Author Mary Karr's latest, "Lit," puts humorous slant on the dark side of addictions
Published 1:05 am, Friday, March 5, 2010
Anyone who had the pleasure of listening to and laughing with Karr last week -- currently on a book tour for her latest memoir, Lit -- no doubt was thinking that someone should be taping this. Karr was so entertaining, poignant and informative in her talk, that one just may want to see it again.
Well, someone was taping. A cameraman and producer, Sean Dooley, from ABC's 20/20, has been following Karr around for a segment about women and alcoholism that 20/20 will broadcast in the future. Dooley said 20/20 host Elizabeth Vargas will be doing a sit-down interview with Karr, who will be among a number of women on the program talking about their bouts with alcoholism
Lit is Karr's lateset memoir, describing her early years as a writer, wife and mother -- years marked by drug-use, drinking and the dissolution of her marriage. It is a time when she nearly killed herself or thought about killing herself. The book is her "descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness," she said -- and to her astonishing resurrection.
According to the publisher's notes, the memoir is about "getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning live."
In her own words, Lit means "all the ways I lit up or lit out -- first with reading, with books, librarians and teachers who saved my life, and then with liquor."
During her hour-long appearance, Karr demonstrated honesty and self-scrutiny, but with a strong sense of irreverent humor, especially in her presentation and fielding of questions from the audience.
Her first memoir, The Liars' Club, focused on her volatile relationship with her mother, who was married seven times and who had a psychotic break while Karr was a child. Karr told NPR that she and her sister were "like two lizards in a terrarium and every couple of weeks her mother would tap to see if we were still alive."
Her second memoir, Cherry, mapped the author's rebellion and coming of age.
The Liars' Club has earned the author numerous awards including the nonfiction prizes from PEN and the Texas Institute of Letters, She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Liar's Club which was on The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year. Entertainment Weekly rated The Liar's Club No. 4 in the top 100 books of the past 25 years.
Dressed in a form-fitting black pantsuit with a cross around her neck, ("My Jewish boyfriend buys me crosses fit for a pope," she said.), this self-proclaimed atheist-turned-Catholic replied to the question of whether she worried how others would feel about what she wrote in her first memoir. She said she and her family didn't believe anyone would buy the book.
Now speaking before huge audiences, Karr, an established poet with her work published in distinguished publications including The New Yorker, recalled the early years of writing when she would "go to a reading and there would be three people there and two of them I had slept with."
One woman raised her hand and told Karr that she, too, was from Texas and she grew up with her mother telling stories about her family. "We would be embarrassed, but they were good stories," the woman said. Her mother now has Alzheimer's and nearing the end of her life. "As her daughter, I feel I should tell her stories."
The author said she didn't know why the woman felt she had to tell the stories unless she wanted to. The woman asked the author how does one go about the writing.
Paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, Karr said, "You put the ass to the chair."
Karr, who longed for a solid family, unlike her own Texas-rooted family, married a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting blueblood poet. The couple had a son, now 23, and they are now divorced -- "very happily divorced with great co-parenting," she said.
She described her hardship years following the divorce when she would take her son on a sled to the grocery store in Syracuse.
Once describing those hardship years to a reporter, she said, "I felt like Anna Karenina."
The reporter said, "Who's Anna Karenina? Is that one of those fat books?"
"I said, `Yes, that is one of those two fat books.'"
When asked how she had been able to get her first memoir published, Karr, who is a professor of English at Syracuse University, noted that by that time she had been an established poet with two published books of poetry and was a contributing editor to the Harvard Business Review.
Her early life was very troubling for her. She described her childhood as bleak and herself as a Kafkaesque child.
"I was upset because there wasn't any black clothing for children," she said.
Her childhood fueled her writing's subject matter and her talents as a poet crafted the writing.
The art of writing, which she called "the poor man's art," is not an easy one. Karr wrote Lit three times over the course of seven years before it was acceptable for publishing. During the process, she said she had thrown away 2,000 pages because they just did not read right.
"It's hard to be alone in a room thinking in your pajamas. My head's a bad neighborhood. I don't like to go there."
How did drugs and alcohol help her writing?
"Drinking and drugs did not help my writing. Alcohol is a depressant. It's hard to keep working if you're a depressed person," said Karr, who contemplated suicide at 19.
"Drinking worked at first. I just liked to drink, but then it stopped working and it wasn't fun anymore. I would wake up face down on a sidewalk."
She realized one day that she had to do something about her drinking because, as she told NPR in an interview a few years ago, she got tired of crashing her car into things. Someone suggested she seek a higher power and start saying prayers in the morning to stop drinking and giving thanks in the evening if she went without a drink that day. Eventually, in 1996, she converted to Catholicism.
"I love the carnality of the Catholic Church," she told NPR. She likes the way the Catholic cross has the body of Jesus. She likes the way the ritual of the Mass has the congregation kneeling and standing through the Mass. She admires the way the church focuses on helping others. She likes going to confession, especially now, with the priests suggesting doing some kind of volunteer work as an act of penance.
In the NPR interview, she recalled that after her son was confirmed at age 16, he told his mother that he liked the idea of "being part of this big family." She credits author Tobias Wolfe, her son's godfather, with playing a role in her look toward Catholicism.
Karr isn't interested in writing fiction. She finds novels very complicated. She enjoys poetry and memoir writing and is considering writing a book about the art of memoir-writing. The difference between a good memoir and a bad one is that a bad memoir can be summed up in sound bites. It's a book that is read once. A good memoir is a repetition of someone's experiences that can be read over and over. With her own memoirs, she invites readers to step into the range of experiences. The memoir offers the inner life of the participant.
Having left home while still in her teens, Karr says she "was on the run from who I was and I had to stop doing that in order to write these books."