Conversation: Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Don’t Cry’

BY Arts Desk  March 26, 2009 at 2:16 PM EDT

'Don't Cry' by Mary Gaitskill
Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that art is “beauty plus pity.” It’s a formula author Mary Gaitskill took to heart, after quoting his words in a tribute essay years ago. They’ve both been accused, after all, of varying levels of perversity and brilliance. For Gaitskill, that combination has been explored in stories about what it’s like to be human, usually female, and sentient, mining the depths of sexuality in modern times.

Once hailed as a kind of queen of kink, Gaitskill never fully warmed to the role. Her 1988 seminal short-story collection “Bad Behavior” featured young women struggling with love in an often salacious and somewhat lonesome world. In “Secretary,” later the inspiration for the film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, a reserved secretary endures, and secretly enjoys, a sadomasochistic relationship with her boss.

On Thursday, I spoke with another prominent female voice about Gaitskill’s work: Jessa Crispin, who runs Bookslut.com, a literary Web site and blog. When Crispin first encountered “Secretary,” she realized “there was a dark energy to her writing that is so attractive, so different and new that I had to read everything she wrote after that.”

You can listen to our conversation here:

Gaitskill has won equal accolades for her work’s humanism and her ability to write honestly about women’s lives, both public and private. Her writing, like the emotional lives of her characters, has evolved over the years; the young dalliances in her earlier work have solidified to form the “crude cinder blocks of male and female down in the basement, holding up the house,” in one story. The stories still feature sex, but it serves less as a plot device than as a sort of prism through which to see the many faceted angles of adulthood.

“There is not a golden retriever who comes in and teaches people how to love in Mary Gaitskill’s work, and that is so refreshing because that seems to be a genre unto itself these days,” said Crispin.

After being first published at age 33, Gaitskill has gone on to produce essays, short stories and a novel, “Veronica,” which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2005. She has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2002. “Don’t Cry,” which came out this week, is her first story collection in more than 10 years.