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The Fiction Issue 2010
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.
INTERVIEW BY DAVID JACOB KRAMER
PORTRAITS BY RICHARD KERN
ary Karr has survived a medley of hard times in her life, and she has told the tale over the course of three memoirs that begin with her childhood and go all the way up to her 40s. 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 came first, detailing Karr’s feral upbringing with two alcoholic parents in an oil-refining Texas suckhole that she calls Leechfield. Her father is a working oilman with a devotion to the union, meaning long strikes and family poverty. Karr’s mother is the town anomaly: a painter and devotee of French existentialism, as well as a pill-popping loose cannon in her seventh marriage. The Liars’ Club contains some monstrous scenes. Karr is raped by a neighborhood boy and molested by a babysitter. Karr and her sister also witness their mother’s breakdown, her face scribbled with lipstick, wielding a butcher knife, building an indoor bonfire of the girls’ toys, clothes, and bedsheets.
Karr’s next book was Cherry, which detailed her adolescent, druggy misadventures, run-ins with the law, romance with poetry, and sexual awakening. Lit is her most recent book, chronicling her own beeline into alcoholism, breakdown, and the loony bin, then the struggle of sobriety and divorce. Karr meets a young David Foster Wallace in an AA meeting (he tattoos her name on his bicep before they’ve even kissed), and they are briefly engaged. Karr’s son makes her take him to church, “to see if God is there,” and she discovers spiritual regeneration with Catholicism, something that shocks nobody more than herself.
Karr’s poetry has earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, and she has written four engaging, stunning volumes, including the recent Sinners Welcome. She is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University and just got engaged to her boyfriend of five years.
I spoke to Karr on the phone, finding her to be as warm, vivacious, open, and hilarious as her books, as she cursed like a sailor with a Texas drawl.
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: Have you ever noticed how people remember details of their first sexual experience? You have so much adrenaline and it’s so emotional that those memories are stored in a different part of your brain, closer to the amygdala or something. That’s where you’d store memories if you were kidnapped by Bedouins and sodomized. But I’m sure I don’t remember everything—I only bullshit that I do. Those memories are vivid, albeit static, and unreliable in a million ways. I have to keep asking myself something a spiritual adviser taught me to ask: “What is your source of information?” It’s a matter of picking and picking at things. I’ll have a memory of my daddy leaving me in junior high. I’ll try to think, when did he stop picking up when I called him? I’ll realize he never stopped. I’ll realize I actually left him.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been butting heads with traumatic memories, lingering inside them, and stylizing them into narratives.
My publisher was bitching at me for taking eight years to write Lit, a book they’d given me considerable money for. They said, “You know what happened, why don’t you just turn it in?” But the kind of things I’m writing about, you could talk about in therapy for an hour a week and have someone hold your hand, saying, “There, there.” I was going into the swamp alone, all day, every day.
How did you cope?
As I got older and made more money, I then threw money at it. I hired someone to pick my son up from school, so if I’d been writing for seven hours, I could lie down on the floor of my study and sleep. I’d order in yummy food, go to the gym, get massages. I had to make a deal with my fiancé that half the week I made no social events, didn’t answer the phone or email or the door. If I broke stride, I knew I’d have to re-create that mindset. It’s emotionally harder than poetry, as your immersion is deeper. My fiancé is the president of a big company and he was great about it, but sometimes I’d have to go to some black-tie dinner as the girlfriend, and I’d just stand there mute, dressed up, trying not to burst into tears. Luckily, a lot of his partners are Chinese, so they weren’t going to talk to me anyway. Ha!
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.
It was the hardest thing. Everything I tried to write sounded like I was proselytizing. It took a year and a half to write the final section of the book, from when I started going to church. I rewrote over and over again. I almost quit. Finally I realized that the end of the book was the moment I spent with my mother right before her death, conveniently. She was nice enough to die, which gave me a good arc for my memoir… I’m joking. But I believe that God was trying to show me the way. I spoke to a lot of priests. Father Kane, my priest in Lit, just died two weeks ago. He wanted to die. He was 90 years old and very sick for years. Not a theological genius, but a good, simple, humble Irish parish priest. Straightforward dude.
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.
Almost?! I was saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck God!” I still do sometimes. I don’t think that’s a bad prayer. It’s a very good prayer. God knows what you’re thinking! Are you going to hide that you hate his fucking guts? That you hate the way the world is unfolding? Father Kane was paralyzed, sick for three and a half years, bedridden, cancer growing out of his head, bleeding, his skin splitting. Horrible! He was amazing. I asked him, “Aren’t you mad at God?” He said, “Not yet.” “Aren’t you suffering?” He said, “Yeah, but God suffers more.” I said, “Joe, the cross is a few hours, and this is years, and this sucks.” He said, “I’ve had too much fun to be mad at God.” I love that. What a great way to look at your life. What I like about being Catholic is they accommodate the sinners. They assume you’re going to sin. I never knew a knuckle-rapping, ruler-toting church. I never had a lot of reverence. I wasn’t afraid to say, “I don’t get Jesus, and I don’t get why everybody likes him.” He seemed like a sap to me. There are days when I still feel that way. Anybody else who says otherwise is a damn liar, unless they’re very gifted.
