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The Fiction Issue 2010

Mary Karr

Karr handles gruesome experiences with such compassion, charm, lyricism, vividness, and mordant comedy that the work transcends mere horror story or freak show. Her storytelling melds scrappy Texas slang with poetic precision and is totally addictive.

The Liars’ Club

The Liars’ Club



Sinners Welcome

Vice: You write in Lit that the first thing your mother asked you after reading a draft of The Liars’ Club was “How’d you ever remember all this crazy crap?” You recall the summer of sixth grade, which books you were reading, and whose sleepover you weren’t invited to. Writing three long memoirs, you must have developed some special tools for recall.


Mary Karr:

I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been butting heads with traumatic memories, lingering inside them, and stylizing them into narratives.


How did you cope?

The last section of Lit details your conversion to Catholicism. I’d imagine writing about trauma is one thing, but trying to articulate a newfound religious feeling—analyzing and articulating it so it resonates for a secular audience—might be even tougher.


People have this impression of religious people, especially Christians, as smug, and self-satisfied, whereas in Lit you describe your spiritual growth as almost antagonistic toward God.

I love the impression of God you give while becoming religious in your essay “Facing Altars,” published in Poetry: “God had come to seem like Miles Davis, a nasty genius scowling out from under his hat… on the verge of waving me off the stage for the crap job I was doing.”


As a little girl in The Liars’ Club you are acutely aware of your family not being normal. Your mother covers the house windows in melted crayon so the neighbors won’t peep at you guys walking around naked. Everyone eats dinner together in your parents’ bed every night. Yet you didn’t write explicitly about your upbringing until you were in your mid-30s. At what point did you stop being embarrassed by your family?

I couldn’t be embarrassed by her anymore.

You left for good when you were 17, pretty much as soon as you could.


Despite all the trauma, you offer a portrait of childhood that seems really free: riding horses over mountaintops with your sister, exploring caves, sleeping outside by a campfire in your father’s arms.

These days, people are barraged with phony ideas and images of how everyone else is living. Do you think memoir is particularly important now, maybe in helping people feel less alienated?

To Kill a Mockingbird

Anna Karenina

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Now you can Google a character in a memoir to see what they look like, and easily follow them beyond the events covered in the book. Do you think this adds to the compelling element of a memoir being a true story?

It goes back to a good memoir’s value, because Facebook is just a gushing river of updates on what a good time everyone’s having. Everyone’s on vacation or at a party. It can give you a false idea of how happy everyone around you really is.

Girls Gone Wild

Have you been approached by Hollywood?

Do you watch many of these TV shows with novelistic elements, like Mad Men?

Mad Men

Real Housewives

What’s that like?

You’re not afraid to show yourself at your lowest ebb. In Lit, you stop breast-feeding because you’ve started drinking again. You describe yourself hiding in a closet with a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of Listerine, and a spit bowl.


Were you surprised by how deeply people related to this dark stuff?

Cherry is the only book I can think of that delves into the hormonal extremes of adolescence from a female perspective. It’s so different from the well-represented tradition of male writing on sexual awakening, but no less potent.



This Boy’s Life

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood


other thing


It’s not totally G-rated.

Cherry really captured a certain adolescent atmosphere, where you’re given a level of freedom, and you’re curious, but you’re still totally naive, so you end up in crazy, often dangerous situations.


I remember adolescence feeling like primal survival, that there was less opportunity for kindness among peers. You’re just trying to get through it. There’s a scene in Cherry when your whole gang is on acid at this swimming hole deep in the forest and one dude gets stung by what is likely a scorpion and his feet start swelling up and nobody helps him. Nobody can.

They tried to get away from him so he wouldn’t harsh their vibe. Somebody is like, “Maybe bury your feet in sand.”

The dude himself is kind of resigned to it. He doesn’t even expect help.

I haven’t done acid since I was 17. I’d rather die than do it again.

A more heartbreaking situation is when your teenage best friend Meredith’s brother goes to jail for drug dealing, while his partners are let off because they can afford lawyers. Meredith is clearly so alone in her grief and helplessness. You write, “Part of you knows that with sufficient heart, you might have marshaled some comfort for Meredith other than oblivion.”


I’m interested in how your old childhood friends responded to their representations in the book. John Cleary must have read about your infatuation with him from the age of four, and the super-intense experience you had massaging his legs after his football game, while watching television with his family. You talk about feeling like you’re on a flying horse. That must have been weird for him to read.


Well, how did you?

Doonie was your best friend and a lovable teenage drug dealer with a penchant for showing girls his dick. What’s he doing these days?

Having a successful memoir, does it feel strange that so many hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, know the intimate details of your life?

The Liars’ Club


The Liars’ Club