Mary Karr

Salon magazine: An interview with Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club about memoirs, Texas, childhood, Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss, child abuse, writing, literature, autobiography. By Dwight Garner

Published May 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

BY DWIGHT GARNER | one of the great joys of Mary Karr's memoir "The Liars' Club" is reading about what an adept little shit-kicker she was. By the age of 8, this East Texan was a world-class settler of scores, whether that meant biting the hell out of some kid who had wronged her or shinnying up a tree with a BB gun in order to pump lead into an entire offending family. "I was small-boned and skinny," Karr writes, "but more than able to make up for that with sheer meanness."

At 42, Mary Karr is still small-boned and skinny. And -- to my general discomfort -- she is still willing to do some shit-kicking. "I'd rather take a whuppin' than do one more goddamned interview," Karr barks at me when I meet her in a New York hotel lobby, her dark eyes shooting out little cartoon sparks of pique. (Karr's features are so compact and well-defined that she looks like an Al Hirschfeld sketch.) "I feel like I've been lashed to the mast," she says, reeling off the list of appointments and appearances she's already logged today. Karr leads me into the hotel's restaurant, where her fianci, British publisher Peter Strauss, is waiting. Strauss' presence partly explains why she's upset: This lunch turns out to be the first chance they've had to see each other in several days. For 45 minutes, they chew their food and cast longing glances at one another. I trot out my questions, hoping not to have any steamed vegetables flung in my direction.

Karr is in demand right now for several reasons. For one thing, "The Liars' Club," published early in 1995, has come to be viewed as the book that jump-started the current memoir explosion. For another, Karr and her publishers are celebrating the fact that "The Liars' Club" has been on paperback bestseller lists for almost exactly one year -- the book has gone back for 17 printings, and there are close to 400,000 copies in print. "You'd think people would be sick of me," Karr says. "I'm sick of myself." Yet she seems genuinely surprised at the book's ongoing success: "If you've been a poet for 20 years," she says, "you don't expect anybody to read anything you write."

"The Liars' Club" deserves its wide audience. Karr is a shrewd, plucky and deeply observant storyteller, and she expertly spins out the details of her family's life in small-town Texas in the 1950s. Her mother was a kind of "Bohemian Scarlett O'Hara" whose wild streak (and seven marriages) shocked Karr's neighbors; a devoted parent, she would also be subject to destructive rages and psychotic episodes. Her father was a brawling oil worker, a generally taciturn man who came most fully alive when he told stories, spinning out whoppers with a group of men called "The Liars' Club." Karr's greatest achievement, though, is her ability to climb inside her own 8-year-old cranium. She evokes the landscape of a preadolescent mind with such exactitude -- fights, fears, petty jealousies -- that "The Liars' Club" stands as one of the best books ever written about growing up female (or growing up, period) in America.

Karr escaped Texas at age 17, she has said, when she joined some surfers bound for California. She found her way to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where she spent two years before dropping out to travel. Karr later attended Vermont's Goddard Collage, where she studied with the writers Tobias Wolff and Frank Conroy, both of whom have been influential in her career. Karr married a fellow poet in 1983 -- they had a son, Dev, now 11 -- and divorced 10 years later. She has published two books of poetry, "The Devil's Tour" and "Abacus." She now lives with her son in upstate New York, and she teaches writing at Syracuse University.

As our interview progressed, Karr's irritation gradually vanished. She talked about everything from the storm surrounding Kathryn Harrison's memoir "The Kiss" to her reasons for beginning to write "The Liars' Club" ("I literally needed the money") to her recent work on "Cherry," a forthcoming memoir of her teenage years. No vegetables were thrown.

"The Liars' Club" was published two years ago, yet it's already regarded as the Ur-text of this so-called "memoir explosion." Are you surprised that this has become such a heated cultural battle?

Well, I think memoir started with St. Augustine -- not with me, and not with Oprah. Memoir has an august, and inaugust, history. St. Augustine got drop-kicked for just using the first person pronoun at all. It was considered morally reprehensible. Memoir has long been what Geoffrey Wolff has called an "outsider's art." People want some sort of moral compass, and the subjective suddenly has power it hasn't had before because all of the measures of how we are doing -- the church, community life, religious or government leaders, certain kinds of values, family -- no longer mean what they once did. There are other people who have written memoirs -- Frank Conroy, Maya Angelou. Maxine Hong Kingston wrote a great memoir, "Woman Warrior." I think I'm the current ... (trails off). But I don't know why they don't call Richard Ford and bust his chops about all the Harlequin romances that are being published. Most of the memoirs are going to be bad, the way most novels are going to be bad, the way most articles are going to be bad, the way most poems are going to be bad. It's hard to make something of quality.

