Mary Gaitskill first gained fame for her 1988 short story collection “Bad Behavior,” a provocative exploration of dark sexual relationships in New York City. But her love of writing started decades earlier, as a young child.
“I loved reading, and even when I was a kid I wrote stories,” Gaitskill said. “I would kind of draw cartoon comic books.”
Gaitskill, who has taught creative writing at several universities since 1992 and was a National Book Award finalist in 2005, joined the English department this semester to teach a fiction workshop in the MFA Creative Writing Program.
Her latest novel, “The Mare,” is about Velveteen Vargas, an 11-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn. Through the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that provides summer host families to low-income children in New York City, she gets the opportunity to live with a middle-class white couple in upstate New York. The novel was first published in 2015.
“It’s about race, but it’s also about a socially unaccepted love or relationship,” Gaitskill said. “I write about that a lot.”
While Gaitskill acknowledged the book is not as transgressive as “Bad Behavior,” she said both stories reflect a similar theme.
“[They’re] about ambiguity and situations which don’t really belong to one category or another,” Gaitskill said.
Don Lee, the director of the MFA Creative Writing Program, read much of Gaitskill’s writing well before he hired her. Prior to her coming to Temple, Lee had only briefly met Gaitskill once at a writer’s conference, but he said he had admired her work for 20 years.
“She is a great prose writer in terms of craft, but [also] she’s willing to take risks in terms of her themes and characters,” he said.
Lee realized he wanted to hire a fiction workshop professor two years ago when former Provost Hai-Lung Dai, announced that he would entertain proposals from different departments for “star hires.”
During her job interview on Main Campus in Spring 2016, Lee said Gaitskill “riveted” the faculty with an excerpt from “The Mare.” She also spoke about her literary influences, which range from Vladimir Nabokov to Flannery O’Connor to Philip Roth.
“She was just so obviously intelligent and impassioned and insightful,” he said. “We, the faculty, were inspired, and we knew that she would be doubly inspiring to the students.”
Partho Chakrabartty, a first-year creative writing MFA student in Gaitskill’s workshop, said after only one class, Gaitskill inspired him to develop new approaches to examine his writing.
“Most of the time, writing is talked about in terms of its mechanics,” Chakrabartty said. “We will talk about the elements of craft [and] things like point of view and characterization…the nuts and bolts kind of stuff.”
Chakrabartty said Gaitskill addressed these writing conventions in a different manner. She guided a discussion on how writers take the mechanical elements of writing and “infuse them with life.”
“Something which seems very fleeting when you’re reading, a minor detail somewhere, a minor anecdote, a throwaway sentence which is not really fully developed in the story, can color the way you read the entire story,” Chakrabartty said.
For Gaitskill, workshops are jarringly different from the solitary act of writing, but she appreciates them as a form of “energy exchange.”
“It’s talking with a group of people that you wouldn’t normally have this kind of conversation with that can open up your perception about writing,” Gaitskill said. “It’s been interesting over the years to be in this situation which is really unnatural for me. … It’s made me a little more flexible in certain ways as a writer.”
In addition to teaching MFA Creative Writing workshops, Lee said Gaitskill will teach an undergraduate literature course, The Art of the Short Story, in Spring 2018.
But even as Gaitskill teaches students to analyze the short fiction of other writers, she said she can’t always identify the themes in her own work.
“I think [writers] often don’t really understand their themes that fully,” she said. “Because if it’s good, it comes from a pretty deep place, it’s not just about an idea.”
Ian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ian_walker12.