MARY GAITSKILL is reading to me from The Art of Joy by the late Italian writer Goliarda Sapienza. We are seated in her small, quaint kitchen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the walk-up apartment she shares with a roommate. The novel’s narrator is a young girl living in squalor in the Sicilian countryside. She has a dimwitted sister whom their mother regularly locks in the bathroom — abuse the narrator finds sexually arousing. She goes on to sleep with her father, after which she sets fire to the family hut and kills them all.
“And that’s just the first 10 pages,” says Gaitskill, blue eyes ablaze (the book rolls out to nearly 700). Her default expression is hard and imperious, but when she smiles — a wide, uncomplicated grin — it is hard not to do the same. Gaitskill’s not just smiling because of the novel’s melodrama or how, in her estimation, “it breaks too many workshop rules” with so much offstage action and exposition. “There’s a life force in this book,” she says. An authenticity. It’s a quality she misses in some popular American psychodramas like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, whose prose she described in Bookforum as “truly sick and dark.” (“[A]nd in case you don’t know,” she added, “I’m supposedly sick and dark.”) To Gaitskill, the husband and missing wife at the center of Flynn’s best seller don’t seem like real people, resembling instead “grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of extreme artifice.” Sapienza’s narrator, on the other hand, is a bona fide, multidimensional human whom Gaitskill sees as “fighting for survival.” There’s also this: Sapienza’s narrator wants to find real love. “That’s what I care about too,” Gaitskill says. “Love is central to my work.” It’s the kind of softhearted declaration that might surprise readers familiar with her early fiction.
Mary Gaitskill first made her mark in 1988 with Bad Behavior, a collection of nine short stories, all of which had been previously rejected by various literary magazines. The book lured readers in with its frank portrayal of sex work, sadomasochism, and substance abuse, and a style critics called “ferocious” and “terrifying.” The collection gained further traction when one of its stories, “Secretary,” became an indie film–turned–cult classic starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The story depicts a lawyer who spanks and demeans his female assistant for typing errors — a practice she finds humiliating and, at points, titillating. “Secretary” has continued to live on in other ways: some critics suspect that E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey pays homage to Gaitskill’s work, since both sadistic authority figures are named Mr. Grey.
The four books Gaitskill produced over the next two decades, all of them rife with sexual violence and self-destruction, cemented her reputation as the “Princess of Darkness” — as did her much-discussed past. Gaitskill, who was born in Kentucky and raised in Michigan, ran away as a teenager, was briefly institutionalized, worked as a stripper and call girl, and wrote publicly about her own experiences with rape and abuse.
Salaciousness, however, often obscures what surrounds it. Gaitskill herself pokes fun at this phenomenon in her story “The Agonized Face,” in which we meet a feminist author miffed by a biographical write-up that ignores her art in favor of “the most sensational aspects of her life.” Likewise, in the aftershock of Bad Behavior and its cover image — a woman lying facedown waiting to be bound — it’s easy to overlook the collection’s more tender terrain. I’m thinking of “Daisy’s Valentine,” whose hero is so enamored with his co-worker that he’s content just to watch her: “That alone made him so happy.” Consider also the opening to “A Romantic Weekend”: “She was meeting a man she had recently and abruptly fallen in love with.” The courtships in both these narratives fall short of expectations. In Gaitskill’s hands, absolute love seems unattainable — or at least unsustainable. Gaitskillian unions fail because of everything from idealism and misunderstanding (Bad Behavior) to sexual trauma (Two Girls, Fat and Thin). Love even eludes Alison, the washed-up model who narrates the novel Veronica, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award. “I wanted to love,” Alison says. “But I didn’t realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn’t realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn’t know how to be with another person.” The sentiment reverberates. So many of Gaitskill’s stories circle around love, engines sputtering, wondering what it would be like to land safely.
This brings us to Gaitskill’s newest novel, The Mare, which was published last year and released in paperback this fall. The story, a near retelling of National Velvet, wears its heart on its sleeve, a quality that’s aroused surprised applause and a few sneers. “This is the first Gaitskill production that feels entirely book-clubbable,” said a reviewer in The New York Times. The novel examines the relationship between Velvet, an 11-year-old Dominican-American girl from Brooklyn, and 47-year-old Ginger, her white Fresh Air Fund “host mom” in upstate New York. Ginger, a painter and recovering addict, has been experiencing maternal pangs; she wants to be a “normal woman,” but she can’t conceive. Unsure of adoption, she and her husband Paul, a professor, use the Fund to trial-run parenthood. What’s supposed to be a two-week visit for Velvet becomes a relationship that stretches over several years, in part because Velvet discovers a talent for horseback riding at a stable next to Ginger’s house. But it’s also because Ginger and Velvet satisfy each other’s needs. After a mere week, Ginger seems to forget “the fear and chaos” inside her as she delights in mundane intimacies with her interim daughter: setting the dinner table together, watching television side by side, brushing Velvet’s hair before bed. The admiration isn’t one-sided. When the point of view switches from Ginger to Velvet, we see the girl marvel at her new caregiver. “She was always nice, even when she got mad,” Velvet says, which draws a contrast to her biological mother who berates and beats her. Velvet fantasizes about moving upstate, albeit part-time.