You must feel like you're being blamed for creating a monster.

Yeah, and I'm crying all the way to the bank. Toby Wolff did a great piece in the Times last Sunday where he said -- talking about James Wolcott (who wrote a strongly negative review of Harrison "The Kiss" in The New Republic) -- that Wolcott stood at the gates of literature as if to prevent any memoir from passing through. There is a history of genres or different forms (being discredited). A sonnet was seen as really low rent at one time among poets because it didn't have the sweep of an epic -- and it didn't have the rhetorical power of an epistle. The notion that something would be a little lyrical song, or that a novel was made up -- it was just fancy, sprung from someone's head -- was seen as morally reprehensible. It's odd that when a new genre emerges as interesting, the only way people choose to take it on is on some moral ground based on the notion that art is mimetic. No one calls up Don DeLillo and says, "What things about Lee Harvey Oswald did you make up and which ones are absolutely true?" They are fully accepting of freedom in that form. But I guess with memoirists choosing to use novelistic devices, these are fair questions for readers to ask.

I read an interview in which you said that one or two of your father's "Liars' Club" stories in your book were, in fact, things you made up.

They are pure fiction. They are absolutely made up. But they are not represented as truth in the book. I sort of defend doing it that way. They are seen as bullshit, and represented as bullshit in the book. The interesting things people have said -- you know, "Did your mother really shoot at your stepfather?" -- I've responded like, "I wouldn't make that up." Then I'm all morally outraged. But what do I expect? You sign up to play football and then you complain you've been hit?

Are you surprised that Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss" -- a book for which you provided a cover blurb -- has sparked so much animosity?

I knew that people would go after her. Not for having (incest) happen to her, because at least since Freud we have known these things. Since Electra, since Oedipus we've known this stuff happens. That's why it's a big deal -- it's a big cultural taboo. Not for having it happen, but for writing about it and in Harrison's case for not martyring herself, for not being more broken, for not taking more of the pose of the victim. I think to some extent she takes more responsibility for events than I personally felt she should. I still thought of her as a child with a parent who was taking advantage of her. To me the horribleness of the book is how it's been marketed as a sexier story than it is. It's not a sexy story. There are two sex scenes in it and even those are not hot, not sexy. I don't think they are intended to be. I don't think she wrote the book that way, so to some extent it's a failure in marketing. Some guy sitting next to me at the PEN dinner last night, actually a pretty well-known journalist, was saying, "I don't want to read about this." And I said, "Have you read it?" And he said no. And I said, "Look, it's not a sound bite. It's not a cartoon strip. You are reacting to a sound bite and a cartoon strip. That's what you find morally reprehensible." That's why she wrote a whole book about it -- instead of a magazine article.

What about James Wolcott's argument -- that Harrison should have waited to publish it, if only for her children's sake?

I think it's a travesty. I picked on an old woman who was dying of cancer (her grandmother), Toby Wolff bombed someone's ancestral village (in his Vietnam memoir "In Pharoah's Army) ... I don't go to writers or memoirs for morally heroic behavior, I go to Mother Theresa and Desmond Tutu. I don't think Harrison is in the business of holding herself up. In a country as libidinized as ours, where people commonly watch "Pulp Fiction" and are exposed to so many things, the sort of venom that has been pointed at her just seems out of proportion. I thought the Wolcott piece was a cheap shot, and I think a lot of the shots have been cheap. I think the marketing of the book has been cheap, and I don't think it's a cheap book. I read the book, and I found it moving. I found it very raw. This woman from the Times called me up, Doreen (Carvajall), and she was gunning for her from the beginning. She said, "Do you think this is true?" I said, "Well, I assume it's true and I also kind of don't give a shit. Why would you make it up if it weren't true?" So she said, "Don't you think it's morally wrong for her to write about it?" And I said, "Well, is it morally wrong for you to write about it?" It's OK for you to write about it as long as you are taking the moral high ground.

