Mary Gaitskill defies definition. In fact, during our conversations about her extraordinary story collection Don't Cry (Pantheon, $24)—her fifth book, following her multi-award-nominated 2005 novel, Veronica—she told me so. Gaitskill's candor is just one of the virtues I find beguiling about her and her fiction. How else but with honesty and an unflinching eye could she portray the often-disturbing interior and exterior lives of the people who appear in her pages, like the grief-stricken Texas nurse haunted by a dream of two men locked in murderous battle following a game of pickup basketball, and the Iraq-war veteran bearing witness to the gruesome death of a fellow soldier and reckoning with being idolized by his young son? These stories were written over a ten-year period as she was finishing Veronica, during which time she lost her father and met and married Peter Trachtenberg (author of The Book of Calamities), who provided her with "an infusion of new energy," influencing the way she sees the world. In our interview, which began informally at a dinner party, then carried over to an official sit-down and ensuing e-mail exchanges, Gaitskill and I talked about the catharsis that emerges from sickness and death, and the frustration of being misperceived. —KERA BOLONIK
BOOKFORUM: There's a line in "An Old Virgin" that I thought evoked the nature of storytelling. The protagonist, Laura, has a rare exchange at an intersection with a young driver in a car full of rowdy teenage boys. She contemplates relating the encounter to her friend who "had a lot of strange emotional moments with, say, a lady standing in the prescription line next to her at the drugstore" and wonders if it would still "seem like a story by the time the day was over." When do you decide a story is a story and not part of a novel?
MARY GAITSKILL: I don't know, but I've always known. I guess I briefly wondered if Veronica was really a long short story, but I quickly decided it wasn't.
BF: Had you ever considered turning any of these into a novel? I was particularly intrigued with Laura, who's grappling with the loss of a father who had been very cruel to her.
MG: I wouldn't do it with that story or with that character, but I think it would be pos-sible to write a novel about losing someone. When I lost my father, I discovered all of these layers of emotion I had about him, which I didn't know I had. At the time, I had the image of a human being as being like a small can, with all this stuff that has been compressed. You can only be aware of so many things at the same time, but when death happens, the can gets torn open, and everything suddenly comes oozing out like cushion foam. I don't know if humbling is the right word, but it really takes one aback because you realize there's so much you don't know about yourself.
BF: In "The Agonized Face," the journalist protagonist, who is drunk at a literary convention and envious of the success of a well-known feminist author, notices that the writer's face betrays a flash of emotion during her talk and tries to discern whether it is an expression of exultation or agony.
MG: It's the journalist's imagining of the core of the feminist's work. There's a very complex thing that goes on where people will seem to be telling a lot about themselves, but in a way they're not telling anything, or they're telling it in such a way that as much is hidden as is revealed. There's an impulse to go to that place that's beyond words—more like a sound or a facial expression—yet there's also a very strong desire to protect that place. And that's what the journalist is talking about. As a writer, I try to reveal as much as possible. I've always disliked the social convention of restraint and observing social-etiquette rules. I'm not a rude person and don't think people should hurt each other's feelings, but I really value candor above all things. I recently read A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke, a very short book about the author's mother's sui-cide. He didn't know her very well, perhaps, and felt it was disrespectful, at least as I inter-pret it, to try and bore into who she was. He told her story as if presenting a series of pictures that you didn't know the meaning of, understanding only what you get from glimpsing a person across a room and noting an expression on their face. You don't know what it reveals, you don't know what it means—you just know that that expression really arrested you. I was irritated by it at first, because he made such a big deal out of not wanting to reveal her feelings. But then I began to respect his decision as I continued to read. I don't know that I'm going to come to a conclusion, but I'm considering the idea that certain things cannot be revealed.
BF: I think one thing that connects a lot of the people in your stories is that they harbor a lot of anger.
MG: Really, you think that?
BF: Laura from "An Old Virgin" strikes me as very angry, and Dolores from "College Town, 1980" is enraged.
MG: But to define them that way—
BF: I don't mean to say anger defines them.
MG: It sounds like a definition. The jour-nalist in "The Agonized Face" is definitely angry—she's disappointed in her career. That's one reason she doesn't like the femi-nist writer, because the journalist wants to be a writer and she's not. Let me see that. [Gaitskill picks up Don't Cry, peruses the table of contents, and laughs.] Who's angry here? I wouldn't say Laura's angry.
BF: But what about Laura's violent dreams, where two men are literally tearing each other apart?
MG: That's just a dream. "Today I'm Yours"—they're definitely not angry. "The Arms and Legs of the Lake" has some angry people in it. I want to be clear: Readers say stuff like that, and I don't debate it. But they are picking up on it for some reason. I always used to hear: "She's writing about bad sex." I actually went through my stories, and I think there's only one story that I would characterize as having bad sex, and that was "A Romantic Weekend." I would describe that as awful sex. Somebody might look at "Secretary" and say it's bad sex because it's violative and it isn't actually even sex. But to the man, it's not bad sex. And not for the girl, either; she's going home and masturbating about it. How can you say that's bad sex?
BF: Were there stories that were more emotionally difficult to write than others?
MG: "Don't Cry" was the hardest. "Description" and "The Arms and Legs of the Lake," too. I once heard an opera singer describe how, when she's singing emotional songs, she's not feeling that emotion. It's similar to writing a very emotional scene. I'm aware of it pressing up from some place, but I'm not feeling it at the time—it is a very controlled experience like the opera singer was describing. "Description" was hard because I wasn't sure how the boy, Joseph, would feel. He's a much younger man. A man my own age is one thing, but a man who is in his twenties is another. I do think men and women experience the world quite differently, and older people experience it differently from young people. When I've written teenagers, it's been very hard for me because I think I can remember what it's like to be in your twenties, but teens, no.
BF: In "An Old Virgin," Laura's sister tells her, "[Dad's] not your enemy now. He's dying." Sickness and death provide an opportunity for a reckoning for several women in these stories—daughters and wives who've felt they'd been betrayed by their fathers or husbands. Do you believe in forgiveness?
MG: Of course I believe in forgiveness, doesn't everybody? Only the most unlucky and miserable don't experience it at some point in their lives. I think you are exaggerating the theme of betrayal and/or failure by fathers and husbands. The heroine of "Don't Cry" has by conventional standards betrayed her husband by having an affair; the female romantic interest in "Today I'm Yours" repeatedly cheats on her girlfriends. It's true, in four stories there are fathers and husbands who are failures, and two of them are mean on top of it. What can I say? It hap-pens. Men, I think, are more often vulnerable to failure or to being seen as failures and are judged more harshly for it because, at least traditionally, more is expected of them out in the world. In "The Arms and Legs of the Lake," a returning soldier remembers how his little son looks up at him as if he were "a hero, who could make everything right," and thinks it "would've been great if it were true." Imagine being that person, being looked up at as if you are supposed to make everything right—nobody could fulfill that expectation, especially not someone just back from a battering experience of vicious, futile war. In that impossible position, it's very easy to feel like a failure, to despair, and then to get angry and mean about it. Which, in my mind, that character isn't going to do, but he does suffer. Laura is now mature enough to understand how her father—who has been outrageously cruel to her—suffered at the hands of women who raised him and failed him in a way that was both profound and subtle. When I for-give, it is usually as much for my own clarity and peace of mind as for the person I'm forgiving. When I have been forgiven, what I feel most strongly is gratitude.
More from Bookforum's Interview