Mary Gaitskill: ‘I have a nuanced mind, for better and worse’

The novelist and essayist on the disturbing power of Lolita, her regard for John Cheever, and her aversion to simplistic arguments

Mary Gaitskill, 66, is the author of This Is Pleasure, a novella about a #MeToo scandal in the New York book industry, as well as three novels and three story collections, including her 1988 debut Bad Behaviour, whose story Secretary was the basis of the 2002 film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in the title role as an office junior in a sadomasochistic relationship with her boss. Her new book, Oppositions, is a collection of essays dealing candidly with subjects that include rape and child abuse: reviewing the US edition, the Boston Globe praised her “gift for traversing taboo territory with a subtlety that’s sometimes downright Jamesian... [she] draws on her personal experience to crack the veneers of the social codes and sexual ambiguities we all navigate”. Gaitskill, who grew up near Detroit and ran away in her teens to San Francisco, spoke to me from upstate New York.

These essays might have been titled Against Simplicity
I get very disturbed when I feel something is being presented in an overly broad way. I have a nuanced mind, for better and worse. For a writer, it’s generally good. For a person who has to sit on a school board or judge a court case, it probably isn’t. Fortunately, I don’t do those things.

You like to continually reconsider your point of view.
I do, but it’s actually ineffective. A lot of people, I’ve learned, read the first few pages, and if you’ve said something they don’t like, they don’t get past it. They don’t take in what you’re saying on page 10. They’re just furious at you for what you said on pages one and two.

You picture the book getting hurled across the room during a piece in which you say Lolita is about love
I had said Lolita was about love in an earlier essay; a friend said, you can’t say that, and I was like, “but I think it’s true”. I don’t think it’s ideal love, it’s twisted love, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t love. Probably the majority of Americans who know of that book would say: “Yes, in real life Humbert should go to jail, but he’s obviously a fictional character and I’m interested to read about him.” That seems simple, but for more intellectual people, or people who are loud on Twitter, I think it’s become contentious.

The same essay talks about your feelings when you were molested by a family friend at the age of five.
A lot of women who love Lolita have had some kind of experience like that. I might live long enough to regret writing about it, but it felt right at the time. Men, and I’m sure some women, too, molest children: that is the really raw thing that gives Lolita its power, in addition to its artistic beauty. It’s absurd to talk about the book in purely intellectual terms. Brian Boyd [the Nabokov scholar] said it’s about a defence of children. Come on! Nobody in their right mind would read it like that: it’s too erotic, and that’s what makes it more complicated.

Another essay explores your difficulty in describing an encounter you had in the 1970s, which you talk about having previously spoken of as rape, although you felt “the truth is not at all clear, then or even now”. Your honesty about this seems intended to complicate our ideas about sexual responsibility.
That was written even before we really got where we are now [since #MeToo] but I think the one thing I said that still applies is that probably a new word, or many new words, should be invented for different kinds of sexual cruelty or violence. People sometimes say rape when they mean something else. A lot of bad things can happen that aren’t rape, but rape is rape.

Did you write This Is Pleasure to make that point?
I wrote it in less than a year – for me that’s really fast – and I wrote it partly out of my own confusion [in the wake of #MeToo] and because I really felt strongly that I needed to: there’s something way too clearcut in public about a situation that is not clearcut. I watched it unfold to some extent about a friend of mine. He did do some things that were disrespectful, but it was strange: on the one hand, my instinct was to defend him. There was a petition saying that if anybody hires this person, you should boycott them – that’s overstepping. It’s one thing to decide “I don’t want to deal with this person”, but to be telling other people that they shouldn’t or you’re going to suffer? That’s just wrong: it’s telling other people what to think, and how to feel. Remember the Polanski scandal, way before #MeToo? Most people I knew actually supported him: “Yes, he shouldn’t have done that, but he’s a great artist…” I was so disgusted and angry. And I like Roman Polanski. Chinatown’s a great movie. Rosemary’s Baby’s a great movie. I don’t care. He should have gone to jail. I never felt like watching his movies after that, but I’d never go online and demand that nobody else does.

What did you think when Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth book got pulled?
I thought it was ridiculous, but his cruel treatment in that really ugly biography of John Cheever [in 2009] – a great writer and, frankly, better than Roth – was so shitty that I had no sympathy for him really.

What have you been reading lately?
I’ve just finished All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, which I’d never read before. It’s very old-fashioned but it’s a great book about American politics. It’s based on the governor of Louisiana, who started idealistic and became a brutish Trumpian figure. Before that, I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat – I loved that – and I’m about to start New People by Danzy Senna.

Which authors inspired you to write?
In my early 20s, Colette, then Flannery O’Connor, and, later, Nabokov, except I didn’t think I could do that. O’Connor was probably more impactful for being closer to me in sensibility, but you aren’t really aware of your own work being shaped: you make conscious choices but I think things happen that are deeper than that.

Oppositions: Selected Essays is published on 11 November by Serpent’s Tail (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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