Professor, author Mary Gaitskill continues successful balancing act of teaching, writing powerful fiction
Professor, author Mary Gaitskill continues successful balancing act of teaching, writing powerful fictionFebruary 28, 2006Carol K. Masiclatclkim@syr.edu
“Write it the way only you can.” This is the advice professor and award-winning author Mary Gaitskill gives most frequently in her creative writing courses at Syracuse University. As she enters her second year at SU, she expertly performs a demanding balancing act — teaching writing courses in the English department in The College of Arts and Sciences and beginning work on two new projects, a novel and a collection of short stories.
Her first year at SU has been a bit of a whirlwind. Her most recent novel, “Veronica” (Pantheon, 2005), was nominated for the 2005 National Book Award (won by William T. Vollmann’s “Europe Central”) and named to the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2005 list. It also made the bestseller lists of the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. The book chronicles the decline of a once-famous fashion model and how her friendship with an eccentric woman (who later dies of AIDS) helps her find redemption.
“It was great,” Gaitskill says. “I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t think people would like the book very much.” Gaitskill points out that “Veronica” was very different from her previous works and that she expected readers to find it “too soft or mystical.” She believed that audiences might be impatient with the language, thinking it overly dense or heavily metaphorical.
Gaitskill was also concerned that the time sequences would prove demanding. “The structure was hard,” she says. The multiple time shifts, some occurring within the space of one paragraph, were a challenge to write. “Going back and forth in the same paragraph was hard. Finding the right voice was hard.”
She wrote a version of the novel in 1992 and revisited it years later. “Words are like the body, the form that you give it,” she says. “It took a while for me to discover how to tell it.” Critics appreciated the time Gaitskill took to find a voice for “Veronica,” giving it overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Gaitskill has published several works of fiction and collections of short stories. One of those collections, “Bad Behavior” (Poseidon Press, 1988), contained the short story “Secretary,” which was produced as a feature film in 2002. Her collection “Because They Wanted To” (Simon and Schuster, 1997) was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Best American Short Stories (1993) and The O. Henry Prize Stories (1998). In 2002, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction.
Gaitskill entered teaching very gradually, first taking on short courses and working her way up to longer assignments. “I was very nervous — I had never done anything like that before. I didn’t know how to talk to people about their work.”
Twelve years later, she feels her teaching has matured so much that she could write an essay about it. Says Gaitskill: “It has matured the way any such activity matures — the development of deep understanding and confidence based on experience.”
Prior to coming to Syracuse, Gaitskill taught at Brown University, Hollins College, New York University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Houston. She first came to SU in the early 1990s, to give readings of her early books. The department was looking for someone to replace an instructor for a semester, and Gaitskill was invited for a guest teaching appointment in 2002.
Gaitskill has settled in at SU with relative ease, enjoying her courses and feeling at home in the department. “Teaching here has been a fairly positive thing,” she says. “The students are sophisticated and open minded, and much more excited about literature than most grad students I’ve taught in the past.”
She also enjoys being a part of the faculty, where she is pleased to be surrounded by supportive colleagues: “It’s an easier department to be in than many I’ve been in. People are very unhappy at other departments. People here are moresupportive in general.” Although she has come to the faculty from a different direction than from the traditional M.F.A. program, Gaitskill feels she fits in just fine.
Program director Chris Kennedy believes Gaitskill’s atypical journey to SU has influenced her teaching in an unexpected way. “She didn’t go through the normal M.F.A. route as a student and hasn’t had a tenure-track position before,” Kennedy says. “She’s more traditional in the way she approaches her classes. In some ways, it’s because she hasn’t had the experience of being a student in an M.F.A. program. Her literary mentor is Nabokov, and she has studied his lectures when he was teaching at Cornell. It’s been wonderful having her here, and my sense is that she likes the program very much.”
Though she had an early interest in writing as a child, Gaitskill didn’t think seriously about writing until around age 18. “I wrote on and off when I was a teenager and loved reading a lot,” she says. Her first university teaching offer came after she published her first book.
Next fall, Gaitskill will go on sabbatical to work on a novel and a collection of short stories. In the meantime, she encourages her students to create a world that has physical reality and depth. “That’s something students often forget about the physical world,” she says. “It’s hard to have a story work without it. It’s a very complex thing.”
Now, as she prepares to create new work on the heels of the huge success of “Veronica,” Gaitskill describes the experience as “like reinventing the wheel and pushing it up a new hill of rocks.”