Mary Gaitskill Reflects on Her Latest Works and Extensive Career During U-M's Zell Visiting Writers Series Event


A portrait of Mary Gaitskill wearing a gray sweater.

Mary Gaitskill. Photo courtesy of The Helen Zell Writers' Program.

According to writer and University of Michigan alumna Mary Gaitskill, almost nothing is unbelievable and people are weird. Her work often reflects this notion with morally ambiguous characters, a gritty detailing of misconduct, and a complete rejection of clean-cut, black-and-white narratives. 

Quin, the protagonist of her acclaimed 2019 novella, This Is Pleasure, is one of her weirdest characters. In Quin's mind, his flirtatious workplace actions weren’t all that bad. When women began coming forward about feeling violated, he became caught off guard. 

“There was a cultural landscape for a while at least where he existed—I’m not saying it would be acceptable to everybody,” Gaitskill explained about Quin. “I’m sure he did offend some people, but because of his position, I think he didn’t realize he was offending people.”

Gaitskill shared her latest works and extensive literary experience during a March 21 reading and Q&A at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium. Hosted by the Zell Visiting Writers Series, an annual showcase sponsored by The Helen Zell Writers’ Program, it brings fiction writers and poets to U-M’s campus to host public readings and lectures.

Initially published in The New YorkerThis Is Pleasure dominated literary circles due to its unlikely telling of a story of the “#MeToo” movement, a social campaign aimed at exposing people, especially those in positions of authority, involved in sexual misconduct. 

It offers a complex narrative about two characters, Quin and Margot, who find themselves entwined with the tendrils of a public sexual misconduct scandal. Quin—a husband, father, and New York book editor—loses his career once young women start coming forward about his wrongdoings. Margot is Quin’s former co-worker, and after rejecting his sexual advances early in their working relationship, the two became close friends in the industry. When Quin’s name hits the front pages of tabloids, the two navigate the complex intersections of power, guilt, and manipulation. 

Gaitskill’s Quin is based on a real figure, and she explored the intersections between reality and fiction through her work.

“Oh, I don’t feel obligated to stick to the real person,” Gaitskill said. “Sometimes I might try to make them completely different. The real person … he’s actually stranger than this guy.”

Gaitskill also revealed she didn’t initially plan a sequel to This Is Pleasure and expressed uncertainty about its publication since the style is so different from its predecessor. 

“I think I got interested in it because I felt like a lot was left out,” Gaitskill said. “Also, [This Is Pleasure] ends like he’s going to be OK. And he’s not. It was almost a little bit too set, and I wanted to make it more complicated.”

And if there’s anything Gaitskill won’t do, it’s give readers a cut-and-dry, black-and-white narrative that spoon-feeds them the “right” answer. Much like the Q&A itself, Gaitskill makes her audiences work for what they want. 

After reading from her current work in progress, a sequel to This Is Pleasure, Gaitskill answered questions about her career and experience at her alma mater and offered writing advice to those in attendance. 

When asked about the role memory plays in her work, Gaitskill spoke to her personal experience with time and how writers can utilize its ambiguity to effectively tell their stories. 

“I’m not sure when it happens for others, for me it was in my 40s, but the past becomes more present for you than it does when you’re in your 20s,” Gaitskill said. “I thought about the past when I was in my 20s, too, but it became much more blended with the present when I became middle-aged. It was a natural choice, I suppose, but it’s also a really good way to tell the reader a lot about the character.”

Gaitskill’s stories and essays have been published in The New YorkerHarper’sEsquire, and other magazines. In 1988, Simon and Schuster published her debut short-story collection, Bad Behavior, from which the story Secretary was made into a movie featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader—although the tale and the film lack much similarity. Among a lengthy list of literary awards, Gaitskill is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and a Hopwood Award. She’s taught at many higher education institutions including the University of California Berkeley, New York University, and Brown University. 

With such a rich career and canon of work, Gaitskill is a confident and at some points, jarring, force in the literary world. 

While the Winter 2024 Zell Visiting Writers Series is wrapping up for this season, program manager and alumna Julie Cadman-Kim is preparing to release the new lineup of writers for next year. 

“The writers we invite have complete reign over what they want to say—sometimes it’s writing prompts or full lectures,” Cadman-Kim said. “It’s all open to the public.”

To learn more, visit The Helen Zell Writers’ Program website or the U-M events website

Ally Hall is the writer and editor of Rocka Magazine, a music publicist, and a freelance writer.