Issue 243, Spring 2023
Mary Gaitskill lives in a white two-story brick house with dormer windows and a front door painted pale lilac, set back from a quiet avenue in a small town just across the bridge from Hudson, New York. It’s a place of refuge—as orderly and elegant as she is. An almost unnerving storybook beauty—long white-blond hair; large, clear eyes; high, fine brows and cheekbones; a dancer’s carriage—Gaitskill has the directness of an instinctive nonconformist, the learned reserve of someone naturally porous, and the seasoned grace and good humor necessary to a person on whom others routinely project all kinds of junk.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1954, she has lived all over the country and is the author of three novels—Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), the National Book Award finalist Veronica (2005), and The Mare (2015)—as well as three story collections, a book of bold and sinuous essays titled Somebody with a Little Hammer (2017), and an experimental annotated collage of her earlier works, The Devil’s Treasure: A Book of Stories and Dreams (2021). She has tackled with aplomb subjects that have felled many a lesser writer, starting with her 1988 debut, Bad Behavior, which was feted and misread in equal measure, and which fixed her in the public mind for years as an icon of urbane and twisted sex appeal (all the more so once her story “Secretary” was adapted into the first mainstream BDSM rom-com, starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, in 2002). More recently, The Mare, a deftly plotted tale of a young Dominican city girl who falls in love with horses when a nonprofit sends her upstate to stay with a rich white couple—inspired in part by Gaitskill’s experiences caring for children through the Fresh Air Fund—wrongfooted many readers with its unapologetic sweetness. And her 2019 novella, This Is Pleasure, provided one of the most adroit and poignant explorations of #MeToo that we have so far. (She is currently at work on an even more ambitious-sounding sequel, “… And This Is Pain.”) But her greatest virtues as a writer of fiction are old-fashioned: exquisitely constructed sentences, a capacious moral imagination and a depth of feeling for human frailty, a near-hallucinatory precision in describing physical phenomena as well as emotional states, interpersonal dynamics, and shifts in consciousness so minute that they approach abstraction.
Her husband, the writer Peter Trachtenberg, was an unobtrusive presence, raking leaves outside, running errands, and throwing out the odd wry observation; their charismatic long-haired cat, Mauve (Trachtenberg, who adopted her during the years the couple were separated, originally named her Maeve, which Gaitskill deemed “too demure”), was far more vocal in her demands. As we talked over wine and snacks (cookies, apples, salted radishes), the quality of Gaitskill’s attention felt, by turns, like exposure or acknowledgment. She is unfailingly warm and courteous, and there’s nothing rote in her interactions, as if she hasn’t decided in advance how anything should go. Conscientious to a fault, she expressed anxiety over how to maintain the speed of her output on Substack (where she reads and responds to nearly every comment), and occasionally paused to second-guess the potential consequences of her words. At one point, after speaking in disarmingly open, measured terms about a traumatic experience from her youth, she broke into a parody of the imaginary critic who might trawl her biography for such scraps and reinterpret all her work accordingly: “There’s a hypervigilance in Gaitskill’s prose that’s never really been examined,” she said, leaping into character with sudden gusto, “and the aggression she’s always displayed can finally now be read as pure defensiveness, as she tries to stave off the penile gaze …”