Interview By George Getschow
In the ever-expanding universe of recover and coming-of-age memoirs, one writer stands out: Mary Karr.
In the literary world, Mary holds the position of grande dame memoirista, a writer whose sassy, often hilarious voice and poet’s vernacular has won the admiration of millions of book lovers across America.
Quite an achievement for a girl who grew up in a whacked-out family in East Texas, raised by a mother who treated her and her sister like lizards. “Once a week she’d tap the glass and see if we were still moving,” Mary recalls. But out of her turbulent childhood, much of it spent at the Liars’ Club, emerged a storyteller who aimed for the high ground — the place where literature meets truth.
In each of her memoirs, Mary says she aimed “to create a whole world, like a novel,” stirring with tension, conflict, multi-dimensional characters and a vivid sense of place. But reaching that high ground is precarious; Mary says she had to learn to heed the advice of her mentor, the memoirist Tobias Wolff, that you have to sacrifice your dignity for the sake of truth-telling. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else,” he told her.
In her trio of literary confessionals, Mary has remained faithful to Wolff’s advice, even while fearing her readers might hold her and her family up as “grotesques.” Instead, at book signings, Mary often encounters hundreds of people who claim to closely identify with her stories — proving to Mary each time that her whacky world isn’t so wacky after all. — Interview by George Getschow
But would-be memoirists beware: If you follow Mary’s path, there will be plenty of days where your hands go numb, where you’re stumbling around in the ark, making obscene gestures at the ceiling, wishing you were a dog catcher instead of a memory snatcher. Here’s a peek inside the skull of a storyteller who has made a habit of looking at her clown face in the mirror each morning.
As a memoirist, you’ve mined your personal life for your art. Do you think that aptly describes what you do?
That’s what most memoirists do … kind of ‘sound bite’ memoirs. What I’m trying to do is make a work of art. I’m not just downloading events that happened to me. I’m trying to shape a story that involves a whole range of feelings and that creates a world for readers just like a novel.
You seem to navigate that fine line between mining every nook and cranny of your life without your prose seeming self-indulgent. Do you think about that as you write?
Absolutely. A lot of memoirists think your job is to make your material as toxic as possible so that the reader pities you. I take the opposite approach. When I’m writing something difficult, I never want the readers to pity me. So often I have to soften the difficult with humor.
What else do you do to make yourself sound convincing?
My father used to tell me an outrageous story and I’d say, ‘Oh horse dippy, Daddy. I don’t believe that.’ And he’d say, ‘You don’t believe me. I was wearing this shirt when it happened.’ There’s something about the immediacy of the physical world that convinces people. People believe, sometimes wrongly, that if I remember Bab-O Cleanser — and I do have a pretty damn good memory — then I probably remember all this other crap, too. I’m extremely conscious of trying to make a world very fleshed out, and very detailed and evocative, and trying to overlap my strange experiences with the readers’ usual and commonplace ones. Instead of trying to make myself more bizarre, I try to make the things that might actually be bizarre sound more normal or accessible to everybody.
A lot of memoirists think the weirder the material, the more likely their memoir is going to sell. But you’re saying grotesque experiences don’t necessarily translate into memoir material?
You watch these grotesque families on Jerry Springer to feel good that your family isn’t that bad. But they’re not people or characters that you would return to. You would return to Holden Caulfield [of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye].You return to Pip [the orphan in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations] who is a more two-dimensional character. You return to Anna Karenina [the complex socialite in Leo Tolstoy’s novel]. But you’re not going to return to those grotesque gargoyles that you see on Jerry Springer because they’re all sort of the same.
Like I was a teenage-sex slave?
If you can sum up a memoir in one line — I was a teenage sex slave; I’m a tennis-playing meth head with a hair piece; or whatever — then it’s probably not a memoir that will be read even five years from now, certainly not 50 years from now. And my interest … and my hope is that I would write something that will endure and not just be topical.
Let’s talk about your latest memoir, Lit. Is it true that you threw away your manuscript twice, walked around in your bathrobe for days and made obscene gestures at the rafters?
I threw away 2,000 finished pages. I threw away way more than two full books, in 400- and 500-page increments.
And you threw them away ...
