Since the 1988 publication of her collection Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill’s stories and novels have scrutinized the complex dynamics that both intensify and threaten human relationships: family hopes and failed expectations, charged sexual encounters, and the hunger for honest friendships. Drawn across vibrant urban landscapes and strangely exotic suburban sprawl, her previous two novels and three collections of stories complicate the way we look at figures of social admiration and supposed “success,” from fashion models to businessmen. The books also give voice to those from whom we may wish to turn away: unstable war veterans demanding attention, lovers dying of AIDS, determined prostitutes and young girls selling flowers in front of strip clubs, mothers openly berating their children, and chattering seat partners on planes.
Gaitskill’s latest novel, The Mare, has earned widespread admiration, though reviewers are divided over whether the book diverges from or extends her usual subject matter. In our conversation, Gaitskill suggested that the book doesn’t diverge or extend as much as offer a “more direct expression of emotion” than her previous work.
Gaitskill cares about words. In her 2013 Bookforum essay examining the popularity of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, she warns against the vapid, chattering tone of social media as it encroaches on contemporary literature and culture. At the same time, she takes issue with the sweeping, superior tone of the academy in her polite rebuttal—published in The Rumpus—to Suzanne Rivecca’s provocatively titled essay, “What Men Talk About When They Talk About Mary Gaitskill.” In her letter, Gaitskill responds to Rivecca’s call for a “moratorium” on men writing about Gaitskill’s fiction, particularly works that explore female relationships and the complex power plays that so often complicate sexuality. Throughout her career, Gaitskill clarifies, the criticism and praise she’s received has not been so easily drawn by gender lines. This complexity is perhaps what makes her writing so powerful.
The Mare is primarily voiced through two characters: Ginger, a middle-aged painter and recovering addict who lives with her husband in upstate New York, and Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl who comes to live with the couple through the Fresh Air Fund—a real non-profit program that arranges stays for New York City children in homes in more rural settings. (Gaitskill and her husband, the writer Peter Trachtenberg, participated in the Fresh Air Fund, an experience Gaitskill details in her essay “Lost Cat,” published in Granta.)
As is common in Gaitskill’s writing, the urgent presence of desire electrifies the narrative: the pressures of teenage sexuality; a haunting act of betrayal between a psychiatrist and his captive patient; the titillating secrecy of extra-marital affairs; the desperation of an illegal immigrant abandoned by her lover on the Rhode Island shore.
The story progresses through contrasts; Ginger navigates the catty, self-serving gossip of her privileged small town as Velvet experiences the cruelty of middle school girls. Velvet’s burgeoning sexuality ignites as Ginger’s languishes. Velvet’s mother, Silvia, pushes away the daughter she fears losing as Ginger draws the girl nearer, anxious to experience the taste of motherhood that she believes will make her a “normal woman.” Beneath the characters’ humanity lies a steady undercurrent of animalistic power, the smell of shit and stable, and the story of Fugly Girl, the abused mare that young Velvet transforms into Fiery Girl.
Mary Gaitskill and I met in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where Velvet Vargas goes to school. We discussed the social stigma of childlessness and mothering, women and money, the complications of writing through race and class, and the challenge of capturing endings, which are always artificial, because ultimately, as Gaitskill describes in the interview below, what we want “is never the end.”
—Jennifer Sears for Guernica
Guernica: The critical response to The Mare has been very positive.
Mary Gaitskill: So much so that I’m surprised!
Mary Gaitskill: I thought I would be criticized for writing something corny or sentimental, and right away, a “girl-on-a-horse story” sounds like that. Also, this book is a more direct expression of emotion than is typical for me. Thematically, I don’t actually see it as tremendously different from my other work, but it’s a different way of expressing themes that I’ve worked with in the past, particularly unsanctioned love or love that doesn’t fit in socially approved forms. And I’m not talking about just cross-racial or cross-class love. I’m talking about love that seems too needy or too idealized or too romantic. Love that isn’t biologically based.
All childless women get that kind of implicit criticism.
Guernica: The novel explores the possibility of love that can occur between children and adults who are not biologically related. Ginger considers her desire to experience motherhood as a desire to be and feel like a “normal” woman. Do you think society still considers motherhood to be the “normal” path for women?
Mary Gaitskill: Yes. Definitely. I don’t think society has changed in that way at all, though I think it’s different for different social groups. And I think if a woman is very happy with herself and at ease with her choices, it goes a long way toward making other people feel at ease with her. I think women who are very creative and giving members of society can be respected and accepted. But at a very core level, people still think that a woman who doesn’t have children or doesn’t want children is really lacking in something. I’ve seen this over and over again in my life. I’ve had this thinking used against me repeatedly. I remember I had a therapist once, and I brought this up, and she said, “Well, I think women who don’t have children feel very self-critical. They feel bad, so they think other people are critical in that way.”
