Q&A with Liar's Club and Cherry Author Mary Karr

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I first read Mary Karr's memoir The Liars' Club when I was 17. I was in awe of the heartbreaking humor her troubled Texas characters evinced in the face of severe adversity. I studied the complex beauty of her sentences. I wrote her and she wrote me back a wonderfully encouraging letter. I quit writing. After a couple of years I felt Mary's spirit move me and I wrote Sarah. I sent it to her and she gave me a warm Texas welcome into the community of writers. Cherry?now out in paperback from Penguin?her sequel to Liars' Club, equally buoyed my spirit with its strappingly poetic prose and dazzling storytelling gift. We spoke recently by telephone.

After reading Liars' Club I stopped writing for a while. I was working with Mary Gaitskill.

Oh yeah, she's such a good writer. Well, she was the one who first put me on to you.

She directed me to your book, which made me realize how you need to combine craft with humor. That when you're talking about certain things what a difference weaving in humor makes.

Oh yeah, it gives the reader a release. Otherwise it's too much. They feel too fucking bad.

I read Cherry with a pen because there's just so much in it. Every page was so beautiful. I love at the start of chapter 13 where you write, "Kids in distressed families are great repositories of silence and carry in their bodies whole arctic wastelands of words not to be uttered, stories not to be told."

About my girlfriend, yeah.

It's like my shrink says, it's being like hypervigilant.

Yeah, you get very alert. The great news I think as a writer is you wind up getting more frames per second than the average human. I think there's a theory about great athletes, that they actually get more information in, that they see more. I've just watched that IMAX Michael Jordan movie, where he's like great big and he's up in the air making all these amazing moves, and I think that must be true for that kind of kid. I mean I think it makes a perceptive human unit. It means you pay a lot of attention, and I think as a writer it's a good thing and it's a hard thing. I think your head winds up talking to you all the time is the bad news.

Yeah, it's hard to turn that off, to get the volume cranked down.

I just tell mine to shut up. I'm just much better at ignoring it.

Are you still the "grief-seeking missile"? I related to that so much. In your interviews, it almost seems like they're leading down the path of pain and doom, and you kind of give it the upswing.

Well, I feel like I've been snatched out of the fire. You know? It's funny, when I was in California and the guy I write about, the dope-dealer guy, my friend Doonie, who's still like my best friend?he lives in San Diego?we were there with a friend of ours who's in a witness protection program... I mean, he's basically still on the street, and he's had all kinds of maladies, and he looks like he's about 90 years old. We were up until about 3 o'clock in the morning and we just laughed our asses off, had a ball, but I don't want him to be that way, you know? I want him to quit doing dope... Doonie now has a big construction business and he's been sober for like 15 years. I've been sober like 11 years...

Doonie is one of the most lit-up human beings you'll ever meet anywhere, and he just has this tremendous generosity and humor. And if you met him, he kind of looks like a pimp. He wears like big gold jewelry and diamonds and, you know, kind of Elvis clothes. But there are all these people that we knew that still are really fucked up, or a lot of them have died. Doonie finds them, he keeps up, he finds everybody.

What's [the Cherry character] Meredith do?

She's had a lot of trouble. She's just had a really hard time. She actually went to two really big-deal universities and did fabulously well at both of them. She just has a lot of darkness. She's done amazingly well. I mean, she's functioned, and she's had a job, you know, when a lot of people could have just thrown in the towel. And she's still one of my?I still love her with all my heart. She's still one of my best friends, still one of the smartest women I know.

Did she read Cherry?

Oh yeah. I think it was really hard for her, but I told her. I pretty much told everybody in the book, people who were the main characters, like John Cleary, who was the guy I first had a crush on, and my girlfriend Clarice. So she knew in advance, and I said, you know what I'm going to be writing about? It's funny, I mean Meredith is not her name, I changed their names, and usually change a small thing about them and so they sort of have the option mostly of whether people know it's them or not. And people who know it's her, whom she's told, I think she's gotten a lot of, I don't know, just people are impressed. I mean, she's an impressive being.

