Image: Mary Gaitskill c Hillary Harvey. The protagonist Beth and her unnamed male lover spend a weekend together on the mutual understanding that she is a masochist derives pleasure from pain, emotional and sexual, inflicted on her and he is a sadist derives pleasure from hurting others. In this way, they seem to fulfil archetypal gender roles: she is desperate to melt, swoon, lose herself entirely in the overwhelmingly strong embrace of her man. He asserts too rigid boundaries; he is aloof, cold, cruel. Beth echoes all the heroines of mass-produced romance novels who seek to absolve themselves of the dilemma of their own freedom by submitting to a man with the power to control them. Because Beth is not a masochist after all.
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The guttural hiss of the steamer and the shouts of the baristas are too loud to hear ourselves speak so we take our flat whites and sit out on a low pavement bench that is shaded from the hot morning sun. At 61 Gaitskill is still in full possession of the dramatic cheekbones and pale blue eyes that stared out from the author photograph on her landmark debut collection of fiction, Bad Behavior , 28 years ago.
She did for the New York short story back then something comparable to what Debbie Harry had done a few years earlier for the New York popular song: invested it with stark attitude and jagged lived emotion. So, in a strange way, I got to act that out in burlesque. I could make fun of it and yet have the experience. It was like taking on various personas and throwing them off right away.
The cover of that book portrayed a woman bound and gagged, submissive and defiant on hands and knees; Gaitskill was claimed as a post-feminist provocateur. One interviewer admitted removing her wedding ring before they met so as not to appear too impossibly conventional.
Gaitskill has of course done a lot of living and writing since those days. She has taught literature and creative writing at universities for much of that time, and detailed some of her singular interior life in unflinching essays and memoirs. In one, On Not Being a Victim , she examined, presciently and pointedly, the wider identity politics and complicated emotional fallout of having been raped as a year-old, one trigger for her writing.
In another, for Granta , in , she examined the disabling nature of mid-life loss — of her beloved cat, and her troubling father and, subsequently to the essay, her husband, the writer Peter Trachtenberg, in a split that seemed to be precipitated in some way by their involvement in a scheme that brought urban children from difficult homes out to live in the country in their case upstate New York for the summer.
The book is a typically curious departure for her as a writer. It takes the relationship between a woman not unlike herself called Ginger, an artist, and a New York Dominican teenager, Velvet, who comes to stay with her as part of the Fresh Air Fund scheme that Gaitskill and her husband volunteered for.
In some senses Gaitskill is recasting Elizabeth Taylor and National Velvet , though she says the similarities are mostly accidental. The book also risks a degree of Black Beauty sentimentality: it has what is as close to a Hollywood ending as Gaitskill will ever get.
To start with I ask her what she meant by that. She talks warmly and precisely, putting on and taking off her shades, taking care to say exactly what she means. The book is much concerned with the interaction between Velvet and her wayward horse; Gaitskill was at pains to make that authentic.
The third bareback lesson, though, I fell off. I was OK but I thought: you are going to break your stupid ass if you keep doing this. Her idea for a film treatment became a book. Out of nowhere I would get images, dialogue, whole scenes. Presumably, I say, it was her unconscious need to communicate with Natalia, who had by then returned to her fractured life in New York.
That was someone who rang my doorbell at 3am and I would let him in so he could tell me I was worthless. I wonder how much she thought of Ginger as being autobiographical?
People were worried by it. I spent a lot of time teaching up at Syracuse. But we were not sure; so we did this Fresh Air Fund thing to have some weeks with the kid and see what it would be like to have a child around.
Did the unqualified nature of that emotion shock her? But in the language I think there is always at least a yearning for tenderness.
At first it even seemed to me it was a very unusual book to write. All my books are really about un-socially supported love. I assumed, reading The Mare , that in some ways Gaitskill was drawing on her own adolescence in creating the interior life of Velvet. Her father was a teacher, her mum a great reader who subscribed to the New Yorker ; how did she come to be in a squat in Detroit aged 16? It was They wanted to do drugs and have sex with strange boys.
It was terrorising. She ended up in a crash pad in Detroit. And this other girl just left. And then he became really tender and that made me sad. I was utterly confused. Some of that conflict of emotion seems to find its way into many of her characters. Looking back now, to what extent was that experience scarring?
I would allow people to think it was this completely terrifying situation. But in a way I think everyone wants to feel tougher than they are. I tend to trust the thing that gets churned out then. But for most of my life I have believed in a spiritual existence. I think that what we experience on the surface of life is just one part of the picture. As a result sometimes things which look very insignificant can have enormous importance.
This happened to her powerfully when her father died nearly a decade ago, she says, and she realised she had feelings for him she never knew she had.
That was the impetus for writing the Granta piece about her lost cat. The family thought it was funny at the time, but it makes perfect sense to me. Finally it is too much. She does in some senses. She says it seems very strange to her that she is sometimes perceived as cool or at a distance from sentiment in her work. I wonder if that perception comes from her willingness to write about taboo experiences, sado-masochism and abusive relationships, in a very nuanced way?
I said that to a friend and he said you are wrong. The s and s, when many of those stories are set, is a very different time and place.
They came into the next lesson just incredibly outraged how sexist the character was — and really angry that I should ask them to read it because: how could you possibly relate to a misogynist character like that? We talk a little bit about how she feels to put her books out into the world, the trepidation about being misunderstood, and the difficulties about trying to capture other lives.
We sent them to a good Catholic school at some point. But I suppose she thought I was a silly woman. It was hard; in my eyes she was abusive. Seems odd at my age. But we are very compatible, both out a lot. In fact, though, I just got back together with my husband.
He is teaching up at Bennington College, lives in Pittsburgh. We are looking again at getting a place upstate together. Living in the city she has missed some things about rural life, she says, including her routine with the horses. You went there, you would pick up the shit, put it in the wheelbarrow, take it out and go home. Partly because of age. I think people basically accept me now. To begin with I was stunned at how rude people were. This was 30 years ago.
And I no longer have to answer. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Mary Gaitskill The Observer. Fiction Short stories interviews. Reuse this content. Order by newest oldest recommendations. Show 25 25 50 All. Threads collapsed expanded unthreaded. Loading comments… Trouble loading? Most popular.
Mary Gaitskill's tales of desire and dislocation in s New York caused a sensation with their frank, caustic portrayals of men and women's inner lives. As her characters have sex, try and fail to connect, play power games and inflict myriad cruelties on each other, she skewers urban life with precision and candour. Stubbornly original, with a sort of rhythm and fine moments that flatten you out when you don't expect it, these stories are a pleasure to read. Gaitskill writes with such authority, such radar-perfect detail, that she is able to make even the most extreme situations seem real Quite honestly changed my life I cannot believe I was 32 before I discovered it.
On Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour
Mary Gaitskill born November 11, is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Henry Prize Stories , Gaitskill was born in Lexington, Kentucky. She sold flowers in San Francisco as a teenage runaway. In a conversation with novelist and short story writer Matthew Sharpe for BOMB Magazine , Gaitskill said she chose to become a writer at age 18 because she was "indignant about things—it was the typical teenage sense of 'things are wrong in the world and I must say something.
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