Because they sucked. They would have been boring for anybody to read. It’s not that I made up anything. It’s just that they didn’t feel true. In early drafts, I was avoiding writing about marriage, and then I was making my husband sound too good and myself too bad. And the spiritual stuff was very hard to write about without sounding like I was proselytizing.
How many years were you at it — chucking your drafts and starting over?
Seven years. My entire writing life!
So the pages didn’t ring true or, more precisely, didn’t contain the ‘emotional truth’ you aspire to in writing?
It’s like — have you ever had a fight with your wife? And you think, That f__ing bitch. And then you walk around the next day and you think, You know. She really had a point. I really am an ass___. And you chew those truths back and forth. The events that happened between you are mostly the same. But your take on those truths changes. You say, ‘Well, her dad did this to her.’
When you’re revising your work, what’s the process?
You don’t have any idea where to start. The page is very blank. I’ll look at books I admire — some fiction, some nonfiction. I just noodle around. I ask God, ‘Give me one true sentence,’ which is a Hemingway line. ... But you’re blind. There’s no banister to hold onto. You’re feeling away in the dark.
What books do you surround yourself with while you’re flailing around in the dark? For Lit, did you read other memoirs?
I read lots of things: poetry, the Bible, other memoirs, novels. It’s like you’ve got a dowsing wand and you’re holding it up in the Dust Bowl and the topsoil is all stripped off and you’re waiting for the twig to move. You’re waiting for your heart to go click, click, click.
You’re looking for ways to be nudged toward the truth?
I’m looking to be led. In some ways, it’s spiritual. But it’s also psychological and it’s intellectual. It takes all my faculties to do this. I’ll write a sentence like, ‘My mother drove me to college,’ that becomes, ‘The yellow station wagon moved like a monopoly icon between fields of Iowa corn.’ That’s a better sentence. A lot of times it’s just making the sentences better.
Is writing painful for you?
It’s very painful. But it can also be so self-absorbing that you can’t feel the ends of your hands. The problem is when you’re writing memoir, you’re very emotionally immersed in things that are complicated at best and painful at worst, and if you’re really doing it right it can be absorbing. That’s not the same as pleasure.
You open The Liars’ Club with a memory of a gasoline fire in the backyard, firemen milling about your home and your mother ‘taken away’ by the sheriff for ‘being Nervous.’ Yet you say it ‘took three decades for that instant to unfreeze.’ Is this an example of what you call ‘emotional memories’ — the ones stored deep in the snake brain and which are hard to unravel?
The memory that opens The Liars’ Club wasn’t hard to get to at all. Trying to get up to that memory and away from it is very hard. It’s hard to see the quotidian around the extraordinary experience. There’s the memory of mother holding a butcher knife over you and it’s hard to think, Well, let’s see, I must have had breakfast that day. What was I thinking about? What did I worry about?
So you had this instant recollection, but then it took you — weeks? months? — to unravel the details?
I think we remember in these little tiny packages. A lot of times I’ll have an opinion, like, ‘So and so is an ass____.’ Well, why did you think that? ‘Well, because he hit me in the head with a rock.’ Did you hit him first? ‘Well, I guess I did.’ It started when he hit me back. I question and poke and prod and try to marshal evidence for feelings and opinions I have, and often I see that I don’t have any evidence for my feelings and opinions.
Wasn’t that the case with your father? You had this feeling your father was emotionally distant. But when you examined the evidence, that wasn’t the case. Right?
At the time I was writing about my father, he was a few years away from stroking out from drinking a fifth of whiskey a day. Before then, he was more present. But I had that sense of poignancy, like watching someone sucked out to sea or over a waterfall. You see them leaving. But at the time, I was also leaving and I projected onto him and made him responsible for what I felt guilty about. It took me awhile to realize I was the one who was leaving, and not my dad. I was getting in a truck and driving to California.
Is this why you tell aspiring memoirists, ‘If you’re not prepared to apologize, you shouldn’t be writing memoir’?
If you’re going to deliver a product that’s as true as possible — meaning has as much emotional and psychological complexity as any life has — you have to be prepared to reconsider some of your earlier conclusions and to apologize when you’re wrong.
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if you didn’t have such a messed up childhood? Are you sort of grateful your childhood was so messed up because it provided rich material for your life as a storyteller?
That’s like saying, ‘Can you imagine not being you?’ No, actually, I can’t. Would I have rather been a happy normal person? Absolutely. If there was a choice between being a poet or being happy, I’d choose being happy. I don’t see anything noble about having an ass whipping.
