For a writer who has shared herself with the public in three memoirs, Mary Karr is an extraordinarily elusive interview subject. Nearly two years passed between our initial contact, in July of 2007, and our first session. There were numerous reasons for this—she was traveling; she was teaching; she lives across the country from me—but perhaps the main reason was that Karr is surprisingly diffident when it comes to talking about herself. “Are you sure I have that much to say?” she wrote in one preinterview e-mail. She was finishing her third memoir, Lit, which was published in November of 2009. She had started the book over twice, throwing away nearly a thousand pages, and had been working long hours to meet her deadline. “Who knows about the memoir,” she wrote, when I asked if I could read it, “It circles me like a gnat. I circle it like a dog staked to a pole. Years it’s gone on that way.”
Finally, this spring, I flew to meet Karr in upstate New York, where she has taught at Syracuse University since 1991. She had not yet warmed to the idea of a formal interview, so we toured her life in Syracuse instead. I observed two graduate seminars: The Perfect Poem, and Dead White Guys, in which she discussed the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Karr is an energetic, engaged, and wry teacher, and her students are fond of her. That night, she introduced a reading by the poet Charles Simic, a longtime friend. Her loud, hearty laughter at his dry wit could be heard above the ambient noise in the room. The following day, on our way to the airport, Karr drove me past the house David Foster Wallace once rented in Syracuse. Wallace and Karr were involved for a time; he proposed to her and had her name tattooed on his arm. We also viewed her old house, previously owned by Tobias Wolff. She had painted the wooden porch herself: it was purple.
Two days later in Manhattan, where Karr has lived since 2003, she was ready to take questions. She is a slim, soigné woman with an intense manner and dark, penetrating eyes. Dressed in a flower-patterned silk shirt and red pants, she slipped off her gold sandals and sat on her white leather couch with her legs tucked beneath her. Her apartment is small, but stylish and efficiently put together; a long desk rests against a wall of built-in bookshelves. Like her writing, Karr’s conversation is heavy on Texas-based idiomatic expressions: “mud bugs,” “jug butt,” “like a pair of walruses being schnuzzed on the same hot rock.” She is self-deprecating and has a bawdy sense of humor. At one point, she leaped up from the couch to retrieve her childhood journal and read a passage: “I am not very successful as a little girl. I will probably be a mess.”
Not exactly. The Liars’ Club, Karr’s 1995 memoir of her Gothic childhood in a swampy East Texas oil-refining town, won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, sold half a million copies, and made its forty-year-old author, who was then an obscure poet, a literary celebrity. (The book takes its title from the motley collection of men with whom her father, an oilman, used to drink and tell tales.) Karr has been credited with, and often blamed for, the onslaught of confessional memoirs published during the late nineties. Though many of them matched The Liars’ Club for grotesque subject matter—the young Karr is raped, molested, and made to witness her mother’s monstrous nervous breakdown—few were as unsentimental, as lyrical, or as mordantly funny.
Five years later Karr published a second memoir, Cherry, which detailed her intellectual and sexual awakenings. In Lit, Karr tackles her early adulthood and what she calls her journey “from black-belt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” Taken together, Karr’s memoirs, written in a singular voice that combines poetic diction and Texas vernacular, form a trilogy that spans the thematic range of the genre: harrowing tale of childhood, coming-of-age story, conversion experience.
Karr has also published four celebrated volumes of poetry: Abacus (1987), The Devil’s Tour(1993), Viper Rum (1998), and Sinners Welcome (2006). “Working on poems is like cheating on your husband,” she said. “It’s what I really want to do but they won’t pay me for it.” Her poems, like her prose, are witty, astringent, and often autobiographical. She is a controversial figure in the poetry establishment for her Pushcart Prize–winning 1991 essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she lamented the shift toward neoformalism in contemporary poetry: “the highbrow doily-making that passes for art today.” Karr argued that this sort of poetry—allusive, impersonal, obscure—had “ceased to perform its primary function,” which was to “move the reader.” And she named names.
For our final session, last August, we met in a hotel room in Irvine, California. Karr had driven up from Phoenix a few days earlier with her older sister, Lecia. They had read One Hundred Years of Solitude aloud in the car. We discussed her experiences teaching poetry to prisoners in England, trucking crawfish in Texas, and hanging out in the Minneapolis punk scene. After an hour and a half, Lecia, who is tall and has hair the color of copper, appeared at the door and announced, in the no-nonsense tone that distinguishes her in the books, that it was time for them to leave. In that instant, Karr seemed to revert from assertive middle-aged author to the obedient kid sister of The Liars’ Club. To see these two characters from the memoirs come to life was an eerie reminder of the obstinate grip of the past.