I didn’t say anything in the moment, but when I later repeated this to a woman in her thirties, she said, “She—the therapist who did have kids—doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” This young woman said she gets that kind of criticism all the time. All childless women get that kind of implicit criticism.
Guernica: In some ways, women who don’t have kids might get blamed twice. First, they are criticized for not being “normal” and wanting kids, and then they are blamed for feeling like they are being criticized for not having kids.
Mary Gaitskill: Yes. I mean, I don’t think is true of everybody, obviously. Again, I think if a woman is absolutely happy with herself, that goes a long way in getting others to accept her choices. But it’s hard to be absolutely happy with yourself, whoever you are. I mean, what kind of maniac is that?
Guernica: Do you find this criticism comes equally from men and women?
Mary Gaitskill: I don’t know. Speaking for myself, I haven’t felt that kind of attitude from men very much.
Guernica: You find this criticism comes more often from women?
Mary Gaitskill: Yes.
Guernica: One of the strengths of The Mare is the conflict between Ginger and Velvet’s mother Silvia. As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and as a single mother raising two young children in New York City, Silvia hasn’t had as many choices as Ginger. In the novel, Ginger tells Velvet that she consciously chose not to have a child in order to become an artist because she felt she would be better at that. Silvia feels that Ginger judges her style of mothering, largely because of cultural differences. At a recent reading, you said that Silvia was one of the harder characters to develop.
Mary Gaitskill: I didn’t originally intend to portray [Silvia], except from the outside. I was going to have her talk, but be seen mostly through the other characters’ eyes. I didn’t plan to get into her psyche. I didn’t think that I could, because her circumstances are so different from my own. Velvet was born in this country. She speaks English. She reads, she writes, she watches the same movies and hears the same songs or at least similar songs as other young people here. She belongs to this culture.
Silvia doesn’t belong in a meaningful way. She came from another country. She doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t read or write, even in her own language. In my mind, she does understand some English even if she doesn’t speak it and, on a basic level, she understands what’s happening around her. But, to not be able to understand people speaking around you is something I can’t understand. I’ve been to foreign countries, but I’ve never lived abroad full time and that alone is difficult to imagine.
On top of that, Silvia’s two children are growing up in a culture that’s foreign to her. They’re learning things that are antithetical to her way of life. She’s being invalidated constantly. And, she’s poor. She’s working her butt off all the time, and she barely has the money to cover basics. I’ve never been in that situation at all, so that was a very daunting space to consider occupying. I didn’t consciously “go about it,” it’s just that as I got into the story, I kept hearing Silvia’s voice in my mind. Finally, I thought, I’ll write this out, and I won’t necessarily use it.
But as I wrote that first scene of her, I really could feel her in my imagination. So, I did it again. And my editor was like, “I’m not sure about this.” And I said, “I’m not sure about it either. But I keep wanting to write her.”
I also felt that if I put myself in the reader’s position—which I actually try not to do, but sometimes one can’t help it—I would want to hear what Silvia was thinking. Because you hear about her from all the other characters, and they’re all portraying her as really harsh and strange. As a reader, I’d be curious about what’s going on in this woman’s mind. So finally, I just thought, I’m going to try. And I did the best I could.
Guernica: At a reading at the Brooklyn Public Library, you mentioned knowing what the “blood of the story” was before you wrote The Mare, that you had a sense of the novel being visually realized in front of you during the writing process. Was the experience of writing Silvia’s story part of being drawn into this vision?
Mary Gaitskill: Yes. It was, and I always pictured Silvia in the end. She was always, from the beginning, in the last scene.
When you approach the second half of your life, you start to unconsciously consider what you’re passing on.
Guernica: In the title story of your collection, Don’t Cry, and in your story “The Little Boy,” there is also a direct questioning of what motherhood can mean for women who aren’t mothering their own biological children. Is your exploration of this theme a result of your own life experience with the Fresh Air Fund?
Mary Gaitskill: I would say so. I became very aware of how important it is to connect with children—possibly for the children, if they’re in the mood for that—but certainly for the adults. When you approach the second half of your life, you start to unconsciously consider what you’re passing on. As a writer, that’s obviously part of what you’re doing. And as a teacher, that’s another way of passing on information, history, or whatever you have. There is a very deep desire in people, even in the most selfish people, to pass on what you know to younger people. And what you know may come in a lot of different forms: affection, touch, laughter, joking, nurturing.
The writing of The Mare was very intuitive. I just saw this image of Liz Taylor in the movie National Velvet. I didn’t think I would write it at first. I just wished there was a story like that about a Latina girl, because of the girl I knew [through the Fresh Air Fund]. My first thought was, “I can’t write that.” But it just kept coming to me as something I was compelled to write, almost physically.
