Mary Karr says she had one complaint when The Liars' Club was published in 1995. Karr's account of her childhood in Port Arthur, Tex., buffeted by the stormy interactions of her hard-drinking parents, was the critical hit of the season, praised by reviewers for its gallows humor, hard-won compassion, earthy yet elegant prose, and for a gift for storytelling the author had obviously inherited from her yarn-spinning daddy. General readers loved the book, too, flocking to Karr's readings and buying enough copies to keep The Liars' Club on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
So what was the problem? "It was #2 forever... under Reviving Ophelia, God help me," recalls Karr. Exaggerating her indignation at being stalled behind Mary Bray Pipher's pop treatise on "saving the selves of adolescent girls," Karr claims jokingly, "I decided: You want teenage girls? I'll give you teenage girls!" The result is Cherry, a memoir just published by Viking that continues Karr's story through 1972, the year 17-year-old Mary left home for Los Angeles in the company of six fellow misfits who shared her enthusiasm for drugs and a burning desire to get the hell out of Texas. Karr makes that desire wholly comprehensible in an unsparing portrait of a provincial town whose conventions were especially stifling for girls. Yet she also pays emotional tribute to the friends who helped her survive and depicts her blossoming sexuality in scenes as tender as they are frank.
Those scenes were hard to write, says the author, because "there's no language for talking about female adolescence. The male sexual narrative is so dominant in the culture that the ways we are sexual as teenagers aren't even acknowledged as sexual; people don't seem to understand the amount of ardor that g s into a fantasy about some guy skating over to you with a long-stemmed rose. There's no word like chubby [to describe female sexual arousal], no language that's lighthearted and not pornographic or masculinized. I had to invent it; I wrote 500 pages and threw them away before I started approaching a voice that I thought was true."
That voice retains echoes of The Liars' Club's salty cadences, but Cherry's overall tone is quieter and more literary, which suits a protagonist as passionate about books as boys. "I was trying to invent myself, I was reading Shakespeare, I wanted to be a poet," says Karr. "To write in the idiom of The Liars' Club, the galvanizing voice of my father that was such a gift to me, would be false to who I was as a teenager. At the beginning of your life, everything about who you are is inherited; you're often just bobbing along in somebody's wake. Then later, you're forging a self by deciding, These are the people I'll associate with, these are the clothes I'm going to wear, this is who I'm going to be."
Karr grew up to be an award-winning poet and a tenured professor at Syracuse University, still pleasantly surprised by her unexpected additional identity as bestselling autobiographer. Paying a visit to Viking's offices on a rainy Monday morning, she's casually dressed in a gray blouse and black slacks, with a cross dangling from a chain around her neck and high-heeled sandals revealing maroon t nail polish. In conversation she's blunt and funny one minute, scholarly and serious the next, as she recalls the lifeline literature afforded the confused, unhappy girl whose odyssey she describes so movingly in Cherry.
"Because of my adventures in the wonderful world of chemicals, a lot of people I knew are dead. Somebody asked me recently, 'Don't you miss doing drugs?' and I said, 'No! I like not going to funerals; I like not driving into shit.' I have a sense that other people caught bullets that could have been for me. Poetry saved my life. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the language, and the fact that this work of art is made out of the same materials [words] that everybody uses to get the butter passed or get on the bus. On the slopes of Parnassus, the poets were lounging about, and I wanted to be part of that club."
So even in her wildest moments, tripping her brains out on psilocybin or paying an ill-advised visit to a scarily seedy blues bar, teenaged Mary Karr was also scribbling verse and plunging into novels like To Kill a Mockingbird because "inside their stories, I could vanish from myself." Poetry and literature so dominated her memories of this time that it stunned the adult author to come across a notebook in which she'd written, at age 11, that her ambition was "to write poetry and autobiography."
"I got shivers up the back of my spine," she says of this discovery. "I was astonished, because I don't think I'd ever read an autobiography." Asked why she thinks she wrote those prophetic words, she replies simply, "It was grace. I believe in God, but even if you don't, you can believe in a self, the person who is innately who you are. Once you fully become that person, then everything you do will be blessed."
The discovery of that inner core of identity fires the epiphany that closes Cherry and gives the book its title. Naturally, Karr is well aware of the word's slang meaning as the physical embodiment of a girl's virginity: "The book mocks that notion," she says, "but I also remember people talking about their cars as 'cherry' when they were newly painted and fresh, and the book is about this newly painted, newly cobbled-together self that was sweet in that way, that's sweet to me as a grown woman. Since there are sexual aspects to the word, too, it seemed the shortest way to convey both; as a poet, I'm into economy."
Cherry's final epiphany is decidedly tentative: the author notes in those closing pages that her identity was formed "only by half at best" and there were years of "shape-shifting" ahead. Poetry was always part of her life, but it would be nearly two decades before she got sober and discovered the second half of her literary self.
