|Photography: Lautman Marc Hauser|
Once dubbed Manhattan’s “downtown princess of darkness” for her literary forays into psychosexual subjects, Mary Gaitskill has since retreated to the bucolic countryside of upstate New York and to a professorship at Syracuse University. Her writing, however, remains finely honed, mesmerizing, and brutally honest. Veronica, Gaitskill’s second novel, snagged a National Book Award nomination last year. Told in flashbacks over the course of a single day, the elegiac tale of an unusual friendship between two vastly different women is a powerful rumination on beauty, mortality, and some murky places in between. No stranger to edgy experience herself, Gaitskill was a teenage runaway and, briefly, a stripper before her literary life flourished. Victoria Lautman interviewed Gaitskill, who spoke by phone from her home in Rhinebeck, New York.
Q: Did the National Book Award nomination launch you into a whole different success stratum?
A: I certainly hope so. It was surprising for me, since they called to announce it before the book had even been published. But they’d read it in galley form and I was really thrilled.
Q: A lot of the literati were rooting for you to win.
A: And yet I didn’t get it! [William Vollmann won, for Europe Central.] I should have. . . .
Photography: Gaitskill Joe Gaffney
Q: You seem to be regarded as über-cool. Is this a burden?
A: Well, that has always been so unexpected. When my first book [Bad Behavior, 1988] was published and people responded to it as though it was a totally hip thing, it was such a surprise to me. I had been such a loner when I wrote it, and not part of any hip scene, except that I lived in downtown New York. And so when I had to appear in public or at parties, and I was expected to be hip and smart and to make incredibly clever comments about peo-ple . . . I’m just not that sort of person. So I felt uncomfortable, like I was expected to be something I wasn’t.
Q: You’ve been writing since a couple of years after leaving home.
A: I actually wrote before that, starting when I was about eight. I found the world extraordinarily strange, having first left home at 15. At 16, I was in Toronto, and very shy and not hanging around with anyone who was intellectual in the slightest, so I didn’t really have the means to discuss what I was seeing and feeling. I was aware of how much I was lacking, that I didn’t have the education or the tools to say what I wanted to say. But I could sit and write it down. I didn’t seriously consider the idea of getting published until age 23.
Hear Mary Gaitskill talk with Victoria Lautman, Sunday, September 24th, 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Free. Call 312-832-6788 for reservations. WFMT (98.7 FM) will broadcast the event live at noon.
Q: Would you give up teaching if someone dumped a big cash prize on you?
A: Yep. Although [teaching] isn’t in itself so odious, it eats into your writing time so much and draws on a similar energy. But I would also say the experience has been beneficial to me. I never really had an adult job, and the professional life was new and a challenge. I was really uncomfortable being an authority figure, since I had less formal education than my graduate students. So it has made me stronger.
Q: Somewhere, you mentioned your first crush was on Mighty Mouse. Mine too.
A: He certainly was manly, wasn’t he? Especially compared to other characters, like Deputy Dog or Dudley Do-Right. There was also Fearless Leader from Rocky and Bullwinkle: he had a dark, transgressive appeal. Not unlike Donald Rumsfeld, who’s sexy in a sort of horrific way.