The author on the popularity of memoirs, her relationship with David Foster Wallace, and why she never reads her own books
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Mary Karr documented her hardscrabble Texas childhood in The Liars’ Club, her sexual awakening in Cherry, and her alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism in Lit. Along the way, she had a relationship with David Foster Wallace, took a job as an English professor at Syracuse University, and published four collections of poetry—Abacus, The Devil’s Tour, Viper Rum, and Sinners Welcome. On April 5, she’ll be at the Art Institute Of Chicago for a talk co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. She recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the popularity of memoirs, why she never reads her own books, and why she prefers poetry to prose.
The A.V. Club: Your talk here is titled “Seeing Things.” What will you talk about?
Mary Karr: I’ll talk about my artistic vision. The only vision I can talk about is reality as it makes its way into my poems—what [Don] DeLillo would call “lived experience.” What one sees depends on one’s vantage point. I love the Art Institute; I think it’s a great museum. When I lived in the Midwest in college, Jim Nutt was painting, and I’m a huge Jim Nutt fan.
AVC: Actually, there’s a show of his work right now at the Museum Of Contemporary Art.
MK: Oh! I’m going to have to check that out. Back in the day when I was in the Midwest—this would have been in the ’70s—I was a little bitty poet, and I went to see his work. I was knocked out by the zany energy of it. Be sure to put that in your article—I’m a huge Jim Nutt fan.
AVC: In Lit, you describe your writing process: “Some afternoons after I close my notebook—I’m working longhand—I just conk out on the floor of my study like a cross-country trucker.” Do you still write longhand?
MK: I prefer to write longhand, but I developed a repetitive stress injury during Cherry. It’s a thing in your shoulders that surgeons and watchmakers, people who make small movements with their shoulders, get. I couldn’t hold up a newspaper for 18 months. Now I have to type, but I prefer to write longhand, so I’ll go back and forth.
AVC: Do you think you had to leave Texas in order to write about it in The Liars’ Club and Cherry?
MK: I just had to leave Texas to get away from my parents, or else I don’t know what would have happened. I tell people not to write too soon about their lives. Writing about yourself too young is loaded with psychological complexities. You’re trying to separate yourself from your parents and the ways they make you nuts. It’s probably accurate that I had to leave to write about it, but at the time I had to leave to survive.
AVC: You write in depth about so many periods of your life, but skip over college. Why is that?
MK: I think there are a couple reasons. I think when our selves are particularly ill-formed, our memories are likewise ill-formed. At times when my identity was doing a major shift, my point of view was less decisive, and things moved through me like a sieve.
Also a lot of the time it’s really boring—I really just worked in college. In most of our lives, the majority of what happens to us is boring. I always tell people you can’t put in every dot, you have to pick the things that change your character.
Then there were times I was drinking so much I don’t remember.
AVC: Do you ever worry about getting things wrong?
MK: All the time. It’s funny, I send a manuscript out after I’m done to have people say “yes” or “no.” I send it to anybody alive who appears and people have all signed off on it. I assume I’ve gotten a million things wrong, not misremembering events, but misinterpreting. I don’t write about shit I don’t remember. Events that are dramatic are stored in a different place in the brain, where it’s more enduring. Memories for the first time you make love are stored there, since you’re so stimulated the whole time.
AVC: What’s been the most difficult topic to cover in your autobiographical work?
MK: The hardest thing about writing Lit, even though I like being Catholic, is that I knew everyone was going to think I’m nuts. What was most emotionally painful, other than seeing myself as a shitty mother—not the worst mother, better than my mother, but that’s a low bar... I kept trying to avoid writing about my marriage. I realized what was most painful was not the terribleness of divorce—I’m inured to that—but remembering being in love. Remembering how tender we were as a young couple, how we set off with all this optimism, stepping into what turned out to be an abyss. When the marriage ends badly, you tend to sound like you got into it as a bad marriage, but there were great moments of loveliness in it.
AVC: You gave your ex-husband a pseudonym, but didn’t give one to David Foster Wallace, who you had a relationship with. Why is that? He died before Lit came out, but did he know he was going to be included?
MK: I told him I was going to write about him, and he said he couldn’t wait to read it. Then there was obviously the tragedy. I would never have identified him by name, except a piece in the New Yorker said that’s who I was with at the time. In a way, it seemed disingenuous since he was dead, but I don’t think I betrayed any confidence.
AVC: In Lit, you write that you’re embarrassed about your first book of poetry. How would you say your poetry has changed over the years?
MK: I don’t know. I don’t have a copy of my books, and the degree to which I never read them is profound. I never look.
AVC: Why is that?
MK: I’m repelled by them. It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.
AVC: What are the major differences between poetry and prose?
MK: Stamina. And poetry requires the knowledge of form and music, and prose just doesn’t. Prose has to have enough information to create a whole world. That’s the main difference—poetry favors music, prose favors information.
AVC: Which is more powerful?
MK: Prose cannot compete with the economy of poetry, the ability to have a full artistic experience in a short period of time. Poems are unified. With a poem you can have the whole thing in your head or heart. But when you’re trying to convey the psychological complexity of dealing with the people you love most—your parents, your husband, your kid—they’re complicated, and there’s no way you can get that data into a poem. It’s like trying to armor an angel.
AVC: Do you wish you’d discovered religion earlier in your life?
MK: Absolutely, I wish I had. I think, obviously with the affect of these scandals, maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t. I think what’s happening in Philadelphia is so horrifying. I know so many priests and nuns and everyone looks at them like pedophiles. I find a great deal of comfort and care in my faith and prayer. I’d sooner do without air than prayer. If I had that earlier in my life, how much time would I have saved myself? Even just the hand-wringing and worrying about nothing.
AVC: Memoirs are so popular these days. Why do you think that is?
MK: People don’t know how to be in a family. The culture we’re in is so mobile, we don’t live in communities, and we don’t know what’s going on in other people’s houses. Memoirs are a window into family, imagination. There’s no one you can love who won’t break your heart. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned a person is, they will murder you just because they’re human. I think memoir is dealing right now with how you continue living with people despite being broken by them. Or how you survive after that.
AVC: Do you think you have a fourth memoir in you?
MK: Oh God, I hope not.