Mary Gaitskill

Acclaimed Novelist & Story Writer
National Book Award Finalist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • The Peculiar Place of Imagery in Literature
  • Sexuality in Literature
  • Why People Still Read
  • An Evening with Mary Gaitskill

“There may be no better writer than Gaitskill at reaching deep into what she calls…’the trapdoors in personality and obsession,’ and pulling what she finds there back out into the world. Past, present, future; heartbreak, desire, and loss—none of it is quite beyond her.” —Village Voice

“[Gaitskill’s] palpable talent puts her among the most eloquent and perceptive contemporary fiction writers.” —New York Times Book Review

“I lost my innocence to Mary Gaistkill; I think a lot of people did.” —

Award-winning author Mary Gaitskill is best known for delivering powerful stories of dislocation, longing, and desire with prose that “glides lightly over unsoundable depths” (Village Voice). She is the author of two novels: The Mare (2015), Veronica (2005), which was nominated for the 2005 National Book Award, National Critic’s Circle Award, and LA Times Book Award, and Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991). Gaitskill’s most recent publication is her novella This Is Pleasure (2019) where she considers our present moment through the lens of a particular #MeToo incident. She is also the author of the story collections Don’t CryBad Behavior, and Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner in 1998. Bad Behavior, now a classic, made critical waves when it was first published, heralding Gaitskill’s arrival on the literary scene and established her as one of the sharpest, erotically charged, and audaciously funny writing talents of contemporary literature. In addition, Gaitskill is the author of the essay collection Somebody With A Little Hammer (2017). About her story collection, Don’t Cry, Bomb Magazine declared: “Written with her distinctive, uncanny combination of bluntness and high lyricism, Don’t Cry takes its place among artworks of great moral seriousness.”

Gaitskill’s stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her story “Secretary” was the basis for the feature film of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. In 2002 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and in 2010 she was awarded a Cullman Research Fellowship at the New York Public Library. She has taught at U-C Berkeley, the University of Houston, New York University, Brown, and Syracuse University.

Mary Gaitskill was born in 1954 in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1981 Gaitskill graduated from the University of Michigan, where she won an award for her collection of short fiction The Woman Who Knew Judo and Other Stories.

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels The MareVeronica, which was nominated for the 2005 National Book Award, National Critic’s Circle Award, and LA Times Book Award, and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Her most recent publication is her novella This Is Pleasure (2019). She is also the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner in 1998, and Don’t Cry. Gaitskill’s stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her most recent collection of essays, Somebody With A Little Hammer (2017), was published in 2017.  She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and a Cullman Research Fellowship at the New York Public Library.

THIS IS PLEASURE (Novella, November 2019)
Starting with Bad Behavior in the 1980s, Mary Gaitskill has been writing about gender relations with searing, even prophetic honesty. In This Is Pleasure, she considers our present moment through the lens of a particular #MeToo incident.
The effervescent, well-dressed Quin, a successful book editor and fixture on the New York arts scene, has been accused of repeated unforgivable transgressions toward women in his orbit. But are they unforgivable? And who has the right to forgive him? To Quin’s friend Margot, the wrongdoing is less clear. Alternating Quin’s and Margot’s voices and perspectives, Gaitskill creates a nuanced tragicomedy, one that reveals her characters as whole persons—hurtful and hurting, infuriating and touching, and always deeply recognizable. Gaitskill has said that fiction is the only way that she could approach this subject because it is too emotionally faceted to treat in the more rational essay form. Her compliment to her characters—and to her readers—is that they are unvarnished and real. Her belief in our ability to understand them, even when we don’t always admire them, is a gesture of humanity from one of our greatest contemporary writers.

Here is Mary Gaitskill the essayist: witty, direct, penetrating to the core of each issue, personality, or literary trope (On Updike: “It’s as if [he] has entered a tiny window marked ‘Rabbit,’ and, by some inverse law, passed into a universe of energies both light and dark, expanded and contracted, infinite and workaday.” On Elizabeth Wurtzel: “If this kooky, foot-stamping, self-loathing screed is meant to be, as it claims, a defense of ‘difficult women,’ i.e., women who ‘write their own operating manuals’ . . . all I can say is, bitches best duck and run for cover.”) Gaitskill writes about the ridiculous and poetic ambition of Norman Mailer, about the sociosexual cataclysm embodied by porn star Linda Lovelace, and, in the deceptively titled “Lost Cat,” about how power and race can warp the most innocent and intimate of relationships. Appearing in chronological order, the essays offer Gaitskill’s thoughts and reactions, always with the same heat-seeking, revelatory understanding that we have long valued in her fiction.

