In five years of teaching creative writing, I had a student complain only once, when I assigned a reading of Mary Gaitskill’s “A Romantic Weekend” without proper warning. “Pornography” was what the student called it in her email to the department chair, who let me off the hook, well aware of Gaitskill and her reputation—both for difficult content, and also for excellence; maybe she upsets you, but if you’re even halfway serious about writing fiction, you need to read her.
For an author with such a severe aura—no writer has ever smiled less in headshots—Gaitskill is friendly on the phone, laughing easily. When I first call her, she says she’s away from civilization and apologizes for the wind, which beats against the phone with such force I’m afraid it might carry her into oblivion; at one point, our call drops out completely, and I’m reminded that, no matter the reputation of an author, cell phone reception rules us all.
“For a long time,” Gaitskill tells me after calling back, “I really disliked that people focused on sexuality [in my work]. I thought, Of course there’s sexuality, but that’s not all, so why do they keep talking about it?” But eventually, she realized that it was a part of her work, and a big deal to people in general. She makes a comparison: “If you’re having a civil conversation, and then you put a gun on the table, that’s probably what people will remember. In a way, it’s reductive—but in another way, why be surprised?”
On the surface, Gaitsill’s new novel, The Mare, presents a kinder, gentler author, now publishing a book about a young girl falling in love with horses. Has Gaitskill finally succumbed to the pressures of marketability and written a young adult novel? Or…no, wait, no, this isn’t Gaitskill finally writing her beastiality novel, is it? (Critics constantly flummoxed by Gaitskill’s approach to sexuality: I leave you this to ponder while squeezing together sweating palms.)
“Initially,” Gaitskill says, “I wanted [The Mare] to be—and I do think this sounds strange—about love trying to exist, in a variety of situations, in ways that are hard for it to thrive.” The love at the center of The Mare concerns Velvet and Ginger—an 11-year-old girl and a woman living in upstate New York, respectively. Ginger agrees to host Velvet—a child living in poverty with her difficult mother and brother—and introduces her to a great love in her life: horses. From there, the book becomes an occasionally touching, occasionally brutal story that blends a girl’s coming-of-age with the scope of a great social novel. (Ginger, a comfortably middle-class woman who is also a recovering alcoholic and a failed artist, is the kind of character Gaitskill has explored before.)
Gaitsill mentions that people often wonder whether or not animals are capable of love, and when I ask her what she thinks, she says, “I think there is love between animals and people, but I can’t prove that.” She mentions the famous scene in the documentary Grizzly Man, when Werner Herzog trains his camera on the eyes of a grizzly bear and says, in voice over, that he sees no love there. Instead, Gaitskill says, “he sees the carcasses of baby bears that have been clawed to pieces by other bears. But that seems absurd. It’s like going to crime scenes, where mothers have killed children, or loved ones have killed each other, and saying, You think this species loves? Take a look at this.” Still, she acknowledges that animals probably don’t love in the same way that humans do—yet, there’s something there.
Gaitskill tells her story from a variety of first-person points of view: at first, the book alternates between Velvet and Ginger, each with a series of short “chapters” (Gaitskill prefers not to think of them as chapters). But soon enough, Gaitskill starts inviting into the story other points of view: some characters become recurring narrators, while others appear only once or twice. When I ask her how she balanced these fragmentary pieces, she says, “I wasn’t attempting to achieve balance. The moments were short or long depending on what I wanted to do. I can imagine that it would feel splintered, though.”
But she was concerned about some of the narrators that speak only once or twice. “I did think about it. But I had a strong intuition that I should do it. I have seen writers do that before.” She mentions one specific character—a major one for much of the book—that becomes a narrator quite late. “I think it can be interesting when you see a character from the outside for a very long time, and then suddenly you hear from them.”
Entering the individual points of view proved difficult in certain ways, however. “If you’re writing from the point of view of an 11- or 12-year-old girl, there’s a vocabulary they can’t have,” she points out. “What’s difficult about that is, even if they’re not especially bright—or maybe just have average intelligence—they can still see a great deal; [there’s an] extraordinary ability to perceive beyond the social level, but they can’t put it into words.” Still, this voice wasn’t as challenging as the voice of Velvet’s mother, Mrs. Vargas, a mostly illiterate and often brutal woman who speaks Spanish. “I have an idea how somebody like Velvet would speak,” Gaitskill tells me, “but I don’t have any idea of how Mrs. Vargas would speak.” Gaitskill gave herself some leeway, not always worrying about total realism, but still, she admits, “I don’t know if I did it well enough, to tell you the truth.”
Certainly early reviews suggest she did it well enough, but her remarks surprise me: most authors seem concerned with striking a pose, seeming tough, impervious to criticism, and maybe Gaitskill is all of those things. (I would assume she’s all of these things because, again, seriously, check out those author photos.) Still, the vulnerability she shows in wondering about this part of her book—whether or not she did something well enough—is striking, especially from an author who has been around so long. But then again, maybe she doesn’t have anything left to prove, and maybe she isn’t afraid of being honest.
Or is it something else? “One critic compared reading my work to, and I’m paraphrasing, being blanked in the blank with an ice blank,” she tells me, laughing. “I would certainly approach with caution if I thought someone was that powerful.”
Benjamin Rybeck’s debut novel, The Sadness, is forthcoming from Unnamed Press in June 2016. He is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.