You know, I don't know Kathryn Harrison. I've seen her with her children it so happens -- she gave me a ride somewhere one time. She is a good mother. She is not somebody who pimp-slaps her kids up and down the block. And James Wolcott cannot fucking know what kind of mother she is from reading that book, any more than he can know what kind of mother I am, or what kind of father Tobias Wolff is. He cannot make ad hominem swipes, arguing in a deductive way about what you presume someone's behavior to be in print, and not have it be just malicious. He could have argued about that book in all kinds of ways -- about its failures as a book on aesthetic grounds. He could have argued about the marketing. I teach, so I see this all the time with students who think they know the moral ethicacy of someone's position based on their race or their gender. They say that Michael Herr is writing about Vietnam from a "privileged" position. I'm like, "He's a white guy, is that what that means? What do you know about his position? What do you know about his experience, or Maya Angelou's, or Kathryn Harrison's?" The other thing that Doreen said to me on the phone that I resented was that (Harrison) did it for the money. I said, "I did it for the fucking money." We all do it for the money. You are doing it for the money. And Harrison had money, so ... I don't know. It's that lack of attention to the text that bothers me. The idea that we are making these arguments presuming we know who these people are when you can make a really good argument about the text: "I don't like this narrator in the text and here is why." You can make an aesthetic argument without making it ad hominem.

Let's move on to your book. One of the things I love most about "The Liars' Club" is that you are such a scrappy little beast, even as an 8-year-old. Are you still someone with a "naturally bad temperament"?

I think I have a bad temper. I am impatient, unlike my fiancé here, who is a font of patience. I am naturally impatient. It's why I live my life as a college professor instead of a stock broker. I am patient with my son -- otherwise he wouldn't have a pulse at the end of the day.

In the book, you often go to extreme -- and quite comic -- lengths to settle scores. You climb up a tree to fire a BB gun at a kid who'd hit you. Do you still have these kind of score-settling urges?

Absolutely. I go to lengths to settle scores. But it's funny, I am more forgiving than any 8,000 people. I really am. Ironically enough, I am capable of having an outburst and saying "Fuck you, fuck you!" then (speaks softly) "God, I'm sorry." But it's hard for me to really scorch the earth. For instance, I've never been estranged from anyone in my family. I still have my best friend from the fourth grade. I corresponded with my grade school principal, who taught me how to play chess, until he died. Once I'm committed to someone as a friend, I think I'm really loyal. I have very fierce attachments.

Speaking of settling scores, one of the most remarkable scenes in "The Liars' Club" is one in which you step out of the text and address this teenager -- now an adult -- who'd raped you decades before, when you were 7. You imagine him learning about your book, and what you have to say about him in it. Are you glad you did this? And have there been any ramifications?

It cheered me up -- which was its main purpose, I guess. Do I think this guy is quaking in his boots? No, because actually this person would know me better than anybody who had read the text. I am not sneaky about it. I'm just sort of out there.

What's it like going back to Texas now, after people have read "The Liars' Club"?

I love it. I love the idiom. I love my mother and my sister. Peter and I were just down there in Texas. When you grow up someplace like where I grew up, people are not resentful about being written about in a book -- they are kind of happy to have somebody write about them. I turned out to read, or to sign books, near my hometown at a library and there were like 500 people there. It was 102 degrees or something. I was very moved by it. Obviously that's the most gratifying thing for anybody -- to go home and have done good. The guy who I stole watermelons with when I was a kid, who is now the sheriff of this town, was there. People from my neighborhood, guys who drank with my father. It's moving.

How often do you get back?

Twice a year. I talk on the phone a lot with my mother and my sister. Every day, or every other day. My sister comes up once or twice a year, we meet somewhere.

You showed your mother and your sister the text before it was published, I've heard. (Karr's father died in 1985.) And they didn't have any objections to anything in it. But what if they had had some problems with it? Would you have changed things? This must be a constant problem for memoirists.

I didn't think they would have any problems with it. I know these people really well. I guess I had a fundamental faith. My bottom line on everybody I'm kin to, other than my grandmother, was that I really loved them. And I sort of assumed that the bottom line for a reader would be affection rather than scorn or outrage. Because I believe in the redemptive powers of love, and I believe that I've been redeemed by loving them and them by loving me -- and hopefully the reader would have the same experience. I mean, my mother had a psychotic episode, and it was really scary. She drank a fifth of vodka at a pop, and behaved in ways that were unsettling for a little kid. But she was not cruel ever, really never. Almost never. Never to me.

For as much as you expose them in the book, you expose yourself a hundred times more.

Doing that as a kid is a much safer thing. I'm writing a book now about my adolescence, and partly about my adulthood. You have a different kind of responsibility as a character. People hold you to a higher standard. It's easy to say that I looked like an asshole when I was 8 years old.

It must be an unsettling experience to keep meeting people who know so much about you while you know nothing about them.

