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For a writer who has shared herself with the public in three memoirs, Mary Karr is an extraordinarily elusive interview subject. Nearly two years passed between our initial contact, in July of 2007, and our first session. There were numerous reasons for this—she was traveling; she was teaching; she lives across the country from me—but perhaps the main reason was that Karr is surprisingly diffident when it comes to talking about herself. “Are you sure I have that much to say?” she wrote in one preinterview e-mail. She was finishing her third memoir, Lit. which was published in November of 2009. She had started the book over twice, throwing away nearly a thousand pages, and had been working long hours to meet her deadline. “Who knows about the memoir,” she wrote, when I asked if I could read it, “It circles me like a gnat. I circle it like a dog staked to a pole. Years it’s gone on that way.”
Finally, this spring, I flew to meet Karr in upstate New York, where she has taught at Syracuse University since 1991. She had not yet warmed to the idea of a formal interview, so we toured her life in Syracuse instead. I observed two graduate seminars: The Perfect Poem, and Dead White Guys, in which she discussed the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Karr is an energetic, engaged, and wry teacher, and her students are fond of her. That night, she introduced a reading by the poet Charles Simic, a longtime friend. Her loud, hearty laughter at his dry wit could be heard above the ambient noise in the room. The following day, on our way to the airport, Karr drove me past the house David Foster Wallace once rented in Syracuse. Wallace and Karr were involved for a time; he proposed to her and had her name tattooed on his arm. We also viewed her old house, previously owned by Tobias Wolff. She had painted the wooden porch herself: it was purple.
Two days later in Manhattan, where Karr has lived since 2003, she was ready to take questions. She is a slim, soigné woman with an intense manner and dark, penetrating eyes. Dressed in a flower-patterned silk shirt and red pants, she slipped off her gold sandals and sat on her white leather couch with her legs tucked beneath her. Her apartment is small, but stylish and efficiently put together; a long desk rests against a wall of built-in bookshelves. Like her writing, Karr’s conversation is heavy on Texas-based idiomatic expressions: “mud bugs,” “jug butt,” “like a pair of walruses being schnuzzed on the same hot rock.” She is self-deprecating and has a bawdy sense of humor. At one point, she leaped up from the couch to retrieve her childhood journal and read a passage: “I am not very successful as a little girl. I will probably be a mess.”
Not exactly. The Liars’ Club. Karr’s 1995 memoir of her Gothic childhood in a swampy East Texas oil-refining town, won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, sold half a million copies, and made its forty-year-old author, who was then an obscure poet, a literary celebrity. (The book takes its title from the motley collection of men with whom her father, an oilman, used to drink and tell tales.) Karr has been credited with, and often blamed for, the onslaught of confessional memoirs published during the late nineties. Though many of them matched The Liars’ Club for grotesque subject matter—the young Karr is raped, molested, and made to witness her mother’s monstrous nervous breakdown—few were as unsentimental, as lyrical, or as mordantly funny.
Five years later Karr published a second memoir, Cherry. which detailed her intellectual and sexual awakenings. In Lit. Karr tackles her early adulthood and what she calls her journey “from black-belt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” Taken together, Karr’s memoirs, written in a singular voice that combines poetic diction and Texas vernacular, form a trilogy that spans the thematic range of the genre: harrowing tale of childhood, coming-of-age story, conversion experience.
Karr has also published four celebrated volumes of poetry: Abacus (1987), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (1998), and Sinners Welcome (2006). “Working on poems is like cheating on your husband,” she said. “It’s what I really want to do but they won’t pay me for it.” Her poems, like her prose, are witty, astringent, and often autobiographical. She is a controversial figure in the poetry establishment for her Pushcart Prize–winning 1991 essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she lamented the shift toward neoformalism in contemporary poetry: “the highbrow doily-making that passes for art today.” Karr argued that this sort of poetry—allusive, impersonal, obscure—had “ceased to perform its primary function,” which was to “move the reader.” And she named names.
For our final session, last August, we met in a hotel room in Irvine, California. Karr had driven up from Phoenix a few days earlier with her older sister, Lecia. They had read One Hundred Years of Solitude aloud in the car. We discussed her experiences teaching poetry to prisoners in England, trucking crawfish in Texas, and hanging out in the Minneapolis punk scene. After an hour and a half, Lecia, who is tall and has hair the color of copper, appeared at the door and announced, in the no-nonsense tone that distinguishes her in the books, that it was time for them to leave. In that instant, Karr seemed to revert from assertive middle-aged author to the obedient kid sister of The Liars’ Club. To see these two characters from the memoirs come to life was an eerie reminder of the obstinate grip of the past.
Why did you feel a need to document your life? Did you write The Liars’ Club in order to get the story off your chest?
By the time I wrote The Liars’ Club. it was off my fucking chest. I’d slogged through therapy, and my family was fairly healed, in no small part due to my mother’s own hard-won sobriety. I was divorced and sober and, remarkably enough, employed as a college professor teaching poetry. My sister’s family was the picture of prosperity. My dad had died after being paralyzed for five years. My son was thriving. But our story was nonetheless standing in line to be written.
Plus I needed the cake. Like Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I was newly divorced, a single mom feeling around for change in pocket lint. I didn’t have a car, which meant taking my kid to the grocery store in his red wagon, and two hours of bus time to pick him up after school on days I taught. In some ways I was resourceful. My students would move out of town and I’d scavenge their old furniture to sell at a garage sale. My son, Dev, and I used to sneak into the pool at the Sheraton. We’d park illegally in the snowy lot with our bathing suits on under our winter clothes. We’d call it “going to the Bahamas.” That was our vacation. I was thinking about moving Dev’s bed into my room so we could rent out the other bedroom—grasping at straws, really.
Hoping to get a book advance was like saying, Maybe I’ll be an Olympic gymnast. I envisioned some small press might cough up a few thousand bucks after the book was finished. I’d been publishing poetry with small presses and when James Laughlin at New Directions paid seven hundred and fifty bucks for The Devil’s Tour. I was tickled. That exceeded my lifetime poetry income.
