Mary Gaitskill is the author of Veronica, nomiated for a 2005 National Book award in the Fiction category. She is also the author of Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories (1993), and The O. Henry Prize Stories (1998). Her story "Secretary" was the basis for the film of the same name. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. She lives in New York.
Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.
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In the fall of 2005, Mary Gaitskill took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
This question is a hard one to answer, because influence is often unconscious and indiscriminate. When people are asked to name the books that influenced them, they usually name their most favorite (prestigious) authors -- the people they hope they were influenced by, and perhaps legitimately were.
I think I've been influenced by Vladimir Nabokov, simply because I've read him intensely for so many years. I would say the same to a lesser degree of Flannery O'Connor. But I think I've also been influenced by writers I actually don't admire as much because I read them early, at a crucial time in my writing life, and they touched me on a non-intellectual level. Some writers I would put in that category are Victor Hugo and Tom Wolfe, from whom I learned at the age of 17 that writing can be elastic, playful, and can work like sound.
Once, some jackass at a reading asked if I'd been influenced by Erica Jong -- which he clearly meant as an insult. I said no, but in fact I may've been without realizing it; I did, after all, read her at 16, and I'm sure her characters and voice have been secreted away in some cerebral fold that I don't know about anymore.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
If I gave thorough reasons, this would be a 10-20-page essay. I don't think I can give an absolute set of ten favorites, because that varies with time; books come forward and fade back in one's thinking. Some of the books I am going to put on this current list are there because I read them recently, and because they hit the spot right now. A year from now, it could be a quite different list -- except for Lolita. Lolita will be on my ten favorites list until the end of my life. So:
Ulysses by James Joyce
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The stories of Anton Chekhov
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
Dead Souls by Gogol
Herzog by Saul Bellow
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Again, this list is far from conclusive -- part of what I love about films is that you are quite free to forget them while they live on somewhere in storage. But here are some:
The Blue Angel
An Angel at My Table
Breaking the Waves
Being John Malkovich
The Dream Life of Angels
The Fast Runner
The Piano Teacher
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Rock, pop, jazz, classical, opera -- I like almost all kinds of music except country, and I even like some country.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Great ones and/or entertaining ones.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have to sit quietly for a period of time, anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.
What are you working on now?
A collection of stories and a novel.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started trying to publish at the age of 23 and succeeded at the age of 32. Though I would qualify that by saying that I wasn't writing anything that could be taken seriously until I was about 26. There were so many rejection slips, I can't sort them out.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't trust in workshops too much. At some point, you need to stop asking other people's opinions, especially on draft-stage work. You need to be alone, in the dark, feeling your way along as if you're on a tightrope -- because you are.
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