill’s singular ability to create characters that are rigid and vulnerable, complex and demanding, has earned her a devoted readership, along with a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner nomination. Her new novel, The Mare, is softer in many ways than her previous books. The characters are easier to root for, but at the same time, Gaitskill delivers the same hard edges; it’s a compelling book, but it’s not easy reading.

The Mare tells the story of an 11-year-old Dominican-American girl named Velvet who lives in Crown Heights, N.Y. She joins a summer program called Fresh Air, where city kids live upstate for a few weeks with a sponsor family. Through Fresh Air, she meets Ginger, a middle-aged woman with no children, and the two form a bond during their summers together, filled with both love and struggle. Perhaps more important for Velvet than her relationship with Ginger, however, is a deep connection she develops with an abused horse named Fiery Girl. The novel follows Velvet through several years of school, vacations, and home life, and because it’s a Gaitskill novel, it’s not just a book about a girl and a horse, but a meditation on abuse, betrayal, self-defeat, self-discovery, and ultimately, love.

I talked to Gaitskill over the phone about The Mare, about listening to the story within, and about her life as a writer.

The Millions: Can you talk about your writing habits? What does your daily schedule look like?

Mary Gaitskill: That really varies. I’m not consistent like some people seem to be. Sometimes I don’t write at all. If I’m not really working on anything, I might go for quite a while without writing. I’ve never kept a record of it, but I could guess the longest time I went without writing anything was probably two months. Then at other times, I’ve written, but it was just magazine articles. It wasn’t heavy lifting. But if I am working on something, I usually do work every day. The pattern is usually, starting sometime in the morning after eating, working for maybe two hours, stopping, doing errands, eating lunch, coming back, working for another two to four hours, going to the gym maybe. Eating dinner. Working for another period of two hours. It’s usually a two to four hour block of time. Sometimes it gets up to six. That’s unusual, but it does happen.

I’ve never worked over six hours, which I’m sorry to admit because you do read about great writers working 10 hours at a stretch. I’ve never done that, but six has happened. If I’m really into the piece, I’ll start before I eat in the morning. I’ll wake up, have coffee, and start writing. If I’m really, really excited, I can write wherever I am. When I’m really interested in something, I’ve written at airport restaurants. That’s if I’m really, really into it. But, I usually have to have a quiet place, and really spend some time sitting, without any distractions, and then I get into a frame of mind where I really focus. That’s more normal.

TM: Do you find that you still read while you’re working? I hear many writers say, “I can’t read any fiction while I’m writing a novel. I only read nonfiction” — but I find that I’m the opposite. I have to be constantly reading.

MG: I don’t stop reading fiction when I’m writing. I make a half-conscious attempt to read things that I think might be inspiring, but it’s not necessarily a direct thing, like I’m looking specifically for influence or anything like that. But I sometimes do that, try to think of something that’s going to be helpful somehow.

TM: Let’s talk about The Mare, or really, about another piece I think might be connected. You published a nonfiction piece in Granta, titled “Lost Cat,” that discussed, among other things, your personal experience fostering two inner-city kids during a summer program. There are some obvious parallels, so I wanted to ask you what relation that essay has to The Mare.

MG: Not very much really. You’re right, that the character Velvet is inspired by the girl in “Lost Cat,” but the circumstances are really different. She’s got a different character, different personality, and her life is different, things that happen are different. So, there’s not really very many parallels in the sense of action.

TM: Both pieces also have an animal or animals as central figures, so in “Lost Cat,” it’s your runaway kitten Gattino and in The Mare, it’s an abused horse named Fiery Girl. In both cases, there’s a relationship between the human woman and the non-human animal that seems primal and nonverbal, or pre-verbal, and you say in “Lost Cat,” “Gattino was attuned to me. I think he could feel me even from far away. I think feeling fear from me further unmoored him.” Then in The Mare, Velvet also mentions repeatedly that “the horses feel her thoughts.”

MG: I wouldn’t stand behind that statement in any argumentative way. I definitely can’t. It’s not something I can prove at all, and I may have felt that way because I was really upset. It could be that people imagine things like that when they’re in a heightened state of emotion or they want to believe it, or they’re thinking so powerfully about the animal that they imagine the animal feels them. I do think it’s possible. I think animals have highly developed senses. That the senses that we know about in them may be beyond what we can understand. So it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually was true. I wouldn’t try to convince anyone of that though, if they didn’t believe it.

TM: Were you worried at all about writing a novel about a horse?

MG: In what way? You mean, could I do it?

TM: I mean…I was very touched by the piece “Lost Cat” because I lost a dog two years ago, and it was devastating, completely devastating. But other people found it really unserious.

