An interview with Mary Karr, whose new memoir, Lit, was published by Harper.
PW: The memoir category has blossomed in recent seasons. What accounts for the popularity of these personal stories?
MK: The failures of other genres to provide an emotional connection with some of their characters and narratives gives memoir a toehold. My two favorite novelists today are probably DeLillo and Garcia-Marquez. But the cool, allegorical surfaces of lesser postmodern novels—their self-conscious, preening intellectualism, which is as self-indulgent to me as the most whining memoirist, by the way—these trends result in cartoonish or self-consciously grotesque and/or despicable characters. Wallace Stevens wrote, “People should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it.” Poets yielded turf to prosers when Dickens started capturing gritty urban landscapes that people were actually slogging through, while poets kept writing about fairies or knights in armor. That’s where your “elevated” artistic sensibility gets you. Quality is hard to come by—most memoirs will suck, as most novels do. But the most whiny memoir is written by someone passionately attached to his or her subject matter. And the connectedness of that single voice is something readers long for now. You get that connectedness in good fiction of course, even books with the chilliest narrators. But memoir guarantees emotional conviction of its writer, which is unfashionable nowadays—low-rent.
PW: Lit is your third memoir. Has each successive book been easier to write, or more difficult? Why?
MK: This is by far the hardest book—seven years in the making, and I threw away two big hunks as recently as January 2009. I’m an adult in this book—there’s nobody else to whine about. To my own horror, I morph into my own less-than-stable mother. This time, I'm the drunk driver, the mother screaming at her toddler in the grocery store. It’s connecting the dots from disease to health. Or, as Dante did, Inferno, Paradiso, Purgatorio—from dark to light. I didn’t just sashay from a house where Mother tried to kill me (Liars’ Club) to drug-addled teenhood (Cherry) down literary lane as a sober mother of a strapping son (Lit). I checked into the Mental Marriott first—and I had loads of help. I felt I owed the people who helped me a public thank-you in some way.
PW: Why did you write three memoirs? Was that your plan from the beginning, or did the second two “need” to be written? (And might there be a fourth?)
MK: The proposal for Liars’ Club included the skeleton of all three books. It sounds moronic to a secular audience, but I actually pray about what to write and rarely get a fishhook from the sky with a five-year plan on it. Right now, I’m working on poems and a critical book about memoir.
PW: Why did you wait so long after Cherry to write Lit?
MK: I turned down big fat advances from two different publishers in 2000, facing my son’s need for college tuition. That was completely a prayer-centered decision. It made my agent say, “That’s a load of money to leave on the table.” But I told her if it was intended to be my money, it’d show up when I felt more guided to write a third book. But I only waited a few years after that to start Lit. It takes me so long because I throw away literally thousands of pages. Two whole drafts in the trashcan—saved 80 pages the first time, 120 the second. If you wanna do it well, it’s taxing. Plus I have another full-time job. Plus I travel a lot as a lecturer.
PW: You’re known as a poet, memoirist and essayist. Have you any desire to write a novel? (Is there one locked away in a desk drawer?)
MK: I’m not nearly smart enough or imaginative enough to tackle the novel form. Never happen. Then again, who’d have picked me to turn Catholic in my dotage?