When author Mary Gaitskill published Bad Behavior in 1988, critics around the world praised her bold and original collection of short stories. Even the New York Times' famously compliment-stingy book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, gushed, saying that Gaitskill's writing was "Pinteresque" and had "radar-perfect detail." The book, populated with characters on the social and sexual fringe -- prostitutes, sadomasochists, bisexuals -- in seamy urban settings and situations, shocked, unsettled and thrilled readers and critics alike, not for its content, according to Gaitskill, but for the style in which it was written: "Style, when it works, takes the reader to a deeper place than can be arrived at thematically," she told The Slant in an exclusive interview, marking her debut's 25th anniversary. "It takes you to an inner understanding of the writer's mind," she explained, "that isn't about words."
Before Simon & Schuster, her then-publisher, took a chance on the provocative literary classic, Gaitskill hadn't sold a single story from it, nor had either of her first two agents. "Honestly, I can understand why magazines didn't want them," she confessed. "With a couple of exceptions, the stories on their own aren't dramatic enough. They work as a collection. Because of the way they cross-speak with each other, they create a vision."
That vision includes "Secretary," a sadomasochistic tale between a boss and his underling, popularized by the 2002 indie film of the same name, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Like many of Gaitskill's gritty stories, "Secretary" follows two characters who venture into sexual and emotional territory we're all taught to avoid, but find there an odd kind of tenderness, beauty and truth that defies our cultural expectations.
In a self-help saturated culture that zealously pursues sanitized versions of happiness and personal growth, Gaitskill's Bad Behavior remains a refreshing departure. In much of her work, she dares us to tread the dark underbelly of human relations to confront deeper truths, as well as salvage -- and dignify -- outré, sometimes brutal, experiences from the wreckage of Judeo-Christian morality.
Two more collections (Because They Wanted To and Don't Cry) and two novels (Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica) later, Gaitskill's Bad Behavior continues to resonate with young readers. The author spoke with The Slant about why she thinks the book has endured, how it changed her life, and which story she thinks is the strongest. She also mused on contemporary sexual politics -- porn, HBO's Girls, the media's mommy mania -- and whether marriage helps or hinders creativity.
Read the Q&A at The Slant: There's Always More to the Story.