I’d watched some very fine fiction writers do well: Tobias Wolff and Geoffrey Wolff, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver. But till Ray got the MacArthur, he would still crash in a sleeping bag in my spare room in Somerville when he came to town to read. Being a famous writer was a little like being a famous cocktail waitress—nobody dressed in diamonds. And what did I know about writing a book of prose?
Did you tell your family you were going to write about them?
I’d warned my mother and sister in advance that I wanted to cover the period of Mother’s psychotic break and her divorce from Daddy. She’d inherited a sum of cash that was vast by our standards, and she bought a bar and married the bartender—her sixth husband. She was an outlaw, and really didn’t give a rat’s ass what the neighbors thought. She drank hard and packed a pistol. When I tested the waters about doing a memoir of the period, she told me, Hell, go for it. She and my sister probably figured nobody’d read the book but me and whomever I was sleeping with. Also, my mother was a portrait painter. She understood point of view. My sister, who’s a very sophisticated reader, signed off too. For our people to do anything to generate income that won’t land you in prison, it’s a win.
How long did it take you to write The Liars’ Club.
Two and a half years. I was teaching full-time, and I had Dev. I worked every other weekend, which is when Dev’s father came to visit. And every school holiday, including the whole summer vacation.
Awful. The emotional stakes a memoirist bets with could not be higher, and it’s physically enervating. I nap on a daily basis like a cross-country trucker.
In the first section of The Liars’ Club. you inhabit the mind of a seven-year-old to an uncanny degree. How were you able to capture what it was like to be a child?
Childhood was terrifying for me. A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention. People can just pick you up and move you and put you down. One of my favorite poems, by Nicanor Parra, is called “Memories of Youth”: “All I’m sure of is that I kept going back and forth. / Sometimes I bumped into trees, / bumped into beggars. / I forced my way through a thicket of chairs and tables.”
Our little cracker box of a house could give you the adrenaline rush of fear, which means more frames of memory per second. Emotional memories are stored deep in the snake brain, which is probably why aphasics in nursing homes often cuss so much—that language doesn’t erode in a stroke.
How do you account for your artistic sensibility? The environment you describe would seem to discourage one.
Mother—crazy as she was—had an exquisite sensibility. She read nonstop. Loads of history, Russian and Chinese particularly, and art history. There was nothing else to do in that suckhole of a town. You go outside, you run around, people throw dirt balls at you, you get your ass beat. But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.
People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. The only bookstores sold Bibles the size of coffee tables and dashboard Virgin Marys that glowed in the dark. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again.
No, it was the SAT itself—maybe the literature test. I just put my pencil down and started memorizing. Later I came across the poem in a library. It was “Storm Windows,” by Howard Nemerov. I wrote him a fan letter, to which he replied on Washington University stationery—it was like the Holy Grail, a note from a living poet. When I was twenty I met him at a reading he gave in the Twin Cities, and he said, You’re that little girl from Texas!
In grade school I memorized Frost and Cummings and I’d skim the plays of Shakespeare to find the speeches. I’d get dressed up in a sheet and do “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” or “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” for my hungover mother. So that language was weaving around my house like a cat through chair legs. At age twelve, I memorized Eliot’s “Prufrock.”
If there were no real bookstores in your hometown, where did your mother get the books she gave you?
My mother went back to school for a teaching certificate, to a little college about forty-five minutes away. There was a college bookstore there. She took a class on existentialism and gave me Nausea and The Stranger and The Plague.
Twelve. Who gives Nausea to a twelve-year-old? She brought home lots of things she read in class: Faulkner, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and poetry—she knew I loved it.
It wasn’t like Mozart’s daddy—she wasn’t a stage mother. She wasn’t that invested in child rearing. I was like a terrarium lizard you checked out from time to time with distracted curiosity. But anytime I called to run a poem by her, she’d deliver the full focus of her attention. She’d say, Oh, that’s great! It reminds me of the poem by so-and-so. My sister too. They were both great pom-pom shakers.
He was an unbelievably good raconteur. Spellbinding, and his idiom was pure poetry—“raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock” or “she’s got a butt like two bulldogs in a bag.”
Did he train you to tell a good story, or did you just learn through observation?
Daddy’s family told stories. Everybody was a spot-on mimic—name a politician or a public figure, and my aunt Gladys could nail every intonation. Maybe it’s a Texas thing, or maybe it’s a Southern thing, or maybe there’s more of an oral tradition among the poor. Stranded out there on the prairie, settlers had to amuse themselves. When I went to California at seventeen, I wrote back to my sister saying, These people are boring because the weather’s so good they never had to develop an inner life.
My mother couldn’t tell a story if she had a gun to her head, but she was a master of the one-liner. David Foster Wallace once called her and said, I’m going to marry your daughter. He’d been hospitalized for depression, and she said, Didn’t you just get let out of somewhere? I mean, God, Mother! Or when she was dying, one of her boyfriends showed up at the hospital and the nurse said, Your husband’s here, and she said, He must look like hell—he’s been dead twenty years. She always said the thing you wish you’d said.
Did you feel that when you told a good story you were rewarded with attention?
Absolutely. But there wasn’t much attention to get. Not a lot of dinner-table scenes. You’ve got to understand the degree to which I’m feral. We ate dinner in bed! Off our laps or on TV trays. We never spoke. Usually we ate with books in our hands. Or I’d find black-eyed peas and rice on the stove and just stand there eating out of the pot like no one else was in the house. I bit into raw onions like they were apples.
No—in fact, in my neighborhood, we were considered rich. My mother had a job as a reporter and columnist at the local paper, then later she taught at the junior high school. We also had two bathrooms and two cars—ergo, we were rich.
In your memoirs you use a fictional name, Leechfield, for your hometown. Why didn’t you use the town’s real name?
Both books had minor characters out the wazoo—the mayor, my grade-school principal, the speech teacher. Those characters deserved privacy.
