I began writing my first novelóa book that would finally find its way to publication thirteen years lateróin 1993. I was living in rural New Hampshire, where the man I would later marry was pursuing his doctorate. At the time, I was a practicing therapist, and it would be fair to say that I did not know a single soul who considered him or herself a writeróin fact, few people I knew even read contemporary literary fiction. It was an isolated circumstance in which to begin writing a first novel, perhaps even more so because my novel dealt fairly explicitly with some hot-button issues: sadomasochism, illness, sexual abuse, womenís complicity in their own degradation, homosexuality andóoddlyówith the cult of Ayn Rand. As most of my friends were politically-correct wearers of Birkenstocks, who earnestly read John Bradshaw and Alice Miller, had I shown my risquť (and often irreverent) work to anyone I knew, I would likely have been completely ostracized.
Enter Mary Gaitskill. Or, rather, enter her tour-de-force, emotionally powerful quasi-satire of the early 1990ís and sexual politics, Two Girls Fat and Thin. Every writer has a moment of watershed that changes her writing life forever, and this was mine. Reading Gaitskill when I was twenty-four years old and living in the ďmiddle of nowhere,Ē I experienced a sense of creative recognition that made me feel, for the first time in my life, connected to the larger literary world. I saw myself, though not in so many words, as working ďin the vein of Mary Gaitskill,Ē and in those early years of struggling to complete a manuscript, then defecting from my career as a therapist to enter a writing program where I might dare show my work to others, I often returned to Gaitskillís fiction (including her stunning and charmingly deviant collection Bad Behavior) to give me faith that the risks I wanted to take in my work were worth taking. In fact, they were part of a larger literary or cultural tradition that was emerging, with writers as diverse as Gaitskill, Kathy Acker and Dorothy Allison. As the í90s moved forward, I found more and more women writers who shared Gaitskillís boldness, irreverence and compassion, as well as her interest in documenting sexuality as a form of character dialogue and as a mirror for the culture at large. The í90s, in retrospect, were a real peak for risk-taking women writers, and I was fortunate to still be young enough to be profoundly influenced by that emerging tradition.
When I finally ďmetĒ Mary Gaitskill over the telephone in January, 2006, I found her as biting, opinionated, funny and carefully pensive as her books. Veronica had recently been nominated for the National Book Award, and my own novel hadófinallyójust been released. For me, it felt like coming full circle. Many of the questions I had for Gaitskill had been forming in my head for over a decade; others were new, as the publishing climateóand to some extent her writingóhas changed and evolved. Being able to chat about literature, sex, computers, old TV shows, publishing, marriage and children with one of my literary heroes was definitely a highlight of my life at Other Voices and my writing life in general. Here is a good chunk of that conversation.
GF: Both of your novels feature unlikely friendships between women. In Two Girls, Fat and Thin, heavy, isolated introvert Dorothy becomes fascinated by a more attractive, more sexual woman, Justine, and in Veronica a former model is looking back on her glamorous life, but of all the things she remembers, itís her contentious friendship with a middle-aged, unfashionable woman, Veronica, that makes the greatest impact on her. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about female friendship and the gulf that youíre addressing in your fiction between women who are sort of conventionally attractive and sexual versus those who are seen as more dowdy or invisible.
MG: I donít know that thatís something that I consciously thought about. I did realize that I was doing something which could be considered similar to Two Girls, and the way I mostly thought about it was that someone, some smartass, would come up with a headline ďTwo Girls, One Hot, One Not.Ē But this unlikely friendship thing isnít a theme that I consciously think about much, so I donít have reasons why I chose it or why I find it interesting. I mean, it seems natural that I would write about womenís friendships since Iím a woman.
GF: It does seem natural, although not that many people do it actually. The unlikeliness of the two friendships seemed interesting to me, the parallels.
MG: Well, throughout my life, Iíve been attracted to people who at first glance seemed very different from me. And not necessarily in terms of their appearance. Iíve been attractedóin terms of friendshipóto women who were not good looking physically and women who were quite beautiful, and everything in between, so thatís not really the salient point for me. But I have quite often become good friends with people who at first glance struck me as not terribly compatible with me, or not very interesting to me for a variety of reasons, and then I was very surprised when I got to know them better.
