When Mary Gaitskill’s first book came out in 1988 it was an immediate hit with the critics. Rights had sold to dozens of publishers, and the reviews rolled in. “Fun and games for sadomasochists” ran The New York Times while The Globe and Mail hailed her as “gifted”.

Bad Behavior, a short-story collection that explored the interplay of love, desire, ambivalence and power, announced Gaitskill, at the age of 33, as a writer who demanded attention. The stories were strange, detached, sly. “Secretary”, which in 2002 was made into a film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, narrates a woman who is spanked by her boss for making typing errors. In “Something Nice”, a man becomes obsessed with a sex worker he visits. 

“At the time [they were] described as dark and frightening and I remember thinking that would change with time, and it hasn’t,” Gaitskill tells me over Zoom from her house in upstate New York. “People still talk about them as dark and sad [but] I don’t see them that way.”

Gaitskill herself is often described as intimidating but that’s not quite right. She’s disarming only because she doesn’t seem to yield to certain (generally female) social cues. She doesn’t fill space, she doesn’t agree for the sake of agreeing, and she smiles only when something causes her to. She is poised throughout our conversation but can be difficult to read. When she grins, it is broad and gleeful; it feels like a reward.

At 65, Gaitskill is the author of eight books: three short story collections, four novels, and a collection of essays. Her 2005 novel, Veronica, in which the narrator is fixated by her past friendship with an idiosyncratic woman who has died from Aids, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her 2015 novel, The Mare — centring on the intense dynamic between Ginger, a white woman in her late forties, and Velvet, a Dominican girl who comes to stay — was longlisted for the Women's Prize For Fiction. She was awarded the Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 2018, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002 — and her renown has steadily spread to the UK too. Now, Daunt Books is publishing Lost Cat, an essay-memoir that was first published by Granta in 2009.

In part, the piece narrates Gaitskill’s desperate (and unsuccessful) search for her missing cat Gattino in 2007. But this account is interspersed with difficult memories of her father, and her relationship with the two kids she fostered during holidays a few years earlier via The Fresh Air Fund (who send New York children from low-income communities on countryside trips). What began as Gaitskill’s response to the loss of her cat, soon turned into something else completely.

It became “about the nature of love”, she says. “I think I was really feeling for myself how hard it is to have the kind of loving relationships we want.” I am reminded of a line she writes in Lost Cat about her father’s grief as a young man. His mum dies. Then his dad dies. Then, finally, his dog dies, and “through the door of that feeling came everything else”.

“I feel like my life would have been different if I hadn’t lost that cat,” she says, in a voice that is both incredulous and pained. In what way? I ask. “I’m not sure. I just think I wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to being knocked off balance.” She pauses, and I am struck by the quiet. Silence can feel deceptively long over Zoom but in this moment it persists without feeling unnatural. Then she continues: “I think I wouldn’t have been as susceptible to a certain kind of loss or disturbance as I was for a while.”

Gaitskill grew up in Kentucky but ran away in her late teens, selling flowers in San Francisco, and briefly working as a stripper. These details — though small parts of her life — have become sexed-up headlines to her biography. Only last year, The Telegraph called her “the queen of S&M literature”. When I ask her about this, she replies, levelly, “I gave up on the idea of controlling [my public persona] some time ago”.

Today she lives with her husband, writer Peter Trachtenberg. They separated, she tells me, divorcing in 2010, but “have been back together for a while”. Gaitskill’s experience with The Fresh Air Fund was shared with Peter, and subsequently inspired The Mare. Through the relationship between the novel’s protagonists, Velvet and Ginger, Gaitskill contends with issues of white saviourship, of playing at mother. The love between the characters is beautiful but complicated, difficult to understand by those who love, let alone those who witness.

“In a lot of my fiction, the thing I deal with — explicitly in The Mare but it’s in other things too — is that love itself can be very pure and very powerful but if it does not have that kind of understanding within the social strictures it’s very hard for it to continue to live,” Gaitskill says. Her sentences arrive quick and exact; she moves her silver hair away from her face in the same manner, a rigid, slick movement.