THE MARE (Novel, November 2015)
From the author of the National Book Award-nominated Veronica: her most poignant and powerful work yet— the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her. Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a “Fresh Air Fund” kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist on the fringe of Alcholics Anonymous, and her academic husband, Paul, who wonder what it will mean to “make a difference” in such a contrived situation.  Mary Gaitskill illuminates their changing relationship with Velvet over several years, as well as Velvet’s powerful encounter with the horses at the stables down the road, especially with an abused, unruly mare called “Fugly Girl.”  With strong supporting characters—Velvet’s abusive mother; the eccentric horse trainer who instructs Velvet; the charismatic older boy who wakens Velvet’s nascent passion—The Mare weaves together Velvet’s vital city community and the privileged country world of Ginger and Paul. In Gaitskill’s hands, the timeless story of a girl and a horse is joined with the timeless story of people from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds trying to meet each other honestly; The Mare is something raw, striking and original.

DON’T CRY: STORIES (Fiction, 2009)

“The stories in… “Don’t Cry,” address unflinchingly the conflict between our actions and desires, our losses during war and peacetime, the charged dynamics between men and women.” —L.A. Times

Following the extraordinary success of her novel Veronica, Mary Gaitskill returns with a luminous new collection of stories. In “The Little Boy,” a woman haunted by the death of her former husband is finally able to grieve through a mysterious encounter with a needy child; and in “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,” the fallout of the Iraq war becomes disturbingly real for the disparate passengers on a train going up the Hudson-three veterans, a liberal editor, a soldier’s uncle, and honeymooners on their way to Niagara Falls. Each story delivers the powerful, original language, and the dramatic engagement of the intelligent mind with the craving body-or of the intelligent body with the craving mind-that is characteristic of Gaitskill’s fiction. As intense as Bad Behavior, Don’t Cry reflects the profound enrichment of life experience. As the stories unfold against the backdrop of American life over the last thirty years, they describe how our social conscience has evolved while basic human truths—”the crude cinder blocks of male and female down in the basement, holding up the house,” as one character puts it—remain unchanged.

VERONICA(Novel, 2006)

“Mary Gaitskill has been formulating her fiction around that immutable question of how we manage to live in a seemingly inscrutable world…The marvel of Veronica is how finely this novel reveals a life, and how the novel itself becomes a kind of revelation.” —Harpers

Alison and Veronica meet amid the nocturnal glamour of 1980s New York: One is a young model stumbling away from the wreck of her career, the other an eccentric middle-aged office temp. Over the next twenty years, their friendship will encompass narcissism and tenderness, exploitation and self-sacrifice, love and mortality. Moving seamlessly from present and past, casting a fierce yet compassionate eye on two eras and their fixations, the result is a work of timeless depth and moral power.

Read the short story “Mirrorball” — Knopf Doubleday

Read This Is Pleasure — The New Yorker

• Read the Short Story “The Other Place” — The New Yorker

DON’T CRY (excerpt from short story)

Our first day in Addis Ababa we woke up to wedding music playing outside the hotel. We had traveled for 20 hours and we were deeply asleep. The music entered my sleep in the form of moving lights, like fireflies or animate laughter, in a pattern, but a loose and playful one. I was dreaming that I was with Thomas. In the dream, he was very young, and we were chasing a light that had come free of the others, running down a winding path with darkness all around.

When I woke at first I did not know where I was. The music seemed more real than the dingy room; its sound saturated me with happiness and pain. Then I saw Katya and remembered where we were and why. She was already up and standing at the window lifting a shade to peer out-the sun made a warm place on her skin and I felt affection for her known form in this unknown place. She turned and said, “Janice, there’s weddings going on outside-plural!”

We went outside. All around our hotel were gardens, and in the gardens were crowds of people dressed in the bright colors of undiluted joy. Brides and grooms were wearing white satin, and the streets were lined with white limousines decked with flowers, and together with so much color, the white also seemed colorful. Little girls in red-and-white crinoline ran past, followed by a laughing woman. Everyone was laughing or smiling, and because I could not tell where the music came from, I had the sensation that it was coming directly from these smiling, laughing people. Katya turned to me and said, “Are we in heaven?”

