Interview with Mary Gaitskill: lessons from “Lost Cat”
Today we offer the second installment of a two-part look at narrative nonfiction from Granta’s summer issue. I spoke with author Mary Gaitskill about “Lost Cat,” her memoir on the disappearance of an adopted pet, and how she connected the loss to other events in her life.
When did you first start writing about Gattino, your lost cat?
A little over a year ago. He got lost in fall 2007 and had been gone almost a year by that point. While I love animals, especially cats, I am not a nut about it in general. Both my degree of attachment and the depth of it for Gattino were unusually strong. I associated him with my father very soon after picking him up, maybe because I had never been to Italy before and my father loved Italy, spoke Italian, and read it almost up to the time of his death. I don’t know if that is enough to explain it.
“Lost Cat” runs more than 17,000 words. I found your Oprah Magazine essay from last year on the same topic that comes in at less than a thousand. It feels like a warm-up for the longer one. Can you talk about the two versions?
Honestly, the reason I wrote the piece for Oprah was that an editor contacted me on some issue they were doing focused on “How To Love Better,” or something like that. I honestly did it mostly for money. They pay very well.
At first I said, “I don’t know if I have anything to say on that subject.” But at the time, I was working on the longer piece. I told the editor, “I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I’ll write this thing, and you can use it or not.” They found it useful.
When you began, did you know you wanted to touch on your father and the children you had made a part of your life—or was it initially just about Gattino?
I think it was about the cat at first. What struck me—the thing that compelled me to write the essay was that I was very surprised by how profoundly upset I was.
Also, there was a certain comedy or strangeness in so many people who were willing to offer their opinions, who had an idea what happened to him. If someone told me a story about a cat, it wouldn’t occur to me to have an opinion on what happened. So many people claimed to be psychic. Then I started calling shelters, and finding out there are these services, very expensive ones that help find lost animals.
I encountered so much superstition in people. For example, there’s my sister, a sensible, fairly traditional person, very intelligent but fairly conventional in how she sees reality. I was telling her about what happened, but instead of talking common sense to me, she began to tell me about her mother-in-law who played a card game with these women who cursed her. She said she knows they cursed her because a dead chicken landed in the yard. And my sister said, “The thing about these curses is they don’t just affect the person who’s cursed. You’re strong—they probably couldn’t get you, but they might have gotten your cat.” And her husband, who is first-generation, it irritated him to hear about it, but he did, at his mother’s behest, do a counter curse or protection ritual. So those reactions are part of what compelled me.
And then I began to realize why I was so upset. Around this time, the children I had become involved with, “Natalia”* and “Caesar”*—I began to feel that I was losing them as well. I was becoming more aware of the realities of limitations of our relationship. And also there were other things that are too personal to talk about.
As I said in the essay, I was sad about the cat all in itself. But a smaller loss, an attachment to an animal, affects you in an unguarded place. When you lose an animal, it connects with that unguarded place, and it opens a way into other areas that we usually keep protected.
You’ve done other nonfiction writing, I’ve seen essays on the Biblical book of Revelation and on Vladimir Nabokov. This piece feels much more intimate, more like one of your short stories.
Yes, those two pieces are from very early on in terms of my development in writing nonfiction. The one on Revelation was in 1995 or possibly 1994. There was another piece on not having children. I did actually write another piece about the kids, although it was only published in The Washington Post. That one ends on a more optimistic note because it was written in 2004 or 2003—earlier than “Lost Cat.”
Many people who write memoir glorify themselves, whether it’s intentional or not, but what you do feels like almost the reverse. Do you have the sense that you deliberately disparage your own motives and actions in “Lost Cat”?
I hope I don’t disparage my motives.
Would “ruthlessly examine” be more accurate?
I think that one’s own motives are interesting. Everybody’s motives are interesting. Human motives are very convoluted and hard to clarify in terms of what is true or false. That’s a very interesting question. True feeling is often hidden under superficial or more attractive feelings; selfish motives are often wound up with truly altruistic ones. It’s of interest to me to look at this.
What do you find most challenging about memoir?
I would in fact call this piece memoir as opposed to a personal essay. To me a personal essay might use your own experience, even in an intimate way, but the personal experience is secondary to the topic of the essay, which you’re using to explain your point of view on a subject. A piece I did about not having children was the same way. It was about what motherhood means, why it’s valued so highly for women. It’s a broader topic that I was using my personal experience to illuminate. In memoir, my personal experience is the story. It is the topic.
And as far as the challenge of memoir versus fiction: it’s not made up. You’re literally saying what happened. Fiction is—I’m not sure people know how to read fiction anymore. This is very simplistic in a way. Grace Paley (unless she has been extravagantly and wildly misquoted) said something like “a piece of nonfiction is a story that tells the truth, and fiction is a story that tells a lie to tell a bigger truth.” That seems useful to me.
Of course [fiction] is a lie if you believe it literally. It’s a story that didn’t happen, but it illuminates the idea. I express myself much more plainly or directly with nonfiction. With fiction, I am largely speaking the language of metaphor, which people frequently mistake for literal communication.
I read somewhere that you draft your work in longhand?
It’s less true than it was. It’s become more mixed now. I start writing in longhand usually and then at some point, I start writing on the computer. I don’t have a method. I usually think about an idea for quite a while. I sometimes take notes.
How long is “quite a while”?
If it’s a short story, it will be weeks or months, usually weeks. With the novels—there are two so far—it’s years. It’s a really long process. I hope that it’s not the only way I can work. There really must be a better way to do them.
You once wrote in an essay about Nabokov that “an accepting and at times dispassionate approach to feeling allows for an understanding of both tenderness and cruelty.” Is it strange to use that approach in writing about your own life and your own motivations?
Words are sometimes so inadequate to describe the approach to writing. The choices you make line by line are so intuitive and subtle that they can’t be described in a general approach. The statement about Nabokov describes something truthful in that if you’re going to take in the full experience, it’s useful to have some detachment so you’re not over-involved.
Some people mistake passion for being involved in one aspect of feeling. I couldn’t have written “Lost Cat” two months after the cat had gone missing. Detachment allows you to see more of what’s there and feel more of it, rather than be completely overcome by one particular emotion.
Is there anything else you wanted to say about writing “Lost Cat”?
I wondered sometimes if it was in a way immoral to talk about my family. My father is dead now. So in a way he’s not in a position to care, and I doubt if he’s aware of it. If he is somewhere in the afterlife, I’m not sure he would mind. But I’m representing his very intimate life in a way he doesn’t have a choice over, or a way to respond to, and he might not agree with it. I don’t know if I have a good answer to that question.
*not their real names