Guernica: Did your feeling of “I can’t write that” have to do with writing about race?
Mary Gaitskill: Yes, though I didn’t see it as “writing about race.” What I thought would be perhaps criticized or seen as “off” was that I was writing from the point of view of people who are not white. I am honestly a little weirded out that there has not been some kind of comment on this. It’s not that I want criticism. I’m just surprised that no one has said anything at all or asked, “Why does she think she can do this?” It scares me a little. Partly, I’m worried that no one is saying anything because they are afraid of being seen as politically correct.
One black person who spoke at a reading liked what I read, but she said that most of the things she’s read by white people about non-white people don’t even make her angry or offend her. It’s just, “Oh, not this again.” It’s just the same boring shit over and over again, and I really hope that’s not why people are being silent. Are they thinking, “Here it is again, the same boring shit?” And I’m sure it’s true. There probably is a lot of boring shit.
Guernica: At the end of the reading at the Brooklyn Public Library, you asked if there were any questions audience members were holding back. What do you think people are holding back?
Mary Gaitskill: I think people hold back all kinds of things. And in a way, they just want to be nice. They want to be civil. I never know what to ask at the end of readings. But I want people to know that if they want to say, for example, “I find that very unconvincing in your voice. You don’t sound to me like a Dominican girl. Why did you choose to do that?” I don’t think that’s an unfair question. I’d answer it.
I did consider that perhaps I was just losing my mind.
Guernica: Why do you think you can write that character?
Mary Gaitskill: I don’t know that I could. Like I said, it was a bodily compulsion. I can be very in my head, but I don’t trust my head all that much. My head is crazy. My head will talk to itself all day and all night if I let it. And my heart is less nutty, but it’s kind of like an overexcited child. I don’t trust my heart all that much either. My body is like a good horse. I trust my body.
The reason I’m bringing my body into it is because when I thought about writing this book, at first I dismissed it. For two years, I resisted it. I pushed back. I thought, I can’t do this. I’m white. I’m middle-aged. I don’t know this girl’s language well enough. But I kept getting pictures. Images. Dialogue. Not only would I get feelings, I’d get bodily reactions. My arm hair would stand up on end. I would get tingles. Once, tears came to my eyes. I did consider that perhaps I was just losing my mind. I was going through a hard time in my life, and I did think maybe I was going nuts.
But eventually, I just trusted my body. Because even if my head might have been going nuts, I didn’t think my body was. So that’s what made me do it. It wasn’t even that I thought I could do it. My body was telling me to do it.
I do want to make clear that when I say that I trusted my body, I was very right to do that in that it meant that I should write this book. But I don’t think that means that everyone should like it. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book. It just means that I needed to write it.
Guernica: We’ve discussed the challenge of writing a book that has a “happy” ending without becoming sentimental, and how Hollywood-style endings in genre fiction—in which situations turn out well for people—are cautioned in literary fiction.
Mary Gaitskill: Well, life usually doesn’t end that way—or hardly ever. But, it’s funny. What I just said isn’t even true. There are no endings in life, is the thing. There are no actual endings until death. So when you’re writing a story, you’re creating something of an artificial ending. Some situations have conclusions or final notes, but those aren’t really endings. Plus, life is miserable. Even happy situations can easily start to feel miserable. So, I think that people who consider themselves sophisticated or who are in fact sophisticated have come to distrust stories that are uplifting or simply stories in which the characters get what they want in the end. Because in life, what you want is never the end.
Guernica: A recurring theme in your work seems to be the ongoing exploration of how women struggle with money. This is also true in The Mare. Silvia has obvious financial struggles, and even Ginger, who doesn’t have to work, is financially vulnerable.
Mary Gaitskill: Well, we know for sure that is why Ginger and her husband, Paul, are going to stay together. Ginger wouldn’t be able to support herself without Paul. And, she would know that. I don’t think the relationship is bad. Even if it was, she couldn’t leave him. She wouldn’t know how to take care of herself. She’s fifty, or older than fifty, and she hasn’t worked for a long time.
Guernica: Your earlier work also explores how women find themselves economically vulnerable and how that plays out in their daily lives.
Mary Gaitskill: I hadn’t thought of it consciously, but it is a reality. Even now, women make less money than men. Older women typically have much less money than men do in retirement. If they’re single, they often have a lot less money. I know several women my age who are really poor…because they spent most of their energy taking care of children. In one case, the woman did work, but she didn’t have a lot of education or training because she was a full-time mother. Money was always secondary to the attention and energy she gave to her children. And when her business went under after her children were gone, she was physically ill and in trouble. Most women at retirement have significantly less money than men, and they still get paid less than men. I’m sure that in my reptile brain I’m quite conscious of this.
