Mary Karr is a seventh-generation Texan and a New York Times bestselling author of three memoirs and four books of poetry. In 1995, she sparked the memoir revolution with The Liars’ Club, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. Five years later came Cherry, a coming-of-age memoir that Times critic Michiko Kakutani praised for blending “a poet’s lyricism and a Texan’s down-home vernacular.” Lit, the third book in Karr’s dynamic trilogy, portrays her descent into the baffling morass of alcoholism and her unlikely turn toward the Catholic faith.
Karr’s critically acclaimed poetry collections include Abacus (1987), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (1995), and Sinner’s Welcome (2006). She has won The Whiting Award, a Radcliffe-Bunting Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. The recipient of Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and essays, Karr’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry, among others. She is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.
The Days of Yore visited Karr in her Manhattan apartment, a multiple-story unit tucked so tightly into the Garment District that you might pass her door three times before you spot the buzzer. A recent vegan convert, she served tea laced with soymilk, but confessed that the vegetables she ate for dinner might have been buttered.
I often read your work before I write.
That’s so nice. I used to have so many people like that.
Frank Conroy, who wrote Stop-Time, Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote The Woman Warrior. Nabokov’s Speak Memory is probably my favorite memoir of all time.
But that’s so great. When I was posing in the mirror with my beret on my head for my author jacket, at ten years old, that’s what I imagined would happen.
You imagined that people would read your work before they wrote.
Yeah, but I was deranged.
You were a prophet.
I was ten years old.
Did you ever want to be anything besides a writer?
In high school, for a while, I wanted to be in theater, and in college, I acted a little bit, but I wasn’t a very good actress. I moved to Minneapolis and auditioned for a professional children’s theater company—I think it was the Cherry Orchard—and I got a job playing the ingénue. It would have paid actual money. But I just thought, I hate these people. I never want to do this again. At that point, I decided I really had to start writing.
What made you turn to poetry when you were young?
I was really depressed. When you’re depressed, you don’t have the concentration to read a book. I mean, really depressed. So I would read a poem, and I would feel less lonely. I would lift my face from a page, even if it was a dark, disturbed poem, even if it was Eliot’s “Prufrock,” and I would feel more connected to everybody. I think all great art does that, no matter what it is. I memorized a lot of poems. My mother liked them; my sister liked them; my father liked them. My father wasn’t a reader, but anytime I ever recited a poem, he would say, “That’s pretty” or, “That’s really good.”
What did you memorize?
I started memorizing Shakespeare when I was real little. I mean real little, like before junior high. I don’t know how I found the speeches; that’s the interesting part. I memorized “To be or not to be.” I knew that that was a big deal, but somebody must have pointed it out. I memorized speeches from Julius Caesar—“Friends, Romans, countrymen”—from Richard III, Romeo and Juliet. We must have read them in school, too— Macbeth.
Let’s talk cash.
What kinds of odd jobs did you have when you were young?
I trucked crawfish. My first year of graduate school was 1978, at Goddard College, in Vermont, and I didn’t have the money for tuition. My sister was married to a guy we called the Rice Barron, who had a farm, and he knew a guy who was starting a crawfish farm. Every morning, I drove to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and I would hose down these burlap sacks. You can’t just spray crawfish, because they’ll drown. You’ve got to drape dampness over ‘em so it sort of seeps over ‘em. So I’d unload these eighty-pound bags of crawfish, put the bags down, reload ‘em. I did this for ten days, and I made about three thousand dollars. Hauling Crawfish from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana to Winnie, Texas.
I was also a bartender, which was great because I liked to drink.
When I finished graduate school, I went to work as a receptionist at a computer company and wound up working in marketing. After about five years in that business, I ghostwrote articles for the Harvard Business Review, and they put me on retainer, which was great, because I only had to write X number of articles per year. When I was working with them, I got the National Endowment for the Arts Award. I was meeting with my editor [at the Harvard Business Review], and he said, “I noticed that a woman with your name won the National Endowments for the Arts thing.” And I said, “Yeah, well it’s me, Alan.” I felt like a drag queen. Like I was impersonating a businessperson.
