Fiction writer Mary Gaitskill is one of the latest big-name authors to take to Substack to launch an email newsletter. Speaking with PW, Gaitskill discussed the merits of the platform, the drawbacks of the internet, and more.

To begin, what drew you to Substack as a platform?

I had for some time been wondering if there was a way for me to participate in online communication; as I said in my initial post, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram don't suit me for various reasons. It's not like I was aching to be on social media, but it is something that almost literally everyone does now, and it was hard not to wonder how it might work for me, or to want to be part of the conversation in some way. Also I was drawn to what looked like (and is!) quite a lot of freedom. It looked like a real opportunity to experiment and play.

What are the notable differences in your experience writing for Substack versus elsewhere? How do you find yourself engaging with your readers and audience differently?

There is a lot more freedom and flexibility with Substack. I can get an idea on Monday and post it on Wednesday if I can find the right picture to go with it. That's another difference: I get to choose the art and the headline, which can really amplify what you want to express, or amplify certain juicy aspects of it. I've had some dismal experiences in that regard with more traditional publications, to the point that I felt my meaning was distorted by a grotesque headline. I haven't engaged with my readers as much as I would like. I didn't open up comments right away because I felt shy about it. But when I did, I found people were mostly polite and when I've tried to engage them in conversation, they usually back off, probably because it would be a pretty involved conversation if we really went for it.

In "Two Minutes of Hate," you spoke about the Depp-Heard trial and wrote, "hate has a palatial estate with a lot of out buildings here," a memorable and apt phrase. You touch on this again in recent posts, including "The Internet is Beating the Crap Out of Us." I would venture to guess that most individuals consuming any degree of social media these days feel the truth of this, and the trial served as a striking showcase of the hatred of strangers. What do you see as the benefits and dangers of the ease people have engaging with the wider world through the seemingly endless channels and platforms available?

I'm not sure what I have to say is at all new. It's easy to feel anger at people you don't actually have to look at or hear; social media notoriously stokes anger for clicks and then media of all kinds tends to (sometimes inadvertently) stoke it by presenting the most general and alarming version of whatever group or situation is at hand. I was at a party recently and the hostess was talking about some group of crazed men who are "killing women." I asked, "How many women have they killed?" and she said, "I don't know, maybe none. But they're planning on it." She referred me finally to some documentary, which sounded questionable, but there she was announcing that "they are killing women," when no women have been killed by this bunch of sad sacks who I'd never heard of and have already forgotten. It's the general ethos now.

Even more than that though, I feel it stimulates people's nervous systems in ways that can't be discharged physically (or are not) and that therefore create anxiety and a feeling of alarm plus a craving for more stimulation. It's a feedback loop that I think is harmful for our bodies and takes us out of the immediate environment that can be understood with our senses. It de-physicalizes us, removes us from our bodies. That alone lessens empathy. Empathy comes from knowing we are all creatures with bodies that can be hurt.

But yes, there are benefits. I know there are people living in isolated places with no one around them with whom they can identify, say, queer kids in rural Utah. If you're in that situation, online would be a lifeline and a resource. Also, it's just great to be able to find out stuff quickly and to have access to news. I'm much better informed now than I was when I relied on TV or the radio for news. Plus there are animal videos and people dancing on TikTok!

What has most surprised you about starting your own Substack?

How involving it is.

Who else do you read on the platform?

I don't regularly read anyone yet but I've read George Saunders, David Yaffe, Chuck Palahniuk, and Jeanette Winterson. I especially like Joyce Carol Oates's posts on Gregory Crewdson and Mike Tyson. I love the way she understands fighters. There's so much high quality writing to look at, it's kind of mind-blowing.