July 13, 2020

Gaitskill’s Got Skills

posted on: Thursday March 22, 2012

Sarah O’Brien ’15/Asst. A&E Editor

She’s known for her characters. On Tuesday, March 20, author Mary Gaitskill graced Providence College with her presence, giving a reading in Feinstein 400. Gaitskill has written the novels Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and Veronica, which was nominated for the 2005 National Book Award, National Critic’s Circle Award, and L.A. Times Book Award. She has also published the story collections Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner in 1998.

Gaitskill’s story “Secretary” (included in Bad Behavior) inspired the 2002 film of the same name. When asked if she thought the film was a suitable adaptation of the story, Gaitskill said, “It is very separate [from the story itself]. It’s the Hollywood version; they made the Pretty Woman version of it.”

Gaitskill has a colorful background. At age 16, she ran away from her home in Detroit. “At the time that I ran away, lots of kids ran away from home. It was something of a social phenomenon,” explained Gaitskill. Throughout her 20s, Gaitskill worked as a stripper and a call girl to make money. She enrolled in the University of Michigan, and in 1981, she both graduated and won the prestigious Hopwood award for writing. As well as publishing work, she has taught at UC Berkeley, the University of Houston, New York University, Brown and Syracuse University.

I had never read Gaitskill before, and did not know what to expect. All I knew was that she was a stripper-turned-writer, and that my poetry professor highly recommended we meet her.

English professor and award-winning author, Dr. E.C. Osondu, introduced Gaitskill. He described how he had asked to overenroll in her class (at Syracuse University), and upon denial how he had sent her his stories, asking for feedback. “She told me, ‘I can actually see these as a book.’ I had no idea I was writing a book, I just thought I was writing stories,” said Osondu. He went on to describe Gaitskill’s infamous characters. “Her characters aren’t really lovable, but they are believable, and that’s more important,” said Osondu. “The female prime minister of Israel was once asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ and she responded, ‘I believe in the Jewish people, and they believe in God.’ That is the same relationship I have with these characters.” Gaitskill laughed at this, and declared Osondu to have given “one of the best introductions I’ve ever had.”

When Mary Gaitskill stood up to speak, I was surprised. At 58-years-old, she could pass for someone a decade younger. Maybe just in the way she carried herself; posture perfect, shoulders back. Maybe in her direct gaze, unfaltering and strong. What stood out to me even more than her appearance, however, was her voice. Soft and impassive, Gaitskill’s voice perfectly captured the mood and matched the tone in her story “The Other Place.” Her reading enhanced it in a way that convinced the listener everything was true.

Gaitskill admitted that while reading aloud, “You can express things with voice and body that you can’t get off the page. I change it when I read it.”

“The Other Place” focuses around the relationship between a father and son, the father a man who has fantasized about killing women in his imagined ‘Other Place,’ and a son who seems drawn to violence already at the age of 13. The style of writing, revealing horrific or astonishing details matter-of-factly, only adds to the suspense, affecting the reader more. There is a can’t-look-away-from-the-car-crash sort of sense to it.

In describing the son in the story, Douglas, Gaitskill writes from the perspective of his father, “He does beautiful, precise drawings of crows. Mostly, though, he draws pictures of men holding guns. Or men hanging from nooses. Or men cutting up other men with chainsaws-in these pictures there are no faces, just figures holding chainsaws and figures being cut in two, with blood spraying out.” Hooking her audience within the first few paragraphs, Gaitskill continues in the same even tone from beginning to end, despite the disturbing scenes. She tells her story, and almost becomes her character.

Douglas’ father struggles not only with homicidal caprices, but also with the fear that his own son has the same problems. In the end, he finds a connection with his son, discerning, “Somewhere in him is the Other Place. It’s quiet now, but I know it’s there. I also know that he won’t be alone with it.” Since it is often misinterpreted, Gaitskill clarifies, “He thinks his son is like him, and he wants to emotionally take care of him, to help him manage his feelings.”

Following the reading, one student asked Gaitskill, “How do you get in the mind of such a dark character without being affected by it?” She replied, “I’m not afraid of myself. I’m afraid of things not under my control. Characters are under my control.”

Though slightly intimidated, I approached her before leaving and asked her what advice she had for aspiring writers. Meeting my eyes through her black-rimmed glasses, she answered, “The most important thing to have is tenacity. You have to be like a pit bull. Writers must be ready to accept a lot of rejection, even after being published.” She added, “Keep contact with your way of seeing the world. These days there is a very shared view of the world; with the Internet, people can get information like that [snaps fingers]. Your writing won’t be strong unless you maintain your own view.” After meeting Mary Gaitskill, one thing is very clear-she is as much a character as the ones she brings to life through words. I’d be eager to read more of her work, though definitely not right before going to sleep. Gaitskill’s unsettling stories are the type that will linger in your mind, and her well-developed characters will become people you used to know.

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