Learning how to write becomes very useful. However people marginalize it now, there’s a lot of stuff you can do better than other people. It taught me how to think.
Did you have any awkward living arrangements?
I was just poor. After high school, I left Texas with my friend Doonie, who was in Cherry, and all these other guys. We lived in a pink Lincoln Continental in Laguna Beach. Eventually, we got an apartment in Dana Point. There were six of us paying the rent, two hundred dollars per month, and it was too expensive. Six of us, two hundred dollars, and we couldn’t afford it. So I lived in the car.
When I was in college, I lived in the ghetto. They robbed our house so many times that [when] the guys were taking the door off, we were inside yelling, “You’ve got the stereo, you’ve got the T.V., there’s nothing left to steal!”
It seems like I was always really poor. Even after I was a professor at Syracuse, when I got divorced, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have any furniture. My ex-husband was an academic. He didn’t have any money. It wasn’t malice. It was just how it was.
What was your artistic community like in those days?
When I was in college, I did this workshop with Etheridge Knight, and he was then a very important African American writer. It was an amazing workshop. Robert Bly taught there, Galway Kinnel taught there. Audre Lorde. Alice Walker. I met all these black writers, partly through anti-apartheid work, which is the only political thing I ever did. That little group of poets was my first real connection with other people who did what I did.
And graduate school was really extraordinary for me in that way. The people who taught at Goddard sound like a list of MacArthur Fellows. It was Frank Conroy, it was Robert Hass, it was Toby and Geoffrey Wolff, Heather McHugh, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Raymond Carver. Charlie Simic came. Richard Ford came. Louise Glück was my thesis advisor. Mark Doty was in my class. And Robert Long, a poet who died a few years ago from pancreatic cancer. Probably from drinking. I stayed in touch with my teachers. I’m still in touch with Hass a lot, and Heather McHugh a little bit, and Ellen Bryant Voigt from time to time. They were really important to me.
They taught me that it wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about publishing, and it wasn’t about all this stuff that I so desperately wanted. It was about finding a goal bigger than the marketplace, or more exalted than that.
Were they famous yet?
Louise [Glück] was the resident genius. She was very well regarded. Ellen Bryant Voigt started the program, and it’s a testimony to her wisdom that she gathered these people, because nobody was a big deal. Heather [McHugh] was thirty-three or thirty-four, [Robert] Hass was thirty-eight, Louise [Glück] was thirty-eight, [Charlie] Simic was probably forty, Toby [Wolff] was thirty-three or thirty-four, Geoffrey [Wolff] was maybe thirty-eight. None of these people had made any money. Frank Conroy made a little money with Stop-Time. Oh my god, and Ray [Carver]. Ray was the first person we knew who made a lot of money. It was astonishing to everyone.
You mentioned that it’s not about the market and it’s not about publishing. How do you get past all of that?
You’re not going to.
How do you get past it just a little bit?
Living in New York is bad. People are so focused on it. I’m lucky that I didn’t live in New York in the beginning, although I lived in Boston where it’s twee in the more academic way. I think my writing was so ego-driven that I wanted people to look at me and say I was a writer. I was so hungry and desperate for it. It was like I didn’t have a self, and so that was the self that I had to have. At a certain point, I began to realize—it’s kind of a spiritual thing—that it’s much more about adding a stone to the mountain.
So it’s more thinking about what you’re doing as, What do I have to offer? Not, What can I get?
It’s easy for me to have that exalted opinion with an apartment in New York and a job with health benefits. In graduate school, I had been really greedy for all of it, but Bob Hass did a great thing. He said, “Go read the list of Pulitzers in Poetry Magazine.” You think it’s going to be Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound—they’re all in there, but they’re very minor. They were not the dominant voice. They were not in fashion. You begin to see what’s very fashionable and of the moment, and what might have a longer term.
