In Mary Gaitskill’s essay, “Leave the Woman Alone!”, one of a bracing, terrific new collection called Somebody with a Little Hammer, Gaitskill takes a look at the media reaction to some recent sex scandals involving politicians. She’s irritated that the wife of the philanderer is presumed to be humiliated; she wonders if those defending the betrayed woman are so enthusiastic because they are secretly gloating; she observes how the mistress gets something of a free pass; and she questions why the cheating men are attacked so viciously, when no one really knows their motives. Gaitskill is particularly perplexed over how, when Elizabeth Edwards continued to support her husband, John Edwards, after his affair was exposed, Edwards herself was berated, perhaps because she refused to let her marriage be defined by others, and instead defined it for herself. Watching these scandals unfold, Gaitskill, ever fascinated with public shamings, asks, “What is going on here?”
It’s a typical Gaitskill set-up. In these brilliant essays, which stretch back to the early 1990s and run up to the last few years, Gaitskill explores emotionally charged situations, catalogues conventional responses to them, then reveals their hidden, psychological underpinnings. Her explorations are incisive and unpredictable — she sticks up for Axl Rose, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Céline Dion, and Linda Lovelace, to name a few of the unexpected; she even sticks up for the philandering politicians mentioned above. The last thing you want to do with any topic is say, “I know just what Mary Gaitskill will think of this.”
In a 2015 article, The New Yorker described Gaitskill by reputation as a “writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse.” Gaitskill’s oeuvre, from her debut 1988 short story collection, Bad Behavior, through her much-fêted, National Book Award-nominated Veronica, is known for its kinky, heartless, transgressive sexual encounters. She regularly discusses rape. As Gaitskill writes about herself, “In case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.” It’s volatile stuff for sure, and Gaitskill’s work is a ready bullet point for anyone ready to politicize sex.
An example of the heated talk about Gaitskill came in an essay that appeared in The Rumpus in 2013. Author Suzanne Rivecca began her piece: “I hate it when men talk about Mary Gaitskill. I call for a permanent moratorium on men gassily discoursing on Mary Gaitskill.” Rivecca goes on to explain how Gaitskill is grossly misunderstood by men, in particular when it comes to feminism. “When men read Mary Gaitskill, their boners deflate. They feel squeamish and violated and desperate to reimpose a semblance of order and moral authority on their ransacked worlds.” I must say that as a man, my (literary) boner does not at all deflate when reading Gaitskill. But I should be careful here. As Rivecca says, “Even the nice things men say about Gaitskill are annoying.” The Rumpus piece was so strident that Gaitskill herself wrote a public letter to say that, while flattered by the author’s defense of her work, not all men are out to misinterpret her.
For me, the sex in Gaitskill’s work would be prurient if Gaitskill didn’t have such sensitive emotional antennae. I think a lot of the reason Gaitskill writes about sex is for the illusions, lies, power, aggression, and animal instinct it lays bare. For her, it’s a loaded nesting doll of psychological truths.
In my reading, much of what drives Gaitskill is shining a light. She is constantly lasering in on the gap between what is on the surface versus the emotional reality below. She praises the “numinous unconscious” in Charles Dickens, and his “secret life which glimmers in the margins.” She likes artists who “illuminate dark corners,” or who try to “tear things up in order to find what is real.” For Gaitskill, to contemplate darkness is a step toward health. As she writes, “The truth may hurt, but in art, anyway, it also helps, sometimes profoundly.”
In her essay “The Trouble with Following the Rules: On ‘Date Rape,’ ‘Victim Culture’ and Personal Responsibility,” Gaitskill discusses the nomenclature of inner pain, in particular people who inflate it with loaded terms, for example, calling one’s childhood a “Holocaust.”
‘Holocaust’ may be a grossly inappropriate exaggeration. But to speak in exaggerated metaphors about psychic injury is not so much the act of a crybaby as it is a distorted desire to make one’s experience have consequence in the eyes of others, and such desperation comes from a crushing doubt that one’s own experience counts at all or is even real.” (Italics Gaitskill’s).