“It was like we were both living […] a dream that neither of us had believed in yet had both longed for without knowing it,” says Ginger. “A dream in which love and happiness were the norm.” The feeling extends to the stable where Velvet falls for an abused, ill-behaved mare nicknamed Fugly Girl because her head is too big for her body. Velvet, who is also teased for having a disproportionate head, renames the horse Fiery Girl: “I kissed her scars,” she says, “and I know she felt the love in my lips.” The line may as well apply to Velvet and Ginger’s treatment of each other.
Love as panacea? Alas, not quite, says Gaitskill.
In The Mare, the author burdens her characters with the thorniest and most political obstacles to lasting love: race, class, culture. No amount of homework help or riding lessons can negate Velvet’s violent reality. Nor can Ginger quell her “strangeness” with a part-time child.
It is a hot July 3 afternoon when I sit with Mary Gaitskill in her Brooklyn kitchen. Tomorrow, the United States will turn 240 and we will toast to our freedom. We won’t mention the history we’d rather ignore, even in the heat of the Black Lives Matter summer: the United States was built by slaves — nearly all of our founding fathers owned them — and freedom was tendered to few. “I don’t know how you can live in this country and not be thinking about race,” Gaitskill says over the drone of a fan. At 61, the author herself is doll-pale with a high, smooth forehead that nearly melds into silver-blond hair. In other words, unmistakably white. She thinks Obama’s presidency has unfortunately given racism a public stage, contending that “these Trump supporters have not come out of the blue.” In fact, she suspects that the president has regular exposure to people who, in a different setting, would’ve killed him.
Gaitskill didn’t plan to write The Mare, a tale inspired by — but not based on — an experience she had with her husband years ago, when they lived together in upstate New York. Gaitskill and Trachtenberg were Fresh Air Fund “parents” to a Dominican-American brother and sister and remained close with the children for years. But the idea for a novel kept at her, even as she worried about speaking through the point of view of a person of color. The book emerged even bolder than she fathomed: “I didn’t realize until I was about halfway through exactly what I’d taken on.”
As a fictionist, Gaitskill regularly writes beyond her own experience. Sometimes her imagination makes geographical and cultural leaps. In “Don’t Cry,” from her collection of the same name, a white American woman travels to Ethiopia with a friend who wants to adopt a child, a mission Gaitskill never embarked on (though she knows someone who did). She had few qualms about that particular vantage point. “I felt like I could inhabit the narrator’s point of view because I had the experience of wanting to mother a child from a very different culture and having to deal with situations I didn’t understand,” she says.
Velvet’s perspective (and that of Velvet’s mother Silvia, which Gaitskill intermittently assumes) proved more formidable, even though the author knows firsthand what it’s like to be an adolescent girl who doesn’t fit into her environment. There were, inevitably, empirical limitations: “It would be hard for me to understand what a child like that would be thinking and feeling and going through and in her neighborhood when I don’t really know that,” she admits, but she was compelled to try. While she thinks she succeeded in capturing “something real,” she was — and is — wary of the book’s reception and puzzled that critics haven’t altogether denounced it. She even prepared the headline for her own nightmare review: “A Turgid Melodramatic Story of Ghetto Life Told by a Middle-Aged White Woman Who Doesn’t Even Appear to Understand Her Own Culture.” Are critics tiptoeing around a touchy subject because of political correctness? she wonders. Or maybe The Mare just hasn’t circulated widely enough?
I actually first met Gaitskill a few months earlier when she visited Drew University in New Jersey, where I teach. To a rapt audience, she read a section of The Mare in Velvet’s voice. Afterward, when the crowd had dispersed, she expressed concern that an African-American student in the second row — one of the few people of color in attendance — looked put off. I suggested that maybe the girl’s expression had nothing to do with the reading, though Gaitskill seemed unconvinced. Later I learned that at a previous event at another university, a young Latina woman had raised her hand to say that Gaitskill’s characters didn’t seem authentically Dominican to her (though the student praised the prose). Gaitskill thanked the woman for speaking up. In recounting the exchange to me, she seemed relieved by the feedback, as if it affirmed her suspicion of the work’s inaccuracy. As if: How could she ever do justice to their point of view?
Here’s how the politics play out in The Mare: Paul accuses his wife of trying to be a “white benefactor,” while a local woman suggests Ginger knows nothing about Velvet’s race or culture. In Brooklyn, middle-school girls spit on Velvet’s new Gap shirt (a gift from Ginger), while her mother slaps her for acting stuck-up. When Velvet tells her friend Shawn about how “nice” Ginger is, he replies, “You know why those people can act nice? Other people do the violence for them. That’s how they have that nice world.” Gaitskill doesn’t think Shawn’s statement is literally true, “but there’s an element of truth to it,” she says. In other words, Ginger lives in a protected environment, created in part by her separation from the ruthless realities of Velvet’s life. Later in the novel, and a few years into their relationship, Ginger is horrified to learn that Velvet beat up classmates and keyed a stranger’s car. “Maybe they really are different from us,” Ginger thinks, wondering if she’s a racist. The fleeting thought doesn’t diminish her affection for Velvet, but reveals how steeped these characters are in cultural assumptions and judgments, even as they try to resist them. “That’s what I wanted to describe in the novel,” Gaitskill says. “How the feelings of small individuals can get so distorted and crushed by these larger forces.”
