On Tuesday, October 16 at 8 p.m., renowned writer Mary Gaitskill stood on the stage of the Hyman Forum behind a wooden podium and read aloud a portion of her short story, “The Acceptance Journey,” to a crowd of Goucher students and faculty. Taking off her glasses to read, she described the life of Carol, a woman who took a job at a small liberal arts college after separating from her husband.
“The Acceptance Journey,” while referencing some graphic material, was, at least for the portion she read, one of her less disquieting stories, referencing Carol’s interest in torture and violence on the news and crime shows. While Carol’s fascination with these heavily negative subject matters is certainly disturbing, this first section of “The Acceptance Journey” was less dark than many of her other stories. Her 1988 short story collection entitled Bad Behavior included raw descriptions of multiple forms of abuse. The collection is perhaps most well known for its infamous short story “Secretary” (the inspiration for the movie of the same title with Maggie Gyllenhaal). Gaitskill is also known as a National Book award finalist, earned for her novel Veronica in 2005, and received the O’Henry Award for her short story “The Little Boy” in 2008. Gaitskill’s most recent work, Somebody with a Little Hammer, is a collection of essays and reviews, the only book of non-fiction that Gaitskill that has published. She is known both for her command of craft and for her blunt, raw depictions of abuse, trauma, and, more generally, the actions of selfish people.
The reading, while potentially needing a disclaimer regarding sensitive material, effectively highlighted the blunt, direct, and decisive tones of Gaitskill’s prose. Gaitskill varied her voice and tone very little throughout the story, except for when Carol begins writing letters to a little girl who writes to “The Grinch” for Christmas presents. During this part, Gaitskill slightly shifted her tone for thoughts and put on a low-toned, crotchety voice for Carol’s writing as “the grinch” and a higher pitched, dignified voice for Carol’s writing as “the winged assistant,” shifting her posture and stance as she did so to adopt the mannerisms of these characters.
The following Q&A, facilitated by Professor Bill U’ren, covered a variety of topics from all around the crowd. Some questions lead to a deeper analysis of the night’s reading. When asked about how she starts to write a story for instance, she described the different things that influenced “The Acceptance Journey” in particular: her time as a visiting professor at a small college, driving past the billboard for “The Acceptance Journey” in Pittsburgh, and the constant terror and traumatic events that pepper the news and TV shows. Other questions focused on Gaitskill’s other writings and her influences as a writer. One question-asker in particular asked Gaitskill about her interest in the figure of Ayn Rand in her novel Two Girls, One Fat One Thin, which led to Gaitskill sharing her dislike for Ayn Rand’s ideology and how strange and varied she has found the writer’s following to be. Addressing her influences, she described her mother’s reading to her as an important part of her becoming a writer and named Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, whose short stories share a raw dark humor that is found throughout Gaitskill’s, as main influences for her work.
The connection between the author and her work was incredibly visible during this reading, not from a content perspective so much as a voice perspective. Through this reading, one could really develop a sense of Mary Gaitskill’s voice and the ways in which it overlaps with her writing.