Here, as elsewhere in Gaitskill, is the recognition of unspoken, deeply damaged interiors. I believe this is one of the reasons Gaitskill inspires such deep allegiance in her readers — those who are wounded know that Gaitskill would see them as they truly are, and would not flinch.
The emotional centerpiece of this collection, “Lost Cat: A Memoir,” is as fine a personal essay as you will find anywhere. It’s ostensibly about Gaitskill’s desperation over a pet cat who goes missing. Gaitskill uses the cat story as an entry point to talk about two other central sources of grief in her life: her relationship with her remote father and her experience taking into her home an inner-city boy named Caesar via The Fresh Air Fund. (This latter relationship became the source material for her recent novel The Mare.) Gaitskill ends up deeply involved with the troubled Caesar, while often failing to help him. At one point she tells Caesar she loves him because, “You are not someone who just wants to hear nice bullshit. You care. You want to know what’s real.” This, by the way, in Gaitskill-world, is as high a compliment as can be paid.
But back to the cat. Gaitskill originally found the cat in Italy, where it was homeless and blind in one eye. She describes the first encounter:
But a third kitten, smaller and bonier than the other two, tottered up to me, mewing weakly, his eyes almost glued shut…His big-nosed head was goblinish on his emaciated potbellied body, his long legs almost grotesque. His asshole seemed disproportionally big on his starved rear.
Gaitskill, needless to say, finds this cat irresistible. She later describes him affectionately as looking like “a little gangster in a zoot suit.” It’s a pattern you see again and again, Gaitskill saying to an outcast, though no one else will say so, you have worth in my eyes.
In an essay about the movie version of Gaitskill’s story “The Secretary,” Gaitskill describes the story’s origin. She had read a magazine article about a girl who was videotaped being spanked by her boss while she stood in a corner and repeated, “I am stupid.” When they were discovered, the boss apologized and paid the secretary $200.
On reading it, I laughed, then shook my head in dismay, then thought, What a great story — funny, horrible, poignant, and gross, the misery of it as deep as the eroticism; the misery, in fact, giving the eroticism its most pungent force. The wank-book aspect was clearly indispensable, but what interested me most was, Who is this girl? The Hopeful Innocent in the porn story, the cipher in the news story — what would she be like in real life?
Another piece discusses a favorite old song of Gaitskill’s called “Nowhere Girl.” When Gaitskill first heard it in the early 1980s, the song “lightly touched me with an indefinable feeling that was intense almost because it was so light.” The song was “trying to get your attention, though unconfidently, from somewhere off in a corner. Or from nowhere.” In the book’s title essay, about teaching Anton Chekhov, Gaitskill works in a passage about telling a ragged, obscenity-hurling woman on the street, who might have robbed her, “You are so beautiful.” In all these cases, Gaitskill comes alive when turning toward what others shun.
After “Lost Cat,” the other high point in the collection is Gaitskill’s essay on Linda Lovelace, “Icon.” Lovelace, for those who don’t know, experienced a meteoric ascendancy to fame following her starring role in the 1972 porn flick Deep Throat, about a woman whose clitoris is in her throat, and thus achieves orgasm by giving blow jobs. The essay discusses a smattering of documentaries and biographies about Lovelace, including an incident where she had sex with a dog.
The topic has everything Gaitskill gravitates toward: it’s provocative, it’s obscene, it’s about a woman on the fringes of acceptability, who is alternately shamed and lauded. Lovelace is also a psychological puzzle, inconsistent about whether she herself believes she is a victim. Gaitskill is in fact so taken by Lovelace, her terminology turns religious: “A compelling, even profound figure, a lost soul, and a powerful icon.” “It’s impossible to dismiss the appealing, even delightful way [Lovelace] looks in Deep Throat, or her otherworldly radiance in subsequence press conferences.”
In a superb Gaitskillian flourish, she then compares Lovelace’s ordeal to that of Joan of Arc in the famous Carl Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Gaitskill admits the comparison is a stretch, but still she writes, “Both women were torn apart by that which they embodied, yet for a moment glowed with enormous symbolic power.”