When you’re young, you’re just looking for someone to steal from. If you find someone, and you think, I could write that way, or I could write about that, then you’re looking for what you can get from writers. Now I feel a sense of responsibility. Like, what am I supposed to do?
My teaching, I know, is a very good thing. There’s nothing more pure in its motive. I know professors who begrudge their students. I’ve had students who do amazingly well, and I’m just wildly happy for them to out-write and out-publish me. A former student of mine, who’s thirty-five years old and has a tenure job, said, “Why do I love these kids so much?” And I said, “Isn’t it weird?” I don’t love anybody. I’m hateful. I’m a recluse. Strangely enough, I’m very private. But I love even the ones who’ve hated me or resented me—and you can see when they hate you. Somebody’s got to hate you, you know, they hate you all the time. And I would think, How can I get the information into this person who’s so resistant? I felt like it was my job to do that. Teaching is the work I love the most.
How do you teach and write at the same time?
I don’t really teach and write at the same time. I rewrite. I edit. I write lectures. I can do journalism. I can do an essay. But I can’t really write and teach. I work on poems, off and on, all the time.
So you’re able to go into poems, lectures, essays, and other forms of journalism, but not book-writing?
I couldn’t do it with a book.
The book swallows you.
I wrote The Liars’ Club over weekends and holidays, but it was hard. I couldn’t look at it during the week. I just had to turn it off. I never had any rest, but I was young, thirty-eight, and I didn’t need to rest.
Do you remember your first paycheck for writing?
I was nineteen, and it was for a poem in an anthology called the Minnesota Poets, and my second check was for Mother Jones, and I was twenty-one. That was a poem that actually wound up in my first book. I thought it was the most thrilling thing that had ever happened, seeing my name in print. All those things that mean nothing to me now.
They don’t mean anything to you now?
They don’t. It’s sad. I think it’s the human condition. It’s what the Buddhists say, desire is suffering. Once you get what you desire, you desire something else.
You’re credited for launching the memoir trend. Before you published The Liars’ Club, were you concerned about how such personal material would be received?
Geoffrey Wolff had written a book called The Duke of Deception, and when he was dealing with movie people, he told me that you make the people you love most in the world characters in a narrative, and then you lose control of the narrative as soon as it enters the public conversation. I was afraid that we’d be portrayed like Dorothy Allison characters, just grotesque, and these were people I really loved. I wanted readers to understand how remarkable they were. I wanted people to love them— that was my goal. I wanted the memoir to have the depth of a novel, the range of feeling that a good novel does, where characters are complicated and they’re not all black or all white, and they’re not demonized.
And afterward, many readers told you that they related to your childhood.
That was the most surprising part, people saying, “I really identified with your childhood.” I was like, really? That was the last thing I expected. I expected to feel like a bug under a microscope. I remember my first radio interview with Terry Gross. Right at the beginning, she says, “You were sexually abused,” in this very NPR, serious, concerned voice, and I said, “Oh, come on, Terry, I wasn’t raised in Rwanda. It was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.” Now I almost think it was worse than I thought it was then. So how you feel about it changes over time.
What changed your perception?
I think it’s your relationship with yourself. When I was closer to being a child, it would have been more dangerous for me to feel sorry for myself. It wouldn’t have been useful. The further I get from being a child, the more empathy I have for myself when I was a child. And having raised a kid, I knew how concerned and protective I was. It’s astonishing, really, that we weren’t protected more. Part of it was the time, though.
[Karr repositions herself on the couch, turning away from the mirror on the wall.]
I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror.