GF: In Veronica, Allison contracts Hepatitis C and Veronica dies of AIDS. What made you want to explore disease as a common bond between women.
MG: I wouldnít describe it as a common bond; when the friendship starts it isnít known that either is sick, and for most of the friendship, only one of them is. Illness is more a theme than a bond. I started writing the book in the early nineties, and AIDS was making an impact on my world and on me personally in a very big way at that time. I think I was getting over the illusion that life, normal life, was about being happy and healthy. I grew up in a time where serious sexual diseases had seemingly been erased. And many non-sexual diseases, childhood diseases, things that would have killed people very quickly at an early ageóeither they didnít exist anymore or they were invisible. Illnesses like cancer were almost invisible to me because of my age and because of the way illness tends to be treated, particularly at that time. So I grew up with the idea that if you were normal, you could expect to be very healthy and not suffer from anything like that. I donít think it was a conscious belief I heldóif somebody had asked me did I believe that I would have said noóbut I did, unconsciously. So the idea of something like AIDS was extraordinarily terrifying. Even the idea of something like herpes was disturbing, but AIDS was absolutely terrifying. It was something I was grappling with when I wrote the first draft of the book. The subject of illness drew my attention to nature, because to get deadly illnesses and painful illnesses is a part of nature. Nature is generally thought of, and in fact is, really beautiful and powerful and mysterious. And yet suffering is very much a part of it. Itís a rather crude juxtaposition to put illness and aging up against a paradigm of beauty and fashion, but it was a crude juxtaposition that had a lot of power for me. I donít use the word Ďcrudeí negatively in this context.
GF: Allison does seem to feel invincible when sheís younger, and then looking back on Veronicaís mortality once sheís in a position where she can better relate to it, their friendship has a more profound impact on her in retrospect than it did at the time.
MG: Yeah, it has a different meaning. Because she understands better what Veronica was experiencing.
GF: So do you see the í80s, the time frame of the novel, as kind of an end of innocence in this country? The end of an era in which sexuality could be treated like self-expression, without fear of fatal consequences?
MG: Quite possibly, for a certain group of people. I think that there have been many eras that experienced themselves as innocent in one way or another, and then it ends [laughs]. So I donít know if it was the end of innocence, but it may have been the end of a particular kind of innocence.
GF: A lot of your earlier work focuses heavily on male-female relationships, but Allison gets to a point where men and sex are peripheral not only to her current life but to her memories, where her inner life is more driven by music and recollections of her sisters and Veronica and the visual world around her. Iím wondering if Allisonís emotional alienation from men seemed to you just another side of the same coin that many of your characters have experienced in trying, but failing, to connect with the opposite sex even when theyíre actively in relationships.
MG: I wouldnít quite put it that way because I donít think she fails to connect with men, I think she fails to connect with them in the conventional way. She doesnít get married, for example, or have children.
GF: She has a connection with John, the photographer.
MG: As a friend, yes. I think when youíre young, sexuality is incredibly important, and having sex with people, falling in love, having relationships, marriages, are very important. When you get older, some relationships, many relationships you look back on, you donít really know why they happened. They donít have the same meaning to you anymore. You remember they had great meaning for you at the time, so itís not that you devalue them. But the meaning, because youíre no longer in that state of love and romance and desire, just doesnít have the same quality of urgency for you at all. Thatís not to say you didnít connect with the personóyou did, but that the basis on which you connected isnít there anymore. I even see that with people who have marriages that may have gone on for many years, but then ended. They donít have any feeling for their spouse at all, except maybe anger. But I donít think that means a lack of connection, it just means the connection is now over, or the meaning of it changed.
GF: Even if the relationship doesnít end, you find a lot of people just coexisting in the same house after many years, and whatever so passionately drove them together in the beginning isnít there anymore.
MG: Yeah, and I think thatís just a fact of human life. I did think about that though, the lack of a strong male-female relationship, when I was writing the book. I remember at some point I was reading Sister Carrie by Dreiser, and my friend, the writer Irini Spanidou, said that one of the things she liked about it was that it was a rare example of a book in which the relationships with men did not seem very important to the female heroine. Itís sort of like they happened to her, and she can take them or leave them. I donít know if thatís a quite accurate characterization, but it is true that sheís not a romantic heroine. Sheís not in love with anybody that approaches her or gets involved with her. Irini said it was quite daring for Dreiser to do that at the time, and probably made the character very unsympathetic. I know it was considered shocking at the time. But Irini went on to say that she thought that even now it was unusual to have female characters for whom the relationship or the romance is not the pivotal point of her life.