You know that Tobias Wolff quote?

"Take no care for your dignity."

It really seems like in Cherry that you take that to heart.

Yeah, don't I look like an asshole? God!

What struck me is what you wrote about Meredith and the brother, and how you didn't take the car to drive them.

I didn't want to know, you know? We've all talked about this, me and Doonie and Meredith and you know a lot of people, the people still alive I doped and drank with, that we ignored all that growing up. That in fact all of our families were really alcoholic, really fucked up, and it was almost a kind of courtesy we did to each other, to pretend it wasn't going on. But yeah, I had a lot of that survivor's guilt. And I feel she rescued me at a time when there was just no fucking light anywhere. She showed me what to read, she bought my act when I didn't even know what my act was. And yeah, I feel like I should have snatched her out of there. And I tried to. I tried to at various times. But certainly at that time I was just, I think my self-involvement, my narcissism, my own pain, I think, made me even more narcissistic than I am naturally, or than most writers are...

Alan Grossman is this poet I really like, and he has this great line I quote all the time, he says we don't write to immortalize ourselves, we write to immortalize our beloved. And in a way that's an incredibly sentimental way to approach art, but I think for me that's true. Somebody pointed out after reading Cherry that my best friends were the funniest girl and the nicest guy and the smartest girl and the biggest criminal. And it's true, they were all. I mean all of those people are still in my life because they really are amazing human beings. That John Cleary guy, his wife is an invalid and he's raised these three kids and taken care of her and made a living, not a big living, just kind of regular, middle-class, work-your-ass-off-you-can-buy-two-cars kind of deal. And he's got these three kids, and she was sick and he's always having to go to the hospital and stuff in the middle of the night, and I remember saying to them one day, you know, why aren't you screaming? I was at his house and she was in bed and he'd been working all night and driving these kids around and trying to get everybody fed and get the laundry done and I said how do you fucking stand it? I would be losing my mind. And he coached his daughter's softball team and he said, well I go out there, I watch those little girls out there throwing that ball and they just put all their hearts into it. And I just think, well, if they can do it, so can I. He's a truly amazing human being who's just this kind of regular dude, and he just has this amazing heart. And all those people are like that. I just think they're extraordinary, so, I mean, they would have been extraordinary whether I wrote about them or not. I mean, my friend who was getting sober was saying that people who grew up where we grew up, it's like having been in Vietnam or something. You see them in the real world and you're like, can you believe that shit? You know it sucked. Yeah, it sucked.

What's happening with the Liars' Club movie?

Oh, you know, they say they're making it, they've given me all the money they're gonna give me on it, they have a screenplay, which I couldn't even really read. I don't know anything about movies. I just like action movies. I just like movies where shit blows up. So they sent me the screenplay and I was so freaked out. Do you know who Michael Herr is? He wrote Dispatches and he invented the voiceover for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. He lives in this little town near here, and so I see him every now and then... So I call him up, and I'm crying, I'm just inconsolable, I'm like oh my God, I read like two pages of this and I just want to shoot my fucking self. And Michael said, "Do you want the money?" And I said, "Absolutely." He said, "Okay, well then you should just know that the book is to the movie as real life is to the book." And I said, "Oh. So this is none of my business if I'm not about fixing it?" And he's like yeah. So I'm in that sort of beautiful nether state where they've given all the money they're going to give me but they haven't made the movie, so I don't have to watch me and my family being portrayed as baboons or whatever.

What do you think about folks' preoccupation with "Is it memoir or is it fiction?" They go through everything and want to pick out how much of it is true.

I disagree with the whole notion of memoir being a big deal because it's real. There are lots of people who have had way worse lives than I've had. Way more interesting lives than I've had. I don't think it's the facts of what you did that are going to make your books work or not. James Atlas in The New York Times Magazine talked about memoir enjoying this huge readership because it's fact, and I disagree. I don't think that's right. I think the issue is quality. I think people read memoir because they are guaranteed a first-person narrator who is emotionally engaged with his or her work. I think that is of interest.

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