At that time, people weren’t emotionally engaged, period. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1910, and therapy and the inner life and the unconscious were things that rich people in New York thought about. “He needs counseling” or “he needs help” was not part of the common parlance. There wasn’t even pastoral counseling. Some Catholics I knew went to confession, but nobody else I knew talked about their problems. There was no other mode. If you historicize it, their lack of emotional connection was more normal than not. You were just kind of left to your own devices.
What are you going to do? You’re either going to have to move out or come apart. It’s funny, I almost dis-recommend young people writing memoirs.
Not because I think they’ll do a bad job. Well, I do think they’re handicapped… it’s a time when you have a complicated relationship with your parents, and if you have any sense at all, you’re trying to separate from them. You’ve figured out what your parents have given you that you don’t want.
I also think that the complications that come up when you’re writing are painful.
What kinds of complications?
It’s just sad. That’s the great thing about Nabokov. He had all this trauma and tragedy in his life, and yet his talent as an aesthete, as someone who is completely able to immerse himself in an aesthetic point of view, made having to flee Russia, from the commies, and his father’s assassination, a very minor event. Speak, Memory is so much about his falling in love with the world, and trying to capture a world that was lost to him. That’s, to some extent, what I was doing with The Liars’ Club. I felt that this world was going away, and I wanted to capture it and put a little bell jar over it.
How do you handle the moments when you have to write a painful scene?
I’m much better now than I was. At the time, I would be so exhausted that I would feel like I had driven cross-country. Like I could fall asleep sitting here. I would still push myself to go to the gym, to do what I normally did, and I was just barely holding on. I lost a lot of weight. It was physically stressful. Now I’m much more tender with myself. I’ve realized that I’m essentially a candy ass. Everybody else thinks I’m this tough girl, but really, I take a lot of hot baths.
I had a rule, at the end of working on Lit, that I didn’t leave the house or answer the phone, with a few exceptions, on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. At all, during the day. Any phone calls I got, I’d return either on Thursday or in the evening. If someone buzzed the door, I wouldn’t answer. I knew the Fed-Ex guy and the UPS guy, so they were good about things. I would not make social engagements. If my boyfriend had a black tie dinner or something he really wanted me to do, I always had the option not to do it. Because you leave the house, and it’s like you’re in something.
I was much more gentle with myself, much kinder to myself. I got massages. I had money, the way I didn’t, certainly with the first book and less so with the second book.
You received your first magazine acceptance at nineteen, published your first book of poems at thirty-two, and published your first memoir at forty. You were getting acceptances all the time.
Not all the time. There were whole years when I didn’t get a single acceptance.
How did you handle rejection?
It’s not personal. My friend John Engman, a wonderful, under-recognized poet, who died very young, used to tape up his rejections on the bathroom wall. You become numb to them. You get mechanical. They come back, and you don’t reconsider. You just send them out, and you keep going, and you keep writing.
In The Liars’ Club, you wrote that your mother would swat flies with old New Yorkers. Had that magazine been your holy grail?
It was the only place that I could read poetry by people who were alive. I didn’t find The Paris Review until I was in college. Then I discovered all those great interviews with writers like T.S. Eliot.
What magazines should we be reading?
You read what helps you write. What you think will last instead of what you think is of the fashion. When I was at MIT and pregnant with Dev [her son], I lost a job that I really needed to a girl who was then all the rage. She had slept with Joseph Brodsky.
How did you know?
I knew her. We were in the same social circle. And she’d allegedly slept with Derek Walcott, which I couldn’t confirm, but the Brodsky I knew was true. I called Louise Glück after I’d lost the job, and she said, “You watch. She’ll sink like a stone.” This woman had won everything I had applied for. I said, “How will I ever catch up?” I remember saying that. And Louise said, “You watch. She’ll sink like a stone.” And she has.
If you look back through history, you’re not that concerned with magazines. You start saying to yourself, I should be trying to write like Nabokov, not like Dave Eggers, like Chekov, not like Zadie Smith. You start trying to find models that you think are eternal, that will endure. You begin to develop a sense for what is fashion and what is not fashion.
