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There’s Something About Mary

Celebrated memoirist Mary Karr on her new book, why being smart is overrated, the tragedy of trigger warnings and how Jesus liked to party

The memoir market has become a bit diluted of late. Like that old expensive bottle of scotch in your parent’s liquor cabinet you used to sneak shots from and then fill with water to mask the difference, the venerable form has caught some flack for fraudulence. 

The real stuff, however, is the furthest thing from watered down (or sweetened-up) reality; it’s a world away from naval-gazing revelations, efforts at self-therapy or the lies you tell your therapist. Mary Karr is inarguably the real stuff.

At this point, she’s become something like a literati legend of grit-glam—a title she’d be sure to rebuke, but stands nonetheless. The object of David Foster Wallace’s obsession for years, he believed Karr possessed an authenticity he could never lay claim to. In her first two memoirs, The Liars’ Club and Cherry, she immortalized her blue-collar East Texas upbringing, and in her third book, Lit, she detailed her struggle with alcoholism, young motherhood and her conversion to Catholicism. Last week, she released a much-anticipated guide to the genre she’s taught for over thirty years, called The Art of Memoir; it’s as dazzling as you would hope.

Karr has always been a ruthless truth hound, seeking the real story into the darkest, most dangerous slums of memory—beating down long-locked doors and illuminating the sordid spaces most of us would just as soon abandon to the void of personal history. In The Art of Memoir, she warns aspiring practitioners that the path to a great memoir is black and spiraling, so bravery is vital. But the bravery required isn’t necessarily for the story you’re telling, as in the willingness to locate your truest self, your most genuine voice, because it’s probably the one you’ll like the least.

Of course, Karr’s particular voice is what has always held her readers in thrall. The electricity of her narration crackles like a frayed wire that’s been twisted in every possible direction until at long last it snaps, and there, in the seared wreckage, she finds her story. Brash and tender in equal parts, she shouts out what is holy with a sailor’s mouth.

Tangentially but to the point, our conversation led us to the subject of indulgence, and this comment kind of sums it (the thing about her you can never quite explain) up. “As life in California proves,” she said thoughtfully, “enough hedonism and pleasure and you wind up in Rome at the vomitorium with everybody fucking the senator’s wife. I mean, I’m a big fan of foie gras, cocaine and the male penis. But at some point, one hopes that there is more.”

Without further ado then, we’ll get on with it. (Also, Mary, sorry we repurposed a Cameron Diaz movie for the title of your story—we figured you’d forgive us.) 

Mary Karr, the author of “The Art of Memoir”

One of the most helpful things about this book is how forthcoming you are about your own struggles and shortcomings. You admit that you initially tried to write this book in a different way—more like something James Wood or Elif Batuman would write—but that eventually you had to abandon any “pretentious bustling,” and just remind yourself of who you are. 

Yeah, I wanted to be an intellectual. I mean of course I’m an intellectual; anybody that reads or writes for a living is an intellectual—you can’t not be. But that’s not the nature of my talent. Whatever meager abilities I have come from my blue-collar childhood, which was also a literary childhood, strangely. So, my strength is in the marriage of that vernacular with the more literary, I think.

In an interview you gave a few years ago, you mentioned how everyone was kind of afraid of David Foster Wallace because he was brilliant, but at some point you’d decided that “being smart wasn’t that big a deal.” Can you talk about that a little?

Well, living in Cambridge for ten years, I just remember being so awestruck by how smart people are. I mean, you think of yourself as smart, and then you meet people who are just wattage-wise naturally smarter than you could ever be if you tried to be smart all day and night. I just realized I wasn’t going to win that competition. I also realized what I really valued when I read was feeling. I read so much because I was lonely and wanted that sense of emotional connection with another human being. It’s great to have good ideas, but unless you have feeling behind them there is no conviction. It’s about finding the nature of your own talents, so you’re not trying to squeeze your very real toothpaste into the wrong size tube. 

In The Art of Memoir you often address cultural issues in a more straight-forward way than we’ve seen you do in your memoirs, and one of the things you touch on is how afraid we are to make statements about absolute truths. Of course, the seeking and finding of truth is something you’re a well-known advocate of. 

The word is almost never used today without quotes around it. But there simply are, god dammit, just things that either happen or don’t. The example I used in the book is having a student sexually assaulted and the woman who was running the investigation at my university saying, there is no truth. And I’m like no. There is truth. Either she’s lying or he’s lying. That’s it. I mean, is it hard to know what the truth is? Yes. Could we fail? Certainly. But there is a truth.

So how do you think the whole triggers and micro-aggressions phenomenon in universities is affecting writers? 

It can very quickly become censorious and puritanical. That sort of pious censoring of open thought can be like a Maoist purge. As someone who has wrestled with it in classrooms, it’s sad for me to see the students respond to it. Like, last fall in a poetry workshop, I had two heterosexual men who were afraid to write erotic poems because they had been so censored by people in their workshops. I just said look, there is a provision of wanting to have sex with someone that procreates the species. It’s not such a bad thing to do—to want to bone somebody! Also these guys were 25, 30 years old—what else are they going to want to write about? They are hardwired to reproduce. But was almost as if it had been communicated to them that there was something morally wrong about writing about their own desire. And I’ve got to say, that was terrifying to me.

When you were younger, before you quit drinking, did you know that someday you would have to quit?

Well I think the sad thing about being a drunk is that you tell yourself every night, this is the last night. I remember sitting on the back porch in Belmont, Massachusetts with a baby monitor in my lap—drunk, drunk, drunk—at midnight or one in the morning, totally shitfaced, actually telling myself that I would get up at six in the morning and run five miles and stop drinking and smoking the next day. And I would do that over and over and over.  Yeah, I think it was something I was always about to do. But it could wait till tomorrow.

I know that you converted to Catholicism when you were getting sober. What is it like dealing with people in the intellectual community who judge you for that belief?

I think not having been a cradle Catholic, I don’t associate with a lot of the things people associate with real shame and guilt. I had so much shame and guilt in not believing in God, it was hard to start believing in God and have it be worse. You know what I mean? I just had so much shame and guilt. For me, I think that a belief in something bigger than yourself—whether you call it God or the Holy Spirit or Allah or a force for good or whatever—I think it’s hard wired. I have so many friends who are atheists and they are good people doing great things and loving things in the world. But, I don’t know. I went to mass this morning at Saint Ignatius and I walked in thinking, who are these people, and I walked out feeling connected to them. So I mean, for me it’s just really… it’s a bunch of stuff I do. You know, it’s a practice. Like you go to the gym or something. It’s just something I do. 

Stephen Colbert has been talking about his Catholic faith more openly recently, and one of the things he said was that it was okay to be funny and irreverent about the church, because it was something he loved. Do you relate to that?

Actually it’s funny, I think he and I have the same spiritual director. But anyway, yes—I think Jesus was the one who wanted to make sure there was enough wine for everybody. You know? I think that he was a keep the party going guy. I’m not worried about hurting Jesus’s feelings. I don’t think I am going to hurt God with my stupid little obscenities.