MG: Yeah. Oh, people totally make fun of “Lost Cat.” People just utterly laughed at it. I think people who don’t…It’s difficult to understand somebody’s grief, actually, even when it’s about a human being. I remember when my father died, I was so utterly wrapped up in grief, and really stunned by it, and yet maybe a year later, someone told me his mother had died and I realized I wasn’t taking it in. I had no memory anymore of how it had felt. I could remember it, and then deleted it. I couldn’t really remember what that feeling was like, and he told me in an email. I started to answer his email kind of briefly, and then I realized, wait a minute, he just told you his mother died. It’s hard to connect with those feelings even if it’s actually about a person. So if it’s about an animal, and you’re not a person who really has ever had that kind of relationship with a pet, of course it looks utterly ridiculous and sentimental and histrionic and just absurd. So I’m not surprised if people react like that.

TM: The beginning of The Mare moves back and forth between just two points of view, the two main characters, Velvet and Ginger, giving each of them alternating first person chapters. But then starting on page 61, we first get Ginger’s husband Paul’s perspective and then eventually get Velvet’s mother, Silvia, and then one of the horse trainers, and even Velvet’s brother. Why and how did you decide to open up the narrative in that way?

MG: Those choices were mostly intuitive, and I really resisted making Silvia a point-of-view character. She was a character that I did not intend to go into. I originally just meant to keep it Ginger and Velvet, and then Paul seemed like…That was a very natural decision because he was somebody who could describe the situation in a way that Ginger never would. He could create a perspective that I felt was important. But Silvia, at first I thought, I can’t do this. I can’t understand her well enough and I won’t do her justice.

My editor, even, when she saw a first draft, said, “I don’t know about this. I loved all that but I don’t know about this.” And yet, it kept coming to me almost like a physical feeling. At a certain point, I really wanted to hear what she had to say, even though that’s a silly way to put it because I’m inventing her, but she seemed like she had to be there at certain times, so I kept doing it. I’m not sure how successful it is, because she really was the character who I had the most difficulty…Not understanding her on a really basic level but on a more detailed level, on a more intimate level.

I don’t know what it would be like to be her. Velvet was hard too, but she is somebody who was born in this country, so she’s maybe half Dominican, but she’s American. She is very attuned to American culture far more than she would be to Dominican culture. She’s never been to the DR. So I felt more familiar with her, but Silvia was really hard. I hope I did her justice. I couldn’t keep her out of it though, finally.

TM: As you were saying, Silvia is an immigrant. She doesn’t have a lot of money. She’s abusive. She has a traumatic emotional background in terms of Velvet’s father. So you’re writing across race, and then obviously Velvet is so young. I couldn’t think of another character who is a teenager in your work. I could be wrong about that, but I thought she was the first one.

MG: There was a character in my second book of short stories, a teenage girl named Elise. The girl was 16 years old, which is older than Velvet. Then the girl in “Secretary” actually, I never gave her age. I pictured her being about 17. But Velvet is much younger. At the beginning she’s 11, and that was really, really hard because I think kids of that age, and younger even, are incredibly perceptive about what’s going on around them. They don’t even have to be especially intelligent, which Velvet, in my mind, is, but they don’t even have to be. I think even kids with average intelligence are very, very aware of what they’re looking at, but they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.

I remember when I was young, looking at people and taking in a tremendous amount of information about them, but I would never have been able to say in words even to myself what it was I was looking at. I think adults have that experience too, even very articulate adults, but for children it’s just constant.

So the challenge was to create this girl who would be very, very perceptive about everything she’s seeing, and particularly vigilant because in her own neighborhood it’s a tough environment. Then when she’s upstate, she’s surrounded by people who don’t quite understand what’s going on. So she’s looking much more closely than somebody who lived there would look. But, at the same time, she’s not going to have a sophisticated vocabulary with which to describe any of it. You do have a little leeway with fictional characters. You can make them speak in a more sophisticated way than they really would, but you should be somewhat true to life. So that was a challenge.

And then when writing across race, that was also really a challenge because I don’t know what it would be like to be non-white. I can guess at it. I can feel my way into some of it, but at the end of the day, I don’t really know. So I found that very challenging. When I first had the idea of the book, my first thought was, “I can’t do that.” I didn’t sit down confidently and go, “Oh, wow, that’s great idea,” and then sit down to write it. My first thought was, “No, you can’t do that.”

I’d had the idea in 2007, and I just thought, “No,” and yet it kept coming to me. This has never happened before, actually. Scenes would come into my mind when I wasn’t even thinking about it. I’d be just like in an airport or just walking down the street or waking up in the morning, and I would get these images and scenes. One of the first scenes that came to me like that was the scene of Velvet riding the horse bareback when she’s angry at Beverly for mistreating a different horse. That scene came into my mind back in 2007, I think, when I thought I wasn’t going to write it. It kept happening, and so I thought, “well, I’m going to try this.” I was so strongly compelled that I went against my better judgement in a way and thought, I’ll try.

I also was working on another book, so I didn’t really have any need to start another novel right then. But I sat down, and I wrote maybe 50 pages. I showed it to my editor, and she really liked it. So that’s how it happened. But I never had a feeling of confidence about what I was doing in any of it really. The whole project of writing, trying to write people who are not only of a different ethnicity, but also I don’t know what it would be like to be that color. They’re also very poor. They’re even poor for the people around them. Velvet has less than the other girls in her school. So that’s a very, very heavy and particular experience.