Once you’re teaching, you see it all the time. Three or four years ago, I taught a class called “The Perfect Poem.” I said, All we’re going to study in this class is perfect poems. We’re not going to study imperfect poems. We’re only interested in the absolute best poem. Every week, I would give them five or six poems they had never seen—maybe a few had seen them—and I would have them rank the poems by quality, one to six. Interesting: If there were twenty-four kids in the class, twenty of them would have picked the same number one poem. Now two, three, four, five, six, would shuffle around. But the best poem, everybody knew. I used to point that out. I said, “At this level, there’s a lot of disagreement, at this level, there’s not a lot of disagreement.”
If you go to John Ashbery, and you say, “Is Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden a great poem?,” he can quote it. You go to Seamus Heaney, and he can quote it. You go to Terrance Hayes, and he can quote it. Everybody loves that poem, and it’s not entirely an accident.
You start to see these things by fashion, and you start to be able to discern those things, so you tell yourself, when you get rejected from the Bumfuck Review, well, who gives a shit? You want your taste to be better than your talent. You want to be sending to places you can’t get in. Why not do that?
I estimated, at one point, that I probably sent The New Yorker between ten and fifteen poems per year, starting in 1976, when I was twenty-one years old. The New Yorker took a poem from me the first time when I was forty-one years old. So for twenty years, fifteen poems a year, that’s hundreds—hundreds—of poems rejected by The New Yorker. Oh, well. Eventually I wrote to a standard they liked. Now I look at The New Yorker, and I think, Why would I care? I look at any magazine, not just The New Yorker.
I think excellence, real quality, is a rare, rare thing. So it’s deciding that your fealty is not to be supportive of everybody and everything that comes along because you’re trying to champion this idea of art at the level at which you can succeed, but rather saying, I can’t succeed at the level of Emily Dickinson, but goddamnit, that’s the standard. It puts you in a strange position of always losing, but it also frees you from the marketplace.
When I went to graduate school, I was not one of the talented people. I was smart and I did very well writing essays, and that was a surprise to me, because I’d never written many essays. I was good at writing nonfiction. I was good at writing reviews. But in workshops, my poems were not the ones about which they said, “Wow, this is a really talented person.” Didn’t happen.
Did they say that to anybody else?
Oh, yeah. They said it to Mark Doty. They said it to Robert Long, who was publishing in The New Yorker when I was there, and rightly so, because he was writing these good poems. It was humbling. It was not about being the cutest one at the prom. If that were what it was about, I would have quit at twenty-six and gone into advertising or become a heroin addict.
So you take a long view of success.
You have to take the long view or else you’re in hell. Before George Saunders’ first book came out, he was raked. He couldn’t get it published. He had published a story in The Atlantic, before he even had a book, and some critic wrote this hideous, nasty thing. I didn’t know George at the time, but one, I had really liked the story—like really liked it—and two, I thought, why would this guy pick somebody with one story and no book to hop up and down on? Be a man. Go after one of the big dogs who’s writing shit. There are tons of us. When I was writing Lit, I called Don DeLillo, and I said, “Don, I’m writing a really shitty book.” And he said, “Who doesn’t?” It’s true. We all write poorly much more frequently than we write well.
Tell me about a Dark Night of the Soul moment with your writing.
Throwing away that last big batch of Lit, right toward the end. I’d been working on it for eight years, and the publisher really wanted a manuscript, and I really needed the money. I was backed into a corner and just didn’t see any way out. I went to bed for two days. I just cried, all day, every day, and said I’m never going to get out of the house ever again. It moved through me like a tornado—my disappointment and sense of being overwhelmed and unable to start. Then you just get up and wash your face and go to the gym, and, as Hemingway says, “the application of your ass to the chair.” What else is there to do? I can only do it as well as I can do it.
Do you enjoy writing?
