Getting Lit: Mary Karr Writes Her Path To Resurrection
Mary Karr is a poet, teacher and lecturer, but primarily a writer of memoirs. Her first book "The Liars Club," was about her chaotic childhood in Texas and it ushered in a new era of interest in the memoir. Karr talks about her latest book "Lit" and her appearance at Point Loma's Writers Symposium by the Sea.
Mary Karr is a poet, memoirist and author.
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I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Mary Karr is a poet, a teacher, and a lecturer. But you may know her best for her enormously popular series of memoirs. Her first book, the Liars' Club, was a New York Times best seller and ushered in a new era of and in the memoir. The Liars' Club tells the story of Mary Karr's chaotic childhood in Texas. It's a searing story about alcohol, brutality, and abandonment, but told with a richness of language and a humor that revealed the glowing talent within these dark experiences. Karr's most recent memoir is about that glow, it's called Lit, which Mary Karr calls a book about getting drunk and getting sober. It's also about finding something within ourselves that is luminous. Mary Karr is one the featured writers at the writers' symposium by the sea at Point Loma Nazarene college. And Mary, it's a pleasure to welcome you to These Days. Good morning.
KARR: Hi, good morning, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, does it ever disturb you that when you first meet your readers, they know so much about you?
KARR: Oh, I live in psychotic denial. It sort of like anybody, like all of us, I mean, don't we all live in some kind of denial about how crazy our pasts are? And I think I'm no different than anybody else, you know?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But they must really feel as if they know you.
KARR: Well, that's, you know, it's -- people are usually very generous with me. It's -- I've often said that I'm -- people treat me very gently, I think, with regard to my less than ideal childhood.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why do you think people want to read memoirs?
KARR: Well, I think -- I think partly because we're lonely. I mean, it's a very lonely culture. And to see inside somebody's family, inside somebody's life, we live these very isolated existences, you know? We don't go to church together. We live far from our families of origin. And to see how other people dealt with their wacky families or with growing up or becoming a mother, these things that many of us find hard, I think also a lot of fiction right now is very allegorical, and very ironic and very satirical. And I think even the worst memoir written, and believe me, there are a lot more crummy ones than good ones, in every genre. But even the worst memoir, the writer is engaged, emotionally engaged, with their material.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Nonfiction wouldn't be as popular as it is. And you just alluded to that. What is it about the way novels are written now that perhaps you feel don't really strike to the heart of the reader.
KARR: Well, I mean, that said, Don Delillo is a friend of mine. I think there are plenty of -- Lori Moore is a great fiction writer. I think there are plenty of great living fiction writer it is so much it's not the genre. I'm sort of talking about -- I don't know, I think there's a kind of hyper intellectual surface. I think a lot of novelists are trying to compete with the wild, glittery surface of cinema. Of I think film and television are the media of our time, really. I mean, you guys live in LA all the time. I'm just a visitor. But you see a show like breaking bad or you see a movie like pulp fiction, and that kind of wild surface, I think novelists envy and they try to replicate that on the page. And what the page can really give the family that television can't is the inner life, the life lived in the keep is the deeper part of the human heart. And I think that's what memoir has been doing. And novelists have been sort of, you know, marking a perfectly markable culture. I think is the culture we live in right now. So I think just the pendulum swings one way toward realism, and one way away from it. And I think at this time, I think it's not a great age of fiction. I think it's a great age of nonfiction.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So basically what you're trying is that truth can be stranger than fiction, but fiction nowadays can be wackier than truth.
