Mary Gaitskill on Borrowing From Real Life in Writing (and the Dreams That Guided Her)
How the Author of Veronica Tries to Honor the World
When Two Girls was published, a reporter from the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky called my father and asked him about his feelings regarding what I’d written, specifically what I’d written about the father who raped his daughter. Was he, my father, worried about what people would think? My father asked the reporter, “Do you know who Edgar Rice Burroughs is?” The reporter answered, “Wasn’t he the one who wrote the Tarzan books?” “Yes,” said my father. “That’s right. Do you think Edgar Rice Burroughs was raised by apes?”
I am not surprised that this wonderful exchange did not make it into the paper; it was too wonderful for the paper. It still makes me smile to think about it. The wonderfulness of it may’ve been made possible by the fact that my father never read Two Girls; he never read anything I wrote except maybe one or two stories. But still, the attitude is wonderful.
Some years ago I got an email from a former roommate from my college years. She said she had loved Veronica, particularly the way I wrote about my father. In truth the father in Veronica isn’t my father, nor is the mother my mother. They share some of the same DNA, but they are not representatives of the actual people, any more than the parents in Two Girls are actual representations; I told my friend that. After that exchange, she apparently read more of my work, because she wrote me another email shortly after the first one, this time ironically very angry to have recognized that I’d based a character in a story on her. (And in this case, the character was based more closely on her than the characters in Veronica or Two Girls had been based on my parents.) I’m sure it did not matter to her when I said that I did not mean the portrait to be an unflattering one, and that in fact many people found the character touching. I’m sure it mattered less when I explained that, while my memory of her had been the clay that built the image of that character, in my mind the image was not literally an image of her, the real person. I’m guessing that sounded like fanciness to her. But I was sincere.
I have had characters based on me too, and I didn’t like it. So I understood. If I had known where to find my former roommate when I wrote the story, it’s possible I would’ve shared it with her first. But I hadn’t seen or heard from her in decades; she had found me through the website of a university at which I had taught, but I would not have known where to find her, especially since she had legally changed her name. She had been important to me; the story was important to me too. And in my mind the story and the woman were very separate.
Excerpt from Veronica:
I sank down into darkness and lived among the demons for a long, long time. I almost became one of them. But I was not saved by an innocent girl or an angel crying in Heaven. I was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in turn, I was allowed to become human too.
This comes at the very end of Veronica. The words are so simple and literal, but for me they evoke moral chaos and the difficulty of seeing clearly, the ferocity of conflicting impulses that might feel demonic or even be it. But the words also evoke pity and commonality, the painful touch of mutual woundedness that can, sometimes, reveal and transform. You can’t say this to a person in real life about whom it might be true. Or more accurately you wouldn’t say it.
It would never occur to you. But you can write it in a story. Sometimes you have to write it.
Veronica is also based in part on a real person, someone I knew and did not know well. Someone who, at the time, I was not equipped to know well, and yet for whom I felt love. After her death I was sad to realize that I hadn’t begun to comprehend the depth of what she had suffered, not only in her illness but in her life before that, the seemingly adverse forces that had formed her and to which she had reacted with courage and humor. It was not entirely my fault that I didn’t comprehend—maybe it wasn’t my fault at all. She was not easy to know or to get close to and neither was I.
Still we found friendship and happiness in each other. Perhaps it sounds pathetic. But so many people live like this, finding each other only briefly; small people in every class and culture struggling to live and grow and find a shape for themselves in a monstrous, grinding world of social gaming, power, and florid illusion, while the million-headed hydra of mass culture screams, “We are this! We are that!” and explodes with pictures that promise to hold us forever, deathless and lifeless too.So many people live like this, finding each other only briefly; small people in every class and culture struggling to live and grow and find a shape for themselves.
Veronica is dense with similes and metaphors to the point of nearly choking. Even I find it hard to read in places. But similes and metaphors make secret connections to the essence shared by seemingly unrelated things, and it was through these connections that I tried to feel my way into the pith of this story about the mystery of feeling and identity, about the strange faces and forms we assume, sometimes randomly defined as beautiful or not; the social clothing with which we dress our raw, unknowable selves, searching for a form that will be recognized and understood by others, that can move in the world, love and be loved. Some people are very skilled at this, some are not at all. But how peculiar that it is so important; how terrible the loneliness and suffering that comes from simply getting the outfit wrong.
When I was working on Veronica, I had a frightening dream that I did not, at first, realize was related to the work. In the dream a woman had been murdered and disfigured, and somehow her body had been stolen. There was a police search and fear all around. With inarguable dream logic, I realized that the murdered woman was the Black Dahlia, the victim of an infamous torture-murder in L.A. in the 1940s. I picked up the phone to call the police, but there was already someone on the other end of the line, a spiteful accusing voice telling me that the body was buried in my backyard. I was afraid, but I decided that I had to dig the body up and rebury it. I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to do this, if I were afraid of being caught with it or for some other reason.