GF: I was just going to say that in actuality, in a lot of books and even in real life, it may be less shocking now than in Dreiserís time but itís still not at all the normal fodder.
MG: Yeah, when Irini said that I thought, Gee, Allison is interested in men when sheís young, but they donít enter her point of view in the present much at all. Theyíre not the focal point at all and I wonder if thatís going to bother people. But it didnít, I mean it does not seem to have. Although I actually have not been reading the reviews so maybe someoneís commented on it.
GF: You donít read your reviews?
MG: Iíve read them in the past. With this book I just decided not to because I didnít want to get caught up in what other people were saying or thinking. But Iíve gotten the gist of them from my husband, whoís read them. He hasnít described them to me in detail but heís basically told me what the important ones said.
GF: Were you surprised to get the National Book Award nomination?
MG: Very, yes.
GF: When I first read Two Girls, Fat and Thin in the early nineties, I was pretty blown away because much of the novel satirizes the writer Ayn Rand and her followers. At that time I actually knew a man who was utterly obsessed with the character Howard Roark from The Fountainhead to the point that his emulation of Howard Roark totally dictated his life and relationships. Iíve always been curious what interested you about Randís movement enough to center Dorothy and Justineís story around the movement of her fictional double Anna Granite.
MG: I actually had tried to write an article about Randís followers, just because of what Iíd heard. I knew about Ayn Rand since high school, but she never interested me very much. I thought her writing was pretty boring, and quality was what I cared about, even at a young age. So when I discovered in my late twenties that people had actually formed a cult around her and that it was continuing into the í80s, I was really flabbergasted. I thought it was fascinating, this spectacle, the idea that grown people, assumedly educated people, were doing this. So I put an ad in the paper, I did just what Justine did, and tried to find one of them, I got some answers and began to go to some of their meetings and conferences and so forth. And they just interested me as people because they werenít stupid, plenty of them were very bright people who did not seem crazy, and yet they were doing this thing, organizing their lives around not only fictional characters but fictional characters created by someone who claimed to be an utter proponent of the most cold-blooded reality imaginable. It was really funny.
GF: It came off as pretty funny in Two Girls. I think it is even funnier now than at the time because thereís also so much in the novel about the New Age culture in a way that I donít think I fully recognized it as I was first reading it, while we were all living it.
MG: You know, they say that in order to write satire the satirist on some level has to love the thing heís satirizing. I wouldnít say that I loved the Ayn Rand people but I didnít look down on them either. Some of them I had respect for; I felt that if thatís what they needed to do to make their lives work then thatís what they should be doing.
GF: And Dorothy of course is the main point of view character in the book, so you end up with a lot of empathy for where sheís coming from on all the variety of fronts.
MG: I did mock Dorothy and Justine too, but not in a contemptuous or unsympathetic way.
GF: Your first book was the short story collection Bad Behavior. And you are a writer who still focuses as much on short fiction as on novels. Much is being said in the publishing industry these days about the fact that short fiction doesnít sell. What compels you about the short story and why you think young writers today might have a harder time making a career with collections than at the time you were discovered?
MG: Well, at the time I was first published there was all this hype about the short story having a renaissance. I have no idea where it started, but there was a belief that short stories had a new life, although they still were devalued in relation to novels. I only got $5000 for that first collection and it never sold that well. Itís still in print and it sells consistently but it was certainly never a huge seller.
GF: So there was still the pressure that you had to write your first novel in order to really make your career?
MG: Yeah, it was a condition to sign me on for Bad Behavior; they wanted to know if I was working on a novel and I said yes. Which I kind of wasóI had just started Two Girls at that point.
GF: So how exactly did your writing career take off? A lot of interviews Iíve read with you have brought up the fact that you were a teenage runaway, that you worked as a stripper and a prostitute, and I love that when asked about these things you often explain that it really wasnít all that unusual to the period of time you grew up in. But it does seem like itís quite a leap from that to ending up with a first book published by Vintage Contemporaries and appearing in The New Yorker.