KARR: I think that's right. And I think also to put a great memoir -- or a great novel, by the way, you can read catcher in the rye, and we all feel like we know holden call field. [CHECK] fine or with scout in to kill a mocking bird. They're spoken in the first person issue but they give us a kind of inner life, the life lived in the scene, as opposed to just the kind of glittery surface. TV and film, which are again the great canvases of our time, are also very reductive. They have don't show the interior lives of people very well. And all these -- all this great pyrotechnic surface. And I think novels are -- have kind of followed that, forgetting, I know, what the word can do great, is when someone is sitting privately, they can really go into the heart. And that's what I think -- nothing wrong with the greatest, I mean the great novelists are still writing great novels.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mary Karr is one of the featured writers of this year's writers' symposium we the sea at Point Loma Nazarene college. I'm speaking with her. You may know her from her series of memoirs, her first book, the Liars' Club was a New York Times best seller. Her most recent one is called Lit. Now, Mary, you know, in your memoirs, you talk about incidents, of course, that have happened to you, and things that you've done. But many of those things in your memoirs are things that most people might want to keep secret.
KARR: Like what? What do you mean?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, you tell me one.
KARR: Well, I [CHECK] Liars' Club, cherry, and Lit. And I mean write -- I mean, in Lit, I'm writing about becoming an alcoholic, really, right after my son is born. And I'm the bad mom in the after school special. So yeah, you're sitting on the back porch swilling jack Daniel's with the baby monitor in your lap. It's not what you want to think of yourself as a mother. But what you know? That's how it was.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now is it courage that allows you to share that with the public or is it something else?
KARR: When do you mean?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I mean is it a courageous act on your part to talk about that, the kind of thing that some people would rather just, like, not have anybody know about?
KARR: Well, it's not -- I don't know. I don't know. Maybe I am making a spectacle of myself or displaying my wounds in the marketplace. That's what bad memoirs do, and I hope I'm not doing that. I thought had a feeling that whether you've been an alcoholic mother or not, everybody who's ever had a child, you know, knows what it's like to feel like it's too much. It's too much. So I think for me, literature is the place where we learn about experiences we didn't have. And we also learned to identify with each other. And I think those, you know, the places -- I think every woman I know has looked in the mirror and said, oh, my God, I'm becoming my mother. Especially if you have a kid to in fact that with. So I don't know. I can't really say. To be honest with you, I did it 'cause I needed the money. So I had a kid to send to college. I'd like to say I have some noble reason. But hopefully, I -- people don't really talk about me as a writer who's self indulgent. And I hope that's true.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, can you give us an example of something that you weren't sure about putting in your book because it was too sensitive?
KARR: I'll tell you. You know what's real painful? It's funny of it's not the terrible moment when I'm suicidal and I check into the mental Marriott that's so awful for me in terms of writing these books. But I think I avoided, for obvious reasons, writing about my marriage ending to my son's father. My first husband, my only husband. And that was, like, 20 years ago. And I think what was most painful was writing about the real love we had for each other. You know? It's not the sort of nasty things you say in passing because mostly -- most of the marriage wasn't like that. What was really painful was to stop and look at how young we were and how much hope we had, and how ill suited we were for each other. That's what was really painful. Of was it shameful? I think just because it's Valentine's day, a couple days ago, I think disappointing love is shameful, but it's pretty common.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is very common. And you know, that's the common humanity I think that comes out even in experiences that for many people might seem extreme, even if we haven't gone the same distance.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have gone the same places you know what I mean?
KARR: Right. Well, yeah. And I always say that I hope my books disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. So they're supposed to be meet at that nexus, you know?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
KARR: Where maybe you haven't been hurt that badly, but let me tell you, the most privileged person in your audience right now, the person with the most money, and the straightest teeth and no pores on her face, has suffered the torments of the damned. You don't get out of this world without loving people, and you don't love people without having your heart broken. That's just the price of being help.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with author, Mary Karr, she is author of the Liars' Club, cherry, and Lit. And she'll be speaking tonight [CHECK] I want to talk just a minute about that title of your book, Lit. It has a lot of dimensions of where does it mean to you?