In your memoirs you barely mention your college years, or the years just following. Why?
You remember through a filter of self. The periods in your life when that self is half formed, your memories are half formed too. In Lit I wrote in passing about lurching around, getting drunk in punk bars. My best friends had a band called the Suicide Commandos who toured with the Ramones, so I hung out with them a bit. But getting drunk with the Ramones—who cares? The through-line has to be a change in your character, and being loaded seldom involves psychological advancement. No character change, no plot.
Did you not develop as a writer at all during that time?
I wrote in a scattered, undisciplined way. But I read the way a junkie shoots dope. After college I got a poetry grant I’d applied for from the state of Minnesota. I used it to move to England, which was partly an attempt to cure my drinking. How ridiculous is that? I was drinking too much in Minneapolis, so I emigrate to one of the most alcohol-sodden islands on the planet. But it ended up being a cure for my ignorance about the history of literature. When I went to Wordsworth’s grave, I realized I’d never read him. I hadn’t studied Chaucer, though I could quote the prelude to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. I knew a few Shakespeare speeches but not whole plays. I wasn’t a natural scholar. While I was there I met Seamus Heaney at a writers’ festival and bought him a beer. Listening to him talk, I learned about poetry that existed before Elvis. So at age twenty-two, I applied to an MFA program at Goddard College.
You had dropped out of Macalester. How did you get into a graduate writing program?
Goddard accepted me on probation. In fact, I never picked up my high-school diploma. Why’d Macalester accept me? I wrote some philosophical essay that my best friend, who was at Rice, edited for me and probably half concocted. She was the genius “Meredith” in Cherry. Maybe her edits shoehorned me into college. Goddard let me go for a year to prove I wasn’t a complete chowderhead before I could matriculate. It was a low-residency program so I lived in Minneapolis and went back and forth for two-week sessions.
Was Goddard important to your development as a writer?
Immensely. People were having serious, into-the-night-over-cognac conversations, and they worked hard: real rigor, real commitment. The faculty gave written lectures. They weren’t just putting on red lipstick, going to bars at night with scarves on, and smoking Gauloises cigarettes. When you’re a young writer, you just want someone to look at you and say, She’s a poet. It feels like being called a mermaid or a griffin or something. But at Goddard, it was about the work. Plus a lot of world-class writers came through: the brothers Wolff, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Frank Conroy, Thomas Lux, Charles Simic. To be able to work with those people!
Why haven’t you written about your time there?
It sounds name-droppy since all those writers wound up so famous. I do write about it a little bit in Lit .
Robert Hass, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, and Louise Glück were all hugely influential. I hung out a lot with Geoffrey and Toby, and Ray Carver—I just followed them around and listened to their stories. When I first got to Goddard, my poetry was all geegawed up—Vaseline on the lens, references to Nietzsche. I called it experimental, but that just meant it made no sense. If you don’t say what you mean in a readable way, you actually risk nothing.
Before that, at Macalester, I’d worked with Etheridge Knight—a black poet who’d published his first book in prison. Etheridge encouraged my autobiographical impulse.
What was the subject matter of your early poetry, if it wasn’t your life?
What most young women write about: wanting to get laid, not having gotten laid, having gotten laid badly. Wanting someone to leave, not wanting him to leave, then he finally leaves. But characters other than me. Or I’d write unbelievably pretentious shit—some world-weary gambler at a horse race trying to make stiff, faux Mallarmé statements on the nature of chance. The autobiographical “I” everybody hates so much these days was something I hated too, yet each poem was a big arrow pointing back at some self I wanted to be. I was a John Ashbery fan then—did my thesis on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. though later I recanted my support. He’s a pollutant of the art form by my yardstick—nice guy, great ear, but his surrealistic devices and pinballing free association are among of the most pernicious and negative influences on American poetry. Most young poets cannot reproduce the interesting rivulets made by Ashbery’s stream-of-consciousness. In my early work I tried to sound cool, like Ashbery—though I’m profoundly devoid of cool.
I remember a poem about a suicidal dog, which began, “Don’t do it, dog.” So many close friends had killed themselves, and Mother was suicidal a lot. The dog was an attempt to beat back the confessional impulse. Becoming an autobiographical writer was anathema to me. Stevens was my favorite poet—still is. Any subject that compelled me emotionally got disguised and repackaged to fit this bejeweled surface I was cultivating, very New York School.
Did you ever write directly about your family in those days?
Sometimes they’d edge in, and I’d think, OK, I’ve done that Texas stuff.
Did your teachers at Goddard push you to write about Texas and your family?
They responded more positively to the poems they could understand. The other work felt false. It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are. You want to escape yourself. For almost ten years it didn’t occur to me that I should exploit Daddy’s blue-collar idiom. I was trying to pass for edge-u-kated.
Was there a specific moment when you realized you should write about your family?
I wasn’t quite thirty—Daddy was dying and Mother couldn’t care for him. She was sleeping with his male nurse, who was surely gay and addicted to drugs. He wore these awful pink velvet bell-bottoms that made him look like Willy Wonka. She wore spangled sequined shirts and they’d go out disco dancing. She called once with the music from Flashdance playing in the background to ask for money—we called it her Flashdance period. After Daddy died, I was working in the computer business, flying back from Silicon Valley on the red-eye, and I got shit-faced drunk and scrawled all this mournful, elegiac stuff for Daddy. My husband found my notes and said, I was wondering when you were finally going to deal with this subject matter. He’d noticed that every poem I wrote had an old man in it, fumbling with a change purse to get a penny out for a gum-ball machine or something. Those scrawlings wound up in my first collection.
In your childhood journal you say you want to write half poetry, half autobiography. Where did you learn the word autobiography? Did you read a lot of memoirs growing up?
There’s something fascinating about a single voice telling you its life. I read writers’ autobiographical works—Neruda, Sartre, Eudora Welty, Montaigne’s Essays —the way people read Lives of the Saints. I was trying to figure out how to be a writer.