What greater dignity can Gaitskill confer upon Lovelace than to compare her to one of the most famous women to ever live, an icon of religious purity? To dignify something — to say that it is worthy of our respect and attention — is not the same as to redeem it, or forgive it, in the same way that exposing a wound is not the same as treating it. But exposing it is the physician’s first step, and Gaitskill’s. Back in 1990, she told an interviewer for BOMB magazine, “Before you can heal pain, you have to acknowledge it and feel it.”
A little more than 10 years ago I was an MFA student finishing my thesis, a collection of short stories that I had no intention of publishing. I wanted to be a novelist; the stories, I figured, were teaching me how I might do that. After I graduated, I started a book. Between SAT tutoring jobs, bookstore and cheese store shifts, and teaching my own workshops, I would sit down to write — and also panic. I thought, I have no idea what I’m doing! It was true, I didn’t; as anyone who’s written both knows, novels and short stories are very different beasts. At these moments, I would hear the voice of my former thesis advisor Margot Livesey in my head. In her sweet Scottish lilt, she’d urge me forward. She was (and is) an author I admire, and I wanted to make her proud. In this way, I put one sentence down, then another and another.
Livesey isn’t a preachy teacher. She doesn’t have little slogans or rules; she isn’t the type to ban certain points of view from her classes, or tell you that dead grandmothers are a tired trope. Her treatment of fiction and writing is open-minded and deep, and she considers and critiques a manuscript both on its own terms and against a long tradition of fiction. She is encouraging, and yet her expectations are high. As with the best teachers, she invited me to be the writer I wanted to be, while also pushing me to be better than that.
She is also one of the most talented novelists working today. Her gift, in particular, for writing complicated characters is what inspires me most. Through her fiction, she continues to be my teacher. Livesey’s new novel, Mercury, is a kind of morality tale, but without an easy sense of right and wrong. It’s also a literary thriller, about a husband and wife and the secrets they keep from one another, and the ways in which they fail to see each other truthfully. It’s got an eye doctor, a beautiful and powerful horse, an African Grey parrot named Nabokov, and a gun, which does, of course, go off.
Livesey was kind enough to answer some questions via email about teaching, reading, and writing her excellent books.
The Millions: You spend the fall in Iowa City, teaching graduate writing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In the spring you’re in Boston. Can you talk about how writing (and perhaps reading) changes for you, depending on whether or not you’re teaching? How has teaching influenced you as a writer, and, conversely, how has your writing influenced you as a teacher?
Margot Livesey: Teaching every autumn, I find myself plunged into the varied worlds that my students are creating, and at the same time rereading the stories and novels I’ve assigned for my classes. Both I think, I hope, influence my work. I do reread quite often but rereading with a class in mind, trying to figure out an author’s decisions, forces me to think more deeply, and more critically, about works I already admire and that’s nearly always fruitful. Maybe I can imitate how Jhumpa Lahiri manages her shifts in point of view in The Namesake. Or steal something from William Maxwell’s use of journalistic techniques in So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Meanwhile my students offer me maps of the contemporary world, constantly under revision as we debate voice, character, and motivation. In our workshops I get to study those maps in detail and to see how very good readers are responding to fiction. I cherish their voices in my head when I’m teaching and they remain, perched on my shoulder as it were, when I’m not — avoid that cliche, think about the setting, do you need to mention politics, is the animal too symbolical, is the dialogue going deep enough, can the mother have a more interesting job?
My own writing has made me very aware that there are some things I need to write to advance a novel or a story which the reader absolutely does not need to read. I tell my students a good first chapter is a chapter that helps the author to write the rest of the novel. Of course, later, the first chapter also needs to be a good ambassador but being too critical, too early, can sometimes distract the writer from what she really needs to do.
TM: Are there any themes or styles that are popular with your students right now? Which writers are inspiring and influencing them?