But I was determined to do it, even though I was also afraid to see the body. I went to my yard (which really looked like my yard, with its little vegetable garden) and began to dig. I was almost there when a literary critic who had disliked my first book intensely appeared and said, “You know you aren’t supposed to be doing this, don’t you?” And I stopped, confused. Because on one hand he was right, what I was doing looked very wrong and might even be wrong. But at the same time, I felt I was right, that it must be done, and I didn’t know how to tell him this.
It was the presence of the literary critic that made me realize the dream was about the book I was writing. Once I made the connection it was obvious: the book was about a woman “murdered” by a virus that seemed malign in its attack on people who were trying to find passionate connection, a woman who was, in a figurative sense, murdered by lovelessness, in some way disfigured by it, then disfigured further by her misdirected attempts to find something better, searching, like the Black Dahlia, for glamor and beauty up until the moment of her terrible end, and then improperly buried by people who possibly understood her less than I did. I don’t say “improperly buried” in a literal sense; she was cremated according to her wishes. But I attended her memorial, and I came away feeling that she was buried unknown, with sorrow but not enough honor.
This dream made me wonder if I was doing something wrong in writing the book, exploiting my friend’s suffering or inappropriately, foolishly, defining that suffering in a way that she almost certainly would not have—not because she would’ve found what I wrote so objectionable, but because it could not feasibly have been completely true to who she was. It’s an ancient idea that to take someone’s picture is to take something of their soul, ancient but troubling; it’s essentially about the power to trap someone in a representation. But fiction is to literal representation what painting is to photography; it’s not claiming to be “real” in the same way. Even so, some unease about the subject was being expressed in my dream, and I took it seriously. But I also took seriously another way of seeing it. If someone has been wrongfully buried, it is not wrong to disinter and rebury them. On the contrary, it is actually proper.
I wasn’t trying to be proper when I wrote the book. But I wanted to treat my friend with honor. I wanted to show her strange beauty and, by extension, the beauty of those who might be in any way like her. I wanted to show how I gradually felt, through the clumsy artifice and habitual hardness of the shape she had built for herself, something that was warm, alive, humorous, and deeply kind; something I can only call goodness. It strikes me that it was perhaps the awkward nature of her persona that made it easier to feel the real woman beneath it, the lush soul flowing through the cracks in the weird social mask. But this is also true: I came to feel the connection between that warm, live inner character and the outer “mask” that gave it expression in the world; I came to feel the private delightfulness of that connection. I wanted—needed—other people to feel it too.This dream made me wonder if I was doing something wrong in writing the book, exploiting my friend’s suffering or inappropriately, foolishly, defining that suffering.
I also wanted to honor the world I saw when I walked out into the canyon I lived in. After years of city living it astonished me, the depth, complexity, and aliveness of it. It made me aware that my body, every human body, was part of this naturally occurring amazement; indeed everything human that we might consider opposed to “nature” struck me instead as perverse—that is, a twisted and elaborately torqued aspect of nature. The living world seemed so powerful and yet so vulnerable under the structures imposed by humanity, not just physical structures but sociological structures, hierarchies, and things like fashion, that strange mask that believes itself ultimately and exclusively beautiful.
It wasn’t that I thought fashion was bad. I was seduced and fascinated by it. But I suddenly saw it as strange, which was the way I had originally seen it. Like Alison, when I was young I didn’t see what people were talking about when they referred to certain movie stars or models as “beautiful.” I loved beauty, but when it came to how people looked my tastes were completely connected to how I felt about a person, how their personality got expressed by their body and face, the way they moved. In comparison, models and stars looked rigid and frightening, over-shaped by insistent hands wielding implements like tweezers and curling irons. But when I was writing Veronica (between the ages of 38 and 51!), I was perhaps finally becoming socially mature, for I was beginning to see the relationship of the “warm, live inner character” to the mask that gave it social shape.
At the same time there was still fear. Because I was also seeing how the power of the mask, the social structure, could dominate to the point of killing the live, raw thing that had actually made it possible. This fear is described in Alison’s dream of the man and the woman on a high-speed train, watching as a mob “hunts” a recycled bear trying to run on artificial legs while terrible music plays. Bing bing bing bing!
The last time I visited the beautiful canyon it was parched and brown and the trees were diseased. It is hard to remember it as it once was, so lush I could disappear into it, as if between curtains of heavy gray rain: on one side of me the structured world of beautiful homes, on the other side the world of trees and grasses, fungus and mashed leaves, silently disintegrating and re-forming, each thing there also wanting to find its shape. As I walked, these worlds blended with each other, came apart, and grew up again. The natural world held the social world with equanimity, even as the social world blithely devoured it; I believed I could sense every nuance of personality, impulse, emotion, expression, or artifice voicelessly alive, devouring, growing, and dying all around me. It was not about words; it was too big for words and did not care about words. But because I am a person I needed words; I needed form.
From The Devil’s Treasure: A Book of Stories and Dreams by Mary Gaitskill, courtesy of Ze Books. Copyright 2021, Mary Gaitskill.