Mary Gaitskill on her bisexuality and writing queer

If you’ve never read any of Mary Gaitskill‘s work, you have inevitably read or seen works on-screen that were influenced by it. The novelist has been an inspiration for young female writers of all kinds, including her story “Secretary,” which was made into a feature film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

If her name sounds familiar, it might be that you’re a fan of The L Word, and happened to hear Jenny Schecter speak of her as someone she hopes to evoke in her dark and innately queer stories, because that’s exactly the kind of thing Mary Gaitskill writes about.

Burr: So… like, what – what kinda writers would you say you model yourself after? Judith Krantz, Danielle Steele? Like that?

[Jenny's jaw drops.]

Jenny: Ew! You’re kidding. I’m sorry.

Burr: Looking at you, having spent a few minutes with you, um… I’m good at this.

[Burr stares at Jenny for a moment.]

Burr: Mary Gaitskill.

Jenny: (gasps) Wow! Thank you.

Later on Marina says of Jenny’s work “It reminds me of Dorothy Allison with the chic of Mary Gaitskill.”

In a new interview with Slant Here, Gaitskill spoke about her career and also her sexuality, as she identifies as bisexual.

“I haven’t been with women for a long time, but much of my life, I’ve been responsive to women sometimes, so yes, I called myself bisexual,” Mary said. “I am sure that my sexuality influences me, and that my being with women has influenced me, but I’m not sure I could define how. I’m glad that I had that experience though. The gay woman’s world is a wonderful place in many ways.”

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Mary is one of very few authors that frequently creates strong female characters that have a fluid sexuality. One of her best stories in her most recent book Don’t Cry focused on a married woman who reunites with a lesbian lover (“Today I’m Yours”), as well as gay daughter trying to reconcile a relationship with her father in “Tiny Smiling Daddy” (Because They Wanted To) and themes such as S&M and sex work are part of her other work like her first collection, Bad Behavior.

“I was not the only person writing about such things,” Mary said of her early career. “There was Suzanna Moore, A.M. Homes, Bret Easton Ellis, Dennis Cooper, Catherine Texier and others. I think it was the style. … The book had a sensibility that disturbed some people, but I don’t think it was truly about ‘hardness.’ If anything, they may’ve been disturbed by the very softness I refer to, because it may’ve made them feel something.”

It’s worth mentioning that A.M. Holmes, who she mentions, is a lesbian herself and also wrote episodes of The L Word. Although it’s not expressed specifically in Two Girls Fat and Thin, one of the major characters, Dorothy, was a lesbian and she sleeps with her friend Justine.

“The reason I see it having gay overtones is that I see Dorothy as being gay,” Mary once told an interviewer. “I don’t say that in the book. Most of her feelings toward Justine have erotic undertones. I don’t know if they would act it out together, but at some point Dorothy might.”

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Nowadays, Mary’s work might be a little less shocking. (Bad Behavior came out in 1988.) In fact, Mary seems to think today’s generation are a little more traditional than you might think. “Some things, like being queer or mildly kinky, are more openly accepted, or mainstreamed, but that’s a perennial thing that shifts and changes in all cultures, like a pendulum effect,” she said. ” But I’m exposed to young people a lot through teaching, reading the fictional stories kids write about their lives, also through talking to the kids of my friends and acquaintances—and they are into traditional values, family, marriage, motherhood. Especially motherhood.”

Mary was married to Peter Trachtenberg in 2001 but they were separated in 2010. She told Slant Here, “If you have a man, you’re seen as normal, and if not, well….Married, you’re basically part of the herd, and that makes life easier in a lot of ways, in terms of social support.  But if you’re not by nature a herd animal, you start to feel like you’re passing. I’m not, by the way, especially interested in bucking convention.  I tend to elide it, but if the convention works for me, I’ve got no problem operating within it.”

Mary says she’s working on her next book, which is about “a young girl learning to ride a horse.” Because it’s Mary, though, it’ll likely have some kind of perverse theme to it, but that’ll make it all the better.

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