MG: Well it wasnít exactly a leapóit didnít happen quickly. I was a stripper at the age of twenty-one, between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-three, and my first book was published when I was thirty-one. I didnít publish anything in The New Yorker until I was forty. So it was a slow evolution.
GF: Had you set out to become a professional writer or did it happen more accidentally, where you were doing other things but also sending work out and something just got taken?
MG: That could not possibly happen accidentally.
MG: Barring those who are born into publishing families, when anyone gets a book published, itís got to be because they tried very very hard to make it happen. I was working at menial jobs of various kinds. I was proofreading, mostly, and just kind of surviving hand to mouth. But I was completely focused on getting my writing done and getting it out. I tried to publish it in small quarterlies without any success, and I began looking for an agent when I thought I had enough material to make a book. And that was also certainly not something that happened accidentally, I had to go out and look for somebody and got rejected many times in that way too. They all wanted to know if I had a novel. Finally I found somebody but then he couldnít sell anything either so I changed agents. And then I finally found somebody who did sell the story collection although he couldnít sell them to magazines either. That always requires an enormous amount of effort. I canít imagine a person getting a book published by accident.
GF: It certainly doesnít happen easily for most of us. But I hear storiesósomeone will say ĎOh, I had a story published in the Santa Monica Review then a HarperCollins editor queried me and published my bookí etc. Itís not very usual, but you always wonder. So being a fiction writer was always a long-term dream of yours?
MG: I liked writing a lot even when I was a kid, but I didnít begin to consider doing it seriously until I was eighteen. I didnít really make any attempt to start until I was twenty-one or so.
GF: And did you study in workshops as well?
GF: I wanted to talk about the film of Secretary. I loved the short story but I actually also really dug the film, which is radically different. I loved the storyís starkness and the lack of explanation and sentimentality but I also like the fact that the film explored dominance and submission as a potentially cathartic bond that shouldnít be viewed as any more crazy than any other kind of relationship or any other form of extreme devotion, like religious fervor. But Iíve heard that you detest the screenplay version of the story and basically view it as romantic drivel, so I just wanted to ask you about that.
MG: I donít know why people say I hated the film. Iíve heard people say that over and over again and it isnít true.
GF: Oh really? Well Iím glad I asked then. Weíre breaking the story here!
MG: I mean, I do think itís kind of romantic drivel, but I think thereís a place in life for romantic drivel. I donít detest it at all.
GF: I also have always wanted to ask you a little bit about the climax of Two Girls, Fat and Thin. The character Bryan seemed like a fairly harmless guy when Justine first met him. He was sort of kinky and maybe a little confused and depressed but I remember being kind of shocked by the potentially murderous and misogynistic animal he transformed into by the novelís end. And I wanted to ask a little bit about how that developed in the writing, if you can remember. Did you see that brutality as sort of a natural endpoint for a man who would get off on exerting power over women under the guise of sexual play? Or was it more just a plot point for Dorothyís benefit so she could swoop in and kick his ass the way she never could her fatherísówhich I admit was pretty satisfying for the reader?
MG: Well I re-read Two Girls I think about ten years after publicationóI wait that long so I can be objective, and although I found myself proud of the book overall there are things I would criticize about it, and the character development of Bryan is one of them. Heís a very important character. Heís not a major character but heís important because kind of like a deus ex machinaóhe makes things happen. And I donít find that he is developed properly or believably. I didnít really mean him to be murderous and brutal, I meant him to be somewhat crazy. I meant for him to be someone who is kind of like a long hallway with a lot of doors on it and he himself doesnít know whatís behind all the doors. Someone capable of acting impulsively and at times dangerously, when heís drunk enough or excited enough. When you say murderous, you must be referring to the chokingó
GF: Right, the fact that it seems like itís against Justineís will at the end, whereas previously they were in cahoots with their sexual play.