As a child, I also read a lot of books about being black: Black Like Me. Black Boy. Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My mother had marched with Dr. King in Selma. Being estranged from the culture resonated with me. A big personal discovery came in the fall of 1971, when I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and thought, You can write about these people? They weren’t like John Cheever characters with the deck shoes and Yale degrees and pools in the yard and sprinklers going whisk-whisk—well-bred dogs and sad, martini-drinking individuals who somehow kept their clothes dry-cleaned. Those people sounded like fodder for literature in ways we weren’t. Mother subscribed to The New Yorker, so I was exposed to the literary Ivy League, even in our little armpit of the universe.
I corresponded with Toby Wolff after This Boy’s Life. Toby nudged me to read Harry Crews’s A Childhood. I also read Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I read loads of biographies, too—W. J. Bate’s books on Keats and Samuel Johnson. Ian Hamilton on Lowell. Henri Troyat on Chekhov and Tolstoy. The letters of Flannery O’Connor—The Habit of Being .
Did you know you were going to write a memoir yourself?
It never occurred to me. Though I do remember Toby suggesting I try memoir, because I dined out on stories about my mother.
How did you start writing The Liars’ Club. In Lit. you say it began as a novel.
It did, but the novel is a much more complicated art form structurally. Memoir is episodic—a looser construct than a bona fide novel. You start with an interesting voice; the rest follows. For a real novelist, the fiction provides a mask that permits honesty. For me, a novel became an excuse to make myself look better—my stand-in did volunteer work at the nursing home and knew differential calculus in the sixth grade. And my mother wasn’t my sloppy, turpentine- and vodka-redolent mother, but the complete opposite—a ballerina, very prim.
I also didn’t want to have to deal with the familial complications. My mother was still alive, my sister was a prudent Houston businesswoman. The memories were painful for them.
So how did you make the transition from novel to memoir?
I was in this writing group that met at Harvard’s Lamont Library on Sunday nights. The critic Sven Birkerts was in it along with the poet Bill Corbett, the novelist Stratis Haviaras, and the poet and critic Robert Polito. I turned in eighty pages of fiction, and they brutalized it—nobody minced words. They said, You should try memoir. At first I thought, You just don’t know how great I am! But their message had the stench of truth.
By the time you wrote Cherry. your approach was much broader. Its subject matter was more universal—adolescent girls everywhere, in a sense. Is that how you conceived of the book?
There really aren’t any great books about female adolescence. I taught memoir classes with great male teenage texts—nonfiction versions of The Catcher in the Rye. really. Most women’s books pole-vault over junior high and high school. They flip from childhood to college. I really wanted a girl’s point of view.
The only great book about female adolescence I can think of is Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
But McCarthy misses on the sexual stuff—just skids past it. She goes off to visit a friend in Montana and she wakes up in the bed of a married man. Her line is incredible to me: “I grew a little tired of his kisses, which did not excite me.” It’s so delibidinized. She has no agency, no urge. One page, she’s fifteen, then all of a sudden she’s going off to college.
It may be a problem of language. When I started Cherry. I realized there were no words to describe an awakening female libido. Boys have these childlike words like chubby and woody, but the parlance for female genitalia and female desires is too porno.
Looking at an early draft of Cherry. I said to myself, Oh my God, you’re superimposing a forty-year-old woman’s libido on a twelve-year-old girl. It seemed perverse. Like it’d inspire pedophiles to think that every young girl was Lolita. Eventually I realized I’d misrepresented the experience. A twelve-year-old writing a boy’s name on her notebook over and over doesn’t want to get boffed into guacamole. She wants the boy to bring her a valentine and put it in her lunch box.
It’s as powerful as a sexual urge but it’s not so genital. It’s somewhat about being seen—what feminist critics might call a longing for the male gaze. Being looked at in this culture invents you as a woman long before you’re getting laid. It was about love more than sex—about beauty, desire.
How did you ultimately get to the core of the experience?
I started writing about seeing John Cleary at the couples’ skate and thinking, That’s what I want. I want him to come ask me to the couples’ skate and bring me a long-stemmed red rose, that would be so thrilling for me. And I remember saying to my editor, How could I say that? She said, You’ve got to make that as vivid, as intense as the other thing.
The language of the sexual awakening in Cherry is some of the most lyrical language in the book. You massage John Cleary’s legs, and then go home and drift off into a reverie in your bed at night: “I don’t conjure John’s body stretched over mine, or under it, or even the long muscles of his thighs hard under my hands. The fact of that body is too carnal for this sharp luminosity in me. Instead I picture John leading me under the spangled light of this mirrored ball for a slow dance.”
I didn’t want sex. There was no steamy porn scene in my head. I mostly wanted him to kiss me and hold my hand. I’d hypnotize myself writing his name over and over. I wanted a candlelit vision of myself as lovely, as a woman.
There are also stylistic differences between the first two memoirs. Cherry is less jaunty, and a little smoother—you use fewer commas, including in places where they seem necessary. Was that intentional?
The self I was writing about was older in that book, and it would have seemed coy to use the same type of sentence structure as I did for the kid in The Liars’ Club. Also, I had a comma stutter in the first book, which I corrected in the second.
In Cherry you describe reading books as a kind of entry into a fantasy life, an escape from Leechfield. Do you think you were depressed?
I was depressed out of my gourd from childhood onward. It’s amazing that I’m not now. Sobriety’s helped a lot—alcohol’s a depressant.
What are your feelings about taking medicine for depression?
I don’t think you should geeze morphine in your neck with a turkey baster to adjust your mood. But I’ve taken antidepressants off and on and wouldn’t hesitate to take a prescribed drug so long as it didn’t alter consciousness. No Valium or Xanax for me—too similar to alcohol. But I’m a big fan of the mental-health profession. They kept me alive—shrinks and librarians, teachers and booksellers.
Some writers say that taking mood stabilizers or antidepressants alters your perception. That the natural artistic self is the depressed self.
