Mary Gaitskill’s prose is the literary equivalent of a Robert Mapplethorpe nude: it’s full frontal sexuality, but it’s also deeply human. Her turns of phrase are both poetic and raw; she penetrates her characters’ psyches — lays bare their feelings, their fears, their kinks — like no other writer.
In her most recent collection of short stories, Don’t Cry, now out in paperback, memory converges with present, fantasy collides with reality, and sparse prose reveals deep craft. The stories are about love, loss, death, and art. And sure, there’s lots of sex here, too, but it’s Gaitskill’s unmatched ability to render human nature so precisely that makes this book so haunting. Her writing is not for prudes, but those who follow her into the dark places are rewarded with pure pleasure. Gaitskill recently spoke to us about Dick Cheney, vampires, and other frightening specters of modern life.
What is your writing process like? I heard you used to write longhand but have now switched to composing on a computer.
Actually, that’s not completely true. I kind of go back and forth between longhand and the computer. I go directly to the computer when I’m getting locked up, because for some reason, I don’t know why this is, but there is more facility; I feel less buried in my personal mud — which is good, normally, for composing — but if you wind up getting too buried, it’s good to get into that more facile mood. When I’m at home, I mostly write in a chair. I sit in an armchair and write long hand, but if I’m working on the computer, I go to the desk, which is right next to the chair.
Your short story “Secretary” was made into a film, which you called “too cute and ham-fisted.” What’s your favorite literary film adaptation?
I think the adaptation of Lolita is good, though certainly not superior to the book. I liked both Kubrick’s Lolita and the more recent film [the 1997 adaptation directed by Adrian Lyne], which in some ways I think is truer to the spirit of the book.
You were an early champion of author J. T. Leroy, who turned out to a hoax. Does it matter if an author is not who they claim to be?
I understood why people were pissed off about it, but, strangely enough, I didn’t feel that way. I suspected something funny was going on for while; I didn’t know exactly what it was. But it was clear to me that this person wasn’t who they were representing themselves to be. I didn’t know it was a middle-aged woman but I knew something funny was going on. I don’t know how anyone couldn’t. I knew J. T. for quite a while over the phone so you knew that person, that voice, over the period of years that I did — and it was about ten years — I mean you couldn’t possibly not begin to realize something was not right here. I think it was a very complex story; that was the way she felt she had to talk to the world. She’s an extremely complex person.
I don’t have a relationship with her now, but I did for a while after it came out. I was fascinated. I was actually kind of awed. I thought it was awe-inspiring. She exposed the world of literary hype in a very humorous way. I didn’t find it personally painful, although I have to say, if it had happened right at the beginning, when I was just in love with this 16-year-old boy, I would have felt hurt. But at the point I finally discovered, I was just relieved to see what was finally going on.
Late last year, you wrote a piece for New York magazine from the perspective of Ashley Dupré. The story features a number of famous jilted political wives who turn up doing each other’s nails. How did it come about?
Actually, I was torn between writing about Ashley Dupré and Dick Cheney. I was thinking of doing a satire of the Annie Proulx story — which I liked by the way — “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which would have been called “Tits Up in Hog Heaven.” I wanted to write something humorous in which I could bend the rules of reality. I had a quicker affinity with Ashley Dupré than with Dick Cheney, though I tried to work him in; I had a version where he was writing her letters, too, but it was too long so I had to cut it. Also, I was fascinated by this phenomenon. I’m just tired of the wives being put down and acting like they’re humiliated and victimized. It’s bullshit. I’m tired of it. Look, Lilith and Eve have been playing tag team for centuries. If I were Silda [Spitzer, the former governor’s now ex-wife] I wouldn’t break up my marriage over that. She’s a prostitute for god’s sake; it wasn’t threatening her marriage.
Why do you think vampires are so prevalent in popular literature right now? What does it say about our desires?
I think they are perennially popular. They’re very sexual. I think people have a fear and fascination with sex as a form of devouring, especially psychic devouring. There’s also a feeling of people starving for deeper life, like blood. The feel empty and they want to find something to suck. Vampires express out need for substance, closeness, and intimacy.
Nabokov is one of your favorite writers, and his unfinished The Original of Laura was published in November 2009, despite his wishes it be destroyed after his death. What do you want to do with your papers and unfinished work after you are gone?
If I really don’t want something published, I’ll destroy it. I think that’s the only way to avoid. I actually haven’t thought too much about that, but maybe I should; I’ve written plenty of embarrassing things, certainly. I don’t think work should be published if an author doesn’t want it to be. I haven’t read The Original of Laura, but it’s a travesty to have published it. Nabokov was a perfectionist. I don’t even want to read it, frankly.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Probably working somewhere in a menial job. I’d do any work I could get. I’m a terrible worker. I’d probably be on disability. I’d probably be unemployed.