MG: Yeah, it is against her will at a certain point, thought itís also true that her will is pretty blurry at that point, because sheís drunk too, But to me Bryan would be the kind of person who might kill somebody that way but without intending to, really. I see him as someone whoís not behaving very consciously. Itís sort of like somethingís happened in him that heís not fully aware of, mostly because heís drunk. But that kind of character is very difficult to bring alive especially if youíre not spending a lot of time in his head, and you see him entirely from the outside. So that kind of character is very difficult to get on the page well. And I donít think that I got him well enough. But to answer the other part of your question, if I think itís a natural endpoint for every man who has sadistic fantasies to become a brutish drunken killer, no, absolutely not. Though I do think itís hard for people to negotiate those kinds of feelings and desires with their other feelings of tenderness and moral kindness. And if a man isnít someone who wants to negotiate those thingsówell, itís true that he can be a dangerous person to have around, emotionally if not physically. The same is true of people with masochistic fantasies, in a different way.
GF: Between Bad Behavior and Two Girls especially, many of your female characters manifest their sexuality by wanting to be hurt and many of your male characters are all too happy to oblige. Iím curious if youíve written any stories that I havenít seen in which the sexual dynamic is reversed, in which a male character is looking for a dominatrix.
MG: No, I donít think that I have.
GF: Any reason? Or is it just that the opposite way was more interesting to you at the time you were writing about it?
MG: I think when men go after that kind of relationship they do it much more consciously and they may specifically be looking for a dominatrix. That kind of formal pursuit of a very reified idea of sadomasochism doesnít interest me very much. Perhaps things have changed a tiny bit, though I doubt it, but I think that female sexuality doesnít have to come under the guise of S/M or dress itself up in a particular way to include masochism. Female masochism is much closer to the female role, to the perfectly normal and accepted female role, whereas male masochism is really quite counter to the normal male role. So if a man wants to look for that he has to really go outside.
GF: Itís much more ritualized.
MG: Yeah. And that kind of formal situation where everyone knows exactly what theyíre doing has never interested me as much.
GF: I think of all your short stories my favorite piece is a really early one from Bad Behavior, ďHeaven.Ē Iíve taught that story in pretty much every workshop Iíve ever taught. Itís an incredibly rich story, richer than a lot of novels, and the characters are all really full and complicated. Itís also very different from a lot of your other work in the way that its prime point of view character is a conventional, older, married mother of three, and the story has pretty much a wholly domestic focus. Maybe just because ever nuance of the story reads so incredibly true, I found myself wondering whether Virginiaís family was based on your own family, or if you could talk a little bit about your inspiration for that piece.
MG: My aunt. Iím sure thatís not a very interesting answer, butó
GF: No, itís an interesting answer for me because when Iíve read the story Iíve always wondered if Lily was a character that may have been similar to yourselfóif Virginiaís was a family that you had glimpsed from the outside. So thatís not so much a surprising answer. I just really loved that piece.
MG: Yeah, at the time it was definitely the most complicated story that Iíd tried to write. It actually took me five drafts to write that.
GF: Another one of your stories thatís a very haunting one is ďThe Girl on the Plane,Ē in which a middle-aged man starts talking with a woman on a plane who reminds him of a girl he knew in college, and over the course of the story it becomes clear to him that he was part of a gang rape of that woman. In his confusion he admits that rape to his seat mate, who is of course terrified. It strikes me that very few stories, especially by women, deal with the psyche of a rapist in that kind of complicated, nuanced way in which the reader is capable of feeling empathy for the man whoís done something violent or terrible. And Iím wondering if you ever got any flack for writing either that story from the perspective of a rapist, or in general if youíve had any negative responses in or outside the publishing industry for portraying marginalized characters like addicts, prostitutes, sadists, rapists, as full human beings rather than as black and white cliches that are easy for the reader to dismiss.
MG: Well Iím sure Iíve gotten flack for it from somebody. No one in the publishing industry has ever said anything to me about it. I think theyíre fine with it, but I know some reviewers havenít liked it. Some people probably think itís sensationalistic or something like that. More irritating is the fact that itís tended to attract people to me who think that Iím some kind of crusader for equal rights for people who are into S/M or something like that. I mean, I certainly think that they should have equal rights, but Iím not crusading for anybody.
GF: You never got any flack from editors or agents saying, Oh you need to write about more conventionally sympathetic characters, or anything like that?
MG: The people that Iíve actually worked with have always found my characters sympathetic. But I would say itís probably part of the reason I had trouble getting published at first. I did get some commentary on that issue when I was using an agent. When I was sending things out by myself I never got anything but rejection slips, but when my agent sent things out for Bad Behavior, there were a lot of comments about how depressing the people were, how depressing the stories were, how harsh they were, or how strange the characters were. And one editor said to me that he liked Bad Behavior but a book like that could never do well, that the critics would just attack it for all the S/M stuff and blah blah blah.
