|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.