Guernica: Another recurring idea in your work, which appears in The Mare and also in the story, “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,” which also ends with a horse race, is the hope for someone who’s not supposed to win finally getting something at the end.
Mary Gaitskill: I think, like a lot of people, I would like that to happen more often. It’s funny, I had forgotten that ending was in “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” until you mentioned it. I was writing that story in 2007, which was around the time that I conceived of The Mare. I don’t have a memory of what I was thinking of, it just seemed very natural for the character [in that story] to picture his sister, who’s dead and who used to like to ride horses, winning a horse race. The idea was probably already trying exist as a story in my psyche even then. Even though I rejected it. But I think this is the story of the underdog. Many people would like to see the underdog come up from behind, and kill it.
Guernica: “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” and The Mare also depict an American concept of politics as something that happens “somewhere else.” Do you think politics are explored enough in fiction?
Mary Gaitskill: I don’t have an opinion about whether or not politics should appear more in fiction or not, generally. I think politics are a part of life, but a part of life that most people don’t think about very much, most of the time. Or, people think about it superficially and they talk about it superficially because they don’t know very much. In The Mare, Velvet thinks about this in a very rudimentary way when her friend Shawn says “that lady”—Ginger—can be so nice because “those people” have other people doing their violence for them.
And at first, Velvet has no idea what he’s talking about. But then Shawn gets shot, and Velvet sees violence out of the corner of her eye in her schoolyard, and she thinks about his statement. She can see the truth of it, but she doesn’t quite know how to put that together with Ginger.
After Ginger looks around, she changes her mind and says, “Some may be Republican, but others are Democrats.” And Velvet says: “They look alike.”
Guernica: And Velvet is very young.
Mary Gaitskill: Yes. It’s also interesting that the other time Velvet thinks about politics is when she’s with Ginger in a restaurant upstate where the menu is incredibly expensive, and the other customers literally look like pigs to her. Velvet says to Ginger, “There are a lot of Republicans here.” Ginger, who has already told her how horrible she thinks Republicans are, first says, “No, this is a Democratic county.” But after Ginger looks around, she changes her mind and says, “Some may be Republican, but others are Democrats.” And Velvet says: “They look alike.”
In fact, Ginger is wrong here. She does not live in a Democratic county. To me, this is a complicated scene because Ginger has told Velvet that Republicans are bad, and yet Velvet is looking at Ginger thinking: You look the same as Republicans. You’re hanging out with them. You’re right here. Why do you want to be here? Why do I want to be here? So, Velvet is more aware than Ginger is.
I think that politics in most people’s lives expresses itself like that: indirectly, in half thought-out opinions and feelings. And sometimes through a connection with something that is very real. But we don’t have the knowledge or language to speak about it.
Guernica: Part of the reason this interests me is because of Nabokov’s stated resistance to overtly mixing politics with literature, though he does bring in the effects of politics or current events when they are organic to the story.
Mary Gaitskill: I think politics are a part of life, so I have no resistance to it, but it’s not something I set out to do. The closest I came was in “The Arms and Legs of the Lake.” And in that story, too, it’s all so muddled.
Guernica: It doesn’t read as if you set out to write a “political” story.
Mary Gaitskill: No, but politics do come into that story. I remember once I was giving a talk, and somebody brought up David Simon—who I love; I think The Wire was a towering achievement—but someone on the panel suggested that David Simon had criticized novelists for not taking in the broader social picture or exploring how people work inside of institutions. I said something humorously, but I think it’s actually true—that I’m interested in portraying characters from their own point of view as they move through life. And for most people, describing how they are moving through life, or how they are functioning within social institutions, would be like a piece of food trying to describe the digestive system it’s caught up in. That piece of food doesn’t know. It’s just moving through the larger system.
I have no problem with stories about social institutions. I think they’re valuable. But I tend to write more close-in with people, and most people, while they’re working their way through those social institutions, don’t know what’s happening to them or what they’re saying or reacting to. That is poignant to me, more so than analysis.
I also want to say, in going back to the very ending of The Mare, Velvet realizes how far her world is from Ginger’s world and the world of the other girls riding horses. Velvet realizes she can never win that contest. She’s won something, but the odds are so stacked against her that “winning” is not possible. And she knows that in a way she didn’t know at first, and that is a political realization.
I focus more on the spiritual or psychic gains Velvet gets from the horse. She is able to symbolically return that to her neighborhood. To me, this represents the small ways people can transcend the limits of their personal situations. This may be romantic, I’m not sure, but the small things people do count for something. Velvet’s realization at the end is not political in the sense of how we usually think of “politics.” But for a moment, she transcends the institution, the digestive system. Velvet is no longer just a piece of something. She’s a person who stands a chance.