Depression makes you half alive—how does that shape a better writer? People have different ideas of what natural is. Since the romantics we’ve all been big fans of the natural, as though natural equals good. Shitting in your pants is natural, wanting to boink the pizza-delivery kid is natural. Stabbing people who get in front of you at the cafeteria line—that’s probably a natural impulse. Where do you draw the line between what’s good natural and what’s bad natural?
Do you have any writing rituals, things you have to do in order to write?
I pray. I ask God what to write. I know that sounds insane, but I do. I say: What do you want me to say? I have a sense that God wanted these books written. That doesn’t mean they’re meant to be bestsellers. Nor am I hearing voices. But a lot of times I’ll get stuck and I’ll just say, Help me. A nonbeliever might think of it as talking to my superego, or some better self. But I do have a sense of being guided.
Fuck. Shit. Don’t. Fuck. You dumb bitch—who ever told you that you could write? That’s what it sounds like.
When I got sober, in 1989—twenty years ago now. Only with prayer could I stop drinking for more than a day or two. Once I made three months clean, but it was a white-knuckled horror show. Call it self-hypnosis, prayer, whatever. To skeptics I say, Just try it. Pray every day for thirty days. See if your life gets better. If it doesn’t, tell me I’m an asshole. People tend to judge a faith’s value based on its dogma, which ignores religion in practice. It’s like believing if you watch enough porn or read enough gynecology books, you’ll know about pussy. For me, being a Catholic is a set of activities. Certain dogma seems nuts to me too. I’m not the Pope’s favorite Catholic.
Both. I try to pray formally morning and night starting with breathing exercises or centering prayer. Then the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” Sometimes I listen to the daily liturgy on my iPod from Pray-As-You-Go.com, or I go online at Sacred Space—both Jesuit sites. I say thank you a lot. This morning I walked out saying, Thank you for the wind, thank you for the blue sky. Really dumb, puerile stuff. At night I do what Jesuits call an examen of conscience, plus I keep a list of people to pray for.
In times of pressure or anxiety—like when Mother was dying—I’ll do a daily rosary for everybody. Or I’ll light candles and climb in the bathtub, try to put my mind where my body is—the best prayers are completely silent. Otherwise, I do a lot of begging. I just beg, beg, beg, beg like a dog, for myself and those I love. And I do the cursory, “If it’s your will . . .” but God knows that I want everything when I want it. He knows I’m selfish and want a zillion bucks and big tits and to be five-ten. So I’m not fooling him with that “If it’s your will” shit. The real prayer happens when I’m really desperate, like when I was going through a period of illness last year. Amazing what power there is in surrender to suffering. Most of my life I dodged it, or tried to drink it away—“it” being any reality that discomfited me.
I turned down the earliest offers from publishers for Lit years ago because I had a sense that it was what God wanted me to do. In prayer, I felt steered to write a book of poems. There was all this quiet energy around the poetry, though it meant flushing down the drain this big pile of memoir money I needed to pay for my son’s private school tuition and college. That was scary, but writing’s always scary. The prospect of failure after a big success is scary—the page is very blank, and you feel conspicuous, and plenty of detractors want you to fail from sheer spite. I’m a fearful person by nature.
Failure. I keep Beckett’s motto above my desk: Fail better. A priest once asked me a very smart question, which I’ve yet to answer, or have only answered in small increments: What would you write if you weren’t afraid? Prayer lessens fear. It reduces self-consciousness, so I attend to the work and kind of forget myself. It’s strange, though—I know praying a steady hour a day would make me a happier human unit, but I don’t do it. Do you know why?
Me neither. It’s like, Why not floss every day? I think it’s because my big smart mind likes the idea that it’s running the show, and any conscious contact with God plugs me into my own radical powerlessness.
When I feel God, it’s quiet. I can’t hear anything—it’s like balancing in air in some vast, windless space. If I’m trying to discern God’s will, I’ll feel a leaning sensation toward what I’m supposed to do. Like a dowser’s wand. It’s a solid tug. Even if that direction is scary for me—like refusing the first offers for Lit. or like the writing of it was. There’ll be quiet around it. This takes days, sometimes weeks. The trick is not to act until you have a solid leaning, and not to obsess until you get that—really give the problem up, in a way. You might say you leave it to your intuition. I say I leave it to the Holy Spirit. The God-centered choices tend to stay solidly quiet. I never regret or recant.
I prayed when I threw out most of the manuscript of Lit —both times. The first time, four years ago, I tossed almost five hundred pages, leaving just eighty—the early chapters. Then, in August of 2008, I threw out another five hundred pages, and I was left with only about a hundred and twenty. I was nearing my deadline, and my tit was in a wringer, timewise. A sane person might’ve bargained with my publisher for more time, but I didn’t. It was as if God were saying, You’re in this now: do it. Which, by the way, my publisher said too.
Yet the book felt impossible. I had to surrender the outcome. But surrender is hard for me. I’m a willful little beast.
Do you have any methods other than prayer for getting through a block?
An endless New York walk. Music helps—Bach and Beethoven played by Awadagin Pratt. Opera. Tangos. Nothing with language in it. Also, I call and whine.
I have a couple of writers, but I don’t do it frequently. I call the way the president would push the red button for nuclear armament. I’ve called Don DeLillo more than once. He sent me a postcard after one such call. It read: Write or die. I sent one back saying: Write and die. I also give big chunks to my editor, Courtney Hodell, who reminds me that I always wrestle with this demon. Shovel up and throw away—over and over. She makes encouraging noises but doesn’t hesitate to say, This is not it. For the second batch of pages I threw out, I’d been encouraged to write a how-to book about prayer. They wanted another “Eat, Pray, Make Money.” But the pages were duller than a rubber knife. Writing about spiritual stuff for a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio. It nearly broke me to start over again.
Was it easier to throw out the manuscript the second time?