No. When I’m really engaged, and I forget what I’m doing, that’s great. But that’s not the same as rubbing my palms together and thinking, Wow, you’ve really got it now. I don’t think I’ve ever had that. Ever.
I will have moments. I was writing The Liars’ Club, trying to think of how to make a transition, and my editor at the time, Nan Graham, kept saying, “How are you going to get from this part of the story to this part of the story, if it covers thirteen years?” I sat down one day and typed “thirteen years later, comma.” And I thought, I can do this. I’m going to say, “Thirteen years later,” then I’ll do a couple of pages of exposition, because people are going to need to know where we are, what I’ve grown up to, what my parents are doing, blah, blah, blah, but I can do that in two pages. And then I’ll just march along.
Do you have writing rituals?
I just sit down and write. I miss writing longhand, which I can’t do because I have a shoulder injury, but I edit longhand, which not everybody does. I just move around. I write in bed a lot. I’ll get in my bed with my laptop and write, but then I’ll kind of burn out, and I’ll have a cup of tea, and then I’ll come over here to the couch and write, and then I’ll go to that desk and write, then I’ll go to my desk upstairs, then I’ll get back in bed and write. Every time, I feel like I’m starting over.
Do you ever find that your ego wants you to write something that should be excluded?
Ego is a good thing. It’s being narcissistic that’s a bad thing. We each have a self and a set of values. The enemy in the memoir should be some part of yourself. You should be behaving against how you’re representing yourself, at least part of the time.
When I was younger, I usually found that I wanted to cut out what I should have been writing, because it actually showed who I was more vividly, and it was embarrassing to me. I find this often with students. They have a self they want to be—we all have a sense of how we want to be perceived. And usually you defend that, unconsciously. So I want to be seen as smart. I knew a girl who wanted to be perceived as good, or a boy who wanted to be perceived as bad, or sexy, or rebellious, or nobody’s fool, or somebody’s fool, or innocent, or guilty, and people are often very attached. This is the armature of yourself that you present to the world, but it’s not particularly true, and the writing becomes untrue when you’re trying to write to shelve that up.
What often happens with young women is that they don’t want to be seen in shitty relationships with men in which they behave foolishly, or when they’re lovesick, because it seems wimpy and not cool. But that’s always how women are. It’s always how we all are. It happens to all of us.
I always ask myself: Am I trying to defend some part of myself? With Lit, I initially wrote my ex-husband very perfectly, because I didn’t want to seem like someone who was bitter at her son’s father. But we got divorced for a reason. We fought, and I had to put that in. So I put myself as very bad and him as very good, and then I put him as very bad and me as very good, and then somehow I realized that what I was afraid of writing was how much in love we’d been, which wasn’t that long a scene. It was a few pages, but until the reader had that information, the other material wouldn’t ring true. It was like, why is she doing this? There’s no connection between her and this guy. Why is she having this baby, what’s her deal? So it’s figuring out what the reader needs at each step.
Do you have any additional advice for writers?
They should all be in therapy. [Laughs.] The big battle is the moral battle with yourself and with your vanity and with how you want to be portrayed.
My battles as a writer are battles with that part of myself that thinks I’m supposed to sound like T.S. Eliot when I grew up in East Texas. I wanted to sound lofty and British and to say ‘indeed’. That’s not how I am. The best thing about me is that I’m warm. The book should be that way, too, right? That’s something I can do better. I can do warm better than Don DeLillo. That’s not what he does. He does another thing.
There’s another Hemingway line about bullfighting. He interviews a famous bullfighter, and he says, “What exercises do you do for strength?” The bullfighter says, “The bull weighs two tons. Am I going to be stronger than the bull?” You’ve got to figure out what you have to fight with, what you bring to the party, and try to compete in that arena. Not in the arena that perhaps seems fashionable at the time, or perhaps seems enviable in other people, but the arena that’s really, as Faulkner says, your postage stamp of reality.
Interview by Kassi Underwood
Photo by William Mebane
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