After dropping out of Macalester College in 1974, Karr roamed from Texas to New York to Europe, getting involved in the anti-apartheid movement and publishing her first p m in Mother Jones. In Minneapolis, she studied with Robert Bly and with African-American poet Etheridge Knight, who "helped me discover the vernacular tradition. Public readings and the oral tradition were important to me. An aesthetic experience is fine, but unless someone is infused with feeling from a work of art, it's totally without conviction. My idea of art is, you write something that makes people feel so strongly that they get some conviction about who they want to be or what they want to do. It's morally useful not in a political way, but it makes your heart bigger; it's emotionally and spiritually empowering."
These comments will be familiar to readers of Karr's essay "Against Decoration," originally published in Parnassus magazine. Critical writing remains crucial to her, as a scholar and a poet. "Robert Hass, the former Poet Laureate, was one of my teachers at Goddard College, and he convinced me that poets had a responsibility to write essays and reviews; it was part of shaping the canon, having a conversation with other writers and developing your ideas."
Karr talked her way into the Goddard writing program in 1978, feeling the need for a better grounding in literary history and technique. "Stephen Dobyns was my professor the first semester, and I think he made me read 135 books and write essays that came back totally scrawled with his antlike print. So I rewrote and rewrote; I was pissed off, but I realized that I didn't know anything, and at that moment I became teachable."
MFA in hand, Karr moved to Boston in 1980. She spent a decade with one foot in the business world, including stints in the computer and telecommunications industries, "while I was publishing poetry and essays and still trying to educate myself." She married fellow poet Michael Milburn in 1983 and was eight months pregnant with their son when she learned that a collection of her p ms would appear in the Wesleyan New Poets series. Dev Milburn was born in 1986; Abacus appeared in 1987. James Laughlin wrote to Karr after seeing her work in Parnassus; they struck up a friendship, and Laughlin's New Directions imprint published Karr's subsequent poetry volumes, The Devil's Tour in 1993 and Viper Rum in 1998.
By the time TheDevil's Tour appeared, her marriage was over and Karr was writing The Liars' Club. The story of how a respected but hardly big-name poet landed a contract and a hefty advance for a memoir has already passed into publishing legend: in 1989, Karr was having dinner with Tobias Wolff, a friend since they met at Goddard, to celebrate the fact that each had won a $25,000 Whiting Writers' Award. As she often did in social situations, Karr began telling stories about her crazy parents. "It's hard not to dine out on my family," she remarks. "You can get a lot of food out of people when you're talking about my father and mother." And, when the guest list also includes ICM's Amanda Urban, you can acquire an agent as well. Urban, who already represented Tobias Wolff, thought Karr's story had the potential to be as compelling as Wolff's This Boy's Life; she handed the poet her card and urged Karr to write a proposal.
She was as surprised as anyone by the nerve the book touched. "I always thought my family was so bizarre, so when people started coming up to me and saying, 'My family was exactly like yours,' I was completely knocked out. I was so touched by people telling me their stories, because they had such seriousness and emotional engagement; they were such real stories about how people become who they are."
This d s not mean, she says, that every personal story belongs in print. "There are going to be trashy memoirs just like there's trash fiction. Obviously I'm interested in writing something that endures beyond the moment, like This Boy's Life or Frank Conroy's Stop-Time. And what makes a truly great memoir, I think, is the voice. The memoir is a relatively cheap form in terms of overall structure. It's not like a novel, which, whether it's driven by plot or by language, has to have a kind of structural integrity. You're freer than that with a memoir, but you have to have a voice that's interesting and engaging to the reader. I think you also have to know yourself, or at least know the self that you were at the time."
Of the recent rash of tell-all memoirs, she comments, "I think that if you're writing to settle a score, the reader is going to instantly see that and distrust you. If your motive is not on the table, or if it's at odds with the voice and how you're representing yourself, it won't work. If you were raped as a child and you write something to get back at the rapist, but you write a book in which your head is bowed in sorrow and you talk about the great forgiveness that you have, then there's a schism between the form and what you're actually saying. The reader is going to know you're full of shit."
These biting words ring in Karr's inner ear as she thinks about her own next project. "I always thought that I'd write a trilogy of memoirs," she says, "and I have a couple of ideas for the third: I can imagine writing about developing a spiritual practice, and I can imagine writing about my parents' deaths [her father died in 1985, mother in 1999]. But if I can't find language less clichéd than has been used lately, then I won't write about either."
Happily settled in Syracuse with her son ("I coach Little League, we belong to a little church; it's a kind of Mayberry R.F.D. existence"), she likes the current balance in her life. "I adore teaching; they're paying you to talk to young people about books, and there's a great deal of excitement and energy and candor in the students I'm talking to." As a writer, she finds the satisfactions of her two chosen genres equal but different. "Poetry privileges music and is aesthetically more challenging. Prose privileges information and is emotionally more challenging. Robert Stone once said that the way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture g s crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories. Any shared burden is lighter; we wonder how we stand our lives, and we read memoirs to find out."
Wendy Smith is a regular contributor to PW.