ML: A number of my students are dealing with material that engages with race, class, and gender in interesting ways. They cherish the work of such writers as Junot Díaz , Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith. Others are interested in the work of Jonathan Franzen, the sweeping panorama of social concerns, or in grittier voices like Bonnie Jo Campbell and of course Raymond Carver. Still others are working on historical material or using texts within texts. Rather than a single popular theme or style I would say there’s a wonderful range of themes, forms, and subject matters being explored.
TM: Your husband is a painter. Can you talk about how his work with a visual artist informs your process? Do you talk to each other about your work?
ML: Eric paints large abstract oil paintings. He works in layers on seven or eight paintings at once and many of his paintings take well over a year to complete. I don’t know if he’d agree but I think of his work as having a novelistic quality; the colors and composition gradually come into focus. We do spend a lot of time talking about our processes although I am often not very forthcoming when I’m in the midst of a new novel. Happily when I have nothing to say we can fall back on talking about our reading, a passion we share.
TM: At a recent event you told the audience that you write on a computer without the Internet, and said this was essential to your process. Can you talk more about this? I also can’t stop thinking about how you said that sometimes you read the dictionary during your writing time. I hope this is true! If so, what dictionary are you reading, and what recent gems have you come upon?
MG: Research is often a crucial part of my novel writing but it can also be very distracting. And then of course I can so easily fall into checking email. For a while I did try to be disciplined, but more recently I’ve solved the problem by having two computers, one on which I write fiction and essays, and a second one, a laptop, on which I do my correspondence and go online. Sometimes I go back and forth between the two 20 times in a few hours but I still think that this is better for my concentration and my efficiency.
I used to read poems or stories when I was stuck, but too often I was fatally seduced. Now I have a shorter Oxford English Dictionary in which I browse, sometimes purposefully, sometimes randomly, as I try to think what to write next. I often treat it as a kind of I Ching, simply opening it at random. I love knowing where words come from — disaster — ruin of the stars — and seeing the examples of usage: “Disaster always brought out the best in Churchill.”
TM: So much of your work is about morality and Mercury in particular is about life’s murky gray areas, when it’s not always quite clear what is right and what is wrong. Can you talk a little bit about how morality and making-hard-choices informs the characters you write, and the stories you tell. Your Iowa colleague, and another former teacher of mine, Ethan Canin, used to say in class that fiction writers are “moral philosophers.” Would you agree, and why or why not?
ML: I do agree with Ethan, but I would also paraphrase John Updike’s comment: The novel is our greatest psychological experiment. I am very interested in what people will do given certain possibilities. And I am very interested in how we are often quite confident in analyzing other people, but surprisingly reluctant to analyze ourselves. I think the best characters in novels combine that confidence with a sense of appropriate mystery and I think it is the job of plot, or conflict, to let us look more deeply into that mystery.
I am still a little surprised by how deeply interested I am in moral choices. Clearly I was paying more attention in my Scottish Sunday school than I realized. I remain deeply puzzled — I’d have to say indignant — that as adults we can find ourselves in situations where there is no obvious right thing to do.
TM: A few friends of mine, all of them women, have taken up or returned to horseback riding lately, and with your book and Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, it seems that horses are…trending! What drew you to write about horses in Mercury?
ML: I think horses, and our relationships with them, are fascinating. I knew when I started Mercury that I wanted to write about an ambitious woman and I knew that I wanted the object of that ambition to be something that many people, but by no means everyone, would value. A horse seemed perfect: large, complicated, fragile. I haven’t ridden much as an adult, but I did as a teenager and I felt I knew what it was like to inhabit that passion. Riding around Boston turned out to be very different from riding the Scottish Highland ponies of my youth. I loved visiting the stables and observing various horses and riders. And I loved reading books about horses including Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and more recently Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask you: what are you reading?
ML: I am currently reading Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes. The novel opens with an account of Ah Ling who hopes to strike gold and ends up working on the railway. Part II follows the life of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese film star. Part III explores the racially motivated killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. In part IV we learn how these three are connected as an American couple struggle to adopt a Chinese baby. Davies writes beautiful and dangerous sentences, and I love his timely exploration of issues of race and racism.