Why did you feel a need to document your life? Did you write The Liars’ Club in order to get the story off your chest?
By the time I wrote The Liars’ Club, it was off my fucking chest. I’d slogged through therapy, and my family was fairly healed, in no small part due to my mother’s own hard-won sobriety. I was divorced and sober and, remarkably enough, employed as a college professor teaching poetry. My sister’s family was the picture of prosperity. My dad had died after being paralyzed for five years. My son was thriving. But our story was nonetheless standing in line to be written.
Plus I needed the cake. Like Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I was newly divorced, a single mom feeling around for change in pocket lint. I didn’t have a car, which meant taking my kid to the grocery store in his red wagon, and two hours of bus time to pick him up after school on days I taught. In some ways I was resourceful. My students would move out of town and I’d scavenge their old furniture to sell at a garage sale. My son, Dev, and I used to sneak into the pool at the Sheraton. We’d park illegally in the snowy lot with our bathing suits on under our winter clothes. We’d call it “going to the Bahamas.” That was our vacation. I was thinking about moving Dev’s bed into my room so we could rent out the other bedroom—grasping at straws, really.
Hoping to get a book advance was like saying, Maybe I’ll be an Olympic gymnast. I envisioned some small press might cough up a few thousand bucks after the book was finished. I’d been publishing poetry with small presses and when James Laughlin at New Directions paid seven hundred and fifty bucks for The Devil’s Tour, I was tickled. That exceeded my lifetime poetry income.
I’d watched some very fine fiction writers do well: Tobias Wolff and Geoffrey Wolff, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver. But till Ray got the MacArthur, he would still crash in a sleeping bag in my spare room in Somerville when he came to town to read. Being a famous writer was a little like being a famous cocktail waitress—nobody dressed in diamonds. And what did I know about writing a book of prose?
Did you tell your family you were going to write about them?
I’d warned my mother and sister in advance that I wanted to cover the period of Mother’s psychotic break and her divorce from Daddy. She’d inherited a sum of cash that was vast by our standards, and she bought a bar and married the bartender—her sixth husband. She was an outlaw, and really didn’t give a rat’s ass what the neighbors thought. She drank hard and packed a pistol. When I tested the waters about doing a memoir of the period, she told me, Hell, go for it. She and my sister probably figured nobody’d read the book but me and whomever I was sleeping with. Also, my mother was a portrait painter. She understood point of view. My sister, who’s a very sophisticated reader, signed off too. For our people to do anything to generate income that won’t land you in prison, it’s a win.
How long did it take you to write The Liars’ Club?
Two and a half years. I was teaching full-time, and I had Dev. I worked every other weekend, which is when Dev’s father came to visit. And every school holiday, including the whole summer vacation.
That seems fast. Was it difficult?
Awful. The emotional stakes a memoirist bets with could not be higher, and it’s physically enervating. I nap on a daily basis like a cross-country trucker.
In the first section of The Liars’ Club, you inhabit the mind of a seven-year-old to an uncanny degree. How were you able to capture what it was like to be a child?
Childhood was terrifying for me. A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention. People can just pick you up and move you and put you down. One of my favorite poems, by Nicanor Parra, is called “Memories of Youth”: “All I’m sure of is that I kept going back and forth. / Sometimes I bumped into trees, / bumped into beggars. / I forced my way through a thicket of chairs and tables.”
Our little cracker box of a house could give you the adrenaline rush of fear, which means more frames of memory per second. Emotional memories are stored deep in the snake brain, which is probably why aphasics in nursing homes often cuss so much—that language doesn’t erode in a stroke.
How do you account for your artistic sensibility? The environment you describe would seem to discourage one.
Mother—crazy as she was—had an exquisite sensibility. She read nonstop. Loads of history, Russian and Chinese particularly, and art history. There was nothing else to do in that suckhole of a town. You go outside, you run around, people throw dirt balls at you, you get your ass beat. But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.
People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. The only bookstores sold Bibles the size of coffee tables and dashboard Virgin Marys that glowed in the dark. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again.