TM: Setting seems incredibly important for the novel. It’s as if Ginger’s house and Velvet’s apartment are different planets altogether. I found the train travel really interesting between the two places. It allows the characters to transition, but there’s also a lot of waiting. There are a lot of missed meetings.

MG: I don’t know if I’ve got anything interesting to say about that. It’s an interesting observation, and I think you’re right that I do spend time covering the distance between the two places. It is like a passage going somewhere else. I didn’t really think about it other than it would literally be the case that they’d be spending time on this train.

It’s a dreamy place because, in a way, I really underplay the influence of phones and devices. The timing, I believe, I set it 2006 to 2009. I don’t remember exactly, but that was before phones completely exploded and people were just staring at their phone non-stop. Velvet actually, believe it or not, as poor as they are, she doesn’t even have a phone until fairly late in the book. So there isn’t anything to do but either talk, or read a magazine, or look out the window. She does listen to music sometimes. So it’s a dreamy state, and it’s a state where there’s a lot of nature. They’re not in the city, and they’re not in the cultured world of upstate either. There’s just trees and water around them.

TM: Did you set it during that time period on purpose so you wouldn’t have to deal with the distraction of characters texting each other, or did it just seem natural for the novel?

MG: It did seem natural, partly because, I hate to admit it, I don’t feel like I understand the world I’m living in very well at this point. Whereas at that point, I still did. I felt very connected to the culture. I’ve never been a person who’s super culturally connected. People sometimes have talked about me as if I’m a cultural analyst, and I am not.

This culture is like a chimera before which I stand agog. I’ve never really felt like I understood it, but during that time period I did feel more tuned in. I think that’s probably an unconscious reason I set it during that time.

TM: There’s so much about riding in this book. Do you ride horses at all?

MG: Well, I never did. When you asked me earlier, “Did I feel worried about writing about a horse,” actually yes. I didn’t see it as about the horse at first, because I was so focused on the girl. I didn’t understand going into it how complicated the horse world is, how many different facets it has, and also riding itself and the relationship between people and horses.

There’s a lot there, and I didn’t know how to ride. I actually was dumb enough to think that I could learn about it by asking people questions. I went into the stable with my notebook and pen was like, “Have you ever had a real connection with a horse? What did it feel like?” I actually asked that question. But I realized, and very quickly, that this wasn’t going to work, that I had to do it myself.

I didn’t want to because I was somewhat afraid of horses. I wasn’t phobic or anything, but I had no draw to them the way some girls do when they’re little. I thought they were nice. I don’t dislike any animal, but when it came to handling them and being on top of them, I was afraid. So it was hard.

I ended up spending three years with them. I didn’t ride for all that time because I was just so honestly uncomfortable doing it, and that made the horses uncomfortable. They’re extraordinarily sensitive, and if they feel you are uncomfortable, especially if they feel you’re actually frightened, they don’t enjoy having you on top of them at all.

If it’s a lesson horse, they’re used to it. But they don’t like it, and it’s a horrible feedback loop that gets started. Even when I was just tacking a horse and getting it ready. If it did any normal horse-like thing like toss its head or paw at the ground, I would flinch, and then the horse would flinch, and I would flinch even more and it would just…It was terrible. Then I fell off of a horse at a certain point. Fortunately, I didn’t get hurt. It didn’t throw me off or anything, but I just fell off. I was bareback so it’s pretty easy to slide off.

I was too afraid to get back on, and I just decided I would groom them and clean out their stalls instead of riding, and I did that for a few months. But the weird thing was I became very comfortable with them because of handling, and they became comfortable with me because I was very predictable. I did a good job. I liked grooming them. I learned where they liked to be scratched and touched, and I was very thorough and they came to feel comfortable with me. So one day realized I’m not afraid of them right now. I decided I had to start riding again so I did, and it was a really interesting experience. I fell in love with one of them actually.

With horses especially, they’re looking at you to be in charge, to be the confident person who is going to guide them through whatever it is you’re going to do and sometimes it’s more of a partnership, but mostly they’re looking at you to be the boss. If you’re not, if you’re frightened, they’re going, what’s happening? Why is she doing this? Why is she afraid? It makes them nervous.

TM: What have you been reading lately?

coverMG: Right now, I’m reading something called Soul by a Russian writer named Andrey Platonov. I don’t have it with me right now, but it’s really good. I just started it. And before that, I was reading Brian Boyd’s biography of Vladimir Nabokov. And before that, I was really into the book called The Orientalist by Tom Reiss.

TM: What are you working on right now, if anything?

MG: I’m not really working on anything right now, but I’ve got a book that I stopped writing in order to write The Mare that I hope to return to. I’m also working on a book of essays that will be published in a year or so.

lives in Chicago, where she is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Her fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, and her nonfiction has appeared in Venus and Bust magazines. You can find out more about Chelsea at chelseavoulgares.com, or follow her on Twitter @chelsvoulgares.