Your prose is rife with poetic imagery and language. Does your prose come to you as prose, as poetry, or both?
None of it comes to me. I’d be a fairy or something. I just sit down and write one word and then another word and then another word. And then I look at those words to see if I can make them more evocative, fine. ... I think my words are more poetic than most of the memoirs I read, but it’s not Nabokov. It just isn’t.
You use novelistic techniques. Do other memoirs suffer from not using the techniques of fiction?
I think most memoirists are not as interested in writing as they are in talking about themselves. And that’s not a good reason to write a book.
Could you name some of the truly great memoirs and what made them great in your estimation?
I have a list of over 150 nonfiction books on my website and there’s a lot of memoirs on there. I would say, This Boy’s Life, Stop Time, A Woman Warrior, Black Boy, Speak Memory. … They’re just real works of art. They’re not about one thing. They’re about a whole, complete life. And they’re better written than everybody else.
Why are memoirs, even bad memoirs, flying off the shelf these days?
Partly because fiction isn’t doing its job. There is great fiction being written. But there’s a kind of hyper-intellectual, self-conscious fiction that you get lonely reading. It’s so much of an intellectual exercise. We’re lonely for that single human voice with a real emotional stake that isn’t so ironic and disaffected that you can’t really identify with it. Memoirs, even a bad memoir, will guarantee you someone writing about something they’re passionate about. They’re ‘warmer,’ quote unquote, than a lot of what most fiction writers are doing.
So people are looking for an intensely emotional engagement?
Ya, with the fall of all the objective yardsticks —models of authority, the Church, politics, science — they’ve all been sort of debunked. That’s why the subjective has much greater authority. And that means two things. It means nonfiction writers feel freer using novelistic devices. Many people believe a sort of hallucinatory book like Dispatches by Michael Herr about Vietnam might in some ways be a more accurate representation of Vietnam than the fabricated body counts of Robert McNamara.
In trying to lay hold of your childhood memories for The Liars’ Club, how often did you find yourself starting off in one spot, holding onto one little particle of memory, mulling on it and mulling on it, until a fuller, maybe more complex truth emerged?
Every day. I never knew where any of the books were going, or what would be in them. I felt my way from stone to stone in every book. I swam from buoy to buoy.
Have you ever had to apologize to anybody in your work, the characters that inhabit your memoirs?
You mean how I wrote about them? No. I’ve never apologized. That’s because everybody I’ve ever written about I’ve written out of love. The villain in my memoirs is usually me. … In fact, people are pissed that I don’t use their real names. It’s the opposite of what you would think. I only use the real names of my family.
You don’t feel you can use other peoples’ names because you can’t intimate what’s going on in their head?
No. It’s a legal consideration. I made up the name of my town, and I’ve never named the town I’m from. No one can ever say, ‘Oh you’re writing about so and so from such and such’ and be pissed off about it. Everybody I’ve written about who is alive has signed off with a lawyer, gone over the pages and said, ‘Yes, this is true.’ I’ve done that with all three books. I didn’t know that was unusual. But I don’t make shit up. If you’re making shit up, you shouldn’t be writing a memoir.
So in every book, you’ve asked permission from your characters to write about them?
In advance. And then they don’t read anything until the whole thing is done, which is usually years. Then I send out the manuscript. Or with a major character, I go to where they are and I bring the manuscript and they read it with me there.
Not all memoirists ask for permission. Why do you?
Most of the people I write about I really love. I really don’t spend a lot of time writing about people I despise. I just don’t. My best friend from Cherry, I still see her. ... I’m in touch with pretty much everybody I’ve ever loved and give a shit what they think. Most memoirists write out of some sad or lonely or venomous place. I don’t. The characters just won’t be as rich.
And if they say, ‘Oh God, please don’t use that,’ do you not use what you otherwise would use?
I would do that. But no one’s ever done that.
In your mother’s case, did you tell her you were going to tell about the time she tried to stab you?
I said, ‘I’m going to write about your trying to kill me, your psychotic episode, that you were married seven times and the time we were in Colorado and you waved a gun at my stepfather’ and she said, ‘Oh, go ahead.’ We don’t have a lot of secrets in my family. We traveled more hard roads together. We talked very openly after the toothpaste was out of the tube in my 20s.