GF: I was curious what the reception had been back then because I was recently interviewed by Donna Seaman [of Booklist] on her radio program Open Books, and she was commenting that risky fictionódark or sexually explicit workóseems less accepted now in the realm of literary fiction than it was around a decade ago. And I certainly, as the editor of an independent press, have gotten that complaint from a lot of writers, and Iíve found some of that to be true with my own work but I canít really contrast it to what it was like a decade ago. Iíve observed, bluntly, that in the popular fiction market you can pretty much write about having sex with a dog and get away with it, but in the literary fiction market there does seem to be a recent swing towards the more puritanical, favoring subtle, quiet writing with traditionally sympathetic characters, especially for women writers. Iíve found that especially in the post-9/11 industry. So I was just curious whether you saw any difference now versus when you had first gotten started out.
MG: There probably has been. I felt a decade ago that things were definitely very open. There was almost a trend, in fact, to write things that were perceived as dark or sexually exploring. I first got published more than a decade ago, in the late Ď80s, so something like Bad Behavior was considered quite shocking then. But I remember thinking, during the mid-í90s that it wouldnít be considered that way at all. It would have been considered kind of normal. Iím not sureóI always wondered why people were so startled by Bad Behavior anyway. It seems to me a rather gentle book.
GF: [laughs] I know what you mean. Thereís also a dichotomy in the publishing industry between what an editor herself may think and what she perceives that the American readership is going to think. And that, I tend to think, plays a big role in what is viewed as shocking, maybe having even less to do with the editor sitting there and being horrified and shocked, and more to do with their perception of Middle America and what they can or cannot handle.
MG: In fact I remember, when the movie Secretary was being made, I actually didnít expect it to get made because of the subject matter. I remember saying to the director that I thought there was going to be a problem because in my perception at that time, and weíre talking 2001, I thought things had gotten really conservative.
GF: Yeah, that was right around the time that the pendulum was really swinging in that direction.
MG: Though I have to say I do think the movie did well because in some ways it appealed to very traditional values.
GF: Yes, thatís true. And in its own way Secretary has an upbeat ending, even though itís not exactly a conventional love story. It has the feel-good ending where they still get together in the end and they have their house in the suburbs, etc.
MG: Also because itís funny, and I think that Americans will accept almost anything thatís got a smile on it.
GF: Thereís a big emphasis on childhood in your work, particularly in your novels, and particularly on the way that things like popular culture and religion impact kids. When I first read Two Girls back in the early í90s, I always wanted to tell you that I was totally traumatized, just like Justine was, by that Mickey Mouse special where Pluto was sent to hell for mistreating a kittenó
GF: Yesóit was amazing to see someone actually writing about that cartoon in a novel! But your portrayal of childhood generally is a somewhat dark, scary one even if not accompanied by something truly ominous like the sexual abuse that was in Two Girls. In Veronica, and Because They Wanted To, childhood also seems kind of like an insular, sad place, full of misunderstandings and stagnation. And Iím wondering if you think this was especially true for children of a particular generation or if itís especially true for girl children, or if this sort of bleakness is characteristic of childhood in general despite all the hype about it being this idyllic time of innocence.
MG: I think childhood is a very strange time. Itís a time when youíre coming into a strange world and becoming aware of society in a way that adults arenít aware of it because theyíre used to it. I donít consider childhood bleak in general, though for some people Iím sure that it is. Things like that cartoonóto me theyíre more interesting than bleak or frightening. I canít believe you saw thatÖ
GF: It was an older cartoon, but it repeated on TV when I was a kid. I went to Catholic school, so I was basically horrified of Hell in general. I had this little diary I would write in when I was seven every day, like ĎI hope I donít go to Hell!í and then I saw this cartoon and it just gave me nightmares for ages.