KARR: Well I think I was a sort of nerdy kid in this southeast Texas town where my mother was married seven times, and she shot up the kitchen. And we were not really -- she wasn't Donna reed. She was like madonna reed, you know? And I think what saved me as a child was literature. Was reading poetry. I always wanted to be a poet. And I think the places I was hurt or wounded, I felt less lonely when I read a poem or a book about somebody else. I felt far less isolated. So I think literature saved me. I think, you know, for a while the problem with drinking is that it works so well. So you know, liquor lit me up, and I think eventually the fact that I came to have a deep faith, and I even converted to Catholicism which is amazing the Catholics still claim me. But in any event, yeah. I've been lit up in several ways, I would say.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Indeed. Your conversion to Catholicism is part of Lit, part of the light from within. You say you're not proselytizing, but you do write about your new faith. Why?
KARR: Well, because it's such a big part of my life. And I also, because I'm such an unlikely -- what I've been told, all the reviews, I really expected to get murdered because I'm talking about a religious conversion, you know, and I'm -- clearly if you look at me, I'm not Bernadette of Lourdes. I'm clearly a black belt sinner. I've had [CHECK] about my drug sodden adolescence. I haven't led a life of great virtue. And so I've been amazed that writers, Francine froze, in the norm review of books, and Michiko Katakani, and [CHECK] the reviewers have said, you know, I don't believe in God, but now I understand in a way how somebody could. And I think that was my goal, to sort of explain to people. And in some way, I think I'm better suited than most people because I had no religious beliefs my entire life. I wasn't baptized, I wasn't brought up in any faith. And so in some ways, my life long lack of belief, I think, makes me a good describer of how faith comes to those -- to the disbelieving. So when I was baptized, my friend Richard Ford, you know, the great novelist sent me a postcard that said, not you on the pope's team. Say it ain't so. But then Ford wound up sending me a fan letter. He said I was really gunning for you, Karr, on this one. But you pulled it out. So hopefully I've written about faith in a way that should speak to nonbelievers. I really want to -- I'm not trying to convert anybody, but I would like us all to be able to sit in the same room with one another. On my website, which is, you know, Mary Karr lit up on Facebook, I love seeing people who are often fundamentalist Christians or very strict Catholics or Jewish or with new age people, with people who are complete pagans, all sort of come together and talk about -- share their hopes and fears. You upon, that's to me what faith is about is being able to stand together as human beings and not want to blow each other up with machine guns, which is what I want to do most days on the subway.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That hasn't left.
KARR: No, I still have a little of that. AC's out and I'm on the subway, you've got my seat, as far as I'm concerned.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, Mary, memoirs, since they've become so popular, there have been controversies about people fabricating characters and incidents within their memoirs.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think there's any room though to embellish the truth in a memoir?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No. ?
KARR: This is not hard. This is what really rankled me about James Frye, he stood on television and said there's a lot of debate about memoirs [] you know what? No there isn't. We're allowed to reconstitute dialogue that -- but I think there's an understanding with the reader today that we're making this up, that a conversation of this type took place and that we don't live with recorders strapped to our heads.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah.
KARR: And we're allowed to write in the present tense even though it took place in the past because we want to give the reader a sense of immediacy. But manufacturing things that didn't happen, not okay. That's what I look about the midnight in the garden of Eden guy who manufactured a whole character but admitted it. If you want to make stuff up, that's fine. Just tell everybody. Then people can take it as fiction, what is what it is. But there's no really fuzzy line about what you make up -- I've been richly encouraged to write about things I don't remember. And I've just said, I don't remember that. How could I -- how could I write about it?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are you writing now, Mary?
KARR: I am actually working on two different TV pilots. One based on Lit and one based on something else, that's sort of a secret.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, all right. All right. We'll leave at that.
KARR: There we go.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mary thank you so much.
KARR: Thank you for having me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Marry Karr, the author of the Liars' Club, cherry, and Lit. Will be speaking tonight at 830 at the writers' symposium by the sea at Point Loma Nazarene university. The writers' symposium continues through Friday, and in our next hour, we'll hear from another featured symposium speaker, song writer Chris Hillman. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.