In Lit, you open with a letter to your son. Did you ask him for permission to write about the fights between you and his dad, which he witnessed, all this ugly stuff. Did you feel you needed permission?
There’s nothing in any of the books he doesn’t know. He knows I was sexually abused. But there’s a big difference in knowing your mom was sexually abused and reading the scene when you’re a teenager. I did say, ‘I would like for you to read the first section because I’m representing you as you are now. And I don’t want to say anything that would embarrass you. I would like for you to look at it — the first chapter.’
Did he read it?
I told him what was in it as I was going along. I said, ‘I’m writing about being in the loony bin and you came to see me when you were in kindergarten. I’m writing about yelling at you.’ ... Those kind of things. He was impressed that it was well written. I said, ‘What did you think — that I was a crummy writer?’
In writing Lit, was there ever a time when you felt you were dragging your son through the mud and decided, The hell with this, I’m throwing it out?
Before Cherry came out, I said, ‘I was concerned he might be embarrassed, cause it had some sexual stuff in it.’ And I told him what was in it because I didn’t want any of the kids — he was going into the 11th grade — saying something that he didn’t know, that he wouldn’t be prepared for. And I told him I had a boyfriend and I had sex and I did LSD and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard that story about you going to that bar.’ And I said, ‘I write about Doonie who was a drug dealer.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, I knew that.’ None of that is news to him. It’s not shocking to him. It’s just part of my history.
In writing memoir, the credibility of your memory, I would think, is critical to your readers. When you were in a mental institution, how valid are your memories?
I think they’re more valid in the mental ward than when I was drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels. I was very clear minded in the mental ward. I wasn’t medicated at all. I think I was taking two Prozacs a day. But I didn’t take any sleeping pills. I was sober.
Do you ever question the validity of your memory?
If I don’t remember it, I don’t write about it. There’s loads of stuff I don’t remember. I don’t remember talking to my ex-husband about getting a divorce. … I wish I did. It would have made a better book. But I don’t remember.
In The Liars’ Club, you once said there were a few of your father’s stories that were fictionalized?
I fictionalized the story about the frozen fart. I fictionalized the story about his father hanging himself. But those are meant to be bullshit stories. [Chapter 6: “I’ll tell you just exactly how my daddy died,” Daddy says. “He hung hisself.” This is easily the biggest lie Daddy ever told — that I heard, anyway. His daddy is alive and well and sitting on his porch in Kirbyville with his bird dogs. I gawk at Daddy’s audacity, while the men in the room shift around at his seriousness.”]
So what you’re saying is when someone is telling a bullshit story, it’s okay to fictionalize.
Exactly, because I’m representing it as bullshit. Do people think there’s such a thing as frozen farts? I don’t think so. I don’t think that was taken as history. I’m pretty confident my readers knew that that was bogus.
Tell me a little about your crazy prayer decisions. You turned down a fabulous amount of money to write an adult memoir. That was a prayer decision?
I just did it again. I just turned down three or four publishers offering me money to write another book. It’s not what I’m supposed to be doing right now. … Nonbelievers think I’m crazy and full of shit. But I think nonbelievers have experiences of God all the time. They just see them as something else.
I suspect you won’t have too hard a time finding your next story. Where you grew up, there wasn’t anything to do but tell stories, right?
That’s exactly right. They gave us coat hangers and said, ‘Go outside and amuse yourselves.’ Where I grew up, it was so hot and sweaty and ugly, we had to invent ourselves through language. That’s why Texans are great storytellers.
Do you think you’ve had all this literary success because God likes you better than other writers?
And that’s because of your faith?
I have a real sense of myself as a sinner, but as a loved sinner. I have done nothing to deserve the good things that have happened to me. I feel that I have been really heaped with roses. I feel very lucky. I feel like someone who wasn’t supposed to be happy, and I live a pretty joyful life. I’m not ‘zippity doo dah.’ I have my Kafkaesque moments. My nature is dark and it’s still dark. But I’m much happier than I ever expected to be.
What’s the meaning of the collection of block letters that spell out HUBRIS on your desk?
That you have to keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror.
You’ve pretty much mined out your life. What comes next?
I don’t know. I’m praying about it right now. I’ll let you know when Baby Jesus sends down a note on a fishhook.