MG: (Laughs.) I was very interested in Hell, too. I donít remember if I put this in Two Girls or not, but I used to draw pictures of Hell. They were very childish, but I would draw pictures of Heaven and Hellóit was a subject of great interest to me. I didnít grow up as Catholic but my step-grandmother was Catholic. She would take me to services, and I really enjoyed the church. I enjoyed the whole Hell system, the whole Heaven/Hell thing. I mean it was frightening to me, but it also seemed to me just a sensible way of sorting things out. To me Two Girlsí childhood doesnít seem bleak as much as it does horrifying in many ways. I think of bleak as kind of monotonous. I think of childhood as a time of intensity and viscerally understood experience, and learning a great deal, and certainly apprehending that the world is a brutal place. I think that comes as a shock to children, sometimes if theyíre brought up often by parents who are very well-meaning and try to present the world in the most gentle way possible. And there comes a point in time where youíre coming from that place of your parents gently nurturing you and encouraging you to see the world as a very gentle, kind place, but then seeing the contradictions between that upbringing and how things really are. Even between people who are essentially gentle.
GF: Yeah, the complexity of nuances that kids have to absorb and internalize, that things can still be O.K. and not be idyllic and perfect. I think thatís probably even more overt now than when you or I were growing up because thereís such a culture of childhood now where itís really consciously made precious and everything is taking kids to Gymboree and these lovely activities for children. Whereas, at least when I was younger, kids played in the street and absorbed their environment, and now it seems like the lives of children are even more structured and forcibly sweet and perfect until they kind of have to discover reality for themselves.
MG: Yes. I remember being very shocked when a family friend, a scientistóI discovered he had frozen cats in his freezer that he would dissect! And he had pet cats too that he would feed; they would sit up on the table with him and eat out of his plate. It was just such an experience of cognitive dissonance for me. Here he is with this one cat, feeding him off of his plate and petting him, and then heís got the other one in the freezer and plans to cut it up in the basement later. How strange.
GF: Other Voices recently did a joint interview with Elizabeth Crane and Steve Almond, and they were discussing the way that happinessóbeing happy and secure in your own lifeócan mess with oneís writing, particularly among writers whose forte has been more unhappy or self-destructive characters or relationships. But I did read that you, on the other hand, went through a long dry spell in your work and that your marriage in 2001 actually re-inspired you to return to Veronica, which you had started in the early Ď90s but had left unfinished. So I was just wondering if being married has changed the way that youíre inspired by your writing, your desire to write, what you want to write about.
MG: If anything I would say that itís supportive of my writing. I donít agree with what the other people were saying, that being contented or more stable in your life is going to have an adverse effect on your writing. I donít know how content a person can become, anyway, given human nature; itís not like I got married and suddenly was content.
GF: Right, you didnít get a lobotomy.
MG: [laughs] To me it just presents a whole other series of problems and challenges, and things to think about. Itís not like I got married and went to sleep. Itís a different kind of engagement with a person thatís also very interesting. But I actually find it supportive of my writing in that I just generally feel emotionally supported in a way that I wasnít when I was single. I actually found that rather surprising because I had never really experienced that and I wasnít pursuing it, but having experienced it, itís just a more calming place to be. That certainly canít be bad for my writing. Thereís a sort of myth that you write out of some sort of agitation and pain, and while I can certainly write while Iím in states of pain or even agitation, my writing isnít dependent on that. Itís actually easier to write if youíre calm.
GF: I read a piece on you in which you commented that it freaked you out a little, the way people that you live near, who had always ignored you or maybe even thought you were freaky before, suddenly would start chatting with you and congratulating you when you turned up with an engagement ring on your fingeróas though you had a societal stamp of approval. Do you feel, now that youíve been married for a longer period of time, as though people genuinely seem to think youíre someone different now, and has that been an adjustment?
MG: It was more subtle than that. It was more that in the town I live in, there was a subtle sort of acceptance that happened, but it wasnít that people were mean to me and then I was engaged and they were nicer. I didnít really know people before I got engaged, I had just arrived and was living on my own on a country road in this big house that other people owned and I had a sort of in-law apartment. I didnít have a car and I would walk into town to do my errands and I felt like I had a sign over my head marking me as different. I had never felt that in San Francisco or New York, but this place, it was all about families. I would go to the grocery and the dry cleaner, I would get my little cookie from the bakery, and my aloneness, it was very marked. And then I showed up with this engagement ring and I felt like people looked at it and went ĎOh. O.K. Sheís O.K. Sheís one of us after all.í And what was interesting was that I was ambivalent. On one hand, I was offended, I thought well, if I wasnít O.K. before Iím not now. But on the other hand, I was pleased to be welcomed into the herd. That ambivalence would continue. On one hand, it was good to feel that extra acceptance. On the other hand, Iíd tell people I was engaged and it was like I won the Nobel Prize or something. Which pissed me off. It was a much bigger reaction than say, oh, my getting a book published.