No. The second time devastated me. I felt so scooped out and lost. I moped around for three days in scuzzy clothes, ordering Indian food and giving God the finger and getting phone calls from my publishing house and agent saying, When will it be done? When they give you money up front, this interests them a lot. About midnight of day three, I was sobbing, listening to Beethoven really loud. So I called my old teacher Robert Hass in Berkeley to tell him, I’m afraid that no matter what I do, this is going to be a bad book. And Bob said, That doesn’t worry me one bit. I said, What the fuck? Is that some Zen California shit? I got really irritated. I said, I’m here crying at midnight. And he said, If you write a bad book, it’ll be a bad book with some good sentences in it. Then he said an interesting thing. He said, Will a bad book rob you of power and money and status? And I said, Absolutely. I would like to say I couldn’t care less, but yeah, I want more money and fancier shoes and more trips to Corsica in the sunshine. But that’s not even the scariest thing. The scariest thing for me is that I won’t get to have the conversation, this marvelous conversation about literature I’ve been having for thirty years now.
With other writers and with the work. You’re in this big stadium with these amazing pitchers and hitters, and then you’re back in the farm-club dugout.
When you abandoned all of those hundreds of pages, did you save them somewhere?
No, I literally threw them all out. Because I thought, What am I saving these for?
Yeah, right. I live in an eleven-hundred-square-foot apartment.
Did you save your drafts for The Liars’ Club and Cherry ?
Yes, but I have no idea where they are. In storage, or at my sister’s maybe.
You wrote at length about your ex-husband in Lit. Was that difficult?
What a quandary, to write about adoring this guy enough to bear his child, then how we imploded to such a point that I wanted to run him over while he moved the garbage cans. In the first draft he was perfect, and I was horrible—worse than I actually was. I guess I felt guilty writing it at all. He’s a discreet person, and I didn’t want to drag him into the public eye.
He’s made a conscious decision not to read them, and I respect that. I am the source of waffles and Sunday dinner, not literature. When Cherry came out, he confessed he was consciously avoiding it. Last year, he read the opening to The Liars’ Club —he’s twenty-three now. He knows I wrote about being sexually assaulted. He knows all about my nervous breakdown in Lit from being there and talking to me over the years. He knows I was suicidal, but that as long as he was on the planet, I couldn’t afford to kill myself. He knows the books’ events in outline—I wouldn’t want him hearing about something we hadn’t discussed. He did read the prologue directed at him in Lit .
When you finish a book, do you ever hear from people that you’ve gotten things wrong?
Strangely, that hasn’t happened very much. Minor points of fact from time to time. One reason I do so many drafts is that I poke and prod and question.
When I was young I did, yes. I can only compare my early memories with my sister Lecia’s. She’d admit that mine are keener than hers. She’ll say, Oh my God, that’s right, that did happen. She doesn’t remember many details until I write them—which seems, by the way, like a much better way to be. She just moves forward through the world. If I could do it her way, I would. It’s much more functional. Time never passes for me.
It’s scary how my memory became the family memory. My mother, before she died, and my sister both remember events as I rendered them. They’re carved in stone, in a way. That’s a lonely feeling. It’s too much power. I’m sure I misremember a lot.
There are a few moments in Lit where you write that Lecia remembers things in a different way.
Sure—I didn’t remember my mother’s paramour Wilbur Fred Bailey being particularly good-looking. Lecia said, Oh yes, he had steely white hair, blue eyes, and he was muscular. Things like that.
More important than remembering the facts, I have to poke at my own innards: what were your hopes? I remember going to work in business, for instance. At first, wearing a suit and toting a briefcase, I felt promoted to being an actual citizen. Robert Hass has a poem about Wallace Stevens walking equably to work each morning, smelling faintly of shaving lotion, that “pure exclusive music / in his mind.” I wanted to be this businessperson who scribbled poems like Stevens.
Do you do any kind of hypnotic regression in order to return, in your mind, to the place where you were, the person you were?
There’s no magic in it. Just one moment at a time, one detail at a time. I’m just asking myself as I go along: What was it like when I came home for Christmas? I remember Daddy came to fetch me at the bus station—a greasy bus station if ever there was one. He passed me a pint bottle of whiskey, which surprised me. If you had asked me whether my father had ever given me whiskey, I’d have said no. But once I revisited that instant, I could see him offer me a bottle across the truck cab. What a strange thing to offer your seventeen-year-old, whiskey. It’s what worked for him. Many memories are dead ends. That’s why I throw away a thousand pages. If you haven’t thrown away a thousand, then you don’t have four hundred that are worth a shit. You have to edit ruthlessly.
In Lit you wrote about an affair you had with David Foster Wallace, whom you met while living in Cambridge in 1989, but who came to live near you when you were teaching in Syracuse. Why did you decide not to use a pseudonym for him? Did his death have anything to do with this choice?
I had a pseudonym going in, but anybody who’d give a rat’s ass knew the uglier details. We were in touch before he died, and I’d intended to show him the pages.
He first came to Syracuse looking for someplace cheap to live on his book advance for Infinite Jest —which I saw a chunk of early on, just as he saw the first chapters of The Liars’ Club. David rented this weensy room less than a block from me. Guys you get sober with are like guys you were in ’Nam with. You plodded through the flames together. The past few years, I thought he’d been snatched from the flames. Which was how I felt, and still feel.
Ultimately, I showed my manuscript to a former drug counselor of his. Plus I had his best friend from college, the novelist Mark Costello, go through the relevant pages. Mark knew both of us extremely well during the period I chronicled. He judged the rendering fair, insofar as he could judge events he didn’t often witness.
It seemed to me that Lit is a conversion memoir—about your conversion to Catholicism in 1996.
It’s about all the ways I got lit—by language, booze, etcetera, till I got lit by baby Jesus. I was a natural skeptic, and it’s about that journey from black cynicism into awe.
My son was in second grade and he announced he wanted to go to church “to see if God’s there.” I started calling friends to take us to various citadels of worship. Catholics came dead last. We went to Jewish temples and to a Zendo. God-o-rama, we called it. It was solely for my son. I usually took along a paperback to read like I did when he played soccer. I was prayerful at the time, but cynical about religious hierarchies. Jesus is a trick on poor people, my daddy used to say.
