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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 soign 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. INTERVIEWER, 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,INTERVIEWER. 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,INTERVIEWER,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. INTERVIEWER,That seems fast Was it difficult, 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. INTERVIEWER, 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. 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. 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. INTERVIEWER, 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,INTERVIEWER,Was this a practice test.
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,INTERVIEWER, 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. INTERVIEWER,How old were you, 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. INTERVIEWER,Did your mother push you to be a writer. 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,INTERVIEWER,What did you inherit from your father.
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,INTERVIEWER, 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. INTERVIEWER, Did you feel that when you told a good story you were rewarded with. Interviews The Paris Review Mary Karr The Art of Memoir No 1 Interviewed by Amanda Fortini 2009 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

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