Karr: "Being able to read those sad soliloquies in Shakespeare. I never really liked the sonnets as much as a kid."
Viking/Penguin, 2000; 276 pages; $24.95
FROM THE DUST JACKET: Mary Karr told the prize-winning tale of her hardscrabble Texas childhood with enough literary verve to spark a renaissance in memoir writing. The Liars’ Club rode the top of The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, and publications ranging from The New Yorker to People magazine picked it as one of the best books of the year. But it left people wondering: How’d that scrappy kid make it outta there? Cherry dares to tell that story. Karr picks up the trail and dashes off into her teen years „ with customary sass, only to run up against the paralyzing selfdoubt of a girl in bloom.
In this long-awaited sequel, we see Karr ultimately trying to run from the thrills and terrors of her sexual awakening by butting up against authority in all its forms. She lands all too often in the principal’s office and in one instance a jail cell. Looking for a lover or heart’s companion who’ll make her feel whole, she hooks up with an outrageous band of surfers and heads, wannabe yogis and bona fide geniuses.
Karr’s edgy, brilliant prose careens between hilarity and tragedy, and Cherry takes readers to a place never truly explored deep inside a girl’s stormy, ardent adolescence. Parts will leave you gasping with laughter. But its soaring close proves that from even the smokiest beginnings a solid self can form, one capable of facing down all manner of monsters.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary Karr, now in her mid-40s, grew up near Janis Joplin’s birthplace, the coastal oil patch Texas town of Port Arthur. Joplin’s little brother was one of Karr’s friends and they often surfed together.
Karr began early to want to be a poet. On the morning that we talked, I mentioned that this surprised me.
Karr, sitting at poolside with a cell phone, said, “What’s odder still to me is that in the only notebook I have from my childhood, a notebook which originally had been a sketchbook of my mother’s and which I stole, I actually wrote, ‘When I grow up, I want to write half-poetry, and half-autobiography.’ Now if that’s not a call from God! I don’t think I’d ever even read an autobiography at that age. I don’t ever remember reading one. I think I’d read the biography of Helen Keller and that was it. And then one about Abraham Lincoln scratching something on a shovel. But other than that, I don’t think I’d ever read even a biography. So I don’t know why I — it’s peculiar that we sort of grow into these things. Maybe it’s that I just couldn’t do anything else. The truth is, I was so incompetent at any kind of ‘normal’ existence, only the poets would have me.
“It’s funny, too. The people I really wanted to meet were writers. I had some notion of meeting Flannery O’Connor, you know, or even now, I imagine meeting Cormac McCarthy. Writers were my heroes. And it seemed like the only way I was going to get to meet them was if I got into the business myself. It’s miraculous to me that people will pay me to do this.”
Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club, won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. A poet and an essayist, she has won Pushcart prizes in both genres. Her previous poetry collections are Abacus, The Devil’s Tour, and Viper Rum. Divorced, Karr lives with her son in Syracuse, New York, where she is the Peck Professor of English at Syracuse University.
Before Karr made herself somewhat famous with The Liars’ Club, those of us who were her fans were fans of her poetry. I mentioned that I for a long time had been fond of her poems. She laughed, “I’m moonlighting in this other business.”
Poetry, I said, “just doesn’t pay.”
“And I,” Karr said, “am a single mom.”
The difference, for the writer, between writing nonfiction and poetry, I said, was something I hoped that Karr would talk to me about.
“Well,” she said, “it’s a lot longer. That’s sort of the big thing. I find, as a poet, I’m working on probably seven poems right now that are in various states of being finished or unfinished. And I think the reason I keep so many going is because the awful thing is to be at the end of a batch of them and to look at that blank page. And the great thing about a long nonfiction work of any type, I think, is you never have that. I mean, you always sort of know. You get up in the morning, and you know pretty much what, where you are. You can choose to go back and rewrite another section, but you know that, basically, you’re on page 15, and so you’re going to do page 16 next. I’m always, as in poetry, ambushed by what turns out to be true. I always think I know the story, and then I start writing it, and it turns out that I’m totally clueless. So that’s similar to poetry.
"There’s also that nonfiction’s just aesthetically less challenging. It really is. I mean that, of course, relatively speaking. I still find myself rewriting probably more or as much as I would with a poem. I threw away 500 pages of Cherry before I even started accumulating pages. I had a poem that I’ve maybe rewritten 50 or 60 times, but once I have the voice going in nonfiction, I write maniacally, compared to most prose writers. But with prose, also, you don’t have that satisfaction you have with poetry, where you finish something. I mean, I always worry the bone of everything in a poem. I always think it should be rewritten, even after it’s in print Nothing ever seems really done in some ways, but you do have that sense of satisfaction that you create a new wheel, in a way, for each poem. And there’s that sense of completion when you get to the end of a poem.