GF: Yes! Iím going through something a little bit similar in the sense that Iím eight months pregnant after thinking that I was infertile and not really caring about that in the way that I guess people think youíre supposed to. Itís been surreal to me the way people, especially women, are sort of disproportionately overjoyed, acting like Iím suddenly a member of a global club I was previously excluded from. And it can feel a little invasive or even insulting of my previous, non-pregnant self. One woman actually started yelling ĎThank God! Thank God!í when I told her.
MG: Oh my God.
GF: Itís particularly surreal because I have two adopted children and yet the response to my pregnancy was still so over the top like that. As though the other two were more philanthropic efforts, like I was Angelina Jolie or something.
MG: Thatís terrible!
GF: [laughs] It is a little horrifying. So what you said about getting engaged really struck a chord with me.
MG: I certainly noticed a difference. But with your pregnancy, I would have thought that people might react that way if you had never had a kid, but that youíve adopted children and they still reacted that way seemsÖ I just think that thereís a very strong investment in womenís primary identity as mother and I know that if I had a child, which Iím not going to at this age, certainly, but I think it would have changed even if I had adopted a child. I think peoplesí attitude towards me would have changed dramatically, because I would be fulfilling my function. And I think that this is not going to change, I think that no matter what women do, in just about everybodyís mind, including other womenó
GF: Especially in the minds of other women, I might say.
MG: Youíre absolutely right. That their identity as child bearer or child raiser is the important thing. And if a woman is not doing that, then sheís not doing her job. And it almost doesnít matter what else she does.
GF: I would definitely agree with that. I have a friend whoís almost fifty now and has never married and never had children and who feels that the world responds to her as though sheís pretty deviant even though she leads a very sedate life. And I wasnít really conscious of it, having been a mother for five years now of my daughters. I wasnít really that conscious of it until I got pregnant and then saw that I had sort of ascended a stepping stone in that acceptability tier.
MG: And this isnít something that I have no understanding of. The ability to become pregnant and give birth is extraordinary and is extraordinarily powerful. I see why it has such force in peoplesí minds and I think itís something that should be respected although, really, at this point there are so many human beings itís absurd. It would be better if more people adopted. My husband and I talked about it ourselves for a whileÖ well thatís a long story. We have wound up becoming involved as godparents in a way that would make it hard to bring in yet more kids. But I do think itís an important role to fulfill, and there are so many kids with no homes who need them.
GF: Definitely, and itís been interesting too because now that I am pregnant Iíve had a lot of people say ĎWell now that you know you can get pregnant, are you going to have more kids?í and Iíve said ĎWell this has been great, and interesting or whatever, Iím excited for the baby but if I had any more kids I would probably go back to China and adoptí and people seem to find that very surprising.
MG: I wish that women would allow themselvesówell, I donít think it matters what I say or anybody says, I donít think itís going to change. But it wonít change primarily because women enforce it. Itís women who are the most locked into this system, although it really limits them as well. You know how most women really get offended when somebody uses the word Ďcuntí for woman? They shouldnít get offended if they act like childbirth is the most important function a woman can have, above actual mothering. And this is complicated, because really, the physical act of birth is important, mythically so. The reproductive organ is important. But come on, to say that itís the most important?
GF: Itís well known that you like Nabokov a great deal. Can you name some newer writers today whose work youíve read and admire?
MG: I like George Saundersóheís certainly different from Nabokov, but I like him. I like Philip Roth. I would say right now my favorite is Haruki Murakami. I think heís a genius, and I donít think there are many of those around, particularly now. Marilynne Robinson, also.
GF: Are you working on a new book already, and if so would you care to say anything about it?
MG: Iím working on two books. Oneís a collection of stories, which will probably be what will come out next, and thereís also a novel I started in 2000. I have no ideaóI just hope that doesnít take ten years. Thatís all I have to say.