Love in The Mare is more constant and accessible than in Gaitskill’s previous work, and characters are more vocal about their affections, but the lens trained on it is no kinder. Take Ginger’s view on the subject: love “was not pleasure,” she says early on in the novel, “it was like a brick wall that a giant hand smashed me against again and again, and it was like the most powerful drug in the world.” Silvia uses brute force to tame and protect the daughter she loves (much like a controversial horse trainer does at the stable). We even feel the gaze of Dominic, Velvet’s would-be boyfriend, as a sharpness in Velvet’s soft heart: “Soft/sharp,” Velvet thinks. “Love.”
Gaitskill is sensitive to what she calls the “limitless” ways we hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally, in and out of love. “It’s incomprehensible,” she says. In fiction she often expresses suffering by invoking hell, an idea she thinks helps people “make sense of a terrible world.” It’s reassuring, she says, that there may be balance in the afterlife. Veronica, for example, opens with a folktale of a vain girl sinking into the underworld. In The Mare, hell appears in several instances: Ginger recounts to Velvet a dream in which she took the devil’s treasure (Gaitskill actually had this dream as a child), and Velvet dreams the entrance to hell is a trapdoor in Ginger’s backyard. I ask the author if she thinks hell is a useful metaphor. She demurs. “I don’t know if it’s useful,” she says, “but I think it’s natural.”
Gaitskill is sharing another exchange from Sapienza’s novel, her body pitched forward in her chair, lavender fingernails on full display. She reads quickly, a grin caught in her throat, as if she can’t wait to get to the best part:
“Love is not a miracle, Carlo, it’s an art, a skill, a mental and physical exercise of the mind and of the senses like any other. Like playing an instrument, dancing or woodworking.”
“You’re talking about sex.”
“But isn’t sex love?”
Gaitskill laughs with incredulity. The plainspoken conversation is ridiculous, she says, but it’s “somehow refreshing,” too. Her relief at this simple definition makes sense, considering how her work exhibits love’s complexities. While the New Testament — and many a wedding officiant — would have us believe that “love is patient, love is kind,” Gaitskill’s stories and novels remind us that love is also deceptive and inexplicable. Love is sex sometimes. It is gratitude and bliss. But it is also grief. It is disappointment. It is light and dark, heaven and hell both, sometimes at once (“soft/sharp”). It is a mother whipping her daughter and a damaged preteen absconding with a disfigured horse. It is Ginger slapping and then sleeping with Paul. To be a reader of Gaitskill and, perhaps, a balanced human, you agree to tolerate simultaneous realities.
Gaitskill says she’s never understood the world very well. She finds people to be “baffling” and human interaction bewildering. “Some part of me is working overtime to understand what I’m looking at,” she says. It’s a subject she also discusses in “Lost Cat,” an essay that recently appeared in Granta, and one that’s as much about feline fondness as it is about Gaitskill’s intense and devastating relationship with her Fresh Air Fund kids. The workings of the heart, she says in the essay, “can never be fully seen or understood.” Gaitskill has just finished revising and updating a collection of pieces she’s published over the last 20 years in magazines, which includes “Lost Cat.” Somebody With a Little Hammer will be her first book of nonfiction. Primarily a fiction writer, she thinks of the genres in opposition. “Nonfiction for me is a rational medium,” she says. There’s often a “takeaway” or an essential message a reader can distill. Fiction, on the other hand, is a deeply irrational process, she says — like the difference between real life and a dream — and if the fiction’s any good, she continues, it will elude a simple takeaway. Gaitskill’s not sure yet how she feels about her collection. When asked if there’s any harmony among the essays she says, “Probably not.”
Things in her life have been “a bit too unstable” lately to think about her next project, circumstances she deems too personal to describe, but she wonders if she’s still able to write stories that can connect with people, stories that “communicate on a deep level.” I ask if this is something she aspires to do in her work. She doesn’t blink. “I wouldn’t bother otherwise.”
Mary Gaitskill is stirring maple syrup into her coffee at her tiny kitchen counter. “Want some?” she asks, looking doubtful.
I have a sweet tooth and am intrigued, but also surprised. The preference seems childlike. “Sure,” I say. Perhaps I expected that someone who writes casually about brutal sex would drink her coffee black. “It’s just something I like,” she says. She pours the syrup onto a spoon and dunks it into the mug. She licks a bit off her thumb.
The coffee is delicious.
“Maybe,” she says, “I’ll try to write something joyful.”