I practice denial. I just pretend they don't. I live in a town where people aren't interested in me or my book. I coach Little League. I don't seek it out. I am glad for every nickel I can make and everything I can do for my kid -- to generate dollars for my kid and myself. But I basically don't spend a lot of time talking about it. Someone will say, "I loved your book," and I say, "Good for me," and that's basically the end of the conversation. I basically don't have a lot to say about it.

You said earlier that, basically, we're all in it for the money. Can you take me back to the earliest stages of your thinking about writing a memoir? What made you sit down and write this book?

I literally needed the money. I needed it really badly. My marriage had just ended; I didn't have a car. I won something called the Whiting writer's award and met Binky (Urban), my agent. She was Toby's agent. She took a bunch of people to dinner after the Whiting. Toby was an old friend of mine. I hadn't seen him in five years. I talked about writing this book, and she said, "Send me a proposal" and I blew it off. And six months later my marriage was breaking up. I had no money, no vehicle. You know, I owned my house, I was a college professor -- it's not like I was on the street. I don't want to poor-mouth. But I needed a Toyota, I just needed a vehicle. So I wrote the proposal. I had tried to write "The Liars' Club" as a novel a long time ago, back when my son was a baby, about '88 or '89.

Have you been back to poetry?

Yeah, I'm hoping to finish a book of poems.

What about fiction?

I don't know. People keep asking me about that. I can't imagine it, just because I don't know much about it. I do read more novels now than I did before, because everyone keeps saying maybe I should do this. But I just don't know much about fiction. A novel is a less forgiving form. It requires a kind of structural integrity that a memoir doesn't.

So you agree with the people who say that the novel can simply do things that memoir cannot. Or vice-versa, I suppose.

Absolutely. Absolutely! I don't think vice-versa. The only thing you can get from a memoir that you can't get from a novel -- and actually my undergraduate students taught me this. I said, "Why would you want a memoir class?" And they said an amazing thing that was counterintuitive to me -- that it's a kind of survival testimony. The fact that the person lives past the book, that the character goes on, is a kind of hopeful thing, a priori. It's not the fact that it's true that makes it better, it's the sense that they went and got away from their parents, they reconciled who they were after this struggle, were able to go forward. It's a kind of survival tale in a way. And a novel can't get that -- unless there is another "Call me Ishmael," or "Call me Ishmael 2."

One of the interesting things about "The Liars' Club" is that you acknowledge other people's opinions. You're always popping out of the text to say something like, "If my sister could speak now, she'd say ..."

Well, I felt that much obliged to. But those were actually the only points ... I mean, my mother and my sister didn't correct anything, which is hard to believe, isn't it? I did this interview with a bunch of memoirists for Harper's a couple of years ago, and none of them had corrections. Frank Conroy didn't have any corrections, Geoffrey Wolff had only minor corrections -- his mother's father came from Ireland in this year not that year, that kind of thing. Maxine Hong Kingston, no corrections. It's interesting, because if you've ever tried to tell a story at dinner ... it's odd that (these writers) aren't corrected. I'm sure that people see things differently. I also know that people in our families know how we see things. I don't think it's a great surprise that my mother thinks I hated her mother.

I've heard that you had a very difficult time writing "The Liars' Club."

I would lie down on the floor and go to sleep after about an hour and a half's work. Literally go to sleep like I had been driving all night. I couldn't keep my eyes open. I went to a shrink and said, "Am I repressing something, bah bah bah bah." And she said, "Well, I think you are just really exhausted by it." So I don't know why. I think this is true for a lot of writers. I've talked to writers, and they get to a difficult place in the book emotionally -- or something about it is hard -- and they are sitting there for an hour and a half and it's all they can do. It's very effortful.

Has writing your new memoir, "Cherry," been just as hard?

When I have time to do it, I just do it. If it's bad I throw it out. I mean, I haven't had time. I've got almost a book of poems and a start on this book, but I'm done teaching at the end of April and I'm going to take a year off.

Your mother seems like she was a real rarity in small-town Texas in the 1950s -- someone who was cultured, who listened to Bessie Smith and read "Anna Karenina." How much of a leg up did this give you?

It gave me every leg up in the world. When people say to me, "How did you survive?" I say, "Well I learned how to read, I had books all over the house. I had somebody who every time I wrote something thought it was like the cutest thing they ever saw." It was a massive advantage. I was reading Shakespeare when I was a little kid. That was a great thing.

Do you ever wonder what would have become of your life had your mother not been so cultured, if you hadn't become a writer?

That's like asking me, "What would you be like without gravity?" I don't know. I mean, it's kind of hard to know, isn't it? I would be married to some refinery worker pumping out babies in a trailer park, I guess. I don't know. I'd be trying to get money for a bass boat.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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