You acknowledged earlier that when you’re drinking, it’s harder to remember conversations and events. But in Lit you write about a time in which you drank heavily.
Hence the book’s strange blank spaces—the conversation my husband and I had about separating the first time, for instance. I don’t remember it. Certain events stay Technicolor, though. Like the time he said, You smell like a bum. I’d been out smoking and drinking, I’m sure. It was memorable partly because he never spoke to me that way. He was a very controlled speaker, but I’m sure if he were writing about this period, I’d be reeling drunkenly through the house, raising hell.
Certain moments are vividly conceived during adrenaline rushes—falling in love, thinking you’re about to get hit by a bus. But the brain isn’t a file cabinet. As I age, my memory fades. Maybe it’s all the LSD I took as a kid or there’s just less blood in my head.
In your books you readily admit to forgetting certain scenes or details, sometimes important ones. Why do that?
Memoirists can make the mistake of treating readers as an enemies and trying to dupe them. I feel like the reader has given up twenty-plus dollars, and I owe her a vivid experience without lying. But certain events she expects aren’t there. You have to collude with her if your head is blank. Plus sometimes what you forget says as much psychologically as what you remember.
I don’t try to reconstruct empty spots. I’ve been vigorously encouraged by various editors to fictionalize. They would say, It must have been a very dramatic scene, saying goodbye to your mother. And I remember reading that Vivian Gornick said to her students, “Just make it up and see if it’s true.” Bullshit. In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. You don’t remember something? Write fiction.
It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, You know, there’s a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. You know what? There isn’t. If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction. If it did happen, it’s nonfiction. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.
But memory is faulty, of course. What if you get something wrong?
I think of Mary McCarthy in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood saying, I changed some of these names, or, I thought that we all had the flu that one time but my uncle has corrected me. None of her corrections were relevant or betrayed a reader’s confidence. In the forties, memoir was akin to history, which was absolute. One reason for a surge in memoir is the gradual erosion of objective notions of truth, which makes stuff like assembled dialogue seem more acceptable. We mistrust the old forms of authority—the church and politicians, even science. The subjective has power now. You read how Robert McNamara fabricated body counts in Vietnam, how Nixon lied, then suddenly Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now or Michael Herr’s psychedelic experience in Dispatches has new authority. Not because it’s not corrupt, but because it admits its corruption.
For me, internal landscapes are where I’ve spent much of my time. If I’d lived with a video camera strapped to my head, it might represent events in clearer external detail, but it wouldn’t reveal my inner life. I know better than anybody else how I felt at fifteen or at forty. You might remember something I did that I don’t remember, but I know how I felt. The moral danger that I’m in every time I write a sentence is that I’ve interpreted somebody’s motivation incorrectly. I like the story—maybe apocryphal—about Melville devouring an entire bag of oranges in front of his daughter without sharing. How could such a person not be an asshole? Well, say he had scurvy. The trauma of my mother losing her first children doesn’t mean it’s no big deal that she tried to stab my sister and me with a butcher knife, but it in some way clarifies the action. Books offer what TV and film often skip over—the internal and historical truths.
How important is the content of the memoir to its success?
People mistakenly believe the best memoir is the one in which the grossest stuff happens. If that were true then everybody who was at Auschwitz would have written a best seller. People had way worse childhoods than I did and they didn’t sell as many books. How it’s written counts for something.
Do you do much research before beginning to write a memoir?
None before. When people say they’re doing research, I say, You’re just postponing writing. I prepare by notifying people, talking to people who are still alive, and seeing if they would be offended if I wrote about them. Once I have a draft, I may visit places and check stuff out, to clarify details.
You don’t go through old letters, or archives, or newspaper accounts from the time about which you’re writing?
I do some of that, but only after the first draft is written. You want to capture your own memories, not someone else’s. After the first draft of The Liars’ Club. I called my mother for factual details: what year she married a certain husband, his profession. During Cherry. I called my friend Doonie and we talked about our roommate Forsythe going crazy in California—dramatic events I could’ve brought up if external drama were all I was trolling for. He threw a paint can through a drug dealer’s window, then he tried to kill himself. He hitchhiked naked with a cardboard box around him. At one point he scrawled the walls with toothpaste and sprinkled a pound of pot on a sleeping infant and set his father’s photo on the turntable so it spun round and round. The relevant info? He went crazy and killed himself. You don’t put in whatever you can dredge up.
Off and on, sloppily. Most were lost. Mine was an itinerant life for many years. My mother didn’t even keep many photos of us.
Yet you’ve never had someone tell you that you’ve gotten something seriously wrong?
You love this question. One guy corrected the year that Hurricane Carla hit Texas. Which doesn’t feel like a betrayal of the reader. You can ask me that another eight hundred and seventy-five times. I know I’m supposed to say, All the time. I must get a million things wrong, but I’ve not had people come up and say, I was there and that didn’t happen. Never. Not one time, not once.
I remember an interviewer asking me, You expect me to believe you opened a trunk in your attic, and your grandmother’s prosthetic leg was in it? I said, Why don’t you check it out—I bet it’s still there. You think I have that good an imagination? If I did, I’d be writing novels.
Mostly mornings at home. I made a habit in grad school of getting up at five in the morning to work. When my son was born, in ’86, I had to get up really early, like four. I was teaching six sections of comp at three different schools, and that was the only time I had. For ten years there, I didn’t have time to shave both legs the same day. If I had even an hour, I could work anywhere. I was very unpersnickety. But I usually can’t write big prose while teaching. I can write journalism or lectures. And I’m always scribbling poems.
So you can’t work on a book while you’re teaching?
It would be hard. I figured out early on that I’d resent the students. If the students don’t seem human to you, then it’s an adversarial relationship.
Do your poetry and your memoirs influence each other?
Autobiography is mostly contingent on voice. If the voice is strong enough, the reader will go anywhere with you. And who’s better at syntax and diction than a poet?