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.”
The weird thing I found is that all of my agnostic friends have an image of God despite not believing, and it’s a fucked-up image. I still have it! I knew God wanted me to write the memoirs. At the point I was writing Lit and it was too fucking hard, I was going to sell my apartment and return the advance. Then I realized it was OK if I failed, and it became easier.
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?
Until I was 30 I tried to look like I was somebody different, more than hiding who my parents were. I did know we were peculiar. Parents didn’t allow their kids into our home. My sister managed to be embarrassed by my mother her whole life. A shrink once asked me, if my mother were five years old, how would I treat her? And seeing my mother as a kid,
I couldn’t be embarrassed by her anymore.
But I was always proud of my father—a young hippie girl can embrace a working-class hero. My father, though he never read, encouraged my writing and was very proud. If I’d been born into privilege, it may have been harder. When they were drunk I’d be ashamed of them, but when I left home I stopped identifying with them. I didn’t think of them as being like me. I was always harder to embarrass than my sister. I never had a sense of propriety.
You left for good when you were 17, pretty much as soon as you could.
I was desperate to get out of there. I felt bad about rejecting them, especially my father. But when I left, I felt like I’d done the only thing I could to survive.
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.
It would have been great if I’d felt looked after. There was such a current of anxiety. I thought my mother would run away. I wish it’d felt more fun at the time. I was a depressed kid. I have a sense that whatever I have in this world, I crafted from my own clawing hands. People think of me as being brave, but I wasn’t, I just didn’t have a choice. I never wanted to hitchhike as a teenager, but there was no other way to get out of Mexico. I was scared to fucking death.
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?
I think we’re lonely as a culture. Memoir gives one a window into people’s intimate struggles. It does serve a social function. Not that that’s why I do it. I just gave a talk at a psychopharmacology conference. I’ve always been interested in neurology—as Woody Allen said, the brain is my second favorite organ. One doctor is doing research into people’s hormone levels when they’re getting sober, trying to develop protocols for detoxing people with medication by doing functional MRIs. In 12-step programs, and in community in general, bonding with people and developing trust, or being in love with someone, you release a hormone called oxytocin, which sears this person into a groove in your brain. It calms you and says: Faith, trust, home. You secrete it when you breast-feed. I believe when people read good books, fiction or nonfiction, the same thing happens. All of us feel like they know Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, or Holden Caulfield. Why do I reread Anna Karenina every 18 months? I go see people I love. It’s a strange comfort. You’ve got to be a complete freak to want to be a poet. You have to love these poets so much who kept you company at a time when you were young, disenfranchised, and crazy. So I don’t believe it’s solely memoir, but with memoir, you at least have the idea that these people are emotionally invested, passionate, and sincere. Even Dave Eggers [in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius], when he’s being jokey, obviously loves his brother and misses his mother and father and feels overwhelmed. Every memoir is a survival story. It’s triumphant just because the people are still breathing.
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?
Tobias Wolff refused to have photographs in his memoir work because he wanted the people to be imagined. I used to feel that way but have since succumbed to people’s curiosity. I think writers are hiding those media instead of utilizing how they can help a reader connect. The thing with authors is, we’re innately misanthropic. We sit alone in rooms—not by accident. We’re also not the easiest people to look at, frankly. My publisher is always pushing me to Twitter and Facebook. I’m interested in the eternal, so I made videos of my assistant and myself talking about poetry. Then I tweeted lines from my favorite poems. The thing is, I’m not very interesting. I go get a donut, go to yoga, cook dinner. I don’t want to read that about anybody. I can’t stomach putting on Facebook, “I had a pork chop today.”
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.
Yes. The world’s more beautiful if you see it through a memoirist like Nabokov’s eyes. I look at something like Girls Gone Wild and it makes you think that if you’re not on a table pulling your dress over your head, you’re not having fun. There’s this filthy cheerfulness.
Have you been approached by Hollywood?
One network woman was saying, “I want you to come out here and sell us on this.” I said, “I don’t really want to.” She was astonished. I said, “If you were more excited about it, I’d come out. I’m not a complete asshole, but I don’t really want to.” She said, “You don’t seem that upset about this passing.” I said, “I don’t give a shit about what people in television think. I spent my entire life not giving a shit what you think. You probably don’t give a shit about what poets think.” But now I’m talking to different people and it’s actually going somewhere. I prefer that it’s television and not a feature film, as it means more time, so we can make it a more complicated story—not as reductive as two hours. If it happens, I think it’ll be really cool to have a priest as a major character. But I’m not interested in being on television. I just want to sell more books. I like books. That’s why I’m doing it.
Do you watch many of these TV shows with novelistic elements, like Mad Men?
I watch Mad Men. And Real Housewives, but only the Atlanta version.
What’s that like?
The show is normally skinny rich women being mean to each other, except in Atlanta. They’re women of color. I can identify better with women of color. I had a lot of black friends as a little girl and in college. African-American culture is imbued with Southern culture. Ebonics is essentially a Southern accent on steroids. I keep waiting to see if this character, Nene, is going to hit somebody.