“And so, obviously you don’t have that, or, maybe you sort of have that, at the end of a section or chapter, but I don’t really much have it at the end of a book of nonfiction. And the great thing about prose is that there’s so much information you can get in. Like Lowell, 1 started writing autobiographically, and then 1 think you’re able to qualify and hedge and hopefully develop characters in a richer way. Because you can just get more data in. And poetry, again, the aesthetic challenge is musical. People talk about poetic prose, and it’s just not even the same. The most poetic prose — Nabokov, say, or Joyce — is still not a patch on poetry for that concision and that sense of completion and closure. Again, I think it’s aesthetically a relief for me, always. I don’t really have that sense of satisfaction with a book of prose. 1 just get done with it, and, ironically enough, I just lose interest in it almost instantly.”
I said that one difference between poems and prose was that poems seemed more word-driven and prose, story-driven.
“And you want, with prose,” said Karr, “to get certain data in. If I tell a story about my friend who’s a drug dealer, I have to qualify that so people don’t make a snap judgment about him. Writing prose, I feel like I keep hedging, and that every piece of information I gave 1 wanted to hedge and qualify. But you’re right, it’s solely data-driven. There’s certain information you have to get in. Whereas, you’re right, I think in poems, the music or the noise, the language, pulls you more.”
“Or,” I suggested, “in poems a word is always seeking out another word.”
“That’s a nice way to put it. It’s funny. I just saw this painting exhibition by Phillip Guston. Don’t you adore him?” I did, I said, and Karr continued, “My son was at camp at Yale, and I went to pick him up, and there was this great bunch of paintings there by Guston. And there’s a great quote from Guston at the beginning of it that says, ‘I got sick of all that purity. I want to tell stories.’ I wrote it down in my notebook. But I knew as soon as I saw it, it was not a sentence I was going to forget.”
Karr and I nattered for a bit about writing, and then I asked, “When you write this sort of almost daring memoir material, what’s it like to go home and see people who were part of the events about which you write?”
“Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve never written about anybody — with few exceptions, my father being the obvious one — who didn’t know what I was up to. My friends in this book — for instance, John Cleary, the boy I first kissed, is still one of my best friends. He’s still one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known in my life. I just saw him out in L.A. He lives in California. Before I started writing the book, I said, ‘Look, this is what I want to write about, and are you uncomfortable with that?’ I didn’t ask him for information. But I just got a sense of how he would feel about it.
“And, I don’t think I’ve ever really written any of these things out of anything but love for the people I’m writing about. And so, I’ve never had anybody say, ‘No, please don’t do this.’ And only on one occasion have I had somebody ask could something be changed out of embarrassment. It was something she felt she could handle seeing in print, in this book, and then it turned out she couldn’t. So that is the only change anybody has ever asked me to make. I have really great friends.”
Cherry, I suggested, “isn’t catty.”
“It’s not,” said Karr, “that I’m not a score-settler. We’re all score-settlers. But I wouldn’t do it in this form. My friend Clarice called me up, after she’d read the manuscript, and said, ‘You know, I feel really bad.’ I said, ‘What do you feel bad about?’ I thought she felt bad that I wrote about us kissing those boys, or how she felt about her father, how strict he was. She said, ‘I had forgotten that I ever stopped being your friend. That we ever had that kind of falling out.’ ”
Karr writes in Cherry about her misery when Clarice, her best friend, got mad at her. “That was so heartbreaking,” I said.
“Do you remember that?” Karr asked. “Having a girlfriend and having a fight with her. Here you’ve found some sympathetic creature who doesn’t look at you as if you’re a gargoyle. Which is how you look at yourself. And then the slings and arrows of those friendships. They’re just so bound up with who, for me, I was trying to become.”
We talked about a poem of Karr’s that I particularly like “Divorce,” from The Devil’s Tour. I said that I’d first read the poem so long ago and yet still remembered the lines:
...I could suddenly see the VCR’s digital clock blink off and on like a tiny blank marquee.
In the middle of the night there’d been a power failure. It was zero o’clock, day zero.
I didn’t know what could happen next.
I asked Karr if it seemed odd to her that lines she’d written, years earlier, stayed in readers’ minds and carried as much heft as readers’ memories of events in their own lives.
Karr said it didn’t seem odd. “I’ve been taking communion from other people’s mouths for years, you know. I feel that language saved me. Poetry saved my life, in a way. Being able to read those sad soliloquies in Shakespeare. I never really liked the sonnets as much as a kid. I’m sure I didn’t know what any of them meant. They were so beautiful. And you know, you’re sitting around your house with this sense of ineffable sadness that everybody else seems just numb to, and you find someone else expressing it, and it is like you say their words in your mouth. And it is like communion. You make a community with others. You take these words in your body, in a way. That’s how I always felt. It’s such a happy thing, reading is. It really is. It’s really what keeps us from being lonely.”