What are the major differences between the two forms for you?
I always say that a poet loves the world, and the prose writer needs to create an alternative world. Poetry relates more closely to my present experience, and it’s aesthetically harder, because you’re trying to create a form that embodies the content. With prose, you spend so much time evoking a place that it’s emotionally more catastrophic. It’s like someone’s holding the back of your head and putting your nose right in it. When you do prose, you are deep in another element for months or years. I’m sure that private intensity is no different for novelists.
I wrote The Liars’ Club longhand in notebooks. Then I’d type them up. I rewrite a lot, even as I go along. I’m a compulsive rewriter. I have a poet’s sense of perfection. Prose always seems inadequate to me because every line isn’t a jewel. But it can’t be. Prose favors information; poetry favors music and form.
I cross stuff out, and then I type it up, and I print it, then I longhand that, and then I write again. Often I rewrite the same thing over and over, longhand. I did Cherry that way, but I developed a repetitive-stress disorder—not exactly carpal tunnel, but a shoulder thing. The sports-medicine dude said watchmakers and surgeons, people who do very fine work with their hands, build up a little knot there. So I had to teach myself to touch-type, which was traumatic for me. In longhand, if it really sucked, I didn’t feel too grisly about it. Then when I typed it up it looked like someone else had written it, which gave me some distance.
But with Lit. I faced such time pressure, I had to write lying down. If I sat up and typed with this injury, I’d last maybe six or seven hours. Lying down with my laptop on my knees, I could go from seven in the morning until eight or nine at night. I did that seven days a week. I felt like a Turkish pasha. I’d lie around in silk pajamas. And eat pistachios all day.
Yes. Fancy lingerie matters to me. I’ve always spent money on it, even when I was poor. And my mother and sister always gave me nice lingerie for Christmas or birthdays. So I’d lie around feeling vaguely fancy, thinking, You know, life doesn’t suck. I’m not failing at my art, twelve hours a day. Eventually, the book got traction. I found what it was about.
A book is never about what I think going in. At first I thought it was about romances I’d had, and it just wasn’t. I kept being drawn to material that focused on my separating from my mother and reconnecting with her—the psychological implications of that. But I couldn’t imagine writing a therapy book. It just felt so Pat Conroy, very Prince of Tides .
It was about being Odysseus—having to leave home to find home. It’s about making peace with Mother to become a mother. Everywhere I go, people ask, How’d you get out of there? They notice I’m not angry and bitter, which I’m not. Not anymore. But I was. I didn’t sashay out with my fishing pole over my shoulder and a cardboard sign saying poetry or bust. Some of the readers of my first two memoirs deduced—wrongly—that there had been no ardent suffering or confusion or psychic trial. I felt like I owed it to them to connect the dots between disease and healing. From fury and doubt to faith. A hard slog. My nervous breakthrough.
I’m working on a textbook about memoir. I’m also writing poems about Jesus that involve New York street life. The poems feel less autobiographical.
Have you been criticized for writing autobiographical poems?
Yes. People say that it’s small-minded and stupid. Writing about oneself is thought to be very low-rent.
I just read a Gabriel García Márquez biography, and also his memoir. What’s truest and most resonant in his work is the surreal stuff, and that has its roots in autobiography. The characters, the milieu, even the magic grows from experience. I wish I had Chekhov’s ear, that cool objectivity. But the truth is, that’s not my nature. I’m very self-involved.
What do you think are the biggest problems with memoirs today?
They’re not reflective enough. They lack self-awareness. I always tell my students that if the reader knows something about your psychology that you do not admit, you’re in trouble. The reader will notice that you’re an asshole because instead of going to your mother’s deathbed you’re out buying really nice designer boots. If you don’t acknowledge the assholery of that choice, then there’s a rift, a disjunction between narrator and reader. And in autobiography, that intimacy is part of what readers want. They have to trust your judgment.
The memoir’s antagonist has to be some part of the self, and the self has to be different at the end of the book than it was at the beginning. Otherwise you have what I call the sound-bite memoir or the ass-whipping memoir. Year one: ass-whipping. Year two: ass-whipping. Then they slap “Mommy Dearest” on it and shove it into the bookstores. Those memoirs cover a single aspect: so-and-so’s a drunk, or a sex slave, or has been hit on the head with a brick by her mother every day of her life—and that’s it. The character of the writer is a dull steady state till he gets old enough to get car keys and leave. That’s not a literary memoir any more than a Harlequin romance is a great novel.
My own bitterness and cynicism had to be pried away for the light to get in. The fury that I thought protected me from harm actually sealed me off from joy. Also, I sensed I’d betrayed my father and our redneck background by living at Harvard with my ex-husband and his polo-playing family. That my mother had given me a great love of art, truth, books, conversation, and beauty, and I was too angry at her to feel gratitude. I had to start living with some modicum of wonder, a state of praise rather than blame. It’s a journey from complaint to praise.
Is one of the ways in which the novel differs from the memoir that the characters in a novel are not obligated to disclose their motives?
In most crap memoirs, motives are skipped over too. They are very surface-oriented. In a novel, characters can be two-dimensional as long as they’re interesting or there’s a good plot—think of Dickens. In memoir, the only through-line is character represented by voice. So you better make a reader damn curious about who’s talking. If thin, shallow characters were interesting, we’d all be watching Jerry Springer. You watch Springer because you don’t identify with those people. There’s no depth of connection to their narratives—they’re grotesques.
Memoirists shouldn’t exaggerate the most gruesome aspects of their lives. Otherwise, a reader can’t enter the experience. She can only gawk from afar. You have to normalize the incredible. Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz writes more vividly about his own faults than the Nazis’, whose evils are common knowledge. That is what’s powerful about the book.
You have to correct for your own selfish motives. I want to look like a nice person, so I paint my ex-husband as a saint. But in truth, I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. Once I render that, I don’t come out seeming so nice, which is more accurate.
So when you’re writing a memoir, you can’t allow yourself to be an unreliable narrator?
You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.