Why is it, does she think, that we shy away from certain forms of love? Gaitskill pauses. “I think people have a very strong need for order, for social order, and love is a very disorderly emotion,” she replies, after warning she may not be able to answer. “[It] can be very destructive or just change things a lot. There’s something in people that wants things to stay a certain way.”

What groups Gaitskill’s books — as well as precise, alive prose — is an interrogative lens, and a recognition that feeling often precedes understanding. Many of her stories and novels work to explore the ambiguity of experience (sometimes, that means walking further into the abyss). We are speaking two weeks ahead of the US presidential election, and she expresses frustration with the way — as she puts it — “people, in America anyway, seem to have lost their mind”. It’s a literal mindlessness she fears: that people simply follow rather than question.

“I’m not sure people want to think for themselves,” she announces, with resignation. “I think part of the reason that [Donald] Trump appeals to so many people is he represents authoritarianism . . . And I think many people want that, deeply. They don’t know that that’s what they want. They think he’s promising them freedom or something. But that’s not what it is.”

The mindlessness touches both sides of the political spectrum; Gaitskill is critical of progressives too. “I don’t mean people demonstrating over police brutality”, she stresses, “just strange attempts to police people’s behaviour and their words seem wrong-headed to me.” She often cages her opinion with “to me”, or begins “I wonder”; there is an acknowledged subjectivity.

Last year, Gaitskill published a short novel titled This Is Pleasure in which she navigates the outskirts of the #MeToo movement. Revolving around Margot, a middle-aged book editor, and Quin, a long-term friend and colleague who is accused of sexual harassment, the book asks, rather than answers: how do we treat those who step on the boundaries of acceptable behaviour? This Is Pleasure presses into the grey area, into incidents that can defy quick categorisation.

“I’m still kind of uncertain in my own mind on how to view a character like Quin,” she tells me. “Except that I don’t think he should be forced to be locked out of society and treated like he was a rapist.” It strikes me as a success that even Gaitskill is unsure how to view the accused in her book; and typical of her approach that she wouldn’t pretend to.

Our conversation moves like an elastic band, stretching wide before drawing taut. We have moved away from #MeToo — or at least, I thought we had — and are talking about phone calls, and the way technology has changed how writers approach the world. “The phone [used to] ring and you would answer it,” she exclaims, drily. “Now you make an appointment [to speak to someone]? Like what the fuck’s that? [ . . .] And I can’t even answer the question, because I do the same thing.”

I gesture at how, in a bombarded world of distraction, people’s lives seem like busy territory you don’t want to interrupt unless you have permission. She agrees, and then snaps back.

“It’s sometimes occurred to me that that’s part of why #MeToo came about. I’ve never said this, and I’m not saying it’s the reason, it may not even be a big reason, but [ . . .] I think that people are no longer used to being approached, just physically. I think women are much more likely to feel encroached upon by someone walking up to them and commenting on their appearance, or saying something that would have been considered pretty normal. And now it seems like some kind of creepy thing.”

I am both riled and swayed by her reasoning; feeling precedes understanding. We finish talking, but later, I email her to follow up. Is it so bad that some women feel uncomfortable about being approached on the street and are pushing back? I write.

“No, nor is it new,” she answers, in a reply nearly the length of this article. “My response is complicated.” I propose men are performing power and aggression. She agrees but then deflects: what about if men just want to be acknowledged, or are insecure, or are following animal instinct? What are the alternative possibilities, the other ways of looking? And there it is: Gaitskill’s determination to explore, to strive to understand not just her own mind, but — without judgment — the minds of other people.

Lost Cat, by Mary Gaitskill, Daunt Books, RRP£8.99, 120 pages

Rebecca Watson is the FT’s assistant arts editor. Her novel, ‘little scratch’, is published by Faber & Faber on January 14

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This article has been amended since publication to reflect the fact that Mary Gaitskill's novel ‘The Mare’ did not win the National Book Award but was longlisted for the Women's Prize For Fiction

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