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.
It’s not a proud moment. The temptation in Lit was to either make myself seedy or show some glamour. But there wasn’t any. It was just dark, dark, dark for days. Ugly.
Were you surprised by how deeply people related to this dark stuff?
If I’m doing my job then I’m able to make the strange seem familiar. Bad memoirs try to make the strange stranger, to provide something for people to gawk at. I try to create an experience where no matter how bizarre something is, it seems normal. I don’t want readers to balk, I want them to be in the experience. My goal isn’t for people to go, “Oh, poor little Mary Karr,” but rather to have the reader go, “I can be an asshole too,” or just to have enthusiasm for the possibility for change.
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.
That means a lot to me. It’s one of the reasons I wrote it. I was teaching college with these great coming-of-age stories, like Stop-Time by Frank Conroy and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. The girls’ side pole-vaults from 12 years old to college, like Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. When I was writing Cherry I realized there’s no vernacular libidinal language that’s childish enough for a girl. We don’t have “chubby” or “woody.” That made me sick. Now I see it’s for good reason. I realized I was superimposing the libido of a 40-year-old woman on a little girl. I remembered what I actually imagined at the time: [My high school crush] John Cleary skating over to me with a long red rose. That was as intense and vivid as the other thing. Every now and then I might have fantasized about him actually kissing me, but nothing pornographic. Now I believe that girls have something that’s different in kind to boys, but of equal intensity. I realized it was OK to be a little G-rated in Cherry.
It’s not totally G-rated.
It kind of is. My libidinal feelings weren’t about being boffed into guacamole.
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.
Which I chose. Nobody had a gun to my head. Though, I had extremely poor role models. Nowadays I talk about this with [my teenage best friend in Cherry] Doonie all the time. Did we not notice that all our parents were fucking drunks and drug addicts? How did we never have that conversation? Every single household was in a pitched battle fueled by pills or alcohol. That’s what drew our group together as friends.
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.
Everybody just stood there like, “Oh, bummer.”
They tried to get away from him so he wouldn’t harsh their vibe. Somebody is like, “Maybe bury your feet in sand.”
Yeah. “Throw some sand on it. Piss on it.”
The dude himself is kind of resigned to it. He doesn’t even expect help.
A bunch of fucking tripping individuals. You don’t want those hippies taking care of you at any fucking point.
I haven’t done acid since I was 17. I’d rather die than do it again.
I was 19 the last time. Writers have too many fucking frames per second to handle that drug. There’s too much inner life. Talk about a bad idea.
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.”
That was one of my big guilts. Meredith grew up to be spectacularly insane. She was just fucked. I didn’t refer to it in any book. She was dead by the time Cherry came out and her mother had just hung herself in her son’s house. See, I’d flown Meredith out to stay with me for a while, so no matter how I wrote it, I couldn’t find a way without it being, “I’m such a good person for taking care of my crazy friend.” I couldn’t write it.
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.
I just saw John Cleary. He and his wife came to a reading. I asked if the parts concerning him were accurate and he just couldn’t believe I remembered the seahorse on his shirt. It freaked him out. He said, “How the fuck did you remember that shirt?”
Well, how did you?
You just start with a detail, and from the detail the room blooms into place. So then John said, “I knew I should have married you.” I proposed to him when I was four and he was five. He said, “But whoever knew that you wouldn’t grow up to be crazy?” I said, “I know.” He said, “Nobody would have ever guessed it.”
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?
Doonie actually went on a book tour with me recently. I think he got more pussy than Frank Sinatra. No kidding. He was actually signing books. He has a big construction company now and he’s famous for creating a product I can’t mention, because he doesn’t need the public knowing he used to be a fucking drug dealer.
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?
I don’t think about it. In the midst of writing the book I’m only terrified about how the people in the book are being represented. I have a lot of my mother’s don’t-give-a-shit in me. Strangely enough, I’m a very private person. I’m a writer. For anybody else, the amount of time I spend alone would be unhealthy. When people tell me they’ve read the books, I’m not even thinking about what’s in them. I assume everybody has their own problems. When I was single, there were a lot of “bad boy” men who wanted to date me based on the books, essentially telling me they were assholes. Perceptions of me from The Liars’ Club or Cherry meant they thought I’d be sassily clever if they were mean or horrible, instead of being like every other woman and telling them to go fuck themselves. The truth is, I’m sensitive. I’m a candyass, in no way a badass. I grew up in a town that was really rough, but I was the kid trying to sound like T.S. Eliot. I was a nerd. I always dated nice boys. I had a daddy I liked. My now boyfriend of five years didn’t know anything about my books. He read The Liars’ Club and is the only person who has ever talked to me directly about the books other than, “This is really well written.” He’s the only person I ever dated who ever said to me, “I feel so terrible this stuff happened to you.” The truth is, I’m kind of over it. I spent so much of my life unhappy, and now that I’m happy I don’t remember as keenly how it felt. I don’t feel like I have a gaping wound anymore. .