Mary Karr's first memoir was The Liars' Club. Mary-Louise Parker is slated to star in a pending Liars' Club mini-series on Showtime as...Mary Karr.
So it makes sense that the two Marys are friends, and that they'll share a stage Monday at the Dallas Museum of Art for the season opener of Arts & Letters Live.
I wrote about Karr in 2010 upon the release of her third memoir, Lit (following The Liar's Club and Cherry). We talked about her life, her books, her sobriety, and, yes, about the art of memoir. You can read that story below. You can also listen to our recent interview with Karr on the Mixed Media Podcast.
Mary Karr needs a drink.
"I'm walking around my hotel room looking for a minibar with a Coke in it," she says by phone from Chicago, except she includes an adjective that can't be printed here. "I'm so damn thirsty."
There was a time in her life when thirst meant a large tumbler full of whiskey, drained over the course of a long night on the back stair landing of the home in Massachusetts she shared with her husband. These were the turbulent times described in her third and most recent book, the 2009 bestseller Lit, a blunt account of her descent into alcoholism and madness, and her acceptance of sobriety and God.
Karr admits that a life of drinking doesn't exactly foster great storytelling.
"There's a lot of my life I skip over because I was drunk," she says. "I wasn't that connected to anybody and I didn't feel much. I tried to write about it, but there wasn't much there, because I wasn't much there."
Lit, however, is entirely there. A bracingly unsentimental recovery narrative, it's the Southeast Texas native's third memoir, after her best-selling 1995 childhood chronicle, The Liars' Club, and the 2000 follow-up, Cherry.
Karr is as responsible as any writer for the recent popularity of memoir. Armed with a poet's introspection and gift for imagery, she has turned her life into literature.
"The memoir phenomenon has a lot to do with the erosion of our ideas about truth, as a people, as a country, as a culture," she says. "The Bible started being read as a literature in the 19th century, as a novel starring the prophets and Jesus. People assume politicians lie. People assume their teachers lie. People assume scientists are manufacturing their results and reporters are going to make up stories. I think the erosion of confidence in truth permits a memoir to use novelistic devices - re-creating dialogue, telescoping time, skipping over large, dull parts."
Of course such devices must be handled with care. James Frey was publicly flagellated by Oprah Winfrey for making up crucial elements of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Memoirists can also turn the fickle nature of memory into a narrative strategy: New York Times columnist David Carr, in his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun, uses his skills as a reporter to investigate his own addiction hell as he interviews characters from his past and finds that their versions of events rarely match his own.
In other words, the parameters of the memoir, which were never clearly defined, have steadily evolved. But that doesn't mean they're fast and loose. Karr stresses that she's had family and friends read early versions of and sign off on each chapter of her life.
"You are constantly making moral decisions about how you represent people, about how you represent yourself inside a situation," she says. "I take those decisions very seriously. The people who are in these books have all read them. I don't want to misrepresent anybody. I don't want anybody to say, 'That's not me.' "
Karr finds a graceful balance between the imagination of the novelist and the accuracy of the journalist - or, in keeping with the theme of her Mayborn talk, literature and the truth. She's also an award-winning poet; some the most ironic passages of Lit find her describing her shortcomings as a writer with an enviable mastery of language and metaphor. ("Previously I'd seen the poems as adorable offspring, but they've become the most pathetic batch of bow-legged, snaggle-toothed pinheads imaginable.")
She sets a high bar for herself. And it shows.
"She's not really trying to push a concept or a point," says Amanda Fortini, a journalist who spoke with Karr for the Paris Review's first in-depth interview with a memoirist. "She's telling a story, like the best novelists do. She really has very specific thoughts about the genre. She's not just journaling. Her memoirs are very crafted pieces of art."
The challenge for Karr, who also teaches literature at Syracuse University, has increased with each book. In writing The Liars' Club, she tapped into her childhood memories of growing up with a mentally unstable mother (euphemistically labeled "nervous"), and frequently absent father. Cherry chronicles Karr's booze- and drug-fueled adolescence.
But with Lit she found herself taking on the adult Mary Karr. No scrim of childhood innocence to look through. No shield of nostalgia. Just a confused, screwed-up grown-up, responsible for her young son and her own actions, her binge drinking, her voluntary admission to a mental institution, and her rough transition from atheist and addict to sober Catholic.
"In Lit I'm talking about myself as a mother," she says. "I'm talking about myself as a wife. I'm talking about the literary pretensions I had, which are embarrassing, frankly. It's closer to the bone. It's closer to who I am now. When you're a kid, things pick you up and move you over to another place. That's who you are. You're less responsible, and the reader gives you a pass for being little."
None of which means she can't still act like a little girl sometimes. When the paperback edition of Lit recently hit The New York Times best-seller list, she posted her excitement on her Twitter feed (@marykarrlit): "I'm doing the chicken dance in O'Hare Airport to puzzlement of traveler."
"I was very excited about myself," she says. "I told this guy, 'My book's on the Times best-seller list. It's called Lit. It's at Hudson News, right down there. Yours for the taking.' "
Did he buy one?
"He was extremely drunk, so who knows what he did. I saw him have five scotches on the airplane."