I replied, “I don’t know,” and for a second I meant it.

My husband Thomas had died six months before the trip to Addis Ababa. The music that woke me that first day touched my grief even before I knew it was wedding music. Even in my sleep I could hear love in it; even in my sleep, I could hear loss. I stepped out of the hotel in a state of grief, but when I saw the brides and grooms in their happiness, wonder slowly spread through my grief. It was like seeing my past and a future that was no longer mine but that I was part of anyway.

—from Don’t Cry

VERONICA (novel excerpt)

When I was young, my mother read me a story about a wicked little girl. She read it to me and my two sisters. We sat curled against her on the couch and she read from the book on her lap. The lamp shone on us and there was a blanket over us. The girl in the story was beautiful and cruel. Because her mother was poor, she sent her daughter to work for rich people, who spoiled and petted her. The rich people told her she had to visit her mother. But the girl felt she was too good and went merely to show herself. One day, the rich people sent her home with a loaf of bread for her mother. But when the little girl came to a muddy bog, rather than ruin her shoes, she threw down the bread and stepped on it. It sank into the bog and she sank with it. She sank into a world of demons and deformed creatures. Because she was beautiful, the demon queen made her into a statue as a gift for her great-grandson. The girl was covered in snakes and slime and surrounded by the hate of every creature trapped like she was. She was starving but couldn’t eat the bread still welded to her feet. She could hear what people were saying about her; a boy passing by saw what had happened to her and told everyone, and they all said she deserved it. Even her mother said she deserved it. The girl couldn’t move, but if she could have, she would’ve twisted with rage. “It isn’t fair!” cried my mother, and her voice mocked the wicked girl.

Because I sat against my mother when she told this story, I did not hear it in words only. I felt it in her body. I felt a girl who wanted to be too beautiful. I felt a mother who wanted to love her. I felt a demon who wanted to torture her. I felt them mixed together so you couldn’t tell them apart. The story scared me and I cried. My mother put her arms around me. “Wait,” she said. “It’s not over yet. She’s going to be saved by the tears of an innocent girl. Like you.” My mother kissed the top of my head and finished the story. And I forgot about it for a long time.

—from Veronica

Read What’s In Print

Mary Gaitskill’s Art of Loneliness – The Nation

This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill is a #MeToo story full of nuance and empathy — iNews

Interview with Mary Gaitskill  — The Guardian

Mary Gaitskill on the Power of Fiction for Examining #MeToo — The New Yorker

• Mary Gaitskill’s response to #MeToo will be fiction – Los Angeles Times

• The 10 Best Books Of 2017 – Interview Magazine

• If You Allow It – The Nation

Essays: The Short List – NY Times Book Review

Getting “Woke”: Mary Gaitskill’s “Somebody with a Little Hammer” – LA Review of Books

• Mary Gaitskill Looks Unhappiness Straight in the Eye – New York Times

• Mary Gaitskill On Rape Culture And ‘Somebody With A Little Hammer’ – Huffington Post

• Review of Somebody with a Little Hammer – Publishers Weekly

• Mary Gaitskill and the Life Unseen — NYT Magazine

Mary Gaitskill Interviewed by Matthew Sharpe — BOMB

• Mary Gaitskill on Her Story “The Other Place” — The New Yorker

• What Can We Steal from Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place” — Great Writers Steal 

• Woman to Woman: Interview with Mary Gaitskill — Fiction Writers Review

• Conversation about Don’t Cry — Book Forum

• Interview about Don’t Cry — Believer Magazine

• Interview on the 25th Anniversary of Bad Behavior — Slant

Interview with Tim Adams: ‘Literature is not a realm for politeness’–The Guardian

Listen to Audio

Mary Gaitskill Reads ‘Acceptance Journey’ – WNYC

Mary Gaitskill Spins a Swirling Tale of Love, Delusion, and Horses in The Mare – NPR

Mary Gaitskill Pushes Boundaries – NPR

‘As We Get Older, We Become More Ourselves’ – NPR

• LARB Radio Hour: Mary Gaitskill in Dialogue with Tom Lutz and Laurie Winer – LA Review of Books Radio Hour

• Mary Gaitskill’s Story “The Other Place” Read by Jennifer Egan — The New Yorker