Mary Gaitskill on Her First Novel in a Decade and Ambivalence Towards Motherhood

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Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare is out this November. Photo: Illustration by Pete Gamlen

Mary Gaitskill’s first collection of short stories, 1988’s Bad Behaviorcemented a reputation for sexy depravity. November’s The Marethough, has a premise that’s practically, and deceptively, book-club-ready: A childless, rural couple hosts a Fresh Air Fund girl from Brooklyn, and horseback riding brings them all together. But in classic Gaitskill fashion, alienation, mutual misunderstanding, and pain ensue.  

On paper, The Mare feels unexpected for you. Do you think readers will be surprised?
I’m not honestly sure how people will see it. When I was writing it, I was a little bit worried that it might be a little too heartwarming, but a friend of mine read it and she said, “This is the most depressing thing I’ve ever read.”

How much did you draw on your own­experiences with the Fresh Air Fund and the relationships you’ve formed with young people through that program?
I don’t want to talk about that much, because it’s pretty raw material for me. This book would not have been written had I not met those children, but it’s not about them.

The book is partly about ambivalence toward parenthood. Do you think there’s ­growing interest among women writers in thinking critically about motherhood?
I’ve noticed women my age and a little younger, anywhere from 35 to 50, saying, “Who would want to bring kids into a world like this?” Or, “I don’t want to spend my life that way. I want to do my artwork.” And they’re very unapologetically stating this.

And that’s a new thing? 
I remember back in the ’90s, I used to feel criticized by women for not having children. Like there must be something wrong with me. People would say, “I don’t see how a woman could be happy without children.” It was almost like a dogma that was very different from, say, ten years before that. People got a good look and realized it is really hard and it’s not always lovable and rosy and everything working out. Maybe reality set in.

*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.