Q&A with writer-in-residence Mary Karr
Memoirist and poet Mary Karr is visiting UNC this week as the distinguished writer-in-residence for the English and Comparative Literature Department.
Arts Editor Carson Blackwelder sat down with Karr and discussed her passion for writing, the intricacies of memoirs and her time at UNC.
Daily Tar Heel: Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer, and what influenced that decision?
Mary Karr: From age 5, if you had asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said a poet.
As I said in “The Liars’ Club,” I used “The Riverside Shakespeare” as a booster seat. That was the biggest book in the house, and that’s what I sat on to reach the table when I was little.
Every now and then, when you’re engaged in an interesting conversation with people, you’ll feel that fresh attention to a blank page, or the curiosity, or the possibility of it.
When you get to a place like (UNC), you see very quickly whether or not there’s a conversation there or not. It’s amazing at how many big universities there’s not one.
There are people posing for each other, there’s infighting or there’s jealousy — but I saw very quickly there’s a great passion for reading and writing here, and it’s inspiring. I had heard this was a wonderful place — and it is.
DTH: Why is do you feel it is important to share your life with others? What do you think they take away from it?
MK: I wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t write memoirs — and that’s very important to me. If I didn’t share my life with people, nobody would write me any paychecks, and that would suck — so there’s that.
I think everybody’s life, if you have the right window inside it and see the intensity of their heartbreak, you’ll see that people do suffer.
It’s hard to be a human being. People are going to disappoint you, and you’re going to disappoint yourself in how you want to be.
I don’t know if my life has any particular wisdom attached to it. I think I was a greedy bitch, and I wanted to make a buck.
I’ve always loved memoir as a form. When I was 10 years old, I wrote in a notebook, “When I grow up I will write one-half poetry and one-half autobiography.”
At an early age I loved to hear a person talk about their life — I still do. You get it on an airplane with people telling you their stories.
I don’t know if my life is necessarily better or more interesting than anyone else’s. A good memoir isn’t so much about that you’ve won an ass-whooping contest, it’s more about how you render it.
DTH: I believe I read somewhere that you prefer writing poetry as opposed to memoir, is that still accurate?
MK: I feel like I’ve had less attention for (poetry), though I’ve had more attention than I deserve.
Poetry was my first love.
Being able to take the language we do business with and make a work of art out of something that on a page might not be any bigger than my hand has always seemed like an exalted practice.
DTH: Your first memoir “The Liars’ Club” deals with difficult parts of your life both vividly and humorously. How do you find a balance of these two approaches to writing?
MK: I come from a funny family. Everyone in my family was funny in various ways and with varying degrees of talent.
My father was a great comedic storyteller, my mother was the master of the one-liner, my sister was a good joke teller, and I’m a clown.
Comedy, for most anybody, in difficult times, can be a great survival mechanism.
But I also think on the page it relieves the reader. If you’re writing about sexual assault, which I wrote about, it’s hard for the reader.
You don’t want your reader to feel sorry for you. You don’t want that because then it’s like you’re the baby and they’re the mommy.
You have to accurately represent what was painful, and then almost reassure the reader that you’re OK — give them some levity.
For example, after (the sexual assault) scene, I have a scene where I’m imagining whooping this guy’s ass. I imagine grabbing him by the shirt. In a way, the humor in that reminded the reader that I was OK, that I grew up OK and survived this — that I’m not that little girl in that position anymore.
DTH: Your most recent memoir “Lit” deals with your struggle with faith. In what ways was it difficult to write about that, and how has it shaped you as a writer?
MK: One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a writer was to write about faith when I’m writing for a mostly secular audience. I’m mostly writing for these intellectual readers, these godless bastards — like I was until I was 40 or so.
I didn’t want to convert anybody, and I had to write and rewrite that stuff because every time I wrote, it sounded like I was trying to convert people — and I wasn’t, I was trying to describe, from an inside way, what it’s like to try to believe in God when you never have.
Somebody said to me early on that faith isn’t a feeling. It’s not that you suddenly feel the presence of God and you feel the light fall from between the clouds onto your little self. I very rarely feel like that.
For me it’s a decision. It’s a set of actions. It began completely by going through the motions of getting on my knees and trying to pray.
Somebody just had told me, “Why don’t you get on your knees and pray every day for 30 days and see if your life gets better?” And I thought, “This almost sounds like a scientific experiment.”
So I did, even though I didn’t believe in anything. I would get on my knees and say, “I know you don’t exist, you bastard,” and talk at the light fixture.
It was amazing. I felt that my life did get better. So just even opening the possibility of it was radical for me.
I’m not like someone who had faith, lost it and came back to it. I always thought it was like the Easter Bunny or something. Now I pray before I write.
When I look back over my life, there’s a very famous line from (Ernest) Hemingway that says just write one sentence — write the truest sentence you can write.
Before I had any faith, I used to say let me write just one true sentence, and I was talking to myself. Now I feel like I’m talking to something outside of me. I’m saying the same thing but it has a different context.
DTH: What do you see as the intersection between the memoirist and the reader? What do both owe to or expect from each other?
MK: You’re the reader’s only friend. The reader is not an adversary or fool you are trying to trick. The reader is someone you’re trying to give an emotional experience to.
You can’t make stuff up; you just can’t do it — it’s just a bad idea.
You also owe creating an experience for them, which to me doesn’t mean events that are strange and difficult and making them more strange, more bizarre. That’s sort of what television and movies do — it’s a reductive medium. They take a difficult event and make it more grotesque.
You watch (Jerry) Springer and you’re glad that that’s not your family — you don’t watch and identify with those people.
I want the reader to not see these things as strange, but to see the things that happened to me as familiar because I think that everybody — I don’t care how good your family is, they’ve broken your heart. You’ve gone to them at a time when you needed them so bad, and they’ve said the exact opposite thing you needed them to say. It doesn’t matter how good they are or how much they love you — the very nature of loving other people means your heart is broken, because we’re all humans, and we’re all going to fail and disappoint each other from time to time.
My big fear was that people would see these people I love more than anyone in the world as grotesque and ugly when, to me, they’re really amazing.
So I was trying to create an emotional experience within the reader so they could experience some of what I had experienced from the inside, not looking at it and gawking at it. Not as a spectacle, but as something more intimate and close than that.
DTH: Do you have any advice for current students who might want to pursue a career in writing — specifically memoir writing?
MK: They should read really good memoirs. They should read great memoirs.
We all read the “I was a teenage sex slave” memoirs or the “My parents gave me an ass-whooping every day of my life” or whatever because they are grotesque, reductive and spectacular.
But to read something like Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” read Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” … and to tell the truth. To tell their stories without trying to protect how they’re going to be seen.
DTH: What do you hope UNC students take away from your time here this week?
MK: I’d like them to like my clothes a lot. I’d like them to think I’m an excellent dresser and really well groomed.
I hope it will make them passionate about literature, about reading and writing. That’s all.
I’ve been teaching now for 30 years and the terrible thing — that I hope the people who pay me don’t know — is that I’d do this for free.
I wouldn’t write for free, that’s way too hard, but talking to students about their own writing and their own passions and stories is great.
So I’m here for me. I’m here to meet them and see what they’re going to give me.
DTH: Are there any projects you are currently working on?
MK: I’m finishing a book of poems.
It’s funny, I could either say they are poems about street life in New York City or they’re poems about Jesus — and they’d both be true. So it’s sort of about the appearances of Jesus on the streets of New York City.
I know that sounds crazy.
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